Review by Jason Guest
Listening to any of Karnivool’s releases, you wouldn’t think that they began by playing Nirvana and Carcass covers in 1997. Their self-titled 1999 EP showed influence typical of a young band of the 90s. The grunge angst of Nirvana, the nu metal of Korn and Deftones, the industrial punch of Prong and Ministry, the hardcore brick wall sound of Helmet, and the hypnotic and atmospheric density of Tool cut deep into their sound. Characteristic of many band’s first releases, it’s full of energy, brimming with ideas, and is more indicative rather than representative of what the band could (and were yet to) achieve. Undergoing the customary line-up changes that all young bands endure, 2001’s Persona EP saw glimpses of their own sound, their influences were still very present but they were beginning to play more of an informative rather than a directing role in their music.
Largely written by Drew Goddard, 2005’s Themata presented the current line-up of Karnivool to the world and the album marked a significant development for the band in that the signs that distinguished them as a band to pay attention to were much more pronounced. With their progressive elements firmly in place, Karnivool were beginning to master combining innovation with musical ability and melodic sensibility without compromising their own artistic values. Musically, they were pushing their own abilities and, though perhaps on a smaller scale, they were testing the bounds of music to see what they could do with what was available to them. Structures, feels, time signatures, and textures were all to be experimented with and so with 2009’s Sound Awake, Karnivool found their Archimedean point. Still fresh today (and no doubt to remain so for a long time to come), with all of the band members in place and all contributing to the creative process, this is where Karnivool truly moved out of the shadows of influence and into innovation to produce one of the best and most enduring albums of the year.
2011 and writing and recording was underway for this, the band’s third album. Far from the album that anyone would’ve expected from Karnivool, they’ve done it again and produced an innovative, evocative, and undeniably overwhelming piece of work. Consider the band’s massive step in development between Themeta and Sound Awake and you might get some idea of how they have grown, both musically and lyrically. But Karnivool’s growth since Sound Awake has been much greater than that. Suffice it to say that whatever expectations of what the follow-up to Sound Awake might have sounded like have been surpassed.
That the opening track is entitled ‘Aum’ – the phonetic spelling of the most sacred syllable of the Dharmic religions, the seed of all mantras that contains all origination and dissolution – should give you some insight into what to expect from the album. Introspective, reflective, philosophical, the track’s gently engulfing breeze promises much. As the deep bass, the off-time drumming, and the misshapen riffs of ‘Nachash’ unfold, Kenny casts the first of his many mellifluous melodies over the jarring music and Karnivool’s progress is apparent. With ‘A.M. War’, the discordant and the disparate clash in miasmic wave on wave of tensions, releases, textures, and atmospheres, each as rich as the next, and each imbuing its predecessor with greater depth. Its arrangement and structure far from simple, ‘We Are’ is the most accessible track so far and it’s obvious why this was chosen as the first video, but though it may be easier on the ear than what’s already befallen and is loaded with hooks, it provides its own challenges for those that pay closer attention. While ‘The Refusal’, the first track from the album to make a public appearance, is simultaneously relentless and distressing, respite comes with the calm ambient opening of ‘Aeons’. Giving way to its rhythmic seduction and multi-layered subtleties, the calm, curious and introspective passages as well as its uplifting motion that form the track are overwhelming. And at the centre of the album sits the title track, an ambient piece comprised of curious sounds that circle in absurdity until a huge guitar, distorted to depths that only doom bands dare plunge, appears to augment the track with as much heft as it does intimate the possibility of shape or form.
So far, Karnivool have drawn on music’s wealth for an album that is already as diverse as it is difficult to describe its impact. With ‘Eidolon’, dub reggae augments their storehouse of sounds, the elaborate ‘Sky Machine’ is subtle and complex, and at fifty four seconds long, ‘Amusia’ is like the minute-long drum experiments of Billy Cobham’s 1973 jazz fusion album, Spectrum. An anthem to liberation, ‘The Last Few’ is defiant and celebratory, its refrain confident and self-assured and in stark contrast with ‘Float’, a track that the more time it’s given, the profounder its effect becomes as its place within the album intensifies its poignancy and humility. The futility and contemplative complexity of ‘Alpha Omega’ is made all the more mighty by its heavier second half as well as Kenny’s lyrics complementing the multi-faceted track with philosophical and emotional import. And to bookend the album, the ambient ‘Om’, decorated with the solitary reflections of a man of advanced years, Asymmetry is drawn to a philosophical end comparable to that of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. And like that album, there’s as much to explore as there is to discover. It’s difficult not to be utterly captivated by Asymmetry. Album of the year? It’s head and shoulders above most of what’s been released so far this year. And what’s left of 2013 has got a serious challenge on its hands.
9.5 out of 10
- A.M. War
- We Are
- The Refusal
- Sky Machine
- The Last Few
- Alpha Omega