Karnataka hardly needs an introduction to readers of Background Magazine. They have been around since the late-1990s with regular releases and live appearances. I must confess that, while I quite liked them, I never really connected with their music and you will find very little from them in my personal collection. Researching backwards, it turns out that the last album that I have listened to was the 2009 effort The Gathering Light (see review). At that time Lisa Fury had just replaced original singer Rachel Jones and with the departure of Rachel it seemed like the band was moving away from the folky neo prog roots. Then a break appeared (apart from the live album/DVD New Light Live In Concert released in 2012, see review) and now after about five years the band resurfaces with yet another singer and actually an all new line-up! Karnataka is on this new disc: mastermind Ian Jones (bass, keyboards, guitars) with Hayley Griffiths (vocals - formerly active in the musical Riverdance), Enrico Pinna (guitars, vocals), Cagri Tozluoglu (keyboards) and French drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi. This line-up continues the trend that was initiated with the last album and moves even further away from their folk roots.
The CD kicks off very nicely with the solid prog rocker Road To Cairo. Unsurprisingly this song has an Oriental flair and holds a nice tension. One of my favourite tracks right away. Hayley is definitely a fine singer (and good looking too), but on a critical note also a bit undistinguishable from many other female singers in progressive/symphonic metal bands. Which leads me to critical remark number one.
As I said above, the band has altered its sound over the years, which is often commendable. One may debate if this was a good thing in this case. On one side it's positive that they evolve, and it's definitely positive that they deliver an album with fine melodies and good music. But, on the other hand one may wonder why (apart from a commercial point of view) a band should move into a musical style that is overloaded already as it is... Because, overall I would say that Karnataka has become musically more like Within Temptation than anything else, and if there is something that we really have plenty of then its female fronted symphonic metal bands.
Well, okay, Karnataka is not as heavy as many of its counterparts, but still. Check for example the second track Because Of You if you want to have proof of the point I'm trying to make. Also Poison Ivy has a typical WT sound with low symphonic keys and all the moves except for low riffing guitars.
And then over to critical comment number two: the melodies are at times pretty poppy. Borderline is an extremely accessible and almost sing-along piece (at least it's not a Madonna cover, although that would make for an interesting prog experiment maybe). Also the “like I've never loved before” chorus from Feels Like Home moves way beyond what some progressive rock fans will find acceptable (I'm among them, I'm afraid), but it makes the CD compatible for your 14 year old niece who has tired of hip hop at least.
The over 20 minutes long closing title track then sees a return to Karnataka's folk roots with pipes, acoustic guitar, gentle singing and a Celtic feel. The melody appears to be slightly nicked from Scarborough Fair, but a bit trippier. Around four minutes then the band returns to a Within Temptation-like bombastic sympho-metal mode. After a Pink Floyd kind of guitar outburst two minutes later we then return to meditative and acoustic realms with harp and eerie vocals. This leads then in a theatrical, almost musical-like section that Nightwish would have loved to do. The last half of the song is a rather hymnic blend of neo prog/pop with Celtic sprinklers. A pity that the lead vocals at times remind me of Celine Dion.
Welcome back, Karnataka, your return was a nice listen, but also a bit of a mixed blessing. Next time spice the melodic side with a bit more adventure, please!
*** Carsten Busch (edited by Robert James Pashman)
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