Sunday, 26 April 2015

Karnataka's 'Secrets of Angels' - Album Review

Of the current crop of UK progressive rock bands, Karnataka are easily the grandest. Over their last couple of albums, they have built a reputation for having a lush, and sometimes bombastic sound that goes beyond the realms of their peers. Things have not always been easy for Karnataka however, with many line-up changes that has halted their momentum and resulted in long gaps between studio album. The band's original line-up - consisting of the sole-remaining founding member Ian Jones, the majority of the current line-up of fellow Welsh rockers Panic Room, and singer Rachel Jones (now Cohen, formerly of The Reasoning) - produced three albums between 1998 and 2003 and gained a lot of fans for the Celtic-tinged progressive rock sound and powerful live shows. 2003's Delicate Flame of Desire, showcasing the band's classic six-piece line-up (multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder had joined by this point) at it's best, was easily the band's most accomplished work to date. After the touring cycle for that album was finished however, the band went their separate ways and little was heard from the band for a few years. Ian Jones resurrected the Karnataka name with a new line-up including singer Lisa Fury and Italian guitarist Enrico Pinna among others, and this line-up recorded the band's fourth album, The Gathering Light, which finally saw the light of day in 2010. This was another fantastic work, that definitely featured a larger classic progressive rock influence than previously, thanks in part to Pinna's extended beautiful guitar passages, and saw the Celtic influence of old take more a back seat. It was not long after the album's release though that Karnataka went through it's second major line-up change that saw only Jones and Pinna left in Karnataka. They spent the next year or so recruiting new members for the band, namely Turkish keyboardist Cagri Tozluoglu and frontwoman Hayley Griffiths. The band's two tours in 2012, and the ensuing live album/DVD New Light, were a huge success and they settled down to write and record their fifth album. Three years later, we see the result of that work. Secrets of Angels was officially released last month and, with the addition of drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi, Karnataka are once again poised to take the world by storm! This album builds on the progressive elements of The Gathering Light, but adds in a huge symphonic side to the sound that, although flirted with previously, is fully realised here.

The album starts with some dramatic strings, that soon morphs into the solid mid-paced rocker Road to Cairo which introduces Griffiths to the Karnataka fans for the first time in the studio setting. She showed her skills on the road and on the New Light live album, but this is the first time she has been able to sing material written for her. The way she holds those notes in the song's gentle chorus is a testament to her ability, and she is probably the purest singer to ever front the band. She might not quite have the emotive quality of either Cohen or Fury, but her range and tone is perfect for the band. The Eastern-tinged melodies of this song soar, and it is the perfect way to introduce the new Karnataka line-up to the fans. Because of You, built around a nice piano hook, has the feeling of a ballad but when the guitars crash in midway through the verses, it becomes a powerful rocker with some breathtaking vocal melodies from Griffiths and plenty of excellent keyboard work from Tozluoglu. Coming from a progressive metal background, Tozluoglu's style is more full-on than previous keyboardists the band has employed. His orchestrations are in-your-face, and really lift the song's chorus along with Griffiths' vocals. Pinna gets a chance to solo too, and the semi-shredded section is a far-cry from the extended workouts on the last album. Poison Ivy is probably the heaviest song the band have ever recorded, and there are more than a few shades of Within Temptation in the song's crunchy riffing and staccato orchestrations. That being said, the band's trademark melodies are still present with Griffiths accessible vocal stylings and a poppy chorus that is a contrast to the more aggressive verses. Karnataka have never sounded like this before, and it is great to see the band's sound evolve. The symphonic/gothic influence remains for the next song Forbidden Dreams. The verses have a rather sombre feel, with delicate piano and gentle orchestrations accompanying the vocals well, before the song's chorus comes in and changes the scene. The band have never had a chorus this infectious and obvious, and it works well. The melodies are perfect, and stand out despite the heavy guitar and string backing. Most of the songs on Secrets of Angels are much more immediate than the majority of the band's back catalogue, focusing on big melodies rather than atmospherics. Borderline is another mid-paced rocker akin to the album's opening two numbers. I really like Griffiths' vocal attack here, and she dominates this song. The melodies here are very uplifting, and the song's final chorus - which takes place after a beautiful piano section - really is joyous.

Although it starts out sounding like something Andrew Lloyd Webber might write, Fairytale Lies actually ends up being the closest thing on the album to those early Celtic-influenced albums. There is a large chunk of Delicate Flame of Desire here, with keyboard-led verses and a dynamic chorus that packs more of an emotional punch than a rock one. I could actually see Cohen singing this song with ease and, if it was not for the powerful strings, this would fit well on one of those early albums. Pinna's guitar solo evokes that era too. It is more like what we found plenty of on The Gathering Light, but also contains a little of former guitarists Paul Davies' tone. If this was deliberate, than it was a great decision; and if it was not then it is an interesting and pleasing coincidence. The penultimate song Feels Like Home is a soaring ballad that feels like the antidote to Forsaken from the band's previous album as it has a similar musical feel initially. This soon dissipates however, and we are left with a really powerful chorus that has few rivals in terms of melodic power. It is extremely poppy, the poppiest the band have ever been, but it works well and never sounds trite. This influence has clearly come from Griffiths, and her more mainstream sensibilities have added a great pop sheen to the band's sound. There's also a section that reminds me a little of the ending of Heart of Stone from Delicate Flame of Desire with it's really catchy and ethereal wordless vocals. Anyone reading this who is worried that the band have abandoned their progressive nature in favour of a more in-your-face pop rock one needs to check out the album's final song. The twenty minute epic Secrets of Angels definitely takes a leaf out of The Gathering Light's book and is an excellent song that goes through many sections - all of which are great. Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish) lends his unique talents to the song, and adds greatly to the folky opening few minutes that would have sat well on second album, 2000's The Storm. This is the most ambitious song the band have ever recorded, and lots of music is crammed in throughout. From folk, to progressive rock, to full-blown symphonic metal - this song has it all. In some respects, this song sounds a little like a trip through the band's history. There are plenty of reminders here of the band's rich musical palette, and anyone who has every enjoyed a Karnataka song should check this out; from the Nightwish-inspired orchestral metal sections (with the most aggressive drumming of the band's career) to the early Marillion tribute with a 1980s keyboard riff. It is a lot to take in, but it is a triumph, that shows Ian Jones is one of the best songwriters in progressive music today. Overall, Secrets of Angels is another fantastic album from Karnataka. The new line-up has gelled together really well, and the live reports from the ongoing tour are all extremely positive. This is an album that could really gain the band some new fans, and I hope there are those out there are willing to sit up and take notice, as this deserves to be heard.

The album was released on 30th March 2015 via Immrama Records. Below is the band's official trailer that they released to promote the album.


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