Two songs into “Asymmetry”, and you’ll be excused for thinking the new Tool album has been released, and it’s by Karnivool. It’s not that this sounds like any existing Tool record, but it’s a comparison many are going to make as they listen to the first few tracks of the Western Australian band’s latest album.
Seven tracks in though and you realise they’ve taken you down another path. Despite the record being a significant departure from their previous release – the four year old ‘Sound Awake’ – you will recognise the familiar Karnivool approach of using contrasting styles, emotion and intensity over the course of the hour. The title confirms a more conscious effort it this direction that results in a two distinct and contrasting halves.
A glance at the Karnivool facebook page sees fans have generally hunkered down in one of three camps, and it’s largely a discussion about whether it sounds like ‘Sound Awake’, which is the discussion you’d expect from fans. So there are those who love it, those who don’t, and those do don’t want to admit yet that they don’t like it by saying they will grow to love it after a few more listens. This is the benefit of having a solid fan base – you can experiment and most will take the time to adjust, whereas if this same record had been by anyone else most would not have given it a second listen. Comparison with previous efforts is a great discussion for fans to have although it would be cool if they could do it without the abuse and without insisting that unless love the band and record unconditionally, you are a hater (fuck that word by the way, fuck it very much). But let’s take the record in isolation of previous Karnivool efforts and see how it stacks up on its own and against its peers.
Overall this is a heavy prog rock album rather than metal, and displays many similarities to the brilliant 2012 album “The Time Traveller”, by Sydney’s Breaking Orbit. Where it doesn’t match the Sydney band, however, is both in the breadth of inventiveness and experimentation both within songs and across the album, and in its lack of a real sense of a story or adventure, despite a common thread in the lyrics. The degree to which it’s off the straight and narrow is relatively measured. The polyrhythms have already unnerved a few fans, but they are nowhere near as complex and unsettling as those from the likes of Melbourne’s Fritzwicky and Xenograft.
There is variety, but variety itself doesn’t make an album great. It’s a matter of how the emotion ebbs and flows and how each element relates to the others regardless of whether they sit side by side. In that respect if you compare the way it masters that contrast with a record like Cult of Luna‘s “Vertikal”, there’s something missing. There’s little that reminds you during the course of it that you are still a part of the same story in the same way “Vertikal” briefly recalls and gives variation to the same theme four times throughout its journey. Instead it’s more a case of the asymmetry being played out by having those two different halves. Perhaps the story is meant to be of chaos and resolution (or resignation), but it’s either too simplistic, or it simply doesn’t work as well as some other recent progressive releases.
The thing is though, that this isn’t an underground band pushing the limits into uncharted territory. It’s an Australian alternative band that’s found broader success than most and that’s its niche. A curry that’s burning hot to one will taste mild to another, and most Karnivool fans seem to prefer a medium to mild brand of different. Devotees of the genre may prefer something with more spice, but the texture and other flavours are also important.
A minimal amount of riffing is evident throughout the album, with atmosphere, subtlety and texture being far more important in these songs than guitar laying down some serious licks. Ian Kenny’s smooth voice is deceptively strong and powerful – almost a loud whisper at times – and gives the record its soul and identity. What melody there is belongs almost exclusively to those vocals, which over the course of the album are diverse, clear and prominent. There’s really no questioning the skill and performances of each of the five guys and you can just feel their professionalism.
Opening with the slowly building reverb of ‘Aum’, you can feel the deep synth and the bass strings vibrating alongside a couple of loosely played well-chosen chords before Ian Kenny enters with ethereal falsetto tones sliding up and down with the same emotion and mood of songs like ‘Harpers’ by Hugo Largo. For whatever reason this serves as an intro track that runs into ‘Nachash’ rather than being parts of the one song, which encourages the tiresome debate between those who listen to songs and those who listen to records, over filler/jpiner tracks, although these are getting referred to around the place as interludes (well done, PR guy). The interludes work, and not only they are intrinsic to the album, they are some of the best tracks – end of discussion thanks.
‘Nachash’ introduces the polyrythmic drumming that underpins the first half of the album in particular. The mix declares itself fully at this stage and the verdict is really going to be out until this can get heard on the loungeroom stereo instead of laptop/phone and headphones, but my experience was of good clarity, layering and separation with an emphasis on the vocals that comes close to the live experience.
Next up is the outstanding tension and grating dissonance of ‘A M WAR’ before we get the full range of vocal variety in the pairing of ‘The Refusal’ and ‘Aeons’, with screaming followed by silkiness and a little falsetto. It’s a variety not used for the sake of it, but because it adds so much.
The title track is a real cracker. OK so it’s one of the ”interludes”, but it draws a line down the middle and throws in some cool samples. ‘Eidolon’ and ‘Sky Machine’ are going to be the real sticking points for a lot of fans, nudging towards a Pete Murray sound that wipes off the heaviness of the first half. It’s not that they are bad tracks, they just don’t work that well against the others, relying more on slowness and lightness than dynamics in sound and speed to provide the contrast to that thick heaviness of the early songs.
‘Float’ is better with its delicate feel, but by this stage you are likely to be looking for more heaviness on the home stretch and that wonderful bass and drums are almost a distant memory. ‘Alpha Omega’ almost pulls of a rescue as it takes out the album on a much more interesting and fulfilling note, with a crescendo to some great flourishes of guitar before the minimalism and remoteness of the outro track. As a prog rock album, the songs don’t feel long enough and the ideas are generally not fully developed and exploited. It’s easy to reach the end of a song and think “Gee, that could have gone here instead of ending”. It needs more ‘Alpha Omegas’ and less ‘Sky Machine’.
In short, “Asymmetry” falls shy of brilliance, not really delivering in the way The Red Paintings have with their recent debut album, or as Breaking Orbit did last year. Yet in another way it’s kicked a massive goal for “different” music. This is a revolution in the Karnivool sound, not an evolution. It’s driven a wedge through the fanbase and made them think about the record, think about loyalties, and think about music that they have, in many case, never really listened to. In a world of instant judgement and gratification, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of music lovers will give this a second, third and fourth go when they would normally switch off. It will grow on many of them, and leave some behind, but it will change what a huge group of people listen to and open their eyes a bit more to the excitement and adventure of progressive and experimental music. And that’s what we need.