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embracing and blending musical inspiration from genres as diverse as Celtic, Eastern and innovative song-based progressive rock
Album Review and
Karnataka are a five-piece song-based progressive rock group from Swansea, Wales (UK) that incorporate eastern and Celtic influences into their sound. Their UK live performances and website have attracted both media and music enthusiast attention from Australia to America. Live performances include one at the Classic Rock Society's HLC Rotherham gig and numerous opening slots for Jump. Karnataka's second album is entitled The Storm, a title well suited to the expected positive reaction of their growing global audience. The Storm (Immrama Records (UK) KTKCD002, 2000) is available from the band's website and from progressive music retailers in the United Kingdom.
Their stunning debut self-titled album was released in September 1998; a collection of eight song-based progressive rock tracks with powerful vocals, symphonic orchestrals and worldly instrumental influences,Karnataka (Karnataka (UK) KTKCD001, 1998) remains available directly from the band's website. The new ten-track album builds upon the sound of the debut with improved technical production quality, most evident in the vocal mix.
Fronted by vocalist Rachel Jones, the band is comprised of Ian Jones (bass), Jonathan Edwards (keyboards), Paul Davies (guitars) and Gavin Griffiths (drums). While the debut album had tracks written by Ian and Rachel alone as well as with Jonathan, the tracks for the new album were all written by the three together. All lyrics are written by Rachel Jones. Guest performances by Steve Simmons on saxophone are a notable contribution to the band's sound on their debut album and on one track from their latest release. Other guests on the new album include Steve Evans (percussion samples) and Jenny Hooker (recorder). We talked to the band about their music during the preparation of this in-depth review.
The sound of the band's debutKarnataka is rich, and while some would compare them to All About Eve, the symphonic instrumentals, epic arrangements, multi-layered vocal harmonies and woodwind sounds are more representative of Iona (review), modern Clannad or Renaissance especially with Ian Jones' melodic (Chris Squire- or Jon Camp-style) bass playing. Interested readers will find Simon Pound's complete review of Karnataka's debut album informative, thorough and accurate. The Classic Rock Society's review is brief and equally accurate. Both reviews—available at the band's website—hint at the promising future that Karnataka are delivering. The Storm opens with the slow rocking "Heaven Can Wait." The track is available in streaming mode from Karnataka's mp3.com website. Multi-tracked vocal harmonies and soaring guitars perfectly compliment each other in the rich instrumental mix. The superb technical quality of this recording is evident from the first track and spans the entire album. The band's dynamic sound springs further to life in highly accessible "Dreamer," especially in the chorus with the striking vocal harmonies, blended with keys and Ian Jones' melodic bass playing.
We asked the group about their musical influences. Ian told us, "Influences are strange things, in as much as it is not always the music we listen to the most, or even prefer, that has the greatest impact on our musical direction. Dance music has been very dominant over the last few years and whilst not being a great fan of most dance music, some artists have adapted the genre very creatively - people such as Tori Amos and Madonna. You can hear these kind of influences in our music but also in the music of artists you would not normally associate 'dance grooves' with - Clannad for instance (in their song "From Your Heart" from the album Lore) use the idea in a rather subtle but effective way. Influences too are not always musical - often the way we feel or the feeling we want the listener to experience is the driving force behind a piece of piece of music. A good example of this can be heard on the song "Shine" - the song has a theme of 'self discovery' and a very upbeat groove to it, but we liked the idea of breaking off into a quite dark mid section which is meant to symbolise a moment of self doubt. The song moves out of this section back into the optimistic groove and is mirrored lyrically by the words ... shake the darkness from my hair....."
Rachel added, "Influences can also be pre-meditated in as much as we want to create a definite feel and use particular sounds to achieve a desired effect - on the first track onThe Storm, "Heaven Can Wait" we wanted to create a kind of Celtic feel to it without it becoming derivative of other Celtic influenced artists. We used a harp sound combined with a quite heavy guitar sound which builds throughout the song. We wanted to get away from the idea that all Celtic music should sound the same. We tried to avoid using instruments again which have come to represent 'standard celtic sounds' such as the Uillean pipes and looked instead to try and push the genre into new territories. The title track The Storm perhaps demonstrates a new variation on a traditional theme."
We asked about specific band influences as well. Ian told us, "It's difficult to pinpoint actual artists who directly influence our music but there are certain bands and individuals with whom Rach, Jonathan and myself share a lot of common ground - such as Clannad, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Loreena McKennitt, Led Zeppelin, Mae McKenna (review), and All About Eve to name just a few. There are many more artists whom we individually admire and whose music I'm sure has rubbed off somewhere on our own songwriting. I think in many ways our music is influenced as much by their approach and attitude to songwriting as by their sound."
We asked Rachel about how she developed her vocal style. She replied, "Sheer practice!" Then she continued, "I've loved music-particularly vocal melodies and harmonies for as long as I can remember, and spent most of my childhood singing along to records. As far as training is concerned, I have never received any formal vocal training but practice as often as possible. Performing live has helped to strengthen my voice and in itself is a good form of training."
Epic in its proportions, "The Journey" includes soft ballad-like movements sung over acoustic and electric guitar or orchestral keyboards, powerful soaring vocal melodies with rich full band keyboard-laced instrumentals and other passages with lovely vocal harmonies.
Karnataka's music is very well written and significant care has been taken in the band's arrangements. Ian Jones reflected on the songwriting process, "When we first began writing together, songs were generally developed through jamming around ideas that either myself or Jonathan had written, this could be a basic chord structure or just a riff - good examples of this would be "Must Be The Devil" and "Woman In Me" from the first album which were developed from improvised ideas. More recently however, Jonathan and I often come to the band with complete or near complete song structures which the band will then work on. On the new album, "Heaven Can Wait" and "The Journey" were more or less complete songs which I had written on the acoustic guitar and similarly "Hay" and "Shine" were near complete songs which Jonathan had written on keyboard."
We asked Rachel about her contribution to the process and she added, "I prefer to use the music as inspiration - the style or feel of a piece often determines the lyrical content. Even with these types of song ideas there is always a great deal of input from the band as a whole."
Ian told us, "Writing as a team remains one of the most effective and satisfying methods and songs such as "I Should Have Known" and "The Storm" were written in this way, with ideas being bounced back and forth until the song begins to take shape."
Individual band members' virtuousity is evident in "Hay." Gavin Griffiths' drums and percussion are mixed perfectly to compliment the guest saxophone parts while Jonathan Edwards' keyboards produce a lovely string effect and both lead and bass guitars contribute to individual melodies.
Karnataka use a range of recording equipment in the production of their music. Ian Jones elaborated, "Over the last three years , I have gradually built up a fully equipped multi-track digital recording studio. This allows us to record without the time and financial constraints of using a commercial studio for the whole project. We don't record the songs as they are written, but prefer to perform them live first and then record all the songs at the same time. I think this tends to give a project an overall sound and feel. The first album was recorded and mixed completely by the band in the studio, but for the new album we decided to invest in the facilities and expertise of world famous Rockfield Studios (as used by Queen on Bohemian Rhapsody, Clannad on Sirius and a host of other artists) to mix and engineer the recorded material. Using Rockfield gave us unique access to facilities of the highest quality."
"Love And Affection" is a striking song, certain to please the broadest of audiences. Here Paul Davies' powerful lead guitar and Ian's bass echo Rachel's most sensual lead vocals that soar with a unique texture above multitracked lyrical and vocalise backing. Enthusiasts should listen for Clannad influences from the Lore era within the track. The vocal lead will send tingles up the spine or raise the hair on the arms of even the most insensitive listener. Paul's melodic electric guitar part leads the way on "I Should Have Known," a sensitive ballad Rachel sings exquisitely, illustrating her crystalline vocal abilities. Melodic bass and lead guitar join Jonathan Edwards' orchestral keyboards and extremely crisp production in the mix.
Ian was compelled to give us some technical information about the recording equipment. "The Storm was mixed on a Neve 60 input VR series S desk with flying faders. Reverbs were provided by top of the range Lexicon units or naturally, by using Rockfield's unique reverb chambers. The album was mixed and engineered by Phil Ault, who had a clear understanding of the kind of sound we wanted to create and instinctively knew how to produce it. The finished mixes were finally mastered at Porky's in London by Matt Colton. If you dig out some of your old vinyl LPs , you may find the immortal words 'a Porky Prime Cut' (or something similar!) scratched into the vinyl just after the run-off groove: this was a trademark of this mastering studio!!"
Rachel's sensual lead vocals return in the soft ballad "Everything Must Change" and are underscored by many layers of contrasting vocal harmonies. The most worldly track from the new album is "Shine" which opens with a soaring a capella intro before the rocking instrumentals kick in. Rachel's soaring vocals are interspersed with lots of powerful electric guitar and bass effects, rich and keyboard instrumental arrangements and rocking percussion. It must be a wonderful track to see and hear performed live.
Powerful bass and melodic electric guitar contrasts the sensitively sung vocal part in "Writing On The Wall." The band's recording of sounds of the sea at Caswell Bay and Pwll Du Bay in January 1999 are joined by a lovely recorder part and evocative vocals in "The Storm." Layers of backing vocals and Ian's melodic Squire-style bass part support the melody of the lead vocal and recorder. Scottish small pipes arranged and played by Peter Davies join the sounds of the sea and make a memorable closing to the track.
Karnataka are obviously a tremendous live act. We asked about their live performances and Rachel told us, "As a band, we very much see ourselves as a live act and not just a studio band - you can't beat the thrill of playing to a live audience - as long as they like you!!"
Ian added, "There is generally an energy to the songs when performed live, which can be quite different to the recorded versions: playing live is also a good opportunity to experiment with the arrangements of new material and sometimes older material, too. Structuring a live set presents a challenge to the band in trying to create the right mood swings throughout the performance, but one which is very satisfying."
The band currently have their own label, but when we asked about getting signed to a major, Ian told us, "We welcome any approach from interested parties, such as record companies, management and distribution, etc, but pending some form of deal, we are actively promoting the music ourselves via the internet and other media. The beauty of our current approach is that we have complete artistic freedom; the downside is that we are much more limited in the amount of resources we can put into the band's development. However, the internet is proving that you can distribute your music globally and we are now receiving orders for the album from outside the UK."
Karnataka's new album is accompanied by a top quality booklet with complete lyrics and lovely imagery. We asked about the package and Ian told us, "We feel that artwork is an intrinsic part of presenting the music and can add an extra dimension to the listener's overall enjoyment if there are interesting visual references. The advent of CDs seems to have relegated the importance of artwork due to the relatively small size of the format, but it still offers the opportunity to present something of interest if used well."
Rachel commented, "For the artwork onThe Storm , we combined our own ideas with those of two art students we commissioned to produce a set of images based on their interpretation of our music. One of the key images is the photo of a shipwreck in the centre of the booklet - this is the wreck of The Helvetia, which lies on Rhossili Bay, The Gower Peninsula and which formed the inspiration for the title track The Storm.
Karnataka have been involved with the internet since their earliest days. In fact, the South Wales Evening Post commended the band in November 1998 for using the net to expand their sphere of influence. We asked the band to reflect on the impact of the web on them and Ian commented, "The internet has enabled the band to reach out to a much wider audience - a global audience, in fact. For instance, in the two weeks sinceThe Storm was released we have received messages from radio stations and magazines in Brazil, Costa Rica, Finland, Sweden, Holland, Poland, Belgium and France, who wish to review and/or play our music."
He continued, "It would have been very difficult (if not impossible) to obtain this level of exposure without the internet. It also allows people to contact us directly and immediately, which makes for a more intimate relationship between the band and its audience. The development of MP3 now allows people to download high quality audio and this has opened up a whole new means of music distribution."
Rachel added, "The design of a website and its management are important factors in determining how appealing and easy to find the site becomes - it is important to realise for anybody considering setting up a site, that you cannot simply put a website on the internet and expect people to visit it - you need to create something interesting and promote it effectively. We welcome any feedback on the website and if there are features people would like to see included we'd be interested to hear."
Like many rising independent artists, Karnataka have established a page at mp3.com. Interested visitors will find summary band information and both streaming and downloadable music there. Additional recordings may ultimately be made available through this increasingly popular music distribution channel. Interested readers will want to learn more about their headline performance at The Classic Rock Society (review).
Karnataka'sThe Storm is an exciting follow-up album to their self-titled debut with ten stunning vocally-oriented progressive rock tracks. Certain to appeal to fans of Iona, modern Clannad and Renaissance, these well-written and performed songs are timeless in their construction and technically superb. Highly recommended to our readers, Karnataka's latest album is worth a long distance—cross-country or trans-Atlantic—journey and joins their self-titled debut as a must listen!
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