Review Summary: Genius comes in all forms, sometimes with a blemish or two.
The year is 2005 as Karnivool give birth to Themata, the debut album for the Australian five-piece. In the four years that follow, Karnivool find themselves ushered into the top ranks of Australian rock, lauded as one of the most promising acts of the day. While the rise to fame seems ludicrous for non-Australians that have never even heard of the band, it becomes all the more understandable when plunging into the Australian rock scene. Themata offered fans eleven tracks that all managed to give so many different sounds and atmospheres that it had something for everyone. With the ominous cliffhanger ending that was Change (Part 1) there was apparently more than enough to digest for the long period that it took for Karnivool to release Sound Awake.
It doesn't take the sharpest of minds to realize right away that Karnivool have taken a much more progressive approach to songwriting on their sophomore effort. This time around, the range of instruments is much broader than on Themata, from the more commonly used synths and samples to the more niche didgeridoo. Due to the impressive interaction between the musicians themselves, the lads from Perth now manage to prove that which Themata could only suggest: Karnivool is a single unit. Even so, it is remarkable how much all of the musicians have separately made their own progress in the four years between these two albums. Ian Kenny's vocal approach demand your attention throughout the record and rightly so. Kenny sounds more confident than ever as he soars to angelic heights on 'New Day', sounding surprisingly ethereal while singing the introductory verse of 'All I Know' and decidedly unrelenting while delivering his snide remarks in 'Set Fire to the Hive'. Lyrically, Kenny turns it op a notch by delivering absolutely stupefying lines such as showcased in a small excerpt from 'All I Know':
This is my sense of reality
This is proof of my coming of age
This is truth in captivity
This is losing a theology
I, I'm a soultaker
I'm a cruel, witted mind
Axemen Drew Goddard and Mark Hosking are less prominent, but perhaps all the more important. From the menacing wasp-like buzz that propels 'Set Fire to the Hive' forward to subtle chord work that makes the bridge of 'Goliath' so memorable, there's enough for every type of fan. The amount of thick, meaty riffs might not be as high as you would expect from Karnivool, but it's a non-issue when you realize the quality of the copious amount of melodic patterns being delivered. The guitars serve more as a layering tool, mainly through the prominent use of guitar effects. The idea behind this approach becomes obvious when you've started to pay attention to the backbone of the band: Jon Stockman on bass and Steve Judd on the kit. Most of Sound Awake's magic has its foundation lying right with these two men. After many listens, you start to realize how thanks to them all the countless tempo shifts and changes feel so natural. The only grudge one could have is the complete disappearing of Stockmans bass past track number two. While Stockman is undeniably the centre figure in the groovy 'Goliath' and more than a valuable accessory in 'Simple Boy', he seems to have been buried deep within the mix after these two songs. Even though the production quality is impressive, it cannot make up for this rather poor error.
Despite these very strong features, Sound Awake does not transcend its predecessor in every way. While people might feel inclined to call Sound Awake a much more diverse album as a whole, multiple spins will make you feel that this newly adopted, broader sound is one they'd stick to rather continuously than depart from at any point to branch out a little. Even something so small as the reworking of Change (Part 1) into a sound suiting the rest of Sound Awake's atmosphere dwarfs it into a mere shadow of its former self, destroying the massive suspense that it originally built up. It does not help that the sudden transition into Change (Part 2) then feels incredibly awkward, leaving a rather irritating blemish on which might just be the best and most interesting track on the record. While the eleven minute track features many different passages with different instruments claiming the spotlight each time, the entire song breathes the same atmosphere and feels as a whole.
Although Goddard was quick to describe Sound Awake, a collaborative effort of the band, as an album of lures rather than hooks (referring to Themata, mostly his own work), I feel this description only approaches half of the album. When these lures have done their job and taken you in for multiple listens, you'll start to feel that Karnivool sounds a little tame. Even though Sound Awake avoids sounding calculated, the infectious and anthemic energy that Themata conveyed and made it such a worthwhile listen is regrettably absent here. If the more dragging and self-indulging tracks such as 'Umbra' and 'The Medicine Wears Off' (a textbook unnecessary interlude) would've been abandoned in favour of more vivid material, Sound Awake would have been an absolutely stellar effort. The energetic flurry that is 'Set Fire to the Hive' thus sounds unfortunately misplaced on Sound Awake altogether because it is the only stand-out track that really revisits and embodies this strong side of Karnivool.
Even though Sound Awake features some incredible highs -'Deadman' and 'Change' might well mark some of the more electrifying ventures into progressive territory as of late- the album fails to make a real impact as a cohesive package. That's a downright shame when you bear in mind that's exactly what Karnivool have undoubtedly managed to become as musicians. That is not to say that Sound Awake should be dismissed as an average effort, for that would be lunacy. Karnivool brim with potential and have no doubt a bright future lying ahead of themselves. Sound Awake proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Karnivool are well on their way of becoming a top act in international rock waters and you'd be a fool not to believe so after giving Sound Awake a spin or two.
Wrote one ages ago but it sucked. Stuck in China for a year and since I cannot download new music here I might as well practice my writing skills by reviewing a lot. I felt mammalian's review is excellent and perhaps better than mine, I simply wanted to provide an opportunity to compare it with Themata and point out some of what I feel are some of the albums less meritable qualities.
As always, if you have any criticism at all (language or not, I'm not native English), please post! Helps me improve! Thanks for reading.
Cheers, happy to oblige. Dougie, didn't you have this rated as a four a while back? If my memory is fucked up, as it no doubt is, never mind; but otherwise I'd be curious to hear what made you rate it a tad higher.
Nice review dude, you pointed out some of the negatives well, which is something i didn't really do (blame that on fanboyism). I agree that the transition between Change 1 + 2 is awkward, but i was reading in an interview that it was intentional. Couple of months on and i'm still in love with Goliath.
Cheers man, and nah I don't think it's fanboyism. My negatives might not be yours for that matter. I believe you dig this more than I do and that's awesome. I still like to think that coupled with your review it gives a pretty good idea of what the album is like, whether the reader is familiar with Karnivool or not and has or hasn't heard Themata before. Glad to hear you liked it though, even though is this more negatively tinted.
Also, interesting to hear that the transition being awkward is intentional. It doesn't make it easier for me to 'accept' it, but it's good to know that such an odd choice was made on purpose.