Review Summary: The refusal...to stagnate.
Despite the fact that they have, as of right now, only three full-length albums to their credit, Karnivool has been around for a long time. Initially getting their start in the late ‘90s as a grunge cover-band, the band shape-shifted rather effortlessly through a nu-metal phase (somehow managing to avoid the ridicule that goes with that), before finally becoming overnight successes (a good decade into their careers) on the back of the shimmery, progressive-leaning sophomore effort, Sound Awake
. While there is a great deal of argument here on Sputnik about whether Karnivool are a “prog” band or not, they have rendered the argument moot by evolving, just like any good progressive band should. The stylistic leap Karnivool takes from Sound Awake
is not as big as the one they took between Themata
and Sound Awake
. However, the band definitely shows an inclination to not stand pat and milk the glory of past success. Rather, they experiment with, and work towards improving, their sound. The end result is an album that doesn’t sound as coherent and consistent (or monotonous, depending on your opinon) as its predecessors, and is rather more diverse.
The biggest difference, melodically speaking, between Asymmetry
and Karnivool’s previous efforts is a noticeable de-emphasis on hooks. Vocalist Ian Kenny’s clear tenor remains as distinctive and melodic as ever, but whereas Sound Awake
had a fairly high level of pop-centric accessibility and catchiness, both in the vocals and instrumentation, Asymmetry
largely eschews that, particularly in the instrumentation department. In its place is a certain kind of abrasiveness and on occasion even outright dissonance. The dirge-like portions on AM War
showcase the vocals and guitar melody offsetting each other in eerie ways, while the vocals, guitars and drums collide and bounce off each other in a chaotic manner on The Refusal
. The Last Few
softens the blows by having Kenny’s voice float over the churning music in a more pleasant manner that still retains the dissonance.
The guitars on this album exist solely to provide texture whenever possible, aggression – in the form of Meshuggah-inspired chugging that is not, I repeat not
, djenty – wherever required, and propulsive force whenever absolutely necessary, but make no mistake this is not a guitar-centric album. If anything, the album’s main propulsive force comes from drummer Steve Judd’s often tribal yet markedly subtle work on percussion, and bassist John Stockman’s thick bass tone and basslines. All of the musicians, Kenny included, work together to create a canvas of sound that you can lose yourself and discover wrinkles in without getting snagged on hooks. This is both admirable, because it’s obvious that this aesthetic is intentional, and annoying, because who doesn’t love hooks?
Fortunately, the album isn’t completely devoid of material that can be sung along to. We Are
are as catchy, vocally anyway, as anything Karnivool have written till date. Also, despite Kenny’s apparently purposeful attempts to texture rather than dominate the sound, his voice is mixed right up front making every note he sings clear as a bell. He doesn’t squander the focus on his voice and manages to maintain a high level of melodicism in his broodingly melancholic vocals. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to remember anything but snippets of his melodies after listening to the album the first couple of times.
In keeping with its “progressive” tag, Karnivool constructs dynamic ebb-and-flows within the songs, with the quieter sections the building in intensity to loud distorted sections before the crashing waves of guitar distortion recede once again and repeat the process. This dynamic contrast is performed to great effect on the 7-minute epics Sky Machine
and Alpha Omega
, but nowhere is it better performed than on Aeons
and on the relatively concise but no less epic sounding Eidolon
. While not all of Karnivool’s ideas are equally good, they fearlessly swing for the fences by constantly trying different things. Thankfully however, the band uses a light touch with this experimentation and blend disparate elements rather than hammering you over the head with them. This light touch is seen on elements such as the robotic vocals on Nachash
and the glockenspiel that haunts Eidolon
. There’s also a noticeably heavier influence of electronica in Karnivool’s new sound, with two ambient electronica pieces in Aum
and the title-track as well as dominating the intro to Amusia
and plenty of ambient electronica flourishes on the quieter sections of most of the songs.
, Karnivool veers away from convention and expectation, and the result is a mixed but engaging product. It’s definitely not as immediate and as accessible as Sound Awake
but it proves to be every bit as rewarding on repeated listens. This is the definition (in Sputnik parlance and my opinion) of a “hard grower”.