Review Summary: Bliss
Saying that progressive metal has become redundant and stale in recent years has become a redundant and stale comment in and of itself. For a steady while now we've been subjected to the same cookie-cutter djent bands that don't push the genre forward, nor do they have the songwriting chops needed to write engaging music, instead opting to churn out redunant sub-octave chugging as a way of compensating and impressing an audience that are more interested in YouTube reactions and TikTok videos than they are at writing engaging, memorable music.
Karmanjakah are a 4-piece progressive metal/djent band from Sweden, a country that at this point is no stranger to this style of progressive metal, or progressive metal in general for that fact. However, unlike other Swedish djent bands like Meshuggah or Vildhjarta, Karmanjakah are a much more melodic outfit, instead employing the atmospheric tendencies of bands like Tesseract and The Contortionist in their music. Their 2016 debut EP was a fairly middle of the road affair, not completely awful but nor was it worth revisiting. However, the band then disappeared for 5 years before resurfacing with their debut LP "A Book About Itself", an album that showed a significant maturation in their sound. The album had djent riffs aplenty, but with some seriously good songwriting chops and impressive musicianship, as well as just enough curveballs to keep it interesting and memorable. It was a promising start, and a strong foundation for the band to build upon.
2 years later and now Karmanjakah have given us Ancient Skills, a short but sweet follow-up EP that shows the band continuing to improve upon that foundation in all the right ways. Opening track "Breathing" begins with a soft melody played on a nordic harp, courtesy of frontman Jonas Lundquist, before launching into some great riff work, with guitarist Viggo Örsan flowing between djenty chugs and melodies with ease. One of the highlights of "A Book About Itself" was the guitar work and it's the same story here. Fans of the aforementioned Tesseract and The Contortionist will feel right at home here, with a lot of the guitar work being reminiscent of Acle Kahney in particular.
The remaining 3 songs on the EP are a similar story, with the album ebbing and flowing between atmospheric keyboard/synth-driven sections and the heavier sections, but the transitions between never feel forced or overdone, and the whole EP is a frankly blissful release that is in equal parts relaxing as it is cathartic and urgent. Second song "Flying" is a vocal highlight of the album, with frontman Jonas Lundquist sitting somewhere in between Dan Tompkins and Michael Lessard. Whilst he can scream, his vocals here are entirely cleanly sung, but there's never a point where harshes feel necessary. On top of the great vocals and guitar work, it must also be said that the band's rhythm section serves as a solid backbone; never doing anything overly flashy but keeping the music going at a good pace with enough drum fills and bass licks to stand out where need be. That being said, it would be nice to see how much the rhythm section can do in the future.
All 4 songs on the EP are very much worth listening to, but the closing track "Listening" is undoubtedly the EP highlight, where all the positive aspects of the band's sound are culminated into the 6 minutes and 15 seconds runtime. The song starts slow and quiet, with a nice little piano intro and clean guitars, and then proceeding to serve up the melodic djent that's plentiful on the rest of the album. Perhaps the pinnacle of this song is the unexpected use of a bağlama or saz halfway through the song, an instrument normally used in Turkish folk music. Its appearance on here is unexpected but it fits really well, and gives the EP a slightly folkish tone along with the aforementioned use of a nordic harp. It's a subtle but welcome addition to the band's sound that works in their favour, and hopefully they continue to add little flairs like this in the future.
Despite its short runtime and somewhat underutilised rhythm section, this is a great little EP that offers a blissful listen on its 4 tracks, and is a prime example of a modern progressive metal band willing to experiment enough to keep things interesting without alienating its audience, and Karmanjakah clearly have the songwriting chops and musicianship to break out into a larger audience with subsequent releases.