June 16, 2024

The infectious and rousing Sacrifice is performed brilliantly, while the poignant Don’t Forget My Name only needs a stadium full of waving lighters to realise its full potential as an anthem for elegant regret.

PHOTOS: Chris Walkden

I have to admit, the omens didn’t bode well for this show – the rain and slate-grey skies coupled with the Sunday night date heralding the end of the weekend did not conjure up images of Woodstock and good vibes all round, and with attendances at gigs still to climb back to pre-Covid levels alarm bells were sounding in the distance. Happily, however, a healthy (and very enthusiastic) audience had gathered here in rain-soaked Chester to welcome the latest line-up of prog stalwarts Karnataka – and ironically to enjoy the climate change subject matter of most of the new material!. Indeed, while I would ordinarily never be happy to join a queue, the sight of one forming outside the performance room itself awaiting admittance was paradoxically welcome with its hum of pre-gig chatter.

For myself, while I have seen Karnataka perform live on a good number of occasions over the years, this was my first opportunity to check out the latest, extensively re-tooled line-up, following the excellent Requiem For A Dream album last year. I have seldom been disappointed by a Karnataka show in the past, but this particular one did have me wondering how it would shape up, simply because of the task of following up the superbly talented line-up which recorded the exceptionally strong and award-winning Secrets Of Angels. Happily, this account of the night will come to praise Caesar, not to bury him (to paraphrase The Bard), as any doubts were blasted away along with the cobwebs by a performance brimming with confidence, assuredness and razor-tight ensemble playing. Older configurations of Karnataka have been great, of that there is no doubt – but here we have another to join that pantheon with aplomb.

Coming onstage to the Karnataka instrumental itself, the set opens with Road To Cairo, the only track here from the Secrets of Angels album. It’s well received, and well performed, but a few sound issues working themselves out during the song make it a little muddy and slightly disappointing; though happily those gremlins are banished from earshot during that one track, and by the following All Around The World (the first of three ‘epics’ from the latest album to be performed), things have been ironed out to complete satisfaction, and from that moment on any nitpicking about the sound quality is banished and rarely given another thought. The band are up and off to the races, as the saying has it. Following on from this ecologically themed epic – exceptionally well-performed I may add – a neat introductory link from Ian Jones takes us into the older Strange Behaviour, before more of the new material is laid before us. At this point it may be worth looking at this new line-up of the band, as founding leader and bassist Jones is, not for the first time, the only man standing from the previous incarnation. Fronting the band is new vocalist Sertari, an Anglo-Cypriot singer possessed of an impressive range and ability to fit seamlessly into the shoes left by the roster of great singers to have preceded her in the band. The recruitment of guitar virtuoso Luke Machin (familiar from The Tangent, Concrete Lake, Maschine and Damanek to name a few) is a masterstroke, while the latest to join are prog scene veteran Rob Wilsher on keyboards and Jack Summerfield behind the drumkit.

The first half of the set concludes with three of the very strongest tracks from Requiem For A Dream. The infectious and rousing Sacrifice is performed brilliantly, while the poignant Don’t Forget My Name only needs a stadium full of waving lighters to realise its full potential as an anthem for elegant regret. Finally comes the second of the trio of ‘epics’ from the album, the stunning Forgiven. A marvellously multi-faceted and meticulously composed piece, its recorded counterpart is notable for a guitar solo of rare magnificence from Machin, and he pulls off the same trick here – taking the song and leading it spiralling onto another level, with the whole band meshing together perfectly. Machin is something of a new-generational guitar hero, and should inspire younger listeners who might encounter him as he stands apart from the legion of now-aging prog rock guitar maestros as he stalks the stage, long blonde hair flowing and a trademarked ‘ecstasy face’ while soloing which conjures up the memory of prime 1970s Robin Trower, himself known for the face-mangling expressions which accompanied his every performance. Rob Wilsher is as rock solid as a man with a pedigree going back to the 1980s should be, while Summerfield keeps the band’s sound alternately anchored and flying, as the need arises.

A short break leads us into Part Two, with The Gathering Light a nod back to the earlier Celtic influences of the band and brilliantly performed, with Sertari by now putting her own take on the frontwoman role. Wisely not attempting to emulate the flamboyant dynamism of Hayley Griffiths with her dance background, she favours a darker, almost ‘goth’ appearance, drawing the audience into her web with understated gravitas. Heaven Can Wait (no relation to the songs of that same name by Meatloaf, Iron Maiden or Gamma Ray) from early album The Storm is a very welcome look back to the band’s roots, before the piece de resistance comes in the shape of the title song Requiem For A Dream, outlining the dangers of global warming and climate change as it unfolds majestically and gradually over more than 20 minutes. By the ‘we’ll keep dancing in the rain’ finale, audience and band are as one, caught in a shared celebratory moment which is simultaneously, and clearly, as much lament as it is hope. The response leaves no doubt as to an encore, and the band return almost as soon as they have left the stage to conclude with Forsaken from the Gathering Light album, performed as well as I have ever seen it done, and perhaps better still.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this performance – and a testament to the drive and relentless vision of Ian Jones – is that a completely revamped and rebuilt band somehow manages to remain utterly and indefinably ‘Karnataka’. When Deep Purple replaced Gillan and Glover with Coverdale and Hughes it was like a different band. Similarly when Yes regrouped around guitarist Trevor Rabin in the 1980s there was a seismic shift. And let’s not even start on Genesis. Karnataka, by contrast, have re-emerged after a break of some years like the metaphorical phoenix from the flames and simply morphed into the ‘Karnataka’ entity. It’s something which I happily admit I doubted, following the exceptional shows I witnessed from the previous incarnation in particular – but I am equally happy to admit to having been proved wrong. Long-standing stalwarts of the UK prog scene, Karnataka have just unveiled yet another stunning configuration. Long may they continue to do so.