July 26, 2023

Luke Machin pulls off a solo here which is jaw dropping in its effectiveness. If you’re listening to this in the car and playing it loud, be mindful lest the wheels leave the road entirely and the vehicle levitates. It’s that sort of moment.

There will probably be more than a few Karnataka fans out there who half wondered whether this record would ever actually appear, with the band having been on something of a pause of late (not helped by a certain pandemic, of course). It has now been eight years since the release of the band’s masterpiece Secrets Of Angels in 2015, an album which saw awards and critical plaudits deservedly raining down on the band like confetti, followed by a lengthy spell of brilliant live shows. That was curtailed a couple of years later when that line-up of the band splintered, leaving founder Ian Jones the sole keeper of the flame. He recruited singer Sertari (UK born of Cypriot extraction) soon afterward, but recruiting the rest of the line-up has taken much longer. Ian had kept himself busy with projects such as Chasing the Monsoon, but the significant numbers of Karnataka followers have continued to speculate impatiently about whether or not the band would rise again. Now, finally, they have – and in quite a spectacular way it must be said.

The first thing to be said about this album is that, if you like the epic, full-fat prog side of Karnataka, this delivers on that score more than any previous album they have released. Three of the eight tracks here alone run to over 45 minutes between them, which gives you something of the flavour of things. The other five pieces are somewhat more concise, tending toward the six minutes or so duration, and in that manner this very much mirrors the Secrets Of Angels template, in which the grandiose, magnificent 20-minute title track was backed up by more bite-size pieces which could – and did – hook in those with less of a taste for the marathon epic. The difference this time out is that the closing behemoth of a title track is supported by two other ten-minute-plus compositions, and superbly so, while there is still room for 30 minutes or so of more easily manageable fare.

L-R: Machin, Allan, Sertari, Jones

I confess straight away that, as an old geezer of ’70s progressive vintage, the allure of the epic has never left me, and the sight of ten or (even more so) 20 minute pieces still gets what remains of my pulse racing! However, the sonic perfection of Secrets Of Angels, and the quality of the songwriting in its more concise pieces leads me to anticipate those songs almost as much as the three ‘main courses’, as it were. And I was not disappointed. Along with Jones and Sertari, the rest of the band here (listed as ‘special guests’ for this release) include the almost impossibly gifted Luke Machin on guitar. Anyone who has seen him perform with The Tangent, Maschine or his other projects will know just how good he can be (aided as he is by fingers so long that he can span more frets than I have ever seen another human manage!), and he single-handedly raises the level of this album from great to, at times, sublime. Veteran Troy Donockley provides some very welcome uilleann pipes for a nice Celtic feel on the title track especially, while Chris Allan does a sterling job on drums, and though new keyboard man Rob Wilsher arrived too late for the album, Ian provides excellent keyboard parts along with Gonzalo Carrera.

The opening All Around The World sets out the thematic stall of much of the album, casting a despairing eye over the state of the planet and the ever-dwindling hopes for a climactic retreat from the apocalyptic precipice. There is even a snippet of Greta Thunberg delivering her much-publicised ‘how dare you’ speech – a powerfully topical addition, if a brave one given her polarising effect even within the green community – and the track leaves you in no doubt as to the sincerity or the power of the message. It is stirring yet heavily portentous at the same time, and is a very effective opener to the album. Addressing the next ‘epic’ first, the mid-album placing of Forgiven works perfectly, with this twelve minute beast probably my highlight of the whole album. This one has everything; there is big, stirring drama, beautifully melodic sections providing just the requisite light and shade, and when Sertari comes in with some Latin I’m sold! A declamation of ‘Sanctus Dominus et Spiritus Requiem’ might ideally be delivered by a cortege of passing monks, but this works almost as well. Hell, you had me at ‘Sanctus’, guys! To put the icing on this sumptuous cake, Luke Machin pulls off a solo here which is jaw dropping in its effectiveness. If you’re listening to this in the car and playing it loud, be mindful lest the wheels leave the road entirely and the vehicle levitates. It’s that sort of moment.

But what of those shorter tracks? Well, if you love the sprightly infectiousness of the likes of Borderline from the last album (and who doesn’t), you will be well satisfied here by Say Goodbye Tomorrow and Look To The East (which also carries echoes of Roads To Cairo in its arrangement). Sacrifice features Machin once again reaching for the stratosphere with his guitarwork, and is another highlight. The best of these more concise tracks however – and my other personal favourite alongside Forgiven – is the shimmeringly fragile beauty of Don’t Forget My Name, a song with a melody which could melt the stoniest of hearts, a lyric full of melancholic regret and a chorus which stirs the blood while it massages the emotions. If there was any justice in this world, and music like this could fill stadiums, it is easy to imagine a veritable sea of waving lighters (or phone screens today, one imagines) making it a transcendent moment. That isn’t the case of course, but what a musical world that would be…

There’s one track we haven’t touched on of course – the sprawling 25-minute titular opus. And its everything you’d want it to be. Going through several distinct sections, and remarkably never outstaying its welcome, highlights abound including Troy Donockley’s perfectly judged Celtic flavours, an excellent vocal performance throughout, and another couple of lift-the-roof-off solos from Machin. By the climactic few minutes, and the ‘We keep dancing in the rain’ chorus, those waving lighters are once again just on the periphery of the imagination. In actual fact, the track only runs to around 23 minutes or so, as the final couple of minutes feature a breathy, repeated ‘Tick, Tock’, which opens as well as closes the album. But hey, who’s counting the minutes once you get past 20? It’s still a side of vinyl in the ‘old money’, and that’s always a thing of beauty.

I will openly hold my hands up and admit that I was surprised by this album. Having loved Secrets of Angels so much, and the line-up which delivered it, I began to harbour fears that, with the lengthy delay, there might just be an anticlimax. I was wrong. Does this top that last album? That’s hard to do, as I still believe that record to be one of the most significant and genre-defying modern prog albums of the last decade. But it comes damn close to equalling it, and there are times that it might do just that. What is certain is that, taking these last two albums as a back-to-back pair, Karnataka have never sounded better. The party, as they say, is far from over yet!