Karnivool are not just a blog favourite, but a personal one too – comfortably sitting within my top five favourite bands of all time. For someone who routinely listens to hundreds of different records a year top five is a big deal. Surprisingly, for a band that inspires such love from me, I don’t listen to them particularly often. But when I do, you can bet it’s either Themata or Sound Awake that I’m listening to and that I am having a phenomenal experience each and every damned time. Those records are among the closest to perfection that I’ve encountered – and I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally get to write about them.
Let’s start with Themata. I seem to be the outspoken one for thinking it is every bit the equal of the masterpiece that followed, but I simply find them impossible to separate. Where Sound Awake champions sonics, with impeccable production and the intricate layering of guitars that has become their trademark, Themata counters with a rawer, more riff-based record. The key ingredients that make Karnivool who they are, the layered guitars, dynamic rhythms and spellbinding vocals, are still there – the emphasis is just slightly shifted. The title track bears this out wonderfully, with the bass turned up fucking loud (as all good bass should be) and the song’s structure centred around the driving guitar riffs. The layering is still there, but the focus is clearly on a handful of key riffs and licks. All the while Ian Kenny’s vocals alternate between forceful, momentum-driving verses and soaring choruses.
This combination of riff-centred brilliance and purposeful vocals reaches its height with “Fear of the Sky”. After an atmospheric intro with dextrous drumming and rumbling bass we encounter similar verses to “Themata”, with driving riffs and a staccato vocal approach. However, it’s the chorus that is the game changer. Here the band marry titanic riffs with the holy grail of guitar tones, typically emotive and heartfelt vocals, and a bass that knows exactly when to support and when to accentuate. The record’s midsection covers a range of emotions, as they navigate the swagger of “Roquefort“, the nu metal aggression of “Life Like” and the beauty of “Sewn and Silent” with ease. “Life Like”, in particular, stands out as something of a way station between the sound of Themata and its successor, marrying huge riffs with some intricately layered passages that could easily be mistaken for Sound Awake. Wrapping things up with “Change (Part 1)” leaves us with a tantalising taste of things to come, the build-up and tension making for a cliffhanger ending which foreshadows the brilliance that would follow in four years’ time.
And so we move on to Sound Awake, the band’s oft revered magnus opus. Opener “Simple Boy” assuages any fears that the band would reduce the bass’ role as it sits prominently in the mix, lending the song its drive and impulse. With the bass and vocals at centre stage it is the guitars that serve to accent, embellish, and contextualise the song with half melodies and counterpoint. As the song builds the swirling guitars begin to take prominence, and before you know it they’re carrying the song – their approach so subtle that you may not even notice it if not listening with an analytical mindset. “Goliath” sees the band balancing the tightrope of restraint and layering. The guitars, bass and vocals pull right back at times allowing the drums to propel the song with interesting rhythms, only for the rest of the band to surge back into the fray with either bombast or delicacy depending on what the song needs at the time. They pull it off resoundingly, getting the record off to a fantastic start. However, they saved the best for third. While I love Themata and Sound Awake equally, it is undeniable that “New Day” stands head and shoulders above all else in the band’s formidable catalogue.
If there is one idiom that best encapsulates “New Day”, and perhaps Karnivool more broadly, it is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The song begins with a series of guitar licks which, while pleasant, don’t sound extraordinary. The same can be said for most of the song’s elements as it develops, and yet the way each note interacts with the others takes everything up a level: compositionally it’s brilliant. The vocals are heartfelt and emotive, Kenny’s shaking vibrato inimitable in its sincerity as he commands the listener’s attention. All the while interweaving guitars come and go, adding an impeccable sense of depth to the song. When they need to go hard they go bloody hard, as in the bridge, while when restraint and expression are called for they do exactly that, such as in the outro. Indeed, those understated, lone notes ringing out in the outro and post-chorus arguably deliver the song’s heaviest emotional punch. What further allows the song to have such an incredible impact is its production: this is one facet where Sound Awake clearly surpasses its predecessor or, if we’re being honest, any other record. I can comfortably say that sonically, Sound Awake is the best sounding record I have heard.
I could go on and on gushing about the rest of this record – the attitude and creativity of “Set Fire to the Hive”, the emotion of “Umbra”, the hypnotising “All I Know”, or the tribal rhythms and exhibition in tension and release that is “Change”. But I won’t. It’s fitting to end on the band’s high watermark, a song that encapsulates all that they offer as a band. The composition. The emotional connection. The soundscape. The layering. The restraint and the bombast. It really is a perfect song from a perfect pair of records. I can’t imagine a time where I will ever disagree with those words, and I couldn’t be happier for it.