Long before they became road warriors for centre-line rifferola shorn of all but rock’s barest necessities – guitar, drum, bass, no words, no solos – Karma to Burn were a different beast for one record only: their first one, cut loose in 1997 by Roadrunner Records, and a lost classic by anyone’s measure.
It’s the anomaly in the Karma catalogue. But is it the best thing they ever did?
Emerging into the late 90s post-desert/post-Seattle vista, their first album drew on both of those scenes but twisted them just enough to make a record that had its own identity – like it belonged with them, but stood in its own space too. Less geologically huge than the Kyuss behemoth, and far less self conscious than the grunge second wave, KTB’s debut flickers with goth-ish smalltown shadows.
Contributing to this is the very thing they’re best known for not having: a singer. Though there were short-lived links to John Garcia back in the day (revived later with 2010’s on-form Appalachian Incantations bonus disc), the vocalist on Karma’s first full-length is Jay Jarosz, who… well, exactly. WHO? No idea. But his boot-scraping drawl more than does the job on the debut, especially on Joy Division’s Twenty Four Hours. Can you imagine John Garcia laying into that with his desert-dried sandpapered pipes? Me neither. You need some sort of anonymity to pull that source off, and by my reckoning Jarosz nails it right on.
Opening tracks Ma Petit Mort and Bobbi Bobbi Bobbi (I’m Not God) are – musically – pure Karma, shoved along by Will Mecum’s pile-driver rhythm, but the difference between Karma Then and Karma Ever Since lies in where those tracks go. They don’t end as they start. Bobbi Bobbi Bobbi has not one but TWO singers (heresy?) and the two-pronged vocal fork turns it into a wild eyed anthem, with Octavia Lambertis’s untamed soar flying strato-high while Jarosz hauls it out by the baritones. It’s about as far away as you could get from the later Karma to Burn ethos, but you can hear the track in three-piece instrumental form easily enough. It turns up just a year later, retitled as Three, at the back end of Wild Wild Purgatory (KTB have a habit of rerecording their own stuff). Is it good? Sure. Better? No, but we’ll get to that later.
Back in Debut Land, we’ve got atmos to contend with – Six Gun Sucker Punch flips from lysergic stupor to switchblade aggro, while (Waltz of the) Playboy Pallbearers lures like a serial killer, and it’s moments like these that define the KTB debut. The smell of Nowhere, USA, the faint bad-head of trippy ingestion. You can feel it in the hazed start to Mt Penetrator. Where Kyuss cranked it up in the desert night so they could jam colossal, Karma to Burn sound like they retreat to the foothills to pour moonshine, do ouija and break shit. Or people.
Tracks five, nine and twelve are the instrumentals – Eight, Thirteen and Six, if you want their titles – and though this shows where Karma were heading, we didn’t know that back then, and we definitely didn’t know that numbered instrumentals would become EVERYTHING. Again, we gotta mention Kyuss because they’d already set a high bar for wordless segues like Caterpillar March on Blues for the Red Sun, and Corrosion of Conformity and Down were putting instrumentals in records just like Sabbath and Zep did decades earlier. Riff masters, all. But Caterpillar sounds like it was always meant to be an instrumental, as do Without Wings and 2121313 from CoC’s Deliverance. Karma to Burn’s Eight doesn’t. Eight is a full-length, full-form track with verse-bridge-chorus bits in all the right places – it just doesn’t have any vocals. Which could be a bit lacking, right? But somehow, it lacks nothing. It really fucking works, as do Thirteen and Six.
In fact, everything works. No sub-par moments, no boredom drop offs, and the moodier turns – Joy Division especially – could only have been pulled off by this version of the band: the one with the singer. It’s those shades and shifts that make Karma to Burn’s debut more of a complete listening experience than the riff-onlys that came after, and that’s why it’s the album that gives the most. Sez me, anyway.
But is it the real Karma to Burn?
You gotta say no. The singer was a record-label compromise, and if you’ve ever caught the band on a good night backed by stacks of amps, you’ll know that stripped and lean is where it’s at.
And there lies the Karma to Burn paradox.
To be continued???
KARMA TO BURN PLAY THE CELLAR IN OXFORD, JUNE 27 2018. DESERT STORM ON SUPPORT DUTY. DO NOT MISS