KARMA TO BURN: Karma to Burn

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, no question. But is it the best thing they ever did?

Karma to Burn debut album cover

The Karma to Burn debut: a masterpiece. Except for the cheap-tack artwork

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

(d)Rude awakenings

REWIND JANUARY

We’re flying into 2015 and the new releases are piling up ALREADY. Who knew that Venom have a new album out? Not me, but at least Phil Alexander did – ta for shoving it out there on Planet Rock last week (Saturday night, repeated on Wednesdays if you wanna check his weekly dispatch of new and classic rawk). Napalm Death have got a new one out as well. Is 2014 really so-last-year already? Is it too late to mention John Garcia and Boris? Given the tardiness of this slipsliding Rewind, probably yes, but you’ll have to wait a few lines because we’re starting with summat new. January 2015 brought a bit of excitement for experimental/drone fiends when Stewart Lee, standing in for Stuart Maconie on the Freakzone one Sunday night, played an excerpt of a too-long-for-radio track by VESUVIO, an underground commune band from Naples back in the 70s.

Vesuvio are not real.

Vesuvio do not exist, yet they’ve just put a record out.

WTF??? Yeah, bit of a head-scrambler that one, but when you know that Julian Cope is one third of Vesuvio (Stephen O’Malley and Holy McGrail make up the whole), and that Vesuvio are one of the invented bands in Cope’s One Three One novel – Dayglo Maradona, Make Fuck and Nurse with Mound are some of t’others – then things start to make, not sense exactly, but the beginnings of sense.

And, with those longhairs at the helm (I’m assuming McGrail is not shorn of scalp), you can guess the musical direction: three tracks of elemental earth-crust ambience that unfolds, percussion-free, over 54 drone-out minutes. The last of those tracks, Resin A, is listed as a bonus and it’s true that the other two tracks, Pompeii (side 1) and Herculaneum (side 2), are the real deal here. Escapist and vast and totally out-fucking-side in its scope, Vesuvio flirt with the likes of Urthona, McGrail himself and mebbe even Carlton Melton, which means that – if you accept their 70s origins – Vesuvio predate these other arteests by about 30 years … shit. Better not think about that for fear of being time-warped in the head. But if you’re a fan of the Arch Drude’s ambient metal sprawl-outs, this is pretty crucial stuff and you can get it over on Head Heritage.

Back to last year briefly for a quick word about a couple of albums. Did John Garcia’s solo effort make the top end of any critics’ lists? If not, it should have. Not flash, not avant and definitely not a Kyuss rehash, it’s a rock solid, class effort by a guy who knows what he does best: even-paced desert grooves and quietly addictive riffs, topped off – of course – by that voice, so don’t forget about him.

And finally, Noise by Boris. Did anyone else feel underwhelmed by Noise on first listen? I did, fearing it was another throwaway slice of fast ‘n catchy Boris-lite, but there’s enough heaviness ‘twixt the hooks to make it a keeper. Heavy Rain’s gargantuan post-rock crawl, Angel’s 18-minute ace and Quicksilver’s after-the-thrash fadeout – check the last three minutes for a definition of heavy beauty – are among a fistful of highlights, and while Noise might not challenge Feedbacker in the greatness stakes, it does at least sound like the Boris we know: MASSIVE. A flawed hit, then.

Well, time’s run out on us and we didn’t get any words on 2014 highs by Yob, Mogwai and Melvins, but that’s the way it’s gonna be (yeah, yeah-yeah …).

’til next time!