KARMA TO BURN: live

KARMA TO BURN with DESERT STORM at The Cellar, Oxford, June 27 2018.

This is a billing you really don’t wanna miss. Oxford wrecking merchants Desert Storm hook up with hard rock legends Karma to Burn in the none-more-suitable confines of the Cellar.

So. Desert Storm. Drunk-en shambollock. No, hang on – that’s Uncle Will, buffering across the stage mid-set to ruffle everyone’s hair. What we really mean is, DESERT FUCKING STORM: another titanic chunk of metallic heft that pummels and grooves in all the right places, same as it ever did. Journey’s End is the opener, just as it is for new album Sentinels, and it’s a forceful declaration, launching a set that draws heavily on Sentinels and rightly bloody so because it’s a heavyweight beast. Too Far Gone, The Brawl and Gearhead are, if memory serves, among the other new tracks thrown in with old familiars, but it’s the textured maturity of Kingdom of Horns that really leaps out, as it does on the album. What more to say? Another awe-tastic Desert Storm offensive.

Karma to Burn next, straight outta West Virginia-ish. Will they conquer too?

Yes. And no.

The yes is for other people. Cellar crowd rocks out to Forty Four, Thirteen, Eight, Twenty One and whatever the hell else got played. Cellar Loves Karma.

The NO? That’s mine, and it doesn’t feel great to say it. There’s a ton of love for the band from here got the albums on heavy rotation ahead of the gig, finally wrapped up a long-unfinished lost-classic style review of their debut, and am definitely over the karaoke Karma experience of 2013. This one feels RIGHT, especially with Desert Storm upfront. Anticipation is high again.

But that moment when KTB’s Will Mecum wandered through the DS stage, warning bells rang because he looked pretty hammered already. Not fall-over gone, but wavering down the slow-focus end of beered/whatevered. What that means, when Karma to Burn take the stage, is that those mountain ‘spired riffs are crunched and amped and sound right enough, and Eric Cutter and a hulking Evan Devine give it plenty, but it just doesn’t look right – because the guy on guitar lets the riffs do the work without working the riffs. Instead of some attack and right-now presence from THE Karma originator and (let’s be honest) focal point, we got a slow drawling geezer who wasn’t bad but was on muscle-memory auto. It was a distraction and I couldn’t shake it. Funny how, when the music’s all there is – and that is literally true of this band – it ends up not being just about the music. You gotta show up, you gotta PLAY. Like it means something.

So, it wound up feeling like another karaoke job. Twice a bit burned, now. Any more? Better instead to savour clips like this from just a couple of years ago or recall a more vital show you’ve got lodged in the vault of memories (Audioscope 2011 for me: amps stacked higher than the stage was wide, full force rocking in your facials. Much more like it.)

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

WINNEBAGO DEAL – live@The Cellar, January 18th 2014

It’s a bit of an Oxford spesh tonight as Winnebago Deal break their mini exile for a Cellar blast with Desert Storm in heavy support. Tickets are door-only and demand is high so we’ve got a pretty full house from the off, and there’s a definite buzz in the thickening Cellar air. Everyone’s up for this.

Here’s how it starts:

8.00pm Cellar doors open

8.10 first band starts

8.21 first mosh breakout

Yep, it’s one of THOSE nights – fast and physical, and that’s no surprise when Act 1 is Flack Blag, a Black Flag covers band featuring the Winnebago Bens. Blag and their two vocalists rip through Flag classics like Rise Above, Six Pack, Thirsty and Miserable, Depression and Slip It In without break or breath, finally shutting the set down with a mighty My War.

As they dismantle their kit, Melvins spill out from the between-bands PA to plant fat riffs back in our heads and that’s EXACTLY the right prep for Act 2: Desert Storm. Cue mighty rockin’ and bellowin’ and more rockin’ – the Storm know how to intoxicate the punters with a good-time brew, and tonight they do it by the keg load.

Armed with stacks of riffs and breaks and tempo changes, all threaded by a taut-but-just-loose-enough elastic groove that swings in all the right places, there’s no denying there’s a massive Clutch vibe coming off this crew – and that is meant in every way as a compliment. Pantera have been described as groove metal but, great as they were, to me they seemed a bit rigid for that tag. A bit too PRECISE. Tonight, however, that tag fits. Clutch fans, latter-period Corrosion of Conformity fans, get out there and support this band when they next have a stage.

Where Desert Storm had Melvins, Winnebago Deal have Huey Lewis and the News. Yes, Huey and his current affairs buddies waft across the Cellar while the band handover is made, as if we’re being slipped a sly sweet melody to counteract the evil anti-melody that awaits.

Winnebago Deal: heroes to many, gods to some, and a mighty kick in the head to everyone  who crashes their scuzzy orbit. I’m no diehard Deal-er but I do remember seeing them at the Wheatsheaf a few years back and the live version of the band obliterated the CD version – louder, faster, more brutal, more everything and tonight, it’s the same. They have not mellowed. AT ALL.

Tonight is nothing less than a total shitstorm.

You want grooves and breaks? Go anywhere but here because WD’s punk thrash ‘n roll offers no remorse, only assault. Seriously. The Line Up, Takin’ Care of Business, Manhunt, George Dickel and the Karma to Burn-esque instrumental Dead Gone all get played I think but really, it’s pointless trying to recognise tracks because it’s too loud to hear anything.

Better instead to soak up the screech and the fury, the flailing limbs and low-clearance surfing and enjoy it (yes) for what it really is – a spectacle. When Winnebago Deal are in town, you get battered.

By music.

End of.

AUDIOSCOPE 13: a partial review

12 bands in 12 hours from 12pm til 12am. That’s Audioscope 13, the annual Oxford all-day gig that raises money for Shelter by coaxing music fans out on a cold November night. How? With some shit-hot knowns, unknowns and soon-to-be knowns, that’s how. In its 13-event history, the late-night closing spot has been grabbed by the likes of Wire, Six by Seven, Damo Suzuki and Karma to Burn while countless bands have done the day shifts.

Unfortunately, the day shifts are beyond my grasp this year so let’s dive in unfashionably late to the Jericho Tavern and see what happens. All bands are new to me, in sound if not in name.

First, the news. Turns out that Thought Forms had to cancel due to illness. Now I’ve never heard them but their flyer bio (‘… Sonic Youth playing doom’) is the best of the lot and would surely win a prize if i) there was one ii) they turned up. Neither was the case but even if that bio is only half right, Thought Forms sound compulsory. Then again, you can’t believe all you read in promo bios – see Pet Moon later.

Eat Lights Become Lights are rhythmic nirvana for kosmiche heads. Two drummers – one sitting, one standing – hammer a relentless loco-motion that’s ultra repetitive, very Neu! and very nearly trancelike, shot through with bass, samples, drones and no vocals. At their best when Neil Rudd’s circular melodies build up to spacerock wah wah blowouts, this stuff really works live. Rave music for rock fans? Very possibly.

After the unpretentious, anonymous potency of ELBL, Pet Moon are an immediate contrast. Synth-heavy hook-heavy pop with R&B vox and fringe distractions (hair, not music) mean this band look way out of place on this bill at this hour. The dark-ish electro/Numan current is enough to divert at first but those currents fade fast when we’re hit with a mawkish pile of BALLS. Followed by another one. All benefits of the doubt evaporate and everything starts to irritate – the skinny jeans, the rolled-up t-shirt sleeves, the fringes, the Pop Idol frontman, the white vest …. no. Just. No. I leave them to it.

After the pretentious impotency of Pet Moon, Esben and the Witch are a total volte-face whose gothic tales transmogrify into huge post-rock walls of sound. I don’t know their albums and I don’t doubt their songs are more nuanced on record, but right now the Witch is a beast. ‘nuffsaid.

Closing the day and the event are Califone, the evening’s veterans. They’re late. Turns out that a guitar has gone missing – lost or stolen, we’re not sure yet – and that means ‘… it’s gonna be hard to play some of the songs. Has anyone seen a guitar?’ the singer asks.

‘It’s in a soft cover with Fender on it. The guitar is red-’

‘Is that it?’

A lone voice from the crowd. He points to a spot 5 feet behind the bassist. In that spot is a soft guitar case, solid in form, propped against some hardware. Bassist picks it up. Turns it, slowly – the word Fender appears. Opens the bag.

Yes. It is.

Califone then put their collective doofus to one side and turn in a 45-minute set that flits from piercing noise shards to dusty Americana, slide grooves, low-key acoustics and timeless classic rock with not even a bat of an eye’s lid. They cover a tonne of ground in their shortened stint but, sadly, not enough to make use of the red Fender. It stays in the corner, untouched.

And that’s the end of Audioscope 13 at the Tavern – a brilliant night of reps, vests and guitar thefts where a three-piece Witch nabs top plaudits.

See Audioscope reviews for 2014 and 2015, and Audioscope’s Music for a Good Home 3 CD

Karma to Burn – live@Bullingdon Arms, Oxford, July 2013

No-frills power-trio Karma to Burn bring guitar-bass-drums fury to the Bullingdon. Or do they?

As we know, Karma to Burn are all about the expected. End-to-end riffs, no vocals, no experimentation, no frills. They do not deviate, they do not change: certainty is their currency and you pretty much know what’s coming up – an hour or so of shit-kicking, dust-and-gasoline guitar hooks ground out by three grizzled road-dogs bonded by a volatile history of bad drugs, bad attitudes and band break-ups. Seeing the reunited Will Mecum-Rob Oswald-Rich Mullins line-up nail the Audioscope headline slot a couple of years ago was a proper treat, and now they’re back to give us more.

But before West Virginia headlines, Oxford must support. That honour falls to local heroes Desert Storm who charge the Bully with infectious, Clutch-inspired rhythm ‘n groove and supreme confidence. Immense.

Karma to Burn take to the stage almost without anyone noticing. And as the first notes crunch forth tonight, something’s not quite right.

Who’s the drummer?

And where is the bassist?

First question first. By not following Karma’s personnel moves last year, I missed the fact that drummer Rob Oswald left not just the band but music itself, sick of the lies and compromises at the business end of the music business. He got out.

As for the bass space … it remains a void. Rich Mullins never shows. Nothing is mentioned.

So for a band who trade in certainties and absolutes, this is an unsettling start. Does Will Mecum (guitar) plus a drummer (Evan Devine) count as a Karma to Burn experience?

Sonically, yes. As soon as those amps push Mecum’s Karma-sized riffs out, the doubts diminish and grins emerge. This music isn’t sophisticated, it’s as stripped down as you can get – there aren’t even any solos – and yet, live and loud in a small venue, it unleashes a very primal urge to just ROCK OUT. The Bullingdon back room does exactly that, whirling into a mosh as the wordless tracks blast past. Job done. And with job done, Mecum and Devine swiftly depart.

Whether this two-piece format is Karma to Burn’s future is something we don’t know yet. Losing Oswald’s unkempt wildman intensity is one thing but if Mullins’s genial cool is AWOL too … that’s a hefty personality deficit for a band who are pretty minimal to begin with. Tonight they pull it off – I think. Let’s see what happens.