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. 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???




The most luscious, consistent and popular long player in Type O’s blackened back catterlog?


The most October-ly?

Without question. Pity we just missed the month, but no matter: October Rust is a mature stab at bucolic autumnal gloom that needs airing right now, if you haven’t done that already.

TON’s 1996 Roadrunner release, their fourth album, came off the back of a Bloody Kisses breakthrough which saw the Brooklyn greenmans reach new highs in pop culture, thanks to the MTV heavy rotator vid for Black No.1 (Little Miss Scare-All). ‘twas an impressive break, exposing the bigfella Steele and his crew to a new bunch of corruptibles.

That was in 1993. For October Rust, however, they stripped the most cartoonish excesses from their vamplified goth aesthetic – the self reference, the post-Carnivore thrashouts, the antagonistic call-outs – and opted instead for a long-player’s worth of the morose splendour they’d nailed on tracks like Bloody Kisses (A Death in the Family). Octo-rust is Type-O’s pop album, not because the tunes are melodic (though they are) or short (nope) or danceably cheerful (AS FUCKING IF) but because, as a double-album spread, they’re as accessible a bunch of Type O tunes as you’re ever gonna hear. Type O Negative always had an ear for melody – they’re not called the Drab Four for nowt – yet still forged a sound unlike anyone else, and certainly not a derivative Sabbath-Beatles blend that the Drab moniker might suggest. Type O are just too damned Type O, even on an album like this… with a Steele-tipped pen at the helm, every album drips decadence, desolation and depression, often comically morbid.

Type O Negative: October Rust

Type O Negative: seasonal corrosion

Opening with exactly the kind of title you want from the dusk brothers (we’re skipping the first two transmissions), Love You to Death tinkles a genteel intro that disorients after the metallic sheen of Bloody Kisses – until, that is, the O-factor, all dry-bone fuzz and airless axe, rushes the joint and swells it to a fuller (dare we say affirming?) force that might, just might, be described as breezy. Layered and harmonied, it sets the direction for the whole record: expansive, mature even, but not at the expense of the Type O Negative lyrical experience. Love You to Death and Be My Druidess lay on the quintiss-exual lust ‘n black-lipstick tropes thick as ever, which may be why they’re on the fire side of the record (side 1 = fire, side 2 = water, side 3 = air, side 4 = earth).

Flipping over to the water side, we do get water, and it’s not clear: Red Water (Christmas Mourning). Doom slow and snowdrift heavy, it’s an O-Rust standout that lurks near the very peak of TON’s all-time least worst, and it would be almost funny if it weren’t so damned true:

My table’s been set for but seven
Just last year I dined with eleven
God damn ye
Merry gentlemen

Written after the death of Steele’s father, it’s a typically wry reality check.

But, as is off’n the case when trudging the Type-O Way, we lurch from the morbid to the libidinous and so it is here as we plunge into the three-way fleshpit that is My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend, all teasing goth organ (what???) and hammy vamp baritone that surely out-Sisters the Mercys for anthemic catchiness. Sleaze-o fun to the power three, My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend is Black No.1’s sticky knotty heir and it’s fucking brilliant.

Sticking with the non-sombre for a sec, what about the non-Type O? Having built a bit of a rep for doing cover perversions of classic tracks – Hey Joe recast as Hey Pete, Paranoid slowed to a death crawl and, weirdest of the lot, the Isley Brothers’ Summer Breeze reaching new lows in vocal delivery – it’s no surprise that a cover crops up in October, and it’s Neil rustman Young’s Cinammon Girl. Not the dirgesome count dragula you might have expected.

Getting back on the October trail, Burnt Flowers Fallen and Wolf Moon stretch the album’s airier vibe, with Wolf Moon perhaps the track that sounds most like it coulda been shovelled off Bloody Kisses – bit of a Christian Woman thing (sans blasphemous bed-sin), mebbe? 

The last track on this 72-minute double is another top downer from the Negatives. Uber slow yet fragile too, Haunted could be dour-doleful-depressing over its 10-minute drift but somehow, it gets a lift – like Red Water before it – by sparse keys, though that lift might depend on your mood, bright or bleak. Whichever way you hear it, ’tis a fitting Big End whose heavy elegance restores balance after lighter weights like Green Man, and sinking into the Rust again after all these years it’s Haunted that stands strong.

So there we are: seasonal in scope and acoustic in attitude, October Rust’s twilight vibrations make it a must-play metallic/goth opus for this time of year, every year. In the Type O canon, it’s a one-off – next time out, they’d revert to grimmer tales and cap-H Heaviness for what is, in my view, the defining World Coming Down – that stands alone as their rustic outdoor soundtrack… dig it out, drag through dead leaves and remember:

‘Functionless art is simply tolerated vandalism. We are the vandals.’
October Rust sleeve notes

October Rust on y’tube.