By: Dave Cooper
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The Robin 2, Bilston | March 8, 2015
Karnataka are nothing if not persistent. Over the course of their near 20-year career, they’ve tasted success and adversity in almost equal measure. They’ve delivered a succession of albums that have been received favourably by fans and critics alike, and have forged a reputation for powerful live shows; however, they have also had to cope with a number of line-up changes that have crippled their early momentum. In 2004, at what was arguably the height of their notoriety, their rise to rock Valhalla seemed almost inevitable, and larger venues were beckoning. It was not to be, however, and the band suffered a dissolution that has been difficult for them to overcome, as the turnover of members over the next five years served to prove. Founder member and songwriter Ian Jones found himself the only remaining member of the original line-up, and it is in no small part due to his determination and consuming passion for the band and its legacy that we find ourselves standing in the Robin 2 as the lights dim and an intro tape begins to roll.
Karnataka’s music has unquestionably evolved over time. It has always been influenced heavily by progressive rock, but over time their initially more traditionally fashioned music has absorbed a number of influences, from Celtic folk to world music, hard rock and metal. Now, with the addition of vocalist Hayley Griffiths, there is also a classical influence: Griffiths was previously best known for her time singing in West End Celtic musical extravaganzas Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, using her pure soprano to deliver highly emotive versions of many much-loved traditional Irish airs. Indeed, the band is truly multicultural now, as the English Griffiths is joined by Welshman Jones, Italian guitarist Enrico Pinna – now the band’s longest-serving member other than Jones himself – Turkish keyboard player Ça?r? Tozluo?lu and latest addition, French drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi. Karnataka – itself named for a district in India that exerted a powerful influence on Jones following a visit there in the 1990s – is a true melting pot of styles and influences, all of which are increasingly apparent in the band’s music.
This show is the fourth of the band’s current tour, in support of their fifth and latest studio album, Secrets of Angels. It is clear, even before the band take to the stage, that Karnataka have been undergoing a further metamorphosis in the year since they last graced stages across the country. The intro tape is a percussive, aggressive concoction that couldn’t be more different to the elegaic, languid intro tape the band used when they first toured with Griffiths at the mic in 2012. When Griffiths joined the band, the perception among critics seemed to be that the band would soften their sound and drift towards a mellower, more Celtic sound, playing to Griffiths’ established strengths. Seemingly determined to do the opposite of whatever is expected of them, however, the band’s new material is heavier and darker than ever: something typified by the Zeppelinesque swagger of opener ‘Road to Cairo’, which marries chunky riffing and Pallagrosi’s Bonham-esque stomp with Eastern strings and a decidedly non-classical performance from Griffiths. She’s more Patti Smith than Katherine Jenkins, and it’s immediately apparent that her stagecraft has improved in leaps and bounds from previous performances: the moment she strides onto the stage, she owns it. A ball of titian energy, she stalks around the stage, dances uninhibitedly and delights in making eye-contact with the audience. If the shows in 2012 demonstrated that she has an astonishing voice, here there is evidence that there was a genuine rock front-woman fighting to escape from the strait-laced confines of her previous employers.
There’s no lack of confidence in the other players, either: Pallagrosi’s hard-hitting, energetic performance – which often sees him drumming standing up, as if he can barely keep himself on his drum stool – makes an immediate impression after a succession of perhaps somewhat too polite session players, whilst Tozluo?lu plays his keyboards as if he has one foot permanently atop a monitor, visibly enjoying every second as he swaps a succession of set piece solos with gentle atmospherics and heavily orchestrated sections that see him expanding on Karnataka’s always epic sonic template. Pinna is, as always, simply amazing to watch: as at home pulling Jimmy Page faces as he delivers sturdy riffs as he is with his head back, eyes closed, delivering some truly outstanding solos. And then there’s Jones, unflappable, acting almost as a conductor as his chunky bass sound underpins proceedings. Truly, for the first time in some years, Karnataka not only look comfortable, but have that undefinable something, that swagger, back in their step. It’s also notable just how much fun the band are having on stage, as they make eye-contact with each other, take turns playing off each other’s instrumental flourishes with clear relish, and share an evident delight in delivering music they are patently extremely proud of.
As they should be. All of Secrets of Angels – including the 20-minute title track – is played tonight. It betrays a particular confidence, because most of the audience have yet to hear it: the pre-orders will start to be sent out the day after this show, and the album itself is available from the merch desk for the first time on the tour tonight. Three tracks – the punchy, Within Temptation-esque ‘Forbidden Dreams’, the feisty ‘Poison Ivy’ and the warmly nostalgic ‘Feels Like Home’, were played on the previous tour and are greeted like old favourites, although the the addition of Pallagrossi gives them more power and momentum than ever before. The rest of the songs are unfamiliar to the bulk of the audience, yet are greeted just as warmly as the back catalogue favourites that they are interspersed with. ‘Secrets of Angels’ itself receives a long and enthusiastic ovation. This is no nostalgia act: only three songs in the set date back from before the band’s previous album, The Gathering Light, and that songs lyrical ethos rings out loud and true tonight, as the band and their audience “scatter the past and move on“. That said, when the ‘oldies’ are wheeled out, it’s no token gesture: ‘Talk To Me’ has never sounded more imperious, whilst the sweet ballad ‘The Right Time’ is given wings during its lengthy outro as Pinna and Tozluo?lu play a dazzling unison solo that brings the house down.
As the band leave the stage – doused in sweat, as it’s astoundingly hot in the venue even off-stage – they leave the audience baying for more; later, as they finish their encore and take a bow together at stage centre, the sense of rebirth is palpable. The stresses and pressures of the past are forgotten, by the band and by the fans in attendance. This is a band at peace with its past, yet looking to the future, and with more performances like tonight’s, the difficult times they endured to get here will soon be a distant memory. On this form, they are simply unstoppable.