1. 1969 (14:14)
2. Turn It Up (6:55)
3. The World Is Caving In (9:00)
4. Can’t Take It With You (5:44)
5. There’s Nothing Wrong With the World (7:23)
6. Bite the Grit (4:59)
7. When Fear Came to Town (9:55)
Jonas Reingold – fretted and fretless bass, backing vocals
Marcus Liliequist – drums
Göran Edman – vocals
Lalle Larsson – keyboards, backing vocals
Nils Erikson – vocals, keyboards
Krister Jonsson – guitars
Even if I tend to be familiar with most of the names circulating around the progressive rock scene, there are quite a few bands or artists whose music will remain an unknown quantity at least until I receive one of their albums for reviewing purposes Swedish band Karmakanic belong to the group of acts who, in spite of their impressive pedigree and reputation among prog fans, so far had managed to fly under my personal radar. While my ignorance of all things Karmakanic was all set to end at this year’s edition of NEARfest, after the festival’s unfortunate cancellation I welcomed the opportunity to review their latest album, and finally get acquainted with such a highly rated outfit.
Started at the very beginning of the 21st century, Karmakanic is one of the numerous projects in which bassist Jonas Reingold (of Flower Kings fame) is involved. In a Perfect World is their fourth studio release, highly awaited by those fans who lean towards the melodic, traditional end of the prog spectrum. Though I tend to privilege music that is somewhat more challenging, I am open-minded enough to recognize quality, and – while In a Perfect World may not impress the listener overmuch at first – its tightly organized structure and richly varied musical offer gradually unfold with each successive listen.
Karmakanic might be firmly rooted in the great classic progressive tradition, but their musical approach privileges the creation of engaging melodies, striking the right balance between accessibility and complexity, with rather down-to-earth lyrics and songs that, even when long, do not overstay their welcome. From such an album as In a Perfect World you can expect extremely accomplished musicianship, strong vocals, with a broad spectrum of influences ranging from the golden years of progressive rock to classic rock and even some quality pop (namely The Beatles). Moreover, while some of the songs wear their influences on their sleeve, so to speak, the healthy dose of eclecticism (in some cases responsible for some rather daring combinations), lends the album a freshness often missing from a lot of ‘mainstream’ prog.
For a band created as a side project by one of the most celebrated bassists on the prog scene, Karmakanic’s sound is not as dominated by the ‘bottom end’ as one might expect. In their current configuration as a six-piece, the band present a remarkably balanced picture, with all the instruments contributing to the intricate yet smoothly flowing texture of each individual composition. Lead singer Göran Edman has a confident, often understated voice that is an excellent match for the material, and capable of displays of assertiveness when needed. The two keyboardists, Lalle Larsson and Nils Erikson, provide plenty of those lush textures so prized by fans of vintage prog, accented by the versatility of Krister Jonsson’s guitars, effortlessy shifting from melody to aggressive riffing; while Reingold’s bass, bolstered by Marcus Liliequist’s strong drumming, emerges through the fray without stealing the limelight or overpowering the other instruments.
Out of the album’s 7 tracks (running at a total of 58 minutes), opener “1969” is the closest Karmakanic get to recreating a classic symphonic prog vibe. A 14-minute epic brimming with instrumental brilliance and plenty of tempo and mood changes, occasional touches of atmospheric Pink Floyd inspiration, and a veritable feast of majestic, sweeping keyboards and rippling piano, its Yes influences are particularly evident in Reingold’s full, twangy bass sound and the soaring vocal harmonies. In sharp contrast, “Turn It Up” is a much more linear number, whose Yes references hark back to the much-maligned Rabin era, and whose catchy chorus, powered by keyboard flurries and heavy riffing, would have some serious airplay potential in a more discerning world. “The World Is Caving In” begins instead in a deceptively low-key, almost somber fashion before developing into a pomp-rock behemoth with more than a passing nod to the likes of Styx or Kansas, and Edman channelling Steve Walsh especially in the grandiose, passionate ending.
With “Can’t Take It With You”, undoubtedly the most distinctive track on the album, Karmakanic take a leaf out of their fellow Swedes Diablo Swing Orchestra’s book, juxtaposing an upbeat, Cuban-flavoured rhythm with crushingly heavy riffs and almost atonal vocal lines; while things go back to normal with the dynamic, yet melodic “There’s Nothing Wrong With the World”, influenced by Yes’ more recent output. “Bite the Grit”, on the other hand,. marries catchy Beatles-inspired melodies with more heavy riffage and whistling synths. The album is then wrapped up by the slow-burning blues of “When Fear Comes to Town”, complete with smoky piano and a smouldering, Gilmour-tinged guitar solo, and featuring a soulful vocal performance by Edman.
Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in symphonic prog with an eclectic attitude, In a Perfect World is not as unabashedly ‘retro’ as other recent releases, though it may still disappoint those who are looking for cutting-edge music. It is nonetheless a finely crafted effort by a truly excellent band, and thankfully devoid of that overweening ambitiousness that can be the downfall of many an album.