KARNIVOOL — Sound Awake (review)

KARNIVOOL — Sound Awake album cover Album · 2009 · Alternative Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Gallifrey
Has it really been five years since Sound Awake? Damn.

Ever since I started doing this review-on-anniversary thing, I've been kind of surprised at what comes of. More often than not I’m thinking “damn, five years already. I can remember when this one was still getting hype”, but in the case of Sound Awake, I’m seriously amazed at how it’s managed to get where it is in terms of reputation in just that time. I mean, this is the Aussie post-prog record. Responsible for a bucketload of bands following down that line and an even bigger number rising up from birth with this style in mind. And it’s not as if Karnivool did it with multiple releases - Asymmetry was both dissappointing and released way too late to have any impact; almost all of Karnivool’s legendary status in modern progressive rock stemmed from this one record.

Back when I was first getting into this album, a couple of years ago, I was always wary about how much these guys flaunted their Tool influence. It was funny, because back then I wasn’t really even a Tool fan, but I knew their sound, and I knew that Sound Awake was down that line. Everything about this band screamed “Tool clone”. Their names rhyme, they have pretentiously daft lyrics, both bands have links to rather embarrassing alt-metal in their roots, their album covers have ~meaningful~ imagery and are always released half a decade apart, and the way they construct their instrumentals is uncannily similar. I praised Karnivool for taking that sound and making it digestible and frankly a lot better, but in time, as I have ventured more into both bands, I have realised that this does stand separate from its mother quite a bit, and is a milestone record in its own right.

But the thing that reminds me the most about Tool here is how easy it is to fanboy over this shit. When I was giving this a good listen yesterday with proper headphones, I was floored at how much I could pick out to comment on instrumentally. Nearly every performance on this record is flawless. The instrumentals are tight as hell and perfectly balanced, the vocals are a perfect harmony of soft, the tones on both the guitars and drums are spellbinding - everything I was saying about it pointed me towards the way Tool fans talk about their music. But although I will try not to fanboy, instrumentally, this is phenomenal. Everything about this record has an intense, tribal feel to it, and the guitar and bass aren’t just playing boring old lines; they’re darting around the drums and above them and intertwining into each others ranges. The music here captures such a brilliant sense of tribal intensity, particularly in the drums. I absolutely adore the little grace notes that Steve Judd throws on the snare hits throughout the album, and he frequently gets the chance to shine through in some solo segments (the album is even bookended with drum solos), my favourite moments being during “Goliath” and “Change”.

The bass guitar also gets a good run here, and is in fact one of my favourite albums for audible and unique bass guitar. Using the extended range of the 6-string, Stockman manages to throw in some pretty solid high riffs and solos, evident during tracks like “Umbra” or my favourite here, “New Day”. But my favourite use of the bass is the thick and chunky low-end riffs that come into a track like “Set Fire To The Hive”, with the tone thick and throaty and brutally intense. The track on the whole is pretty mediocre, and easily the weakest here (even below interlude track “The Medicine Wears Off” in my ears), but the song is kept alive by the combination of the thick bass tone and the intense tribal drumming.

But for me, there’s no denying that my love for this record definitely revolves around the brilliance of one track, the absolutely spellbinding “New Day”. A week or so ago, I reviewed IQ's 2009 album Frequency, and I referred to its title track being in an elite of near-perfect songs for me. These two tracks are certainly linked in the way they develop and link together so many beautiful melodies, but New Day is in a league of its own. I don’t regularly make lists of songs - I find there are too many of them to make a meaningful ranking, but if I did, I have a strange feeling that this would end up on top, or at least in the top 5.

The song is woven around three primary vocal melodies, and two primary riffs, that could all make a wonderful song on their own, but here are compiled to make something beyond that. I love the way the song opens - with just the single solemn vocal, speaking out softly as the muted delay-guitar flutters in the background. I especially love when this melody comes back in right at the climax, as if to give a new high for the song to rise to. Everything has just built up to the top of the universe in intensity with one of the heaviest riffs on the record, but then the intro comes back in, perfectly settling it down before an even bigger and even heavier riff comes flying in for the final chorus. And then I love how that riff was actually also featured in the intro, played softly on the Dead Letter Circus/Jade Puget-esque palm-muted delay guitar, in transitioning the first part into the verse. I could really go on listing the things I love about this track, and there are hundreds of them, and there’s really nothing I don’t like about it, although my one nitpick would be that some of the softer bits go on a bit long (and by “a bit” I mean two bars), and lose a bit of the intensity, and I am not a fan of the song fading out, but it is forgiven because the song is basically done by then. But on the whole, I seriously cannot name another song that hits me as hard as this one, with all its melodies and riffs and perfect structuring. I may as well name it now as the best song ever, but I know that I would retract it later for perfectionism’s sake.

Of the rest of the album, there are still great tracks. “All I Know” is definitely my #2, and is honestly the proper choice for the album’s single (I have no idea how “Set Fire To The Hive” managed to catch on, although I would wager bogans had something to do with it). The song has a ridiculously catchy groove and an even catchier vocal melody, layering some radio-worthy hooks over some wank-worthy instrumentals. I really love the second verse on here, how Kenny’s vocals become clearer and more emotive, by dropping the Steve Wilson telephone voice effect, as well as the song’s bridge, which contains some insane syncopation that even gets a bit too much for me.

So where does Sound Awake fall? Obviously, this isn’t a perfect record, as evident by my score for it, but its flaws are all rather small and insignificant. For one, the album is certainly too long. It’s undeniably consistent throughout, and aside from “Set Fire To The Hive” and “The Medicine Wears Off”, every song here is a solid 7/10 and definitely enjoyable. But the problem lies within the songs, and also within their repetitiveness. I don’t care if every song here is good, hearing over an hour of intense and intricate alt-metal is always going to leave me slightly bored come the ending. A track like “The Caudal Lure” is definitely solid, and a great addition to the album, but it leans so heavily on the one fantastic chorus - “we should have known better not to taste the wine we swallow”. And as great as it is, I can’t help but feel that the entire song would fall down if it wasn’t there to continue to be great. While every song here is good, there are moments that I wish this album was more concise, for reasons entirely based around the fact that there are many parts of this album that immediately link back to earlier parts. And also - Kenny’s accent does get rather annoying at parts.

The album finishes with two monstrous tracks, both exceeding 10 minutes in length, and I honestly used to use them as a reason to dislike this album. Time and many subsequent listens has revealed their greatness to me, but I still firmly believe they're just a bit too much. Both of them have frequent use of intense tribal drumming, the former with some wonderful palm-mute-delay guitar under it that releases wonderfully to let ring under the hook, and the latter featuring some rumbling bass and the repetitive and rather surreal "hello hollow halo" lines floating above, and of course, a mutha fuckin didgeridoo. How can you have tribal-like Australian music without one of those, right? Both songs are intense and long, but I feel both run their course early and have unnecessary extensions. I love the ending of "Change, Part 2", with the "question who we are" melody and acoustic guitar, but it really feels like an annex, because the song has really completed its purpose after the last chorus. And the last few minutes of "Deadman" are just completely unnecessary, and make a strong track into one that overstays its welcome significantly. Although I do love the brief inclusion of Change Part 1 from Themata at the end - it makes for a glorious transition into its sequel.

Sound Awake is most certainly a classic of modern progressive rock, and one of the most recently crowned classics in my ears. Inventive, influential, insanely tight and yet beautifully melodic, it has set the gold standard for the Australian post-prog sound that we know, and no one has beaten it yet (although Dead Letter Circus came close with This Is the Warning). A wondrous album, containing more or less the greatest song of all time in my opinion, this is proof that progressive rock is still flourishing in the 21st century.

9.4

Originally written for my Facebook page/blog: facebook.com/neoprogisbestprog
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