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Karnivool - Themata CD (album) cover

THEMATA

Karnivool

 

Heavy Prog

3.55 | 105 ratings

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Gallifrey
5 stars 10 Years On: Karnivool's Themata

Not gonna lie, I absolutely completely did not expect this.

Karnivool is one of those bands that you expect to change. Any band that has four-year gaps between albums and yet still manages to have a cult of dickriders following their every move doesn't get there by repeating themselves. The big gap in style between the utterly brilliant Sound Awake and the rather quite mediocre Asymmetry had me bracing for the worst when I finally got around to listening to Themata. Coming into this record, I expected generic riff rock with a couple of catchy hooks and some very subtle underlying prog influence that would suggest what was to come. I didn't expect it to be one of the finest examples of post-prog I have heard.

I get it now though. I get how Karnivool became the biggest thing in the Australia. This album, with its arty take on a long-mocked genre, in combination with said arty tracks being blasted 24/7 on Aussie radio, inspired legions of teenagers who only listened to Linkin Park to try and think a bit more about their music. And it was this, not Sound Awake, that prompted the wave of post- prog bands we now refer to as "Ozprog" within Australia to appear and take over the airwaves. Sure, those bands only started to properly appear until 2007-8, but I'm sure this, and to a lesser extent The New Normal, were the albums that inspired them. Many bands actually pushed the envelope of prog-ness further than Karnivool did with Themata, which is what I personally believe inspired Sound Awake. That album was just Karnivool observing what they had influenced and saying "we want to take it further", and in doing so created one of the best albums of all time, and made all the bands who had respected and taken influence from them bow down and worship the ground they walked on.

I will not hesitate to say that this is the greatest alternative metal album of all time. At least, in the traditional use of the term "alternative metal" (as opposed to the modern usage, meaning "metal I don't like"). This has pop structures, big choruses, chunky, grungy guitar tones, dramatic Maynard-esque vocals, and, of course, unnecessary bouts of subtle nu metal-isms. But somehow Karnivool do this whilst simultaneously pulling out some of the best songs the genre has seen.

The first five songs are pretty much the best examples of heavy mid-2000's alternative rock. Hell, the first two songs alone could be runners for the best songs in that area of all time. The metal element here is there, but more to the side than right up front. Opening with "Cote", Karnivool seamlessly link accessible, hook-oriented choruses and verses with intricate and off-kilter rhythms with an ease A Perfect Circle could only dream of. The difference between this song and the better short cuts on Sound Awake are pretty minimal, which was why I was a bit confused by the people saying this album's sound is massively different. The muted guitar licks under the verse are not only incredibly prog, but are more or less straight off Sound Awake. Aside from those, the rest of the song reminds me a whole lot of the not-yet-formed Dead Letter Circus, particularly in Kenny's vocals and the rhythms behind the guitars. There's none of their distinctive production here - this still sounds like Karnivool, but it's so clear that this was one of the songs that inspired them to make music like they do.

Then straight after we get the title track, which I must say continues this album's form brilliantly. This track comes on the opposite end of the scale, whereas Cote was tight and intricate, this goes for grandiose and epic, sounding like a cross between Tool and Muse. The grooves and the over-the-top melodies are the focus here, with the verse containing some insane Tool-esque jams, and even Kenny getting his alt-metal vocals in (somehow without sucking), but the chorus is right out of the books of the aughts' best stadium rock bands. If we're continuing to list off future bands that would rip this album off, I'm hearing some serious Breaking Orbit vibes in this song (the violin here sounds distinctly like Orphaned Land, too, but I wouldn't call that an influence). Speaking of the violin, how prog is that? You don't get that in generic radio rock. And it really does make the final chorus as big as it wants to be, fantastic work.

Although the album never quite returns to the absolutely flawless glory of this opening pair, the quality doesn't drop off there. "Shutterspeed" is a touch too bottom-heavy (in terms of the guitars, not the length), but it contains some excellent jams and one of the best choruses on the album. Again, big Dead Letter Circus vibes on this track. "Fear of the Sky" is probably the weakest of the first five, but still has some seriously good parts within. An awesome chorus on that one, but I feel that's really all it's got going for it. "Roquefort" is a long-time fan-favourite, and one of the few fan favourites from this band that I'm having trouble seeing why. I mean, it's great, but not really as absolutely mindblowing as the opening two on this album. It's a bit too lenient on the low-end riffing for my tastes, and the choruses are only slightly awesome as opposed to completely awesome.

But if there's anything that brings Themata down, it's the fact that this is an album of a band who used to play angsty, childish, low-brow music slowly realising that they have the ability to do something more than that, and the transition is not fully there. After the great, melodic glory of the first five tracks we have an odd pair in "Lifelike" and "Scarabs", which both show Karnivool's juvenile beginnings all too clearly. "Lifelike" was originally released as a single two years earlier, stylised rather hilariously as "L1feL1ke", in true nu metal style. It's actually not a bad song, but it's delivered with such generic early 00's angst that any strong parts in it feel corny and cliched. The guitars are way too heavy for the song's merits, and are only heavy in a really try-hard, nu-metal sort of way. And Kenny's vocals seem to go far past his normal Maynard-isms into sounding like David Draiman from Disturbed, but unlike Draiman (someone whose voice I consider a bit guilty pleasure of mine), Kenny's voice isn't suited for the rhythmic, almost rapping style, and does sound a bit off. "Scarabs", being instrumental, doesn't even have a good chorus to hold it up, and just sits around as an awkward inclusion of over-distorted guitars in an album that mostly used them pretty well. Fans of "djent" might find this song to their fancy, but I see it as utterly pointless. Both of these songs could have easily been cut, especially given the fact that the album gets straight back into swing as soon as they're done. Even of the great songs here, the corny early 00's nu metal influence is there are cutting slowly away at flawless material. The aforementioned title track and "Shutterspeed" both have guitar tones that are way too heavy and loud for their uses.

"Synops" is clearly the highlight of the second half, being one of the more progressive tracks on the record overall. A mostly soft track, focusing on a great bass groove and Kenny's vocal hooks, the only real problem with it is that it should be the climax to the album, which it doesn't really seem to do.

And speaking of climaxes (or the lack of them), the way this album finishes has been the point of much discussion, given that it essentially finishes on an unresolved chord with a short, three- minute track labeled "part one". But as someone who got into this band by listening to Sound Awake back to front two dozen times without hearing this once, I absolutely love it. It's so ominous and gloomy, suggesting so subtly at something massive just over the horizon, but never quite getting there. Even the 20-second track "Omitted for Clarity", which contains no sound whatsoever, gets points for me because of the massive suspense it builds. This is the aftermath, the final scene after the credits have rolled that shows that the bad guy didn't die after all. I'm not afraid to admit that I get chills every time that final guitar line comes in, and despite the fact that this song is barely a song, it's probably one of my favourites on this whole album. A bold move, no doubt, but one I feel absolutely works in every way. The only problem I have with "Change, part one" is that along with the similarly anticlimactic "Synops", it does leave the album a bit cold. If Karnivool had included a massive, heavy, epic track after "Synops", this ending could go down as one of the best album finishes of all time.

Honestly, getting into this album has been absolutely fantastic, and I will now not hesitate to proclaim Karnivool as one of the best rock bands of the 2000's. They come in with a debut record that absolutely destroys the cliches of a very cliched genre to create a powerful, song-oriented masterpiece, and then four years later take it, smash it to bits, and build it into a progressive rock monolith. Screw the people who say Sound Awake is their only good album, I say they're only god-tier when you view them together, as two sides to a story. Hearing how good this is too has made me realise what a move Sound Awake was. Many bands would be happy with drilling out the same thing again, but Karnivool didn't want that. How do you top an album of near-perfect 5- minute alt-metal songs? Turn them into 10-minute progressive songs.

This? This is fantastic. There are drawbacks, yes, but this is one of the most accomplished debut albums I have ever heard.

8.8

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

Gallifrey | 5/5 |

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