Despite their relative obscurity, mostly due to the fact that they’re from Australia and not one of the more visible musical hotbeds in Europe or North America, Karnivool have steadily been gaining traction in the international music scene for over a decade now. Their appeal finally reached critical mass after the release of their sophomore album Sound Awake in 2009 which showcased the bad performing a distinctive brand of layered, progressive-leaning alternative rock that was simultaneously challenging and catchy. Naturally, the sudden popularity encountered by the band has been followed up with breathless anticipation for the follow-up to Sound Awake. The band has somehow managed to deliver on its promise, but not in the way its fans are probably expecting.
For starters, Asymmetry finds Karnivool placing far less emphasis on hooks than it has in the past. Vocalist Ian Kenny remains as melodic as ever, but his vocals on Asymmetry brood melancholically for the most part rather than striving for immediate sing-along-ability. In place of the often-huge choruses and refrains of the past is a more textural sensibility. Even more so than before, Kenny’s vocals are the focus of the music, and while this is often a means to write pop-songs, Karnivool subverts this sensibility through Kenny using his voice and melodies to direct the mood of the songs and counterpoint the instrumentation rather than simply hogging attention from the platform provided by the instruments.
Karnivool’s aversion to overt hooks is even more pronounced in the guitars on the album. The guitars on this album exist solely to provide texture whenever possible, aggression wherever required, and propulsive force whenever absolutely necessary, but make no mistake, this is not a guitar-centric album. If anything, the album’s main propulsive force comes from drummer Steve Judd’s often tribal yet markedly subtle work on percussion, and bassist John Stockman’s thick bass tone and basslines. All of the musicians, Kenny included, work together to create a canvas of sound that you can lose yourself and discover wrinkles and little flourishes in without getting snagged on hooks. This is both admirable, because it’s obvious that this aesthetic is intentional, and annoying, because who doesn’t love hooks?
However, lest you think that Karnivool have gone and made an anti-pop record, there are still some gorgeous vocal hooks to be found, particularly on We Are, Aeons and Eidolon. These songs are easily the most earworm inducing songs on display and are as catchy as anything found on Karnivool’s earlier albums. But here too, in true Karnivool fashion, the band refrains from writing straightforward pop songs. We Are mixes things up with a poly-rhythmic middle section straight out of the Meshuggah playbook, while Aeons and Eidolon are epic in scope and the way they utilize the loud-soft dynamic. Rather than having the aggressive sections colliding with the quiet sections, the songs build slowly in dramatic intensity from the quiet portions to the loud portions before the distorted guitars ebb away once more and repeat the process.
This mature and organic use of dynamics is found throughout Asymmetry and lodges Karnivool firmly in the progressive-rock camp. The shifting dynamics within songs constantly twist and turn them in unexpected directions and are a huge part of what makes Asymmetry such an engaging album. Similar to the afore-mentioned Aeons, Sky Machines and Alpha Omega are also epics, building in tension and urgency before releasing cathartically in waves of distorted guitars, which manage to keep things interesting enough that you probably wouldn’t realize the songs are over 7 minutes long. AM War and The Refusal flip the dynamism script through the use of dissonance and chaos that coalesces and crystallizes into quiet melody before devolving once again into dissonance.
This use of dissonance and polyrhythmic abrasiveness had previously been flirted with on Karnivool’s debut Themata, but had largely been sanded down on Sound Awake. However, on Asymmetry it makes a somewhat triumphant and mature return. The afore-mentioned AM War finds the guitar and vocal melody dissonantly accentuating each other in eerie ways, while harsh vocals (a rarity for Karnivool), guitars and drums collide with and bounce off each other in a chaotic manner on The Refusal. The dissonant blows of the instrumental bumper cars on The Last Few are considerably softened by Kenny’s voice floating serenely, yet somehow dissonantly, over the churning music.
While not all of Karnivool’s ideas are equally good, they fearlessly swing for the fences by constantly trying different things. Thankfully however, the band uses a light touch with this experimentation and blend disparate elements rather than hammering you over the head with them. This light touch is seen on elements such as the robotic vocals on Nachash and the glockenspiel that haunts Eidolon. There’s also a noticeably heavier influence of electronica in Karnivool’s new sound, with two ambient electronica pieces, in Aum and the title-track, as well as dominating the intro to Amusia, and plenty of ambient electronica flourishes on the quieter sections of most of the songs. On several occasions, such as the title-track and on Nachash, the experimentation comes of as somewhat superfluous and unnecessary. The robotic vocoder-esque vocals on Nachash aren’t bad at all, but they would have been much more meaningful and provided more variety had the song been placed later in the album rather than as early as it is. And even without the roboticism, the song would have still been just as good.
While it’s preferable not to compare an album to its predecessors, that’s a difficult thing to do with Asymmetry. Comparison is inevitable because of how good Sound Awake was and how much hype and expectation Asymmetry has to live up to. However, throughout Asymmetry, Karnivool veers away from convention and expectation, and the result is a mixed but thoroughly engaging product that stacks up nicely to its predecessor. While it’s definitely not as immediate and as accessible as Sound Awake, it proves to be every bit as rewarding, if not more so, on repeated listens. While Asymmetry may not make much of a first impression, its replay value is nearly unparalleled and it is a fine addition to Karnivool’s discography.
Rating: 4.2 / 5
- A.M. War
- We Are
- The Refusal
- Sky Machine
- The Last Few
- Alpha Omega