By Bill Adams
“Review albums long enough, and eventually you start to get a feel for what the music’s like just by looking at the album art,” a former music journalist once told me. “It reaches the point where you’ve got an idea of what you’re in for before you hear a single note.”
For what it’s worth, I’ve never been able to pull that trick off – not with any amount of regularity anyway. In fact, some of the greatest professional mistakes I’ve ever made were done on the basis of skipping out on an album because of what (in my mind) was lacklustre or uninspired album art. I can only assume that either I wasn’t cut out to be an art critic or there are many art directors often asleep at the wheel when they’re constructing designs or are generally misanthropic.
Murphy’s law being what it is though, aren’t there moments when that writer was right?
In Sound Awake, what you see is what you get; looking at the album’s cover will incite a running collage of imagery through the minds of listeners, including hints of Aenima-era Tool, snippets of Peter Gabriel, just a hair of Einsturzende Neubauten and a lump of Rammstein. In short, it looks like a passably gothic melange that could have all the style and darkness of the form – if only it was performed well.
The problem with Sound Awake is that it’s just too clean, too polished and too pretty because, in addition to the statesmen of goth, Karnivool also mixes in a significant amount of pop sensibility which hinders the whole procession. For example, the well-performed and off-beat (on the ‘and,’ not the ‘one,’ as Tool is notorious for) on “Goliath” is derailed by singer Ian Kenny’s pitch-perfect and G-rated lyric sheets and vocals. The exact same problem crops up in “Umbra,” “All I Know” and “The Caudal Lure” – even things look like they might turn out soundly (like on “Set Fire To The Hive,” where the computer production applied to the guitars and bass give them a bit of bite), a bad case of the band’s singer ruins the momentum they build by delivering consistently milquetoast lyrics (when’s the last time you heard the words, “I hope you enjoy the view” in a rock song and didn’t laugh?) and melodies so clean and flawless which means there is no pathetic fallacy implied and no aural frustration delivered; this is the sort of music one might expect to hear on the grounds if Disney was to design and open a heavy metal-inspired amusement park or an Andrew Lloyd Weber production of evil.
Maybe that sounds needlessly cruel (again, if they were a real metal band, they’d take it and ask for more) but the problem in the end is that any naysayer will feel mean for speaking up; Sound Awake seems mild-mannered and perfectly sane and real, heavy, crotch-grabbing metal – or even aggressive rock for that matter – abhors both. If Karnivool wants to continue on with this metallic charade they’ve started, something’s going to have to change. Whether they get some scars, develop some drug or mental health problems, buy bigger speakers to play through but make sure but poke holes in them with a ballpoint pen before they play through them – something needs to be different. They have to tough up, get a set and leave their Mickey Mouse Club membership cards at home next time if they want to even have a hope of making this work.