I always have to marvel at fans of Karma to Burn who can stand at a show and get into an argument about which was a better song, “Eight” or “Twenty Six,” as personally, I’ve never managed to sort out which numbers — since that’s how the West Virginia unit name their instrumental pieces — were which. Maybe I haven’t been paying close enough attention. Maybe I’m an asshole. All these things are possible.
In any case, after doing the reunion thing in 2009 following the release of a boxed set in 2007, two splits, a live album and a live DVD, Karma to Burn have officially begun the cycle anew with their first full-length since 2002’s Almost Heathen, Appalachian Incantation (Napalm Records). The album will no doubt delight those who’ve missed the band’s bullshit-free take on riff rock, balancing its lack of frills on the edge of minimalism without ever crossing over or coming off as pretentious in any way. It’s this balance, which no other instrumental stoner outfit has pulled off as well before or since, that Karma to Burn has been able to maintain on Appalachian Incantation, and their rock is as potent as ever for it.
Interestingly, the core trio of guitarist William Mecum, bassist Rich Mullins and drummer Rob Oswald (now ex-Nebula) chose to split Appalachian Incantation in half by means of a track with vocals, the album single, “Waiting on the Western World,” which boasts a guest appearance from Year Long Disaster’s Dan Davies. Despite the memorable riffs that permeate “41” and opener “44,” “Waiting on the Western World” comes off as an accessible nod that, yes, sometimes Karma to Burn’s methodology can be hard to keep up with. Whether it was the label or the band that put it where it is, it works and serves to give Appalachian Incantation a landmark just where one is needed.
That’s not the first time Karma to Burn have flirted with vocals. Their 1997 self-titled album featured the work of Jason ‘J.J.’ Jarosz, who was never seen nor heard from again, and they famously recorded a session with former Kyuss singer John Garcia that shows up on Appalachian Incantation as one of seven tracks on a first-pressing-only bonus disc. Rumor has it they’ve got plans for more voice-inclusive material in the future, but one never knows how these things will play out, and in the meantime, the rest of the back half of Appalachian Incantation — which, aside from rocking, is just fun to say — has plenty more of the instrumental chicanery that has earned the band so loyal a following the world over.
They were a distinctive case their first time through and Karma to Burn remain so on Appalachian Incantation. Mecum, Mullins and Oswald were never crushingly original, but at the same time, there wasn’t ever anyone who did exactly what they did the way they did it or as well, and maybe that’s what originality actually is. As I listen to the semi-Southern riffs of “43” slower, more decidedly metallic tom-heavy progression of “45,” I can’t help but wonder if that’s the case. Maybe Karma to Burn found a true niche for themselves well over a decade ago and have gotten back together now to revel in it. If that’s what’s going on with Appalachian Incantation — and even if it isn’t — who could blame them?
Their grooves are no less thick than they ever were, their riffs no less driving, their presentation no more frilled. Karma to Burn have brought back all the reasons to enjoy Karma to Burn. If that’s not a successful reunion, nothing is.
Tags: Karma to Burn, Napalm, West Virginia