Among the many routes to take, Karma to Burn has always been one of the most direct lines to the riff. The West Virginian trio’s instrumental approach is among the most bullshit-free in all of heavy rock, and that has remained the case following their reunion in 2009. With the release of Appalachian Incantation last year (review here), guitarist Will Mecum, bassist Rich Mullins and drummer Rob Oswald (ex-Nebula) joined forces with Napalm Records and successfully began to incorporate the vocals of Dan Davies of Year Long Disaster, in which Mullins also plays, essentially merging the two bands into one, pulling double duty on joint tours, etc. Appalachian Incantation marked a successful reunion, and the aptly-titled follow-up, V, which sure enough is Karma to Burn’s fifth album overall, takes on the weighty task of re-beginning a creative development on the part of the band.
It’s not an easy thing to do. One reunion album is hard enough to pull off, but by getting back together and releasing a second full-length, you’re more or less saying that this thing has stuck and you’re rolling with it. You’re no longer a reunion band, you’re just a band. The second return album completely does away with the novelty of the first, and you reopen yourself to judgment based not on the fact that people are glad you’re back together again, but based solely on the merit of the work itself.
I doubt it’s anything Karma to Burn has lost sleep over, and if V is any indication, they’re keener on affecting a decent presentation of their sound than doing anything outlandishly new with it. No question that V is the band’s most produced album to date. Recorded by John Lousteau (who’s previously worked on albums by Motörhead, Foo Fighters and Danko Jones) at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606, the songs are crisp and clear – Mullins’ tone in particular sounds better than it ever has on a Karma to Burn record – but still in possession of some measure of the band’s original grit. There’s enough separation to enjoy Mecum’s guitar and Mullins’ bass in equal measure, and Oswald’s drums may have been replaced digitally, but if they were, it’s not offensively synthesized sounding. His snare is low and deep and serves as excellent punctuation for many of the tracks, including the sort-of-centerpiece, “The Cynic,” which is one of the three songs included on V with Davies on vocals.
That in itself is a development since Appalachian Incantation. Karma to Burn’s numerical method for naming their songs is still very much a part of what they do – V opens with “47” and also boasts “50,” “48,” “49” and “51,” in that order – but the structure of the album is such that it opens with three instrumental songs, moves into the Davies-fronted shuffle of “The Cynic,” goes back to the instrumentals for two more cuts (“49” and “51”) and closes out with two more vocalized songs. It’s a little ironic that Karma to Burn, who so vehemently resisted getting a vocalist during their initial run, would later anchor an album with its sung-over tracks, but their music has always had room for a singer, and Davies’ voice fits the music excellently. That was proven on Appalachian Incantation’s “Waiting on the Western World” – which, come to think of it, also showed up right around the middle of the record – but is even more the case on “The Cynic” and the later “Jimmy Dean,” which feel more directly written to suit a singer. Following the instrumental stomp of “51,” “Jimmy Dean” begins with Mecum’s chugging guitar and soon finds Karma to Burn firing on all cylinders Southbound on the proverbial stoner rock highway. There might even be a little motor-driven rockabilly in that riff, but Davies’ voice takes it somewhere different completely, and it works.
Which, one assumes, is why Karma to Burn stuck with it. V closes out with a righteous cover of Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die” that both does justice to the original and has an air of riffy iconoclasm. Davies nails the original melody, and Mullins is right in his element with Geezer Butler’s running bass fills. Its inclusion might be a selling point, but it’s a valid one nonetheless, and Karma to Burn do a killer job with what’s commonly thought of as one of Sabbath’s lesser tracks. Given the progression in their approach as regards playing up the Davies side of things, it should be interesting to hear where they go from V, if they take it even further – could Karma to Burn release an album where the names outnumber the numbers in the track listing? – or scale back, or, as with V, skillfully use the vocalized cuts to offset the instrumentals. Either way they go, given the maturity of this material and the quickness with which the band got together a follow-up for Appalachian Incantation, there’s little doubt they’ll be able to handle it.
Tags: Karma to Burn, Napalm Records, West Virginia