Having proffered tonal sweetness and instrumental heavy psych groove since their self-titled debut made its way to the ears of an eager European scene in 2006 via Elektrohasch, the German four-piece My Sleeping Karma make a jump to Napalm Records for the release of their fourth album, the CD/2LP Soma. If one that’s going to bring them to the attention of a wider audience, it’s also a move for which they’re ready. Their last album, Tri (review here), was released in 2010 and found the band focusing on various aspects of Hindu theology, using the names of gods as themes running throughout the mostly instrumental tracks. With the prior Satya (review here) in 2008, it was Buddhism at the thematic fore. Musically, they’ve remained consistent despite working through these varied conceptual influences – you could hear Seppi’s guitar tone on the debut and on the latest and recognize the same smoothness in it then as now, though what he’s playing is more developed – and Soma takes for its basis the Hindu drink of the gods that shares its name. Each of the 55-minute full-length’s six central, mostly extended (six minutes and up) tracks is named for an “ingredient” in the soma, and each is also companioned by a transitional interlude, making the album as a whole an 11-track CD, beginning with “Pachyclada” and ending with “Psilocybe,” as each pair of songs between is separated by and interlude. This would be, at worst, a disruption of Soma’s progression, were it not for the fluidity of the material itself. If My Sleeping Karma wanted to base their fourth album around a drink, they did right in choosing something liquid, as there’s no better descriptive basis for the songs themselves – they flow as a liquid would, to be clearer about it. Rather than distract from that process, the interludes add to it, bolstering an already rich atmosphere and adding instrumental complexity and ambient vibing to the ebbs and flows within the more expansive, dynamic tracks. On any level you could want to evaluate it, Soma is a triumph in how it accomplishes the task it sets for itself – tonally, atmospherically, engagingly. It crafts memorable parts serving a greater whole and to call it manna doesn’t seem inappropriate (however disparate the cultural basis might be for doing so might be) given My Sleeping Karma’s otherworldly psychedelic range.
Most of the elements at work musically on Soma will be familiar to those who’ve experienced My Sleeping Karma’s sweetly-honed jamming before. Their apparent methodology remains consistent despite the varying themes – they jam – in a variety of moods and vibes, perhaps, but they jam nonetheless. Songs like “Pachyclada,” “Ephedra” and “Eleusine Coracana” are not without their structures, their peaks and valleys, but they have a direction underlying their largely open-feeling development. At an even nine minutes, opener “Pachyclada” is the longest piece on Soma (immediate points tallied to whatever scope might be kept) and sets the tone for what follows with strong hits from drummer Steffen punctuating the prevalent bassline of Matte as Seppi’s guitar gradually swells to prominence. One thing My Sleeping Karma has always done well is craft a chorus out of the instrumentation, and Seppi is quick to establish that of “Pachyclada” in a flicker of a lead that returns as a sort of mini-theme within the song itself, cycling through several times in the first half before a heavier tangent emerges in the second, still keeping to the same kind of idea, but turning it into a build that reaches a satisfying apex before calming and riding out, Norman’s keys adding proggy swirls and a sort of howling tonality to complement the guitar. From its very beginning, the song is rich and encompassing – on headphones its pull is even greater – and the rainy transition it makes into the first of the album’s five interludes is no less smooth than anything on “Pachyclada” itself. The interludes are a point of interest both sonically and conceptually, as they manage to be vastly different among themselves while also tying the material before and after them together. The one between “Pachyclada” and “Ephedra” is Seppi’s guitar alone, echoing layers of simple sweetness, but to contrast, the later interlude between “Saumya” and “Somalatha” is key-led, almost trip-hop in its construction, so there’s more at work there than just moving from one track to the next. With drums at the fore between “Ephedra” and “Eleusine Coracana” and Matte’s bass accompanying birdsong between “Eleusine Coracana” and “Saumya,” it’s as though each member of My Sleeping Karma was given an interlude of their own, finally culminating in the breathing-topped, beating-heart contemplative minimalism of the interlude between “Somalatha” and closer “Psilocybe.”
The key, then, becomes reading the songs as ingredients in the resulting tonic of Soma’s entirety. Each has a role to play, a mood of its own that it adds to the recipe. “Ephedra” is arguably the heaviest, in terms of distorted riffy parts, but that scarcely matters in relation to the pulse and push of the track itself or the effectiveness of its build, which launches after the 3:25 mark into a heavy rock groove that both offsets the peacefulness surrounding and reinforces it through contrast. Like “Pachyclada,” “Ephedra” has a spacey central figure from Seppi, and that remerges as Matte and Steffen hold the rhythm and Norman continues to enhance the atmosphere on synth, gradually quieting until once more bursting to life just past six and a half minutes in, reaching a quick climax at 7:10 and crashing out to the Steffen-led interlude that, thunder-sample included, carries through to “Eleusine Coracana.” Perhaps the interludes are meant to convey the break between when each ingredient is added to the final mixture, I don’t know, but the work in terms of the actual listening process, so I won’t question their inclusion. The guitar that joins Steffen’s drums gradually fades, as does the percussion, the thunder ringing out as a low hum that introduces the next track, which accordingly is a little darker, moving away from the lead lines to a more low-end-heavy approach. Matte’s bass features in the jam as it builds and crashes, and it offers some of Steffen’s best drumming as well, still having room for a long synth-fronted break at around five minutes in, a thudding build gradually emerging after the next minute and a half to more crashes and, like “Ephedra,” a quick payoff that ends the song, giving way to the bass/bird interlude that separates “Eleusine Coracana” from “Saumya” and serves as the centerpiece of the CD. I don’t know the vinyl edition breaks down the split, but the wind-sounding noise that moves the interlude into “Saumya” does so with no obvious upset to the flow, the latter track quickly picking up the pace and energy level with double-kick from Steffen under a heavily-riffed first minute. Seppi returns the guitars to punchy lead lines, and Matte follows closely on bass while the drums further impress with snare work, and they go back and forth for a while, almost mirroring the structure of “Pachyclada,” wherein a break at the halfway point pushes into a different direction of the same ideas.
That’s not to say the song is redundant, just similarly put together, that second half leading to a grand linear build that comes to a head at 5:45 in a righteous groove, Matte filling out the bottom while Seppi’s leads set the course before coming together in a head-down section of riffing made ethereal by Norman’s psychedelic swirling. The moment of dub-style follows, itself setting the tone for the ringing synth waves that run alongside the guitars, bass and drums in the early stretches of “Somalatha,” which gradually develops into more outwardly space-minded rock. Miniature undulations happen, and the synth doesn’t lapse in prominence, but Matte and Steffen keep the jam grounded as Steffen’s guitar increases tension until finally releasing just before the six-minute mark. It’s not the most satisfying payoff My Sleeping Karma have on offer for Soma, but it’s more sustained than some of the others, taking a course of its own until coming to a stop made final by impressive drum fills. The aforementioned final interlude follows, the beating heart and breathing samples giving the song a sense of life to go with the effected bassline that gives way to “Psilocybe,” and though that song begins stark with just Seppi’s guitar, it’s soon joined by the bass, drums and synth, and the band get ready to hit an early peak before resuming a quiet course and swelling once more to the final apex of the record. By the time they’re three minutes into the closer, they’ve passed one arc and are ready to begin laying the foundation for another, which Norman and Seppi do as Matte keeps a subtle rhythmic push alive. The second of “Psilocybe”’s two builds is more patient, unfolding more than slamming, and when it’s over, a surprising epilogue of airy guitar softly guides Soma to its fading conclusion. For more than just its wider distro, My Sleeping Karma’s fourth is a pivotal release for them. They are wholly cohesive and mature as a unit, bold in their explorations and firm in the ground from which those explorations are launched, and these songs are their most progressively charged yet. They have emerged as leaders in a crowded European scene, and if Soma proves anything at all, it’s that they’ve earned their place. Recommended.Aschaffenburg, Germany, My Sleeping Karma, Napalm Records