What’s really surprising about Arch Stanton, the new full-length from Karma to Burn, isn’t how the trio goes about its business. Led by West Virginian guitarist Will Mecum, the method is essentially the same as it’s been since 1999’s sophomore outing, Wild Wonderful Purgatory, in that the band cut a straight line, sans frills, to riff-led heavy rock and roll. Tracks are numerically titled, there are no vocals save for a bit of sampling on closer “Fifty Nine” (also as high as the numbers go this time around), and they stick so firmly to their approach that six of the album’s eight tracks are between four and five minutes long, and neither of the other two top six. For anyone who’s listened to them before, the ideas and the barebones feel with which they’re presented will be familiar. What’s really surprising about Arch Stanton is how much Karma to Burn can say without saying anything at all. Not counting a 2012 reworking of their famously vocalized 1997 self-titled debut (their label at the time, Roadrunner, forced them to take a on a singer; it didn’t last), dubbed Slight Reprise, the FABA and Deepdive Records-released Arch Stanton is Karma to Burn‘s sixth album, the follow-up to 2011’s V (review here) and their 2010 return, Appalachian Incantation (review here), as well as a slew of splits, EPs and singles. It is consistent with those two and with the output from Karma to Burn‘s first run on the aforementioned Wild Wonderful Purgatory and 2002’s Almost Heathen, but it’s also their first long-player to feature bassist Rob Halkett and drummer Evan Devine alongside Mecum.
Although it doesn’t manifest sonically in any massive stylistic shift — Mecum seems to be calling the shots either way — his guitar is certainly the defining presence in the band at this point if it wasn’t before, and it probably was — it’s still a big change. Former bassist Rich Mullins and ex-drummer Rob Oswald, aside from being there during the first run prior to their split after Almost Heathen, were a considerable presence in the band’s creative growth. Mullins having taken part in the band Year Long Disaster particularly led to the two groups essentially combining forces for a time, but that’s gone on Arch Stanton as well. Those days, it would seem, are over, and Karma to Burn have returned to the core of what they’re all about, which is Mecum‘s riffs and a straightforward instrumental heavy rock drive. They dip as far back as “Twenty Three” — which by the numbers comes from the Wild Wonderful Purgatory-era — but the rest of Arch Stanton is between “Fifty Three” and “Fifty Nine,” arranged over the album’s 37 minutes to maximize overarching flow over what I imagine breaks cleanly in half to form two vinyl sides, and “Fifty Seven” leads off with Devine‘s drums and winding feedback leading to a classic motoring boogie, thick, groovy and in heavy motion. As ever, Karma to Burn waste no time in reminding their listeners who they are and what they do, even if they’re introducing some new faces in the process. “Fifty Six” has a metallic feel in the initial guitar line, and “Fifty Three” slows the proceedings down for a time, but they cap the first half with a return to the swagger in “Fifty Four” that shows off some airy layering at first before the central riff emerges to mark the nod-ready progression, building efficiently before a somewhat understated payoff rounds out.
The grooves get larger on “Fifty Five” and “Fifty Eight” on side B, but the mood and overall vibe keep steady, though the fact that the chugging “Twenty Three” seems to have a simpler spirit than what surrounds could be taken as indicative of the creative growth of the band or at very least Mecum‘s songwriting. Karma to Burn have long been haunted by the specter of vocals, partially because of their debut, partially because, in collaborations with John Garcia and Dan Davies, they’ve flirted with the idea, and partially because the songs are so straightforward it seems there’s room for a singer. I don’t know if that feels less true on Arch Stanton because something has changed in Karma to Burn musically or if it’s interpretation based on how otherwise uncompromising the album feels, but it remains the case either way. True to the album’s title which also references the film, some snipped dialog from the closing moments of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – famous Morricone score included — is worked into “Fifty Nine,” and that seems particularly fitting, though somewhat ironic since that was a European film set in the American west and Karma to Burn are an American band who at this point have found greater success touring in Europe. Nonetheless, they end with a big push, and bring Arch Stanton to a finish sounding refreshed in their purpose and clearheaded about what it is Karma to Burn should be some 20 years on from the band’s founding. Whether or not Mecum‘s bringing in Halkett and Devine will signal a new period of productivity — two live albums, an EP and a split with Sons of Alpha Centauri all being released since the start of 2013 would hint that perhaps it will — it’s hard to say for sure, but if Arch Stanton proves anything, it’s that like their goat mascot on the Alexander von Wieding cover art, they ride tall and destructive through whatever battle may be raging around them.