Fourteen years, five studio albums, and two live albums would be an impressive resumé for any progressive rock band. For Karmakanic, the Swedish prog act pioneered by Flower Kings’ bassist, Jonas Reingold, this repertoire is especially notable, largely because of the band’s relative anonymity. Karmakanic aren’t unknown by any stretch of the imagination, but they certainly aren’t discussed in prog circles nearly as much as they probably should be. With DOT, the band’s fifth studio release, Karmakanic expand their sound once again, demonstrating through virtuosity, creativity, and stellar production that anyone who has not yet heard of them is ultimately missing out. While Who’s the Boss in the Factory? (2008) and In a Perfect World (2011) still maintained a somewhat dutiful, symphonic Flower Kings mentality, DOT trends in a different direction, emphasizing more driving guitar and some heavier metal elements, as well as a focus on songwriting – even within the multi-movement epic, “God, Pt. I.” Released 22 July, DOT is the band’s most accomplished piece of writing to date – a new apex for a project that is truly more concerned with writing music than pumping out records.
Karmakanic’s material has considerable innate strength from the mature writing of Jonas Reingold, an ability that truly began to blossom with In a Perfect World and has reached a new level of clarity and ambition in DOT. Afforded the luxury of time, and insisting on in-person collaboration with band members, Jonas has facilitated a hands-on atmosphere in which the musical foundations he lays become the springboards for each member of the project to contribute both ideas and personality. With blueprints in place, the other members are able to listen ahead of time, rehearse, try out their own ideas, and then – when their schedules allow – join Jonas in the studio to begin putting all the pieces together.
The project’s 2016 iteration remains virtually intact from the recording of In a Perfect World, this time with only a change to their dedicated percussionist. Helmed by Jonas (bass, guitars, keys, vocals), Karmakanic’s core remains Göran Edman (lead vocals), Lalle Larsson (keys, vocals), Krister Jonsson (guitars), and Nils Erikson (lead vocals), now joined by Grammy-winning musician Morgan Ågren of Mats/Morgan Band on the kit. Guest musicians on the record – some of whom have also featured on previous releases as well – include Andy Tillison of The Tangent (Hammond organs), Andy Bartosh (guitars), and Ray Aichinger (saxophone, flute), as well as Christine Lenk, Alex Reingold, and Norah Reingold as guest vocalists.
The album opens with the static ambiance of “Dot,” an uncertain introduction that lasts for the space of a minute. More than an ambiguous placeholder, this piece references the moment from 1990 when Voyager 1 photographed the earth from the outer reaches of our solar system, inspiring Carl Sagan to fatefully describe our world as a mere “pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam.” Sagan’s writings – not to mention the image itself – strongly juxtaposed man’s insignificance with his vivacity, transcribing mankind’s existential debate: forced to acknowledge our own infinitesimal mark on the universe, we yet remain unable to surrender our innate sense of supreme worth. DOT’s symphonic grandeur truly kicks in with the lush opening chords of “God, The Universe, and Everything Else No One Really Cares About, Pt I”, the first of a pair of bookending pieces. This 23-minute epic moves through several sections: ballad, a child chorus, extended instrumental, and Riverside-esque grind. Inspired by Sagan’s writing, Reingold composed this piece around the notion that “this little dot is all we are and all we’ll ever be.” His lyrics raise the somewhat rhetorical question of whether or not it’s worth “fighting over country borders, go[ing] to war, choos[ing] hate instead of love when you look at life from this perspective.” “God, Pts I & II” together comprise DOT’s central thematic content, emphasizing the incomprehensible vastness of the universe in strong contrast to the microscopic proportions of human existence. As Pt I’s closing lyrics aptly summarize: “We’re all yet nothing / We’re all yet nothing.”
“Higher Ground” is an autobiographical piece that Jonas wrote about his upbringing in a small Swedish town, voiced by Erikson for the album. There is plenty of self-searching in this composition, wondering whether or not the quest for the proverbial “higher ground” is a worthy pursuit, and whether or not freedom is actually obtainable. In the light of the album’s grander scope, these questions seem even weightier. “Steer By the Stars” is bright and pop-oriented – a “single” among its proggier peers – stacking layers of interwoven, harmonic vocal parts over an uptempo groove and warbling organ. Jonas co-wrote this tune with Andy Tillison, whom he lovingly termed a “punk from Northern England.”
If there is one piece on the album that truly points to classic, symphonic prog, it’s “Traveling Minds” a song with a healthy blend of YES and Flower Kings vibes, with a good measure of balladic Pain of Salvation as well. Acoustic guitar, piano, and fretless bass lead set the stage, then transition into soaring guitar with Jon Anderson’s brand of atmospheric lyrics. To conclude the album, “God, pt II” enters on the lingering, orchestral heels of the previous track, and features some more extended sections of bass lead. Its rhythmically loose, soaring conclusion is enormous and suitably grandiose, though its final passage is an isolated piano trilling the mournful refrain into silence.
DOT is one of those albums that – with its lighthearted, melodic emphases – seems deceptively simple upon first listen. I’ll confess that it didn’t immediately grab me, but instead began to resonate with each successive spin in the stereo. After sitting with the record for more than a month, I am still impressed with its endemic richness, depth, and inventive character. There isn’t any unnecessary repetition or unstructured space to condemn. Refrains are anthemic; themes are memorable; the philosophy is huge, big enough for anyone to seize a piece and plant a flag. This is a record to savor: it manages to be easy to listen to without being “easy listening,” delves into musical inventiveness without being abrasive or jarring, and conceals its deeper strengths in good songwriting, only revealing its many facets with successive listens.
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