Today is ‘National Album Day’, apparently. Leaving aside the observation that every day is National Album Day for some of us, it’s had me thinking fondly about some of the albums that have had the greatest impact on me. My very first album (at least, my very first non-children’s record), Jeff Wayne‘s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds; the first album I bought with my own money, Kate Bush‘s The Kick Inside; and numerous others that proved incredibly important and/or formative, such as Pink Floyd‘s Meddle, Marillion‘s Real To Reel, Rush‘s Grace Under Pressure, All About Eve‘s eponymous debut album, Jean-Michel Jarre‘s Cities In Concert, Porcupine Tree‘s Signify, Mike Oldfield‘s Ommadawn, Tori Amos‘s Little Earthquakes, The Orb‘s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, Iron Maiden‘s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and many, many others.
As some of you reading this may already be aware, a few months ago, I officially embarked on producing an officially-sanctioned quarterly digital magazine devoted to the band Karnataka and the various endeavours of its current and ex-members, entitled New Light (named for the band’s 2012 live album, and also in homage to the idea that the magazine would shed ‘new light’ on the music produced by the band, and its various associated acts). For various reasons, the first issue – originally pencilled in for publication in early summer – has been delayed, but as work on it (finally!) nears completion and I start laying plans for magazine contents for the next 12 months, Karnataka have been particularly in my thoughts lately. The band have had a somewhat turbulent history, with three major line-up changes in the past 15 years (which is actually a lot less turbulent than some bands we could mention, quite honestly), but have always landed on their feet creatively – I can’t think of many other bands who have consistently had such an impact on me with each new album release.
My deep affection for Karnataka can be traced back to a chance hearing, courtesy of Classic Rock magazine. The December 2000 issue of the magazine came with a cover-mounted CD, mirthfully entitled A Right Earful! I was initially only particularly interested in one of the tracks, Thoughts Pt. 2 by wonderful Californian proggers Spock’s Beard, but I always make a point of listening to every track on cover-mounted CDs, because you never know what surprises they might serve up. I’ve changed my mind about an artist based on listening to a track they’ve submitted to a cover-mounted CD, or have discovered a new favourite – and that was exactly what was about to happen here. I listened through the whole disc, not really expecting much. I did love the Spock’s Beard track, but then that wasn’t a surprise as I had already bought the album it originally appeared on. Overall, I remember feeling a little disappointed with this particular CD, purely because nothing had surprised me. But that was all about to change.
The final track on the CD was Karnataka’s Heaven Can Wait. Talk about saving the best til last. Heaven Can Wait remains beautifully atmospheric, a wistful, confessional song that captures a relationship on the brink of collapse. Opening with the sound of ocean waves, and Jonathan Edwards’ wonderful extended keyboard intro, it conjures a wonderful, windswept feel; as if Sirius-era Clannad and early 90s Marillion had formed a supergroup. Initially dominated by protestations of affection and loyalty, lyrically it is soon apparent that there is something amiss, and the relationship is built on shifting sands. The affection is real, but so are the misgivings and disappointments – it’s a song about relationships that avoids melodrama and the treacly excesses that usually spring all too readily to the lyricist’s pen. It feels very real, very honest. Each chorus ends with the words “nothing is quite what it seems”, which still seems to encapsulate everything about the song and the band that wrote it.
Instantly smitten, I immediately went online and tried to find out more about the band. Happily they already had a website up and running – still a relative rarity for lesser-known bands at the time – and I discovered that the album from which Heaven Can Wait came was essentially their first ‘proper’ album, as the band’s eponymous debut album was essentially a collection of demos recorded in true Heath-Robinson fashion by the band at home. I hastily ordered a copy of the band’s new record, entitled The Storm, from the first online store I could find that had it in stock (I can’t actually remember who that was now), and entertained myself while I waited for it to arrive by playing Heaven Can Wait practically on a loop for several days.
I vividly remember the day that my copy of The Storm arrived – it was, quite appropriately, a stormy day. Heaven Can Wait opens the record, and I think that first listen to the album was the only time I’ve ever been impatient for Heaven Can Wait to finish, such was my excitement to hear what the other material sounded like. I was not to be disappointed. Even now, 20 years on, some of the tracks from The Storm number among my favourite Karnataka songs, even if I’ve come to prefer the albums that followed. As the cliché goes, it’s all killer, no filler, but particular favourites include the hymn to self-determination that is The Journey (still one of the finest lyrics that ex-vocalist Rachel Jones has penned, for my money), the weary, broken relationship lament of I Should Have Known, and the feisty Shine, with its churning riff and almost gothic flourishes. Perhaps best of all, though, is the hypnotic and deeply moving title track, a sea-borne tragedy inspired by the wreck of the Helvetia on Rhossili beach in South Wales (read all about the wreck and its real story here). Featuring another of Jonathan Edwards’ stunningly atmospheric keyboard intros, this beautiful song builds from its tranquil opening into a veritable storm of its own, culminating in a fabulous extended guitar solo from Paul Davies and the exquisite, forlorn final verse that leaves the listener washed up on the beaches of reality, a survivor listening to the tide ebb and flow at their feet. Fantastic as it is on record, the song really came to life at the band’s live shows, and remains a favourite of audiences and band alike to this day.
The impact of the album on me was substantial. There are many albums I’ve come to love, but The Storm was literally life-changing. Hours after that first listen, I’d ordered a copy of the band’s debut album, and I would continue to snap up everything the band did in due course, all of it magical to my ears. It was to take me another 18 months or so to get to my first Karnataka show, and by this time it was already clear that things were beginning to change for the band as more and more people found their hearts and minds captured by the band’s highly emotive material. It was at this show that I met Ian and Rachel for the first time, and it was already clear to me that I had complete faith in where the band was headed. There’s a special kind of pleasure to be had in entrusting yourself to the creative drift of a favourite band or artist, particularly when they are a band willing to push in new and intriguing directions. Alas, this iteration of the band was in some ways the victim of its own success. As Ian & Rachel’s marriage disintegrated, the band’s forward momentum stalled amid acrimony and controversy, despite the band member’s admirable reluctance to discuss personal matters with the press, or with fans who were unable or unwilling to observe personal space.
Of course, this particular storm caused its fair share of damage, but in its aftermath we were able to enjoy more new music than before as the various band members undertook new projects and Ian ultimately resurrected Karnataka – and whilst most of the projects spawned by the 1998-2004 incarnation of Karnataka went through their own upheavals in personnel, the music itself remained compellingly imaginative and heartfelt, and continues to be to this day. Which, I suppose, returns me to the New Light magazine and my ongoing fandom, all kicked off nearly 20 years ago by a chance hearing of a single track on a cover-mounted CD given away with a magazine. Ripples in the water from a thrown stone; water vapour moved by a butterfly’s wings…
The next time you wonder whether it’s worth listening to that cover-mounted CD given away with the magazine you just bought, or giving that artist a try that is persistently recommended to you, remember this story. There’s a thoroughly depressing statistic being thrown around in a recent news story that asserts we stop discovering new music at the age of 30. For my part, I can’t imagine a time I’ll switch off from discovering new music, because when something new captures your attention in the same way Heaven Can Wait captured mine, it’s a serious buzz. It’s a sobering thought that so many people have essentially shut themselves off from that sensation; don’t be one of them. Stay open to new music, and new bands. You never know, the next musical discovery may just change your life.