Secrets of Angels is the latest album from London-based, pan-European, originally-Welsh band Karnataka. Before I was sent the promo of the album, I wasn’t all that familiar with their music. And indeed, I wasn’t hugely blown away by what I had heard from their older material. It was pleasant symphonic prog with some nice ideas and unusual touches, but nothing that especially excited me. Never one to be swayed by preconceptions, however, I immersed myself in this new album and have felt rewarded for doing so. It appears to be a bit of a change in direction for the band, with a slightly bigger, more rocking sound. For the most part, the songs are relatively straightforward in structure, and stylistically the album doesn’t stray too much from solid symphonic rock. Other than the 20-minute epic title track, I wouldn’t really call the rest of the album prog, for example. At times it reminds me of some of the earlier to mid-era material by Within Temptation.
If any of this sounds like any kind of criticism, it shouldn’t, because it’s not. For me, the band have musically hit their stride here. The music is big in scope, more so that in their previous outputs, with lush melodies, gorgeous vocal harmonies and fantastic use of symphonic backing. Performances are also strong, and the addition of new members since their last full release seems to have done the band a lot of favours. Çağrı Tozluoğlu on keyboards has does a nice job with his backing keys, but importantly has contributed a lot with his top-notch orchestral arrangements. Hayley Griffiths’ singing also adds a lot to the music. She has a lovely tone to her voice – soft and delicate but powerful when she needs to be. The rest of the band also do a fine job – everything is very balanced, with particular instruments coming to the fore as appropriate and meshing together to create some lovely crescendos. The production is a big help in this regard, the album really does sound very good.
On top of what I consider a big step up in the sound, performance and music, this album is also a step up compositionally. The song-writing is focussed and concise. Sticking to a straighter symphonic rock sound, and keeping any prog indulgences for the title track, works very well for the style of music that Karnataka creates, and has produced a very memorable set of songs. Particular standouts for me amongst the first 7 songs are: opener Road to Cairo, which fuses the band’s eastern influences with excellent orchestral parts and a lovely chorus; and Fairytale Lies, an ostensibly slower song with a darker edge that features some absolutely stunning vocal harmonies.
Having downplayed the “prog indulgences”, though, I do need to talk about the 20-minute opus that is the album’s title track, Secrets of Angels. Because, in fact, it’s really rather good. Far from being bloated, this is a song that mostly builds and develops in interesting and enjoyable ways. It starts out by introducing a theme that recurs throughout the song – a folk tune with eastern influences. It slowly builds up for the first 3 and a half minutes of the song, with Griffiths’ vocals combining with stripped-back instrumentation to bring a gorgeous atmosphere to this opening. The song then kicks in and takes the listener on a journey across a handful of different styles and ideas, each flowing nicely into the next. My favourite section of the song begins around 6 minutes in, starting with a melancholy segment that contains some wonderfully haunting vocal melodies, before kicking in with some enormous symphonic riffs that pretty much define epic.
All in all, then, a very strong album. There are some things I’m not quite so keen on, including the lyrics. Not that they’re bad, I just don’t find I really relate to them for the most part. I see them as quite functional – a means to produce the luscious vocal melodies that fill the album, rather than drawing much focus themselves. However, these minor complaints don’t really detract from my enjoyment of the album. The music is luscious for so much of the album, and there really is a lot of great stuff in here. It feels as though Karnataka have hit their stride, and hopefully found some stability in line-up and in what they are trying to do with their music. If I’m right, then I predict more great stuff from them in future.