December 1, 2023

New Fury Media

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On ‘Sound Awake’, Karnivool hit progressive rock’s aggressive (and accelerated) evolution

The list of bands just from Australia that Karnivool have influenced is a lengthy one indeed. Though they’ve only released three full-length albums since their 2005 debut Themata, Karnivool’s brand of progressive rock // alternative metal has evolved with each record – making each outing a distinct one. To say Sound Awake is 72 minutes of the best modern progressive rock you’ll find out there is a bit of an understatement, though – an album that evolves a band’s sound this much has to be heard to be appreciated (otherwise, what’s the point?).

The leap between Themata and Sound Awake was undoubtedly a tremendous one for the band, especially from a stylistic perspective. Whereas Themata had more nu-metal influence and arguably had better hooks, Sound Awake is more reliant on progressive rock song structures and elaborately developed songs than anything else. It’s also a more percussive effort overall, though that’s not to say Karnivool’s previous efforts weren’t. It’s just that they’re amplified on their sophomore effort.

Expansive songs mostly play out in Karnivool’s favor here. “The Caudal Lure” is a great example of this approach, as while the guitar riffs are a callback to the Themata days, the rhythm section is absolutely insane (in a good way, of course). It’s a contender for Karnivool’s best song for a multitude of reasons, actually. Whether it’s the tonality change halfway through the song, the interesting (and challenging) percussion that opens the track, or the ridiculously catchy chorus that accompanies it, “The Caudal Lure” is basically the album encapsulated. Its transition into the vocally + guitar-driven “Illumine” is almost seamless, and Drew Goddard + Mark Hosking’s guitars set the bar high for what progressive rock can be. The song is also reminiscent of their earlier alt-metal material, yet progresses their sound enough that there’s distinct differences.

Sound Awake is also a bass lover’s dream. Already one of the most talented in the business, Jon Stockman’s rumble gives life to both standout singles like “Set Fire To The Hive” as well as more underrated fare like mid-album cut “Umbra”. Special attention needs to be paid to his bass tone in particular, along with his obvious talent. It’s clear that Karnivool would not be nearly as effective without him. What’s also evident is that certain songs here went on to influence a host of other like-minded bands – like the electronic influences on album finale “Change”, which are evident in critically acclaimed acts like Dead Letter Circus. Speaking of “Change”, it’s a ridiculous finale that has drawn comparisons to Tool’s “Third Eye”, one that only elite-level musicians could craft.

Sound Awake is quite a challenging effort, to be certain. Most any album with a 60+ minute runtime is, but especially in Karnivool’s case, where many of the hooks that made Themata more immediate and memorable have been replaced by something that works more as a whole. Yet, highlights are also plentiful – many of which include dynamic vocalist Ian Kenny. Clearly, the man was born with the gift of range and ability, and together the two are unstoppable. Whether it’s the album’s more immediate songs or the ones that challenge a listener’s resolve, Kenny’s abilities alone are enough to capture the attention. Take a track like “Goliath”, for instance. One of the album’s shortest tracks at under 5 minutes long, its opening guitar riff and responding percussion would normally be the dominating part of the song. Or, certainly the most memorable ones anyway. Not so, however. That’s not to say the former aren’t exciting (they are), but at times Kenny’s vocal abilities feel like they’re competing with just how talented the band’s instrumentals are for attention.

Speaking of which, many of the songs on Sound Awake come with their own type of swagger. Lead single “Set Fire To The Hive” is probably the most accessible track here, being a good intro to the lengthier and less direct songs on the album. While the intro’s heavy riffs threaten to dominate the song early on, its turn on a dime nature is also a trait that fits all of Sound Awake. You can even dance to it! Well, kind of. And when you hear “Goliath” for the first time, you’re probably not expecting the song to end in a pseudo-breakdown, nor would you necessarily expect album closer “Change” to shift from prog to borderline metal without much notice. But there it is again, these effortless tonal shifts are a big reason why Sound Awake is such an exciting album to listen to.

Even if they had only ever released Themata and continued down that route, Karnivool’s mark on Australian progressive music would’ve already been made. It would’ve been quite easy for them to milk the nu-metal tendencies of their early work, and it also likely would’ve made them stars anyway. However, their progressively-inclined nature meant that evolution was necessary – and it’s in their DNA to this day. This is the work of truly talented individuals, and is one of modern rock’s most interesting albums to this day.

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