This is Karnataka’s fifth release but comes some 7 years after their previous studio offering, DPRP Recommended Delicate Flame Of Desire (2003). Since then, the band have split, somewhat acrimoniously, and reformed with the only surviving member, Ian Jones, carrying the name forwards and onwards in a completely new incarnation consisting of Lisa Fury (vocals), Ian Harris (drums), Gonzalo Carerra (keyboards) & Enrico Pinna (lead & acoustic guitars). What this new line-up has created is an album of astonishing beauty and precision-crafted excellence.
In the very broadest sense, the material here is consistent with previous releases in that it is hugely atmospheric and has a kind of understated ‘Celtic/Traditional music’ wash that will serve to keep old fans of the band content and happy. The wonderfully ubiquitous Troy Donockley makes a guest appearance on four of the tracks (The Calling, Moment In Time, Forsaken and The Gathering Light), bringing his piping, whistling goodness to the game with the assurance that only a tried and tested specialist can afford. Similarly, Hugh McDowell (ELO), contributes cello to the opulent, ethereal and graceful string arrangements that appear on State Of Grace, Moment In Time, Forsaken, Tide To Fall and The Gathering Light. However, I’m sure Karnataka would like to develop a new audience too and The Gathering Light may just be the album to springboard them to wider acclaim.
Predominantly, all eight tracks are tender, cultivated, mid-tempo, soothing and redolent pieces. However, it is in the details of the individual musicians that the magic of The Gathering Light surely resides. Of the new players, Enrico Pinna furnishes every track with radiant and towering guitar parts that sing of Andy Latimer, Steve Hackett and David Gilmour but laced with his own musical personality. He brings expression, sensitivity and emotion to his playing so that the guitar melodies could be considered in the same way as vocal lines. Gonzalo Carrera has contributed his compositional skills to three of the tracks (State Of Grace, Your World and The Gathering Light) and his overall contribution to the album colours every moment with his truly wonderful keyboard arrangements. Every track is alive with a host of acoustic characters that create an incredibly rich canvas of textures, colours, shading and tones. Rhythms, pulses, swells and sonic shapes glimmer and coruscate in a constant interplay of shifting and evolving musical backdrops to fashion dense atmospherics; oceans of sound, teeming with flashing, exquisite and exotic musical lifeforms. I cannot overstate the importance of the keyboards to the overall sound and they are stunning. It’s not mellotrons and analog lead synths, but together, Ian Jones and Carerra have authored some of the best electronic, programmed arrangements I think I have ever heard. It really is that good.
These lead characters (guitars and keys) are supported throughout by a dynamic and articulate rhythm section. I’m a big fan of The Flower Kings, and Jonas Rheingold in tandem with any of the stellar drummers he partners always provides a whole other listening dimension. Ian Jones and Ian Harris achieve something comparable here. Jones’ tasteful and melodic bass is sometimes lyrical and complex, at others robust, full and weight-bearing, whilst Harris shifts seamlessly between steady and ballistic with the sort of élan I would normally reserve for the likes of Zoltan Csorsz or Nick D’Virgilio. This is sensitive, intelligent and technically dazzling musicianship but never showy or ostentatious for the sake of it, every flourish is integrated and organic. The epic Forsaken is testament to all of this and, for me, the stand out track of the album.
Crowning the whole affair is Lisa Fury’s vocal work. She contributes emotional depth and passionate delivery with technical brilliance putting her up there with some of the best female vocalists, not only of this generation, but amongst those who have gone before and left their distinctive mark within the genre. In a general sense, Karnataka tread the path laid by Clannad, Iona, Enya, Dead Can Dance and, more recently, Mostly Autumn. So, Lisa certainly has the sort of range and timbre of singers like Heather Findlay and, in case you are wondering, is every inch a replacement for the charms of Rachel Jones. Whilst I can easily draw comparisons, Lisa’s voice is beautiful, magnetic, charismatic and haunting in its own right. Add to this the credits she receives for her lyrics (which are evocative though otherwise unremarkable, it’s in her larynx that they blossom into life, not on the page) and we clearly have an extremely talented and creative personality who can hopefully hang around to develop and front the profile of the band into the future.
And this leads me into my concluding thoughts. Could this be the breakthrough album for Karnataka? It certainly deserves to be. It crosses boundaries by being accessible and affecting with gorgeous melodies, sumptuous arrangements and absolutely stunning production to give the whole album a highly accomplished and commercial sheen. With the appropriate support, the potential appeal of The Gathering Light is enormous. I can’t imagine it appealing to many young men, it’s not edgy enough, or particularly relevant in any way. But it is beautiful and mountainous and oceanic in scale. As delicate as crystal and as solid, tactile and evocative of grandeur as marble, this is a palpable, poignant, sensuous and impressive musical experience. Without a doubt, my album of 2010 so far.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10