Ian Jones came in for a lot of criticism when he revived the Karnataka name in 2005. The previous incarnation of the celtic-flavoured progressive rock band had imploded a year earlier just at the point where they seemed to be poised for a major breakthrough. The new-look Karnataka played some live dates in 2007 with just Ian Jones on bass remaining from the original band, which led some critics to dismiss them as a ‘glorified tribute band’, despite a fair proportion of new material in the setlist, including the memorable title track for their forthcoming album “The Gathering Light”.
In the end it would be another three years before that album would finally see the light of day, but when it finally emerged, it’s exceeded all expectations. The original band was great on atmospherics, but the new Karnataka have gone and done an album of the sort of hugely epic symphonic prog I haven’t heard done this well since Marillion’s “Brave”. The sound is massive and multilayered with impassioned vocals and soaring guitars augmented by guest appearances from Hugh McDowell of ELO fame on cello, Troy Donockley’s distinctive Uilleann pipes, and a string quartet on a couple of songs.
Lisa Fury has always impressed me as a live singer, her studio vocal performances here have just the right balance between emotional depth and technical precision that distinguish a great singer from a merely good one. But for me the real revelation is Enrico Pinna’s guitar playing; prog guitar at it’s finest, with occasional echoes of Steve Hackett or Pendragon’s Nick Barratt, but a symphonic style that’s still his own.
The album starts with two instrumentals, the short but evocative “The Calling” featuring Troy’s pipes, followed by the lengthy workout “State of Grace“. The string-laden ballad “Moment in Time” is one song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “Delicate Flame of Desire”, and again features Troy’s pipes, along with some great slide guitar from Enrico. The three-part epic “Forsaken” is perhaps the high spot of the album, tremendously moving vocals from Lisa Fury on the opening section, the symphonic instrumental “Glowing Embers” flowing seamlessly back into a reprise of the opening part. Lots of prog bands have attempted epics like that over the years, but very few succeed as magnificently.
It’s been a long time coming, but Karnataka have delivered the first essential progressive rock album of 2010.