Despite the rest of his band having departed for successful pastures new, Ian Jones has not only created a new Karnataka whose first album this is, but has also collaborated in new band Chasing The Monsoon (note the continuing fixation with the Indian sub-continent!) whose debut is scheduled to appear later on this year. The “new” Karnataka, meanwhile, features vocalist Lisa Fury, guitarist Enrico Pinna, keyboards from Gonzalo Carrera, Ian Harris (drums and percussion) along with Ian Jones himself, here contributing not only bass but also Taurus bass pedals plus some keyboards and guitars. Two notable guest appearances are also a feature of ‘The Gathering Light’: Troy Donockley contributing some mesmerising passages across the album with his Uilleann pipes and providing a Celtic undercurrent to the album, while cellist Hugh McDowell has enriched the track ‘Forsaken’ with his iconic playing. A string quartet also appears on several of the tracks, adding to the rich tapestry and warmth of sound.
Former purchasers of Karnataka’s albums will be keen to know whether this new formation has continued the band’s previous sound and approach. My response is that whilst ‘The Gathering Light’ identifiably includes the original feel of the “old” Karnataka, this is a much more ambitious and progressive album. We are now faced with material that is more ethereal and often fragile but also incorporating much more complex soundscapes and these have been carried to a sublime level of accomplishment across the eight tracks, three of which (‘Serpent And The Sea’, Forsaken’ and the title track) are of epic proportions.
Unusually, the album starts with over ten minutes of instrumental music – brief introductory passage (including the first dose of Uilleann pipes) ‘The Calling’ subsiding before the rousing and insistent ‘State Of Grace’ envelops the listener with its beguiling charms and magnificent themes. Between them, they do - to an extent - create a bridge between the music of the old and new versions of the band, as immediately there is a more grandiose and bold statement, the keys of Gonzalo Carrera being central to the initial impact of the album.
The track suddenly finishes and when ‘Your World’ begins we are initially greeted by some unusual percussive and other instrumental sounds drawn from wide-ranging influences. It’s a rather off-beat number to begin with but soon settles into a more recognisable groove and Lisa Fury’s voice is heard for the first time. She has a clear and precise delivery and whilst there are some uncanny similarities to Rachel Cohen there are also elements that remind me very much of Jacqui McShee of Pentangle! There is a certain dreamy, even languid, quality to the song and one is easily seduced by its charms and nearly eight minutes elapse in what seems like half the time!
Moment In Time’ is a number that I could easily imagine the original Karnataka performing and Lisa Fury is featured in both single- and multi-track modes, while Enrico Pinna contributes an emotional and heartfelt solo before another piece of magic from Troy Donockley arrives. This is another number in which the layers of sound are wonderfully and effectively balanced…As this fades it is segued into the rather dreamy and ethereal opening to ‘Serpent And The Sea’ that is suddenly punctuated by keyboards springing the song into life. Lisa’s multi-tracked, soaring vocals create an atmospheric mood against often complex rhythms and layers of instrumentation. There are some tremendous solos and ten minutes pass apparently all too effortlessly! ‘Forsaken’ is an absolute juggernaut, the song bookending a lengthy instrumental bridge that wends its way across another complex instrumental landscape that will, I am sure, have lovers of traditional prog rock wetting themselves in delight! ‘Tide To Fall’ is the most concise song on the album and is a beautifully dramatic number that once again harkens back to the best material from the earlier version of the band. Finally, Uilleann pipes help to usher in the 14-minute title track – as entrancing and amazingly hypnotic piece of progressive music as I have heard in a long time.
The “new” Karnataka has produced an exceptional debut album, some of the numbers revealing their charms instantly whilst other take repeated listens to tease out all of the nuances and delights. This is in no small part due to the complexity of many of the arrangements and the intertwining of all the myriad elements. No wonder it has taken so long to complete! My only criticism (and regular readers will know it is my bête-noir) concerns the fading out of lengthy tracks. Tracks of epic proportion need a definitive ending in my view and should not merely fade away! Nevertheless, this is a magnificent return, and so very much better than one might have dared to expect after all this time!