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Karnataka, Live: Bristol

The celtic progressive rock band Karnataka have had something of a turbulent history.

They established a growing reputation in the early 00s with the albums The Storm and Delicate Flame of Desire, which combined soaring atmospheric soundscapes with heartfelt and emotionally-charged lyrics. Then in 2004, just when they seemed on the brink of success, the band disintegrated, leaving just founder/composer Ian Jones owning the name.

just when they seemed on the brink of success, the band disintegrated

After a hiatus of a couple of years, and at least one false start, Ian Jones put together a completely new incarnation of the band, which toured from 2007 onwards. This lineup dispelled any accusations of being no more than a glorified tribute band by delivering a symphonic rock masterpiece in 2010's The Gathering Light. Sadly, that band also split within months of releasing the record, leaving just Ian Jones and guitarist Enrico Pinna to pick up the pieces once more.

The third incarnation of the band gradually took shape, with multi-instrumentalist Colin Mold, vocalist Hayley Griffiths, keyboard player Cagri Tozluoglu and (for one tour at least) Matt McDonough on drums. The band booked a 15 date tour covering much of Britain, and on the 17th February the tour came to the Colston Hall 2 in Bristol.

the on-stage chemistry that was so obviously missing the last time

After the obligatory intro tape the six members of the band launched into the 'The Serpent and the Sea', one of the ten-minute epics from The Gathering Light. From the beginning there was a new energy to the band, with evidence of the on-stage chemistry that was so obviously missing the last time I saw the previous version in April 2010.

The six piece lineup saw Colin Mold swapping between violin and guitar, and the extra instrument on stage gave a lot more depth to the live sound. This made it easier to do justice to the complex arrangements of material from The Gathering Light live.

For the older songs, his violin took many of the former flute lines, while twin guitars gave a harder edge to some of the older songs. (As an aside, it's interesting that former flautist Anne-Marie Helder is now playing, amongst many other things, with Mostly Autumn and frequently playing former-violin lines on flute!)

It did take a few songs to get the sound balance right; Enrico Pinna's fluid lead guitar wasn't prominent enough early on, and the mix could have done with more keys.

a rather more operatic approach

Hayley Griffiths is a very different singer from either Rachel Cohen (nee Jones) or Lisa Fury, the two previous lead vocalists. With a background as a classical crossover artist rather than a rock singer she takes a rather more operatic approach, which gives some songs a quite different feel. She's certainly got a very strong voice and stage presence, although on occasions some of the very personal heart-on-sleeve songs, such as 'Forsaken' didn't quite have the emotional depth they needed.

The set drew heavily from The Gathering Light mixed in with favourites from earlier albums such as After the Rain and Delicate Flame of Desire. A couple of surprises were 'The Calling' played live on violin and keys seguing into 'Lagan Love' from Hayley's solo album Celtic Rose, followed by 'Our Love' from the long-deleted first Karnataka album.

The evening ended with very powerful versions of 'Your World' and 'Heart of Stone', closing the main set, and the epic title track of 'The Gathering Light' as an encore.

still enough of the same sound and feel

So, Karnataka are back, if in a new and changed form. Despite the very significant personnel changes there's still enough of the same sound and feel to justify continued use of the name. But neither is it an attempt to reproduce what had gone before.

This is a more energetic, rockier Karnataka than the previous incarnation, and it will be very interesting to see what happens when they start recording new material. In the meantime, some gigs from this tour are to be recorded for a live album and DVD.

All photos are from the Bristol gig and are by Tim Hall
Embedded videos show Karnakata's earlier lineup


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