There was a joke that made the rounds in the late 1970s early 1980s that asked what was the difference between punk and new wave music. Punks, the answer went, wore pins stabbed through their skin, while new wavers wore pins emblazoned with the names of their favourite bands. Not a very good joke perhaps, but it did contain a certain truism regarding the difference between the two genres. For while punk was raw and unbridled energy with more than a hint of danger to it, new wave toned everything down and at its worst excess was more about fashion than anything else.
That's not to say there weren't some great bands from that period, but for every Joy Division, there were four Human Leagues or Heaven 17s playing insipid dance tunes on tinny sounding keyboards. Eventually you couldn't tell them apart from the disco of a decade earlier as the music was completely co-opted by the industry and we ended up with Duran Duran "Howling Like A Wolf" and Wham "Taking Me To The Go Go" or some such shit. Yet, in spite of the attempts to squash all the vitality out of music the spark that was first ignited back in the 1970s with punk has never been extinguished.
One only has to listen to KarmaDeva's new release Disgrace to hear what I'm talking about. The Bath England based band's sound has a raw edge to it that hints at anger, which, combined with their sophisticated song writing abilities, distinguishes them from most of the so called alternative rock/independents that you hear today. While so many bands have become obsessed with churning out guitar laden noise that it's become cliched, KarmaDeva has stripped away the fuzz and distortion for a sound that shines like the blade of a sharpened axe.
There's nothing extraneous about KarmaDeva's sound in anyway. Its sharp, strong, and hard – hard in the sense that it's tempered not that they play heavy metal. So, you can't ignore it, but that it doesn't bludgeon you to death. Unlike so many bands that think of music as a blunt instrument that they need to beat you over the head with, or that noise is equal to power, these folk understand the strength of restraint and precision. For this recording they have augmented their regular three piece line up; JJ Stannes (vocals, acoustic guitar), Pete Stannes (bass), and Gav Loynes (drums), with electric guitar to give them an additional sharpness, but nothing disguises the fact that their leading edge is the vocals of JJ Stannes.
When a band is as dependent on their vocalist at KarmaDeva is, you have to hope that she is up to the task. For in cases like these there's more required of the singer than just being able to carry a tune and sound nice. That's especially true of this band where their music doesn't leave the vocalist anywhere to hide. Thankfully JJ Stannes is up to the job as she is able to use her voice not only to sing lyrics, but as another instrument adding additional texture to the sound. For not only does she have a strong voice, but she also can exercise great control over it. This isn't only in reference to her ability to control her volume, but also in terms of expression and the fact that she is equally comfortable at any place on the scale that she's required to sing. Her voice sails effortlessly between alto and soprano and back again without once surrendering any of its authority, cracking, or other indications that she's having to force anything,
Right from the disc's opening track, "Feed Your Soul", you become aware of just how effective KarmaDeva's mix of stripped down music and Stannes' vocals are as she not only displays her power, but an ability for subtle shifts in expression and tone as well. For while the song starts out as almost a call to arms with its edict to "Heed the call, and feed your soul/No don't ignore the yearning hunger of your heart.", with her delivery so dispassionate that it's almost without feeling, over its course you gradually come to feel the power of the emotion behind the lyrics.
Instead of milking lines in an attempt to manipulate the listener's emotions like so many other vocalist do, Stannes takes the opposite approach by almost being completely neutral in her delivery. Yet at the same time there is an urgency to what she is saying that can't be ignored and we realize that she's not devoid of emotion, merely allowing the words to speak for themselves. In this way she allows her audience to reach their own conclusions and lets them find their own emotional response to what's being said.
While it would be easy to say that the band appears to be morbid with songs that talk about the pain that we can experience as part of being alive, that would be doing them a disservice. For while it's true that songs like "Sentient" contains lyrics like, "Everyone's pain shape-shifted in me once again/Your way takes it's toll, drive me insane", that read like they could be cries of anguish from a tortured soul, that's not the whole picture. Look at the song "Diamond" with the chorus that includes the following: "I believe in my pain/leading me to grace again/I won't ever run away from my pain."
No, its not a song about the joys of masochism, it's about how we can recover from whatever hurts the world has inflicted on us. We can chose to ignore or forget it, even hide from it with drugs and alcohol, but it won't go away and will always exert control over us unless we deal with it. It's only by accepting our pain, believing in its existence, that we are able to overcome it and find our way clear. That might not be the type of message that we are used to receiving from a pop song, but like the band itself, it's a lot more real than most anything else you're going to hear these days.
It's been a long time since I've heard a band play music as clean and strong as KarmaDeva. The fact they couple that with insightful lyrics and powerful singing from their lead vocalist, JJ Stannes, makes them even more compelling. As of now you can only purchase Disgrace, their most recent CD, through download sites like iTunes, but you shouldn't let that stop you from checking them out. Hopefully some smart independent label over here will pick them up soon, but until then I suggest listening to them anyway you can – you won't regret it.