I have noticed a strange phenomenon this year. For whatever reason, though there have been many (and will yet be many) albums playing upon the theme throughout the years, 2020 seems to have a disproportionately high amount of albums describing the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Already this year I’ve listened to Kala by Mobius, Metempsychosis by hubris. and The Return by Deep Energy Orchestra, which all recreate the idea musically. Golden Caves use Samsara as a reverse allegory in their song of the same name, further describing the theme of their album, Dysergy. And Eternal Wanderers and Postvorta appear to play with the theme, too, on their albums Homeless Soul and Siderael, Pt. One. Outside In add to this number, with their new album, Karmatrain.
Karmatrain looks at samsara through the famous story from Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha. I’ve been aware of Siddhartha since I was a teen, but have never been compelled to read it. Karmatrain is the first piece of music that’s made me want to read the text that inspired it since I read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet after listening to Mad Season. By the time I read the story (which I did online from Project Gutenberg), I had listened to the album several times, and it only increased my enjoyment of both, recognising where bits and pieces fitted. Outside In have structured their album to match the way Hesse structured his story – in two parts, the first four chapters (or songs, in the case of the album) representing the Four Noble Truths, and the remaining eight representing the Noble Eightfold Path. Outside In have produced a beautiful set of lyric postcards which illustrate these, lending one more layer to the story.
Two paragraphs in, and I’ve not even begun to describe the sound of Outside In, but I do think it’s important to address how much thought and detail has gone into the creation of Karmatrain. The album takes a listener on a journey, and the careful consideration that has gone into the creation and sequencing of the tracks really pays off. Looking back on the reviews I’ve written this year, the most common criticism I have comes down to sequencing. No matter how strong a song is, it can become underwhelming or overblown, depending on what it comes after. There are no such concerns when it comes to Karmatrain. The album flows like the river which provides such meaning within the story.
Opening track Let Me Go is a beautiful entry point to the album, showcasing Mikey Brown’s gorgeous vocals, and Adam Tobeck’s drums – both of which I find myself drawn to again and again, through the album. Adam’s drumming is very reminiscent for me of Steve Judd of Karnivool, which is definitely no bad thing. The band name both Radiohead and Karnivool as two of their many influences, and Let Me Go definitely evokes both of these bands, while not sounding like either. Recent single Blue Dragon follows, and I’m compelled to mention the other member of Outside In’s rhythm section, Elliott Seung Il Park, whose bass shines on this track – and damn he and Adam are tight. They propel this track forward, often playing in a style more jazz than rock. As a single, this track showcases how the band really could do well, mixing complexity with accessibility and progressiveness with listenability.
The jazz vibes continue with the more subtle and understated Echoes and Stepping Stones. The song ebbs and flows, yet even while it seems to pull back at times, it keeps building and building, until it bursts, leaving the delicacy of Bridges after the storm. The way this song lyrically and musically matches the feeling left after hearing Echoes is incredibly effective. It also works perfectly in its place, matching the feel and meaning of the complementary chapter in Siddhartha, ending the first part of the story/album. I had listened to the album several times, before reading Siddhartha, and also before having received the postcards which accompany the album, so had no way of knowing this was the end of the first part of the story – and yet, I knew.
Morning Warning, therefore sounds like an opening number, and the A Perfect Circle influence shows even more strongly than when I first noticed it in Blue Dragon. It also reminds me a bit of Alice in Chains. This is such a strong song, and one of the highlights of the album. The almost abrupt way it ends, and The Lake begins has the effect of almost creating a segue, so that if not paying attention, a listener might not realise the songs had changed. Apart, that is, from the difference in atmosphere. Morning Warning is ominous in tone, while The Lake sounds far more positive and upbeat. This is another song which might have made a great single, with a soaring chorus once more showing what a powerful singer Mikey Brown is. And the guitar solo is easily one of the most enjoyable and engaging on the album.
That said, the following track The Garden of Light was a single, and perhaps was chosen because it captures a little of the spirit of both the preceding tracks. The band name A Perfect Circle and Porcupine Tree as influences, but this track is more Tool-like than A Perfect Circle, and more Riverside-like than Porcupine Tree. Actually, I’m often reminded of Riverside, and the way that band takes the sound of Pink Floyd and gives it a more modern and metal feel, bears more resemblance to Outside In’s sound than Porcupine Tree for me.
Mushrooms is the point in Siddhartha where the main character contemplates suicide, and so begins in a suitably melancholy manner – with, again most suitably, Outside In’s Radiohead influences back to the fore, before switching to a disturbing A Perfect Circle vibe. This is one of my favourite tracks on the album, and crescendos beautifully towards the end, matching the optimism of the chapter of the story it complements. The use of dynamics, and light and dark, is wonderfully played upon throughout the album. This occurs again within the next track, The Ferryman, which crosses back and forth between extremes. And while there are sound effects throughout the album (most notably providing the audio separation of the two parts of the album, between Bridges and Morning Warning), the birdsong at the end of The Ferryman are my favourite.
Pass on the Flag was the first single from Karmatrain, and ironically, complements its respective chapter in Siddhartha in a way it was not intended. I find the chapter where Siddhartha attempts to “pass on the flag” to his son frustrating, and this song, too. Thankfully birth the story and the album are back on track with Om. And, again, Outside In have perfectly matched the tone of the text they’ve taken inspiration from. Siddhartha could have ended easily after Om. And Karmatrain could have had the perfect ending in Om. Om reads like a closing chapter, and Om sounds like a closing song. Instead we have the longest song on the album, I Am Not The One, which transcends the story of Siddhartha – for while the final chapter of that story is a reiteration and explanation of what has come before, it feels slightly redundant. The closing song on Karmatrain may serve the same purpose, but it does so far more engagingly. It’s a truly glorious and triumphant song, and I’m sure will be a favourite track for many listeners.
Based upon Karmatrain, Outside In have a great future ahead of them. Hopefully this album gains notice outside New Zealand – something many great Kiwi bands have struggled to do. Kia kaha, Outside In – karawhiua!
01. Let Me Go (4:53)
02. Blue Dragon (5:50)
03. Echoes and Stepping Stones (4:56)
04. Bridges (5:23)
05. Morning Warning (4:23)
06. The Lake (4:33)
07. The Garden of Light (5:21)
08. Mushrooms (5:34)
09. The Ferryman (5:35)
10. Pass on the Flag (4:31)
11. Om (5:11)
12. I Am Not The One (8:08)
Total Time – 67:17
Mikey Brown – Vocals, Synth, Keys, Guitar
Jonnie Barnard – Guitar
Adam Tobeck – Drums
Elliott Seung Il Park – Bass
Joe Park – Guitar
Graham Bell – Additional Guitar (1,2,6,7,8 & 10)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: New Zealand
Date of Release: 29th May 2020