When Perth five-piece heavy rock outfit Karnivool emerged
in April 2005 with an album called Themata, two things
were immediately obvious. One, here was a record that singlehandedly
set a new benchmark for heavy rock in this country and
others for years to come. And two, Karnivool were going to be
big. Really big.

Gloriously anthemic, yet progressive in every sense of the word,
Themata boasted the prerequisite moments of rock bombast
and foot-on-the-foldback bliss, but combined it with uncanny
guitar chops, innovative riffing, experimental tuning, intriguing
time-signatures and spine-tingling melodies. Meanwhile, live,
the band were unparalleled – the ace in their sleeve being the
magnetic stage presence and savant-like singing ability of
frontman Ian Kenny.

Over the following years the band toured hard, selling out major
venues wherever they played and attracting a hardcore cult of
fans. Karnivool went on to earn three spots in the triple j ‘Hottest
100’ for the title track Themata, Roquefort (featuring The Cat
Empire’s horn section) and their inspired reworking of electronic
artist Gotye’s The Only Way. In 2007, at Perth’s prestigious WAMi
Awards, they won five trophies: Most Popular Act, Most Popular
Live Act, Best Male Vocalist (Ian Kenny), Best Guitarist (Drew
Goddard) and Best Hard Rock Act. They became a drawcard act at
the Big Day Out and other major rock festivals in Australia. And,
after shifting 32,000 units of Themata completely independently,
they secured an international licensing deal for the album in
the US, UK, Canada and Mexico through the Bieler Bros label.
Suddenly, this little ol’ prog-rock band from Perth were one of
Australia’s biggest acts.

Now, the challenge. Four long years had passed since their
seminal debut and the fans were hungry for more ’Vool. And
when your first record is that damn good, the big question has
got to be “where to from here?” It was something the band were
all too aware of.
In late 2008 the band took the plunge, re-enlisting Themata’s
producer-extraordinaire Forrester Savell to record and produce
the new album, Sound Awake. Savell, having since helmed
critically acclaimed releases by the likes of The Butterfly Effect,
Dead Letter Circus and more, had become regarded nationally
as somewhat of an auteur amongst Australia’s burgeoning progrock
scene. “It was a no-brainer in the end – Forrester was the
only man for the job,” relays singer Ian Kenny. “Once we made
the decision to let him into our space, we really relied on him to
don the heavy black boots and start kicking heads. Which he did.
Plus, the guy’s got the goods musically – he’s like the cleaner
who comes in after a murder. A very talented man and we all dig
the guy’s ears.”

Hunkering down at Perth’s Blackbird and Kingdom Studios over
several months, and later mixing at Melbourne’s famous Sing Sing
Studios, Karnivool began what would be an arduous recording
process. Unlike Themata – an album which had been very much
lead guitarist Drew Goddard’s brainchild and a tightly-scripted,
intricately-composed record that was assembled piecemeal,
bit-by-bit – the band wanted their new album to be a collective,
collaborative work. So they wrote as one, jamming out their
ideas and improvising upon them. They dissected, experimented,
second-guessed, pared-down, built-up, reworked, pored over
and examined the minutia of every single bar.
So, what the hell took so long? “Because we’re terribly pedantic,
obsessive-compulsive songwriters,” chuckles guitarist Mark
‘Hoss’ Hosking, “and we keep fiddling with things we should
have left alone a while back. But it’s the way Karnivool works
– we’ll never just leave something we think can possibly be
improved upon. We just aren’t prepared to cut even the slightest
of corners.”

And, as bassist Jono Stockman throws in: “No-one wanted to
repeat Themata. The songs on Sound Awake all went through
so many permutations and transformations that time was
necessary to the process.”
“It took so long because we set the bar very high, very early on,”
adds Drew. “We consciously set out to challenge ourselves so it
was a long, gruelling process. A mixture of banging our heads
against walls and those intermittent moments of utter joy when
it all came together. In many ways it was not a standard process
– there was no pre-production, no finalising of structures or
anything, really. We went into the recording process with a lot
of songs open-ended, still writing and compiling. It was pretty
hairy, actually, going in without all ends tied off.”

“It’s in our nature to execute every single possible avenue within
reason to find the best result,” says Kenny. “Writing this was like
a feeding frenzy of five accelerated musical minds, and you bump
heads as a result – it takes time to wade through it all.”
“We wanted more depth,” continues Drew. “This was the first
time we’d written an album as a band, where everyone put in
their two cents with a common goal in mind. It was general thing
– a way of tackling things sonically and exploring more colour,
texture and dynamic. I like the albums, personally, where you
don’t instantly fall in love with it but there’s something intriguing
and you grow to love it. To consciously write an album like that
is pretty hard. Near on impossible, I think – to write a song you
don’t instantly understand or get at first, but then grow to love it.
But that actually happened a fair bit on Sound Awake.”
“There’s so much space on this record,” enthuses Kenny. “The
whole thing is a massive journey and a lot of it is uncharted,
uncalculated stuff for us. The hardest part was just letting it
run its course in the studio. Letting it go, y’know? It felt like we
were all at the helm of this ship through some very, very choppy
waters. But as fractured and precarious a process as it was, it
came together.”

He’s not wrong. Intuitive, left-field and, without doubt, a major
departure from Themata, the sprawling opus of Sound Awake is
an album of detours and sojourns, where every song takes its own
path, irrespective of convention or traditional structure. From
the leviathan-sized bass growl of opener Simpleboy (“the bass
sound like a circular saw being dragged through an elephant’s
graveyard,” quips Jono), to the lurching groove, belching bottomend
and jazz-metal stylings of Goliath, it’s immediately clear
Karnivool have stepped things up a notch, both musically and
sonically. Ian Kenny is clearly one of Australia’s finest vocalists,
his high emotive voice ringing out over New Day and giving wings
to Karnivool’s epic new tangent of songwriting. The spastic
punk-prog fusion of first single Set Fire To The Hive, with its
staccato riff, hornets nest guitar-motif and demented choir, is
totally new for the band, as are the spacious, lush atmospherics
of Umbra. Boasting a powerhouse chorus, All I Know intertwines
sinuous guitar riffery against a cavalcade of overlapping delays,
before the eerie melancholic falsetto of The Medicine Wears Off
serves as intermission piece into Sound Awake’s second half.
Unleashing two of their most dazzling pieces of musical wizardry,
The Caudal Lure and Illumine both explore complex riffing ‘algorhythms’,
and yet they’re somehow made sense of by Kenny’s
startling melodies. The mighty ten-minute epic Deadman then
unfolds in ascending, spectacular fashion. From there, Karnivool
reprise Themata’s Change: Part One, reworking it in free-time
against a sinister xylophone and allowing it to introduce Sound
Awake’s climatic, thunderous closer, Change: Part Two. As
Kenny’s cryptic mantra of “Hello, hollow, halo” raises the hairs
on the back of one’s neck, the song moves through myriad of
movements and dynamics, from full-tilt rifforama to brokendown
acoustic strumming.

Simply put, Sound Awake is a kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional
masterpiece. It’s a record that’s going to blow people away.
Savell’s production is nothing short of awesome. Unlike the more
clinical, hook-laden Themata, Sound Awake is a slow-burner. A
grower. Rather than bludgeon people over the head with one of
Themata’s trademark barnstorming riffs and soaring choruses,
this is a considerably more technical, progressive record and
Karnivool have chosen to draw the listener in slowly. And if that
confounds some fans hanging out for the big dumb riff and the
hook, it’s a risk the band are prepared to take.
“I was saying the other day, Themata was an album of hooks,”
acknowledges Jono, laughing, “while Sound Awake is more an
album of lures. We never set out to be progressive or technical,
it just comes from jamming and a place of spontaneity. It’s only
after we’ve assembled it all and look back in retrospective do we
start to become aware of the intricacies ourselves.”
Drew agrees. “It’s a heavy album but not in the sense of
traditional heavy metal or heavy riffing – it’s emotionally heavy.
It weighs on you. I think we stirred up some emotions we hadn’t
necessarily experienced before and took ourselves to places that
weren’t very comfortable. But I think that makes for good music.
In order to push in a new direction, we had to let go of the big riffs
and ‘good-times factor’ that was in Themata.”
“It’s a challenging album, yes,” weighs in Hoss. “Not something
you’ll hear playing in the background of the Home & Away café.
It’s large in scope and requires the listener’s attention. But I
think that’s why Karnivool fans will dig it, for that very reason.
We’re not a band that writes a song for an agenda.”
“We have a hard enough time trying to please ourselves, let
alone trying to please someone else by ‘writing a hit’,” explains
Drew candidly. “Besides, we figure if we can make everyone in
the band happy, then we’re confident that there’s people out
there who’ll like it, too.”

With that in mind, the first track to hit radio, Set Fire To The
Hive, is not only a song that sounds unlike anything on the new
record, but, with its distorted vocals, up-tempo vibe, raw progpunk
feel and Kenny’s venomous delivery, it sounds nothing like
Karnivool have attempted before. Drew acknowledges as much.
“As a musician, I never like to be writing within a comfort zone,
because you invariably write music which sounds comfortable.
Set Fire To The Hive was something we wrote from a weird place,
where we were all frustrated by external stuff, and you can hear
it in the song – it’s like we’re all going ‘FAARRK!!’ It’s definitely
the heaviest moment, the black sheep of the album.”
It’s in that spirit that the band came up with the title Sound
Awake, says Kenny. “We questioned everything with this record,
because the moment we stop doing that, we’re fucked. The term
‘sound awake’ came from the idea of remaining awake in an
environment where it’s so easy to turn off. It also stands for how
this album is going to be a challenge to digest in one sitting – it’s
going to test some people. It’s going to be hard on the palate at

So, do the band have any parting advice for Karnivool fans
wanting to wrap their heads around the new beast? “With this
album, we tried to challenge ourselves, not only individually but
as a collective,” Hoss concludes. “To us it feels like a big step-up
from Themata, a direction we had to take and a big melting pot
of all our ideas that crystallised together. I really hope they like
it. It’s epic.”

Drew deflects the question with a chuckle. “For me, it’s just
great to have the album finally in the bag. A big weight off my
shoulders. It’s up to them how they engage with it.”
“Our fans are pretty loyal,” muses drummer Steve Judd. “We
haven’t had anything out in about four years and they keep
rocking up to the shows, so I’m confident they’ll be into it. Time
will tell.”
Kenny thinks for a second before responding. “This album will
keep on giving. There’s a lot of sonic depth on each track and I’m
still hearing so many undertones and reasons as to why each
song ended up the way it did. A new album should challenge your
listeners. Give them something new, different and inspirational,
and I think if you’re delving into those sort of waters as a band,
then you’re on the money.”
Leave it to bass player Jono for the final words: “Turn it up,” he
drawls. “Loud.”

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