4 Aug 2020

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Outside In - Album Review: Karmatrain

17 May 2020 // A review by Ben Ruegg
The debut release from Outside In is incredible, and it's currently up there as of the greatest debuts from a New Zealand band. Ok, let me explain.

In the age of modern music consumption, singles seem to run the roost. Yet, there are many artists who believe in the idea of an album; a body of work that represents an idea or a concept, something that releasing singles every month just can’t do justice to.

The debut album, Karmatrain, from Auckland 5-piece Outside In delivers what I believe is one of the boldest and most musically intricate albums, not only from this year, but in the last while.

And it is essential to note that this really is an album from start to finish. One that requires your attention, multiple listens and deep thought. Ditch the headphones. Ditch the portable speaker. Get yourself comfortable with a good set of full-range speakers that actually move air and you will be taken on a journey about self-discovery. Produced by guitarist and founding member Jonnie Barnard, the album is well-crafted and wonderfully arranged. There is so much happening here while making sure it all works and makes sense.

Inspired lyrically by the book Siddharta by Hermann Hesse, the album is made up of two parts. Each song is inspired by the 12 chapters of the novel.

Starting the album off is the track Let Me Go. From the moment the acoustic guitar comes in, it grabs your attention right away. I love the way the guitar on the right channel perfectly pair up with the chords from the acoustic on the left channel. Mikey’s vocals are delicate and real. They are not overproduced in any way, which makes them ring clear and true. Of course, where production requires doubled vocals and harmonies, these are all treated with such care as to not overdo them. The one thing you notice by the end of the first track is the amount of care is given to the little details; from the wonderful pulsing bassline from Elliott, or the ghost notes played perfectly by Adam. Everything is just well thought out. Mikey’s vocal range is showcased throughout the album, including his harmonies which sound absolutely fantastic.
Let Me Go builds up to a compelling payoff, which is a great set up to what the album holds. Each track flows and goes through different dynamic landscapes.

I want to touch on the musicianship for a moment. If you like paying attention to everything that is going on in a song, this is the album for you.

In Blue Dragon, it wasn’t until a few listens later I noticed the wicked motif that the guitar on the right side is playing. And it is gems like this that keep you coming back. It’s like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’ but in a musical context; you are listening to the overall song but also find things along the way.

Adam and Elliot are so tight that I am in awe at just how they pulled this off. It is obvious that Adam is influenced by some incredibly talented drummers like Steve Judd from Karnivool as there are little nods to him all over the place. All the while, Dave Rhodes' mixing and mastering has allowed for everyone to be clearly heard. Dave gives this album room to breathe in its dynamic makeup, one whereby listening to it on a good stereo you can really feel it.

Karmatrain also rewards multiple listens. There were a few songs here that at first I was little confused on how I would groove to it, like Echos and Stepping Stones, which has an odd time signature paired with some very jazz-influenced chords. There is a wonderful guitar solo that is played extremely tastefully before the song reaches a point that fully transforms it. The bridge here and sub-sequential build-up and payoff is a fine example of the songwriting found on this album. The idea which first starts the song is heard from a different perspective and it clicks and suddenly makes sense. Genius.

Bridges ends part 1 of Karmatrain. "I am reborn after the storm. Seeing things for the first time". "See the beauty in this emptiness and starting again". These are some incredible lyrics. What’s more, again, musically it is sound and powerful. What I loved so much about this track was the very end. It stops abruptly before kicking into the second part of the album.

Throughout the tracks, there are ambient noises and sound effects that link everything together. The transition from Bridges into Morning Warning is one of my favourites. My subs were having a party and there is this definite shift from a lighter side to a darker side that comes. The menacing drum and bass groove that kicks off this track with the swelling guitars is a perfect lead-in for Mikey’s vocals.

This song is a huge track that pairs perfectly with the next track The Lake which is driven by this 6/8 time signature and heavier guitars and bass. The soaring chorus again just showcases the bands writing abilities and Mikey’s powerful vocal and ability. The bridge in this song is just a powerhouse. That guitar line is driven by the groove from everyone else. And that guitar solo/melodic idea is beautiful and played perfectly allowing for the emotions of the track to help lift the lyrical ideas further; "The boatman calls for me to join him and push out from the beach. The past that haunted me, the weight around my mind has been released. In the stillness we are floating, we are awake. Take me further from the desert into The Lake!"

The Garden Of Light is a prog-rock monster. It has some of the heaviest guitars on the album coupled with some of the more aggressive bass and drums. There are little nods to A Perfect Circle in this track, especially in the guitar and bass section. I love hearing influence coming through in the music and this one is no exception. You can tell why this was one of the original singles to help promo the album as it stands out as one of the best tracks. Everything works here. I should mention again the interplay between the two guitarists, Jonnie and Joe. There is so much happening that you really need to listen out and pay attention to it because they are not just playing chords or riffs, they are working together to create soundscapes, complementing each other and the whole band.

Another massive track that is one of the heavier tracks is The Ferryman. There are definitely moments on the album where you can hear the heavier side coming through and it reminds me of the treatment that bands like Karnivool and Tesseract give their music. It’s not always about being heavy and prog-rock, but more that when you need to have these elements in your songs, you do it tastefully and with thought. About 2/3rds of the way through The Ferryman, it just goes off. And then, with a sharp cut off of a fuzzed bass sound, you are in the bush again with the birds and a gentle piano.

The penultimate track Om is another example of this idea of using dynamics to push the story further, giving more weight to the lyrics and their meaning. "The flower that slowly blooms inside to reveal what was there all along, brings the ending of the night".

And the final track I Am Not The One is the longest and is the perfect way to finish the album. To me, this song is a masterpiece. The way it starts, builds up and pays off is something you need to experience. I won’t spoil it here. No way.

Overall, this is currently in my top tier of debut albums from any New Zealand band. I am actually in awe at how detailed it is. The amount of time and effort put into this body of work deserves your attention. And you know, I am aware that in today’s world there are so many people who just skip songs on Spotify or whatever, but this album speaks to me as a musician and somebody that loves music. A lot of us pour our souls into what we do. To release an album like this, at this level of performance and songwriting is inspiring. I can only imagine how this will translate live. Sign me up. Sit me down. I want to feel this.

Outside In list influences such as Pink Floyd, A Perfect Circle, Porcupine Tree, Radiohead and Karnivool. And I can definitely hear that. I would also say bands like early Genesis and Marillion pop their heads up too. This is an album for music lovers and people who love to pay attention to everything, not just the melody and beat. Oh no, good connoisseur of music, you and I both know that this album is for us. We love to listen to the detail and thought put into the writing and arrangement of music.

Special mention to Dave Rhodes for his incredible work on this the mixing is perfect and it always feels dynamic. I love that.

And Jonnie....Bravo to your production here. It is world-class!

Rating: ( 5 / 5 )

About Outside In

Progressive rock band from Auckland, New Zealand formed by singer-songwriter Mikey Brown and guitarist Jonnie Barnard in 2012.

Outside In weave together alternative and prog-rock elements to produce a sound that is their own.

During 2019 the band released 3 music videos supporting their debut album Karmatrain.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Outside In


Year: 2020
Type: Album
The Nature of Dreams
Year: 2015
Type: EP

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