It was a cold winter’s day, early in 2011, when Karnataka realised their prayers had been answered.
“We’d auditioned a lot of singers, some real belters, but I had an expectation; I was looking for something,” bassist Ian Jones muses as he recalls the first time soprano Hayley Griffiths sang in front of him in a south London rehearsal studio. “It’s always a really strange moment when you hear someone new singing one of your tracks,” he continues, “but you know within 10 seconds if that person’s right, and straight away we knew she had it.”
Unlike many of the vocalists who had replied to the band’s advertisements, Griffiths came from neither a prog nor rock background, but was classically trained and had been part of the Celtic extravaganzas Riverdance and Lord Of The Dance. She also came recommended, so the band’s co-founder was understandably nervous. Would she really be interested in joining a progressive rock band? The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
Initially formed as a studio project in Swansea in 1997, Karnataka received critical acclaim for three stunning albums and a host of breathtaking live shows, only to dissolve in 2004. Jones moved to London after the disintegration and soon decided to piece the jigsaw back together with a new team. Karnataka v2.0 released their comeback album The Gathering Light in 2010 to a mixture of criticism and praise: some fans, and former band members, felt the bassist should have changed the name, while others revelled in their renaissance.
Yet despite the positive reviews and a new musical partner in the form of Italian guitarist Enrico Pinna, this line-up wasn’t to be either. Frontwoman Lisa Fury relocated to Australia and the remaining personnel were session musicians who, although technically competent, lacked the creative chemistry that Jones was after to carry things forward. So Karnataka again spluttered to a halt, leaving the Welsh bassist to resume auditions with Pinna at his side.
“You have those moments,” laughs Jones, when asked if he considered calling it quits. “You do ask yourself if you really want to go through the rigmarole of auditioning and looking for new players again, but I can’t stop. It’s something inside that keeps me going.”
It wasn’t just Hayley Griffiths who joined the band on that winter’s day but also Turkish keyboard player Çagari Tozluoglu, who brought his own fresh menu of musical influences. French drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi completes the new line-up – he joined last year after being scouted by Pinna. “We are a multicultural band now,” says Jones. “It wasn’t planned but it’s something I’m incredibly proud of because it really feeds into the music. And, of course, our name comes from a state in South India.”
It was this multicultural line-up that headed into the studio last summer to begin tracking the album that would become Secrets Of Angels. There’s a real sense of satisfaction coming from Jones as he recounts the recording sessions, which were split between Pinna’s base and Real World Studios. Eight interconnected songs nestle alongside each other, with titles such as Poison Ivy, Forbidden Dreams and Road To Cairo, all sharing themes of forbidden love and the barriers that modern society erects between cultures.
The grand finale is the 21-minute title track that merges the futility of war with the secrets that people take to the grave. It’s the perfect feather on this wonderfully diverse cap, which is topped off with striking album art that pulls the whole package together.
“I was trying to avoid putting an angel on the cover because it’s arguably overused in rock!” Jones confesses of their angelic cover. “We were trying to capture the anguish from the title track and it just seemed right.”
Where The Gathering Light saw Karnataka gently drifting away from their folkish roots and moving in a more eclectic direction, Secrets Of Angels sees them fluttering towards the realm of symphonic rock. Their influences are more fluid as they’ve shifted gears, with Griffiths’ powerful vocals embellishing their dynamic new noise.
“The change of sound is something that would have happened anyway,” shrugs Jones when asked whether the transition was deliberate. “I didn’t want to do another album with a lot of mid-paced stuff in that ballady territory because we’d done a lot of that. It just happened that Çagri and Hayley were fans of bands like Within Temptation – Hydra and The Silent Force were pretty much on repeat on my car CD player as well – so I think those were influences that were rubbing off. We’ve got Troy Donockley [Nightwish] on this album too and we’ve kept that Celtic edge, which I love. But on half the album, we’ve moved into a darker space lyrically and musically, without losing the big sound and strong melodies that people think of as Karnataka.”
To enhance that, they also brought in viola player Clive Howard and cellist Rachel van der Tang, both from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as harpist Seána Davey. The whole package has been mixed by Joe Gibb, who also handled duties on Karnataka’s acclaimed third album Delicate Flame Of Desire.
While Ian Jones’ original bandmates are focusing on their own prog-friendly projects – namely The Reasoning, Panic Room and Luna Rossa – Karnataka are in the midst of their latest tour with Hayley Griffiths at the helm, and the bassist is the first to admit she’s come a long way since her 2012 live debut with the band. “She’s become a frontwoman instead of just a singer,” he observes. “Anyone can just stand there and say, ‘The next song will be… but reacting to an audience is a different thing. It’s been amazing to watch her because she has a different delivery. She’s found her own feet.”
Karnataka’s future is now looking heavenly. Their number one ambition would be to take their live show to the next level with a one-off theatrical date but until they win the Lottery, that’s still a distant dream. Of course, none of this would have been possible had the musical jigsaw not slotted together so perfectly on that cold winter’s day.
“We’d probably still be auditioning and looking for the right person!” laughs Jones. “Karnataka isn’t something I want to do just for the sake of it. We’ve got our fans’ respect and it’s too special to me to spoil.”
This article originally appeared in Prog 54.