Death Karma – The History of Death & Burial Rituals Part I ALBUM REVIEW

Death is typically something not frequently talked about amongst the general population. And even when it is, there’s a sense of taboo and that nagging feeling that the more you talk about, the more real it becomes. It’s one of those things that people acknowledge exists, but never truly see it as a reality, until it happens to someone they know. And even then they are quick to try to get that thought out of their head as fast as possible. Because acknowledging your own mortality is scary shit. The metal community has never really had a problem with that however, as death is not only a major theme throughout the entire metal canon, but is even the name of one of it’s biggest sub-genres. Death Karma takes it a step further and has created a concept album that has the most self explanatory title I’ve ever seen. It is quite literally a concept album about the history of death and burial rituals throughout countries across the globe. Each song title even begins the country it is based on (i.e. Slovakia – Journey of the Soul). So while the intentions and meaning are obvious, it surprised me that the way the music displays these concepts, are not in the slightest. And quite often, that was for the worse.

The album begins with a mournful church organ over what I assume is some sort of spoken word burial ritual (which is a complete guess, but given the album’s theme, I think I have a good shot at getting it right). The organ is a major theme throughout the entire album, giving Burial Rituals that cultish, eerie feeling that it needs. Unfortunately, it is very underutilized outside of the first track. It is only seen in spurts, or in the case of China – Hanging Coffins, and India – Towers of Silence, it is basically reduced to a background instrument. This is important because when it is used, mostly in the intros on the tracks on the first half of the album, it sets up the atmosphere perfectly, which is creepy, mournful, and sad. I really do like it when this album edges more on the creepy side, such as on Mexico – Chichén Itzá, as the opening to that track is probably the highlight of the album. It opens with this horror movie synth and scooby doo-like chromatic sliding guitar. It then goes into this tribal drumming sequence along with the same previous elements and vocals that sound like the final sacraments before the victim is sacrificed to the gods. It’s like if the Mystery Gang got lost in Mexico circa 1400 AD, and through a series of goofy chase scenes and 60s era pop rock montages, are now at the hands of an Aztec Emperor, about to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli (real aztec god by the way). If you listen carefully, you can here Shaggy and Scooby’s teeth chattering, and Velma complaining that she has no idea what’s going on because she still can’t fucking find her glasses. The difference between this and the actual show is that here the Mystery Gang are all brutally killed, and the show ends with millions of crying children, wondering how god can be so cruel. Actually the intro ends with a bit of a whimper, as there’s no silence to let the ends of that intense moment sink in. Instead it immediately transitions into standard a doomy death metal song. This demonstrates two major issues that plague this album.

The first is the issue of transitions. Remember that initial beginning to the album with the spooky organ and the spoken word? The transition to that is pretty much immediate, like they just cut off the priest speaking before the ritual can even finish. The pattern throughout the first 4 tracks of the album is a really awesome atmospheric intro that sets up the exact mood the album should strive for, followed directly by something completely unrelated which ends up being the actual song. I believe what’s more important than having a really good intro and a really good main song, is having an intro and main song that connect and flow into each other. Otherwise it seems disorganized. Which is also a major problem of this album. There are plenty of ideas here, but all the really cool and unique ones seem to act as separate entities, basically decoration. It’s sort of like seasoning a Hungry Man meal with caviar. The worst case of this is on the final track, China –  Hanging Coffins, where the entire track is pretty standard blackened death track with some blues influences. Except for the very end, which ends with an array of Chinese percussion instruments being played louder and louder, including the rumble of a gong, until it ends with a stop as the ringing form the bells and gongs ends. It’s quite spectacular. Unfortunately, none of these ideas are present until the last 40 seconds of the track. It makes me wonder how much better this could’ve been had they incorporated these ideas throughout the entire song. As it stands, China is like eating some pretty standard mashed potatoes, and then when you have 3 bites left the cook says “OH I forgot to add the gravy”, and then pours on this incredible gravy that you only get to enjoy for the last few bites of the meal. A similar thing happens during both Czech Republic – Úmrlčí prkna , and Madagascar – Famadihana. Both have really nice atmospheric intros, only to be followed by bland black/death tracks. It’s sort of like getting some really good mashed potatoes and gravy, except after you’ve take a few bites, the cook comes back with a vacuum and sucks off all the gravy, leaving you with the dry, bland potatoes. Though I am being a bit unfair here. These aren’t bad tracks on their own, it’s just that they could be so much more. I feel like there’s a lot of missed potential on this album.

The second problem that one transition showed was how the songwriting can be somewhat stale. It’s not as if it particularly sounds bad, or even that generic. But I do get the feeling during most of the main tracks that I’ve heard something at least similar to this before. Now, I have no problem with bands having standard songwriting. Even if it’s not creative, if it’s done well, I’ll probably really like it. The problem here is that this band set this album up as a concept album. Fair or not, if you’re going to say that your music represents something, I’m going to judge the music more on how it represents that concept rather than how well executed the music is. Which in my mind is the main fault of this album. The music absolutely does not match the album concept, and this happens because while the ideas by themselves are solid, they just don’t seem to represent what the band is trying to get them to represent.

The band actually listed on their band camp what each track is about. For instance, India – Towers of Silence, is actually about the Towers of Silence in India, where people place dead bodies so that the vultures can feed on them, as a final act of charity. I would think with a topic like that, the song would be not just mournful, but probably minimalistic, maybe even with some joyful elements as this is an act of charity, and while the death may be sad, those vultures are quiet happy. The actual track is nothing like that. Instead, it is a thrashy instrumental track with some blues influences, very similar to China, except with no vocals. No matter how hard I try, I absolutely cannot connect the music to the idea of the song. And this goes for every track except maybe Mexico, but even then, that’s really only the intro, the actual song isn’t that remarkable in context. I know I’m basically asking this band to make their musical metaphors more obvious, which is something I never really want to do. I would never want a band to stray away from the abstract, or from trying to represent something in a way that even the large majority of people won’t get. But for that to work, SOMEONE has to get it. It has to represent the music in SOME way. You can’t just call something a concept album and then forget the concept part.

I feel like this band has a lot of potential, especially since this is just their debut full-length album. I can understand a new band may want to experiment, but doesn’t quite know how to fully go through with it. Maybe they want to play safe so that they may attract as many people as possible. It evident that Death Karma has some good ideas, they just need to commit to them fully. At least that’s the optimist in me speaking. Hopefully Part II of this sequence will embrace uniqueness rather than just using it as dressing. The front-man of this band said of bandcamp that this is like a musical book about death. I think in this case, I would’ve learned a lot more from reading an actual book than by listening to this album.


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