Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Three Colours Dark's 'The Science of Goodbye' - Album Review

Despite the latest iteration of the band's relaunch being indefinitely delayed due to COVID-19, fans of the Welsh progressive/symphonic rock act Karnataka have been kept sated of late by some studio releases from the band's wider family. Last year saw the long-awaited debut album from Chase the Monsoon, No Ordinary World (which I reviewed here), which saw Ian Jones, Karnataka's only consistent member, reunite with former vocalist Lisa Fury and former guitarist Enrico Pinna. With Jones' Illuminae project promising an album soon, along with the new material being written by the current Karnataka incarnation, Karnataka fans have a lot to look forward to - and that was before the surprise announcement of Three Colours Dark last month, which sees the reunion of two of Karnataka's founding members. Three Colours Dark marks the first time that vocalist Rachel Cohen and keyboardist Jonathan Edwards have worked together since the break-up of the original Karnataka line-up in 2004. Personal circumstances brought the original iteration of Karnataka to a grinding halt only a year or so after they released the excellent Delicate Flame of Desire in 2003 (which is probably still my favourite Karnataka album despite some strong competition), with the band's members all going on to other projects. Many of the band went on to form Panic Room, a band which Edwards still spearheads along with fellow Karnataka alumnus Anne-Marie Helder, while Cohen joined The Reasoning - a heavier prog act who have also since split up. Cohen returned to academia after The Reasoning's end, and Edwards has been busy with both Panic Room and their acoustic-based 'sister' project Luna Rossa - so I think it is safe to say that Three Colours Dark is not a reunion that anyone was really expecting. It is a reunion that is greatly welcomed however, at least by me. Cohen and Edwards were two-thirds of the original Karnataka line-up's songwriting trio, with their contributions leading to those first three Karnataka albums sounding they way that they do. The mix of atmospheric progressive rock with Celtic melodies that adorned those early Karnataka albums has never really been achieved by any of the main protagonists since Delicate Flame of Desire, but Three Colours Dark's debut album, The Science of Goodbye, is easily the closest thing yet to that sound. The sweeping soundscapes of the early Karnataka albums return here which, when coupled with Cohen's delicately-controlled vocals (I am not sure anyone can hold a note quite like her), certainly turns the clock back to the early days of Three Colours Dark's former band. The Science of Goodbye is not merely a retread of Delicate Flame of Desire et al. however, with this new project taking a bit more of a starker and introspective approach. This new album is not as grand as those old Karnataka releases, but there is a smouldering power that reveals itself over repeated listens - while still containing some hallmarks of that old sound. Cohen, Edwards, and producer Tim Hamill perform all of the album's ten songs; while a handful of special guests including Steve Balsamo (The Storys), Dave Gregory (XTC; Big Big Train; Tin Spirits), and Chantel McGregor also add their magic to some of the songs.

While The Science of Goodbye is, broadly speaking, a rock album, it is an album that never really deals in loud riffing or driving rhythms. It is a slow-burner, and an album that sometimes teeters on the edge of a heavier vibe - but it always reels itself back in, content with its lush soundscapes and subtle harmonies. Such an atmosphere is present from the off, with the opening number Enter, Soubrette showcasing the album's core sound. Edwards' shimmering keyboards open the track, while sparse violin lines from Kate Ronconi (who adds her talents to a few of the album's tracks) provide an early focal point. The song sums up the album's slow-burning nature perfectly. Hamill's slow-paced programmed drum pattern lets the song move along at a serene pace, while effects-heavy guitar lines and dense keyboards provide a perfect backing for Cohen's first recorded vocal performance since her work on The Reasoning's 2012 album Adventures in Neverland. This is a far cry from The Reasoning's work however, and instead the song follows the sparser end of Karnataka's early output - with Cohen's unique voice perfectly delivering her lyrics in a crystal clear fashion. Many of the songs here are built of distinct layers that come and go as the track moves forward, and the opener is no different. Occasional acoustic guitar chords add depth when needed, while Ronconi's violin acts as an alternative leading force when Cohen is silent. Wonderland (How Can This Be Love?) opens with a dense keyboard line, before Hamill establishes a strong groove with his bass playing and drum pattern. The verses have a darkness to them, with the bass providing the main melody lines, while heavier electric guitars occasionally stab into the track - recalling the gothic overtones of The Reasoning at times. Balsamo adds his voice to the song too, with his folk-influenced style mixing in well with Cohen's subtle power. This duetting vocal style and the way the two harmonise together also recalls The Reasoning at times, as the band's early albums were built around big multi-part vocal harmonies. Not to be outdone, Edwards also has some time to shine with plenty of warm synth playing throughout. He takes something of a solo part way through the piece, while Hamill steps up at the end for a short, controlled guitar solo. Know You Now starts off with some very distant, echoed vocals, before Edwards lays down a rolling piano backing which forms the basis of the track. Cohen name drops Heart of Stone and Dark Angel, two songs from her past, here - which provide nice Easter Eggs for long-time fans of her work - while curve balls are thrown in the form of stark horn lines from Nathan Bray, which give the song an occasional, unexpected jazzy twist. Much of the song is very basic, with the piano and occasional horns providing the only real backing for Cohen - until the end that is when a basic percussion loop and an acoustic guitar quietly sidle into view, before the song comes to a close with Bray's horns.

Ghosts in the Wind is a cover of the Richard Thompson song from his 1985 release Across a Crowded Room. I was unfamiliar with the song prior to hearing this album, but Cohen and Edwards' arrangement of the track certainly makes it feel at home here - and I would not have known the track was a cover if I had not read the CD's booklet. Thompson is a folk artist, and there has always been a touch of folk to Cohen's delivery, which makes the song perfect fodder for her emotional vocals - while Edwards lays down some sombre and dramatic piano. Gregory makes his only appearance on the album here too, and he makes his presence felt with some spacey and controlled guitar lines which really cut through the dense backing with ease. It is not a flashy display by any means, but it fits the song perfectly - and his playing really adds an edge to the track that would be missing otherwise. The guitar performance has a slightly abrasive feel, but this contrasts nicely with Cohen's smooth vocals to really bring the piece together. The album's self-titled track has something of a grander overall sound. Cohen's voice is often layered together to make something of a choir, and some of the vocal melodies that she uses throughout really take me back to those early Karnataka albums - something that is refined by the more prominent use of electric guitar lines, played by Edwards, while the keyboards take a bit more of a backseat. The drum programming here is much punchier than elsewhere on the album, which helps to establish a strong groove, while the many Cohen's and Ronconi's violin often merge together to create a huge musical tapestry of grand, folky melodies. There are also a few more references to songs from Cohen's past here, see if you can spot them! Tasted Like Kryptonite is based around another subtle, but driving, groove. A drum beat with plenty of pocket forms the basis of the track, while synth bass and piano fill in all the gaps. Despite the song's excellent grooves, it is actually Cohen's lyrics that really stand out. She has always been a unique lyricist, especially since becoming the dominate lyricist for The Reasoning, with her academic work fuelling her often-dark tales. The CD's booklet even includes a fully-referenced page of 'further reading', with articles that relate to some of the themes etc. discussed throughout the lyrics here. This song has easily the most captivating lyrics on the album for me, and it makes me pleased that Cohen is back and adding to her excellent lyrical canon. Rainbow's End is more of a subtle piano-based track with some dense melodies from Edwards while Cohen's vocals sound at times like cries of desperation - which fits perfectly into the song's raw aesthetic. The lush sound that characterises much of the album is largely absent here, with Edwards' keyboards essentially forming the whole song - although Ronconi makes her presence felt again with some stark, cutting violin melodies which again contrasting well with the vocals. Cohen's voice goes so well with a violin that it makes me wonder why she has never worked with a violinist previously.

Blood Moon Rising gets back to the bigger sound found throughout much of the album, with blues guitarist McGregor putting her mark on the track with some spacey ebow playing and occasional guitar leads. This not really a guitar-heavy album, but when the instrument is brought to the fore it really helps to define the song. McGregor's playing throughout Blood Moon Rising helps to give it its unique feeling, with Edwards' rare use of an organ helping to reinforce a bit of retro rock vibe. As a result the song sounds quite different to everything else on the album, while still retaining the band's core sound. There is certainly a stronger influence from old-school progressive rock on display here, with the organ and guitar dominance showcasing this, while Balsamo is once again employed to add vocal harmonies alongside Cohen to boost the sound. The song also contains the lengthiest guitar solo on the album, with McGregor cutting loose towards the end of the track as she mixes some of her usual bluesy style alongside some old-school prog phrasing. Monster doubles down on the lush soundscapes found elsewhere, with a big string arrangement opening the song up; before a trippy beat that sounds like nothing else on the album introduces itself along with some dark guitar chords from Hamill. This is a very strange song in the context of the album, and it is easily the most unique-sounding piece here. The drum beats have a pseudo-industrial feel to them at times which, along with the guitars, lead to a dense and somewhat heavy sound. A sparkly keyboard riff always keeps some light in the track however, while Cohen and Balsamo again join forces for a big vocal presence that fits the creepy and desolate vibe created elsewhere. A strong rock drum beat kicks in towards the end of the piece, and this is easily the closest thing on the album to all-out hard rock. It is certainly the heaviest thing on the album, with tough-sounding guitars and cutting synths providing a change of pace from the more whimsical arrangements found elsewhere. The album's title track is also the album's closing number, and the heaviness of the previous song is stripped away to be replaced by a prominent acoustic guitar chord pattern and Cohen's lyrical vocal delivery. Being the album's title track, as well as its final statement, lots of the themes and styles utilised throughout are reprised here. The violins and horns from previous songs are used again, subtly, with layers of melodies slowly piling on top of each other to make a grand song packed full of secrets that reveal themselves over multiple listens. There is a certain strident confidence to the song too, especially towards the end when a punchy drum beat kicks in and Bray's trumpet plays a pompous refrain while Cohen and Balsamo sing the song's closing lyrics together in a defiant and hopeful manner. After the darkness of the previous song, The Science of Goodbye ensures that the album ends with a light at the end of the tunnel - while showcasing the core sound of the band once again. Overall, The Science of Goodbye is an excellent debut release from this new project that sees old friends reconvene again to great success. While it is unclear at this point whether Three Colours Dark is intended to be a one-off collaboration or not, I certainly would like to hear more from the pair going forward. Cohen has been absent in the music world for far too long, and it is great to hear her again doing what she does best.

The album was released on 28th March 2020 via Firefly Music. Below is the band's promotional video for the album, that includes clips of many of the songs featured throughout.

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