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Zen and the Art of Rock

Feel the ’90s vibe and kung fu drums of Karate


Where were you in 1994? And what were you listening to?

Let’s take a trip back a few years to a time when things were much simpler—Y2K hysteria just distant techie hype, Jawbox still together and the word “indie” on the tips of tongues from Chapel Hill to Boston. In North Carolina, Superchunk, the Archers of Loaf and Polvo were revving Merge records with hyperdrive guitar anthems. Arlington, Va., was holding its first annual Indie Rock Flea Market. New York saw a new band called Blonde Redhead release a humbly self-titled debut record, and Boston’s Vehicle Birth and Karate were beginning to stir the souls of post-adolescent straight-edge vegans.

It is damn near impossible to significantly separate Karate from the musical context out of which they emerged: the emo phenomenon. Emo married the melodic emphasis and emotive delivery of Sunny Day Real Estate with the integritous fashion and shyboy posturing of Fugazi. Add to the mix the youthful intensity of hardcore, and you have yet another mutant strain of subhybridization that was as short-lived as it was effective in mobilizing hordes of kids nationwide in discovering underground music. Bands spun off at cancerous rates. It seemed like every local record store was having in-store shows and displayed the wares of new fledgling labels and zines every other month—which brings me back to Karate.

I was first introduced to Karate at a party. As soon as I heard the opening chords of “Gasoline,” in which singer/ guitarist Geoff Farina calls out, “Heeeeeeeeeey … Ssssssugar,” I knew that I needed to have the record. They hit that sweet spot between understatement and saturation. They turned down the tempo to glacial paces, yet avoided the repetitious drudgery that befalls lesser-skilled slowcore outfits. Which is not to say that they are, by any means, exclusively downtempo. The skill with which they craft the upbeat numbers is truly inspiring. Effortless and streamlined timing shifts have caused more than a few rewinds, but they never force themselves and are by no means overcomplex. Drummer Gavin McCarthy uses the shao-lin kung fu method of drumming: solid, metronomic and minimalist, but when backed into a corner will let fly little gems of whoop-ass, giving the rhythm section a reserved, educated vibe, having the technical agility to run laps but the judgement not to.

With a standard power trio arrangement, which in some cases can tend to overinflate production-wise, Karate remains sparse much of the time, filling their sails, however, at least a few times in each song. This method of presentation leaves plenty of room for Farina’s emotive vocals (which given the “emotive” tag shouldn’t be disregarded as the whiny-college-kid-overanalyzing-his-love-life shtick that is overly common in emo circles). Lyrically, Farina is a bit ambiguous, also not uncommon, but not unbearable. Hell, everyone’s got room for improvement, that’s why we anticipate future releases. Karate could be a formidable musical force if they keep doing it like they’re doing it, and something tells me they will.
Karate plays Jay’s Upstairs Thursday, Nov. 9 at 10 p.m. Cover TBA.

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