Baby steps: Karate

Baby steps is our “introduction to…” column. Yes, there might be a few Bill Murray fans here. This week’s instalment is courtesy of Simon Roberts. The subject? Read on… 
Who are the most underrated band of all time? You could say The Velvet Underground but the legion of bands they inspired and the back payment of praise discounts them. Pavement perhaps? The influence on latter day Blur and the subsequent reformation says they got enough recognition. More obscure then? Six By Seven? A band I loved and they were certainly underrated but they were at least rated by the press for a short while. No, my friends, THE most underrated band of all time is Karate.
Born out of the late-90s Discord scene, this Boston power trio took a traditional format – guitar, bass, drums, vocal – and added a jazz influence which mixed to great effect with their punky Pavement meets Television sounds and over the course of six albums amazed anyone who heard them or saw them live. And yet, this was with little to no airplay and barely a sniff of a review (good or bad). This is what continues to baffle me as they are the kind of band, a cult one admittedly, but a band that should have had some recognition in the press at least.

 Geoff Farina is the man behind the group’s sound as it’s his guitar work that truly sets Karate apart from their Alt-rock peers. Like a looser, jazzier Tom Verlaine, he has a unique tone that is at once clean as a whistle but then as dirty as AC/DC when he gives it some welly. The self-titled 1995 début album, it’s follow-up (In Place Of Real Insight) and The Bed Is In The Ocean are ragged post-punk postcards from inner-city USA that have some absolute gems (‘Bad Tattoo’, ‘—‘, ‘New Martini’, ‘Diazapam’) but sound like a band just starting out and feeling their way around. They even expanded to a four-piece on In Place Of Real Insight but soon reverted back to the power trio format.

For me, the album where they came into their own was Unsolved (spotify). Opening with two very free-form Jazz rock tracks (‘Small Fires’, ‘The Lived-But-Yet-Named’) is pretty brave but marks the point where Karate set themselves apart from the crowd. Following these loose rambling tracks with an absolute stormer in ‘Sever’, then reminds you that they still know their way around a tune. It’s strong lead lines offset with hard riffing as the song progresses and the lyrical slant of “failed pedestrian dreams” is something that Farina would get stronger and stronger at conveying: ordinary heartbreak and struggle, made to sound like something so epic and important it could change the world.

 For the rest of their time together, Karate continued to wow with 2002’s Some Boots, featuring the finest post-break-up-record-collection-split-up song ever in ‘First Release’. A tale of a girlfriend who “always left my singles on the bedroom floor“, having to sell your vinyl to pay the rent and contains a killer line that will resonate with musos everywhere: “I still spin the same sounds for these unsatisfied ears, because there’s always something new to hear…“. This sums up Karate‘s approach well as they took the familiar (rock music, power-trio, break-up songs) and put a refreshing new twist on it (Jazz, grounded imagery, big guitar solos) and while their final album Pockets (spotify) shows that they ran out of steam in the end (not surprising when you got as little recognition as they did), they took their music to the people (post-split live album 595 (spotify) cements that) and those who were lucky enough to see them or even just hear one of their albums will bend your ear for hours about that vastly underrated band called Karate. Do yourself a favour and check ’em out!
Words: Simon Roberts

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