Listening to Karmakoma’s debut album “Imagination and Mechanical Metamorphoses,” one gets the idea that life in Slovenia is tenuous and difficult. Slovenians have lived in constant uncertainty for centuries, with their tiny country at the mercy of invaders and imposed rule. Only in 1991, as the former Yugoslavia fell was Slovenia’s new constitution ratified; in 1992 Slovenia joined the United Nations and in 2004 it was the first post-communist country to join the European Union.
The album’s performances give the impression of authentic edginess, not the manufactured theatrical edge of artists who grew up in comfortable surroundings. An email exchange with the band’s leader Enej Mavsar does little to dispel this notion. Though amiable, he steered me away from political discussion other than expressing frustration with the status quo in the form of church scandals, and social and political corruption (though Slovenia rated a modest 35/175 at www.transparency.org , discussion of political misdeeds is common in the media and in gossip, according to “Culture Smart: Slovenia,” by Jason Blake, 2011 Kuperard).
But enough about that. Karmakoma has managed to package a madhouse worth of crazed energy into a ten song album that will rock your socks off. Mavsar’s lyrics and vocal style convey a sense of desperate urgency, which the pulsating synth beat and big-sounding acoustic drums drive home. From the track “Ctrl-Alt-Delete:”
Protect yourself/Keep away from the windows/Defend your friend/From the leader/We are crazy animals, but better than to be a machine/We are lazy animals, but better than to be a machine
In 1979 when David Byrne of the Talking Heads sang in “Life During Wartime” about staying away from the windows, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that it was theatre. In the case of Karmakoma, you can’t be so sure, given Slovenia’s history of turmoil and because it’s a young nation still experimenting with modes of governing.
Formed in 2011 by Mavsar and his friend, drummer Benjamin Kovač, Karmakoma also features Miha Škafar on bass, guitar and synth bass when they play live. Their influences are for anyone to hear; it was British and American music that inspired Mavsar growing up:
“I prefer foreign music,” Mavsar explains.” Okay, there are songs and artists who made an impact on me as a child and later in high school, some Slovenian bands whom I still like today, mainly coming from the 80’s punk scene which was very strong and diverse here.” Mavsar’s favorite genre in high school was grunge, “and it stayed with me forever,” he says. “I have to say we are all into very diverse music, from classic to hardcore punk like Black Flag to bands like Can or Trans Am or dance music, which we also produce.”
What Karmakoma brings from the punk experience is throbbing beats, lyrical repetitions with shouted vocals that are expressions of frustration with the status quo, as well as the assertion of one’s right to be heard. The very definite dance music influence comes in the form of the pulsating electronic bass lines and poppy synths that are sure to inspire listeners to hit the dance floor. Members of the group also DJ, so this is no surprise.
The song “Cabin Fever” features a manic beat and Mavsar’s powerfully visceral vocals, and lyrics that depict life on the impossible-to-navigate edge of reason. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.
Leave me out (stir crazy) lack of luck (stir crazy) ghost for a friend (stir crazy) night and day (stir crazy) I’m late to stay (stir crazy) I’m not insane (stir crazy) Leave me out (stir crazy) not guilty (stir crazy)
The chorus features a repeated plea to a friend for the support that becomes a lifeline when things stop making sense.
I’m on fire/I’m on fire/I’m on fire/walk with me/walk with me
After Mavsar and Kovač formed the band in 2011, they took the project name from a Massive Attack song at the last minute to join a competition. “Well, I had to find a name quick to apply for a show,” Mavsar explains. “I remembered a Massive Attack song title which I thought sounded good; there was no philosophy at the time. But I see how the name is applying to us in different ways.”
Since their formation, the group has played in “Belgium, England, Austria, and all over ex-Yugoslavia,” and plays frequently throughout Slovenia.. Airplay support has also been strong, starting with Airplay on Radio Student Ljubljana in the nation’s capital, leading to airplay on the national Radio Slovenia and on national television, a program called Aritimija. Still, the barriers to reaching truly massive exposure are formidable. “We are like many other Slovenian artists ignored by other radio stations, which are all commercial,” explains Mavsar.
Mavsar spent a few childhood years in music school, and continued as a self-taught musician encouraged by his mom, who bought him his first guitar. In addition to guitars, Mavsar contributes keyboards and programming to Karmakoma. Drummer Kovač’s skills should not be underestimated; the presence of live drums (he plays to a click track in his headphones) is a powerful factor that sets Karmakoma apart from electronica artists who rely on programmed drum beats. Kovač is also largely self-taught, with a few years of music school as a child behind him. The duties of sound design for the group falls to both men.
Karmakoma’s sequenced sound is driven by a Mac laptop. “For now we just use soft synths, (samples) and a computer,” Mavsar writes, almost apologetically. “Real analog synths are pretty expensive for us but we would like to use some on the next album or in the near future.” To accomplish this, the band members balance day jobs with frequent live performances.
The album, recorded throughout 2013 and released in 2014, was produced and engineered by Petar Stojanović at his studio. The year in the studio was a deliberately measured approach to the recording process. “We wanted to have no deadline, to work slowly,” to allow for the members’ schedules and to create something they would be satisfied with, he says.
Like the music they take their inspiration from, Karmakoma’s lyrics feature impressionistic illustrations from the human condition, based on the responsibility of each of us to each other, as members of the human race. From the tune “Bona Fide:”
Oh man, heavy days, dead weight/I have almost lost my mind/you came, bona fide/nothing like a great heart installed, I am saved/why should I run, brave is the man who stands/I can only make you laugh and put you on a pedestal
Inspired by a love relationship, the song’s message is an optimistic note in an album that features a lot of lyrical realism, even cynicism. When asked if the new songs he is working on now will be in this optimistic vein or focus on desperation, Mavsar replies “I guess I know (what you mean) when you say I am a man of despair,” he writes, followed by an emoticon wink. ” I still don’t know which songs will (be) on the album. As I see it now it will be very diverse.” The recent release, “Remiss” from earlier this year is a dreamy departure from their more aggressive sound (linked below at you tube).
Karmakoma represents the new Slovenia, of creative, peaceful dissent, of having the courage to be oneself in the face of stifling traditions, of reaching one’s potential through the power of music. The famously angry old school punkers that inspired Mavsar often let optimism and humor break through, a lesson that is not lost throughout “Imagination and Mechanical Metamorphoses.” Given the bands’ engaging sound and the ambition of the members, it’s easy to be optimistic about Karmakoma’s prospects. With the support of the right label and the right combination of the lyrical and melodic hooks they’ve already mastered, Karmakoma may well break through the barriers keeping them from making Slovenia less of a mystery to fans of alternative rock around the globe.
(A big “thanks” to Sienna for introducing me to these guys!)