Outside In are a rare beast indeed, as not only are they a progressive rock band, but they are a progressive rock band from New Zealand! Our wonderful country has a geographical mass a little larger than the UK, but less than five million people live here, and while a third of that population can be found around Auckland, realistically there is an incredibly small market for both live work and recorded material. But there are some who cannot help themselves and just have to perform, whatever cost and hard work that entails. The band came together with a while back, releasing an EP as long ago as 2015, but there have been the usual issues with any new group and it is only fairly recently that the line-up stabilized around Mikey Brown (vocals and harmonies, lyrics, synthesizers, keyboards, guitar), Jonnie Barnard (guitars), Adam Tobeck (drums), Elliott Seung Il Park (bass) and Joe Park (guitar). Here is a band that are determined to do things their way, so even before they had an album deal they recorded a series of three videos that tell a story and should be watched in the correct order (to see what I mean take a trip over to https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWIwBrxGaiovJ9_nG7-BaLSq96fJbfebg). They have since signed a deal with TeMatera Smith at AAA Records, and the result is ‘Karmatrain’.
The obvious musical influences are Porcupine Tree and Radiohead, although some have also been pointing towards the likes of A Perfect Circle or Karnivool. In many ways, the album revolves around the vocals, and Mikey Brown is one of the most exciting new male singers I have come across for a while, with the music swirling around so it all comes together. Just listen to the outro of “Mushrooms” to hear what I mean, where the vocals mingle, rise and swell. But the reason the vocals are allowed to shine is due to the music, which is always the perfect accompaniment, so guitars can be staccato in one place to provide some emphasis or they can be more in the background. There is not much space in the production, but somehow there is still a great deal of clarity and no muddiness in the sound, it is just that to get the correct effect it needs to be all-encompassing. When going through a collection of potential songs for the album, Mikey realized a few were lyrically influenced by a novel he had read while on holiday in Nice about ten years ago, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’. The themes being fairly universal he decided to incorporate more of the book’s influence into the writing process until eventually, it was obvious that this was becoming a concept album. The album has ended up with each of the 12 songs representing one of the 12 chapters from the book. Each song has a story that relates to that chapter but also has a parallel story from his own experiences. It just gradually became a more conceptual thing that provided a framework to pin ideas against.
I’ve sat and listened to the album back to back four times today, and each time not only do I get more from it but I am amazed that the music is so polished and finessed from a band that very few have come across before this. I had not, and I work in the same city! It was also self-produced by guitarist Jonnie Barnard (then mixed and mastered by Dave Rhodes), yet this sounds as if it could have come from a top studio. There are strong dynamics, shifts in tempo, and powerful performances from all the players. Listen to what is going on behind the lines and there are some simply stunning bass lines from Park while Tobeck is never settled and is constantly shifting the percussive approach. This means that some bars may be hi-hat/snare, others may just be cymbals, and he is putting in fills everywhere. Then on top of a complex foundation, the two guitarists mix and mingle.
This is crossover progressive rock for the 21st century, influenced by more recent acts than many within the scene, creating a sound that is looking both to the recent past and also for the future. Outside In, the prog band from the end of the world you have never heard of. Outside In. Karmatrain. Investigate them on YouTube, then get the album.
9/10 Kev Rowland