Karma – The Last Man to Laugh

1985

We’re skipping over the untitled Altamont album that was recorded in 1984 and released in 2002 because I can’t bloody find it. Nor could I find Side B of Last Man to Laugh, a batch of remixes and alternate takes called, appropriately enough, “Counterparts.” Therefore, we will here treat Side A as though it represents the entirety of The Last Man to Laugh and ignore how the Counterparts, er, counterparts affect the songs in their final form.

Which is just as well, I suppose, because The Last Man to Laugh (start at 37’50”) is not very good. The Joke’s On You presents two different directions Karma could have gone. There was the psychedelic gorgeousness of Small Fish and Nine Cats, and the interminable classic-prog pretentiousness of Tigers in the Rain. Even without accounting for Karma’s particular challenges (all the band members were in high school and couldn’t drive and so couldn’t do much to reach that coveted Wider Audience) one fully understands why one road leads to being crowned King of Prog and the other leads to your band disbanding in a year.

The better track of the two is the first one, Where is the End If There is No Beginning, mostly on the strength of its occasional attempts at structure and the (uncredited?) female vocalist, who sounds amazing. At its best it sounds like the theme for a cheesy 80s sci-fi cartoon. The most interesting thing about the second track, however, is the title (the delightfully evocative A Piece of Earth and Good Swill to All Pigs) and some of the less cacophonic instrumental parts. Otherwise it’s an impenetrable, aimless, twenty-minute slog. They were listening to a lot of Marillion at the time, and listening to Fugazi I can hear superficial similarities, most notably in how they use the horns, but they only occasionally tapped into the sensibilities that actually made Marillion great.

There’s a part of me that both does and does not wonder what Counterparts sounds like, based off the idea that maybe, just maybe, there were more successful iterations of both songs buried in there somewhere. But maybe not. Either way, though, it’s clear both why Karma is a footnote in Steven Wilson’s overall discography, and why their musical style was ultimately a road not taken. Mostly. Small Fish and Nine Cats, even in these early forms, are still brilliant.

Let’s listen to something different.

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Karma – The Joke’s On You

October 1983

This release, on the other hand, is not so encumbered, and is of interest to SW completionists for its actual content instead of its position in history. I’m going to tease this for a bit, as if anyone who’s aware of this tape doesn’t know what’s coming. For space purposes the four tracks on this tape are split such that three short-ish songs are on one side and one long song is on the other. However, if we’re going to split the songs on this tape into two categories, it should be an even two tracks for each, because the first pair of tracks sound completely different from the last pair.

The first track, Intruder D’Or, is basically a four-minute introduction to what we think we’ll be getting on this tape: upbeat ELP/Marillion-style synth improvisation, with a hint of what we in 2017 would describe as “chiptune.” It’s seriously flawed. The problem with it is nothing to do with the musicianship, or the production, or anything with the song itself. It’s just that it is entirely too technical and ambitious for the album it’s on. You write a song like this to start a ninety-minute prog epic, not a thirty-minute four-song EP. When this is the first thing you hear, you get the faintly distressing feeling that the album is going to overpromise and underdeliver.

Tigers in the Rain continues in a roughly similar vein to Intruder D’Or, albeit with more structure and more of an emphasis on the guitars. It’s a progressive rock song that’s aesthetically like a lo-fi punk song. Everything’s raw and unpolished and sounds like it was done in one take. Steven’s vocals don’t sound muffled only when they’re making the microphone pop. You could tell me this was recorded live in a pub basement at one in the morning in front of a confused audience of maybe thirty, and I would believe you.

These are not the interesting bits of the album for me, and quite frankly, they won’t be for many other people who know this tape exists, either. They don’t sound much like anything Wilson’s done under any other name or with any other band, and although well-made they’re honestly kind of boring, in the same way a lot of self-indulgent improvisational prog is boring. They’re something we have to get through to reach the good stuff.

“The good stuff,” in this case, begins when you’ve drifted less than a minute into the third track, whose name you don’t register because you weren’t paying attention, and the heavy, fuzzy guitars drop out and Steven starts singing ominously and slightly mournfully, and you wonder why the lyrics sound vaguely familiar, and it isn’t until you actually look them up that you realize that yes, it’s called Small Fish for a reason, and this is, in fact, an early version of a song that would appear prominently on Up the Downstair ten years later.

This version is more overtly psychedelic than what we would get in 1993, the main vocal section bracketed with the aforementioned fuzzy guitars in front and an extended Iron Butterfly-esque drum solo in back. The vocals themselves are backed not with acoustic guitar but synth swells drifting in and out, just to hammer home that this is ultimately someone’s really bad acid trip (an early Space Era theme, we’ll discover). We’ll get to how this version compares to the Up the Downstair version once we actually reach Up the Downstair (provided I remember), but right now we’ll say it’s quite good in its own right and leave it there.

The Karma version of Nine Cats is a fifteen-minute behemoth that sounds absolutely nothing like the smaller, more intimate offering that would appear on Porcupine Tree’s first proper album nine years later. There’s nothing connecting the two beyond half the lyrics and the delivery thereof, and I say “half” because the other portion of the lyrics washed ashore, completely rearranged, as the title track of The Nostalgia Factory. Nevertheless, I am someone who shamelessly prefers long songs to short songs, so all the same this immediately piqued my interest.

The song comes in three parts: a psychedelic section with the Nostalgia Factory lyrics, a lengthy instrumental section, which is at turns heavy and spacey, and another psychedelic section with the Nine Cats lyrics. This is Steven Wilson’s first proper epic, and unlike Altamont this comes across as structured, deliberate, triumphant, even. They’re the work of a man who’s grown sea legs.

Like Intruder D’Or, Nine Cats sounds like something that should belong in a longer, more expansive album. However, unlike Intruder D’Or, Nine Cats represents a payoff, a culmination, to what we were promised in the beginning. Still, though, after listening to The Joke’s On You, we get the feeling we bore witness to just the beginning and the end of a musical journey, and we’re left wondering what happened to the other eight tracks that should be in the middle, and we finally understand exactly where the tape’s title came from.

Postscript: If Wilson ever plays Nine Cats live again he should try the Karma arrangement at least once, to see who in the audience Gets It.