Today is Part 2 of a Harem Scarem double-header!
Against all odds Harem Scarem kept on givin’ er. They were big in Japan but couldn’t get arrested in Canada anymore. Their fourth album Believe (following the monumental Mood Swings and the experimental Voice of Reason) saw release in the Land of the Rising Sun, but in Canada the track listing was tweaked and put out as Karma Cleansing. Original bassist Mike Gionet was out, replaced by Barry Donaghy who was also capable of singing lead. And while three of the guys now had short hair, drummer Darren Smith stubbornly left his long. Awesome.
Although their entire discography has highlights and standouts, many fans feel that Karma Cleansing was at once a return to sound of Mood Swings, and also the last Harem Scarem album before they began adding pop-punk elements. There is nothing wrong with albums like Big Bang Theory and Rubber, and you can’t blame the guys for trying out some changes for greater success. Fans who have stuck around since the start prefer the more progressive elements of Mood Swings and Karma Cleaning.
One can see parallels between Harem Scarem and bands such as Extreme and Van Hagar. “Karma Cleansing”, the title track could have been an outtake from Van Halen’s Balance LP. However, Harry Hess has a unique and powerful voice that is identifiably him. When the band join him on those thick Harem Scarem harmonies, they hone in on that sound that makes them special. “Karma Cleaning” kicks it off hard, melodically and with just a touch of exotic progressive influences.
One after another the strong songs roll on: “Cages” hits the heavy buttons that you wanna hit to get the blood pumping fast. Then “Hail, Hail” has Queen verses with pompous hard rock choruses. And while one can hear that Harem Scarem continue to bring new and interesting elements to their songs, you can also identify that the guitar work is simplified. It’s less busy, less showy. This was a trend that continued into the next albums.
“Morning Grey” then conspires to bring Beatles sounds into the picture, but like its title, it’s dreary though hugely complex. The adrenaline starts to flow again on “Die Off Hard”, a brilliant anthem that kicks every ass in the room. Harem Scarem managed to write a few of these over the years, usually a couple per album. Songs like “Die Off Hard” are immediate, but never get old. Interestingly, the bridge to the song (“It’s been a long time coming…”) is ancient. It appeared on Harem Scarem’s earliest demos before their first album as a part of other songs. It only took four albums to finally use it! Fortunately it found a home in “Die Off Hard”, making it one of the most luminous diamonds in the Harem Scarem catalogue.
This sounds like a nice place for a side break. “Rain” is a light ballad, refreshing and cleansing the palette. The mood gets darker on “I Won’t Be There”, somewhere between ballad and mournful dirge. The band’s knack for melody keeps it all above the water: yet another brilliant song. The beat gets harder on “Victim of Fate”. Chunky guitars and a groovin’ foundation make this a winning combination. Unmistakable Harem Scarem harmonies bring the chorus to the top level. Then comes the Van Halen style boogie of “Believe”, an unexpected twist. There are no words to describe how much this song kills it. It also feels like it’s building up to an ending, as the side plays on. That finale is “The Mirror”, a theatrical ballad which serves to end the album with a musical statement. Not a ballad in the “radio hit” sense, but that it’s a slow track with light and shade, keyboards and emotional singing.
What an album. You can see why the fans in Japan got it. A lot of the rock artists that make it big in Japan are melodic rock bands with incredible musicians. Harem Scarem fit that bill, and Karma Cleansing is another jewel in their crown.