REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Karma Cleansing (1997)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

Today is Part 2 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161202HAREM SCAREM – Karma Cleansing (1997 Warner)

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.

4.5/5 stars

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17 comments

  1. Nice one Mike! Another one of their great albums. Japan was also huge on Mr. Big and Eric Martin who also did albums just for Japan that would later make its way to North America. I always found that interesting that some bands that never caught on huge here were Rock Gods in Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice writeup. I will have to check this one out at some point. These guys are way too good and just think I dismissed them myself with the debut but Mood Swings…Wowzers….
    Someday we should all do a Top 20 one artist/band Canadian best of list…that would be cool….it get’s ya thinking….
    We’ll like Mr 2 Loud join in as well as an Honorary Canuck as he knows this stuff as well as we do….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Geoff! Time permitting I’ll still do that post linking up all the articles into one. Glad you enjoyed some Harem Scarem. I’m super pleased that Bop came up with this idea. I really enjoyed the idea of visiting a different city with each band…maybe this will deserve a sequel week in the future.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Makes a difference, eh? Kinda like the Burning Tree reissue a few years back. I was very used to the track order, but when I bought the original LP it was a whole new experience. I actually think the original flows better, but for whatever reason they changed it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I loved that album. Got it on vinyl, and then I said, “I should get the CD too, for the car.” What they did on CD as you probably know is give you half the album (in seemingly random order) and then offer you a free download for the rest of the songs.

          The vinyl had two records, one white and one green. One was more folksy and acoustic, one more rock n’ roll and it worked.

          Liked by 1 person

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