Opening up the weekend is Nottingham-based quartet Sundaze, who, despite not having played together for little over a year, seem, inexplicably, to be at the top of their game, playing a tight set that seems to exceed even their own expectations. It’s never an easy feat to hold the opening slot at a show let alone a two-day festival, especially when last-minute logistics and timings change (unfortunately Psycho Comedy had to pull out of the festival last minute), but if frontman Sam Shaw is ill at ease he doesn’t show it. Sundaze deliver an effervescent mix of DIY psychedelic, guitar-led pop that is as mellow as it is galvanising, energising the crowd and setting the precedent high.
Endearing and intimate, Great Silkie’s acoustic set consists of rich, folk finger-play that serves as a heartfelt love letter to the full spectrum of human existence: spanning excitement to inertia and all the way back again. Taking the band’s name-sake from the folk classic ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie’ – a song inspired by “mythical beings that can remove their outer skins” – frontman Sam Davies – after an admittedly shaky few stop-starts (offering to redo his self-abasing “Nothing Will Change” because he’s not altogether happy with his performance), finds his footing and sheds any and all self-consciousness, settling into his craft and bringing a tender baroque-tinged soliloquy to the top floor of the Chameleon.
A powerful contrast to Great Silkie, Manchester’s Loose Articles is up next, re-invigorating the room with their “all feminine, all threatening” melodic post-punk, set against a backdrop of working-class Mancunian grit. Channeling anger and anxiety in the form of social commentary and radical politics, the quartet command the room with surprising vulnerability as they drown out the crowd with spindly guitar sounds and delicious bass riffs. Firm favourite “Kick Like a Girl” is an abrasive, psychedelic-infused riot grrrl anthem re-appropriating the misogyny in football fan culture; “women can play sports!” repeats front woman Natalie Wardle with raw and punchy vocals – reminiscent of Poly Styrene or Ari Up – against a spiky, searing drum beat that isn’t far off Wire or The Fall. It’s an exhilarating set full of female empowerment.
Low Hummer are one of the weekend’s most hotly anticipated bands and, seconds into the rallying call of opener “Take Arms”, it’s easy to see why. The Northern quintet collides the worlds of dance-rock and post-punk; fusing synthesisers, call-and-response vocal cries and drum machines with jagged, gritty lyrics that comment on the political landscape of Northern/Southern rivalry, billionaires that ‘don’t believe in sharing’, and ‘single parents scrounging to make a living’. Having recently finished a coveted supporting slot for the Manic Street Preachers, it’s easy to see how and why Low Hummer grabbed the Welsh trio’s attention: littered throughout their lyrical content are subtle nods to Richey Edwards’ scathing Holy Bible one-liners. Powering into the frantic, tangled indie anthem “The People, This Place” the band’s presence onstage is electric but unassuming: as frontman Dan Mawer pens an open letter to the band’s hometown of Hull and it’s inhabitants, exploring themes of social isolation and alienation. “Never Enough” is another personal stand out; a track that may appeal to Wolf Alice fans in terms of sound, it beautifully highlights Aimee Duncan’s vocals whilst lyrically towing the line between the collective frustration and resentment of a culture-bound generation. The crowd adore them, but one gets the feeling it wouldn’t matter to Low Hummer even if this wasn’t the case: their music is a channel for themselves, an outlet for their angst and anxieties. They play an eclectic set reminiscent of ‘00s electronica combined with hazy jangle-pop, difficult to pigeonhole – sounding a hybrid of the Pixies and Pulp one minute, Talking Heads and The Cure the next – that at times wouldn’t sound out of place on a Heavenly Recordings roster in the 90s.
Teetering between dream pop and shoegaze but never entirely committing to either genre, the ethereal whirling of Hull five-piece bdrmm follows, filling the room with their wistful atmospheric reverb. Songs “Gush” and “Momo” are reminiscent of bands like Black Marble and Beach House, whilst at the same time their sound undeniably evokes the bittersweet melancholy of The Chameleons and Galaxie 500. The seamless guitar work on “Happy” brings to mind Bernard Sumner’s tight and claustrophobic guitar playing on Joy Division’s “Disorder”, juxtaposed against freeing and expansive melodic whirrs akin to a Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine. Definitely a band to watch.
Finishing the first night with (as the Glaswegian quintet would describe their mind-melting psychedelica) “some good fucking noise”, Helicon close Saturday’s bill on a tremendous high. Powering through fuzz-drenched melodies “Sound of Confession” and “The Sun Also Rises”, it’s easy to see why these guys have amassed such a cult following that’s lead them to become one of the most talked about openers in Karma’s history. Fuelled by a rejection towards mediocrity and mainstream culture, brothers John-Paul and Gary Hughes aren’t afraid to peel back the surface and show they’re more than consciousness-expanding psych and stellar musicianship; giving the audience a taste of their playful side in the form of scathing political criticism with their incendiary new single, “I’m More English Than You, You Cunt” featuring Will Carruthers (of Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, Brian Jonestown Massacre fame). Donning goat head masks by the end and actively encouraging audience participation, Helicon leave Karma goers a mix somewhere between enlightened and euphoric, firmly stamping their mark on any festival worth its salt: complete with Scots, Stella, and a sitar.
Sunday at Karma kicks off with London duo Wax Axes and it’s a powerful start to the final day of the festival. Frontwoman Harriet Howes’ vulnerable lyrics – laced with romance, satire, and innuendo – underpinned by prowling vocals drenched in feedback makes their set feel like a tribute to self-abasing black comedy; one particularly suited to the Chameleon’s intimate surroundings. “You’ve been running all night through my mind, are you tired?” Howes echoes throughout “Man of My Dreams”, a tribute to and re-appropriation of her questionable taste in men. The sharp wit in Wax Axes lyrics does not go unnoticed, earning a few appreciative chuckles from a captivated audience; who stand intimidated in equal measure, as though on guard – not knowing whether Howes is going to turn her scathing wordplay on herself or on them next.
Frankie Teardrop Dead follow, belting through a heady mix of psychedelic and shoegaze. Their sound is more distinctly moody than the average psych band: witty lyrics and melodic hooks combined with an undercurrent of despondency; “Joy in Division” and “What’s It All About” are perfect examples of the six piece at their best.
One of the pleasures of watching a local band come up is getting to experience first-hand its evolution as it goes through the process of figuring out who and what it needs to become – for their audience, for themselves. Having first seen Midlands-based psychedelic-prog quintet Sancho Panza play Karma Weekender 2019 with an almost entirely different lineup, getting to see them tonight – over two years later – is a moment that evokes a sense of subtle pride. Most noticeable among the lineup changes, of course, is the replacement of former frontman Jack Burton, a role that guitarist Cameron Harris has eased into effortlessly. With only two of the original founding members still a part of the project, Sancho Panza is an undeniably different band now, but the bare bones of what made them gain such a strong following in the first place – the psychedelic edge of 2019’s Rearrange The Diamonds – is still very much there. Harris’ charismatic presence as frontman and primary lyricist has evolved the band’s sound, bringing an undeniably 90s Manchester influence to the forefront of foot-tapping jangle-pop melodies My Dear – She Knows, Frankley Beeches, and Hydro Hotel. Although this gig is a more understated affair than one of Sancho’s headlining shows, it’s the set of a quietly confident band who firmly now know who they are and where they’re going.
Following Sancho Panza in countering the gloomy dreamgaze that started off the day’s lineup is Fruit Tones, whose catchy, glam-rock inspired garage scuzz re-ignites the crowd. The infectious and vibrant “I Know Where Love Comes From” and “I’m Allergic” make for a delightful respite from the heavy atmospheric reverb and fuzz between some of the other bands. One of the standout performances from the weekend are Japanese Television, with their fast-paced, hypnotic melodies, delicious bass, and pounding drums. Their sound is sonic, cosmic wonder; an undeniable tribute to futuristic psych with an electronic twist. Watching them live, its easy to draw comparisons between them and bands like King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard and Neu! But as they power through fan favourites such as “Tick Tock” and “Bee Cage” – earning a warm welcome from the crowd – it soon becomes clear how unique their musical contribution is.
Finishing the festival is Ming City Rockers with their vitriolic, sleazy punk reminiscent of the Buzzcocks. It’s hard not to feel the force of their energy: the contrast of fast, frantic tunes set against bleak and desperate lyrics centred around their Lincolnshire hometown. It’s an energetic, exciting end to the two-day event: one that promises more of the same from Karma’s organisers; one that asks what else Paul Tuplin and co have in store for us next. After all the uncertainty and unease of Covid (the festival had been postponed twice prior to this date), Karma 2021 proves to be a much-needed few days of good fun and great music.
Written by Charlotte Mansfield
Photos by Dom Gourlay