Monday, December 10, 2012

Wild, Wonderful Heathens (Pt. 2)


By early-1996, Morgantown, West Virginia's Karma To Burn had been a member of the Roadrunner Records' roster for two years, had amassed a catalog of nearly 15 songs and delivered its debut album to their label, only to have it rejected by the powers that be.

Frustrated at the band's current state of affairs, bassist Rich Mullins decided they should buck the label's decision and release some tracks from the recording sessions that should have resulted in his band's first album.

Karma To Burn then self-released its next product, 1996's 'Wild, Wonderful & Apocalyptic', a four-song 10-inch EP that was produced in greater quantity than the previous cassette demo the band had issued in 1995.

This EP brought the band acclaim in the underground rock scene, and made waves in and around the state of West Virginia.

Chuck Nicholas, drummer for the Huntington-based band Chum, was friendly with the members of Karma To Burn by this point (as his band had shared the Gumby's stage with them multiple times).

(Karma To Burn's 'Wild, Wonderful & Apocalyptic' 10" EP, Road Trip Records, 1996)


Chum was prepping the release of its own debut album, 'Dead To The World', on Century Media Records, but Nicholas, who had long been nomadic in terms of musical endeavors (he'd also served time in Huntington's Guru Lovechild and Lexington, Kentucky's Black Cat Bone and Control Freak), was already seeking his next challenge.

Karma To Burn recruited Nicholas into its ranks prior to Chum's album release in April 1996, and also began looking for a vocalist in earnest, in the hopes that it could finally complete the recordings that would form the band's debut album.

The band members didn't have to look very far, as they quickly drafted friend Jason Jarosz to handle vocal duties and set about composing lyrics for the band's numerically titled cache of songs.

Songs previously known as "One," "Three," "Seven" and "Ten" became "Twin Sisters And Half A Bottle Of Bourbon," "Appalachian Woman," "Mt. Penetrator" and "Bobbi, Bobbi, Bobbi - I'm Not God," respectively, and in accordance with Roadrunner's wishes, featured vocals delivered with an almost sinister quality by Jarosz. 

Coincidentally, the label would allow Karma To Burn to include three instrumentals on the record - "Six," "Eight" and "Thirteen."

(Karma To Burn's self-titled debut, Roadrunner Records, 1997)

(The band also recorded a cover of Joy Division's "Twenty Four Hours" for inclusion on the album, and while this would prove to be Nicholas' only recorded appearance as a member of Karma To Burn this lineup did write future classics "Nineteen," "Twenty," "Twenty-Two" and "Twenty-Four.")

Karma To Burn's debut album was finally issued by Roadrunner Records on February 25, 1997, and following a string of East Coast dates the band set out for its first tour of Europe, a four-week stint in the spring of that year that would not be without controversy.

(Karma To Burn with Johnny Mac on France's Canal+, May 1997)

Due to the band's relatively unknown status overseas, Roadrunner, to its credit, had hyped the band and the record, so the vast majority of European listeners presumed this band that they only knew on record was a standard four-piece (vocals, guitar, bass and drums).

Unbeknownst to the label, Karma To Burn had sacked Jarosz following the release of the album and departed for Europe as an instrumental three-piece, all but confusing the audiences that would greet them.

One of the band's more high profile appearances occurred at the Dynamo Open Air Festival in The Netherlands, which also featured the band's one-time vocalist John Garcia, and his new band, Slo-Burn.

(Karma To Burn with John Garcia, Dynamo Festival, 1997)

In impromptu fashion, Garcia joined Karma To Burn on stage during its performance and provided vocals to two songs the band had previously recorded with him.

At the tour's conclusion, the band returned to The States and maintained a rigorous touring schedule, while battling it out with the none-too-pleased executives at Roadrunner.

As a result of Karma To Burn's blatant disregard of the label's demands, it was unceremoniously dropped from Roadrunner's U.S. roster in late-1997, but strangely enough, the European branch of the label continued to carry the band thereafter.


The lack of a record label stateside did very little to slow the band's momentum and it continued touring, while also exploring the possibility of finally joining forces with Garcia for a side project, which was to be dubbed Nino Brown.

But, when the project stalled, drummer Chuck Nicholas surprised his band mates by announcing he was quitting Karma To Burn in the spring of 1998, and promptly relocated to Texas.

The duo of Mullins and guitarist Will Mecum were undeterred and, after undergoing a period of relative inactivity, ended their search for a replacement when they settled on Rob Oswald.

(Karma To Burn live at Drop Shop, 1997; photo by Jim Sands)

Oswald was a friend of the band's from his days spent drumming for the Baltimore-based band Jade (whom Mecum's pre-Karma To Burn band, The Red Oak Conspiracy, had toured with), and had also played in Buttsteak and former Kyuss member Nick Oliveri's Mondo Generator, albeit under the pseudonym Up N. Syder.

The classic Karma To Burn lineup of Mecum, Mullins and Oswald immediately began writing a new batch of songs, four of which would appear on the self-released '30.33.32.20' EP that was issued in the fall of 1998.

On the strength of these songs the band was awarded a deal with Spitfire Records, a U.S. label sympathetic to the band's desire to retain its stature as an all-instrumental trio.

Before the release of its first full-length record for Spitfire (and second overall), Karma To Burn would appear alongside such like-minded acts as Nebula, Sixty Watt Shaman and Roadsaw on the 'In The Groove' compilation, which was released in the spring of 1999, and it would also serve as tour support for a number of bands, most notably Queens Of The Stone Age.

(Karma To Burn's 'Wild Wonderful Purgatory', Spitfire Records, 1999)

The release of Karma To Burn's second (and first all-instrumental) record, 'Wild, Wonderful Purgatory', in July 1999, would mark the return of the infamous numerical song titles, and also bring the band wider recognition than had the debut album.

'Wild, Wonderful Purgatory' featured 12 songs in total, five of which had not appeared previously in any recorded and/or released form. (The previously vinyl-only 'Wild, Wonderful & Apocalyptic' EP was appended to the album.)

Karma To Burn had finally achieved success on its own terms, the pinnacle of which was supporting Metallica on a series of dates in August 2000, but the excesses wrought by that success began taking its toll on the band's members.

Mullins, in particular, plunged headlong into the sex, drugs and rock n' roll lifestyle with reckless abandon and, while he was able to hold it together in the interim, his demons and those of Mecum and Oswald would ultimately tear the band apart.

Karma To Burn issued its third full-length album, 'Almost Heathen', in September 2001, and it featured 10 tracks (one of which, "Five," dated to the band's earliest beginnings) and garnered the band the best reviews of its entire career.

(Karma To Burn's 'Almost Heathen', Spitfire Records, 2001)

The band headlined a tour in support of the record in late-2001, early-2002, that featured openers Speedealer, and at the tour's conclusion Mullins would do the unthinkable and decamp to that band.

His move effectively closed the book on the turbulent 10-year history of Karma To Burn.

Mullins' stay with Speedealer would amount to a year's service and he would soon find himself drifting around Los Angeles and, eventually, checking into a treatment center.

Meanwhile, Mecum remained in Morgantown, and formed the all-instrumental outfit Dragon Ass before moving on to his next project, Treasure Cat.

Oswald would begin recording as a solo artist, under the moniker Crack Angel, and join California's Nebula, for whom he drummed from 2007-2009.

(Treasure Cat's 'Choice Cuts', 2007)

(Treasure Cat released its debut album, 'Choice Cuts,' in 2007, and Oswald would be behind the drum kit for Nebula's 'Heavy Psych' in 2009. Former drummer Nathan Limbaugh had also issued his solo debut, 'Chains In The Shed', in 2005.)

Fresh from the abyss, Mullins resurfaced in Year Long Disaster, a band he formed with Daniel Davies (son of The Kinks' Dave Davies) and Third Eye Blind drummer Brad Hargreaves in 2004.

Year Long Disaster released its first record in 2007, and would follow it up with 2010's 'Black Magic; All Mysteries Revealed'.

Miraculously, in early-2009, amid a rash of reissues by a number of European record labels, rumors began to swirl that a possible Karma To Burn reunion was in the works.

The reunion was confirmed in February 2009, when the band (Mecum, Mullins and Oswald) announced that it was getting back together for a tour of both the United States and Europe that spring and summer.

(Will Mecum, Rob Oswald and Rich Mullins, 2009)

Although the members of Karma To Burn stated that they would still continue to concentrate on their other projects, Year Long Disaster would eventually merge with the band (and include Davies for a brief period), Mecum's Treasure Cat went on an indefinite hiatus and Oswald exited Nebula to focus solely on working with his new (old) band mates.

Karma To Burn would record and release its fourth (2010's 'Appalachian Incantation') and fifth (2011's 'V') albums via Austria's Napalm Records, and, as of this writing, was still actively touring.

Oswald was dismissed from the band (for unspecified reasons) in July 2012, and replaced by Evan Devine of Morgantown's Pat Pat.

While the band's history has been an erratic one, it has always delivered musically and its insistence on name-checking its home state as often as possible not only ensures that West Virginia will be remembered for more than just coal miners and moonshiners, but that Karma To Burn will go down as one of the very best acts that the state has yet produced.

1 comment:

  1. badass! So glad I stumbled across this. I haven't yet been able to invest in that first ten-inch. and had always wondered if those were the recordings at the end of WIld Wonderful Purgatory. So i guess Nathan Limbaugh plays drums on a third of that album!
    Well-written and informative piece, clears some things up about chronology of independent releases too.

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