Review: Karkosa

Stephen Pennell enthuses once again about Karkosa.

I’m sitting on the last bus out of town, looking at a blank page on my phone notes, wondering if I know enough superlatives to describe what I’ve just witnessed. With the help of an online thesaurus, I can but try… so wish me luck.

Valentines Day is a big deal in our house, coinciding as it does with Wifey’s birthday the next day, so we spent a long weekend celebrating in Dublin. We did the tours, the romantic dinners, watched the Villa on telly and drank gallons of Guinness in a live music bar, at which the singer/guitarist on the small stage requested requests.

Feeling a bit homesick, I asked for some Birmingham music; hoping for Dexy’s Midnight Runners (too difficult apparently), settling for Ocean Colour Scene. Everybody sang along and indulged in some Peaky Blinders-based ‘bantz’, and it was all good fun in a beautiful city – full of friendly people, but a bit mono-cultural compared to home – hence there was an extra spring in my step when I got back and walked through my own Irish Quarter towards some great Brummie indie that’s big in Korea.

Karkosa have been working hard over the last couple of years to make their presence felt on the vibrant local music scene, but despite having a much-documented and passionate following in South Korea, South Yardley and its environs were proving a tougher nut to crack. In an attempt to remedy this, they followed the shining example of local heroes The Nu and The Novus by promoting their own DIY show at Mama Roux’s on Wednesday night.

I arrived at the newly-refurbished venue just in time to see North Parade’s support slot, opening with hometown homage Birmingham, (yeah, that’s the name of the song), the frontman channeling Sandie Shaw as he kicked off his shoes to perform. This Bob Dylan fan loved his harmonica playing on Feminism, and Keep Things Casual is a real ear-worm. They rounded off a fine set with their latest single, the critically-acclaimed An Accomodation, inspired by the Simon Armitage poem of the same name and driven along by some fantastic drumming. There’s even a nifty reference to the Bull Ring in the lyrics, towards which the frontman accurately points during the relevant line.

A quick vape, a refreshed pint and it was time for the headliners’ six-strong line-up of band-leader Michael Warnock, his brother Jack (drums), Tom Rushton (guitar), Isabelle Florence (bass), Will Clews (keyboards), and Pete Donnelly (just about everything) to be greeted enthusiastically by a packed house. The gig is to mark the release of single The Rival, and the new song gets the show off to a lively start. It’s a typical example of the ambitious, melodic pop-rock at which the band excel – epic in scale, going off on proggy tangents involving brass and synthesisers, with soaring choruses and dramatic swoops of tempo and volume. T

his descriptive cap fits most of their repertoire – Mango Tree, Where The River Flows and Aurora are highlights, along with new b-side Runaway, the lyrics of which reference a yearning to be in Florida because “there’s no theme parks here at home”. Come on Michael, you’re from Sutton mate – never been to Thomas Land?

It all comes together most effectively on Red Hoodie and Sheffield, two adrenaline-fuelled anthems of adolescent melodrama, soaked in catchy melodies and teenage angst. The band and crowd are by now having an equally great time, with inflatable trees bouncing round the mosh-pit, Tom smiling more than The Joker as he coaxes magic from his Flying-V guitar, and Pete switching effortlessly between trumpet, keyboards and tambourine while careering across the stage like a talented version of Bez from the Happy Mondays.

The songs are meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, but there’s considerable versatility on offer – The Devil’s Greatest Trick is so heavy in places it’s a timely reminder that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Black Sabbath’s debut album, and a new song, Seoul, is a slow-burner that showcases perfectly the amazing voice of new(ish) member Isabelle. Instantly recognisable as a truly great piece of music, it has people nearby asking me if it’s an original number or a cover of some multi-platinum-selling household name.

The lighters go up, the phone torches are on display, and as the crowd chants “One more song” at the end of the set, the band have little choice but to play it again. It’s a show and a set-list that catapults Karkosa onto the top table of Birmingham indie, but this song, if they can get enough ears on it, could take them a whole lot further. As he left the stage, Michael informs us that we were the best crowd ever – which, from a guy who’s played to 400 hysterical Koreans, comes as quite a compliment to 200 reserved Brummies. I’m not sure how true it is, but I’ll take it.