From the first lines, karate set the scene. “So quiet,” sings Geoff Farina in a determined voice, “I hear the fridge is on.” Just like that, less than 10 seconds later The bed is in the ocean, you are there with him. The room is silent; your attention intensifies; the things you normally overlook rush into screaming focus. Over the course of the Boston trio’s six studio albums, they have evolved from a typical 1990s post-hardcore outfit to something more elusive, a rock band entirely driven by emotion and atmosphere. To cap off their brief career, their last recording before splitting up in 2005 was a cover of “A New Jerusalemby Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis: a patron saint for this kind of career journey into silence.
The latest entry in a vital reissue series from Numero Group, 1998 The bed is in the ocean lives at the crossroads of the strange evolution of karate. Its nine songs are bold and memorable, with lyrics designed so tight crowds can scream along with them. This is the kind of album whose refrains can only be transcribed in capital letters: “GOD DOESN’T MAKE THINGS YOU CAN REARRANGE.” “THERE IS HEAVY RAIN WHERE I WALK.” “WHO CALLED? WHAT DID THEY SAY?” After three records, karate had learned to pace these moments so that they arrived like knockouts, each landing harder than the one before it.
And yet, once Farina hit those climaxes – with an exciting, pinpoint delivery that sounds a bit like Jason Molina if he’d been high on DC punk instead of classic country – you’ve only heard part of it. Of the history. There is a feeling in these recordings that the compositions are just sketches, and once Farina runs out of words the band starts to get carried away. You can practically hear his bandmates – drummer Gavin McCarthy and bassist Jeffrey Goddard – wondering where to go next, how to steer the songs in unknown directions: say, into the heartbreaking post-rock crescendo of “Outside Is the Drama.” or the progressive interludes in “There are ghosts”.
Part of Karate’s change in form was due to Farina’s voracious habits as a listener and his expanding repertoire as a guitarist. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I just have an identity crisis going on,” that’s how he Put the Last year. “I’m just bouncing around and I’ll never settle.” Around the time of The bed is in the ocean, karate began to distinguish itself from its punk-influenced peers by drawing attention to its true jazz values. Farina, a Berklee graduate who currently teaches DePaul, proudly challenged her varied tastes. At a time when Steely Dan’s slick, sophisticated epics were the antithesis of DIY cool, he wrote music that not only seemed to be influenced by them but also, on a 1999 solo single, overtly swore his love.
Where indie bands like The Sea and Cake relied on the gentle spring breeze of jazz-rock, on The bed is in the ocean, Karate scratched grain. As well as being a perfectly recorded album – which benefits from this kind of stripped down vinyl reissue – the performances feel lively and electric, carrying the spark of improvised takes. McCarthy’s trap-rolling throughout “Fatal Strategies” seems to mimic the conspiratorial trill of Farina’s lyrics during the first part, making her wordless back half feel like a work in progress, still in progress. building while you listen. This interaction highlights the growing confidence of a band that often used their gigs to create new material. They learned from their jazz training to embrace a sense of danger, knowing that every risk could lead to their next destination.