Hardcore’s “emotive” roots are best traced subjectively: Older listeners pinpoint Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty’s pre-Fugazi band Rites of Spring; neophytes fast-forward to 1994 and Sunny Day Real Estate. Whatever these bands’ role in everything that followed, the one trait they share is a lack of fear — to express one’s vulnerability in a scene cluttered with bullheads, to be more than just angry. Where Boston’s Karate fits into emo’s history is also a subjective call. While openly admitting an affinity for the Washington, DC, hardcore tree that includes Rites of Spring, they also deny ever explicitly wanting to “emote.” Seemingly personal lyrics and a flair for romanticism, however, indicate otherwise.
First as a trio, then a quartet (until the 1997 departure of guitarist Eamonn Vitt), Karate began by mirroring the edgy sounds that inspired it. The 1996 debut album, however, is both sparser and more fully realized than the singles that preceded it. Predictably linked by critics with everything from Sunny Day Real Estate to Codeine, Karate nonetheless stands well enough on its own. Geoff Farina’s singing seems naked amid his own and Vitt’s spare chords and riffs, making for an affecting juxtaposition complemented by the smartly understated rhythm section of bassist Jeff Goddard (the Lune, ex-Moving Targets) and drummer Gavin McCarthy. (Incidentally, all three attended the Berklee College of Music.) While Karate can indeed crawl like Codeine, there’s a tense angularity in tracks such as “Bad Tattoo.” Get this album first.
In Place of Real Insight revises things a little. “This, Plus Slow Song” begins the record with patches of tremolo guitar (a Farina trademark) and disarming open space. From there, the palette broadens: the tag-team shouting and spare leads (another Farina trademark) in “New Martini”; Vitt’s raspy lead vocals in “On Cutting”; McCarthy’s brushed snare in the skeletal “Today or Tomorrow.” There are some overextended moments — such as the non-song (a three-minute lead-in!) “Wake Up, Decide” — but, overall, it’s an impressive release. Like emo’s history, Karate is best approached subjectively: Apply your own emotions and experiences, and the results are rewarding; don’t, and you’ll fall into a cycle of endless (and often pointless) comparisons.
The Secret Stars, Farina’s subtler guitar-and-vocals excursion with best friend Jodi Buonanno, is at once separate from and connected to Karate. The musical parallels are evident only in Farina’s signatures, which also turn up in the Stars. Farina has said the Stars work more with ideas than with music — i.e., the music is actually a metaphor for, rather than an expression of, the duo’s philosophies. Skeletal guitar chords and bubbly keyboard undercurrents provide fitting backdrops for the romantic lyrics of love, hope and longing.
Before Karate’s third album and Secret Stars’ second, Farina released Usonian Dream Sequence, a solo album of home recordings from 1996-97.