June 3, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

Often, music’s best quality is its ability to surprise. While being spoon-fed hooks, catchy choruses, tasty riffs, etc. are perfectly reasonable, there’s nothing quite like that “wow” moment, that unexpected, inexorable, often fleeting few seconds that causes our arm hair to stand up on end and that sweet, sweet dopamine to exit your brain and course through the rest of our bodies.

But how are we supposed to react when an entire album gives you that feeling? Is there even a right or wrong answer to that question?

In the mid-2000s, pop-punk was in the midst of a mini-renaissance in the mainstream; bands in the genre left and right were signing to major labels with varying degrees of eventual success, as A&R reps across the industry sought the next blink-182 or, as consolation, the next New Found Glory. It was a lucrative time for bands to write bright, digestible riffs, hooky choruses and superficial lyrics about relationships, and dozens, perhaps hundreds of bands were more than willing to play the game and hope for a crossover hit. (Remember when Cooter changed their name to Autopilot Off and signed to Island? What about when Over It dropped all of the aggression from their earlier music and signed to Virgin?)

Meanwhile, because the majors couldn’t possibly sign everybody, a lot of bands meticulously bubbled under the surface, perhaps hoping for a shot at the big time. Audio Karate possessed inklings of a sound that could’ve translated to a larger audience on 2002’s debut Space Camp, but it was also obvious that the band were still quite green; the hooks weren’t immediate, the vocals not shiny enough, the guitars a little too freewheeling. They were a poor high schooler’s Ataris. If they had stuck to their guns and honed their sound into something with a little more pop sensibility, it’s reasonable to think they would’ve eventually been called up. The market for California pop-punk bands was still pretty bullish at that time.

Instead, Audio Karate completely subverted expectations. 2004’s Lady Melody, which turns 10 this week, was a stark departure from the sun-soaked California pop-punk oeuvre of the era; it squealed, screamed and shredded around those sounds, with an undercurrent of previously suppressed angst running through every moment. The band traveled to Fort Collins, Colo. to record the album with Bill Stevenson at the Blasting Room; by all accounts, Stevenson pushed the band, as he does, to leave it all on the field. Arturo Barrios shredded his vocal cords until they bled while recording, and it shows as he struggles—and mostly fails—to avoid overt raspiness on songs like “Jesus Is Alive And Well (And Living In Mexico)” and “Hey Maria.” Ironically, as the band waded into rawer musical territory, the pretenses were stripped away and their innate ability to write catchy hooks prevailed (Even today, “Ms. Foreign Friendly” and “Who Brings A Knife To A Gun Fight” remain impossibly infectious). Comparisons to Jawbreaker and Cursive were drawn, two bands who’d experienced success by creating and then thriving on darker, weirder textures spiked with starkly personal lyrical content that all existed within conventional song structures.

“Gypsyqueen” is unquestionably the centerpiece of Lady Melody, an all-time great rock song that’s exceedingly passionate, with driving, repeated verses and an almost elementary-like, effective chorus. While Barrios’ throaty yeahs anchor and manufacture the song’s immediacy, it’s Jason Camacho’s guitar leads that steal the show. He solos over the majority of the song, but never aimlessly or at the expense of its catchiness. It dovetails nicely into the slower, more layered reflective title track, in which drummer Gabriel Camacho does some of his best work.

Not long after the release of Lady Melody, Audio Karate went silent and, sometime in 2007 or 2008, quietly and officially disbanded. Camacho had traded in his guitar for a holster, becoming a cop in South Gate, Calif. Barrios had seemingly walked away from music, too, until resurfacing in 2011, along with Camacho, AK bassist Justo Gonzalez and two new members as Indian School; their debut, The Cruelest Kind, followed in 2012. Barrios’ vocal approach is more nuanced and refined now, and Indian School’s music is often softer and more eclectic than that of Audio Karate. The name change was more than appropriate, and probably necessary given the sonic difference between the two projects. After all, Audio Karate had done what so many of their contemporaries failed to do: They had found their own voice and thrown pop-punk convention completely on its head. Eight years after such a landmark album, that would’ve been a lot to live up to.