Bent Knee, from Boston, Massachusetts, have, apparently, already released three albums prior to their Inside Out debut, 'Land Animal'. And, when this turned up for review, I've been cursing myself for not discovering this quite wondrous band sooner. If their previous material is as good as what we have on offer here, then I've been missing out on the kind of music that really gets my juices flowing.
So, just what is so special about this US crew? Well... everything. First off, this is all about accessible experimentation. Orthodox and unorthodox sonic contortions presented in lusciously executed compositions. They're musical iconoclasts, for sure, yet never at the expense of a seemingly overriding acknowledgement that music is primarily a medium of entertainment. And the latter is of particular importance if you have messages, polemics and scathingly observational narratives to convey, which it seems Bent Knee do. With themes based around "societal and technological divides", songs' narratives focus on a series twenty first century socio-political woes and more subjective introspections concerned with existential considerations in how we interact with each other and our environment. This is poetic and provocative in both a lyrical and musical sense. Themes are reflected by the music's emotionally changing state and complex, yet appetising, essence. It runs the pessimistic and optimistic scale in terms of general vibe, with a ton of ambiguity thrown into the mix, complete with brighter moments of hope that have been interposed with passages of darkness and despair... or should that be the other way around?
So, is there any genre affiliation at work here? Naturally, of course. There are stylistic elements borrowed from an array of genres. Rock, pop, minimalist, and avant-garde are all mentioned in press blurb, although this doesn't particularly provide any kind of insight as to listening expectations. Sure, there are traces of other genres, although the songs never feel like they're a pastiche of any single style at any one point. Rather, this is all about the wider picture. And, within their sonically and emotionally expansive canvas, ultimately, Bent Knee don't actually sound like they've borrowed anything from anywhere. The songs are that engaging (on both cognitive and affective levels... sema and soma, if you will), that it feels like the whole transcends the constituent parts. Songs are their own unique entities that, ultimately, transcend any notion of genre. It's testament to the band's astute songwriting abilities and the reification thereof. Songcraft doesn't get much better than this.
Songs also have a refined theatrical vibe at times, although without ever becoming histrionic. Sonic theatricality in the sense of grandeur, rather than any semblance to sonic cheese. There's plenty of drama to be heard in the music, throughout the album, which is befitting of the discourse and narrative provocations that unfold. And twists and turns within the drama. Take 'Insides In' as a prime example, with the ambience of its melancholic and optimistic duality suddenly punctuated with some unexpected dark intrusions (that took me aback upon first listen and gave me serious shivers)... before climaxing in epic fashion with a long outro driven by a heavied-up reprise of a motif first heard on the song's intro.
Performance-wise, it's all top-notch stuff, too. Guitar, bass, violin, drums and keyboards all have their rightful place in compositions as and when required. The arrangements are stunning, in this sense. Orchestral, almost, it could be said. It's always all about the whole, in each and every song. These guys have a full grasp on the timbre of their instruments and just when to crank up the intensity or deliver a more minimalist technique/performance. And then there's the lead vocal performance from keys lady, Courtney Swain, which is, quite simply, stunning. She has such an incredibly expressive voice through a wide range of emotions and tonality. It's phenomenal in its soulful persuasions, heartfelt in its ardour, and always engaging through its subtle idiosyncrasies.
The album sounds fantastic in terms of its production and mix, too, with a nicely organic quality to proceedings. Interestingly, Vince Welch has been listed as part of Bent Knee's lineup on the press sheet, with a "sound design, production" credit. I guess his contribution is deemed as significant as any of the musicians. My only very minor criticism is that Ben Levin's distorted guitars sound a little woolly and fuzzy on occasion, where they could have been tightened up and benefited from a little more incisiveness and bite. This is barely noticeable, though, within Bent Knee's overall aesthetic so is, like I said, an incredibly minor criticism.
Overall, 'Land Animal' is a sheer joy from start to finish. I connected with this album on so many different levels. A rollercoaster of emotional intrigue and intelligently observed provocations, it sent my senses into overdrive but, ultimately, left me with a feeling of true catharsis. The bottom-line, folks: Bent Knee have succeeded in crafting an all too rare album, where a perfect balance has been struck between innovation, accessibility, cognitively stirring discourse, emotional engagement and sheer, unmitigated entertainment. This is what progressive music should be about - genuine, rather than generic, progression, but never experimentation "for the sake of". Bent Knee have indubitably succeeded in such.
Review by Mark Holmes
23rd June 2017
1) Terror Bird
3) Holy Ghost
4) Insides In
5) These Hands
6) Land Animal
7) Time Deer
8) Belly Side Up
9) The Well
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"Bent Knee have succeeded in crafting an all too rare album, where a perfect balance has been struck between innovation, accessibility, cognitively stirring discourse, emotional engagement and sheer, unmitigated entertainment."