Issue 2019-075: Bent Knee Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Bent Knee - You Know What They Mean
Craig Goldsmith's Review
One way in which to divide the world, is those who have heard Bent Knee, and those who haven't. If you are in the latter, you may be in for a shock, and a treat. The Boston-based sextet currently, in my opinion, tops the pinnacle of what we could call "art rock". At times poppy, industrial, progressive, and always avant-garde.
They formed at Berklee College of Music in 2009, so they know their stuff. A hint to their cleverness is how co-founders Ben Levin and Courtney Swain give their names to the construction of the name Bent Knee, get it? Good.
The first thing that strikes you about Bent Knee is Courtney Swain's vocals. For such a diminutive figure (I've stood next to her, and she's petite), there are some serious lungs. She possesses incredible range, texture and dexterity that even the most musically-dead would be in awe of. The rest of the band aren't slouches either, and most importantly they don't get all showy, despite clearly having the chops. It's the compositions that do the talking. Noteworthy is Wallace-Ailsworth's use of the Roland SPD-SX Sampling Pad, to which he became acquainted during convalescence after breaking his ankle whilst exiting the stage in San Francisco June 2018.
Now I always try to take press releases with a pinch of salt, but the one for this album pretty much nails it: "A rapidly burgeoning global fan-base has lapped up Bent Knee's mind-bending, forward-thinking and sophisticated sonic amalgam of rock, pop, avant-garde, electronica, jazz, and even R'n'B influences, distilled into a unique and deeply soulful art-form that, while remaining exquisitely melodic, defies categorisation, rocks with incredible intensity – particularly in the live arena – and routinely moves listeners to tears." That fairly sums them up.
You Know What They Mean is their fifth album, and comes after Courtney Swain produced a solo effort earlier this year. In short, it's a cracker. At times it is a very challenging listen, but all the more rewarding for it. "What's that row!", your grandmother will say, if you dare to play this at a family gathering.
I'll refrain from a track-by-track synopsis. Suffice to say that after a dozen or so listens the term "grower" is highly apt. Don't be put off by the crunchy discordance or frightening atmospheres that start early (Bone Rage or Egg Replacer). Just revel in the way you are transported to the scariest sections of a rehashed Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque nightmare or angst-crazed troubled teenager's bedroom (Garbage Sky or Lovemenot), then plunged keyboard-saturated into the bliss and chaos of transcendence (Golden Hour): "We love to give, we love to lose, we love to live, we love to die".
At times I hear fragrances of Anneke van Giersbergen. Cradle of Rocks reminds me of The Gathering's Shot To Pieces, but Swain's voice really cannot be categorised. It is at times bombastic and rocky, others purring and beguiling. Think Kate Bush fused with Charlotte Church and sprinkled with some Thom Yorke. I even had flashbacks of Doro Pesch's screams from Warlock's Touch of Evil at the end of Lovemenot.
Why 9.5? Purely and selfishly because so far there is no stand-out melodic family-pleaser that they can all sing-along to in the car. Catch Light comes close, but not to the degree of previous radio-friendlies (In God We Trust, I'm Still Here or Hands Up), or the ultimate Bond Movie theme that should have been Leak Water.
Patrick McAfee's Review
As the old saying goes, 'time flies' and somehow this is the fifth Bent Knee studio release. I still think of them as a new band, and certainly one that has created a significant buzz in prog circles. The enthusiasm for them is well deserved. It is impossible not to admire a young band that strives to shake things up, by creating their own musical template.
In the past, I've heard new Bent Knee material that initially did little for me, until I listened to it a few more times. A lot of good prog works in that way; taking its time to sink in. Much of Bent Knee's music falls into that category, because it is complex and requires attention. They certainly don't produce background music. Yes, there are more immediate songs on You Know What They Mean such as Hold me in, Bird Song, Catch Light and Golden Light, but even those are intricate and quirky.
In fact, what most impressed me about this album is the band's ability to create compositions that are accessible at their core, yet still so wildly inventive. They utilise a melodic sensibility that is expertly combined with an experimental edge. The instrumentation (and production) is diverse and compelling, with some blistering guitar work that would make Adrian Belew proud. As an example, the appropriately named Bone Rage, as well as Lovemenot, feature some of the more in-your-face instrumentation that I've heard in a while.
A lot has been said about Courtney Swain's talent and the praise is warranted. She is a unique and gifted vocalist/keyboardist who provides an essential part of the band's overall sound. That said, this is a clearly a band effort and there is a creative energy to the performances that is impressive.
Bent Knee has the somewhat rare ability to appeal to fans of many different musical genres. They are definitely progressive, but there are also distinct alternative rock, pop and avant-garde elements to their sound. In fact, the range of musical styles utilised on this album is incredible. Regardless of how you want to categorise them, (and maybe we shouldn't), You Know What They Mean is another impressive step forward for this talented group of musicians.
Martin Burns's Review
The new album by Boston art-rock sextet Bent Knee sees a change of approach to their exotic sound-world. Having temporarily lost their drummer, Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth to a broken ankle, they approached the recording of You Know What They Mean in a new way. Bent Knee felt that the drummer's absence made them feel, in the words of violinist Chris Baum: ”more exposed ... and like a totally different band”.
Once Wallace-Ailsworth had recovered, they abandoned their previous demo-based approach, along with not recruiting the additional musicians (playing mainly orchestral instrumentation) as on previous releases. Instead they interacted in the studio as a live unit, giving an immediate, band-focused feel to the music. This back-to-basics tactic has led to an album of art-rock that is fierce, complex but above-all compelling.
The back-to-basics approach led them to including a couple of short, almost bootleg quality live pieces. The first of which, Lansing, made my heart sink, as I'm not a great fan of live albums, but it quickly segues into the studio recordings that follow. And what recordings they are, masterminded by Vince Welch (sound design, production) the sound is crisp and clear, allowing the ear to follow the complex arrangements of these melodic gems, without sacrificing the live-in-the-studio feel.
After the live opening track, a set of fierce, distorted chords introduces us to Bone Rage. It develops in a stuttering fashion, alternating loud and quiet passages, and it is evident the band is on fire with all instruments blazing in the song's precision.
This includes Bent Knee's singer Courtney Swain, who has an extraordinary range that is possessed of a rare power and passion, and when the chorus comes around with its solo (“we've got a score to settle”) it is so convincing that you are glad you are not this band's wrong side.
This is art-rock with the emphasis on the rock and an underlying conviction that what the "art" should support, is the melody. On You Know What They Mean the songs are brilliantly melodic but their twisting arrangements take them a step beyond, into their own field. They mix superb Johnny Greenwood riffs courtesy of Ben Levin, Chris Baum's violin and a Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads)-like rumbling, with the funky bass from Jessica Kion, Swain's vocals and keyboards on top, and Wallace-Ailsworth's drumming pinning it all together
Alongside their melodicism, Bent Knee also know how to write a hook. These may not be obvious on a first listen but they soon worm their way into your mind. The third track, Give Us The Gold, moves from a pulsing intro with violin, to a shuffling mutant funk that dares you not to sing along with the hook-laden chorus.
A “one-two-here we go” count-in kicks-off the similarly hook-tastic Cradle Of Rocks. Propelled by the fantastic rhythm section and a keyboard and violin punctuation, it barrels along.
More wonderful guitar shapes frame the vocal melody of Catch Light. Here there is a thrilling, shuffling melody, precision bass and a vocal melody to die for. Bent Knee's exquisite pop-rock/art-rock songs are intricate and demanding in some respects but they are never anything other than engaging. The dynamism on offer here from Bent Knee is brilliant and makes these short tracks (in general prog-rock terms) so full of life you think you have been listening to much longer tracks.
But You Know What They Mean is not just about the hooks. There are soundscapes, fierce riffs and superb musicianship and production throughout. So, if you go to Lovemenot, it starts off like a more intensive, heavier take on Black Sabbath's Iron Man that mutates into a scarily-powerful, doomy riff. If you think art-rock is about feyness, you will think again with this.
Bent Knee bring avant-garde noise here and there on You Know What They Mean. Plucked violin introduces Egg Replacer, which has quieter passages of violin amid strange, avant-guitar noises that would not be out of place on a Sonic Youth album. These are then confronted by speaker-endangering heavy sections. On Hold Me In an unaccompanied drum pattern is joined by reverb-laden keys and voice, before breaking into an odd-feeling funk rhythm which then sidesteps into a proto-Bond theme (as if directed by a surrealist like David Lynch or Luis Bunuel) before moving on again. A restless inventiveness is all over this album.
This even applies to the delicate Golden Hour that starts quietly but builds into a stunning, mid-paced ballad. This track sets a bar for emotional balladry that only Anathema occasionally reach.
As you can probably guess I have completely fallen for Bent Knee's You Know What They Mean over many, many listens. It is full to the brim with melody, intricate arrangements and a sense of 'we had fun making this music' (despite the tribulations the band suffered prior to its recording) that spills from the speakers in all its complex, heartfelt glory. Love it, love it, love it.