Bent Knee

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Bent Knee (2011), 6.5/10
Shiny Eyed Babies (2014), 7/10
Say So (2016), 6.5/10
Land Animal (2017), 6/10
You Know What They Mean (2019), 6.5/10

Boston's combo Bent Knee, an offshoot of the Berklee College of Music, debuted with Bent Knee (2011). Urban Circus introduces vocalist Courtney Swain's show, alternating a wailed recitation over a slow harsh industrial pulsation and a vibrant punk-ish rant over distorted guitar. I Don't Love You Anymore is even angrier and noisier, with the singer multitracked for maximum effect. On the other hand, she croons an operatic aria in the violin-driven After Years Of Love, and Funeral is a twisted lounge ballad with accordion, xylophone and saxophone that at the end erupts in dissonance. The comic skit I've Been This Way Before belongs to an expressionist cabaret, whereas Nave is the cry of a madwoman in the middle of a nervous breakdown. The eight-minute Styrofoam Heart is a more complicated piece of acting, with the music alternating between ruthless guitar-driven hard-rock and ghostly piano sonatas. Swain's ever-changing theater steals the show, but the quartet backing her (violinist Chris Baum, guitarist Ben Levin, bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth) deserves equal credit for the creative background.

They constructed the more orchestrated songs of Shiny Eyed Babies (2014) around a simple strategy: let vocalist Courtney Swain make sense of her cohorts' chaotic instrumental jamming. The result is a protracted oxymoron, as the vocalist needs to continuously change singing style, or to blatantly ignore the instrumental background. Their technique of estrangement begins by crafting an introduction which is a harmless slightly-bluesy piano ballad Shiny Eyed Babies before forcing the vocalist to morph into a hoarse pub witch in Way Too Long. That segues into the melismatic soul cry Dry, steadily climbing towards an anthemic refrain despite an atonal violin. Progression is also the essence of standout In God We Trust from its ethereal beginning to its bolero-like crescendo via theatrical recitation. A gentle folk elegy, I'm Still Here, soars in King Crimson-ian majesty. The viceversa is not always as successful: Dead Horse, that mimics the emphatic aria of a Broadway musical, fades away in a rather uneventful manner. On the other hand, the suspenseful melodrama Battle Creek boasts one of the most vehement arrangements decaying into an ending that is pure gospel-ian pathos with minimal instrumentation. By the same token, Skin transforms its hysterical verve into a subdued piano finale via industrial metronomy. The piano lullaby Untitled, inspired by classical lieder, opens another front. In fact at that very intersection between folk-rock and neoclassical lied Sunshine reaches the album's peak of psychological power. The last two songs (two of the longest) are mixed blessings. Being Human is a Freudian trip up and down the scales of neurosis and euphoria, and the best thing about the exhausting lyrical ballad Toothsmile is the way it implodes. Not everything works but certainly every second of this music is a challenge to preconceived ideas of what a song should be like. Many other instruments surface here and there: viola, berimbau, trumpet, flute, cello, trombone and saxophone. And, still, nothing could be further from accuracy than calling this "chamber rock". This is raw, bold, emotional rock music.

Say So (Cuneiform, 2016), with the quintet augmented by Vince Welch on synth, still relies mainly on Swain's acrobatic singing. She swings effortlessly from bluesy grit to operatic melisma in Black Tar Water, she screams her head off in Leak Water, she first croons like a balladeer and then imitates Japanese folk opera in Nakami, and she permeates the subdued Good Girl with an elegiac mood that soars like a religious hymn while wavering like a fairy-tale lullaby. On the other hand the frequent tempo shifts within a song owe a lot to the rhythm section, as demonstrated in Counselor, which, in just six minutes, embraces a syncopated beat, circus steps, and a sort of neurotic reggae, and ends with no rhythm at all, just clouds of violin notes. The guitar begins the nine-minute Eve sounding like a malfunctioning clock and then unleashes a massive distortion, and then, after a brief pastoral intermezzo, leads the band into a noisy maelstrom. When calm is restored, the guitar ends the piece ticking hypnotically. The Things You Love transitions from the pomp of Chinese opera to a dreamy atmosphere to an ethereal humming that becomes the bombastic theme of the beginning. And the band is eclectic enough to pen both the effervescent Frank Zappa-esque ditty Commercial and the poppy Taylor Swift-esque Hands Up.

Land Animal (Inside Out, 2017) prefers songs that are normalized, polished and streamlined (like opener Terror Bird, the jazzy These Hands, the poppy Time Deer), only slightly eccentric. Swain is a force of nature in the hysterical Holy Ghost, an otherwise confused and aimless song, and reaches a histrionic and exotic peak in the mutant muzak of Land Animal. Another highlight is the quasi-orchestral ballad Insides In with a coda that blends doom-metal and classical music, a contender for atmospheric zenith with the velvety trance of closer Boxes.

That album signaled the transition to the dense and more electronic arrangements of You Know What They Mean (Inside Out, 2019) and to its rougher edges. It contains some of their most aggressive moments, as if they spent a year listening to old grunge and stoner-rock records, starting with the hyper-distorted metal riffs and witchy shrieks of Bone Rage, followed by the steady garage stomper Cradle Of Rocks and the second half of Give Us The Gold (after flirting with techno music). Despite the sleek production, the songs emanate madness: Lovemenot sounds like an old thundering Black Sabbath track drenched in muriatic acid and appropriately ends in a wall of noise; Catch Light is a pop-soul ballad devastated by industrial noise; Garbage Shark is a crescendo of psychedelic distortion. While most songs are coherent wholes, the listener can still get lost in some rapidly morphing songs: Hold Me In begins with stormy echoes and frantic drumming but then opts for a syncopated disco beat and even a Bacharach-esque melody before soaring in an epic shout; and It Happens swings from a bizarre rhythm to new-age ecstasy.

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(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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