In a perfect world, art would never be pigeonholed, but the sad fact is that we live in a world where everything is expected to be placed into a very specific category. The six musicians who make up Bent Knee, however, don’t seem to care about classification. That is a good thing.
Formed in Boston in 2009 around the hothouse musical environment of the prestigious Berklee School of Music, Bent Knee have released four albums since 2011 and their latest, Land Animal, shows them branching out even further past the imaginative art rock they’ve been perfecting for the past several years. Existing as a true democratic collective, all six members bring something unique to the table, resulting in a truly eclectic experience for the listener.
Prog rock? Art rock? Art metal? Avant-garde indie? Sure. That and a whole lot more. Land Animal opens with “Terror Bird”, led by the intense guitar/bass interplay of Ben Levin and Jessica Kion, while the swooping, otherworldly vocals of singer/keyboardist Courtney Swain set the scene: “Candles lighting windows / But the neighborhood is cold / Heart strings galvanize feelings / Every thought is a transient chemical.” Soon other instruments jump in: widescreen string arrangements, the powerfully intricate drumming of Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth, the deft touch of Chris Baum’s violin. The whole thing is held together by the synths and nuanced sound design of Vince Welch. Democratic collective, indeed. This is a band with an eclectic array of musicianship, and if one piece were missing, something unique would be lacking.
It’s not all high drama and furrow-browed, lightning–fast notes. Often, Land Animal is tempered with song craft that infuses a sophisticated pop touch without losing any of its musical muscle. “Hole” combines stop/start riffing with gentle keyboard touches and Swain’s deceptively sweet, melodic pipes. Imagine Kate Bush fronting the Mars Volta, and you’ve got a general idea. Likewise, “Belly Side Up”, easily the song with the album’s lightest touch, gallops along in an almost playful manner — despite the imaginative, intricate arrangements. While Swain coos, “Just because we’re laughing / We’re not making fun,” the band answers back with “And you deal it / Then you reel it in / It feels like a shotgun,” before the music crashes down and Levin interjects a quick, heavily processed mini-solo.
Speaking of solos, it’s important to note that just because this band met at Berklee, there’s virtually no aimless instrumental noodling present on this album. If that’s your thing, fine, but you’ll have to look elsewhere. Bent Knee are too tight a musical unit to drift off in that manner. There are a variety of moments on Land Animal that show a truly skilled sextet, whether it’s Kion’s fluid, spidery bassline that runs through “These Hands”, Wallace’s masterful, stop-on-a-dime drum fills on “The Well”, or the fact that Swain can go from gentle crooning to angry shouting and back again without ever sounding contrived, as she does on the sinewy, swaggering “Holy Ghost”.
The music on Land Animal often incorporates a theatrical climate. Atmosphere is terribly important on this album. “Insides In”, one of the album’s elegant masterpieces, begins as some sort of gothic jazz ballad before transforming at the halfway mark into an instrumental set piece that sounds like a weird hybrid of early King Crimson and Brian Eno on a bad acid trip. The song — which ends with the long, nightmarish drone of what sounds almost like a robotic dinosaur at death’s door — becomes something truly terrifying and is a glorious example of the kind of eclecticism on display. The title track is also a beautiful dark beast, with stuttering Sabbath riffs combining with ethereal keyboard washes before the vocals kick in and the song takes on the elastic tempo of a musical theater piece. “Gathering kibble / Scraps on the table / I’ll drag my body through every fable,” she sings, possibly singing on behalf of land animals everywhere.
In fact, Land Animal has been described by the band themselves as reflecting the balance between technology and biology. “We’re getting closer and closer through communication and technology,” explains Baum. “On the flip side, we still have many primal urges that have yet to evolve. There’s a strange balance between our technology and our biology that’s tremendously difficult to find. Land Animal explores where those animalistic urges come from and how we can harness and transform them to create a better reality.” On “Time Deer,” the band seems to be acutely aware of the odd coexistence between man and machine: “Oh nasty dog / You’re choking on a cog / In my time machine,” Swain sings. “Drag you along / To the times from which we run / So you can see what I see.”
Bent Knee’s music may be challenging, but their sound is varied enough that no matter what your tastes, you’ll likely hear something you like and next thing you know, you’ll be dragged along for the ride. Land Animal is one thrilling, inspiring, often terrifying ride.