Photo: Rich Ferri / Courtesy of Speakeasy PR

Bent Knee’s ‘You Know What They Mean’ Is Another Successful Experiment in Boundary Smashing

Boston art rockers, Bent Knee turn a corner with perhaps their most accomplished album yet in You Know What They Mean.

You Know What They Mean
Bent Knee
InsideOut / Sony
11 October 2019

When you think of a band made up of musicians who met at a prestigious music school, a certain image may come to mind. A group of highly skilled artists, hunched over their respective instruments in utter concentration, spooling out complex notes and unorthodox time signatures, producing music of tremendous difficulty and seriousness.

In the case of Bent Knee, you can put your preconceived notions to rest. Yes, all six members of the Boston-based band met while studying at the Berklee College of Music. Yes, they’re all tremendously talented musicians. But while their music may contain a multitude of music theory complexity, it can also be accessible, funky, tender, vulnerable, head-banging, and heavy on guilty-pleasure pop/rock tropes. Bent Knee’s latest album, You Know What They Mean, weaves together everything that made their four previous albums equal parts jaw-dropping and, dare I say, fun. For a band so good at smashing boundaries, they’ve managed to find a few more to tear down this time around.

The album was written largely during 2018, a year that proved to be a trying one for the band. In June, drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth broke his ankle coming off the stage during a gig, resulting in the band temporarily replacing him for the rest of the tour. In November, the group’s tour van flipped over during an intense Wyoming blizzard (thankfully, no-one was seriously hurt). Despite these setbacks, and in addition to a grueling tour schedule, Bent Knee soldiered on defiantly and wrote You Know What They Mean in the studio from scratch (a first for the band).

Produced by their multi-instrumentalist/sound designer Vince Welch, the album is a typical Bent Knee stew of styles and dynamics. What they managed to achieve this time around is a remarkable sense of coherence between all the songs. Despite the music’s range, the songs literally flow together with little to no space between the tracks. It results in something of a throwback to the days of progressive rock concept albums. Labelling Bent Knee as prog rock, incidentally, is not entirely off the mark. They get a good deal of press in prog publications. But there are also plenty of avant-garde touches, art rock, bits and pieces of jazz (they’re Berklee grads, after all), as well as good old-fashioned metal, thanks in part to the pummeling riffs of guitarist Ben Levin.

One of Bent Knee’s most recognizable characteristics is the superhuman singing voice of Courtney Swain. She also plays keyboards, and her recent solo album, Between Blood and Ocean, is well worth seeking out. After the odd introductory track “Lansing” – a live recording with a bit of onstage banter and musical noodling – “Bone Rage” crashes the party with powerful metallic riffs as Levin, Welch, Wallace-Ailsworth, violinist Chris Baum, and bassist Jessica Kion provide the head-banging soundtrack and Swain’s flawless pipes swirl over the top. “If you got a bone to pick with time / We got a score to settle too,” goes the provocative chorus as the band relentlessly chugs along.

Despite the aggressive heaviness of “Bone Rage”, You Know What They Mean contains plenty of other musical avenues, and the band explores them deeply. “Give Us the Gold” includes lots of crunchy swagger, but it is offset by electronic pulses and a dreamy middle section that allows the band to stretch out. There’s also room for quirky experimentation on tracks like the quiet/loud/quiet “Egg Replacer”, the grand, simmering “Garbage Shark”, and the blinding, noisy, nihilistic “lovemenot”.

As “lovemenot” dissipates, it leads into “Bird Song”, an exquisite piano-led ballad with Swain channeling Kate Bush via Lana Del Rey. “Looking for myself / In the bird shit on my car / Rorschach holds a mirror / From their wings to my heart,” she sings, with vocal effects and reverb taking over toward the song’s conclusion, causing it to spiral beautifully out of control. “Catch Light” is another song that deviates – to a degree – from some of the more intense metallic thumps the band often incorporates. With an almost danceable drum sequence, it sounds like the band is flexing pop/soul muscles. But Swain’s menacing voice and Levin’s slashing guitar work give the song the band’s unmistakable sonic stamp.

You Know What They Mean closes with the dreamy, quasi-exotic “It Happens”, and it almost sounds like the band is using the track as a cool-down closer. If that’s the case, they’ve earned it. Bent Knee use their massive musical chops not simply as an excuse to show off but to treat the listener to a sound that’s both unique and thrilling. If you know what they mean.

RATING 8 / 10