Kneebody pit their maverick tendencies against the vast languages of modern jazz.
As problematic as it may be to try to shoehorn Anti-Hero, the latest Kneebody album, into the narrative of modern jazz, a genre on which the band is decidedly on the fringes, it may be more useful than it initially seems.
Outsiders illiterate to the shape of contemporary jazz often reduce the vast span of the genre as it exists today to a few simple ranks -- classicism, pop commercialization, electronic hybrid-futurism -- but as oversimplified a characterization as that might be, it nonetheless speaks to a core issue jazz has faced for a few decades now: its waning cultural influence. The genre’s progressive (and regressive) movement over the last generation -- and especially its stylistic diffusion -- is the direct result of the loss of consensus it faced with the dawning information age, a fate admittedly not limited to jazz or other traditional musical formats. Of course, more than any other style of popular music, jazz never really had any sense of widespread uniformity to begin with. Still, with the rise of digital music-making and global Internet-based communities, whatever modest coherence or unity the genre had has all but dissolved. Jazz today exists in a million different forms, many bearing little resemblance to any of its canonical ancestors.
This brings us to Kneebody. The group’s previous album, 2015’s Kneedelus, was a collaborative effort with electronic producer Daedelus and, as such, was about as of-the-moment an album as possible. The band’s jazzy post-rock textures floated well over Daedelus’s West Coast beat music vibes, resulting in a rhythm-focused fusion album that felt suited to the re-emerging strains of jazz in hip-hop and chillout music. (Daedelus, for what it’s worth, also has a formal jazz education of his own.) Both Kneebody and Daedelus seemed in tune with the general direction of the project. The textural tension between the producer’s grainy ambient percussive loops and the band’s impressionistic jazz made the record feel layered and dynamic at the same time. It had a sense of direction.
But Anti-Hero is back to business for Kneebody, and they seem to be struggling to find artistic purpose without the stark limitations collaboration provided. In contrast with the clear-eyed focus of Kneedelus, Anti-Hero seems to have its hands in as many places as the band can handle. Each member of the ensemble, besides drummer Nate Wood (who engineered, mixed and mastered the album), contributes at least two compositions to the 10-track collection, but that the record is the product of several independently-working minds is all too evident. The album’s press release headline attempts to convey a convergence of meaning across the album, characterized as “compositions inspired by loss & civic responsibility through musical exploration,” but it only makes more obvious how truly stilted and variable it is.
The album opens with two tracks composed by trumpeter Shane Endsley: “For the Fallen”, a sultry electro-jazz chillout woven together by a funky, oscillating drum beat, and “Uprising”, a rough-edged funk-rock fusion jam. Even between just these two tracks, the contrast is jarring. The former’s fluid character is upended by the latter’s rigidity, its floating ambience replaced suddenly with mechanical grooves. Endsley returns to concrete fusion later on with “The Balloonist”, stiffened by hammering piano chords and a strict rock beat, but he also admits some of “For the Fallen”’s personality in a proggy solo section that evolves around an emotive progression. The band soars during their improvisational sections -- it’s just a shame they insist on inflexible main themes that deaden their talents.
Keyboardist Adam Benjamin provides the album’s title song, which suitably jumps from one style to the next, starting off as a tender, late-night crooner that collides suddenly with a headbanging jazz-metal riff before settling into another strain of ambient psychedelia, then hits all the stops in reverse. Kaveh Rastegar, the band’s bassist, offers Anti-Hero’s more contemplative moments via two quiet and heartfelt tributes, “Mikie Lee” and “Austin Peralta”, which simmer with the kind of emotion the band excels at translating. There are sparks of poignant beauty throughout the album, but the fire dies out with its more belligerent moments, a style for which the band has much less of a gift.
Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s contributions include a new, Daedelus-less version of “Drum Battle” which suffers in comparison to its Kneedelus recording, one of that album’s great highlights. Here, the song is twice as long, given a half-time introduction that undermines the brilliant urgency of the main riff, and pulled apart to include an extended solo section that, while appropriately unrelenting, goes a bit long for the fever-pitch at which it's working. One also wonders how it’s meant to mesh with the dreary ballads and rugged fusion interspersed throughout the rest of the album, especially sequenced as it is in the first third of the album rather than as a high-tension climax.
Wood provides a telling statement about the recording of the album in the press material: “It was an easy album to make. We can just kind of do our thing and it seems to work pretty well.” Anti-Hero, accordingly, is an album with all the markings of a seasoned ensemble: controlled and careful, indulgent and contented, frustratingly unchallenging.
It’s a record which suffers for lack of limiting force. Jazz in the post-postmodern era has evolved into an elaborate, untamed beast, and bands like Kneebody sometimes seem to suffer under the weight of all the options available to them.