October 3, 2019

Bent Knee are not a band we ever want to lose to a play-it-safe conformity…

Have you ever been left breathless and dazed by something that made you feel like you had one of those little rings of cartoon birds chirping around your head? I expect many will feel that way once they’ve reached the end of You Know What They Mean, the fifth electrifying album from ferociously original sextet Bent Knee. The first new release since 2017’s highly praised (but distinctly dissimilar) Land Animal, there’s a lot to absorb on first listen, and it requires numerous plays to reveal itself properly (as all the best albums do). Anyone who only wants Land Animal part 2 may be disappointed and confused by YKWTM. The band are taking risks and thumbing their noses at public expectation – which is how it should be, really. Bent Knee are not a band we ever want to lose to a play-it-safe conformity. Not content with a standard rock or pop approach, the band incorporate dance beats, sludgy heaviness, shimmering ethereal sounds, angry weirdness and whatever style happens to suit them at the time. This is not to imply that they just grabbed a bunch of disparate elements, threw them on an album and said “Here you go, marvel at how eclectic we are”. Rather, they’ve meticulously woven together these diverse sounds and styles and crafted a grand and uncompromising work of art, the scope of which continues to be unveiled the farther back you step from it.

The album opens on a strange note with the track simply titled Lansing, a brief glimpse into the world of technical difficulties on stage. It’s reminiscent of some of the live Frank Zappa albums, where music was not always the first thing you heard (it was often Zappa talking to the audience before a note was played). But soon it’s down to business with the first proper track Bone Rage, with its metallic riff and heavy, distorted sound. And finally, two full minutes into the album, the inimitable Courtney Swain comes roaring in, all attitude and guns blazing. This is a heavy track, but not immune to the doses of quirky sound choices sprinkled liberally throughout these new pieces. Like on followup track Give Us The Gold for example, with its ghostly echo on the vocals in the first verse. But there’s also a huge, fat groove in the chorus – and elsewhere throughout YKWTM. For all its ventures into (or at least approaching the vicinity of) the avant-garde, the album really does deliver a tremendous amount of groove and feel.

Before Swain’s last frantic echoes of Give Us The Gold have fully trailed off, we are already into the driving beats of Hold Me In. One of the biggest charms of this album lies in its unconventional sequencing. Each song doesn’t slowly fade out and leave you waiting in silence for several seconds until the next one comes on. It’s a relentless, exhilarating journey through all of these moods, each interlocking piece an essential part of the whole. Like the bizarre Egg Replacer, for example… is it just me, or has Bent Knee fashioned a song around the melody line from Salt N Pepa’s Shoop? (I know, that actually goes back further to the Ikettes with their song I’m Blue.) Naturally, Egg Replacer ends up about as far from those as you can get. Cradle Of Rocks is an early favourite, an energetic piece that owes much of its appeal to the always inventive guitar textures of Ben Levin and the impressive, intricate playing of bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth, as solid a rhythm section as any band working today – and that’s not an exaggeration. Oddly, as the song fades, an interview clip of Swain in mid-sentence is heard, with an interesting revelation about her disposition.

A wildly successful experiment from a band unapologetic for its explorations outside of conventional song structure…

A second in-the-moment live snapshot is presented in the form of Lovell, as though to signal the beginning of part two of the album. Followup song Lovemenot is a claustrophobic and sludgy track that recalls Bone Rage in its sonic approach. Bird Song is a delicate piano piece with fragile vocals that eventually gets treated with strange effects to give it a peculiar, mystical feel. From there, Catch Light is as close to a 180 degree turn as possible, a brilliant track loaded with more of those thick, delicious grooves, and perhaps the only one that could have fit comfortably on the previous album. Garbage Shark has a strong atmosphere from the start, and now seems as good a time as any to mention that Chris Baum is often the most understated member of the band. It’s a tall order to carve out his own sonic space in music like this, with so much going on in the mix. But his violin parts are vital to the flavour to these songs – and all of their songs. Along with this track, one of the finest moments on the album happens when the song Golden Hour falls away from its ambient vocal opening with Levin and Wallace-Ailsworth signaling the change in tone. Closing track It Happens rounds out the proceedings with a wobbly melody and a dreamy second half, and the album drifts slowly into silence, leaving the listener to reflect on what has transpired over the course of 52 minutes.

Undoubtedly the sum of their parts, there is no one star in this band. On any given day, that trophy could randomly be given to any of them, and they’d be deserving of it. Vince Welch could have a mantle full of them by now for all of his fascinating production and sound design. The question now is: who is still influencing Bent Knee? I’m sure they know, but it’s unclear to us. It’s an impressive feat for a band who continue to release albums so unlike the previous ones to remain incapable of comparison with anyone else. You Know What They Mean is two bold, assured steps forward, and proves to be a wildly successful experiment from a band unapologetic for its explorations outside of conventional song structure. And while there aren’t the same kind of pretty moments here as on the previous albums, there is stark and almost overwhelming beauty in abundance.

Available from 11 October on CD and LP from the band’s website, Inside Out, Amazon, and just about everywhere else.