One of the most ironic things about progressive rock is that it has become a genre that has certain distinguishing characteristics- odd time signatures, classical elements, heady lyrics to name a few. But, as a lifelong fan of music that is truly unique, I was thrilled to discover the brilliant Bent Knee, a band that truly defies easy categorization. Reading other music journalists describe their sound could become a hobby. Stuff like: “They’re like Cannibal Corpse meets Enya with shades of Tori Amos and Ravi Shankar” OK, just kidding, no one ever said that. But that’s how it feels sometimes. Their music is a weird kaleidoscope of influences that are definitely present but hard to pinpoint- you’ll hear swirls of Bjork and Radiohead and Zappa and Fiona Apple among many other bands and artists (look, I did it too).
Bent Knee’s third studio album, ‘Say So’, was one of my favorite albums of 2016 for this reason. When a band gains a reputation for being boundary pushers, there is an expectation with each release that the sound will never stagnate. On Say So, Bent Knee manages to create something that is very true to their sound, but is also a giant leap forward.
The album’s opener “Black Tar Water” is a slow, ponderous, disarmingly beautiful introduction with Bent Knee’s lyrical trademark- evocative, disturbing phrases and words that catch you off guard. “Leak Water” is equally as powerful, but in contrast to the opener, it’s driving and dissonant. One of my favorite parts of the album is the very end of “Leak Water”, starting at about the 3 minute mark. Courtney Swain’s expressive, soaring voice is looped in a storm of sounds. In my interview with Bent Knee, they credited Vince Welch (production, sound design) for these effects. And much credit is due, as the creative effects elevate Bent Knee’s already unique sound.
Where Say So most succeeds is in its dynamic range. This album features unique, progressive sounding tracks like “Eve” that range from quiet beauty to loud, dischordant tones, as well as poppy sounds of songs like “Hands Up”(which is a fantastic anthem for creepily obsessive millennial love) . “Commercial” is unreservedly bizarre, reminiscent of avant-garde act Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. “The Things You Love” and “Nakami” are both touching and powerful, pulling from diverse musical influences from all over. The album closes with the mesmerizingly dark “Good Girl”, a powerful statement about how girls and women are often made to feel.
I couldn’t end this review without bringing attention to the stellar musicianship of Bent Knee. The fact that they met at the distinguished Berklee College of Music in Boston should probably make that clear, but they aren’t run of the mill Berklee grads either. Ben Levin’s highly creative guitar work is at times subdued and other times frenetic. Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth and Jessica Kion, on the drums and bass, respectively, form a highly unique, skilled rhythm section that manages to have explosive moments of brilliance while still playing to the song. Often times when rock groups have instrumentalists like violinists, they are relegated to a few lines in a few songs, but Chris Baum’s violin work feels welcome and augments the music each time it appears. And, of course, I am in love with Courtney Swain’s highly expressive, eclectic voice and undeniable talent on the keyboard. Her versatility is apparent from song to song.
This album came out last May, and I’ve known about it for a long time, but as it was one of my favorite albums from last year, I wanted to give it the review I thought it deserved. Bent Knee has gotten a lot of positive press, and deservedly so. If you like unique, artistic music and eclectic blends of sounds, and if you truly want to hear music that is “progressive” both in sound and spirit, check out Bent Knee’s latest here, and make sure to see them on their next tour.