Album Review: Bent Knee, “Frosting”

I first heard Bent Knee in 2017, not too long after I started this website. I was doing a post with the rest of our staff about the Prog Music Awards, and I was listening to all of the different bands that I wasn’t familiar with. Among those listed was Bent Knee- a band that stood out among the rest. I was instantly drawn in by their unique blend of styles and sounds. As I indicated in my first review of their album, Say So, it was really funny to see all these reviewers trying so hard to box the band in. “They are like Bjork meets Modest Mouse meets Yes.” “Bent Knee is what happens when you mix an angsty Deerhoof with an order of sweet potato fries.” Yeah, so maybe the reviews weren’t that weird, but that was the general idea. Sometimes you can better understand a band by who they tour with, but when they’re just as comfortable sharing a concert bill with Haken as they are Dillinger Escape Plan, you know you have a band that doesn’t like to be labeled or pushed into a mold. You had a group of 6 highly talented musicians, writing unique and boundary pushing music, and then a bunch of people (fans, reviewers, labels) trying to figure out what their deal was.

5 years and a few albums later, I’m still a fan of their music and progressive spirit. I’ve interviewed nearly every band member, featured them on the site numerous times, heard and promoted various side projects, and the answer is: Bent Knee just wants to be Bent Knee, and doesn’t want to have a deal. Or, at least, a “deal” that is prescribed by someone else. This isn’t yet another review saying, “Oh, Bent Knee is eschewing their prog leanings”, because I think I realized really quickly that it’s not exactly a label they ever asked for. Like so many innovative bands of the past, they’ve always tried to write unique songs that highlight their own strengths and idiosyncrasies.

Unlike previous Bent Knee albums, Frosting was written entirely remotely, which, according to producer and band member Vince Welch, allowed the band to slow down their process and really consider their direction. The resulting album, according to the press release, promised to be “the most Bent Knee-esque Bent Knee record to date, which means that, simultaneously, it’s also the album of theirs that sounds the least like Bent Knee”– a description that, after several listens, I can fully agree with.

The album kicks off with the delightfully weird “Invest in Breakfast”, a quirky, surrealist pop track with lyrics that almost sound like found poetry, with Jessica Kion and Chris Baum trading vocals during the verse. There’s something really magical about imagining a bunch of fans in a crowd, screaming along to the band´s lyrics about Pop Tarts and donuts and neck pain. This is followed up by the evocative “Baby In The Bush”, a song that starts off as a moving ballad but gradually descends into a realm of frenetic energy.

Previous Bent Knee releases have primarily featured vocalist Courtney Swain, but “Casper” is sung entirely by Jessica Kion. The angular dream-pop sounds in this track are augmented by auto-tuning and pitch shifting, and the result is quirky and fun. “Fighting All My Life”, a very pleasant, relaxed jaunt with words that will surely make the listener smile, stands as a stark contrast to the next track, “The Upward Spiral”- a grisly, jarring, industrial themed track that features distorted instrumentation, harsh production, and some truly dissonant moments; although the track title seems to be a nod to Nine Inch Nails’ legendary statement The Downward Spiral, this song is even more harsh and jarring than most anything Nine Inch Nails has released. There is also a killer guitar solo on this track- something you don’t hear on a lot of Bent Knee albums.

The next track, the gorgeously ethereal “Set It Off”, continues with the theme of dramatic dynamic and stylistic shifts. This wonderful dream of a track is interrupted by “Pause”, a 30 second noise track that almost serves as a wake-up alarm, daring you to change to the next track. “Have It All” is a clever pop tune with some terrific moments; the bridge is lush and gorgeous and the highlight of an already pleasant song.

“Queer Gods”, the first single that the band released, is an incredible and bold musical statement for Bent Knee, a band that has actively sought to defy labels and genre categorizations. It’s a full embrace of catchy, danceable music, but through the filter of Bent Knee’s idiosyncrasies. And as a clear example of what this album does so well: the next song on the album is the brash “Rib Woman”, a bruiser of a track with a dissonant, harsh backbeat and speak-singing by Jessica Kion. Yet, the next track after that, “The Floor Is Lava”, ALSO features Jessica’s vocals, but in a way that is subdued and achingly melancholic. She paints a portrait of childhood that is dripping with tragic nostalgia, and the end of the track features what sounds like clips from home movies to the backdrop of haunting vocal swells. While it’s not stylistically identical, it reminds me of the places that Jessica took us on Justice Cow’s Fam Fiction. These two tracks, back to back, show the yin and the yang of this album- the relatability and distance, the harmony and dissonance.

“Cake Party” is a deceptively complex track, with lovely atmosphere created by both synths and layered vocals. It has an overall really catchy and pleasant vibe. “OMG” starts off as perhaps a more recognizable Bent Knee song, with fascinating rhythms and melodies, but gets very experimental midway through, which prepares the listener for what might be my favorite track on the album, the stunning closer “Not This Time”. Courtney’s soaring vocals create a haunting but triumphant feeling, set to the backdrop of a solid backbeat and hypnotic, churning synths and string swells. It is an incredibly cinematic closer, almost to the point that I can imagine some sort of credits rolling on an imaginary screen as I hear it. This album features a lot of vocal manipulation, but I love that the last song features Courtney’s vocals, presented with minimal affect (outside of layering).

Ever since I first heard Bent Knee, I knew they were capable of pretty much anything that they could put their mind to, from a musical standpoint. But, as Jessica Kion hinted in the press release, they have always struggled with the balancing act of pleasing “the right people”, and writing music that interests and excites them. It might be said that this conflict is exacerbated by their past interactions with various record labels- labels that both sponsor experimental and progressive music, and also need that music to sell to their existing audience. From a financial standpoint, having a “sound” or “vibe” to market and refine totally makes sense. But from an artistic standpoint, these types of parameters can inhibit the creative process.

I’m definitely not trying to turn this into some sort of half-formed soapbox speech lamenting the state of modern music, and I definitely don’t want to bash record labels that are sponsoring artists and providing them with different opportunities and paths for growth. I´ve interacted with enough labels to have a pretty realistic knowledge of the inner workings of the music industry, and no one is getting filthy rich off of more independent leaning bands at this scale. So, I’m not trying to say that the labels are to blame, necessarily. I truly believe without progressive leaning labels, we would not have the thriving, growing, and inspiring music scene that we have today, and this site would probably be a lot more boring. But, it’s always a double edged sword- something I’m sure labels understand better than anyone. Modern music industry ecosystems are hard for anyone to navigate, but I think it is much harder for bold, adventurous musicians who want to bring new sounds into the world, because it’s hard to market a product that veers in a lot of different and perhaps inconsistent directions (as opposed to a more recognizable set of confines). I’m not saying one way is particularly better than the other- we need bands that develop and refine a style or sound, and we need bands that seek to redefine their sound consistently. In 2021, and moving on, we need all the art we can get- the most honest art, the most powerful art, the boldest art. The world needs it all.

So, with all of that out of the way, what’s the verdict on Frosting? In a casual chat with Ben Levin and Jessica Kion about Justice Cow’s brilliant new album underglam, Ben said that Frosting might be one of the most “dangerous” Bent Knee albums. I think, because of this, I was anticipating some major tonal shift. But I would say, as a fan of the band’s individual projects, I felt more prepared for Frosting than someone who might only listen to Bent Knee’s 5 previous albums, because the album truly sounds like it was written by a collective of distinct songwriters as opposed to a singular guiding voice.

For instance, Courtney wrote a very cool song called “White Trees” on her solo record, Between Blood and Ocean that prepared me to hear her voice sampled and manipulated with autotune. Jessica’s latest release under her moniker Justice Cow (the gorgeous underglam) prepared me to hear her clever pop sensibilities and synth experimentation on the latest record. Ben’s 24 hour album projects and recent videos on his channel have shown that he’s quite adept at writing and contributing to heavily synthesized, quirky, clever songs. And so on.

This idea of a songwriting collective, making both deliberate and careful contribution,s, is corroborated by their press release, which paints a picture of a more democratic, more synthesized, and less deliberate album than before. Taking all of this into account, Frosting is a natural progression from their previous albums, and I’d even say that it’s a more complete showcase of the band’s individual and collective strengths.

That isn’t to say that it’s a predictable album at all- it is full of brilliant surprises. But, given all of the aforementioned examples, it makes sense within the broader musical context of Bent Knee and its members. It sounds like all of their individual sensibilities coalesced into a frenzied, diverse collection of songs. Catchy singles like “Queer Gods” and “Not This Time” are balanced by dissonant, discordant tracks like “Rib Woman” and “The Upward Spiral”. There are some truly blissful moments on this album, but conversely, there are some truly dissonant and harsh moments. Bent Knee has simultaneously written their weirdest and most accessible album.

Bent Knee’s sixth full length album, Frosting, will be out on November 5th, 2021 via Take This To Heart Records. Pre-order it here.

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