Everything I’ve ever heard about Knifeworld seems to be the same critique, regardless of whether or not the writers actually like the material. The seemingly endless plethora of adjectives that reviewers, journalists, and promoters use to describe the music and mantra of this London-based octet altogether point to their eccentricity. Released last Friday via Inside Out, Knifeworld’s latest album Bottled Out of Eden is an eleven piece song cycle of loss and hope, a brand new musical anthology told the only way Knifeworld know how: in uptempo, flamboyant, and often spastic fashion.
From its conception nearly 14 years ago, Knifeworld has evolved from being Kavus Torabi’s solo project (alongside his now-dormant band, Cardiacs) into a well-rounded, eight-piece act, moving away from what could justifiably be termed “psychedelic pop” into a more genre-defying avenue of avant garde music. Fronted by Torabi (guitar, vocals), the band’s founder and visionary, Knifeworld’s lineup has stabilized since 2012‘s Clairvoyant Fortnight EP to include Melanie Woods (vocals, percussion), Emmett Elvin (keyboards, vocals), Charlie Cawood (bass), Ben Woollacott (drums), Chloe Herington (bassoon, alto saxophones, vocals), Josh Perl (alto saxophone, clarinet, vocals), and Oliver Sellwood (baritone saxophone). This group was responsible for the band’s second studio-length album, The Unraveling (2014) – their first release with Inside Out – and have now returned with the same brand of songwriting for Bottled Out of Eden.
I’ll just drop my predisposition on the table here. Ska has never been my thing, even when it was “the thing” back in my high school years. This is entirely a stylistic preference on my part, and is not what affects my perception of this release. Yet, while “progressive ska” would be a far too reductionistic genre tag for Knifeworld, there’s plenty of that selfsame, brass-based bounce and pep here – the paradox of bright tones meshed with grim and even grotesque lyrics – to make such a comparison. Of course, horns and woodwinds in prog are not the least unheard-of: in fact, Crimson and Zappa, the very figureheads of classic prog, extensively employed brass and woodwind elements for composition. Knifeworld fall somewhere between these two extremes: their orchestration is stylistically dissimilar from the jazz fusion elements of Crimson, but also doesn’t quite touch the comedic, theatrical end of the spectrum as Zappa did.
Knifeworld do something else entirely, not so much integrating horns into the melodic fabric of their compositions as employing them to violently interject counter melodies. Actually, there aren’t a whole lot of artists I’d compare to Knifeworld directly, although I did get strong a strong Moody Blues vibes on Bottled’s opening tune, “High/Aflame,” and I can pick out a handful of other similarities – predominately to art rock bands and other independent acts such as Minus the Bear, The Appleseed Cast, Sufjan Stevens, Mice on Stilts, and These Curious Thoughts. A few progressive artists also come to mind, namely Thank You Scientist, The Mars Volta, Tabula Rasa, and Octopie. In that regard, “quirky” and maybe even “unique” are apt terms for their music, and yet Knifeworld’s presentation belies its surface-level intrigue by proving to be somewhat formulaic: for loud sections, the band resort to driving guitar riffs with layers of syncopated brass over rolling bass; for soft sections, they overdub guitars working in contrary color tones, creating an ambient and chromatic bed of sound. I wouldn’t dare go so far as to say all the songs on Bottled Out of Eden all sound the same – nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Each piece has its own unique melodic hooks, a different facet of the gem that is Knifeworld’s music. But it does seem that, for all the instrumentation available to them, the band employ a surprisingly limited number of tricks.
Things I like. And really like. Bottled’s vocal work is creative, delightfully sloppy, but ambitious, employing five of the eight band members at microphones: Woods, Elvin, Herington, and Perl altogether buoy and accent Torabi’s nasal cockney at various intervals throughout the album. A honky tonk, slightly-out-of-tune vibe is prominent in each song’s instrumentation, with harsh brass voices often interrupting even the softer moments of the compositions. The eerie chaos the vaguely detuned orchestration creates is the right kind of tension for an album concerned with death and loss. Meter shifts abound, as do dynamic variations and surprising shifts in thought. In fact, if I had to sum up the album in a word, it would probably be “unpredictable”: Knifeworld’s songwriting borrows elements from experimental absurdity, incorporating ragged dissonance and scattered intentions, collecting diverse, art rock elements into unusual songwriting.
Bottled Out of Eden grows on you with time, building intrigue as well as familiarity with successive listens. I wouldn’t liken it to a friend, perhaps, but I might call it a strange cousin whose company I still enjoy. Recorded in nine days back in September, in a mostly live format with very few overdubs, this impressive album marks a significant departure from their last project, The Unraveling, which was a notoriously ambitious studio project, perhaps evidencing the sophomoric tendency of a band wrestling with identity and trying too hard to replicate its earlier achievements. Bottled doesn’t feel that way at all. In fact, it feels mature, refined, and finished. This is a quality release that will challenge your appreciation for avant garde music and also poison your brain with chipper musical hooks that take far too long to forget.