You know that band that you know all about, but you just have never started listening to them yourself? Bent Knee was that for me. Hell, Justin published a review for their last album, “Land Animal”, on this very site when it released a few years ago. Still, I didn’t take the plunge. Last year, though, I finally did, and now I’m obsessed. Bent Knee’s new album, “You Know What They Mean”, releases on October 11th through Inside Out Music, and this album further bolsters my great expectations for this band’s future.
Bent Knee hails from Boston, Massachusetts. This group of musicians is highly trained and intensely intuitive, both musically and in live performances. The band consists of Ben Levin on guitar, Chris Baum on violin, Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth on drums, Jessica Kion on bass, Vince Welch on production and sound design, and Courtney Swain on vocals and keys.
Bent Knee’s music is quite literally impossible to describe accurately. They dabble in so many genres that they simply resist any labels. That said, they are progressive/art rock in the general sense, and you will hear alternative, grunge, metal, indie, blues, math rock, and pop influences woven throughout this album. Many of their songs have some stunning polyrhythms and math-influenced bass lines and guitar riffs, while others may have slightly off-key melodies that come across as eerie and unnerving, and all of this is set up against Courtney’s inimitable voice. The band also loves loud/soft dynamics, so many songs will be gentle one moment, and thunderously cacophonous the next.
From that description, you may get the impression that the music is disjointed or indecisive. Nothing is further from the truth, however. The band manages and combines all of these influences into a complete and stunning package that is simply a joy to behold. On top of that, the band puts their own artistically irreverent spin on everything, so the music is more than just a fusion of genres: it is a reflection of their collective personality and beautifully strange ideas. That, my friends, is exactly why I love this band. There is no one else that sounds like them because only this particular group of people can be their particular selves, if you get my meaning. Bent Knee is anything but cookie cutter.
One thing you will notice on this album is the tone. The music often has a gritty, distorted quality to it, almost like audio speakers reaching the peak of their performance capabilities. Crackles, pops, and electronic overlays are not uncommon. All of this makes the lyrics a gut punch, as well. The lyrics are often full of rage, angst, and loss, even bordering on morbid or macabre at times, but they can also be full of introspective discourse, hope, and resolve. In other words, they are intensely human, because we each have all of these emotions within us.
No Bent Knee review is complete without a word on the vocals. Courtney is academically trained and it shows in her vivid control of her pitch, high notes, and also the evocative tone she is wanting to portray. Her voice varies from gloriously melodic to purposefully gritty to smooth and bluesy. She can explode with sheer fury in the midst of a crazy musical safari, and soothe and woo us the next. There is very little chance that her performance will be beaten this year, especially with her solo album “Between Blood and Ocean” from earlier this year.
The songs on “You Know What They Mean” are excellent across the board. On a few tracks, the band invites us into their world a little bit with some audio recordings from their pre-set chatter with the crowd and with each other, such as “Lansing” and “Lovell”. I really like this approach, as their personalities show through even more. Some songs are short, introspective pieces, such as the gorgeously off-color “Bird Song” or the enjoyably odd “Egg Replacer”. Other songs are angry and driving, such as “Bone Rage” and “Lovemenot”. Those songs are highly effective, leaving your spine numb from power and emotion. Still other songs are groovy, dance-worthy tunes that are absolutely going to sound amazing live (I’ve heard some of them already). “Give Us the Gold” offers a bouncy, catchy melody to that effect, and “Catch Light” offers a slightly slower, more majestic version. “Cradle of Rocks” falls under this type of song, too, but it is pounding, melodic, and driving, but will definitely get your hips moving, too.
There are four songs I want to discuss in a little more detail. First, “Hold Me In” is the breath-taking single, and I’m sure you’ve heard it and seen the wildly creative video. Here’s the thing: this song is an absolute masterpiece between its catchy beat, electronic accents, and humongous chorus. Modern music doesn’t get much better. Second, “Garbage Shark” is as amazing as it sounds. It offers a bit of a slow burn, maybe even bordering on ambient at times, but the atmosphere is decisively textured and even cluttered in the most amazing way possible. The flustering pay off at the end will stay with you.
The album ends with “The Golden Hour” and “It Happens”. If any song challenges “Hold Me In”, it is definitely “The Golden Hour”. Courtney is at the top of her game here with a delicious melody, and these feelings of resolve and anticipation. The ending climaxes in a huge crescendo of light that absolutely blows me away every time. Then, after such a huge song, the band ends the album with a subtle, somewhat eerie rhythm on “It Happens”. The beat is strangely addictive for being so peculiar and dimly beautiful. It’s a perfect ending.
With “You Know What They Mean”, Bent Knee have created their most cohesive, most tightly composed album yet. Every song is fantastic, and the flow of the album is a roller coaster. The band brings it all together with poetic lyrics and vivid expression on every level. I cannot wait to see more of this material on their upcoming US tour.
Great album. Sounded a little chaotic on the 1st listen but really kicked in after that.