Bent Knee – Frosting

I haven’t been this torn about an album in some time.  Bent Knee is back, and I know they are already an acquired taste for some, but their new album Frosting might even be more so.  The album releases on November 5th through their new label Take This To Heart Records.

This is a review, an opinion, right?  Some of things I’m going to say are just my opinion.  Maybe they’re true, maybe not.  And there is so much to say about this album.  Bent Knee come to us from Massachusetts, USA.  The current lineup includes Ben Levin, Chris Baum, Courtney Swain, Jessica Kion, Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth, and Vince Welch; guests spots come from Joe Gullace on trumpet, Quinn Carson on trombone, and Tyler Brasch on alto saxophone.

As I mentioned, the band left Inside Out Music to join Take This To Heart Records.  Those two labels are quite different in tone and goals.  And I think this is indicative of the band’s goals, as well.  Over the last few albums with Inside Out, the band has been lumped in with the “progressive rock” crowd, and that seems to have been to the dismay of the band members themselves.  They don’t like the term, though that is actually quite a common feeling among artists typically included in the genre.  I see this new label as a specific and direct attempt to separate themselves from the term, and I can respect that.

The music on this album is diverse, different, and downright crazy at times.  Much of the rock sound is gone, and instead the ambient, electronic, pop, noise, and avant-garde aspects of their sound have been intensified.  It is a big change, but more of a removal of some aspects, not a completely new direction.  I would also point out that Courtney Swain’s Japanese heritage has made its way into many of the melodies, and I absolutely love that.  There are also various moments of evocative and even cinematic qualities, something we haven’t heard as much as I’d like from this band.

So, that’s the problem, isn’t it?  There is so much to like here, but also so much I don’t like.  I like to say that the sign of a great artist is often the fact that I won’t fully appreciate certain albums by them, such as Vangelis or Mike Oldfield.  But that just means that they are more eclectic and eccentric than my musical range sometimes, and I’m the one who needs to stretch, rather than force artists to stay inside a certain box.  I think this thought applies to Bent Knee.  They do so many things, and I won’t always like it (and I can articulate why), but that doesn’t mean the music is bad.

I apologize.  I’m rambling.  This album sheds so much of the band’s rock sound that many of the songs don’t feel like they have real rhythm or focus.  With some of the songs, I’ve “found” the groove only after several listens, and that probably means it is above my pay grade, if you know what I mean.  Many of the songs have too much distortion or overlays of effects added later.  I feel that some of the best melodies on the album are ruined at certain points because of effects that simply don’t need to be there.  At times, these effects, the overuse of autotune, and certain brash beats can come across as purely abrasive.  For example, the track “Pause” isn’t really a song at all; it is basically the most annoying sound every recorded for 34 seconds.  Is there an artistic reason for this?  Maybe it just goes over my head.

I want to talk more about the autotune issue.  Courtney has one of the most interesting voices out there today.  She obviously doesn’t need autotune, and therefore it is used for artistic and aesthetic reasons.  I get that, and I even like that many times.  However, I feel like it is used way too often, and in some of the most irritating ways ever, molding her voice into something completely different.  What makes it even more infuriating is that she gets only a few chances to sing truly and purely; and when she does, her voice sounds incredibly melodic and beautiful.  That makes the distorted portions all the more egregious. 

And that is how much of this album goes.  Each song seems to have fantastic moments (especially Courtney’s thoughtful keys and Gavin’s absolutely awesome drums), but also sections that piss me off.  Every song feels like someone tampered with it in late production; like my daughter tinkering with her Jack-o’-lantern the other night, adding way too many holes, cuts, paints, and marks to where her original vision and artistry were lost in the mess.  Some people just don’t know when to stop.  When to self-edit.  When to pull back their hand.

There are several songs I like (or at least mostly like).  The opener “Invest in Breakfast” has some cool brass alongside a sweet beat.  I like the trip hop aspects.  “Baby in the Bush” is a brilliant song with a slow burning ambience that climaxes in coarse cinema.  “The Upward Spiral” feels like a NiN nod, and it is suitably vicious in sound.  I like how it leads into one of my favorite tracks, “Set It Off”.  Rather than be energetic and explosive, this song is gentle, floating, and beautiful.  Courtney really gets to emote on this one.

I think the second half of the record is better overall.  Once you pass “Pause”, the music has a notable grace and story-telling quality I really like.  “Have It All” is a great tune with a fantastic chorus and some Japanese vibes I really dig.  The single “Queer Gods” has really grown on me; it has some of the most acute pop and electronic tones on the album, but the beat and brass are addictive. These songs, and even many of the songs I don’t like as much, are going to sound incredible in a live setting.

I think the last four songs are great.  “The Floor is Lava” is expressive and gorgeous with ambient textures galore.  I really enjoy that one.  Yet, I enjoy “Cake Party” almost as much.  It has a huge dose of melody and the track overall isn’t teased to oblivion.  I even like “OMG”, to my surprise, with its whimsy and sweet drums.  The final song, “Not This Time”, is a vivid and memorable track.  It has some of Courtney’s best vocal moments, as well as some of her best keyboard melodies.  I really like the grace and peace that end the album.

Can you sense the tension in this review?  Now that I’m at the end, I’m thinking I need to assign a higher number simply because I like it more than a 7 really tells.  But I think I’ll leave it.  Bent Knee have become the masters of cacophony.  I won’t always enjoy it, and sometimes I want to admire it from afar, but sometimes I really “get” what they are trying to do, and it’s like a grand vision that I might only glimpse between the fence posts, if that makes sense.  I think I will come to adore this record fully someday, but not yet.


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