Bent Knee – ‘Land Animal’.

Bent Knee – Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

I first came across Bent Knee on Amps For Equality‘s To Chechnya With Love – Vol 1 charity compilation – Click Here. The included track, ‘Queen of the Conquest’, immediately made an impact on me with it’s strong vocal hook, amid a selection of other tracks that themselves were of very high quality (I urge you to look it up). I was looking forward to hearing more of what the band had to offer and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but with their new album Land Animal, I’m glad to say they don’t disappoint.

The Boston sextet take on elements of Progressive Rock, Math-Rock and Art-Rock and blend them in interesting and unexpected ways with Pop, Jazz and Folk. Each member of the group is a standout musician in their own right, and as a combined force their efforts on Land Animal manage to impress without resorting to displays of instrumental pyrotechnics – the ingenuity and creativity on show within increasingly complex arrangements are what validate the band’s progressive credentials.

Although this is a fully fledged Prog record it’s very accessible; full of strong vocal and instrumental hooks, interesting lyrical content and with vocalist/keys player Courtney Swain providing an emotive human element to lead the listener through the shifting musical landscape.

Regarding Land Animal‘s overarching concept, violinist Chris Baum had this to say on the band’s press release:

‘We’re at this bizarre point in history when our species can almost actively play God. We’re getting closer and closer through communication and technology. On the flip side, we still have many primal urges that have yet to evolve. There’s a strange balance between our technology and our biology that’s tremendously difficult to find. Land Animal explores where those animalistic urges come from and how we can harness and transform them to create a better reality.’

Lyrically speaking these ideas come across well, with Swain delivering her vocals in a confident style that is striking and entirely her own. She has a remarkable range, often leaping between unexpected intervals and capable of reaching the pure high notes of Joni Mitchell, but with a character and power in her lower range that could rival Tune Yards’ Merril Garbus.

Opening track ‘Terror Bird’ begins with insistent offbeat guitars. After Swain delivers her first few gently sung lines, an unexpected change of both tempo and time signature gives a taste of what is in store – the descending, broken piano chord melody from this section reappearing later with strings weaving through the track poly-rhythmically. Huge distorted guitars and Swain’s vocal reaching seemingly impossible heights bring the track to it’s climax as Swain breaks into wailing that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Japanese opera.

Strong dramatic style makes itself felt throughout the record – the instruments dance around each other while demonstrating careful use of dynamics. There are orchestral parts, modern synth textures and a wide range of effects in use – the production tricks of the world of Pop lending a sheen to the band’s sound that thankfully never sounds over produced.

‘Holy Ghost’ showcases Swain’s attitude with a vocal that’s steeped in Soul and Funk, with the track seeming to swagger underneath. Close listening to the album on headphones revealed subtle melodic shifts that weren’t immediately apparent during my initial listening – there appear to be many such carefully arranged elements to catch the ear hidden in the lower parts of the mix. I feel the record will reward repeated, close listening and I expect I will be hearing new things for some time.

The album’s title track mixes big orchestral moments with more subdued Jazz and Pop over shifting timings, with a gentle, gradually building and very pretty mid section. ‘Time Deer’ has a playful feel both lyrically and in Swain’s delivery, before a really great pitch shifted guitar part from Ben Levin wails in unison with the string arrangement and brings the track to its peak. ‘The Well’ begins with the whole band playing behind the beat before settling into the groove in anticipation of more unexpected twists and turns. The outro is uplifting, with the guitar ascending in intervals with an East Asian feel and punctuated by stabs of brass.

Closing track ‘Boxes’ has a delicate vocal that reminds me of Björk’s An Echo, A Stain. The chord shifts, arrangement and vocal are subdued and quite beautiful in my opinion. Modulated bell sounds provide a backdrop as the track distills down to just the drums, which repeat hypnotically on their own for a few bars before things draw to a close. It reminded me of the very end of Radiohead‘s OK Computer – calm after the storm and a fine way to end the album.

There is so much going on within each track on Land Animal that it’s difficult to fully encapsulate in a short review – I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect but I was very impressed by the prowess and the ambition on show here. I was curious before but it’s safe to say I am now a convert – I can see this being an album that I will return to for years to come.

Land Animal is out now on InsideOutMusic/Sony.

Find more about Bent Knee below:


Wil Miles

Wil is a 30-something musician and music lover from Bristol. He enjoys a wide range of music, including Prog-Rock/Metal, Post-Rock, Punk, Pop and a range of other genres that don't necessarily start with a P. If it sounds good, it is good.

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