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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bent Knee: Land Animal


1) Terror Bird; 2) Hole; 3) Holy Ghost; 4) Insides In; 5) These Hands; 6) Land Animal; 7) Time Deer; 8) Belly Side Up; 9) The Well; 10) Boxes.

It is quite surprising how there is only one year of difference between Bent Knee's third and fourth album. Most contemporary bands like to take their time between records — the more they go on, the longer it usually takes, yet Bent Knee have been visibly accelerating, and at this rate they should be reaching a Frank Zappa style of pumping product by 2018. At the same time, they show no signs of tiredness or wear, and their art remains consistently challenging... or does it?

Truth be told, Land Animal is the first Bent Knee record that has openly bored me. The novelty has worn off by now, the factor of surprise is no longer there, and despite all the predictable complexity, the band has stalled, lapsing into expectable formula. Yes, here we have ten more math-art-rock packages, exploiting the usual tricky time signatures, out-of-the-blue melodic shifts, tempestuous vocal exercises, and loud/quiet alternations. That's all very well: Bent Knee preserve their own style and continue to weave together new sonic patterns. The problem is, this kind of music only truly survives as it evolves, and on Land Animal, they have ceased to evolve. Even on Say So, where stagnation had already set in, they showed occasional signs of making tiny jumps over their heads — be it the sarcastic exuberance of ʽCommercialʼ or the questionable, but bold attempt to merge their art-rock with «commercial» R&B on ʽHands Upʼ.

Here, though, they stick to a set formula so closely that the entire album really feels like one big song. The perfect setting for a Bent Knee rock opera is the Titanic, or at least the Pequod: every­thing that is going on takes place during a huge storm, now lulling, now coming back to full strength — and this is an admirable setting, if only one weren't condemned to some sort of Flying Dutchman eternity on that ship. Land Animal, despite the title, makes me feel precisely the same way: bored with unending crashing waves, darkness, and well-calculated foreboding of the end that never comes. Drown, already! Just frickin' drown, won't you?

As I relisten to the opening verses of the first song, ʽTerror Birdʼ, I have to confess that I now find Courtney Swain's vocal style downright irritating. Sure, it has not changed much since the beginning, but now that the freshness of the approach has worn off, her timbre and phrasing are positively underwhelming for a style of music that suggests some sort of Sybil-like presence. The lyrics suggest something truly evil outside the window: "Terror bird, please eat me out / I want to live with the murder... tiny bodies piling up, blinded by the cries for help..." — but the music and the vocals are so hollow and theatrical that the effect is wasted. I mean, that «big» heavy riff that swallows us during the chorus could just as well be found on an Ayreon record, and here I thought that this band was not about popcorn entertainment.

Perhaps there is a slightly jazzier atmosphere to some of these tracks than before — or, at least, to some of Courtney's vocal parts — but this does not help things much, because combining modern jazz with apocalyptic visions is almost bound to miss the gut level: apocalyptic visions are all too realistic these days, and nothing will beat the relative simplicity of ʽGimme Shelterʼ or even of OK Computer when it comes to making music that fills you up with genuine dread at the thought of what might be lying ahead. Bent Knee, on the other hand, continue to make the mis­take of wanting to appeal to both camps at the same time — the one that expects seriousness out of music, and the one that does not expect anything out of music, other than, perhaps, an opportunity for getting your mind blown one way or another.

But maybe, after all, it is simply the music that sucks. Whenever I succeed in getting my mind off Courtney and concentrating exclusively on the band, I simply do not hear anything particularly interesting going on here. Very simple guitar lines, whose main attraction lies in how frequently one simple part replaces another; melodies that echo Radiohead, King Crimson, or Beyoncé (yes indeed) but could hardly stick in a head already occupied with Radiohead, King Crimson, or Beyoncé. Maybe it's just simple as that: the band has ceased to write good music, to the extent that it has got me thinking now if they ever produced good music in the first place. Well, no, I will definitely cherish the memory of hearing their first album for the first time: unfortunately, Land Animal shows every sign of «landing» their career in a dull bog. I have no problem listening to somebody's vision of the end of the world — as long as the vision is sufficiently picturesque — but, in my opinion, Bent Knee have hit a wall here, though I do fully acknowledge the subjectivity of that opinion, and of the accompanying thumbs down.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, just couldn't crack this one and have kind of despaired at this point, having also found Say So a middling experience. It's disappointing because I did think after Shiny Eyed Babies they could roll out great compositions by the truckloads since they seemed so sharp already for a sophomore effort. But they have lost their way somewhere. Instead, the band that I am now looking to for many more delights is Iamthemorning. All Gleb needs to do is to keep playing and they are A.O.K. Somewhere, with this ensemble of talent that they have, Bent Knee haven't hit upon that kind of formula.