Published on 12th June 2016
Bent Knee – Say So
Breathtaking in its scope, and daring in its musical choices, Say So is an album of unbridled ambition that dares to reach for the stars. Their previous and second album Shiny Eyed Babies was released in 2014, and made an emphatic statement that here was a band with big ideas and also a band that defies convention, and Say So underlines the fact in big bold black marker.
There is an undeniable arc of progression in confidence and skill from the 2011 self-titled debut to Say So, and there are no boundaries where this fabulous Boston collective are concerned. Choosing to record this new album in an abandoned million-square foot industrial complex in their home town gives this uncategorisable sprawling epic construct of an album the room to reverberate about like an unchained Frankenstein’s monster just arisen from the slab.
Filmic, even operatic in places, Say So will take you on a musical journey deep into another world, a dramatic place where you cannot afford to sit still for a second. Akin to a Disney movie directed by David Lynch, the experience will leave you puzzled but intrigued, possibly disorientated, definitely exhausted, and if you have any sense of adventure at all, which you undoubtedly have if you last this far, wanting more the second it stops.
A highlight of the record is Courtney Swain’s stunning vocals. Delivering dark tales of inner conflict and impressionistic portent, her full range expresses every nuance of emotion, from a whisper to a scream, without ever getting in the way of the music. In fact the vocals are an integral part of the experience, and delivered in a confident and professional manner that puts many a modern band to shame. Together with Moe Tar’s Moorea Dickason, the two chanteuses form a vanguard for the many superb female vocalists currently working in progressive music over the pond in the U.S.A..
Leaving aside the epic Eve for a moment, the strange and alien Nakami goes through more ideas in its five minutes than most albums thus far this year have managed in their entirety. The cascade of ideas evident in Nakami is symptomatic of the album. Don’t take my word for it, watch this video for the dystopian and unsettling Leak Water:-
“Tentacles crawl through your curls
I spin around ’til I’m nauseous
My child teeth fall through my lips
The new ones grow in sharp.”
Well, I’m certainly not arguing…
Ever full of surprises, Hands Up sounds like a hit single from an alternate universe where Beyonce is a she-devil with a penchant for odd time signatures, and Counselor charges through a big fat grunge-pop riff Billy Corgan would be proud of before walking through to the other side of the mirror where everything is viewed from the wrong end of a kaleidoscope.
The nine minute mini-epic Eve ventures through avant-metal territory, its huge monstrous sound dovetailing into a blackly alternate Wizard of Oz soundtrack seen through a fish-eye lens. Behind the green lawns and the white fences something unsettling lurks as the remarkable pipes of Courtney Swain narrate a tale of unnatural love in her strange hybrid of outré 1920’s cabaret and troubled torch singer. That may erroneously give the impression that her vocal style is somehow contrived, but the reality is far from that, her tones sound natural, but – forgive me Courtney – not quite of this world, which actually suits the impressionistic nature of the lyrics perfectly.
The vast scale of this record is more than adequately served by the staggering array of instrumentation that I list below, and on the tracks Counselor and The Things You Love there are what are described as “Group Vocals”, the latter in a Japanese-styled wordless expression of choral emotion. These come from a choir which consists of what looks like friends of the band, including amongst others, a singing journalist in the form of the very readable Anil Prasad. I await my invite for the next album…on second thoughts…
If like me you wonder if this complex music can be recreated or even improved upon in a live environment, play the video below through your sound delivery system of choice via your smart TV for proof. Someone get this band over here, now!
While Bent Knee appear to be a slight departure for Cuneiform Records, in that they seem on the surface at least to have no little commercial potential, they are certainly a radical proposition for the pop or indeed the trad prog fan, so from that perspective they fit into Cuneiform’s mischievous roster perfectly. If there was any justice in this currently unfathomably stupid world, and of course there isn’t, Cuneiform Records should have a huge hit on their hands with Say So. The more I listen to the album, the more convinced I am that it is the best album I have heard thus far in 2016, which is turning out to be a vintage year for quality releases.
However, as I cannot catch any more giddy adjectives with which to describe this superlative audio experience, for they have chased each other around the room, knocking ornaments asunder as they go, then off out the door trampling the flowerbeds in the garden like over-excited puppy dogs, I will leave you with four words. BUY THIS ALBUM NOW. You will not regret it.
…O.K., that was nine words, I’m running away with myself…
01. Black Tar Water (3:29)
02. Leak Water (4:41)
03. Counselor (5:50)
04. EVE (9:12)
05. Interlude (0:49)
06. The Things You Love (6:12)
07. Nakami (5:19)
08. Commercial (3:44)
09. Hands Up (5:40)
10. Good Girl (6:43)
Total time – 52:45
Ben Levin – Guitar & Vocals
Chris Baum – Violin & Vocals
Courtney Swain – Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth – Drums
Jessica Kion – Bass & Vocals
Andy Bergman – Alto Sax & Clarinet
Ben Swartz – Cello
Bryan Murphy – Trumpet
Geni Skendo – Flute & Shakuhachi
Geoff Nielsen – Trombone
James Dineen – Voice Acting
Keith Dickerhofe – Cello
Nathan Cohen – Violin
Sam Morrison – Baritone Sax
Rebecca Hallowell – Viola
Record Label: Cuneiform Records
Catalogue#: RUNE 417
Year Of Release: 2016