From New York City, The Knells do ‘art rock’ in their own inimitable fashion. It’s a deft mix of instrumentation and voices, the coup de gras coming from the latter, a fascinating trio of female vocalists singing in complementary classical registers.
Following on from 2013’s self-titled debut, the words and music are again by guitarist and composer Andrew McKenna Lee, who also mixed and produced the album, and from the outset, in the appropriately titled First Song, the music is both spiky and sophisticated, the intrigue stepping up with the introduction of the vocal front line half way through. The way in which the cultured vocals work with the more raucous nature of the rock band makes for a beguiling listen, like an otherworldly mix of Anton Fier’s Golden Palominos with Michael Nyman’s Prospero’s Books soundtrack, and it works a treat.
There is consistency in the packaging between the first and second albums via the clear lines of the highly effective graphics, but there have been some line-up changes between the two recordings. Soprano Nina Berman remains, now joined by Charlotte Mundy (mezzo-soprano) and Blythe Gaissert (contralto), the power of their choral voices easily matching that of the band, wherein Jeff Gretz takes over the drum stool and keyboardist/percussionist Jude Trexler replaces the string quartet from the first album. This does change the sound here and there, but also adds different textures which take the music to new places, such as on Interlude II.
The dexterity of the group vocal work is extraordinary, but the vocalists do get to split off and contribute individually on occasion (although less often than on the first album), such as for the ethereal Interval I, its companion piece Interval II complementing it in lyric and theme whilst extending the format and drawing in other features, allowing the instrumentalists to stretch out. Both here and throughout, the heavenly nature of the voices sweep over the instruments, the two elements working together to benefit the whole, which they do beautifully.
Could You Would You drops some King Crimson angularity into the mix, acoustic guitar balancing the excesses of the lead guitar with the voices. All of the pieces are written with real skill and attention to detail, making sure to integrate all of the features into a winning whole with crystal clarity to the sound. Sub Rosa weights the beauty and drive superbly with some fantastic rhythm work from Gretz and bassist Joseph Higgins, this being one of the most successful meldings of the very different traditions at the heart of what The Knells do.
The pieces forge themselves from a lifetime of listening and influences, all the choices are well made as this second release takes things a step forward, feeling more cohesive and mature as a result. There really aren’t any standout tracks as the quality of the album as a whole is so high. The guitars of Paul Orbell and Andrew McKenna Lee work together beautifully, picking and sliding, as central to the sound as the voices. The styles may change but the voices bring it all together, the result being an exhilarating listen that occasionally gets the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention, such as towards the end of Poltergeist where rock stomp gives way to an industrial yet stunningly Gothic conclusion.
A different feel presents itself on Coda, the wordless vocal tones bewitch to give an aching feel, swampy guitar continuing solo into the instrumental Bargaining, which has an essence of Rush at their most contemplative, and on into the mesmerising Final Breath.
Finally Immolation, the longest track and an enchanting way to end with its inference of a sacrifice to fire. There is propulsive power and spot on delivery of the melodic hooks as the piece ebbs and flows with a dexterous dynamic undulation. Gorgeous stuff.
Andrew McKenna Lee has done a wonderful job in pulling together something new, otherworldly yet rooted in rock music and with enough nouse to deploy subtleties to best effect. It’s an album that rewards close attention and repeated listens but it’s a very easy album to like right from the start, and as with the first one it’s succinct, to the point and beautifully realised.
I only have one small quibble – the lyrics on the CD sleeve are so small that I had to photograph them on my phone and zoom in to read them, but that’s clearly my problem, not theirs! And it’s worth the effort as the poetry contained within convey a philosophical view of life and the struggles we all suffer. They are beautifully put and suit the delivery of the voices.
This is a superb listen that scratches places that few other releases even think of going to. It’s intelligent, considered but retains a rawness and energy, the results being both refreshing and cleansing. Stunning.
01. First Song (4:40)
02. Interlude I (2:30)
03. Could You Would You (4:24)
04. Sub Rosa (4:52)
05. Coda (2:51)
06. Bargaining (2:31)
07. Final Breath (3:35)
08. Poltergeist (4:55)
09. Interlude II (5:24)
10. Immolation (6:57)
Total Time – 42:39
Nina Berman – Soprano
Charlotte Mundy – Mezzo-soprano
Blythe Gaissert – Contralto
Paul Orbell – Guitar
Andrew McKenna Lee – Guitar
Jude Traxler – Percussion, Rhodes, Electronics
Jeff Gretz – Drums
Joseph Higgins – Bass
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 10th November 2017