Mike Keneally - The Thing That Knowledge Can't Eat

Mike Keneally – The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat

Yielbongura. That’s the thing that knowledge can’t eat. It’s a word used by the Dagara tribe in Africa to mean anything that defies understanding. You can’t explain it, dissect it, cut it down to size with words – it just is. Rather like a Mike Keneally album, perhaps.

I’m not saying Mr Keneally is totally inexplicable, of course, but mere words can rarely do justice to the complex musical soundscapes he has created over the last 40 years, as a solo artist, collaborator with the likes of the Metropole Orkest and Andy Partridge, and with his band Beer For Dolphins.

Like his former boss Frank Zappa, Keneally appears to be something of a musical sponge, absorbing influences from pop, rock, death metal, TV theme tunes, film soundtracks and the classics. Then it all comes out again in a kaleidoscope of sound, propelled by his jaw-dropping keyboard and guitar skills. So we’re talking about someone who is seriously talented, both as a musician and a composer, and whose work demands dedicated listening. He’s also a very funny guy, and everything he does is laced with his slightly twisted sense of humour.

Having said that, Keneally’s latest release – his first solo album in seven years – is one of his most accessible so far. It contains nine succinct songs across 42-minutes, the longest barely making seven-and-a-half minutes, while the shortest, at 2:41, should be acceptable even for today’s attention-span-depleted pop listener. This is also a solo album in the true sense of the word – some of the tracks feature just Keneally himself on keyboards, guitar, bass and vocals.

The result is a collection that’s less dense than his usual output. Indeed, second track Both Sides of the Street could almost be Paul McCartney in its charming, melodic simplicity and home-made feel, with chugging electric and acoustic guitars. Stick drums on it and it could be a single. Spigot (Draw the Pirate) channels Adrian Belew in a catchy, jazzy little number inspired by the work and life of Peanuts cartoon creator Charles Schulz, while Big Hit Song is Belew meets 10cc in a story of Billy, who tries to change the world with his music (and, confusingly, part of the track is the ‘big hit’ he has composed). Keeping the Belew link going, it features Mr Music Head’s drummer Tobias Ralph.

But put aside any fears that Keneally is ‘selling out’ – like Andy Partridge of XTC, he can’t help sabotaging his own commercial potential by being just that little bit too quirky for mainstream tastes. Album opener Logos, for example, is a cross between a Stephen Sondheim Broadway number and John Greaves on Kew. Rhone – it’s a stomping, piano-led mock show tune that celebrates… well, logos, actually, performed with repetitive, pounding chords in 6/4, I think.

Mercury in Second Grade is an acoustic ditty full of slippery little guitar flourishes that takes a pot-shot at the madness of online discourse. The gentle loping rhythm is propelled along by Taylor Swift drummer Eric Slick – although we doubt Ms Swift ever asked him to play on something as clever and unpredictable as this.

By this stage you may be wondering when we are going to hear some real heavy guitar heroics from Keneally who, in his spare time, also plays with ‘the most brutal band in the world’, Dethklok. Well, you get that with Celery, a sprawling, messy but fun chunk of jazz fusion that’s King Crimson meets The Aristocrats. Keneally sets up a headbanging heavy riff that’s almost baffling in its twists and turns, aided and abetted by Dethklok bassist Pete Griffin and Big Big Train drummer Nick D’Virgilio, before Steve Vai pops up with some equally baffling solos that effortlessly soar over the shifting chords and unpredictable time signatures.

Lana – apparently about a meditating shrimp – is also a dense, heavy rocker, with vocals that sometimes sound as if Keneally is singing backwards, while Ack, a 2003 collaboration with members of the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands, is a jazzy orchestral instrumental featuring wild electric guitar and violin solos that wouldn’t be out of place on Zappa’s Waka/Jawaka or The Grand Wazoo.

We end with the longest and most proggy track on the album, the seven-and-a-half minute The Carousel of Progress, a song about surviving the Covid lockdown. Opening as a gentle piano and vocal ballad – again, almost a show tune in its melodic simplicity and directness – it then abruptly changes into a twisty instrumental section driven by Keneally’s nimble bass before settling down with a meaty guitar riff, accompanied by the pin-sharp drumming of Gentle Giant veteran Malcolm Mortimore. It ends with a slow, wistful coda that reiterates the intro chords, with gorgeous, high-pitched guitar cries leading to a final piano chord that fades gently into the night.

Like most of Keneally’s output, The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat packs more musical ideas into each song than most artists manage in an entire career. But its complexity is balanced by exquisite melodies, a playful sense humour and a joyful, home-made feel that makes the album a perfect entry point for newcomers to his music. For those of us who are familiar with Keneally’s output, the album contains enough of his Yielbongura – his almost inexplicable something – to make it a rewarding and entertaining listen.

01. Logos (3:12)
02. Both Sides of the Street (2:41)
03. Mercury in Second Grade (4:42)
04. Celery (5:02)
05. Spigot (Draw the Pirate) (5:10)
06. Ack (3:33)
07. Lana (4:35)
08. Big Hit Song (5:08)
09. The Carousel of Progress (7:24)

Total Time – 41:27

Mike Keneally – Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Bass
Eric Slick – Drums (track 3)
Pete Griffin – Bass (tracks 4 & 5)
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums (tracks 4 & 5)
Steve Vai – Guitar (track 4)
Peter Tiehuis – Guitar (track 6)
Bart van Lier – Trombone (track 6)
Herman van Haaren – Violin (track 6)
Hans Vrooman – Acoustic & Electric Piano (track 6)
Ruud Breuls – Trumpet (track 6)
Leo Jansen – Tenor Saxophone (track 6)
Marc Scholten – Alto Saxophone (track 6)
Murk Jiskoot – Percussion (track 6)
Bryan Beller – Bass (track 6)
Arno van Nieuwenhuizen – Drums (track 6)
Ted Morton – Drums (track 7)
Tobias Ralph – Drums (track 8)
Malcolm Mortimore – Drums (track 9)

Record label: Exowax Recordings
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 24th February 2023

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