Boston-based art rock act Bent Knee have been about since their 2011 self-titled release, and on the playlists of almost every Prog Talk admin since their explosive 2014 sophomore release in Shiny Eyed Babies and the excellent Say So from last year.
The band has gained a reputation for pushing the boundaries of pop, rock and the avant-garde simultaneously, and many here at Prog Talk would gladly label them the most exciting upcoming act of the 2010s.
That said, does their most recent release, Land Animal, live up to our notably high expectations? Are we asking too much of the band? Will Leth, Cerpin and Symphony make it to the 21st Century? Find out the answer to all of these questions on this upcoming episode of… “Roundabout“!
As ever, we’d like to remind you that our Roundabouts are compilations of each Prog Talk admin’s individual and subjective opinions. While we may or may not have expressed our thoughts on the album in private beforehand, we do not collude while writing our reviews. So without further ado, let’s talk progressive art rock.
I know the whole point of these Roundabouts is to save us the effort of the larger reviews, but there is so much I feel the need to bring up regarding this album. As such, brace yourselves; this will be a long one.
Solely speaking on the music, Land Animal is an album which effectively combines the pacing of great post-rock, the versatility of great art rock and the experimentation of great prog rock, all while remaining incredibly catchy and memorable throughout. Every track flows perfectly within itself and into the next track; for example, you can hear the backing rhythm to ‘These Hands’ echoing through the outro of ‘Insides In’, and the transition between ‘Belly Side Up’ and ‘The Well’ was so natural that, upon first listen, I had thought the latter was actually a second part to the former. This gives the album an air of wholeness, making it feel more like its own entity rather than merely the sum of its parts.
Speaking of “more than just the sum of its parts”, this is the only way I could describe the band’s performance throughout the album. Every member of the band, especially including Vince Welch on production, is consistently contributing to the atmosphere of each song, sometimes in notably subtle ways, like a single humble violin note repeating in the background, or a distorted bass meshing together with synths to further darken the mood.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of this album though is just how well the music, lyrics and overall concept resonate with each other. To summarise it simply, this album is a collection of struggles from the modernised world; caught in a web of technology, social apathy and stoicism driven to its breaking point.
The lyrics and music often work hand-in-hand to capture these complex feelings in moments which can range from the relatively simple (see in ‘Hole’: the repetitious, ascending vocal melody to the lines “someone can lift me up”, which eventually explodes into a somewhat transcendental recreation of the song’s main rhythmic theme) to conceptualisation which is demonstrated in the very structure of the songs themselves (see: the transformation of ‘Insides In’, where the seemingly calm and melancholic ballad proves to be hiding a torrent of wild emotion behind a front which gradually breaks down, resulting in a dark, doom metal-esque explosion of sound which is horrifying, beautiful and tragic, much like the lyrical subject matter of the ballad. This is one of my favourite moments of the entire album.)
Every song accomplishes this in its own unique way; in the 2nd chorus of ‘Holy Ghost’, you can hear said Holy Ghost (represented by the band’s backing vocals) singing the followup to the first chorus in the background. Every chorus of ‘Holy Ghost ‘also evolves to demonstrate the romanticisation and distortion of reality through technology (and I must highlight this) in a way that is not patronising. (Looking at you, Steven Wilson.)
‘These Hands’ utilises an innocent, nursery-rhyme style melody for its verses, and contrasts it with an almost smooth jazz chorus, all while Wallace-Ailsworth’s drumming builds up alongside Welch’s increasingly haunting and grandiose production.
‘The Well’ demonstrates ecological sarcasm and beautiful, romanticised catastrophe, which meets a harsh reality at the end, all of which is demonstrated throughout the many tonal shifts Swain demonstrates in her performance, all capped-off by drunken brass fanfare bastardising the song’s original themes as Levin interjects with arrogant nonchalance “I’m gonna lay back down,” demonstrating our current wilful ignorance towards issues which may eventually bring our end.
These are only a few of the countless glances I could offer into this album’s immaculate attention to detail, and I believe that, if I wanted to, I could treble the size of this review by listing more.
It also goes without saying that Bent Knee are absolute experts at making “moments.” From Swain’s impassioned cries at the end of ‘Terror Bird’ to the aforementioned explosive tone shift of ‘Insides In’, there is not a single song on this album which lacks memorability; if some musical theme feels like it will shortly grow tired, chances are on its next repetition it will be somehow subverted or altered. No melody or rhythm remains static for too long. There is only one exception to this rule, and, perhaps ironically, it is the biggest shining moment of Land Animal for me. The final track, ‘Boxes’, is cold and bleak, with W.-A.’s slurred drumbeat serving as a somewhat bent spine for the song throughout its whole run-time, unchanging. The track substitutes the expected experimental flurries of its predecessors for a pure, raw, emotionally charged ballad, the emotion of which is only heightened by its contrast with the rest of the album.
To summarise, if it wasn’t already clear, I can give this Land Animal nothing but the highest recommendations. The level of detail Bent Knee have put into their songwriting, production and performance here is nearly unparalleled by their fellow contemporaries. This is the band’s best release so far, and will probably end up my favourite album of the entire year. If another can surpass it, well, then I guess we’re all winners.
So you’ve listened to Land Animal… Wait, you haven’t? What are you doing reading this? Go listen to it now.
Ready? Good – your body is now forfeit to progressive art rock band Bent Knee.
Heartbeats are their plaything as the erratic tempo changes in opener ‘Terror Bird’ turn palpitation dials to maximum. The title track is utterly fantastic, where the progression between the eerie main riff, the toying verses and vocalist Courtney Swain’s final triumphant chorus is a brilliant journey that will put a big dumb grin on your face. So will ‘Belly Side Up’ and ‘The Well’, what with their bouncy, feel-good instrumentation that gets your toes a-tappin’ as well.
Overarching anthropological themes aside, Land Animal seems to wander more into accessible pop territory than Bent Knee’s previous albums. Catchy hooks in ‘Time Deer’ and ‘Belly Side Up’; the electronic drums in ‘Hole’ and ‘Holy Ghost’s bombastic vocal delivery of sensual lyricism show Bent Knee at their most confident and upfront in songwriting. Though in Land Animal, it doesn’t feel like there’s as much dynamic extremity between tracks as the piano-laden Shiny Eyed Babies had back in 2014, for instance: the interlude ‘Untitled’ and the utterly terrifying ‘Sunshine’.
(Spoilers: Shiny Eyed Babies is a phenomenal album and my favourite from Bent Knee.)
However, Bent Knee still manage to make each song unique with their characteristic artsy flair; consistently great instrumentation and some simply lovely string arrangements, if not sometimes overshadowed by Swain’s jaw-dropping flamboyance. Land Animal flows beautifully as a record, conserving momentum even through the more subdued tracks like ‘These Hands’ until it dissipates into the album’s closing track…
‘Boxes’ is the sorrowful daydream that you wish lasted forever: guitars and strings lurk in the shadows; Swain plays the tender siren lulling us in and only the dry, repeating drum beat dares to try pull you from the dream. The album’s most straight-forward track, the perfect ending to Land Animal and easily Bent Knee‘s most beautiful song.
I’ve been thinking about talking with the other admins to rename “Prog Talk” into “Bent Knee’s Official Fan Club” because we can’t get enough of these beautiful people. Hailing from Boston, Bent Knee has been on our collective radar since their sophomore album Shiny Eyed Babies, an incredible mix of avant-garde, art rock and pop; which rapidly became a favorite of mine and a mandatory listen every time we decided to simul-stream.
One record and one Freak Machine later, Bent Knee amazes us once again with Land Animal, which in my opinion is their most consistent and accessible album to date, yet retaining their unique and crazy sound. If I have to choose a word to describe this album, it would be “BUILD-UPS”. Most of the songs in this album have incredible crescendos that lead to main singer Courtney Swain delivering jaw-dropping performances; but the rest of the band are no slouches either. Lending backing vocals too, Levin’s dexterity with his weird guitar signatures, Kion’s bumping bass and Baum’s ever-presenting violin accompany each song both melody and uniqueness; and let’s not forget Wallace-Ailsworth’s drumming, which gets better and better with each passing album. If you want a quick and simple example of what Bent Knee is made of, just listen to ‘Hole’.
I have many favorite moments of Land Animal: ‘Insides In’ droning guitars lending to a vocal crescendo, ‘The Well’ is almost like the band is about to transform into Leprous, and even the track that gives name to the album is surprisingly unique for a first glimpse of the band. But after nine songs, we get to ‘Boxes’ which is a beautiful, sombre and sorrowful song (And Swain’s best performance to date); which may become one of my favorite songs of the year.
Yet again, Bent Knee is a hidden gem that is slowly becoming more and more visible to the music scene, with Land Animal demonstrating that they’re one band to not overlook. Will it top Shiny Eyed Babies? Only time will tell.
Looks like it’s unanimous praise from Leth, Cerpin and Symphony. Almost every song on the album has at one point been mentioned as a highlight, though it seems the crowning jewel of the album may just be the cold closer ‘Boxes’. While opinions vary entirely as to whether or not it has dethroned Shiny Eyed Babies as Prog Talk’s official favourite Bent Knee album, it has to go without saying that Land Animal has become a more than welcome addition to the band’s discography, as well as a notable keystone within it, in addition to being a must-listen prog/art rock album in general.
Now that these proggers have done their talking, what do you think of Land Animal? Make sure you let us know in our comment sections!