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Bent Knee - Shiny Eyed Babies CD (album) cover


Bent Knee


Crossover Prog

4.19 | 218 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars The lyrics booklet that accompanies the digital copy of Shiny Eyed Babies has a black and white depiction of a nuclear explosion on its second last page (the booklet is full of such stark black and white pictures). It is an apt metaphor for the nature of the music. That is basically what the music feels like: exploding with raw intensity that is almost frightening to behold at times.

Formed in Berklee in 2009 like their more illustrious prog predecessors Dream Theater, but you couldn't get two bands more unlike each other (Bent Knee also carefully avoid any references to prog on their website). Dream Theater's music is a polished but breathless exposition of a style where metal meets jazz-rock. Bent Knee's is a raw and violent but drawn out and meandering melting pot of diverse styles. The line up of 'additional musicians' performing, variously, cello, trombone, saxophone, would do RIO bands proud.

For all that, though, Bent Knee are unabashedly modern. Moments reminiscent of classic rock (like an organ tone on keyboards in Tooth Smile) blend seamlessly into an assuredly 21st century soundscape. I mentioned Dream Theater and my crossover prog colleague mentions Tori Amos in the bio but if there is one band that I would hazard to liken Bent Knee's sound to, it is The Mars Volta.

The similarity they share with Mars Volta is violent punkish energy combined with very soft and slow passages of music. Like Mars Volta, they don't seem to feel the need to play at breakneck speed all the time. Bent Knee seem to recognise that explosiveness in music is better expressed through these soft-hard and slow-fast contrasts. The challenge lies in putting together these contrasts such that the music flows and doesn't get too stop-start to get into. I would venture to say Bent Knee manage this feat even better than Mars Volta.

And that's not the only thing they do better than Mars Volta. Their eclectic blend of influences, diverse enough to include moments of very jazzy piano, as well as the wide variety of instruments make their music much richer, offering a lot for repeat listens. Further, their songs are more organised, more concisely written and get to the point where Mars Volta's rambling could leave listeners lost at times. The longest track, Toothsmile, is still under seven and a half minutes. But the music is not concise to the point of lacking breathing space either or being constructed in a predictable way. Bent Knee manage to keep the listener off balance at all times.

And a significant part of the reason why is vocalist Courtney Swain (I managed to write a Bent Knee review without getting to her until just now!). The band's startling dynamism and explosiveness only come to fruition because she is able to straddle the gamut - from Fiona Apple to um, I don't know, Bjork? I am struggling to think of names of female singers who have done that kind of raw screaming (while still remaining largely melodic and in control) with such frightening power. Maybe it's a first! Exhibit A is Being Human, where she begins with soft singing over keyboard that brings Apple to mind but the twisted chords warn us that danger is at hand and sure enough, she moves into far more violent territory.

It is not violence without a cause, violence for violence's sake, though. What I describe is violence is really an intense outpouring of anguish. The nuclear explosion is basically the venting of a raging soul. This soulfulness underpins their energy all through the album and gives it coherence. It also gives it rhythm, starting with the more stoner-like Way Too Long/Dry, moving into a vulnerable interlude from I'm Still Here to Battle Creek and concluding with the crescendo of Toothsmile.

Does the music sound this way to give voice to the lyrics rather than the other way round? Possibly. I don't know that these heartfelt words would have come out better with Karen Carpenter singing them, if you get the drift.

As far as standout tracks go, Being Human and Toothsmile, are my favourites. But there's plenty of keepers on this one. The wailing chorus towards the end of Battle Creek, for one, will stay with me for a long time, as also Swain's spine chilling shrieking to conclude Sunshine. I have a bit of a problem with the flow of Skin but the rest is fine by me. Five stars without hesitation for an album quite unlike any other you are likely to have heard.

rogerthat | 5/5 |


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