Review Summary: In 2017's Land Animal, Bent Knee shatters prog conventions with fervor, flourish, and fury. Laden with brilliant performances and stark idiosyncrasies, Land Animal will be obtuse to some, but a work of genius to others.
Discovering a new band is sometimes like discovering a new lover. Some catch your attention by name or appearance, prompting you to carefully approach. To slowly learn about them, admire them, and eventually, to love them. Others, however, come crashing into your life with brazen confidence and otherworldly allure, leaving you panting and delirious before you're even fully aware of what hit you.
Of the two categories Bent Knee, a dynamic and unpredictable product of Boston's Berklee College Of Music, is most certainly of the latter. Land Animal, their first album produced under the prog label Inside Out, is a thrilling, esoteric, and richly rewarding blend of Art Rock, Prog, and the Avant-Garde. One that may not be for every listener - but for the right one, will mark the beginning of an intoxicating musical affair.
Its difficult to know just what you're getting into when putting an album like this on for the first time. Just minutes into its runtime Bent Knee will have taken you through an exhausting ringer of sonic and emotional whiplash. With soaring guitars, dissonant vocals, and sumptuous strings, they take the anguish of isolation, anxiety, and dissociation in the digital age and make it sound like a triumph. Propelling forward each stream of consciousness stanza with powerful riffs, pounding percussion, and layers upon layers of colorful orchestration, Bent Knee delivers the inner thoughts of its off kilter narrator with a sneering confidence:
"What if I told you that stress comes as a blessing ？ "
"My nerves are tremors of bliss"
It's disarming just how much range lead singer Courtney Swain really has, and how quickly it is demonstrated, as she sets the stage for a cerebral deep dive of doubts and unrealities. Later, the haunting vocal harmonies of "Insides In" pull you in with a mystical allure before melding with shimmering piano, surging guitar swells, and anthemic percussion. Mounting a build which is then contrasted by grotesque lyricism and guttural vocal effects. Painting an unflinching portrait of body dysmorphia, gendered anxieties, and a gut-wrenching doubt of self that is deeply affecting both lyrically and instrumentally. A dramatic climax that is a stark reflection of the inner turmoil that Swain weaves as an erratic, burning tapestry, set alight with screeching fervor:
"We choke our insides in ... and hold a pretty face"
"Bracing for tumors or seizures ... feeding the toilet my treatment"
Land Animal is full of left turns like this. Bold, ambitious instrumentals pulse and surge with a vital energy around an album with an ever-shifting structure and topography. Often tender, frequently muscular, and always powerful, this album rises above the standard fare of the prog genre because instead of indulging in powerful riffage and anthemic vocalization for its own sake, it does so carefully. Selectively. And always in service of a deeply psychological narrative. Bent Knee is a rare band from the prog canon that understands the sheer sonic *potential* of its genre and approaches it as a call to action. Not content to wallow in conventions, Bent Knee instead shatters them face-first, ever the visage of stately beauty as they stare back at you, dripping in blood: daring you to challenge them.
The title track itself represents a moment of catharsis for its narrator - pulled between richly layered, orchestral strings and frank, stripped down lyrical stanzas delivered as extraterrestrial beat poetry - it sweeps you off of your feet and plunges you into the unknown. What's remarkable is how optimistic the narrative is, despite its existential undertones:
"Sending out a message to my love"
"The only thing that matters is not giving up"
You get the impression that this optimism is predicated on the existence of "my love." Of the "lover." Of the "other." And here is the crux of the album's schizophrenic nature: its hopeful tones are nested in finding love and connection, while its moments of desolation are a consequence of its absence. Despite that, I wouldn't call this a romantic album; because as universal as those themes sound, this album has more to do with our relationship with relationships than relationships themselves. On the anxiety of looking inward. The nausea that is induced when you inevitably do not like what you see. It is a dynamic, multi-dimensional mirror held to the face of a human who has been made to feel crushingly anxious and alone.
To summarize: in Bent Knee's Land Animal, we have a truly excellent album. But I'm hesitant to consider it "superb" or "classic" for the simple reason that this work, as ambitious and sumptuous as it is, has very narrow appeal. It comes across as brilliant, but aggressively idiosyncratic, and as a result will repel just as many unprepared listeners as it will attract. Those who cut their teeth on the sharp, off kilter lyricism of Fiona Apple and the instrumental wizardry of Anna Meredith will no doubt be peeling their jaws off of the floor in response to this psychological, layered, challenging work. But Land Animal simply isn't going to have the broad appeal of The Dear Hunter's melodious five album suite, or the riff laden LP's of The Mars Volta. Even within the confines of the prog genre this is a difficult, divisive release: one that isn't interested in holding anyone's hand.
And perhaps it is better off that way. I cannot think of a scenario in which an album this cerebral, this intentionally challenging and bizarre could effectively sell its narrative of isolation induced psychosis while being undermined by something as limiting as accessibility.
After all, the best bands, like the best lovers, achieve greatness for how different they are. And how they stand out. Not just in their eagerness to please.