There’s a whole hell of a lot of music out there. For a discerning ear’s digestion, this isn’t just some kind of blanket statement.
As a music journalist, the daily task of diving headfirst into a growing digital abyss yields surprisingly few moments of genuine inspiration to bring back to the surface. It’s not pessimism or jaded weariness speaking. There just seem to be very few groups producing new music that sounds unlike anything else around.
Luckily, there’s always some kind of miraculous exception poking its way out of the woodwork. In this case, perhaps bending is the right word. It’s an apt motion for an ensemble intent on twisting influences and genres into something that, ultimately, ceases to resemble the original shapes that formed it.
I’m talking about Bent Knee. The six-piece ensemble based out of Boston is somewhat of a sonic paradox. They devise cataclysmic song structures with the wit and veracity of a malfunctioning robot intent on destroying its master.
If that sounds too offbeat, then perhaps a second listen is in order. A polished, perfection-driven sheen bridges the music between moments of violent catharses that somehow always find new ways to dress abrasion with beauty.
The key word here is restraint. It’s clear almost immediately how technically proficient all of the members are, even if the listener doesn’t know the band are Berklee alumni. The paradox exists in hearing Bent Knee create explosions that are self-conscious about their own power, while still retaining the unhinged quality of true insurgence.
Yet somehow all of this wouldn’t be anywhere near as intriguing if it weren’t for the contrast. Listening to 2014’s Shiny Eyed Babies, the drums and vocals on a track like “Way Too Long” present an ideal destructive soundtrack to what I imagine earthquakes might listen to while making love. Then there’s the thoughtful complexity of “Being Human,” where the tension of a whisper shudders with the coming storm.
However it’s the spaces between the vitriol that provide some of the music’s deepest shades and hues. The outro of “Being Human” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful passages of ambience that I’ve heard in a long time.
All of the tedious construction is not without its cost.
“I admit that in the past we’ve had a tendency to be obsessive,” warns Courtney Swain, singer and keyboard player of Bent Knee. “We can spend insane amounts of time on very small sections of songs. For instance, there’s a verse part in ‘Being Human’ that we probably spent 10 hours trying to play.”
Fortunately each of the members possesses both the talent and patience to make such painstaking adjustments not only bearable, but also possible in the first place. It’s hardly surprising that each musician hails from vastly different backgrounds, influences, and even personalities.
Swain has perhaps one of the most eclectic upbringings. She was born into a musical family in Japan, where her father (a huge classic rock fan) encouraged her to begin classical piano lessons as early as kindergarten.
She ended up hating the instrument. Practicing endlessly proved to be a chore, and by the end of high school she was ready to call it quits.
Singing, however, felt far more rewarding.
“In the states, karaoke is something people might do only once every couple of months,” explains Swain. “But in Japan it’s very much a part of our culture. I was going three times a week with my friends during high school, and felt like singing was something I really connected with. It felt good doing it.”
Swain’s roots in karaoke inspired her to start singing in bands. While the piano often seemed like an impediment between the musician and the music, Swain’s vocals allowed for a more direct route of expression. She acknowledges that managing and controlling a person’s voice does bear similarities to harnessing the potential of an instrument, but something about the emotive force from within renders the process far more organic.
On a whim, and upon her mother’s suggestion, Swain applied and was accepted into Boston’s Berklee School of Music. She wanted to sing instead of attending as a pianist, but her bygone instrument ultimately concealed a spark of imagination that would lead to a complete metamorphosis of musicianship.
She hadn’t touched the keys in close to four years, but her interest was rekindled by an introductory course on the history of Western music. It was here that she heard jazz for the first time. Still, her background as a classical musician created a barrier that she needed to overcome.
“When I first got there, I couldn’t play outside of sheet music,” says Swain. “I was afraid to hit random keys. But then I started to meet the people in the band, and when we hung out together we would improvise.”
The sessions started out casually; with free-form avenues of inspiration and unanimous writing sessions (each of the members shared compositional tidbits via file sharing). But it wasn’t until producer and sound engineer Vince Welch needed a band to record for a school project that Bent Knee started taking themselves seriously.
He’s the appointed “reason” behind the band, the “wizard” behind the music’s “Oz.” Together, they started crafting albums of impeccable finesse. And they’re at it again–Bent Knee hits the studio this week to record their much-anticipated follow up to Shiny Eyed Babies.
Expect something less bombastic (although still quite emotional), and unifying in essence (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is admittedly a big influence). Still, the refined turbulence is madder than ever.
“It’s funny, every time we write a new album I feel like it’s more and less accessible at the same time,” says Swain with a laugh. “I think I like how Vince put it best: it’s ‘charmingly incohesive.’”