“Someone, I tell you, will remember us, even in another time.”
Golden ages have a lasting impact on the community which goes through them. Germany is still enjoying the benefits of the The Miracle on the Rhine, science fiction is still heavily influenced and obsessed with The New Wave of Science Fiction, and music is still digging through the host of ideas developed during the boom of the 60’s and 70’s. That golden age for rock and roll is very hard to overstate; try and find people who lived through it and they will relay the feeling of impossible progress, of a wealth of music that no one could fully consume or understand. It seemed as if a meteor shower of musical brilliance was upon the world. Progressive rock, folk, pop, proto-metal, and so many more were constantly being reinvented and recreated. Some of the most important classics of today come from those years.
Thus, the influence of that era in music is everywhere you look, from bands straight up worshiping those times to bands cleverly incorporating hints of ideas from the time into their contemporary sounds. And then there’s The Knells. These guys do a little bit of both, manipulating their unique band structure to bring together both progressive rock in the style of Yes, Genesis and Gentle Giant (think the early-mid periods of these bands, so albums like Selling England By the Pound and Relayer/Fragile) and classical influenced choirs and strings. This unique structure is as follows: first, there is no lead singer. Instead, vocals are all handed via a classically arranged choir (Nina Berman, soprano; Charlotte Mundy, mezzo; Blythe Gaissert, alto). Secondly, the rest of the instruments are placed and produced in the classic style of the 60’s, with heavy emphasis on the groove and percussion section (Andrew McKenna Lee, guitar; Jude Traxler, percussion and electronics, Jeff Gretz, drums, and Joseph Higgins, bass). This is the group structure that very much informs and makes The Knells II, their sophomore release.
What this structure does to the music, especially the ever-dominant presence of the choir, is to turn everything up to eleven. Usually in progressive rock, the presence of choirs signifies the culmination, the crescendo. But here, they are everywhere, as they are the main vocal tool of the album. Take the released single, “Sub Rosa”, probably the best track on the album. The instruments will ring true with the Yes influences immediately, sounding like more bars taken from “To Be Over” or “Soon” (tracks which are even more prominently referenced on latter track, “Bargaining”). The little percussion frills are also incredibly well executed, adding much in the way of variety to the myriad of transitions and drum fills on the track. But it’s the choirs which steals the show; moving from evocative harmonies to clever counter-points, it injects the entire track with a grandeur that’s hard to resist. Everything turns almost funereal, in the sense of the unspeakably large, the overbearing presence of something ephemeral.
This, however, also hints at the main flaw of the album. Since the choirs are used on every single track, they can get pretty intimidating and fatiguing for the listener. A listen-through of the entire album is certainly possible and even enjoyable but there are segments on it when the ear grows tired from the volume of the choirs and the inherent complexity of the instrumental arrangement. Tracks start to blend near the end of the album (which is a damn shame, since “Immolation”, the final track, is downright amazing) and distinction starts to fade. Luckily, this grows to be less and less of a problem the more you listen; there are clever anchors in there to ground the listener but they take time and effort to discover.
For example, the two interludes on the album first feel like discard-able tracks, before you realize they are meant to give you a sense of location and bearing within the album. Another good example is “Coda”, which serves as its own crescendo for “Sub Rosa”. This does much to add a spectrum and nuance to what seems like a constant barrage of crescendo; it’s not that there’s no scale, it’s that the “norm” of it, the starting point, is much higher and louder than what we’re used to. What seems to us to be epic and over the top is the starting point for The Knells, here and elsewhere. This cleverly echoes the extravagant style of the 60’s (think Tales From a Topographic Ocean. Is that album not epic at some point?).
Thus, once you’ve cracked through the sometimes challenging outer hull of The Knells II, there is a lot of compositional dexterity to be discovered beneath the surface. It shows that these are classically and otherwise trained musicians. The album is akin to a mesh of rings or an apparatus made of many moving parts; some of it might seem dominant at first but the trick lies in seeing how everything fits together. Once you’ve grown past the unusual vocal approach, you’ll find much to love. Any of the classic era of rock and roll should definitely give this album a chance; there aren’t many bands doing such an extensive innovation with the genre nowadays. It’s always fitting to see the impact of a golden age on everything that comes after it; I wonder how ours will be perceived in the future?
The Knells II sees release today, Friday the 10th of November. You can head on over to the Bandcamp page above to snag it.