Today, our panel of experts, which includes Ascetist, MathRawk and Megan C. (who also happened to be the newest member of IHRTN team!), weighs in on the third full-length from an American supergroup Book Of Knots.
Is there a more feared term in music circles than that of “Supergroup”? Yes, yes there is. Prefix it with the phrase “American Art Rock” and some may believe they’ve stumbled upon one of Dante’s lesser-known circles of Hell.
Often a camouflage for a wealth of technique and paucity of ideas, this album proves to live up to many of their illustrious forebearers. Does no-one remember Pigface? Have we forgotten so soon the damage they did to a generation? The casualties. The wailing. The over-mic’ed drum sound. The pretentious lyrics. The declamatory delivery techniques of the guest vocalists. The endless, endless sampling.
Fear not, masochists. Ipecac’s weekly release schedule continues apace. This time, it’s “The Book of Knots” – consisting of Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu, Frank Black, Bob Mould), Matthias Bossi (Skeleton Key, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), Joel Hamilton (producer for Blackroc, Pretty Lights) and Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat Trio, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) as well as Mike Watt, Blixa Bargeld and Mike “It’s my f**kin’ label and I’ll sing on every f**kin thing I put out” Patton. I have not heard of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum so I’m not sure how “Super” this “Supergroup” is, but there’s a fine line between genuine “name” artists and “a bunch of mates dicking about in a studio with one member of whom other people might have heard”.
This album is, of course, more than competently played and deftly produced, but it’s as joyless as the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix. Tunes slouch, burdened with the weight of the their own self-importance (if you can, check out the PR that comes with the album elsewhere on this blog – it’s a hoot). Danceable? Of course not! This is Art Rock! Bargeld seethes teutonically on “Drosophila Melanogaster”, an existential piece concerning air-travel. Mike Watt is criminally underused on “Yeager’s Approach”. Guitars grind. Patton stomps in with his mock-operatics on “Planemo”. Samples are judiciously employed to illustrate the futility of existence and generate a supposed sense of encroaching dread. Honestly, The Paper Chase do this type of thing SO MUCH BETTER.
Who is this release aimed at? Ipecac completists? Aging goths? Bitter art-rockers with a grudge against the young whipper-snappers claiming this territory to better effect (These New Puritans, Deerhoof, Gang Gang Dance)? It comes across as about as relevant, enjoyable and as engaging as Pere Ubu’s last release. That alone should act as much an enticement or warning as you see fit.
Someone ought to take time out to “have a word” (as they say in my neck of the woods) with Patton that just occasionally, less can be more. He’s becoming almost as ubiquitous / tiresome (delete as applicable) on Ipecac as Chris Connelly was on Wax Trax stuff in the late 80’s / early 90’s, and as those of us who were around at the time will attest, that ended so well for everyone didn’t it?
The latest release from Brooklyn-based quartet The Book of Knots is nothing short of a musical journey. Garden of Fainting Stars is a collection of tracks that closes out their “By Sea, By Land, By Air” trilogy, using the exploration of space as a metaphor for the band’s increasing disappointment and disgust with the music industry. Not surprising considering the obvious care and meticulousness put into this album—a rare feat in an industry that so often churns out quantity and not quality. Comprised of producers Joel Hamilton and Tony Maimone, drummer/keyboardist Matthias Rossi, and vocalist/violinist Carla Kihlstedt, The Book of Knots continually challenge what is possible in music and do so on this release with a number of their peers and fellow musicians who are willing to come along for the ride.
The first inkling that this album is going to be something special is within the opening strains of the first track, “Microgravity.” We’re propelled into another world by vocalist/violinist Carla Kihlstedt as she sets the tone of our journey with her haunting lilt and asks “Will they survive?” The slow, brooding tale of “Droposphilia Melanogaster” that follows kinda makes you wonder if we will, with the brilliant choice of guest vocalist Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten fame as the disillusioned passenger who would scare the shit out of you with his drunken ramblings mid-flight. In a totally awesome way, of course.
The next three tracks, “Moondust Must,” “Lissajous Orbit,” and “Garden of Fainting Stars,” whip you around a musical landscape filled with as much depth as the album’s celestial inspiration. Kihlstedt’s vocals transport the listener even further into the vast nothingness on the ironically titled “All This Nothing.” A gorgeous, yet haunting web that’s weaved before the cold distortion of “Yeager’s Approach,” featuring Mike Watt, brings the listener back to Earth just for a moment. And then we’re off again into space with “Planemo,” our narrator none other than Mike Patton whose voice slowly builds with the lush atmospheric backdrop before coming to a passionate crescendo.
The album begins to come to a close with “Nebula Rasa,” one of the few tracks to feature just the core Book of Knots quartet and also one of the finest ambient moments on the album. The track stops and we are introduced to a hopeless and bitter man (voice provided by Secret Chiefs 3 bandleader Trey Spruance) searching for some form of contact to open “Obituary For The Future,” the final stop on a short, yet captivating journey. There is such an intensity in the sludgy heaviness of the music that makes it hard not to think that the world is about to end as our human contact reaches out once more, but to no avail. Maybe the world really is going to end.
Garden of Fainting Stars is an incredibly unique and complex release that heightens the senses and encourages the listener to think. There is depth here, which is more than one can say for much of what is called music today. As long as bands like The Book of Knots are around, we can breathe a sigh of relief for another day.
I found this album incredibly confounding. And due to my deeply conflicted feelings over it, I’m going to break it into two pieces.
Firstly, let’s address the music – instruments, arrangements, atmosphere, etc. In a word, amazing. The musicianship on display is impressive. Every element, from the traditional rock setup, to the string section, to the piano, to the samples, contributes seamlessly to a glitchy and decadent whole. Imagine transplanting the Jesus Lizard or Oxbow to WWII-era Berlin, and you get the idea. Deliciously skronky, these songs lope and amble with a drunken charm that brings to mind both Tom Waits and Kid A. They’re incredibly sexy and deeply unsettling at the same time.
Now, the vocals. Oh god, the vocals. Expressive, yes. One-of-a-kind, yes. But also overwrought, overthought, and over-loud. They’re so high in the mix, I kept wishing they’d go away so I could hear more of the jagged melodies that make these songs so appealing. The brassy vibrato of the two singers reminded me waaaay too much of every high school drama geek that tries too hard to get noticed. Personally, when the music is already so rich and layered, I prefer vocals that are more subdued, and let the songs breathe a bit. But so much vocal ornamentation threatens to choke the life out of these songs, and at certain points, I wanted to stick a fork in my neck.
If you can stomach the vocals, this will no doubt be a rewarding listen for you. But if you like your vocals less ornamented and theatrical, best try and focus on the rest of the band. The problem is, they’re so eclipsed by the singing that you’ll have to strain to do so.
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