There’s a word I keep seeing in music criticism that I never quite figured out: “angular”. The word makes me think of early Devo records, particularly songs like “Too Much Paranoia”, with spiky riffs that twist and jerk around. Though in practice though the word is used to describe anything that sounds like The Cars, so what do I know. But if there ever was a band whose sound I’d describe as “angular”, it’s Knifeworld. Their music is full of honking and squonking, with saw-tooth guitar playing and riffs that are either a chord short or three too many.
Knifeworld is the brainchild of gonzo rock’s ultimate Ascended Fanboy, Kavus Torabi. At one point he was just another London kid with a band, but he discovered the right records and the right drugs at the right time, and wound up becoming a prominent member in both Cardiacs and Gong. Not to mention all the other bands he’s either part of or frequently guests with – Guapo, Chrome Hoof, Sidi Bou Said, Karda Estra, North Sea Radio Orchestra, and a few others I’m likely forgetting. But Knifeworld is his big turkey – originally a solo-with-help-from-friends deal, now a fully fledged eight-piece which includes three singers, two sax players, a synth wizard, an additional percussionist, and the all-important bassoonist.
So, yes…angular. Knifeworld inhibits a direction somewhere between psychedelic, Zolo, jazz, and prog, though I suppose you could just call it “weird pop”. Because weird it is, but it’s a good kind of weird, the kind that makes them ripe for crossover success – they are a great example of a band in need of an audience, since I can imagine fans of all sorts of fringey genres rallying behind these guys and gals. Born out of Eden is album number three, though it’s so energetic and fresh that you just may mistake it for a debut. Part of this is by design – Kavus remarked several times that he really had to labor through the band’s second effort (The Unraveling, 2014), thus leading him to adopt a looser and more live-sounding approach this time around.
It’s an experiment that works – the sound isn’t noticeably different from his last album, but it is a lot more fun. See, though it’s the sort of music that can be loosely classified as prog (and indeed, has been championed most often by prog media), Kavus would rather point out the similarities to Sparks, or Zolo/wonk icons like Beefheart and Albert Marceour. Or even, dare I say it, Cardiacs themselves, whose influence manifests itself all over this record (and, I suspect, in practically everything Torabi does). Not prog in the tradition of Yes or Genesis, but rather Gentle Giant – full of interlocking instrumental bits, sudden time shifts, and dexterous playing, with a keen sense of self-awareness and brevity. It says a lot that “High/Aflame”, the album’s catchiest, and arguably simplest song, is one of its longest; most of the progrocker’s playbook goes out the window (no solos, no vintage instruments), replacing itself with a “whatever works” approach, be it funk, jazz, motorik, or just plain rock n’ roll.
That has always been one of Kavus’ strong suits – those who follow his radio show (and if you enjoy this blog, you really should) know that he and his co-host Steve Davis have impeccable taste, broadcasting great music loosely tied together by a “keep it weird” philosophy. Where else could you hear Magma, Tim Hecker, Fela Kuti, and Albert Marcoeur in the same broadcast? The main theme is to find music that is outwardly great; visceral and catchy, but with a lot of underlying complexity. Knifeworld certainly fits there – lots of memorable bits the first time around (“The Deathless”, which is sort of like a sea shanty, “Lowered into Necromancy”, with a twisted guitar line, “I Am Lost”, a multi-part epic that culminates in an excellent jam session), but it really starts to get good after the first seven or eight listens, when the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Like many a great album, it’s the kind where you can go it once through just listening to the bass, once piecing together the jagged structures of the tunes, once figuring out the interplay between all the different instruments, and so on. This eight-person lineup isn’t gratuitous – there’s no instrumental center, and even the vocal duties get split up somewhat, with Melanie Woods and Chloe Harrington taking on a significant role.
A group with this much raw talent does walk a line sometimes – add too many tricky time signatures and little instrumental flourishes and you risk the music sounding too academic. Certainly Kavus is well versed in groups like Ruins and Autechre, but Knifeworld is a band with actual songs, and thankfully they don’t get lost in the tangle. There’s a lot of surprisingly emotional stuff on here, though I’ll focus on one in particular – “A Dream About a Dream”, which alternates between 4/4 and 5/4, allowing the song to ascend, in a way. It is the album’s ballad, but also its epic, with a slow-building instrumental section in the middle that’s absolutely gorgeous, and when the vocals come back in it turns into what I see as the album’s climax. There’s a bit to go still; the ethereal and brief “Secret Words”, and “Feel the Sorcery”, a refreshingly straightforward rocker that sounds to me like a single, though I guess in this genre there’s no such thing as a single anymore.
But suffice to say the tunes are there, which is what separates this from the variety of skronky tonk that comes out each year. No doubt bits of this album will get stuck in your head regularly – sometimes the songs themselves, sometimes those two-second instrumental bits that link together one part to the next. If you’re a Cardiacs fanatic like me, you’ll probably find this to be Album of the Year type material; certainly there’s no one on the planet who can replicate what Tim Smith does, but for the most part Knifeworld is the next best thing. For Kavus, that may be the highest compliment of all.