The Lead Review: Chris Roberts On Knifeworld's Bottled Out Of Eden
, April 21st, 2016 07:57
On their third full-length out tomorrow on InsideOut Music, Chris Roberts examines how the group has moved away from prog and towards a sound that incorporates character, impishness, and multilayered ideas.
"I can't believe we walked right out of Eden into Hell", sings a mildly aghast Kavus Torabi towards the climax of Bottled Out Of Eden, the third album from his "bubblegum prog" octet Knifeworld. It's quite a shift from its 2014 predecessor The Unravelling: that was a more studiously pondered-over work, which took a year to record. This one was bashed out in nine days, in, of all places, the Pyrenees. "We wanted something rawer, more live-sounding", he said of this record, and that's what they've got.
Whether that plays to the strengths of an outfit with such an excess of ideas and imagination is debatable. Bottled Out Of Eden is loose, (extremely) busy and roughly energetic, but that necessitates a sacrifice. What's lost is Knifeworld's proximity to golden-age prog. (And, for that matter, bubblegum). They now sound like a ridiculously entertaining and over-ambitious pub rock band, complete with dated wet-fish snare sound. They don't sound like cosmic inner-travellers, but they do sound, in parts, a hot mess. You win some…
Kavus Torabi is a major fan of, and contributor to, British progressive and psychedelic music over the past decade or so. He's been a guitarist in Gong and The Cardiacs and the catalyst of outfits like Guapo, The Monsoon Bassoon and his pet project, Knifeworld. He's also founded a record label, and co-hosts Steve Davis' Interesting Alternative Show on Phoenix FM. The Unravelling raised his stock of kudos considerably. It was oddball enough to enjoy a cross-tribe appeal, and its stoner sojourns were counter-balanced by flecks of art-rock. (It had an undercurrent of that school of cleverness which prog has no hesitation in embracing, the one from which 10cc, Sparks, early Roxy Music and Tears For Fears graduated).
Bottled Out Of Eden (dedicated to Daevid Allen, among other late lamented) feels more like a shaking off of latent energy, as if Russell Mael just wanted to bounce up and down without Ron watching on, or as if Roxy's early rhythm section decided they were the band's most valuable players. That title has a trinity of possible interpretations. Did they/we/humanity chicken out of Paradise because it was just too much or too hot to handle? Or were we thrown out, abuse hurled at our backs? Or was something distilled from Eden, like a priceless fragrance? Admittedly, the last is a bit of a stretch, but the landscape of Knifeworld, to their great credit, encourages such zealous reading and pontification. Even if this is a sonically shallow album by their standards, it's still peripatetic enough to keep you guessing. For all its lapsing into familiar "rock & roll" mannerisms, it retains something of the off-beat, awkward gait of a three-legged unicorn.
It doesn't best represent the "state" of contemporary prog, however. It's a barrel-chested form of psychedelia, a punked-up interpretation of the kind of Om-Zen-hippy Third Eye tropes the early Moody Blues or George Harrison were into – the land that music journalists forgot. All things must pass through slightly disappointingly conventional structures here; there isn't a lot in the way of wayward time signatures or genre-mashing. And just to get the picky negatives out of the way: the production is tinny and frayed, as if all eight players have been shoehorned onto a four-track. Plus if any haters wanted to say some of it sounds like Kula Shaker, you couldn't in all conscience argue with them. (Other bits recall the much-maligned Gay Dad, though debating that probably requires another rendezvous with critical rehabilitation altogether).
So having conscientiously moaned about what's weak about Bottled Out Of Eden, what are its strengths? Its eagerness to pile idea upon idea, for one thing. Knifeworld have their own sonic template, for all the influences mentioned, and emit an effective blend of euphoria and discomfort. There's character here, and a willingness to go flat-out which is habitually avoided in mainstream alternative (ha ha ha) rock. They do still take the circuitous route, at times, and make their earned crescendos count. And light forays into folk (or the Canterbury sound) - and even funk - guarantee that the album's arc can never in any way be taken for granted. Above all, the three-piece saxophones-clarinets-bassoon section keep things kinetic with their stabs of sunshine, sorrow and surprise. It can never settle into the crushingly conventional when they're interjecting so impishly. Lava lamps meet lysergic punning on opener 'High/Aflame'. The dynamics hoist up the drama, with a low throb teasing before the four-to-the-floor kicks in. Torabi adopts a Steve Harley doing Ziggy vocal tone in the middle eight, and once the track's gone over the top, what happens while it's tumbling and careering down the other side remains interesting. 'The Germ Inside' tickles in with piano which wouldn't sound out of place on one of Kate Bush's first two albums, before – inevitably – those soggy drums barge in and a jerky riff with a hint of math rock leads us nicely astray. 'I Am Lost' is much better, with a madly complex funk manoeuvre from the rhythm section carrying us along its yellow brick road. There's a welcome vocal turn from Melanie Woods and all the oddity of a magical toyshop co-run by Angela Carter and Yes. 'The Deathless' is dominated by the entrance of those horn/brass stabs, and a dark duality slouches in.
Acoustic guitars signal a brief mood and tempo change through the album's mid-section, where the full-on freneticism is paused. Torabi sounds not unlike a sweetly forlorn Robert Wyatt as he sighs, "We'll build an empire out of their bones". The 37 seconds of 'Visions Of The Bent Path' echo Arvo Part, and perhaps suggest a more creatively profitable future route for Knifeworld. On this album, it feels like Torabi is jamming up every line with a spillage of words: maybe he could allow the music to breathe and speak to a greater extent if he wanted to sound more other-ly, more… strange. I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait has the jouissant jitters of King Crimson or XTC, while 'Lowered Into Necromancy' (you can't deny the titles are stepping up) further references death and religion. There's well-judged restraint on 'A Dream About A Dream' and 'Secret Words': things are allowed to spread out and stretch. Then the under-ambitious barroom-rock clatter returns for 'Feel The Sorcery', which, despite mention of witchcraft and alchemy, fails to fly.
A double-edged Knifeworld album, then, which seems a touch safe, but only because at times they've promised so much more. A venting, a necessary unloading, maybe. Only halfway to Paradise. They can surely make music more exploratory and light-footed than this. If there's a deficit of soaring spirit on Bottled Out Of Eden, it nonetheless offers a tangle of snakes and ladders which makes many in the current climate sound like accountants typing. When Knifeworld regain their sharpness, they'll cut deep.