Tangled, Tied Up, and Drowned by Sound: Bent Knee Returns to Art Boutiki
“I imagine your dead body lying in my bed..” Bent Knee vocalist Courtney mused, playing a light tinkling of bell sounds across her keyboard. With these first few notes the audience plunged into the depths of Bent Knee’s sound- depths sometimes murky and dark, sometimes clear and cutting, and always shocking to a new audience, surprised to suddenly find they could breathe underwater all along. Bent Knee are not an SF band in the geographic sense, but their establishment as regulars at SLG Art Boutiki in San Jose make their yearly Bay Area appearances something special. Like migrating birds they darken our skies, making the stark light piercing through their feathers that much brighter.
On this year’s tour from their Boston home, violinist Chris noted they would be trying newer material. "Whatever constructive criticism you have, we'd appreciate it,” he said before sound check.
"We've had some feedback with each album that the music has become more and less accessible,” said Courtney. “In the content.. and the music..”
"See if you can come up with an album name while we're playing,” added Chris.
“I’m leaning toward 'Six Jaunty Sea Captains, We,’” said drummer Gavin, smiling and nodding enthusiastically. A native of the Bay Area, his parents were in the front row of this show, swaying and singing along. Swaying to Bent Knee is a potentially dangerous act. With complex hit patterns, and unique time signatures, attempts to dance to Bent Knee can lead to some erratic jolting. And jolt the audience did, that is, when sweeping soundscapes hadn't stunned them into silence.
At the helm of these soundscapes, live engineer Vince wore studio headphones and could be seen in the back corner of the stage pressing keys in his microKORG by the glow of his Macbook. Although a background figure on stage- sometimes hidden faceless behind a gas mask- with just the slightest nudge Vince's sound wave manipulation can turn Courtney’s already mind-blowing vocals into something almost terrifying in its alien beauty.
As Art Boutiki’s sound man Dustin tested the limits of these vocals for speaker-blowing land-mines, he requested the band turn up bassist Jessica’s effects.
"She doesn't have that many effects,” responded Courtney. "She's leveling up; she's spending time in the grass."
"Pokemon jokes!" Shouted Gavin from behind his drum set. During the performance, Gavin’s precise, though seemingly erratic hits challenged Jessica’s skills as a rhythm collaborator. As if harnessed by her bass, Jessica lashes out at Gavin’s baiting beats like a wild animal. The movements are all in good fun, as each member of Bent Knee seems to be having the time of their life as they play with equal parts savagery and serenity.
From these movements their songs leak out, pulling each of the members like marionettes who have taken hold of their own strings. Playing a few songs off of their November 2014 release “Shiny Eyed Babies,” the band members broke into grins to hear their song lyrics whispered and oftentimes shouted back at them by the audience.
This energy carried into the band’s new material. With songs that crept down carpeted basement stairs into locked cabinets, songs that chanted in four-part drones, and songs that unsettlingly sounded like powerhouse pop anthems about flashbulbs and LEDS, Bent Knee’s new offerings kept the audience in a sort of trance as their captivating performance continued to generate electric energy.
Nearly an hour and a half later, the audience came up for air. Fans and converts alike took in a collective gasp as the band appeared to have completed their set. “Way Too Long?” guitarist Ben asked the crowd. “Do you mean the song, or our set was way too long?” With an ominous pounding of tom and snare followed by a simultaneous, gut-wrenching howl from vocals and strings, Bent Knee launched into their final song for the evening: Way Too Long off of Shiny Eyed Babies.
Granted a few more minutes to show them what the Bay Area is made of, the audience climbed and clawed, now tangled in Bent Knee’s marionette strings. It was truly an experience to be tied up with sound, and it will be a different experience altogether when Bent Knee comes back again next year to show us something new.