Bent Knee bids for the big time
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Early in December, a clutch of journalists and curiosity seekers from Boston and beyond arrived at the Space, a cozy gallery and concert venue tucked away on a quiet street in Jamaica Plain, to witness a remarkable sight. Bent Knee, a young local sextet, had packed the room on a frigid Saturday night. A disparate mix of friends and devotees, young and old, gathered not just to hear the group's newly completed third LP played from start to finish, but also to lend their voices to a few climactic choruses. Since the concert was being filmed for potential release, the crowd obligingly sat on the floor.
Said album, "Say So," resoundingly demonstrated the increasing refinement and confidence of a group that doesn't quite fit any conventional pigeonhole. Bent Knee's emphatic crunch and knack for complexity, mixed with lively wit, have aligned it loosely with that most marginalized of genres, progressive rock. Live, the band projects visceral glee, exactingly harmonized and wholly infectious.
Courtney Swain, Bent Knee's dramatically potent lead vocalist and pianist, delivers emphatic, enigmatic lyrics in a manner that can evoke Björk, Alanis Morissette, or Joanna Newsom while sounding like no one but herself. Vince Welch, the sound designer who shapes and sculpts the group's performances onstage and in the studio, adds still more shades to an expansive palette: electronica, classic pop, heavy metal, and hip-hop all figure into Bent Knee's matrix somewhere.
Exactly one month after the show, five band members — Swain, Welch, guitarist Ben Levin, violinist Chris Baum, and bassist Jessica Kion — huddled around a table in a Newbury Street cafe for an interview. Drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth had been done in by travel, his bandmates compensating with tangled narrative threads and oversize ebullience.
They've got plenty to be excited about. Thanks in part to Anil Prasad, purveyor of the influential progressive-music webzine Innerviews (www.innerviews.org), word about Bent Knee has spread well beyond its supportive Boston home base. Having self-released two albums and an EP, the band will issue "Say So" on the venerated US indie Cuneiform Records in May. And while Bent Knee still books its own shows stateside, it recently joined Paperclip Agency — whose roster includes Afrika Bambaataa, Shonen Knife, and Television — to coordinate European touring.
That the cafe is only a few blocks from Bent Knee's birthplace, Berklee College of Music, is lost on no one. "Recently I realized the first relationship that happened in Bent Knee was not Ben and I, but Ben and Vince," Swain explains. "They met during summer camp [there]."
"2005," Levin chimes in from across the table.
"Ben was walking around looking for someone to shred with," Swain continues, and Vince was shredding. . . ."
"No, Vince looked like a metal guy," Kion interjects.
"I didn't have my guitar," Welch says, shrugging almost audibly.
Here, Levin asserts control, recounting the tale of high-school metalheads from dissimilar parts of the country finding one another at Berklee. Surrounded by jazzers, he recalls, Levin felt like a defiant outlier. Connecting with Welch was the start of a mutually supportive network, as well as a sequence of band projects.
"By the time I got to Berklee, Ben and Vince were roommates and a year ahead of me," says Swain, who grew up in Japan. A chance encounter brought her into Levin's orbit; a guitarist devoted to instrumental experimentation met his match in a fearless singer with perfect pitch and keyboard chops. When Welch took up a demo by Swain and Levin for a production-class project, a band coalesced out of necessity.
Baum had connected with Levin when the guitarist's group shared bills with his own early band, Sing Treason. ("We sounded like Incubus, but we had a violinist, so people were interested," he deadpans.) Wallace-Ailsworth —
"The first album was essentially written before anyone else came on board, where Ben and I were doing file-trading," Swain says. "It was a lot of Portishead and a lot of Björk that was really driving the sound. When we started writing the second album ["Shiny Eyed Babies," released in 2014], we started experimenting with opening things up to everyone writing and contributing equally." Levin, by his own description a recovering egomaniac, admits he was slow to embrace that notion.
And now? "Music's a team sport," he declares into a reporter's recorder directly and emphatically, asserting his evolved perspective.
"It's really hard, because we also have this thing where everyone has to agree 100 percent on an idea," Swain explains.
"That's an exaggeration," Welch interjects. Claiming complete assent, he explains, is a streamlined gloss on a messy process, in which vetoes are deployed strategically.
"It's a dictatorship based in consensus," Baum agrees, "because at the end of the day, Vince is producing and mixing our records — and that's what the songs wind up being."
Friction? A bit, perhaps. Still, heat generated among moving parts coming into contact is a universal constant. That principle goes a long way toward explaining the creative combustion generated by Bent Knee's working process, and the unpredictable, potent fusions that result.
At Great Scott, Saturday at 9 p.m. (supporting the Shills).
Tickets: $10. 800-653-8000, www.greatscottboston.com