The Knells: Knells II
Still Sound Records

No band sounds quite like The Knells. Spearheaded by guitarist-and-composer Andrew McKenna Lee, the Brooklyn-based outfit backs a trio of classical female singers with a heavy, two guitar-fueled ensemble. Whether your label preference is progressive rock or art rock, the unit's sophomore collection, Knells II, is as strong as its 2013 debut, and the band's sound, though a bit heavier, remains pretty much intact despite some changes in personnel: Lee and soprano Nina Berman, guitarist Paul Orbell, bassist Joseph Higgins, percussionist Jude Traxler return, whereas mezzo-soprano Charlotte Mundy, contralto Blythe Gaissert, and drummer Jeff Gretz appear for the first time. Orbell's credited as the lead guitarist, not Lee, but regardless of how the two share the guitar duties, The Knells' double-axe attack is as fundamental to the group's identity as the trio's singing.

Every listener hears differently, this one no exception. As Knells II plays, echoes of other artists and albums emerge, from Steve Reich and Led Zeppelin to Rush and Yes. In the opening track and set-closer “Immolation,” a bluesy slide riff by Orbell calls to mind Page on “In My Time of Dying”; elsewhere, playing reminiscent of Steve Howe's from Tales from Topographic Oceans surfaces. A case in point, “Sub Rosa” features instrumental parts that alternate between Yes-styled figures and climactic flourishes reminiscent of The Who.

Some delicate moments arise (see “Final Breath”), but for the most part the tone is fiery: “Poltergeist,” for instance, derives its low-end thrust from a bruising, AC/DC-styled riff, while a particularly scalding guitar solo roars through the backdrop of “Interlude II.” Speaking of Yes, there's even a moment three minutes into “First Song,” where I can't help but hear Jon Anderson singing the female trio's line, so strongly does the material evoke the prog outfit's style during its ‘70s prime. As central to The Knells' identity is its resplendent vocal front-line, whose unison delivery often reminds me of the singing in Reich's Tehillim.

Almost every one of the ten pieces features singing, with Lee's lyrics covering topics ranging from the life-changing experience of a father's death to the rueful acceptance of what we cannot change and time's inexorable passing. Still, however key the lyrical content is to the album thematically, it's the playing and musical structures that leave the greater mark. Like every other band, Lee's draws from the past; what sets The Knells apart is that, once the parts are assembled, the group sounds like no one else.

December 2017