The Knells: The Knells
New Amsterdam Records

The Knells' self-titled debut album must be one of the most original-sounding albums released in 2013. The hour-long recording captures the group, ostensibly the brain-child of Brooklyn-based composer-guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee, boldly collapsing whatever gaps are taken to exist between prog, rock, and classical genres. His decision to meld such disparate styles was deliberate, as he wanted to try to reconcile a number of different styles with which he'd been involved: guitar-based rock music; singer-songwriting; formal composition; and classical guitar. On paper, the idea of combining instrumental rock playing with classical singing and strings might seem like a hard sell, but in this case it succeeds—even if it does require a few spins for the listener to wrap his/her head around it. To bring the music into being, Lee gathered together female vocalists Nina Berman, Amanda Gregory, and Katya Powder, electric guitarist Paul Orbell, electric bassist Joseph Higgins, drummer Michael McCurdy, mallet percussionist Jude Traxler, and the Mivos String Quartet.

The music's two primary threads come together in the opening track “Airlift,” which begins with a bruising guitar-bass-drums sequence that resembles Rush at its proggiest before segueing into a choir episode that's, timbrally speaking, reminiscent of the vocal style heard on Steve Reich's Tehillum (Lee's engagement with Reich's work comes by honestly: the guitarist has recorded Electric Counterpoint, which Reich described as “a magnificent performance beautifully recorded”). Here and elsewhere (the aptly titled “Synchromesh,” for example), the incantatory melodies chanted by the three clear-throated singers arc gracefully, sometimes contrapuntally and sometimes homophonically.

The vocal-free guitar settings show how virtuosic a player Lee is, but they're not about grandstanding. Instead, they're legitimate musical pieces that require technically skilled players—in this case Lee and fellow guitarist Orbell—for their realization (the bluesy “Dying in Waves” stands out in particular for its nuanced guitar interplay). The album's a bona fide feast for fans of electric guitar playing, with wah-wah and finger-picking present in equal measure. The other musicians impress, too, with the muscular playing of Higgins and McCurdy giving the material particular oomph and the string players (during “Distance” especially) and Traxler adding ample colour and dimension to the music.

There are moments that play like direct nods to prog figures: the three-minute setting “Spiral Proem” could easily pass for a lost Fripp improv from the Starless and Bible Black or Red sessions, and there's a lightning-fast run within “Spiral Knells” that could similarly pass for a brief cameo by Steve Howe. Speaking of which, The Knells' music sometimes achieves a prog-like complexity that begs comparison to Yes during its Tales from Topographic Oceans period, and were one to replace the three singers with Jon Anderson and the strings with Rick Wakeman the distance between the acts would be surprisingly small.

Lyrically, Lee appears to have had a lot of weighty philosophical issues on his mind, with the material pondering the circularity of time and futility of existence, among other things. Those conversant with philosophy might detect allusions to Zeno's paradoxes (“Half is all that you can ever hope to go” in “Distance”) and Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence (“Both time and rivers—they both flow forever” in “Fray”) within the texts, but no listener need be familiar with the discipline in order to enjoy the album's material.

It's noteworthy that while Lee presumably could have released the album under his own name, he opted to present it as a band recording—a move that suggests he came to regard the so-called chamber-prog project as having developed into something greater than the work of a single creator (even if he was the one who wrote, recorded, mixed, and produced it). That the album ends up sounding as cohesive as it does, especially when its component parts are so different, is a compliment to Lee as well as his musical collaborators.

December 2013