It’s important when reviewing an album to exercise caution when throwing out terms like `prog-rock.’ The primary reason for this is that `prog’ can mean anything from Yes-style mathematical wizardry, to Jethro Tull-style medieval flute rock, or even krautrock in the vein of Can or Faust. The only constant in this ever-increasing field of what constitutes prog-rock is an overarching ambition, something that can be easily traced from Hawkwind to Pink Floyd to Genesis. Aside from that, however, `prog’ is almost as blank a slate to give a record as `rock.’
For a band like Portland, Ore.-based 31 Knots, `prog’ is a term that applies throughout their career, but in entirely different contexts. Earlier efforts such as It Was High Time to Escape were decidedly more math-rock leaning, while recent efforts like The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere take a turn toward the more accessible, yet with baroque underpinnings and an increased flair for the dramatic. Latest effort Worried Well similarly follows in such a pattern, eschewing the heroic guitar work in favor of a largely keyboard-based album that is at once more impressive and more ominous than past works.
Mired in paranoid political themes, it’s perhaps fitting and ironic that Worried Well should be released in an election year. Though hope that the United States may overcome the disasters of the last eight years is ever-increasingly within reach, 31 Knots conduct a brooding and intense rock opera that serves to remind us just how much damage has been done in such a relatively short amount of time. Suffice to say, it’s an exhausting work, but nonetheless an enjoyable one.
After the brief “Baby of Riots” presents an intriguing introduction, the fiery waltz of “Certificate” charges up its stored tension just to explode in an invigorating climax. “The Breaks” is a strange, synth-driven groover, with Joe Haege’s more explicitly stated message of fear: “Just do what they say…best to know your place and to take it.” The ominous piano of “Something Up There This Way Comes” is somewhere between Tom Waits and silent film hijinks, while the more ambient “Take Away The Landscape” rattles and throbs with palpable horror. “Worried but Not Well” kicks aside the synths and pianos temporarily, firing up the distortion, both in guitars and in vocals, in the loudest and most searing moment of raucousness here.
While much of Worried Well treads a line between frightening and flamboyant, and does so with great success, “Upping the Mandate” offers a delightful surprise. Combining Prince-style keyboards and melancholy strings, it’s no less artsy in its execution, yet comes off as just a little bit more fun. And given how dark much of the album is, it’s good to hear that Worried Well has a bright spot or two to balance it out.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.