The Book of Knots’ résumé and list of collaborators is riddled with names that would grab the attention of anyone to whom art rock has massive appeal. Tom Waits, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, The Mekons’ Jon Langford and Ipecac label head/all-around titan of the abrasive and experimental Mike Patton are just a few of the names that have shown up on the band’s past records, and for that matter, should give a first-timer some indication of the kind of weird and abrasive sounds that the group builds up from orchestral arrangements, prog-rock pomp and clanging junk percussion. And yet, the band is driven by a melodic core, one that collides with the atypical metallic elements the band wields so well, like a steam-powered robot symphony, though possibly even nerdier than that sounds.
The group’s latest, Garden of Fainting Stars, is even more melody driven than its predecessor, Traineater, though it’s by no means any less weird or creepy. On one hand, vocalist Carla Kihlstedt leads the fairly straightforward arena rock of first track “Microgravity,” yet a track later, Blixa Bargeld delivers a strange spoken word narrative about fruit flies landing in his drink on “Drosophila Melanogaster.” Likewise, Nils Frykdahl and Dawn McCarthy’s harmonization of “Moondust must tastes like gunpowder” comes across like a twisted nursery rhyme, whereas the fucked up robot vocals on “Lissajous Orbit” veer the album toward a dissonant and difficult landscape, one more atmospheric and eerie than the tracks preceding it.
Garden of Fainting Stars continues to follow a similar sort of pattern, frequently leaping back and forth between more accessible rock songs and more abrasive, sometimes disturbing pieces. This leaves a progression that’s sometimes interesting and sometimes frustrating, primarily because the band is much better at the dark and clanging slow-churners like the title track than they are at playing it straight, as on the cheesy “Microgravity.” The band is loaded with talent, and can create a harrowing atmosphere like few other bands can. They merely have trouble reining in all their best ideas or sequencing an album in a way that doesn’t seem entirely disorienting. Then again, maybe that’s the point.
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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.