Rock `n’ roll has a long and rich tradition of working class, blue-collar themes and imagery, ranging from heartfelt odes like The Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” to dark, violent ballads like Springsteen’s “Johnny 99.” Yet even with such disparate takes, the primary focus has always been, more or less, about the people behind the industry, the flesh and bone that pull the levers and drip sweat across the factory floor. The Book of Knots’ sophomore album Traineater takes a different approach, touted as a “tribute to the American Rust Belt,” finding its muse not only in the people behind the assembly lines, but the industry itself, the factories, the plumes of smoke, the steel and the lungs full of lead and asbestos.
The Book of Knots, a Brooklyn collective featuring members who have played with Tin Hat Trio, Skeleton Key, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Sparklehorse and Unsane, is a supergroup in talent, if not in name recognition. Their harsh junk-rock creates a dense, coal-burning, metal stamping atmosphere that seemingly emulates the sound of an actual factory. While the group is capable of creating sounds much more melodic than that of steam-powered machines, they just as often stick to an abrasive, grinding and clanging approach, the most punishing sounds of all coming with opening track “View from the Watertower,” a collaboration with Carla Bozulich that’s as painful as it is cathartic with its doom-laden screams.
“Hands of Production,” by comparison is a far quirkier track, mostly instrumental, save for some amusing newsreel sounds about automotive production. Forefather of fucked-up, experimental, junkyard beat poetry rock Tom Waits lends vocals to the dissonant, downcast “Pray.” Here, Waits a gospel-like dirge of hopelessness, growling “what’cha gonna do when the dream is gone? / you got to pray now, pray now.” Pere Ubu’s David Thomas adds some bizarre vocals to the gypsy ballad, “Red Apple Boy,” while Mike Watt lends spoken word grumbles to the destructive sludge metal song “Pedro to Cleveland.” The ever versatile and entertaining Jon Langford alternately shouts and speaks in “Boomtown,” telling a tale of more broken dreams, lost pubs and arson.
That most of Traineater‘s tracks are menacing and brutal isn’t all that surprising, given the various members’ noise-making histories. But even among the bizarre, distorted caterwauls, there are moments of delicate grace. When Carla Kihlstedt takes over on vocals in the title track, the results are sublime. “Traineater” is a hauntingly beautiful track, layering intricate acoustic plucks with ambient samples, providing a staggering contrast between the album’s louder, more clamorous moments and its quiet, pretty ones. Similarly, “Where’d Mom Go?” eschews the distortion pedals for accordion and morose balladry.
The Book of Knots are the rare band that can match their subject matter perfectly with their evocative sound, and with Traineater, have constructed the musical equivalent of the heap of rusted metal on its cover. Yet beneath that ominous facade are the hearts and minds that keep the conveyor belts running, the bolts tightened and the food on the table.
Tom Waits – Blood Money
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Grand Opening and Closing
Pere Ubu – Dub Housing
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.