Exposé Online banner

The Knells — The Knells
(New Amsterdam NWAM051, 2013, CD)

by Jon Davis, 2013-12-06:

The Knells Cover art Some music seems to exist in a world of its own, a place where it came into being spontaneously because it had to exist. The Knells sounds like that to me, music that is somehow not quite part of our normal world. All of the elements of the music, the three female vocalists, the two guitars, the string section, and so on, are part of our world, but the end result of their combination seems otherworldly. Of course, it's grossly unfair to composer Andrew McKenna Lee to suggest that his art came into being by itself — I'm sure he worked long and hard to put it together once the initial idea came into his head, not to mention the years of study and practice that made the work possible. The first track starts with a somewhat off-kilter guitar part full of dissonant chords and unusual voicings, then the second guitar, bass, and drums come in and for a time The Knells sound like a relatively normal instrumental rock band. But at the two minute mark, there's a brief moment of calm, and the singers come in. Their parts here, as throughout the CD, are arranged very nicely, sometimes with harmonized chords, sometimes polyphonic counter-melodies, and sometimes with clustered intervals a bit reminiscent of the mysterious Bulgarian voices. One of the things that strikes me about the singing is that there is virtually no vibrato used, even on long tones. While I'm not generally a fan of over-dramatic operatic vibrato singing, the pure tones used here can be quite brash, giving the singers a bit of the sound of being sampled on a keyboard. It's pretty rare in the arrangements that a single voice appears unaccompanied by the other two, so some of the intimacy of individual expression is lost. But those are minor observations, not criticisms. The two guitars are great together, with a variety of different sounds, sometimes with interlocking melodic parts, sometimes one playing chords and the other melody, sometimes providing atmospheric effects. The string arrangements are similarly varied, not just serving as keyboard replacement. These parts are really interesting in their own rights, and an integral part of the music. Mallet percussion appears from time to time, providing even more sonic variety. All in all, this is an impressive debut, and an example of musical ambition backed by both the talent and technique to pull it off.

by Henry Schneider, 2014-02-13:

The Knells is Brooklyn-based Andrew McKenna Lee’s musical project combining elements of Renaissance madrigal singing, 20th Century classical music, jazz, and progressive rock. The Knells ensemble consists of soprano Nina Berman, mezzo soprano Amanda Gregory, alto Katya Powder, guitarist and percussionist Andrew McKenna Lee, guitarist Paul Orbell, drummer Michael McCurdy, and bassist Joseph Higgins. In addition, the Mivos String Quartet (Olivia de Prato on violin, Joshua Modney on violin, Victor Lowrie on viola, Mariel Roberts on cello, and Isabel Castellvi on cello) joins in on several tracks. This is an interesting concept, but somehow it doesn’t all come together for me. I find the instrumental passages to be outstanding, but I have a hard time with the vocals. The lyrics are in English but the vocals are extremely difficult to understand unless you meticulously follow along with the printed word. It all sounds like sterile wordless dissonant singing to me. Plus there is not much variation in the handful of notes they sing, which caused me to rapidly loose interest. The high point for me is the instrumental “Spiral Poem” and the Frippian guitar licks on “Spiral Knells.” The Knells is one of those albums that is best taken in small doses. Trying to listen to it in one go was quite a challenge for me. I applaud Andrew’s attempt to marry these disparate musical elements, but it just did not work for me.

by Peter Thelen, 2013-12-18:

The Knells is the recording and performing project of guitarist and composer Andrew McKenna Lee. The ten compositions here represent a formidable body of work, highly original in many respects, and clearly ambitious. Lee’s ensemble includes four instrumentalists (bass, drums and two guitars, including himself), three female vocalists (I want to say Choir, as this is the mode they operate in), and a five-piece string ensemble. I could almost swear I hear some other instrumentation in the mix (primarily woodwinds and horns), but I see no credits, so there you have it. There are a couple instrumentals here, and some lengthy song introductions, mostly softer introspective interludes that offer a respite between the grandiosity of the major cuts where all the players and singers are engaged. Lee is an amazing and inventive guitarist, and does get many chances to shine throughout, borrowing influence from everything from classical to blues, but that’s a lesser aspect of their big, all encompassing sound. Most of the pieces are slower paced, sort of like a heavy shoegazer sound mixed with an influence of mid-period Pink Floyd and some happenstance Robbie Krieger-like psychedelicisms, but more than anything, it’s the massed choral vocals that set this apart from just about anything else out there that one might hear. The singers seem constantly engaged in amazing wordless harmonies and brilliant counterpoint, occasionally backing off to allow one or another singer step out front. There are lyrics, but for the most part they are difficult to follow without the lyric sheet that has been kindly provided in the booklet. Although it may take a few listens to get tuned into The Knells wavelength, patience rewards; this is, more than anything, unique.

Filed under: New releases , 2013 releases

Related artist(s): The Knells

More info

Latest news

2018-02-18
Didier Lockwood RIP – Word reaches us today of the death of one of France's great jazz musicians, violinist Didier Lockwood. His playing bridged many worlds, from traditional jazz to fusion to progressive rock, and his talent can be heard on recordings by Magma, Clearlight, Pierre Moerlen's Gong, and many more. Lockwood was 62. » Read more

2018-02-15
10 Years of Fruits de Mer - The Incomplete Angler – Those of you who are faithful followers of Exposé will know that we have been promoting Fruits de Mer and its side labels and releases from nearly its first year. Now music journalist and author Dave Thompson has written a book chronicling the past ten years as a celebration of this milestone. » Read more

2018-02-14
Tom Rapp RIP – Singer / songwriter Tom Rapp, best known with the band Pearls Before Swine, passed away on February 12, at the age of 70, after a battle with cancer. » Read more

2018-01-30
Bill Bruford Ventures into Uncharted Territory – Drum master Bill Bruford, veteran of some of the most creative bands in history (King Crimson, Yes, Genese, etc.), is sharing some of what he's learned about being a drummer and a musician in his new book, Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer, out on University of Michigan Press. » Read more

2018-01-18
Christian Burchard RIP – Multi-instrumentalist Christian Burchard, who founded the seminal band Embryo in 1969, has died at the age of 71. His January 17 passing was announced on the band's Facebook page. » Read more


Previously in Exposé...

Asia Featuring John Payne - Scandinavia (AKA Extended Versions) – Among the finite number of prog fans who are Asia fans there is a subset that enjoys the lineup with singer/bassist John Payne (i.e., the non-original Asia that’s been on tour recently). This...  (2008) » Read more

Robert Rich - Propagation – Rich is one of the more interesting of the "electronic" artists, his music is as much organic as it is synthesized. With a very wide array of flutes of different origins, and the occasional use of the...  (1994) » Read more

Biota - Object Holder – A project over two years in the making, this effort includes a huge number of musicians on 24 tracks, the most notable names being RIO staple Chris Cutler (percussion, electronics) and Susanne Lewis...  (1995) » Read more

Tempest - Turn of the Wheel – Tempest is led by Lief Sorbye (formerly of folk group Golden Bough). This is their first album for the Magna Carta label and their fourth disc overall. Jigs and reels and storytelling: that's what...  (1996) » Read more

Gwendal - Les Plus Belles Chansons de Gwendal – Gwendal are an amazing group and one of my favorites of the severely underrated French / Breton folk-rock scene. Unfortunately the distribution of any of their albums is uncommonly poor and it seems...  (1996) » Read more



Listen & discover



Print issues