The third installment in New York experimental rockers The Book of Knots’ alleged trilogy of concept albums, Garden of Fainting Stars, released by Ipecac Recordings, follows 2007’s Traineater and 2004’s Book of Knots (issued via Anti- and Arclight, respectively) and concludes the thematic string of “sea, land, air” the band undertook as its initial project. Like its predecessors, Garden of Fainting Stars is rife with an extremely particular atmosphere and artistry, and probably has more in common sonically with the second album than the first, on which the core four-piece of Carla Kihlstedt (vocals and violin mostly; also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Two-Foot Yard), Joel Hamilton (guitar and engineer), Tony Maimone (bass; also of Pere Ubu) and Matthias Bossi (drums, synth and occasional vocals; also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) was still feeling its way into what has become over the subsequent (now) two albums The Book of Knots’ sound. That sound, typified by invented instrumentation – Kihlstedt plays a “marxophone” on the track “Yeager’s Approach” – and the integration of an array of guest performers, makes Garden of Fainting Stars a subtle but complex listen, and in just 40 minutes, The Book of Knots draws upon a Cold War sense of fear, American arrogance and wonder at modernity to cover a wide berth of moods and feelings, all the while remaining consistent in terms of songwriting and overall flow. As did Traineater from Book of Knots, Garden of Fainting Stars justifies every minute of the time it took to put it out.
Heavy moments like those bookending the album in opener “Microgravity” and closer “Obituary for the Future” offset an array of ambient tracks, and if nothing else, Garden of Fainting Stars proves The Book of Knots have amassed some good friends along the members’ varied creative travels. The likes of Mike Watt, Blixa Bargeld (of The Bad Seeds/Einstürzende Neubauten) and Ipecac owner and Faith No More frontman Mike Patton show up here, alongside others including Nils Frykdahl and Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables (the former also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), actor/singer Aaron Lazar (whose performance on “Third Generation Pink Slip” was a highlight of Traineater), vocalist Elyas Khan (Nervous Cabaret), stage director/writer Allen Willner, guitarist Trey Spruance (Secret Chiefs 3/ex-Mr. Bungle), John Vanderslice (Mk Ultra/The Mountain Goats), John Davis (Superdrag), Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3), engineer Ian Pelicci (who’s worked with Kihlstedt and Bossi in their theatrical excursions)… and more. It’s an overwhelming amount of people, as the personnel list and publishing credits in the liner notes show, and one doesn’t at all envy Hamilton the task he had in mixing it, but somehow, The Book of Knots come out with an album that’s as cohesive as it is challenging, and although each track by the very nature of who’s contributing offers something different, the record as a whole retains its central theme and is drawn together by it. Of the total 10 tracks, only “Microgravity,” “All This Nothing” and “Nebula Rasa” feature Kihlstedt, Hamilton, Maimone and Bossi alone, and even there the instrumentation is varied. So yeah, you could easily say there’s a lot going on with Garden of Fainting Stars. I wouldn’t argue.
Nonetheless, and perhaps either in spite of or in complement to their experimental and ambient stretches, The Book of Knots leave room for several righteous choruses, striking a balance across Garden of Fainting Stars as though to give their audience something to hook onto in the face of the material’s vast breadth. Kihlstedt recounts the tale of launching monkeys into space on “Microgravity,” centered around the melodic titular question of whether or not they’ll survive, leaving room for both Hamilton’s guitar crunch and a spoken part from Bossi that’s not dissimilar from what he did on the Traineater cut “Hands of Production.” It’s telling that, even with all the contributing personalities that begin to pile up as soon as Bargeld begins his narration of “Drosophila Melangaster,” Garden of Fainting Stars would launch with just the four players in the band proper. Not that they’re starting off simple, but a foundation is established with “Microgravity” on which the rest of the album builds, starting with the aforementioned “Drosophila Melanogaster,” which undercuts the anxiety of the opener by reveling in the banality of commercial air travel as it is today. Bargeld assumes the role of passenger waiting for a variety of flights, reading as though from a journal flight numbers and recounting tales of fruit flies in his drinks and the lack of space in economy, eventually launching into drunken singing as The Book of Knots behind him pick up from the foreboding ambience of the beginning into the swaying, otherworldly weirdness that makes up the end of the track, giving way to “Moondust Must,” on which Frykdahl and McCarthy offer lead vocals with a group backing them for probably Garden of Fainting Stars’ most infectious chorus – the lines “Moondust looks like gunpowder/Moondust smells like gunpowder/Moondust tastes like gunpowder/Moondust must be gunpowder” approaching nursery rhyme memorability even as they mock the sort of down-home ignorance of “the farther shore” and religious ideas of walking among the dead in the verse. “Moondust Must” has a bouncing rhythm to it, and is simple on its surface, but there’s an underlying absurdity at play as well, and the amount of noise thrown in the mix behind Frykdahl and McCarthy is consistent with both what backed Bargeld on “Drosophila Melanogaster” and what next comes to the fore on “Lissajous Orbit.”
Following a deep-in-the-mix melodic echo vocal with a cinematic backing track typified by Kihlstedt’s violin, “Lissajous Orbit” finds Lazar running his spoken vocals through a processor and reading a sort of robot poetry with piano and loops behind. It’s almost like two songs at once, but paired next to the Khan-fronted title track, it helps play up the more ambient side in The Book of Knots’ approach. The mood of the album by now is set, and although “Garden of Fainting Stars” loses something for its talk of monsters, the musical oddity playing out – Bossi, in addition to drums and triangle, also handles “glass” here – remains consistent with “Lissajous Orbit” and “Drosophila Melanogaster.” Without knowing the methodology The Book of Knots took in making Garden of Fainting Stars, the album feels at times built upon basic tracks, expanded by its contributors, working from a central given figure or idea. That comes across on “Garden of Fainting Stars,” and as Kihlstedt drifts her vocals across the atmospheric “All This Nothing,” one can easily see that the song could have been taken in any number of other directions, depending on who they sent files to and said, “Here, have fun.” For what it’s worth, “All This Nothing” works precisely as it is, and of all the cuts on Garden of Fainting Stars, feels most like antigravity floating. It is, in terms of affecting that drift, as far out as The Book of Knots will go, pulling back instead as Watt assumes the role of a swaggering Chuck Yeager, opening “Yeager’s Approach” with the lines “Big Chuck here/You sent a woman out here to do this?/What’s that about?” while Maimone’s rumbling bass and Bossi’s drumming keeps the song grounded musically. Watt’s vocal, like Bargeld’s and Willner’s yet to come, is spoken, and as he’s adopted the identity of a recognizable figure, the track is more monologue backed by music than a song the way “Microgravity” is a song, or “Moondust Must”’s repeating structure gives that kind of feel. The turn isn’t really out of line for The Book of Knots, because by the time you’re seven tracks into Garden of Fainting Stars – even if you’ve never heard Traineater or Book of Knots – it should be well established that they can go pretty much anywhere at any given moment. That they do, and that Garden of Fainting Stars still manages to keep its sonic equilibrium, is a huge factor in what makes it so impressive.
For his profile and the level of influence he’s had on experimental rock through his tenures in Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Faith No More and countless other projects, Mike Patton’s helming “Planemo” gives a kind of figurative weight to the track. He lends his signature and inimitable croon to the song, which follows a slowed-down progression marked by the heavy thud of Bossi’s bass drum and the ambient guitar of Ismaily, along with Wurlitzer, theremin, a backing choir, etc. Any listener approaching Garden of Fainting Stars in Patton’s cult will undoubtedly be thrilled with his performance, brief as it feels leading into “Nebula Rasa,” the final of the album’s tracks with just Hamilton, Kihlstedt, Maimone and Bossi on it. But for some whispers and sing-song backing from Bossi and Hamilton, “Nebula Rasa” is instrumental, and feels more like an instrumental, with the glockenspiel providing more lyricism than the manipulated noise that arises in the second half. I’d call it The Book of Knots “getting weird” if they hadn’t already been doing so for the previous half-hour, but it does provide one of Garden of Fainting Stars’ smoothest transitions into two-sided closer “Obituary for the Future,” on which Willner plays a post-apocalyptic “last man” trying desperately to reach anyone who might be listening on a radio frequency and Kihlstedt once again takes a commanding lead vocal as she did on “Microgravity,” Hamilton’s guitar thick and leading Maimone and Bossi in start-stop riffing to complement. Willner closes the album (wistful keys and noise behind him), cursing and lamenting his fate and that of his species, embodying the track’s title and overall theatrical feel of the collection. Appropriately enough, before the signal cuts out, he gets in a last “whatever” to act as Garden of Fainting Stars’ final statement.
One expects that, much like Traineater and Book of Knots before it, The Book of Knots’ latest and maybe last effort will fly under the radar of most listeners, but those who catch it will be rewarded with what’s unquestionably going to be a high point for 2011. For its bizarreness, for its impossibly-achieved cohesion and for the sheer scope of the thing, it’s a lot to take in, but Garden of Fainting Stars should be considered essential for adventurous ears. I could go on ranting about the quality of the production, the complexity of the material or the staggering creativity, but honestly, if you haven’t gotten the picture by now, no amount of words I can throw at you is going to make the difference. You’ll either listen or you won’t. Hopefully, if you do, you’ll find reward in doing so and approach Garden of Fainting Stars with an open mind and the expectation of something genuinely unique, because that’s what you’re going to get.
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