31Knots crafts challenging rock music in the grand tradition of iconoclasts like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. For a decade they’ve toiled valiantly in almost total obscurity. Blame it on weak biz handlers or the band’s refusal to slip into easy compartmentalization, but whatever the culprit, this Portland, Oregon-based trio has made a career of insuring their day-job employers that their hobby will never interfere. After 2004’s excellent EP The Curse of the Longest Day, the band ventured further away from their majestic guitar-bass-drums template into an off-kilter prog vacuum, marring subsequent releases like Talk Like Blood and The Days and Nights of Everything and Everywhere with confounding songs and quirky synths. But with their latest, Worried Well, 31Knots begins to descend back to their earthen rock roots.
Though they commence with the handclap a capella “Baby of Riots,” “Certificate” reprises all of the idiosyncratic power found on their early recordings. The song throbs with pensive percussion and rolling bass, as Joe Haege demonstrates his superior guitar abilities and above-average vocals. The pulsating percussion gives the song a dub undercurrent. Its triumphant closing could easily fit anywhere in Queen’s catalog, with rousing horns and vocals creating a bombastic theatrical feel. A twinkling piano melody finishes off the song.
The band explores a dizzying array of musical styles that are largely hit or miss: “Strange Kicks” possesses a carnivalesque Rain Dogs sensibility, with appropriately cracked vocals, while “Opaque” is their take on Kind of Blue jazz. They play it straight with the solid rock of “Worried But Not Well,” as “Compass Commands” delves into quirky Sgt. Pepper’s pop. Again utilizing a stiff dub beat, “The Breaks” features fuzzy synthesizer sounds and reggae-like backing vocals and stands out as one of the album’s most memorable moments.
31Knots often bite off more than they can chew, however, resulting in fastidious excess and self-indulgent dawdling. “Upping the Mandate” could have been a fine Depeche Mode-style synth-pop song but the band mucks it up with their penchant for the esoteric. The appropriately titled “Take Away the Landscape” sounds like the soundtrack to a Natural Geographic episode on a South American tribal village; the echoed percussion and odd synth lines begin interestingly enough but don’t ever develop into anything more. Still, 31Knots deserves encomium for their daring and ingenuity. While most of their peers follow carefully scripted rock patterns, 31Knots pursues their muse regardless of where it takes them.