As many contemporary jazz artists have been in the past handful of years, Kneebody were loosely connected to producer Flying Lotus through his Brainfeeder record label in 2015. Joining forces with left-field producer Daedelus, the group managed to craft a relentlessly modern fusion sound, relatable to audiences familiar with both glitchy experimental hip-hop and 1970s long-form jam session records. Having seen the group live, I can attest that they are an incredible crew of improvisers and entertainers, but up until “Kneedelus,” their studio sound was a bit too bright and chops-based to hold much relevance outside of the jazz circle. Absent of Daedelus’s offerings, the group’s new record “Anti-Hero” doesn’t entirely return to their old sound, but certainly constitutes more of a step backward than one forward.
The album includes a reprisal of their 2015 track “Drum Battle,” which largely showcases the difference between the two albums. At over 10 minutes in length, the group stretches out individual solos quite a bit more and the pace by the end reaches a frantic state. In between each solo, both horns blast away this punching line, that after about the 8th repetition becomes completely tired and overwrought. In comparison, the original “Drum Battle” valued subtlety a bit higher. After Daedelus and drummer Nate Wood set their smoldering texture into play, trumpeter Shane Endsley and sax player Ben Wendel played through some punching and lyrical lines, but they didn’t crowd the mix too much, sounding distant when laying down the refrains at the end of the solo section and leaving a bit more space between their phrasing at the beginning of the track.
Again, in the live jazz world this sort of playing works well but, as exemplified by the many out-of-date guitar-sounding riffs (that must be carried out on Adam Benjamin’s keyboard?), the group sounds a bit out of touch with what’s working in the studio today. “Uprising,” for instance, kicks off with a riff straight out of the Black Sabbath playbook, whereas “The Ballonist” gets a bit overly drowned in reverb during the solo. These guitar sounds may have worked 20 years ago, but they sound a bit dated today and they don’t really make sense within the cleaned up context of the rest of the group. Another issue is the drumming. Too often Nate Wood is laying down an open snare/bass rock groove that sounds more akin to a college jam band then the usual array of light tom and cymbal work from a modern jazz outfit.
The record isn’t a completely out-of-touch loss. The last handful of tracks work with space really well and mostly avoid the cheap funk sounds. “Carry On” opens with some interesting communication between Wood and Benjamin, underpinned by this haunting soupy backdrop of drones and eventual long tones from the horns. In the short solo section, Wendel works with this nice electronic effect that echoes his playing around the room. Following is “Yes You” with some nice interplay between small pieces of the band. Wendel and Wood throw some ideas back and forth before washes of guitar sound come into play to expand the sound space. “Austin Peralta” caps things off with another victory as this distant vocal sound sings out a heart wrenching melody amongst the swelling instrumental mass.
Kneebody is a great band, but “Anti-Hero” doesn’t find them in the same relevant sonic world as their last effort. If they want to continue to forge innovative new ground and stay in touch with the contemporary music world, they should seek out more collaboration with producers outside of the jazz community.