Knifeworld at the Unicorn, London
June 23, 2011
At the highest point in the no-man’s-land between Camden and Islington lies an old duelling ground, spitting distance from Holloway Prison, once home to the Suffragettes and, more recently, Myra Hindley. Suicides were buried here, at the crossroads where Camden Road and York Way meet: the latter formerly known as Maiden Lane after the prostitutes who plied their trade here. Some still do. Not the most likely location for a sharply-tipped band to unsheathe their latest wares. But Knifeworld are a most unlikely band and the Unicorn ”â a dingy boozer best described as “tasty”Â ”â is a curiously apposite choice.
I confess I’m here on a false promise; a friend from south of the river has stood me up. About half-way through the set ”â during which I am by turns intrigued, transfixed, mesmerised, nailed to the spot ”â there’s a buzz in my pants. It’s a text message from my errant gig partner: “Fancy reviewing the cunts for us?”Â Gee, thanks buddy. Better start paying attention then.
First impressions. They are six in number. From my myopic perspective they include Emo Phillips on a suite of keyboards, Animal from the Muppets on drums and Lurch from the Munsters on bass. All focus is on Kavus, a six million dollar reboot of Marc Bolan after the crash as imagined by Frankenstein.
Whirling like a dervish, screaming like a banshee, he fires off laser beams from a battered Gretsch White Falcon, flashing the maniacal grin of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who and sounding like Freddie Mercury impersonating Anthony Newly. He’s flanked by two demure ladies in frocks who wouldn’t be out of place in a Daphne du Maurier novel. The raven-haired one alternates between saxophone and an enormous contraption which I assume is a bassoon. You don’t get enough bassoons in rock. The scarlet-haired one sings icy harmonies and sashays with a tambourine, daring the audience with a don’t-fuck-with-us stare as cold as steel.
They are all dazzling virtuosos, yet never boring, never complacent in their musical dexterity. Instead they drag the audience on a genre-fucking rollercoaster ride with a gleeful disregard for health and safety, taste and decency. Blasts of bubblegum power pop are rudely interrupted by stabs of satanic metal. Folkish interludes appear from nowhere. Tempos switch with the abruptness of a racing car slamming into a concrete wall. Time signatures lurch like a stoned elephant. The parping bassoon evokes a nightmarish steam-punk version of Madness before a ripple of medieval harpsichord takes us back to the Middle Ages.
Occasionally the bittersweet female vocals lull us back into a semblance of false security like a siren luring seasick sailors to their doom, smashing them to pieces on Knifeworld Rock. They take us out of the wardrobe and plop us straight down the rabbit hole. It’s as if Drop Dead Fred has got hold of a musical Tardis and can’t resist shouting “What does THIS button do?!”Â before anybody else has even got a hold of their bearings. At times it’s hard to tell where one song finishes and another begins, only occasional wild cheers from the sweaty, exuberant audience indicating that a gap in the aural assault marks an ending rather than an interlude.
Exhilarating, exhausting and occasionally exasperating, at times one yearns for something as traditional as a chorus, teasing explosions of melody suggesting something we might just be able get our head round before the magic carpet is yanked from under us and we’re off again. They cram more ideas into one song than most bands do into entire careers. I’m both bedazzled and perplexed. I seek answers. Someone tells me they’re prog. To someone who has punk written through them like a stick of rock, this is anathema. There are people pogoing here. There is anger. There is energy. And yet ”Â¦
I tentatively approach the keyboard maestro after the show. More Eno than Emo up close, his razor sharp sideburns suggest a dastardly villain from Hollywood’s golden age. I mention the prog word. He is unperturbed but insists they are prog as if punk DID happen. And while it’s futile trying to pigeonhole a group as dizzyingly eclectic as this, that will do for now.
Knifeworld have mined the hairline crack between genius and madness and found sonic gold. Just don’t call them prunk. They’ll probably kill you.