You must have heard this one before. Alan Moore’s told a version, so has Groucho Marx. So have many others as the tale creeps down the years, gathering new clothes to wrap its bones in. Here’s another version.
One afternoon a doctor receives an unexpected patient – a middle-aged man, cheeks slack and jaw unshaven, creeping shyly into the consulting room where he sits, quivering, on the chair. His shoulders are hunched as if expecting a blow to fall. He wrings his battered hat in his hands and stammers that his world is imploding, that he feels that he cannot face a cruel present and uncertain future; that his body and mind are suffering and he doesn’t think that he can go on. The doctor is tempted to say “cheer up, it may never happen,” but restrains himself. It’s not purely out of professionalism – there’s something in his visitor’s muddy eyes that suggests that such flippancy would be more than cruel. Then the doctor has an idea. He puts on his most comforting, most reasonable voice. “What you need, my friend, is laughter. Here, I know the very thing for you. The great clown Grock is playing in town tonight – go and buy a ticket. He will make you forget your worries and your terrors.” The man says nothing for a moment, then, as he rises to leave, his eyes fill with terrible wounded tears. “But Doctor,” he stammers. “I am Grock…”
Chewing over this old chestnut has put me in mind of Knifeworld’s leader Kavus Torabi – a musician who’s spent years stuck fast in the guts of cult appeal but who’s suddenly starting to look a little ubiquitous. Steps upward via bigger cult bands (to Gong via Cardiacs and Mediaeval Babes) have helped him here. So, too, have his vigorous radio-show hostings and his eccentric, affectionate charm, belatedly recognised by a horde of magazines and webzines. So too, the frequency with which his lanky frame, explosive hairdo and glowing enthusiasm rock up at and around London gigs. By now, he’s well on his way to becoming a public personality – a vivacious, goofy, black-dandelion star with an infectious grin and throaty chuckle, whose career (to a new fan) would seem to have burst upwards in a series of random turns and innocent accidents.
The flipside of this is that he’s become something of a beloved clown, and it could have sunk him. Flying in the face of anxious rock pomposity and its accelerated quest for significance, Kavus openly refers to his work as “funny-music”. For two decades, on-and-off, he’s been releasing swarms of supercharged tatterdemalion art-rock songs (in which Canterbury whim grapples with Chicago nerve while spinning cogs of power-pop, psychedelia, prog and folk joust with reed-crammed avant-garde blares and slamming flashes of heavy metal) and ices this wild cake with baroque psychedelic imagery turned into a daffy, tongue-in-cheek juggling act. Upfront and loveable, Kavus will always bring accessibility and charm to the musical tumult behind him; but his oddball image has sometimes resisted and obscured deeper engagement. There’s a risk that his growing audience won’t grow with him; that when they listen to the ornate, shaggy-lantern rock of Knifeworld’s 2009 debut album ‘Buried Alone…‘ they might hear only its knotty playfulness, its busy collisions. While revelling in Knifeworld’s bird-flipping refusals to be either meat-and-potatoes rock or polished narcissistic artfulness, they’ll miss the emotive depths which wind beneath the band’s fairground-dazzle surface. Instead, they’ll be demanding constant cheery Kavus looning while they augur their own vague Phineas Freakears rebellions from the flyaway whorls in his barnet.
All in all, ‘The Unravelling’ – with its crucial shift in tone and weight – has arrived right on time. Kavus’ funny-music mask needs to crack. His entertainer face needs to blanch a little. He can’t remain the cute bastard child of Daevid Allen and Tom Baker forever.
That said, there’s little to suggest that Knifeworld’s second album is a calculated attempt at growing up, or at brushing away frivolity. Neither is it a “poor-me” album of mid-life crises or bleats about B-list fame. (Nor, in case you were worrying, are there any arch, camped-up traces of sad clown.) Instead, ‘The Unravelling’ seems to have formed out of sheer necessity. Its aches, fears and stalking black dogs have been cast out into the open by compulsive honesty and irresistible pressure. While undercurrents of darkness have snaked through the band’s colourful fantasias before, they’ve always been couched in fragmented word-games and arcane disguises – late-night fears sprouted a psychedelic froth of in-jokes, and tales of betrayal and shortfalls would spread and mutate into Ancient Mariner epics. Kavus was constantly hedging his bets; hanging little baubles of angst and honesty in his jagged, branching tunes like Christmas decorations. No more. Finally, he’s stopped the tease, stopped the sleight-of-hand and the fucking fan-dance.
What he’s revealing now is engaging, intimate and entirely human. At times, it’s heartbreaking. “My friends call out to me, / but I’m not home too many times,” he confides, on the very first song, swelling to a sudden pitch of raw hurt. “So some escaped or reproduced and some just fell apart. / Why? / Why did you grow those teeth in your heart?” At its roots, ‘The Unravelling’ is about love and vulnerability. It’s about feeling naked and thin-skinned at the mercy of dreadful forces of fate and irrationality, of memory and error. In its most reflective moments, it’s about the painful process of accepting the wounds. “Every passing year,” laments Kavus. “I feel those icy fingers poking me.”
Perversely, he’s singing about this while fortified by his biggest, most accomplished band yet. The current Knifeworld lineup is a solid brass-and-reeds-bolstered eight-piece – capable of fierce King Crimson snarls, elastic Shudder To Think bounds, sidesteps into complex harmonic spaghetti (a la Henry Cow) and rapid shifts of time signature or dynamic, but also possessing the immediate poise of a finely-honed pop band. Where on spec they ought to sprawl, they’re actually dead on-point. That extra cannonade of saxophones and Emmett Elvin’s wandering, watchful keyboards are as tight as an old-school soul revue. Musically, they’re brimming with confidence and simmering power: just listen to them charge their way through Don’t Land On Me like a progged-up John Barry Orchestra, deliver a pummelling but light-footed jazz-metal barrage on The Orphanage, or spice a vocal or string arrangement with an ingenious Kate Bush twist. Often they stop just short of swagger.
Some Knifeworld tics and tropes remain the same. Still present and correct are the proud eclecticism and visceral drive beneath the ornamentation; the vocal interplay between Kavus’ rusty earnestness and Mel Woods’ cool matter-of-fact tones; the naval tang of shanty and sea-song that soaks deep into the band’s marrow along with the rock-in-opposition and bristling prog. Yet the sound, formerly wayward and freewheeling, has been squeezed and sharpened by Kavus’ new preoccupations. Just as the lyrics have been pared from puzzle to pith, the vaulting chambers of psychedelic echo have been reduced to a tighter space (as if Gong had suddenly fallen under Joy Division’s shadow) and the tuneful sprawl has narrowed down to sinews and bones. Despite all of Knifeworld’s brassy collective strength, a miasma of unease hazes their horizon. It’s as if the whole octet – amps, guitars, horns, bassoon and all – are hurrying fearfully along the rim of a weakened dam. As if they’ve never felt so fragile, so ungainly and as likely to stumble… and it’s a long, long way down.
This is hardly surprising. In song terms, everything that Kavus has previously lived with but toyed with or danced around has finally reared up and shaken off the frills and protection. By his own account, ‘The Unravelling’ was inspired by ripples of pain in and around his own life and his tight-knit friendships in the last few years – solid bonds dissolving, unexpected savage blows from out of the darkness, free spirits tumbling into madness while the chickens come home to roost as vultures. Unsettling noises lope alongside several tunes – scrapes, friction-screeches or skeletal rattles; watch-ticks, muted footfalls and knocks – like eerie fellow travellers or frightened ghosts haunting dingy rooms, huddled in corners or stumbling, stricken; trying to stay unnoticed; afraid to live. Ominous bad-trip lyrics and phrases creep from song to song as eyes are shuttered, blocked off or sprout hideously from bare skulls; as hands hold secrets to be fumbled, dropped or cherished.
All of the trauma may or may not have settled to echoes now, but the music is still caught in the teeth of the drama. The Orphanage’s quick-flail riffing (packed with panicky staircases of crowded saxophone) frames a brief and bitter lyric of introverted desperation and disgusted intimacy, primed to implode, while the grand album opener I Can Teach You How To Lose A Fight bellies with muscular, operatic disquiet. Esther Dee’s guesting soprano dips and soars – a Valkyrie figurehead – while Knifeworld arc through star-peppered space and oncoming storms like the Flying Dutchman, and Mel delivers a portrait-in-flashes of a relationship wrenched off course by suspicions, resentments and absences. (“You’ll sleep alone, / bet I don’t get the chance / to watch it every night I’m home. / That halo won’t have far to drop, / ‘til it becomes a noose, /and I’m not gonna break you loose, no. / So steep inside my room, / when I’m not there, / too many times. / A witch-hunt for a bed, / uncover all my plan.”) In choral passion, and over explosive minefield rhythms, the band beat their hearts against the swelling poison – “every fight you lose, that breaks over us. / All the fights that you lost from the start, / unravelled something inside of you. / Every tooth you grew, that bites into us.” Even in Don’t Land On Me’s prog-Bolan/James Bond swagger (which bursts from thunder into light via great cruising stretches of acoustic guitar, dreamy verses and flashes of gospel ecstacy), Kavus unpacks bald moments of emotion. Confession, guilt and disconnection intertwine with his lysergic reveries of dream cities, withering stars, and the jolt of awakening. “Inside your dying sun, and you never caught me out. / Inside you’re dying, son. / Broken, unfound, there is only one thing I find – / we ran aground when I wouldn’t make up my mind.”
Back when he was a fresh-eyed twentysomething – wrangling guitars in The Monsoon Bassoon, and hatching ideas that would blossom again in Knifeworld – Kavus wrote a song called The Best Of Badluck 97. Wrapped in cryptic legends of iron swords and bitten hands, It covered a particular annus horribilis that sprawled and stank across the lives of him and his friends: band splits, broken romances, fallings-outs and other youthful horrors. Sixteen years on, history repeats with a fearful weight. In ‘The Unravelling’s eerie centrepiece (a haunted jig of snake-slide bass and revolving Rhodes piano) Kavus cites it directly – and with bitter rueful nostalgia – while nightmares of ruination and frightened statues take hold and things claw their way out of the garden. “That cursed year that caused the great divide. / …when we all regrouped it felt so different then, / like something had been lost, something had died. / Chemicals, craziness and confusion, / betrayals in between another’s thighs. / But I’d trade all I have to be right back there now, / ‘cos the skulls we buried have regrown their eyes.”
As a counterpart, Knifeworld deliver a bittersweet tribute to survival and thwarted hopes on Destroy The World We Love. “Oh well, it always ends up underground, then. / The best minds and all of that were going down,” sings Kavus. “The years that passed between, / unravelled all our dreams.” As the band thread and weave an intricate psychedelic cobweb (majestic crabbed guitar lines, Steve Reich wind cycles and delicate glock’n’Rhodes chimes) he muses over what’s been lost and what’s been salvaged: “I kind of miss all the madness, / I kind of miss the way we were, but, / for all the loss and the sadness, / me and you we made it through, / me and you we made it. / So we can never replace it, / and it’ll never come again, but / we got so close I could taste it.”
One particular story looms high above this knot of sorry tales – that of fallen Cardiacs leader Tim Smith, Kavus’ friend, onetime boss and profound inspiration. Although the man was shattered and silenced by a set of devastating strokes six years ago, his musical presence haunts ‘The Unravelling’, from its singalongs and switchbacks to the complex contrary rigging of its songcraft. His painful absence inspires the album’s two most involving songs, in which Kavus’ mingled love and grief burst into plain view. (“In my dreams still, you’re just like you were, you’re just fine. / In my waking, you are never out of my mind.”)
Travelling from exultation to dismay, and showcasing Knifeworld in all of their delicious tunefulness and irritation, Send Him Seaworthy is a coded parable of Tim Smith’s fall. Chloe Herington’s bassoon (increasingly, Knifeworld’s hotline to avant-garde classical rigour) lofts in stern spiny hogbacks above welters of nautical metaphor, as a jaunty sea-song is stretched and corrugated into proud crenellations, surging somewhere between the Sloop John B and Henry Cow. As the band defiantly fly their Cardiacs flag (“most set sail in the usual way, / and always stand to reason, / never set themselves ablaze. / Our proud galleon that sails today, /just dwarves the other vessels, / cuts through the waves,”) Kavus pursues his melody into every cranny and corner, as if hoping that he’ll find Tim tucked away in one of them, grinning and healed. “Enlisted men hit the waves again, / I can’t adjust the rudder – man overboard! / I never knew you’d capsize, my friend, /I said you were my brother, / I thought you’d be restored.” At the height of the drama, emotion capsizes the metaphor. Kavus drops all of the nautical play for an agonised real-life account of his own. “On the telephone at four AM, you said you wanted to stay. / It came as no surprise, ‘cos you were always that way. / I made up your bed and went back to mine. Yeah, I drifted but then, / when you never showed, how could I have known you’d never show up again?”
These same cold awakenings gnaw at This Empty Room Once Was Alive. A haunted, minimal hole-in-the-hull, this is a close cousin to Japan’s Ghosts: a stripped and eerie confessional in which a bass-less, drum-less, de-horned Kavus shivers outside the protection of his band. Only Emmett’s rippling dream-clock of Rhodes and Mel’s spectral harmony are there to keep him company against the night sounds and the early hours as he stares at the wall, “too terrified to sleep in case / the dreams in which you’re walking come, / that find me woken, staring at my pillow, / broken, spent, undone.” A background of ominous grinds and creaking scrapes suggest crumbling houses or rotting ship-hulks, or a slow, stranded disintegration of worth and significance. “When the curtain draws, / and buried all are we, / would this have made a difference? / And in the afterlife, / a gaudy purgatory,/ would we still remember?”
Then, with a strummed and beautiful sigh of cuatro strings, Kavus lets it all loose: a direct address to his broken friend, the words scraping against his teeth, full of profound sadness, sorrow and an acceptance of fear finally laid bare. “All I am is frightened / I’ll forget just what we had, / and all I am is scared / to cast what’s left of my mind back. / My dear friend, my sweet captain, / I can’t find the words to tell you, / just how deep the hole you left behind you when you fell became. /Around in circles limps this crippled horse that I’m still riding, / while old friends ring me up to ask me where have I been hiding?” At last he hits rock bottom… or, perhaps, ‘Rock Bottom’, as some of Robert Wyatt’s fluid account of transformative feeling is echoed here too, laving the sadness – that feeling of stun and shift; the sense of wonder, and of the human connection which redeems the disaster.
It’s that last which is going to save us, if anything will. Happy endings aren’t simply gifted to people: Kavus is sad enough and wise enough not to cheat and deny these bleak experiences he’s sung about (nor the marks they’ve scored onto people) by painting a smiley face over them. Instead, he leaves warmer points to glow inside the darker corners of these songs; bright crumbs of hope for us to gather up, those scraps that weren’t torn or whirled away. Destroy The World We Love patches some resolution and consolation into both its pealing Kavus guitar solo (which blends humility and dented heroism) and its warm, ghostly bind of a-capella – “Back in my room again, / I can’t remember when / you put to sleep my wars, /and turned my life to yours.”
To wrap up ‘The Unravelling’, I’m Hiding Behind My Eyes provides a bittersweet post-apocalyptic reverie. With cycling acoustic guitar and brittle piano flourishes, and a suppurating cosmic bleed as a backdrop, the song trudges away from the self-made wreckage as in brief, knotty breaks of guitar and horns, the band levers itself off the ground and puts itself back together. In soft and ashy tones, Kavus and Mel weigh up the losses, loyalties and shortfalls; accept them; then make a ragged plea for forgiveness, acceptance and something better. “Heavens fall, across the room, across the world, / After all we’ve lost… / If I fell into your arms, into your world, / could I dwell in your universe, / universe? / Even now I can’t begin to form the words, / to tell you how you’re my everything, / everything. / Worlds collapse, heavens fall, / and after all there’s really only us now.”
There’s no need to be a Grock (trapped in yourself, baling out hollow laughs to an audience that can’t really see you) nor a lost space cadet, out on your own and burned by your own dreams. In the end, ‘The Unravelling’ puts the remains of its battered faith behind compassion, and suggests that we can cede our own pain and finally surrender to our better natures simply by surrendering to each other, being ready to feel each other’s pain and being transformed by it. “Passing through this world of shadows, / I’m in love with you. / I’ll erase this world alive behind my eyes, / to spend my days in your universe.” That last word repeats and repeats to the fade, a hopeful mantra to the last.
Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’
Inside Out Music, 0506 858 (5052205068588)
Released: 22nd July 2014
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