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Many years (and albums) ago Italy´s Thee Maldoror Kollective (TMK) abandoned their black metal sound for a more eclectic, cut-and-paste experimental approach, creating expansive tracks out of cinematic genre-hopping vignettes, threaded together with horror and science fiction soundtrack atmospheres and samples. Released in 2014, Knownothingism reels in the pastiche with crazily varied but cohesive songs. The band is joined by Austrian singer Pina Kollars, who brings a throaty, blues-inflected approach that wouldn´t sound out of place in a juke joint. While not entirely to my tastes, her commanding voice helps keep the music focused with dreamily repetitive and evocative lyrics.
Knownothingism reels in the pastiche with crazily varied but cohesive songs
The album kicks off with a witchy, decrepit circus atmosphere that feels appropriately Italian (Nino Rota meets Devil Doll), but quickly establishes a funkier, more soulful vibe , a kind of glitchy electronic jazz-rock. The songs share electronic pop´s layering aesthetic, where arpeggiated synthesizer melodies create an orchestral polyphony over cascading piano chords, tight bass grooves and kinetic percussion. Occasionally a blistering saxophone solo will erupt, or a metal guitar riff will thunder into view, adding a hectic but no less groovy sound. All of this is smoothed over with Pina´s confident voice, which in parts recalls the female vocal performances of nineties trip hop, a kind of melodic anchor in a hectic sea of sound.
Despite the more accessible nature of the overall song structures and vocal lines, the music is still quite strange and eclectic, at least where mood is concerned, with eighties horror creepiness giving way to sci-fi megacity vistas and space rock ambiance before crash-landing into Southern gothic. The unifying atmosphere is seedy, neglected, dystopian, humid and swampy—everything sounds like it was recorded under a hot, unforgiving neon light in the grim back office of a club. The only significant break from the hot, sweaty scene the band sets is the analog synth-drenched finale. It´s what I imagine Gentle Giant would have sounded like if they had stayed the prog course, as clean, crisp and infectiously playful as the other songs are overheated and corrupt. And just to be clear, “overheated and corrupt” is a compliment.
Knownothingism is not quite a revelation. TMK have committed to wilder and more fruitful experiments in the past. But it´s the most convincing presentation of their post-black metal sound. They have finally subjected their crazy grab bag of genres to recognizable progressive song structures, and the tonal wildness of past albums has been tempered considerably, to the benefit of the overall music. It´s a significant step forward, and more importantly, an incredibly entertaining one.