The Young Knives emerged in the mid-noughties as the David Mitchells of indie rock – tweedy post-grads who were more suited to a book club than a night club. The vibe from the band in the run-up to this fourth full-length album was all about how they hated this pigeonhole. Now they were crowd-funding their albums, so they could stretch their musical boundaries and break out of their old indie guitar image. This sounded worryingly like they’d gone ‘synth’ – modern indie short-hand for “Look, we’re not uptight squares!” (see also Arcade Fire). The prospect of The Young Knives making some sort of cheery electro album wasn’t an edifying one.
Pleasingly, I can report they haven’t. In fact, that much is clear from the cover art – the band stand in blood spattered shirts nursing infants like a macabre remake of the Beatles’ notorious ‘Butcher’ cover. More League of Gentlemen than Mark from Peepshow. Yes, there’s hints of electronica here and there, but the same choppy guitars predominate. Less pleasingly, I have to report they’ve gone and made their least accessible album to date. The Knives always played with a constipated urgency, like they really wanted to rock out but didn’t know how. In fact, that’s what was endearing about them. That urgency is still there, but the hooks that accompanied it have gone. Repeated listens reveal nothing approaching an earworm. No radio fodder anywhere. The nearest this dense, impenetrable album would get to the radio is Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone.
Sick Octave opens, worringly, with the excited prattle of what I presume are the Knives’ offspring. Adorable for cooing grandparents, I’m sure, but arsenic for musical creativity. Thankfully, the kids are a red herring. Second track ‘Owls of Athens’ quickly resets the dial back to the traditional Young Knives setting. The closing refrain of “defibrillate me” is a tad disconcerting though and from then on the album only get darker; ‘sick’ is definitely the operative word in the album’s title. On ‘All Tied Up’ they tell us that on the count of three … woah, hang on, rewind, did I hear that right? … yep, on the count of three they are, and I quote, “going to fuck you up”. And to think, they used to be such nice young chaps. On ‘White Sands’ they tell us they’ve “taken a hundred of these”. You, like me, may get too distracted by the manic background chanting to ascertain what ‘these’ are but from the sound of it, a doctor may be called for. ‘Something Awful’ is, as the title suggests, an upbeat party tune about the joys of being alive. No, wait, my mistake, it’s a monotonic dirge with industrially throbbing bass and guitars that want to garotte you. In ‘Marble Maze’ they reminisce fondly about playing the Memory Game. You know – the one where you’re brought a tray of objects and you have to remember as many as possible when they’re covered up again? Mr Knife can’t remember much of what was on his tray apparently, but among those objects he can recall, are “a finger that was pointing at a traitor”, and “a plastic model of Obe Wan Kenobe that’s been melted and disfigured”. Remind me never to go to any of the Young Knives’ parties.
Needless to say, this is not the album one might have expected from the Knives. Gone are the tunes, gone are the polite young men you could take home to your Mum, and it’s not all together clear what’s come along to replace them. I might, if you forced it out of me, if you dressed in a blood stained t-shirt and told me that on the ‘count of three you were going to fuck me up’, go as far as to say I quite like it. In fact I am secretly hoping that this is an album I will return to in three months time and suddenly, finally ‘get’. But right now, in the safe confines of my flat, away from the newly nasty Knives, I’d have to hold my hands up and say, ‘Mummy, make the scary men go away!’.