(Note to readers: Well, only eight months after the Knowl-Tones broke up, we finally finished the overdubs on our last album, and now it's available for all the world to purchase. Here's my attempt at a review from the perspective of someone who didn't play on all the songs.
If anyone who really didn't play on the songs would like to submit a review, contact me and we'll make arrangements to post it here as well.)
This album marks a big change in the sound of the Knowl-Tones: keyboardist Jason Justian is gone, and instead of replacing him with another ivory-tickler, lead guitarist Charlie Magiera was tapped. Also, new bassist Joe Toro is practically a virtuoso, and the rhythm section therefore takes on a new flavor.
How does it sound? Well, in a lot of places the two-guitar attack works well. "Rock and Roll Machine" has a Creedence vibe that is greatly enhanced by a Tom Fogerty-esque rhythm guitar slashing major sevenths on the offbeat against the main riff, and "Billions of Bacteria" is practically prog-rock in the complicated interplay between Steve and Charlie's parts; especially enjoyable is when Steve plays a descending line against Charlie's fuzzed out slow arpeggio, and the harmonies in the main riff. Elsewhere, the two guitars merely duplicate the riffs ("Love is Calling", "I Stand Corrected") and one misses the counterpoint a keyboard line could provide. The presence of a lead player pays off well in the solos: from the dead-on John Fogerty cop in "Rock and Roll Machine" to the gorgeous slide break on "Billions of Bacteria" through the Ace Frehley-style leads in "Dry Clean Only", the lead guitar lends a more rock & roll attitude to the album.
More changes are provided, however, by the influence of Toro. It's surely his bass chops that drive the funk-rocker "Debt" past six minutes; while aficionados of the genre may appreciate it, it's not something I expected from the Knowl-Tones, and it stands at odds with their usual pop efforts. Joe's work in "I Stand Corrected", though, redeems an otherwise uneventful guitar pattern; he kicks off with a Yes-influenced bass solo, then provides a constant sixteenth-note pattern under the verses that bubbles with energy. Ken Pope on drums is his usual solid self; his syncopated cymbal line on "Oar to Oar" provides an ebullient touch, and he handles the many rhythmic shifts in "Billions of Bacteria" professionally, always providing the right accent while maintaining a steady pulse. His kick drum counterpoint to the offbeat bass line in the bridge is a marvel of timing.
The vocals are Steve's usual; you get the idea of the melody but nothing stands out as a great performance. Joe contributes some nice harmonies throughout.
The impact of the new line-up on Steve's songwriting is another issue. First of all, it's rather skimpy: only seven new songs, plus an obscure cover. The album is filled out with four jams, each edited down to about a minute's length. These little instrumentals are a lot of fun, with Ken playing more aggressively than usual, Joe displaying his mammoth chops, and Charlie providing some lovely melodic runs.
What compositions do exist are a mixed bag: there are a couple tunes with Steve's trademark lush open chords - he sure knows how to throw in lots of odd jazzy chords with suspended fourths, sevenths, minor elevenths, etc., but they never sound out of place. "Oar to Oar" has a simply gorgeous chord progression, and the three-note melody seems less simple as it plays out over a shifting key signature. "I Stand Corrected" rocks a little more but retains an intriguing suspended modality, while the melody has an intriguingly long arc.
"Love is Calling" wants to apply that standard to a riff-style tune, but sounds awkward, as the tension between G and B major is never reconciled, and the herky-jerky melody only attracts attention to the gaps in the arrangement. "Dry Clean Only" is the last thing I expected from the Knowl-Tones: cock rock. Perhaps the co-writing credit with Magiera is the cause, but this is just a Bad Company/Foreigner-style riff (pretty catchy but overdone in its constant repetition) with a rudimentary blues melody; the bridge is a nice change of pace with its stutter-step lead line over a swinging bass.
Others aren't so daring harmonically but still boogie. "Rock and Roll Machine" has a nifty generic Sixties-style riff and a highly energetic chorus, and "Debt", while trucking along mainly on one chord, has lots of groovy wah-wah lead work.
The most accomplished piece of songwriting here is "Billions of Bacteria", which is again something unexpected from the Knowl-Tones but nonetheless stunning. An extended epic with no less than six sections in three keys, it still flows gracefully thanks to a unity of melodic motif and accomplished playing from all involved.
Steve prides himself as a lyricist, and as usual he delivers the goods here. "Rock and Roll Machine" seems to be mixing its metaphors - in the verses the machine is gas-powered, while in the bridge it's electric - but it's still a clever conceit, describing the band in terms of its component parts ("there's a rumbling" under a bass riff, "the engine knocks" as the drums enter). "Oar to Oar" is based on Robert Frost's "The Master Speed," and while it can't match the original as a work of literature, it manages to capture a bit of the spare grace of Frost ("in the rushing stream of haste/when the precious turns to waste/I've seen too many good loves swept away"). And you can't blame a guy in a rock band for not being Robert Frost - at least he's not cribbing from Edgar Guest.
"Billions of Bacteria" is a mediation on that threadbare rock and roll topic, the overuse of antibiotics and the creation of drug-resistant bacteria. Despite its admittedly obtuse subject, there are some powerful images ("coughing up their lungs in Africa") and he manages to work in the names of bacteria into the meter without sounding stilted ("e. coli, streptococcus, spirochaetes and staph"). "Debt" is as powerful an indictment of the capitalist create-demand-then-penalize-spending cycle as Jello Biafra ever wrote, but it rhymes and has some humor ("bought a six-inch cookie" at the mall) and a moving summation of the penalties of student loans ("breeze through your B.A./and you never have to pay/until you owe enough to crush your dreams").
A couple lesser efforts, "Love is Calling" and "Dry Clean Only" at least manage not to drag out any cliches, and the latter's title is an amusing metaphor for prudishness that isn't quite fleshed out by the skimpy lyrics. "I Stand Corrected" is an extended play on words that is intended not as a joke but a rumination on lost love, again with some very successful phrases that stick with the listener ("crossing bridges hand in hand/was no less than I expected/in the river ankle-deep/I stand corrected").
Overall, III is not a bad way for the Knowl-Tones to bow out. Although it doesn't capture much of their "classic" sound, the songwriting takes into account the new strengths of the band, and the instrumental performances throughout are accomplished and powerful.
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