by Chad Jewett
Shut Up, the excellent new album from Texas emo-math duo Two Knights, is a self-deprecating masterpiece. Charmingly uncomfortable with its own greatness, the record is an utterly compelling and ever-shifting admixture of self-doubt and tour de force. The sheer raw-nerve kinetics with which the band manages to supercharge its nervy, cursive post-post-hardcore renders much of the work of their surrounding peers inert by comparison; the modern chic of sidewinding Cap’n Jazzism feels formalist compared to the joyous verve of the band’s tangled aesthetic. Listen to Shut Up enough times and you start to realize the difference between the concept of a “revival” and a “renaissance.” Two Knights have placed themselves at the head of the latter, putting sinew and heart back into sounds that were swiftly fossilizing. One need not wring their hands over questions of whether or not Two Knights make emo music — any other term would give short shrift to the Revolution Summer self-immolation of Shut Up and its dedication to dramatizing ways of feeling, for better and worse. This is emotional music; it is absolute expressionism.
Records like Shut Up — that is, albums that become essential, which it’s a reasonably safe bet Shut Up will someday be — tend to operate at their own registers, the way we crave specific flavors or room temperatures. You reach for them in certain moods; they become archetypes. These are records that set emotional palettes and become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s what explains the end-of-day weariness that invites American Football or the Olympian pleasure principle of Shape of Punk To Come, or the equinox (either one really) semi-sweetness of Stay What You Are. Shut Up plays like the breathless meridian of something startlingly new, yet warmly lived-in. It challenges its own chosen aesthetic of twinkly, major key mathematics in ways that are both bracing and embracing. The album’s harsher feints are somehow also wholly amiable, comfortable even, as if, in attempting to rattle loose the way we hear American Football or Colossal or Maps & Atlases, Two Knights instead end up adding welcome dimensions and subtexts and muted lines of dialogue to those wiry sounds. One could even imagine the twosome being frustrated at just how easy it is to enjoy them at their most willfully jarring. Even when Shut Up seems to be going for discomfort and discord, it’s nevertheless a massively joyful listen. The album works in a sort of populist modernism — for all its experiments and provocations, Shut Up is nevertheless inviting. Indeed, The Shape Of Punk To Come might be the best comparison, an album that tried to iconoclastically deconstruct hardcore with jazz, far-left politics, and electronica, and instead only made it better — made it matter. Two Knights — albeit on a humbler scale — achieve something similar.
The album is a brief, hyperactive interlude of knotted-up major keys, transparently-clean guitars, and free-jazz drums. “If It’s Brocken, It’s Brocken,” the record’s opening statement, bounds between brash 11/4 swoons and bouncing four-beat measures, at times stunningly cerebral, at others verging on pop-punk levels of direct, instinctual melodicism. Guitarist-singer Parker Lawson is startlingly talented in finding hooks amongst the warping briars of his own ever-shifting guitar, letting brief spells of clarity play like beams of sunlight glancing across opaque surfaces. Over and over again songs pretend to tangle themselves up, right before they smooth out into warm pop. When “If It’s Brocken” makes this shift, Lawson signals the thaw with a wonderfully simple descending melody: “And all my attempts to kill it only made it strongeeerrr.” The singer-guitarist has great instinct for phrases that clarify as much as they complicate and an even better way with making them serve as ideal choruses for baffling mini-hurricanes. Over and over again, guitars dance and spangle around Lawson’s melodies like glimmering lights, turning each chorus and casually tuneful missive into words spelled out on a Lite Brite.
“If It’s Brocken” is followed by the deceptively placid strains of “It Doesn’t Matter Matt, I’m Never Going to Cast Boulderfall,” (perhaps Two Knights’ version of “I’m A Loner Dottie, A Rebel”?) a song that trickles in an autumnal emo calm reminiscent of half of one’s favorite Polyvinyl releases, until the whole thing jolts forward, like a turntable switched to 45 RPM. Miles DeBruin, the other Knight, and an exceptionally sympathetic, spry match for Lawson’s guitar jumbles, jogs beneath torrential guitars and Lawson’s newest development, a harried, painful-sounding scream, a cracked shout that blazes across much of the album. Lawson’s scream is almost startlingly physical, the exact opposite of the sustainable, controlled shriek of Jacob Bannon or State Faults’ Jonny Andrew. It’s the vocal equivalent of going from a squatting position to jumping as high as one can; it’s physicality that feels risky, counter to how our bodies work.
No, Lawson’s caterwaul sounds like it hurts, a modern iteration of Guy Picciotto’s similarly scraped-up approach in Rites of Spring, where the future Fugazi co-leader was hell-bent on beating the shit out of himself. And like Picciotto, Lawson seems to devote his voice to something like emotive ritual sacrifice, to an expressionism utterly defined by self-critique and self-exploration. This is precisely what defines “Just Pick a Dead End and Chill Out Till You Die,” one of the album’s best songs and its most salient pairing of expertly crafted, sun-dappled emo cascades and almost unnerving emotional electricity. An impeccably arranged minute-and-a-half of major key angles (it needs to be emphasized just how beautiful the album is, how crisp and radiant are its instincts for guitar pop) the song ends with Lawson’s corroding shouts: “And if I’m not made to end up happy / At least I could say I died trying” (recall Rites of Spring’s “Hidden Wheel”: “Yes, I had a taste but I did not swallow / And if I went it was just to follow / And now a question was asked of me”). One is overwhelmed by the performative nature of these moments, of the ways in which there is desperation both in the bursting sadness of the album’s narratives, and in the drastic expressiveness of their recitation. It’s perhaps worrisome, but Parker Lawson seems to be singularly resolved on putting his emotive money where his mouth is.
Even better is “Symphony for the Righteous Destruction of Humanity,” the albums high-point and most orchestral triptych of Kinsella-style emo sparkle and bursting dramatics. Opening with whirring post-hardcore stomp and Lawson musing: “I used to have these stupid fantasies,” the song quickly settles into a golden interlude of clean-springing guitar until Lawson finishes the phrase “…where you’d fall in love with me / And we’d make each other happy.” There’s a canniness in Two Knights using the word symphony here; indeed, the song swoons back and forth in movements, ultra-compressed movements of crisp, reedy guitar jangle and short blow-ups of Lawson’s youthful peals. Eventually the two parts slip into counterpoints, the shouts rolling over those earlier placid harmonies. When it all drops out, except for Lawson’s warm tenor –punctuating the calm with two words: “Together Forever.” — and the slightest halo of curling guitars, it’s startling and deeply poignant, and one of the more remarkable things I’ve heard this year.
These moments, wherein Two Knights offer not only stirringly precise takes on windswept Midwestern emo, but also fascinating jolts of deeply-felt abstraction, surface again and again, defining the album and its subtle brilliance. “Dear God, This Parachute is a Knapsack” begins with the gentle pangs that defined their previous 12”, A Lot Of Bad Things Happened, But We’re Still Here, but is knocked off its quiet axis by angled slabs of guitar noise, brief tremors that oddly rhyme with Parker Lawson’s cracking, whispered melody. DeBruin punctuates these jabs with pounded floor toms, symphonic touches that underline just how in sync these two are as sculptors of sound and feeling. Lawson, as he is wont to do throughout all of Shut Up, pierces the band’s gently rolling math-pop with efforts at emotional realism that are utterly refreshing in their attempts to abandon blame in favor of honesty: “You never knew how fragile I was”.
“Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” builds and swings like a long lost Bear vs. Shark B-Side, and is the album’s most direct burst of post-hardcore pop-craft. The track’s vertical movement features recognizable peaks and valleys, waves and ebbs, even if the song is over and done in a minute and twenty seconds, just long enough for Lawson to muse “I’ll never mean as much to you as you do to me.” There’s a quiet marvelousness to that kind of brevity; at times Shut Up plays like one long suite, cut up into leitmotifs the way symphonies are divided up on CDs, wherein each segment is responsible for its statement, its thesis, and then quickly eclipses into the next. This is a good way of thinking about the album’s back half, largely a calmer, slower-moving span, still frequently broken into pieces by Lawson’s brief screams. It’s this motion that defines “Leave My Body in Milwaukee,” another song that begins pretty before wrenching itself into wry torment, before suddenly bursting into Lawson’s best melody, DeBruin’s most direct bit of scene-setting. The song arcs upward with its narrative: “The higher I build them / The more I wanted to climb…jump.” The song roils and churns in an oddly stirring major key, bouncing along an almost martial beat until we’re once again settled into clean, gleaming spools of guitar, like the denouement of some atonal orchestra, like a stream between harried rivers.
No matter how often Two Knights work through these same gestures – brightly blossoming guitars, cubist drums, quick flare-ups and abrupt cool downs — they never cease to connect; captivate even. Shut Up manages a balance of classicism and avant-garde that seriously belies the band’s median age of 20. This is a pairing that seems deeply invested in difficulty, but not in making “difficult” music, who are obviously attracted to the spirals of “Never Meant” or “Little League,” yet wring those sounds out until all that’s left are raw nerves and gentle wisps of back-spinning melody. There are mounds of dissonance on Shut Up, but not a false note to be found. Song’s rarely feel structured, yet they hold the gleam of warm, bright pop music. Ultimately, Two Knights have offered us one of the best albums of 2014, and one of the rescuing highlights of a resuscitated genre. Rarely does beauty sound this discordant, even less often does discord sound this beautiful.