The old progressive maxim that claims ‘the personal is political’ has never seemed truer in these challenging, confused times. It seems impossible to move through the world today as apolitical, everything from identity to culture to mental health is a political issue, in that they’re each something that’s bigger than us, yet paradoxically can be highly unique to us as individuals. Like many of the greatest hardcore acts, Year Of The Knife are keenly in tune with this philosophy.
With all members of the band living as straight edge, along with their familial connections (brothers Aaron and Andrew Kisielewski play guitar and drums, husband and wife Brandon and Madison Watkins play guitar and bass), Year Of The Knife are a fascinatingly tight and focused unit. Their ideological convictions are impressively sincere, no doubt honed by their closeness as a group.
Straight edge-themed tracks about addiction and its corruptive influences make up the bulk of the thematic weight of Internal Incarceration, their delivery highly pointed and often savagely poignant. ‘Slick Statistic’ addresses cycles of addiction, featuring the haunting lyrics “there’s a family out there I can’t win back” and “this is something you can’t face”. The punishing ‘Manipulation Artist’ addresses similar themes, from the perspective of the cycles of an abusive relationship. “If I’m going down, you’re going down with me” brilliantly sums up the album’s view of where self-destruction patterns of behaviour can lead to.
There’s something both wonderfully traditional and admirably progressive about Internal Incarceration. Hardcore has always been concerned with issues of self-empowerment and gritty, steely-eyed determination, but Year Of The Knife are doing it with real contemporary nuance. ‘Virtual Narcotic’ takes on the addictive influence of social media, succinctly attacking its many flaws, including how it “shut(s) out the world, where the sadness can’t be seen”. This line is a great example of the pathos contained within Internal Incarceration. Across the album Year Of The Knife show an understanding that sadness and pain is a regrettable but inevitable part of our existence, that patterns of anguish are prevalent in every person’s life, and only through focus and clarity can we mediate and temper their influences.
Whilst all of this thoughtfulness is a joy to absorb, Internal Incarceration wouldn’t work if its metallic hardcore songwriting wasn’t so crushingly heavy. Every song contains highlights; from 'Nothing To Nobody' and its punishing breakdown (one of the best you’ll hear all year), to the anthemic, future fan-favourite 'Stay Away'. The songs are also incredibly pared-down and lean. It’s as though, with their lyrical ambitions to strip the depths of the human heart bare, Year Of The Knife managed to achieve a similar refinement to their songwriting. These tracks are pure sinews on bone, with not an ounce of fat across the thirteen tracks. Where their previous work was more chaotic, on Internal Incarceration Year Of The Knife take a decidedly more linear, cutthroat approach. Similar to bands like Nails and END, Year Of The Knife are hugely economical craftsmen, possessing a keen understanding of how to utilise heavy songwriting to its best advantages.
Mention has to go to the production work of Kurt Ballou. The Converge guitarist and legendary producer has already proven himself as the sonic architect of the contemporary metallic hardcore scene, his crystal-clear, booming drums and buzzsaw guitar tone are now de-rigueur for many modern hardcore bands. However an underrated aspect of his work is the extent to which he seems to help bands refine and better articulate their songs. On Internal Incarceration, Year Of The Knife seem like the best version of themselves that they can be, and while this is undoubtedly down to the band growing into more accomplished musicians, the many other bands who’ve experienced similar creative leaps forward when working with Ballou suggests that the veteran producer has also had a huge influence on their achievements.
Internal Incarceration is excellent and Year Of The Knife seem scarily focused in that way that the most piercingly intelligent so often can be. The brutal and nakedly honest subject matter makes for a weighty listen, however it contains depths of sincerity and clarity that are often quite profound, and show real strength of character. Here’s hoping that Year Of The Knife maintain their focus, and go on to do even greater things, because Internal Incarceration is one of the best hardcore albums to have been released so far this year.
Internal Incarceration is released August 7th via Pure Noise Records.