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Within a damp, unwinterized Minneapolis basement, Jon Nielsen, Knife World's guitarist and occasional vocalist, sounds his first chord, an over-amplified shear that stuns the crowd, keg cups in hand and dressed for the cold, with its weight and volume. After a count-off from Josh Journey-Heinz's drum kit, a frenzied art-metal opus suddenly unfolds.
Knife World pounds through their spasmodic set, charging from "Sunbeam," their gritty ode to hard-knuckle '70s guitar rock, to a cover of "Ziggy Stardust," during which Nielsen passes the microphone, stand and all, into the crowd in an open invitation to shout the lines. In so confining a space, the sound and the fury threaten to overflow.
But take the single flight of stairs up, make a right turn through the back door, and you stand in a cryogenic residential neighborhood. Walk a hundred paces in any direction and, without a trail of breadcrumbs, you might lose your way back.
Knife World, a Minneapolis guitar-and-drums two-piece, is no stranger to this musical underworld. Nielsen, veteran of Faggot and Synchrocyclotron, first collaborated with Journey-Heinz in 2002, as a means of gaining illicit admission to a Melt Banana show. Journey-Heinz's bitterly ironic pro-Patriot Act noise band, Ashcroft, was opening the show, and Nielsen, dressed as a giant slice of pizza, performed interpretive dance through their set.
"I was underage," shrugs Nielsen, now 25. "I wanted into the show."
Though they have since made rounds in terrestrial venues like Big V's and the 7th St. Entry, Knife World have spent their four-year career furnishing a comfortable home within this underworld of hidden interiors, of basements and warehouse spaces where shows are governed less by the clock than by the limits of endurance.
Most local bands want to be familiar faces on the Turf Club-First Avenue-Triple Rock circuit, but for Knife World, "It's confining," says Journey-Heinz. "Sometimes when you perform at those places, you feel like you're in a fishbowl. I'd way rather play a roller rink."
Journey-Heinz speaks in particular of their performance at last year's Brother and Sister scavenger hunt, an annual production hatched by Michael Gaughan that leads concert-goers on a city-wide prowl, collecting musical performances as they go.
"These are places where you feel that anything can happen at any given moment," he says. "They're safe places for us to freak out."
Listening to Knife World's new self-titled LP, one senses that they were born for this lawless otherworld. Their songs refuse categorization. In a single track, they momentarily echo the contrapuntal, baroque rhythms of a prog powerhouse like Rush. An instant later, they light briefly upon a measure of hard-rock guitar swagger before free-falling into a polyrhythm that approaches chaos. Knife World is a hypnotic and disorienting composition of musical schizophrenia.
This complexity may disorient a casual listener, but it's a risk that Knife World happily take. "I gravitate toward people like Michael [Gaughan, of Brother and Sister] and Markus [Lunkenheimer, of Skoal Kodiak]," says Journey-Heinz. People who are trying to expand music, people who are excited and purposeful about how they present their craft. Those are the people I want to play shows with."
"I have absolutely no desire to be a part of popular culture," offers Nielsen. "All that shit is held down. It's totally restricted by being whatever it's supposed to be, or whatever everybody else thinks it's supposed to be."
Despite their damnation of the mainstream, it would be a mistake to cast aside the culture to which Knife World belongs as a xenophobic clique. Rather, it is a welcoming fellowship of venues and performers unified by a desire to participate in an environment that requires imagination and elbow grease to unearth, a benevolent counterrevolution where the only prerequisite is the curiosity to seek it out.
"I always like it when things are kept a little abstract or strange or hidden," says Journey-Heinz. "If someone can create an interesting puzzle and allow me to participate in it and put the pieces together, it just makes it more interesting for everyone."
Twisting his beard between thumb and forefinger, Nielsen distills it: "I like to freak the fuck out," he says, "and I want people to go crazy. I don't want anyone to restrict themselves or get stuck in an idea of what a thing is supposed to be." This is the freedom Knife World relish, a freedom they and their peers have found in abundance between the sometimes austere lines of our local music narrative.
Back in the basement, hysteria has taken hold. Crazed by the din, a sprawl of bodies falls in a tangle to the floor, advancing like night tide upon Knife World. As their set staggers into its final, exhausted movement, the airless room feels suddenly infinite, the night bottomless and without visible end.
This power may be Knife World's most precious talent after all—the power to deafen you to your own inhibitions. To make you feel that, though there may still be a world above, it is an inert, catatonic world, one so silent that, until this last song ends, it hardly exists at all.
KNIFE WORLD play an in-store show on SATURDAY, MARCH 1, at TREEHOUSE RECORDS; 612.872.7400