Palette Knife never intended to make a pandemic record. In fact, the band members consciously tried to avoid doing so by attempting to confine all of their coronavirus-driven angst to a single track, “Jelly Boi” – amid the monotony of stay-at-home life.
It didn’t quite work.
“I’m continuously amazed how much the pandemic influenced the songwriting,” frontman Alec Licata said of sophomore album New Game+, which the band will celebrate with on Friday, Feb. 10. “When I look back, a lot of this [record] plays into the fears and anxieties and things that you’re dealing with when you’re separated from other people.”
A loose concept record, New Game+ positions these accumulated fears and uncertainties as video game bosses to be defeated, with Licata packing as many video game-themed metaphors and references into the songs as he could dream up. “It sort of became, ‘Where can I sneak in a video game reference?’” he said.
As a result, even lines like “starting over’s no fun” began to take on a double meaning as I listened, reminding me both of the unexpected career reboot I undertook last year, but also the time in October when my daughter accidentally erased the saved data on our game of “Super Mario 3D World” when we were just four stamps away from unlocking the World Crown level – as close as we have ever been able to fly to that sun.
“I hope that [video game influence] makes the music more earnest, because I don’t ever want to take ourselves too seriously,” said Licata, whose emo-leaning songs trend toward the theatrical without tipping into melodrama. “We always want it to sound authentic.”
Mission completed. In spite of the digital inspiration, New Game+ is easily Palette Knife’s most grounded album – an unerringly human effort that frequently captures novelistic snapshots of that time in a person’s life when their path begins to diverge from the friends they’ve grown up alongside.
Nowhere does this idea resonate more strongly than on “Science Is Spooky Sometimes,” a song in which the narrator tends to a drunk friend, settling her on the couch where she passes out next to a glass of water and some ibuprofen. “You always do this when we go out,” Licata sings atop a musical backdrop reflective of the early evening chaos, built on spider-webbing guitar riffs and tireless, effortlessly complex drum patterns. “Next year I won’t be around to pull the hair out of your mouth.”
As the song closes, Licata adds, “Kaitlyn, we spin, but we spin opposite.”
“I would say that idea is expressed on multiple songs,” Licata said. “But I think by the end of it, the conclusion I’m trying to come to is, sure, certain people are diverging and leaving your life, but at the same time you’re getting better at knowing the values that align with the types of people you do want to spend time with. It’s hard to make friends as an adult, but it’s also easy, because you can recognize those things you admire in the friendships you already have.”
While the lyrics often dwell on separation, the music relies on the connection developed between Licata and bandmates Chris McGrath (bass) and Aaron Queener (drums) – a bond to which the three were eager to return soon after being vaccinated. Following the unplanned COVID hiatus, the three returned to the band recharged and carting new ideas, Licata having spent the early part of the pandemic listening to early 2000s and modern Japanese math-rock, respectively.
“And those are the guitar tones I’m paying homage to, or that I was inspired by,” he said.
Compared with , Ponderosa Snake House & the Chamber of Bullshit, from 2021, New Game+ is a denser, more musically complex affair, the trio’s math-rock-influenced passages offering an airborne counterpoint to Licata’s earthbound words. Witness “Quotient,” where the guitars and drums weave stuttered patterns as Licata sings about being unable to adjust to the time change and being too hung over to dance.
“I’m definitely able to recognize this album is a bit more grounded, and I appreciate that about it,” said Licata, who shared that he tends to be embarrassed by songs as he gains emotional distance from them. “If you’re getting good at something, it also means you’ve been really bad at it for a long time. I’m always writing bad songs, and that’s good, because it means I’m getting better.”