Graded on a Curve:
Cheri Knight,
American Rituals

Permeated with arts college experimentalism from a sadly bygone era, American Rituals throws a deserving spotlight onto the early work of Cheri Knight, a little-known composer of enduring worthiness who took part in the Pacific Northwest’s fertile subterranean scene of the early 1980s. There are ties to eventual higher profile goings on from the same region, but these connections ultimately take a back seat to the sharpness and freshness of Knight’s achievements. RVNG Intl. subsidiary Freedom to Spend collects seven of them onto vinyl that’s available now; purchasing the digital gets you a bonus track.

Roughly a decade after the period of creativity captured on American Rituals, Cheri Knight released a pair of solo records as a singer-songwriter. The second of them, The Northeast Kingdom, was issued in 1998 on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. Earle also contributed to the record instrumentally, alongside backing vocalist Emmylou Harris.

Those two solo efforts and her prior activity as the bassist-vocalist in Blood Oranges, an early alt-country band from the Boston area with two early ’90s discs on the East Side Digital label, are pretty far afield stylistically from the works that Knight brought to fruition while attending Evergreen State College. But the scoop is that Knight grew up in Western Massachusetts and alternated coasts for a while. First, she studied philosophy and music at Whitman College in Washington, next built a stone house in New Hampshire over the course of a year, and then settled in for a stretch at Evergreen.

Thereafter, Knight clearly migrated back east and then shifted into a more traditional gear. There are connective aspects, however. The building of that stone house, for starters. Also, a press photo accompanying American Rituals of Knight posing with the skull of either a cow or a horse. And on that note: RVNG Intl/ Freedom to Spend states that a portion of the proceeds from American Rituals will benefit Draft Gratitude, a draft horse rescue in Winchester, New Hampshire dedicated to saving the lives of senior working horses.

Another thing: Knight’s early stuff, while unreservedly experimental, is still fully-formed (though not necessarily songlike), and to a degree unusual for sounds in this uncommercial realm. This is not to suggest that she was striving to infiltrate non-experimental portions of the 1980s scene; the closet she came to that was landing “Prime Numbers” onto Glass Records’ 1984 compilation Shadow and Substance (The Wonderful World of Glass Volume 2) in a lineup featuring The Jazz Butcher, Renaldo & the Loaf, and Half Japanese (amongst a couple others we’ll mention later).

Two of American Rituals’ tracks, “Water Project #2261” and “Tips on Filmmaking,” initially emerged on two 2LP sets,  Collaborations (1980) and E=mc²±1dB (1981) respectively, both released by Evergreen. In American Rituals’ smartly non-chronological sequence, “Tips on Filmmaking” is heard first, beginning with some strikingly contemporary instrumental drift before shifting gears into a vaguely Steve Reich-like zone, and a little African atmosphere perhaps via mallet percussion, chanted vocals and handclaps.

Traces of Reich are also detectable as “Water Project #2261” unwinds, but frankly, it’s Knight’s piano playing and more of that gradually rising contempo flow that make a deeper impact. But American Rituals’ contents simultaneously offer an engaging snapshot of its era’s experimental modes, as the layered voice-only repetition of “Hear/Say” and “Primary Colors” avoid reinforcing an academic environment too strongly; both could’ve easily been the byproduct of basement studio autodidacticism.

“Hear/Say” and “Primary Colors” were originally released on the comp LP Regional Zeal, Mouth Music From Olympia Washington by Palace of Lights, the label operated by one K. Leimer, who’s also noted as a member of Savant (the subject of RVNG Intl.’s 2015 set Artificial Dance). But it’s in the 12-minute previously unreleased closing track “No One’s Hands” that Knight’s inclination for layered vocals hits its apex, mingling a whispered story (maybe a real recollection, or maybe imagined) with an increasingly prominent wordless cyclicality.

Regional Zeal and Collaborations also featured tracks by musician-producer Steve Fisk, a fixture in the Pac-NW scene. Fisk also included Knight’s “Breathe” on Dub Communiqué II, a comp cassette he produced for Mr. Brown Records & Tapes in 1982. Originally titled “Breathe In-Out,” the Dub Communiqué II track combines the vocal repetition of the Regional Zeal cuts with a bass-heavy avant-postpunk approach, an appealing avenue of exploration that also marks “Prime Numbers,” American Rituals’ standout track, which is sensibly placed at the top of side one.

To delve into Knight’s Pac-NW shoulder-rubbing a little further, both Shadow and Substance and E=mc²±1dB offered tracks from Bruce Pavitt, the soon to be co-founder of Sub Pop Records. Pavitt was also in Professional Ethics and Tiny Holes with Fisk, as both bands were included alongside Knight on Dub Communiqué II. And Fisk is on Shadow and Substance too, in a duo with John Foster.

But really, it feels more appropriate to conclude this review of American Rituals by sharing that Cheri Knight, in her final year at Evergreen, partook in a program of independent study with Pauline Oliveros. Impressively, many (and maybe all) of these seven pieces, experimental but fully realized, were recorded prior to Knight’s study with the great composer and experimentalist. As outlined above, Knight’s work is robust.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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