Like many others, the members of Palette Knife — vocalist/guitarist Alec Licata, bassist Chris McGrath and drummer Aaron Queener — were stuck at home playing video games during the COVID-19 lockdown. But while most just used their consoles to pass the time, Palette Knife stumbled upon what would become a key inspiration for their next record, the aptly titled New Game+.
On their second album, the Columbus, Ohio emo band uses the metaphor of a video game to illustrate the anxiety, loneliness and insecurity that the pandemic years brought.
“The conceptual story of the record is that we are trapped inside this video game,” Licata tells SPIN. “Each song represents a boss that we’re having to conquer, and each of those bosses represents different fears and anxieties that you have to overcome to grow as a person.”
“We all love video games so much, and this band is all about having an outlet for things that we’re passionate about,” Queener adds.
Aside from being a fun way for the band to present heavy ideas, it also allows the rising band to continue doing what they do best: rocking out. Palette Knife has been making a mark on the Columbus DIY scene since 2018 with their striking rawness and catharsis, but ever since their first album, 2020’s Ponderosa Snake House, the band have been laser-focused on improving their songcraft. For New Game+, that meant pushing themselves to make more complex and progressive songs, while also incorporating more thoughtful storytelling and emotional arcs.
“We were like ‘How can we test ourselves?’” McGrath says. “It’s cool, because you do that and you’re afraid. ‘What if I can’t do this?’ But then you figure it out together.”
Album highlights like “Jelly Boi” and “Quotients” demonstrate the band’s potent musical chops with time signature changes, varying tempos and mathy riffs. Lyrically, Licata peppers witty references to Dungeons & Dragons, Avatar: The Last Airbender and games like Dark Souls and Destiny 2 throughout poetic and heartbreaking musings on old flames burning out and nights spent laying alone on the floor. Yet as the tracklist progresses, some light shines through the cracks. On the penultimate “Fuckin’ A#,” Licata is determined to keep building a better life — without giving up on the video game references. “I’ll respawn,” he vows at the song’s end.
“If loneliness is the backdrop, change and growth are these little pockets spread throughout,” Licata explains.
“Sometimes I listen to ‘Fuckin’ A#’ and it almost brings me to tears,” Queener adds. “The expressiveness that [Licata] brings in the bridge, specifically… It’s like you’re finally coming alive.”
The way in which Palette Knife blends an unabashed celebration of their nerdiest passions with relatable and moving songwriting has also earned them a deep connection with fans.
“I think the authenticity really comes through,” Licata says. “I feel like a lot of our regulars connect with our music in a way where it feels like they know us as people and as friends. We’ll meet fans at shows and talk about music for like two minutes, and then we’ll just talk about video games. I don’t want to have to put on a different sort of hat or anything. I want people to know that it’s their buddy Alec onstage.”