Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everything. So goes the moniker of one Lawrence "Kris" Parker, but for frontman Nick Traina, Knowledge was more of a rebound from Link 80, the Bay Area ska band from which he was ousted as vocalist while battling drug abuse, depression and attempted suicide.
The son of famed harlequin author Danielle Steel, Traina had grown up in a wealthy but broken home, a bi-polar manic depressive with a gift for music and an affinity for living life on the edge. As his unpredictability led his bandmates in Link 80 to move on without him, Traina sought to start over with Knowledge.
A Gift Before I Go is actually a demo, released posthumously after Traina committed suicide at age 19 in 1997. However, it's a phenomenal demo both in recording quality and content. In somewhat of similar manner as Link 80, the cornerstone of the Knowledge sound is a combination of hyper ska and punk rock, though with no horns and perhaps a broader palette.
Whereas Link 80 generally focused on more of a straight-ahead ska-punk style, Knowledge does a bit more, incorporating a spectrum that includes influences from Desmond Dekker to Bloodlet with Crimpshrine in between. The band covers the former doing a take on the Jamaican classic "Unity," while "Against the Rest" features heavy riffing and a more metal vocal approach in a similar vein as the dark hardcore of Bloodlet. The band incorporates both approaches on the opener "Still Standing," which alternates between slam-pit savagery and hotstepping ska.
Lyrically, Traina admonishes an apathetic generation on the playful "Clinton Youth" while waxing inspirational on the Suicide Machines-styled "Don't Give Up." The band delivers one of their best tracks on the melodic punk of "Brotherhood," which is as the title suggests, an endearing tribute to close friendship.
The best song of the album is the harrowing closer "Gnat (I'm All Alone)", a chillingly minimalist testimonial of Traina's thoughts and feelings just before his death: "i have been shown my heart of stone / Feeling it in my broken bones / Love I can't have, the dad I won't have / The child was left here all alone." It's an incredibly prophetic and sadly appropriate end to the album that he never in his life saw released.
This album isn't perfect, but the circumstances surrounding it give it a special kind of aura that can't be qualified in a review. Who knows whether he would have wanted it released, but proceeds from the record go to the Nick Traina Foundation to benefit mental health, music and other child-related causes. Traina's life and struggles are chronicled in his mother's book His Bright Light, an incredibly insightful look into the mind of someone battling manic depression in the midst of adolescence. As for A Gift Before I Go, it is what it is: a beautiful gift from a life cut far too short.