The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

The_knife_shaking_the_habitual_artwork_2013

Released: April 5, 2013

Label: Rabid

Producer:  Karin Dreijer Andersson, Olof Dreijer

Genre: Electronic, Techno, Experimental, IDM, Drone, Ambient

Tracklist:

01 A Tooth for an Eye
02 Full of Fire
03 A Cherry on Top
04 Without You My Life Would Be Boring
05 Wrap Your Arms Around Me
06 Crake
07 Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized
08 Raging Lung
09 Networking
10 Oryx
11 Stay Out Here (feat. Shannon Funchess and Emily Roysdon)
12 Fracking Fluid Injection
13 Ready to Lose

It’s been nearly fourteen years since The Knife started out, and seven since they released their both critically acclaimed and masterpiece of their genre, Silent Shout. Their saga has grown to a point where to define them as a band would be both too plain and inadequate. If someone would have to define “band” it would be: people hitting and playing things that are widely considered as instruments, making stuff that would mostly be labeled music. Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer are far more than that. The Knife are now an ethic, a way of life for some people, an idea, and my personal favorite, which I’ve heard a few weeks back: A not-entirely-understood-scientific-phenomena. There have been many, and still will be, bands that have claimed being influenced by The Knife‘s music. What they don’t understand is, The Knife carry a lot more influence than people think. The whole idea of mystery, evocative music, and image was all originally by them! And that is why, even after all this international success, unanimous critical acclaim, and frequent poor imitations, they’ve managed to keep their name meaning something still unique, pure and grand.

The last one may have to do with the fact that Karin and Olof have gone to extreme lengths to come off as just about anything other than human. Rarely doing live shows, giving them an air of mystic, and when they do appear they sometimes do it as silhouettes glowing behind a translucent screen. They gave interviews and accepted awards in disguise (moving through a terrifying cycle of bird masksDystopian Blue Man Group masks,primate-inspired facepaint, and of course who could forget Andersson’s infamous melting flesh mask?). The first time they integrated that in their actual sound though was in 2006, their electronic nightmare Silent Shout. On this, their first great record, they warped and pitched Andersson’s voice until it fit somewhere between, androgynous, alien and post-human. And during the seven years that followed their musical landmark, (maybe even more so in their absence), The Knife have reached a kind of status where everything they do is considered both unique and creepy. When the first press release photos for their new album, Shaking the Habitual, were released I found myself staring at them for a long time. I kept wondering: How did they manage to make an activity as innocent as swinging on playground swings feel forebodingly sinister?

But this bodes the same unseasy feeling as all the other acts that sell the post-human act. Whether it’s their vulnerability in the breakthrough hit “Heartbeats” or the catchy strobe-lit dancefloor rhythms of “We Share Our Mothers’ Health” and “Neverland” or even the creepy storytelling of a song like “Forest Families”. Their recipe is both simple and complicated. They’ve always had a talent for balancing the uncanny and the familiar, though it’s sometimes incredibly easy to forget the latter because of all the thespian feeling that constitutes throughout their career. We, at least I, was used to experiencing The Knife at a cool, “safe” distance. So, the most shocking elements about the early stages of Shaking the Habitual was how they decided to get so personal. their faces (on full display in the anarchic video for “Full of Fire”), their fingernails, their smiles (were they actually smiling in that photo?). For all their shadowy abstraction, The Knife are at their most disturbing when deciding to remind you that they actually are human. And that is hinted to, even briefly, on Shaking the Habitual.

Boundary-pushing in content and in form, the double-CD Shaking the Habitual challenges plenty of perceived notions– about extreme wealth, the patriarchy, the monarchy, environmental degradation, decreasing attention spans (“It’s nice to play with people’s time these days,” Andersson says in explanation of the record’s marathon length), and not the least of which, The Knife‘s own identity as a band. This album is even difficult to write about! Their new sound, which is both engulfed in winding and uncompromising song structures and organic sounds hinted with slight essence of industrial, is certainly a departure from their previous endeavors. They even said it sounded so different they considered releasing it under a different alias. The Knife have always been masters of the aesthetic in many of their albums. But this one is not of the same taste. It gathers elements that are certainly different from a wider aesthetic: sound drones (they crafted the 19-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” from editing hours of electronic feedback they’d recorded in a boiler room), zithers, an instrument they apparently made out of “an old bedspring” and “a microphone”– all employed in the name of breaking their own habits (Shaking the Habitual). “We went temporarily acoustic,” they declared in the madcamp manifesto that served as Shaking the Habitual‘s press bio. “Electronic is just one place in the body.” And just like Disco Naïveté points out, the manifesto released in promotion of the album, is a thing to behold. And now, so is the album.

In plenty of ways, Shaking the Habitual seems to have “inaccessible” etched into every fiber of its DNA. It is a 98 minute monster (about which is already double the length of the already-epic-seeming Silent Shout). Six of its thirteen songs exceed eight minutes. The official statement for the “A Tooth for an Eye” music video (“’A Tooth For An Eye’ deconstructs images of maleness, power and leadership. Who are the people we trust as our leaders and why? What do we have to learn from those we consider inferior?”) is read like museum placards. There are two long, dissonant drone pieces– and one of them has the feel-good title “Fracking Fluid Injection”. But once of you embark on this mammoth of a quest, you will find that the strange fluidity of Shaking the Habitual is surprisingly inhabitable. Between potent bursts of electro-aggression (“A Tooth for an Eye”), seductively uncoiling, meditative grooves (“Raging Lung”) and ambient stretches, Shaking the Habitual— like Swans’ recent and similarly grandiose masterpiece The Seer— doesn’t demand the same kind of attention the whole time. Many of the elements on Shaking the Habitual that might seem off-putting to a wide variety of listeners at first, are actually there (and succeed as well) to make the whole thing hang together so well, as one start-to-finish listen. The drone pieces, act as intermissions and sequences. If you put them in a dark room and listen to them alone, you’ll suddenly find yourself drifting in and out of your consciousness. But at the same time giving you a kind of strange, vibrant chilling feeling that keeps you going. It’s almost like an atmospheric hold The Knife decided to put on us.

Following eccentrics like Karin and Olof, down their rabbit hole might be very difficult if there is no way of hooking us from the start. Luckily they thought of that too. The first three tracks, “A Tooth for an Eye”, “Full of Fire” and “A Cherry on Top”, are among the most immediately arresting 25 minutes of music The Knife has ever made. While 2003’s Deep Cuts sometimes struggled to find common ground between punk aggression and bright, calypso-tinged synths, “A Tooth for an Eye” ties these competing impulses together seamlessly as it also deftly weaves in a political message. The song’s refrain comes from the experimental British writer Jeanette Winterson’s book The Passion (the interstitials “Oryx” and “Crake” also reference a Margaret Atwood novel), but Andersson brings a physicality to her delivery that muscles the line right off the page: “I’m telling you stories,” she seethes, until you can almost see the vein bulging in her neck, “Trust meeeee.”

The polyrhythmic, perverse industrial throb “Full of Fire” feeds off the heat kindled by the opening track and rides it for a magnificently maniacal nine minutes, while the creaking, evocative “A Cherry on Top” has got to be one most deliciously creepy Knife songs yet– of course, that’s saying a lot. It makes other haunting tracks sound like lullabies. Built around the bone-curdling sound of a zither warping in and out of tune, Andersson sings of riches– “Strawberry, melon, cherry on top…The Haga Castle evening cream”– in a heavy, manipulated voice so overripe it basically signals to decay. She’s clearly having fun inhabiting the role of the fat-with-power monarch here, but her roleplaying is also an act of resistance (the band has recently cited as an influence the gender theorist Judith Butler, who pioneered the notion of thinking about gender as performance), of cutting the omnipotent down to size and suggesting that the institution’s expiration date has passed. As the instrument warbles in and out of tune, the castle walls– and the confines of pop structure as we know it– seem to be crumbling at her and Dreijer’s feet.

Nothing else quite matches this opening run, but the second disc has its highlights: First, there’s “Raging Lung”, a dank, serpentine 10-minute groove that lifts its refrain (“what a difference a little difference would make”) from Fugazi‘s classic 1990 debut Repeater. Then there’s the frenetic, gargling instrumental “Networking”, which recalls the best of Olaf Dreijer’s techno work as Oni Ayhun and proves he can still scramble the conventions of electronic music with an effortlessness that puts him miles ahead of The Knife‘s many imitators. The whole record can either drift off to two similar but still different direction. It can either be considered a guided tour, with Karin and Olaf being the tour guides, (and also a tribute) throughout the last century’s ideologies of punk rock, gender outlaws, enviro-anarchists, and outsiders of any stripe; or its can simply be labeled as a giant, authority-pissing-off portrait, where all the squatters and crust punks can find refuge. It’s really hard to try to compose an album or track using your brain as the main dancer, instead of your hips. Using the term “braindance” might be a bit far-fetched but it seems to fit sometimes. They really have manipulated their way through their album using their brain instead of their body. They might not be able to conquer that in the entire album but even at the album’s most eccentric, it remains alive.

It may not be as challenging as their operatic score collaboration Tomorrow, In a Year with Mt. Sims and Planningtorockbut it still shy’s off some of the not-so-adventurous listeners. I do not suggest this album to listeners who would dismiss the record for not trying to recreate the populist magic of “Heartbeats” or “We Share Our Mother’s Health”. The Knife would clearly want to use their music as much more than just entertainment. Maybe to smuggle a message? or to challenge certain authority figures? And to tell the truth they have every right to. And the great privilege of being The Knife in 2013 is having a platform– they’ve earned a devoted audience ready to approach their wildest, most challenging and passionate vision with eager ears and an open mind. It is The Knife‘s most political, ambitious, accomplished album, but in a strange way it also feels like its most personal: It provides a glimpse into the desires, intellectual enthusiasms and (unsurprisingly dense) reading list guiding one of music’s most shadowy duos. At its most mesmerizing, its conceptual rigor and occasional inscrutability are overpowered by a disarming earnestness: It is a musical manifesto advocating for a better, fairer, weirder world. Shaking the Habitual feels not post-human but profoundly humanist, fueled by an unfashionable but profoundly refreshing faith in music’s ability to hypnotize, to agitate, and to liberate– to become, in Winterson’s words, “the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.”

“A Tooth for an Eye”


“Full of Fire”

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