The Swedish siblings escape conformity but have they forgotten the tunes?
By and large, it’s the job of experimental musicians to lead us down paths seldom trod. The most intrepid, however, risk losing us altogether. This is the danger with Swedish duo The Knife. Their first album proper since 2006 is a fearless trip, a plunge off-road and deep into the woods. A glimpse came with teaser single ‘Full Of Fire’ back in February – nine minutes of brittle beats and needling electronics with Karin Dreijer Andersson’s voice digitally twisted like an artificial intelligence on the brink of meltdown. But the overriding feeling was cold and uninviting. For a song about kink and lust, it felt hard to love.
When The Knife – Karin and her brother Olof – emerged from Stockholm in 2001, they crystallised a very Scandinavian electronic music: icy but emotive, defiantly oddball but definably pop. Aspects of their sound have been adopted by everyone from Robyn to Niki & The Dove to MØ. But as The Knife have progressed, the weird has exerted more of a pull. 2006’s ‘Silent Shout’, a sort of techno re-imagining of a Brothers Grimm fairytale, saw the pair hiding their faces behind crow-like masks. 2010’s ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ was the score to an avant-garde opera about Charles Darwin, while Karin’s Fever Ray project explored how the sleeplessness that comes with motherhood could take the imagination to dark places. In 2013, there’s no getting around the fact that ‘Shaking The Habitual’ is a tough listen, and intentionally so. In a poetic manifesto prepared to accompany the album, the siblings talk of “hyper-capitalism, this homicidal class system… a series of patriarchies that’s a problem to the nth degree”. With this album The Knife are out to destroy existing systems and escape conformity. “We want to fail more, act without authority,” they declare.
Where ‘Silent Shout’ expertly blended the electronic and the melancholic, ‘Shaking The Habitual’ is weirder, more austere, abstracted. There is brutalist techno (‘Networking’, ‘Stay Out Here’), nightmarish noise (‘Crake’, ‘Oryx’), and a track concerning environmental destruction called ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’, which consists almost entirely of wordless vocal echoes and scrapes of strings. Most bewildering is album centrepiece ‘Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized’, 19 minutes of ambient gloom briefly interrupted by the lonely squirm of an acid bassline wondering where all the ravers have gone.
Get selective, though, and there are excellent moments in the 98 minutes of music here. ‘A Cherry On Top’ is pretty like a poisonous blowfish, plucked strings ringing and chiming as Karin sings operatically of strawberries and buttered popcorn. ‘A Tooth For An Eye’ and ‘Without You My Life Would Be Boring’, meanwhile, recall Fever Ray’s bricolage of ethno-antiquity and techno modernity, weaving bells and hand drums, synth pads and blooming electronics into something rich and layered (and yes, it really does go “A handful of elf pee, that’s my soul/Spray it all over, fill the bowl”).
The rhythms here are more foregrounded than in Fever Ray. ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’ is a death-march stomp swathed in billowing, Vangelis-like new-age synths, while the exceptional ‘Raging Lung’ winds snakishly towards the album’s best singalong chorus. Naturally, though, the verses hide a subversive current: “Western standards”, sings Karin, “poverty’s profitable”.
‘Shaking The Habitual’ is a radical gesture from an enigmatic group. As such, it will not be for everyone. Newcomers will likely be baffled. Hardcore Knife fans will hail it a masterpiece, while privately making fairly regular use of the skip button. Sporadically brilliant, perhaps it is The Knife’s Inland Empire – a fearless piece of work with its own logic, one that shears away all safety nets. Invention, stark and undiluted.