Friday, 5 April 2013

The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

 

If you're going to choose - and further to that define - your appearance to be one of anonymity and isolation, you should at least come off knowing you've impressed a fair number of music listeners worldwide. The Knife can safely say they've accomplished such task on a fair number of occasions. And while up until now they've refused external promotions from interviews to concerts alike, their raw material in the form of their discography, speaks volumes for itself. While 2003's sophomore Deep Cuts was a fresh, vibrant confidence-boost for the electro-pop sub-genre, 2006's Silent Shout proved The Knife were as much bold re-inventors of the sound as much as their shy, closed-off appearance often painted them as some nifty duo seeking creativity over identity. Needless to say, The Knife deserve our attention, despite what their personal choices may object. And while the bird-come-venetian masks may have been removed from the faces of brother-sister duo Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, if their sealed identity meant earlier material, then there's no doubt the World would have screamed at them to put such concealing masks back on. It's been seven years since Silent Shout was released, and while that album may have produced a pinnacle and truly resounding applause from the musical World, if anything, it's only left a bitter, unsolvable quench in the mouths of countless fans wanting more. 2009 may have seen Karin reemerge from the mirky inactivity with her solo attempts under the name Fever Ray, but it was clear from the start The Knife was the only name fans expected/wanted/craved to see come back...and come back they most certainly have.

It's with excitement, as much as it is with deep speculation, that I come to 2013's Shaking The Habitual - an album already asking far more questions of it thanks in large to its palpably eye-watering cover - and already I feel there's a sense that perhaps, seven years has increased the Dreijer siblings in more than just age. Opener A Tooth For An Eye immediately calls listeners to the void of comfort and perhaps established likeness with what has come before it. The colourful synths and pompous production is gone, replaced instead by humpback percussion rattling and shaking in the mid-drift of hearing. All the while, Karin's recognizable trail of vocals are rather more faint and slipped from existence, not in a ghostly way, but in perhaps a brood sort of way. There's still all the confidence and unhinged momentum that has been her crowning feet, but alongside the arrhythmic array of percussion and synthesizers that bubble and bobble about the mix, there's a rather more honest and perhaps humanely vulnerable tone being expressed.

If that is the case - and I'd certainly like it to be considering how well manages to handle the litter of percussion and synthesizer beats alike - follower Full Of Fire (yes, the single with that video) becomes apparently more interlinked and enjoyable because of it. But taken as a stand-alone track, the music hooks/compels/fantasizes in its palette of rough, extruding synths and instrumental production alike. The punchy, crisp synthesizers, the hauntingly dawdling instrumentation; all tied into how driven and clear Karin is unraveling this rather surreal look on her thoughts of media, liberal politics and how sexually vulgar it all perhaps appears. In that regard, the music - and how grossly distorted and tribally chaotic it soon manifests as - does great at visualizing Karin's deliberately disjointed fling from subject matter to subject matter. And from one experimentally-tense long-runner to another; A Cherry On Top cementing the album's status as The Knife's intentional delve into more left-field ideologies on electronic music. Here, there's a more ambient bias perhaps, but not in a way that's calming or perhaps withdrawn from the tensity of previous. There's still a sense of unfathomable panic and anxiety about the drone of strings and the wailing of keys alike. And given it's place here as only the third track, coming off the back of what came before, the conceptual and contextual way to the track's progression feels rather more concrete and sequential. Even still, it doesn't prevent the duo from presenting this similarly as an uncurling, unraveling detail of more sterner, but ultimately more extreme measures of sound. Bells attack the drone thereafter and bass worms its away into the mix as Karin's masculine-like expressions curl around the lingering wavers for a time, only for the music to descend once more into distorted, timeless ambiguity.

One of the instruments most clearly focused on, and thus coming off superbly amid the energy and muster of this album in large parts, is the percussion. Without You My Life Would Be Boring is as much about the thrust of energy as it is the rhythmic charm. Tribal drum hits swing into the mix as Karin comes through injecting herself as if caught in this same energetic, religiously-mannered exertion. 'We are laughing at the future to find out the past' she prolongs between swings of flutes and woodwinds alike, 'I'm holding on forever'. And as Wrap Your Arms Around Me follows with the same passionate hit of drums and choral instrumentation, the scene turns a shade darker and perhaps more tenser about Karin's wider parameter of far-reaching lyrics, 'Without the dreams I face the time/It's starting to spook and walk amongst/And I got the urge to pull the trigger slow' - together with the sounds conjuring around it, alluding to a more personally troubling theme. But this would not have achieved its directness and level of impact without Olof's own skills at balancing each of these percussive layers and conjuring them in a way that suggests emotional play as much as there's a direct focus. As The Knife have done so well at in previous, rhythm is what entices these sounds to evoke as much as they deliver themselves, and the sort of disco-like frenzy of motion that alludes itself only intensifies the situation further.

But the frenzy in question feels more and more as if it's taking not just a life of its own, but in result is attempting - maybe malevolently - to manifest itself via the instrument choice and the way the duo place synth usage in their tracks. It's almost parasitic, like symbiosis or deception in some manner to what's lingering beyond view. This is no longer a case where electronics are used simply to upfront dictate tempo or produce merely a means to establish context. The Knife feel completely isolated from that former establishment of pop-orientated exposition. Their feats aim for the complete opposite - devoid of simple pleasure and exposed to, as well as testing, the very unknown emotion and intensity of what we fail to see. The track Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized certainly shows the duo's rather less blissful, less lushly-coloured dressing-up of electronic's architectural tendencies. Throughout, synths shape-shift between unearthly, gargantuan swells, war-torn textures, eery atmospherics and (towards its monumental near-twenty minute length) offers an apocalyptic demographic of howls, statically struggling beats and a wintry abyss coercing the mind's eye, as much as it attacks it in the illusive aftermath. And while that same coercing seduction is present on follower Raging Lung, Karin's vocals are (perhaps welcoming to some) showing a return to previous album's coercive energy. There's a hint of more pop-like flutters about her swing, percussion feeling slightly more mellow, but not entirely confined to a simple rhythmic role. There remains that atmosphere and tensity of previous, but is left neither dominating nor deterring from the dizzying slur of woodwinds and inflating electronics slowly emerging soon-after.

This new-change in direction however - regardless of its context or how monstrously revealing it addresses its audience - doesn't prevent the duo from forgetting the striking effect of electronics even if, by way of placement, its upbeat beginning does tear at the album's previous slow crawl in progression. Networking is however, as much a fun club-dormant unleashing of synthesizer beats as much as it is a charming haunt of said clubs in its semi-existent synth distortions and whirling tones that pop from one side of the room to the next, like spirits caught between planes of reality. But The Knife's return to more concrete, sturdier melodies is far more achieving on tracks like Stay Out There, where the playful disco manifests as more a living, breathing chimera of groove and ghastliness alike. The drumbeats while icicle in stature and pin-point precision, don't deter from the billowed horn-like extrusions that fill the surrounding space. And alongside Karin's vocals that come off less innocently by-standing, and more paradoxically antagonistic as much as it is humble, the song gels the societal flutter of beats with what is a primordial-like swirl of all these conflicting emotions and personas Karin feels caught between...or more than likely, being contested over by the other forms of sentience in the music's setting. We come to closer Ready To Lose - having passed through the rather desolate, rather auspicious, and unfortunately rather less developed Fracking Fluid Injection - with a closed-off, jungle-esque marsh of low-trodden percussion, moderate hand-claps and synths that don't necessarily feel apt to find escape, but clearly continue on regardless. A strange ending, given how it feels less like a gentle send-off and more rather a continual end-of-chapter passage. But as far as projecting a geographic setting, production-wise Olof aids in creating an intriguing multi-layer of motion as well as depth.

Away from the rhetoric and the metaphoric of perhaps what these sounds aim, or more than likely inspire, our minds to dive towards, it's difficult to really define The Knife's new direction as clear-cut or abiding to just one dominant context. Not that that's what marks the slight drawback to this, a 90-minute ambition Shaking The Habitual clearly wants to stand as. What requires the most focused and subjective of minds - and ultimately, what listeners will most likely take as a weakness - is how the Swedish duo architect this album as a collective. The album at times switches too drastically between perspectives, and without any real reason or means of getting from A to B, the involvement and immersion in what are rather extreme scenarios, gets pulled away from you rather forcefully. But when the time to prove a point comes, when layered and directed, The Knife certainly show an unprecedented appeal and fondness to communicate and express. Whenever this album delves in its raw subject matter, whether it be isolation, politics, the need for one another, domination...the siblings conjure as much a personal impact as much as they do a musical one. Like walking into a post-nuclear landscape, The Knife (like so many great soundscape artists and, yes, ambient musicians) know - and emphasize such awareness - that it's not all about the visuals and what's before us, but rather what's not...and too, what's inside us because of it. It's moments such as these that can offer an insightful glance into the power of electronic toning, and the motivation that production can often invigorate our vacant heads towards...whether it be paradisal in nature, or nightmarish likewise. Together, as hypnotic or as terrifying this music might be (especially to those fans who grew to love their previous albums) it's a shock to the system on first glance, but by the forth/fifth/twentieth listen, feels ultimately like another example as to the power of that age-old saying: mind over matter.
~Jordan

8.1

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