There are times when music moves cyclically—turning back on itself every few years to regurgitate the same warbling synths or fuzzy distortion pedals or fidelically-challenged production techniques that we’ve heard at various points in the past. It’s inevitable really. Even artists who tend toward the innovative can be guilty of occasionally dipping into this well of musical familiarity. But depending on the style and sounds contained therein, these movements can vary greatly in length, from a few years to well over a decade, so trying to predict the ebb and flow of these rhythmic relapses can be difficult under the best of circumstances. And then there are artists who adhere to no particular genre or trend and whose music can only be described by attributing it back to the band themselves. For instance, you would never say that music by My Bloody Valentine or The Pixies sounds like anything other than music made by My Bloody Valentine or The Pixies. We become trapped somewhat in trying to define a band’s sound by our perception of the band itself. And this is why when an artist or band comes along that completely defies our expectations time after time it seems to cast a harsh light over the rest of the musical reversion that has spilled over into all facets of mainstream and independent music.
Swedish duo The Knife have long proven to be among those artists who seem to intentionally buck any sort of mainstream acceptance. They have no direct intention of alienating listeners, but they never go out of their way to pander or back down from any facet of their sometimes difficult music–though even the use of the word “difficult” can be a bit misleading. Challenging would be a far better description. Whether it’s their less than subtle observations on gender identity, entrenched political ideals, or simply their penchant for blending outwardly disparate sounds into something inventive and creatively dissonant, siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer’s work as The Knife is nothing if not consistently surprising and open to interpretation, while also being opaque and oftentimes near-impenetrably verbose. It’s these contrasting senses of distance and intimacy, inclusivity and exclusivity that make The Knife so listenable, though also distinctly unapproachable in certain aspects of its production and thematic density.
Shaking the Habitual, The Knife’s latest record, continues along from the dark synths, complex rhythms, and menacingly expressive vocals of their 2006 masterstroke Silent Shout, while also managing to fit in some of the more abstract concepts the band applied on their 2010 collaborative (with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock) quasi-operatic score Tomorrow, In a Year. But Shaking the Habitual isn’t a case of an artist merely utilizing past strengths to satiate restless fans—make no mistake though, after seven years, the anticipation for this record almost reached My Bloody Valentine levels of obsession. By taking a long, hard look at the foundations of their music, Andersson and Dreijer have apparently been inspired to go further in their compellingly personal, though threateningly ambiguous narratives.
The album feels as dense as black matter and as industrial as some scorched-earth landscape of the not-too-distant future. Right from the beginning, the band manages to tap into a deep-seated fear and paranoia that seems to run parallel to our need for companionship and a collective social order. Though on opening track “A Tooth for an Eye,” it sounds as though the outcasts have indeed taken over. The sense of dramatic isolation that covers this track like some viscous, suffocating veneer goes far in establishing the unflinching viewpoint that the band are intent on developing across these 13 tracks. Rumbles of deeply buried bass and broken beats cross paths with slowly disintegrating synths and Andersson’s murky vocals to create one of the most vivid and near tangible evocations of physical space that you’re likely to hear on a record this year. “Full of Fire” takes the same industrial strides that “A Tooth for an Eye” so successfully tread. Feeling like a continuation, though not simply a reiteration of the first track, “Full of Fire” shows that Andersson and Dreijer are well aware of what their fans expect and are happy to use those expected sounds and tones to confound and appease in equal measure. Sounding exactly like what you’d expect but also deliriously bewildering and labyrinthine, the track never sits still for very long and feels half as long as its nine minute run-time would lead you to believe.
But to approach the music on Shaking the Habitual on a purely emotional level, while still enormously rewarding, only offers a partial glimpse of the incredible depth and intensity that this record has to offer. The band has made no apologies for their overt political leanings and fervent attitudes toward widely disparate wealth distribution, the degradation of the environment, and even their own jumbled identity as a band. These topics are ready fodder for Andersson’s gauzy vocals and the oftentimes superficially inaccessible instrumentation. Even on tracks like “Fracking Fluid Injection,” with its overt environmental assumptions and conceptually astute industrialized structure, and the 19-minute feedback-reconstructed drone piece “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized,” the duo treat the music as far more than simple cacophonous ephemera or banal platitudes. There are numerous tonal layers and deceptively tricky angles to these tracks that are difficult to maneuver on first listen…or second or third. If any record of this relatively young year demands your full attention then Shaking the Habitual is it, as it opens up as a vast chasm of unexpected possibilities, and despite any possible subconscious misgivings, you’ll immediately want to jump in without thinking twice.
“A Cherry On Top” shows Andersson taking on the persona of some aristocratic king or queen who seems to delight in the distance between himself (or herself) and those who seem to eek out a meager living under a hard-toiling regime. Her voice is heavily altered to suggest some ambiguous gender association, and the way in which the song plays with the listener’s own gender predilections, forms part of the basis for their gender-neutral narrative approach on some of these songs. “Crake” and “Oryx,” though much shorter, help to keep the momentum going as the tracks around them spiral out into some dystopian vision of the future. But is this vision of the future something that the band are desperately trying to keep us from reaching, or have they accepted the limitations of humans and simply acquiesce to the direction that we’ve been heading for thousands of years? Part of the allure and mystery of The Knife lie in their ability to draw out the various interpretations in their listener’s minds. And Shaking the Habitual may be their most daunting and most cleverly incisive record to date.
Shaking the Habitual is art. And our experience of art is subjective. As such, so many words can be thrown around in service to the description of subjective things. Whether you allow this album to dominate your perspective for an hour and a half or if you merely view it as densely crowded piece of performance art, Andersson and Dreijer seem content. On this album, the listener is subject to the artist’s whims but the artists are no less bound by the individual interpretation of their own works. It’s in this oddly familiar place that we find ourselves–almost 7 years on–where our expectations have been expertly manipulated and undermined by our own personal experiences, both in the past and present. What do you hear when you listen to The Knife? Where do you go as Shaking the Habitual rolls out of your speakers? I’m not sure if Andersson or Dreijer themselves could give you an adequate explanation. But maybe that’s why so many people tend to relate to them, despite their sometimes stand-offishness. We can understand and relate to the hesitancy inherent to work of this caliber. Sometimes we just want to be next to another person.