The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2013-04-08

It's seven years since Scandinavian electro-pop oddities The Knife's last official album, Silent Shout, and yet it doesn't really feel like they've been away. In part, that's because siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer have maintained a steady profile: a sell-out tour and live DVD, a much-praised solo-project (Andersson's Fever Ray), and an ambitious collaborative opera based on the life of Charles Darwin have kept the band's name in the press.

However, there has also been a stream of acts whose quirky synth-pop, percussion-heavy sound and kooky female vocals are immediately redolent of The Knife. From Gang Gang Dance to Grimes, Rainbow Arabia to Fol Chen, it seems like in the duo's absence, many music-makers have been taking cues from their first three albums. Given how ubiquitous that template has become, The Knife have made a smart decision to largely abandon it on their fourth album proper, the double-CD, Shaking the Habitual.

Much of the press surrounding this album has focussed on how uncommercial and inaccessible its music is. While its true there's nothing that replicates the pure pop rush of 2003's 'Heartbeats' (very probably still the most perfect pop song ever recorded), plenty of tracks here sound like Silent Shout. Opening track 'A Tooth for an Eye' features pinging, Afro-influenced percussion, warped, genderless vocals from Andersson and gorgeous washes of synth. It pretty much picks up exactly where 'Like a Pen' left off.

It's a terrific album opener, delivering all the melodic and rhythmic punch of The Knife's best moments. It's followed by single 'Full of Fire', which sounded underwhelming back in February, but reveals itself on repeat listens as a mercurial gem. Andersson repeatedly hisses, "Sometimes I get problems that are hard to solve" over nerve-edge electro and hard, industrial beats which become ever more aggressive during the song's nine-plus minutes. If the whole of Shaking the Habitual was uncompromising in this way it would be an unmitigated triumph.

However, the following track, 'A Cherry on Top', highlights the problem with some parts of the album. It's a slow-building ambient work which evolves into a nightmare lullaby of tangled strings and Teutonic, atonal strumming. Which, in itself, is not a bad thing. But at nearly nine minutes, it's too long to sustain itself, while its placing as track three on disc one makes little sense. Unless, of course, the point is sheer, deliberate obtuseness on the part of its makers, which I suspect it is.

Throughout Shaking the Habitual, you sense the duo are skipping between two different sounds, uncertain of which one to settle on. I say 'uncertain' because, while they don't quite convince on the beatless ambient/industrial stuff, their songwriting and production skills positively effervesce on the likes of 'Without You My Life Would Be Boring', which mixes African percussion, twanging synths and what sounds like a primary school recorder class (as well as this diamond of a lyric: "A handful of elf pee, that's my soul/ Spray it all over, fill the bowl"). Again, it sounds like a natural evolution from the music on Silent Shout. It's sonically thrilling while sounding effortless, leaving you wondering just how The Knife can make something so otherworldly sound so damn funky.

In contrast, other parts of Shaking the Habitual feel joyless and, worse, tedious. 'Crake' and 'Oryx', brief snatches of scraping, screeching noise, manage a hat-trick by being pointless as well. The 19-minute 'Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised' largely consists of nothing but ghostly drone and distant scraping . As a piece of ambient music, it's not very accomplished. The likes of Brian Eno and Alec Empire have been doing this stuff for yonks, and managing to execute it in far more interesting, nuanced ways.

Although much has been made of the queer and feminist politics which apparently inform the album (it's physical release comes with a manifesto written by the siblings), its only explicit political moment comes towards the end of disc two with 'Fracking Fluid Injection', and there the forth-rightness extends only as far as the word 'fracking' in the title - the track itself consists of nothing more than wordless, echoing vocal sounds coupled with some more scraping, sinister strings.

However, this is as disappointing as it gets. Where Shaking the Habitual really excels is in its rhythms, which are frequently hard, abrasive and uncompromising, but constantly inventive and surprising. The menacing, dread-filled 'Wrap Your Arms Around Me' batters you over the head with tin-pan drums. 'Raging Lung' weaves intricate, snake-hipped percussion in and out of tingling strings and writhing sub-bass. 'Networking' jiggles around on squelchy acid house bass, somehow managing to turn a vocal gurgle into a percussion element. 'Ready Lose', meanwhile, is a slow-burner which rolls along on junkyard beats and 80s hand-claps.

All this means that over half of Shaking the Habitual is pretty awesome - it's intriguing and complex while still having enough of a melodic and rhythmic hook to keep you coming back. The music reviewer cliché with 'difficult' albums is the say they'll reward repeat listens. While that may well be true of most of Shaking the Habitual, it's hard to believe hidden depths will be revealed on the likes of 'Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised'. That's because it feels like their forbidding austerity, their very blankness, is their point. The medium is the message.

The Knife are staking their claim to not being a pop group, something which, for long-term fans, they never completely appeared to be anyway. Certainly, anyone who sat through the whole of their opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, will have picked up clear signposts for Shaking the Habitual's most forbidding moments. And, yes, this is both their artistic prerogative and a brave move. Like David Bowie in the late-70, The Knife are struggling to break free of their back-catalogue, embracing ambient music on the way. Unlike Bowie, their artistic compass has wavered. That their execution is sometimes clumsy is forgiveable. That they at certain points succumb to self-indulgence is less so.

You could argue that the fact the album comes with a written manifesto is a tacit admission by the duo that Shaking the Habitual fails to communicate everything they would like it to on an artistic and political level. However, when they write, "We want to fail more, act without authority," you get the point. Their intentions are to be championed and this album is far from an outright failure. In fact, next to most timid, supposedly 'alternative' fare, it's staggeringly good. That said, I hope their next album can be subtitled 'How The Knife Got Their Groove Back'.

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