Friday, April 26, 2013

Album Review: The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

Album Rating: B+
Shaking the Habitual. Where do I start? Obligatory nod at history: in 2007, the Knife released Silent Shout, at this point well-regarded as a classic electronic album and one of the best of the decade. It was a subtle, subdued masterpiece of nocturnal synths and melodies that should have been invented decades ago but that, seeping from between the grooves, seemed totally new, awash with deep blues and shifting sonic shadows. In the six years since, the Swedish duo (actually siblings) have busied themselves with a couple of side projects, including Karin Andersson’s excellent Fever Ray. Most importantly, they devoted time to the study of gender, feminism, and modern radical politics - subjects that informed the genesis of their fourth record, Shaking the Habitual.

I should mention, before you extract too much from that rating up there, that this is one of the most fascinating albums, old or new, I’ve heard in some time, and that everyone should listen to it at least once. Only a specific set will ever go in for a second run. This is not a pop record. It’s over an hour and a half long, firstly. There’s not a single song that falls within the radio-friendly 2-4 minute band. Five run close to ten minutes, and one (oh that one) skirts 20. It’s not that the pair are trying to hide their new penchant for abrasion. The color scheme of the album abandons all sleek properties of trendy graphic design for an oppressive neon-pink and green binary. The sleeve is littered with illustrations and cartoons ranging from the ambiguous (an originless speech bubble with the words “thank you.” inside) to the obvious (a block letter billboard screaming: “END EXTREME WEALTH”). Yeah, there’s a message here.

Be it courtesy or cruel trick, the record’s most Knife-ish cut, “A Tooth For An Eye”, kicks things off. By the explosive climax of trailing squeals and forceful synths, you’ll be screaming for more. Too bad. “Full of Fire” pulls us in to the album proper and plays a bit like the version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” they keep on repeat in the deepest reaches of hell, roaring at you like a field recording of some ancient wreck of pterodactyls, screeching and squawking, woken from their long slumber and hungry, hunting you for a full 9 minutes, swooping and diving with claws outstretched as Andersson hums about history and the lying men who tell it, all in a pitch-shifted baritone that grants her a certain strange power, probably illustrating exactly what she’s humming about. It’s vivid and alive in a way that synthesizer music isn’t supposed to be. 

Most of the the numbers that can actually be called songs follow a similar formula to the one established by “Full of Fire”- self-defining synths, strange, skittering rhythms, and always a few instrumental quirks and oddities. The duo seem devoted to abstraction, reaching for every chance they get to ignore melody and structure as a whole. The fantastic hook of “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” dissolves mid-song into what sounds like the recorder section at an elementary school church gathering. Despite the apparent complexity and length of each composition, I’m not sure a lot of thought went in to any of it. I mean conscious thought of course - something that’s been unnecessary in the creation of great art since the dawn of creativity itself. The songs function more as drip paintings flushed over a canvas of clicking toms and snares. 

As tracks storm in and out like a troupe of various natural disasters, you may start to wonder what exactly the mission of this record is. I’m not saying an album needs a purpose, but it’s clear that the Knife intended something here. The record runs with the blood of left-wing shock-poppers like the Pop Group and the Art of Noise, but it’s not propaganda. It’s too alienating. The massive, almost motionless “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” comes around midway through the album and threatens to turn away huge swaths of previously patient listeners from some of the excellent material on the other side of the canyon. As a piece of dark ambient, it’s good, but not life-altering, certainly not deserving of a position as the album centerpiece. “Fracking Fluid Injection,” a ten-minute exercise in droning discord, similarly puts a stopper in the record’s momentum and is likely to drift past your ears unnoticed, unless one particular screech awakens you to realize “how long have they been going at this?”

Go ahead, call me a square! Say I missed the point! There’s plenty to love about this album, plenty that I love. “Networking” and “Stay Out Here” both handle their expansiveness with grace, the latter being the group’s greatest sonic representation of the post-apocalypse, the former   sounding a bit like a drive down the future’s grimiest byway on hover scooter past a million yelping holo-advertisements. The creeping crawl of “A Cherry On Top” isolates and terrifies, its walls rearranging themselves until we’re at a loss for spatial understanding. The point is, some of this stuff is amazingly evocative. At their most tedious, the draggy tracks evoke nothing but sleepiness. 

The Knife are an inspired team, possessed by some truly saintly ambitions - to end inequality, patriarchy, poverty. With a little work they could even change some minds. They know how to startle. Ten listens in, parts of Shaking the Habitual still give me little rippling chills. The way they stitch together their tapestries of tunelessness can be pretty magnificent. Unfortunately, a few too many times, walking away from the record seems all too tempting. I’m not asking them to go back to the smart, slick, think-but-dance aesthetic of Silent Shout, but to reconsider and reassess their strategy moving forward. This record is a good start to their newfound crusade. One of its greatest miracles is that it never feels preachy, even when the radical message is screaming from the crib notes. How they do it, I don’t know, but they shouldn’t stop. The world needs its socially conscious songsmiths. Now more than ever.

1. A Tooth for an Eye
2. Full of Fire
3. Cherry on Top
4. Without You My Life Would Be Boring
5. Wrap Your Arms Around Me
6. Crake
7. Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized
8. Raging Lung
9. Networking
10. Oryx
11. Stay Out Here
12. Fracking Fluid Injection
13. Ready to Lose

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