Shaking the Habitual – The Knife
Anecdotes are already proliferating about the genesis of Shaking the Habitual, the new album from the Swedish electronic duo of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson – the Knife. Lyrics are inspired by Olof’s course in gender studies at Stockholm University; much of the music is based on jam sessions in which the band played with only a zither and a bedspring; the title comes from Foucault; and so on. If this is already sounding obtuse and bizarre, wait till you hear that the album came with a “press release” that took the form of a long, free-form poem called “Some Feelings in the Bellies of the Tankers Who Pass Us Making Sad Manic Bongs Like Drums”. And the record is almost a hundred minutes long. One thing is clear: the Knife are definitely not interested in making things easy.
But then, that’s nothing new. They’ve always shied away from the spotlight, and they’ve always been serious, ambitious musicians who refuse to make concessions to listenability. Their previous opus was an avant-garde opera (substantially composed of buzzing and screeching noises) dramatising Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It is worth stating now, before anyone feels too tempted to laugh at them, that the Knife are neither ironic nor pretentious. They are deadly serious about their subject matter, and they simply make whatever music they feel best expresses their preoccupations. A decade ago, this meant they produced thrilling techno like the poppy hit single “Heartbeats” or the cult classic album Silent Shout. Today, it means they produce long, impressionistic mood pieces (often without anything resembling a dance beat), interspersed with abrasive noise music. Fans may not feel that the duo’s muse has led them to good places, but you can’t accuse them of failing to follow it.
So this album is undeniably difficult and frequently inaccesible. It is, as the title indicates, an activist’s manifesto, not designed with the listener’s pleasure or satisfaction in mind, but with the intention of shocking people out of their comfort zones. While most of the album doesn’t exactly qualify as “protest music,” it is definitely preoccupied with addressing serious and controversial issues – gender foremost among them, but environmental damage also featuring quite extensively. As for the music itself, the results of the duo’s experimentation are decidedly scattershot. The glaring problem is that far too much of the album is spent on developing atmosphere – which is a polite way of pointing out that the entire nine minutes and forty-four seconds of “A Cherry on Top” is actually just a sequence of disconnected noises. Worst of all is the nineteen-minute drone of “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised,” which, as one reviewer has aptly put it, “probably should not have been realised”. When so much of the album is bogged down in directionless, tuneless dirges, it becomes very hard to see any merit in anything else that it offers.
On the other side of the scorecard, however, there are a handful of genuinely great moments on Shaking the Habitual – all of them in the faster-paced sections that hearken back to the Knife’s dance-oriented heyday. The most impressive track on the album is “Full of Fire,” a high-energy monster powered by massively distorted drums and searing, streaking synthesisers. The other upbeat tracks are not as consistently compelling, but they still hit some powerful high points, like the central section of “Raging Lung”. These songs sound significantly better on their own than when they’re engulfed by the exhausting stretches of the album around them.
All the same, it’s a frustrating and disappointing record, and the strongest emotion it arouses is a desire to cleanse the pallette by listening to some of the duo’s older stuff. Even on the Darwin-themed opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, there was music crafted with a confident, finely-tuned instinct for melody and beauty. Shaking the Habitual is intermittently spectacular, but never melodic or beautiful. And it’s mostly just boring.