Rattle and shake everyone!

Album Review: “Shaking The Habitual” by The Knife

There was a moment in time until a decade back when albums were meant to be consumed as a whole. Like a book, each song similar to a chapter, adding one piece to the overall picture with its’ own little story. I am aware that not all albums did that, but for almost every concept album like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, we had a statement of purpose like Neil Young’s Trans. Every album was made with a specific mindset — with or without an idea or a concept — and generally during a specific period of time. It was a snapshot of where the artists stood at that juncture of time and what they were listening to, or what they envisioned the next decade of music listening to.

Modern music is divided by decades — this is merely common knowledge. What is not is that with the advent of digital music, albums died. With MP3s and iTunes, music began to be consumed in parts in form of “singles” (whose popularity revived with or without the LPs) rather than a whole as an album.

This resulted in a massive upheaval during the early 2000s. Pop was the first genre to overturn but almost every genre followed. Making music became more about generating “2 strong hits per album” rather than making a cohesive and purposeful musical statement. There were exceptions to this rule but they were few and far between.

Polishing the Blank

That wasn’t the only issue pertaining to modern music “industry”.

In our modern era, when polish and gloss can be achieved far too easily courtesy of the technology we created, there are some artists who strive to stray from the path by being “raw”.

In music, these artists usually come in form of noise/distortion messiahs, ones who shun the clean production which studio labels encourage in order to appeal to today’s iTunes-loyalist, Spotify-ing youth. They believe that making their music rife with distortion spikes would make their music more appealing to the youth tired of the superficial gloss of the mainstream.

They are wrong.

They are in reality no different. Choosing a label just because most shun it. What they fail to realize it is it’s a label without any purpose. And when you choose a label just for the sake of “being different”, you become as purposeless as the mainstream artists you’re trying to criticize.

Enter the Masked Siblings

Karin and Olaf Dreijer have been at pioneers for over a decade but unusually private shunning fame

Karin and Olaf Dreijer have been pioneers for over a decade but have been unusually private instead choosing to shun fame

Enter The Knife — a duo of siblings from Sweden who have been at the forefront of no significant movement. They have not revived any retro genres (a trend which refuses to become a fad) and they have made no silly Internet-meme inducing YouTube video to become a breakout success.

However, they are successful artists — respected by their peers and adored by their fans.

I can say there are two obvious reasons to this:

  • The Knife have evolved in an incredibly natural manner over their three albums — starting with synthpop with infectiously catchy tunes in Deep Cuts, they moved to the dark, atmospheric and eerie synths of Silent Shout before composing the soundtrack for a Darwinian opera. Yes, you heard that right!
  • The Knife are hugely private artists. They have almost no interviews to any media publications and until recently, they used to make public appearances only during their live shows and that too by wearing masks which resembled medieval Swedish witch-doctors.

While Deep Cuts brought them to the forefront of public attention thanks to their hit “Heartbeatsit was Silent Shout which resulted in them earning respect from most of the music aficionados acquainted with them.

In fact, back in 2007, when I first listened to Silent Shout, it was a hugely inspirational album for me and it broadened my horizons beyond the music I used to listen to. Marble House and From Off to On were two songs which were on repeat on my now long-gone MP3 player for many years. It was a modern electronic classic, in every sense of the word.

The Knife were at their peak. They gave a tremendous audio-visual live “experience”  and then they disappeared. Off the radar. The moment they stood at the precipice of being superstars and seizing the world, they retreated back into the shadows. Where many other “privacy-loving” artists would have buckled and embraced the spotlight, the Dreijers who make up The Knife stayed true to their ideology, which surprisingly is a rare sight in music nowadays. Especially when the said ideology is “making music for ourselves”.

Overview —  This is an Album

That is an important message which rings true in every second of their third album “Shaking the Habitual”.  I emphasize on the word album because that is exactly what it is. A confluence of ideas tied with similar ideologies on politics, economics, culture and environment (anti-capitalism, in other words) conveyed through a set of familiar tools used in such an incredibly alien manner that it unsettles you as much as it draws you into its’ dark, mysterious core.

Similar in terms of size and ambition like last year’s The Seer, this is an album which demands to be listened in entirety — the whole 96-minutes of it. On top of it, the album is an incredibly confrontational and aggressive towards the listener — a rarity especially in today’s day and age which challenges the listener daring them to rise up to the pedestal where it stands and see it eye-to-eye. I have listened to extremely few albums which have intimidated me on first listen as much as Shaking the Habitual did.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the most complex music I’ve ever listened to. Far from it, but there’s something so incredibly aggressive about everything it does — in music, in structure, in lyrics which while encouraging you to rise up to its level also draws you into an eerie place where danger lurks around every corner. 

The Knife’s “Shaking the Habitual” has a common purpose — do what its title suggests. They sure achieve that in quite an incredible manner and in a sense that will rattle you. But how.

Rattle and shake everyone!

Rattle and shake everyone!

When they begin the album with “A Tooth for an Eye” , a track filled with many pop elements — none that are outright familiar with us. Instead of kicks, they use tribal beats and the synths which they had become their prime instruments over their career are sorely missing in this track. There’s a sense of rawness in Karin’s (the sister and vocalist of the duo) voice which permeates into the music and the music in turn seems to affect her. Both of them seem to be in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

The idea of what’s mine
A strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire”

screams Karin in the opener as she clearly states her intention in the opening 5 minutes and sets a rough precedent for the remainder of it.

That said, nothing could have prepared me for “Full of Fire“, a song rooted with a repetitive beat teetering on distortion and ADHD-fuelled insanity with only the oft-kilter beats from The Knife holding it apart. Almost as if its’ bursting out of seams. “What’s your story? It’s my opinion” blurts out Karin as she makes the first solid statement about this album being clearly a product of their own wishes. This is not a product of fan-service, The Knife made an album 7 years later because they wanted to.

This track also sets a dangerous precedent for much of the album. On paper, this is the most familiar track for long-time fans yet despite familiar tools, it is absolutely lacking any structure. Sure, it has a beat running through it that occasionally makes you tap your feet but it’s driven by a monster of its own will. A track with pop sensibilities but without any direction or structure. And I mean that as a praise of the highest order because it perfectly suits what The Knife intend on doing here.

After two intense tracks, The Knife turn down the heat a notch and let the atmosphere take center-stage for a brief moment with “Cherry on Top“. This has a repetitive string section that slowly and menacingly builds up to the half way point at which Karin’s distant vocals blurt out oddities. The Knife aren’t exactly masters of lyrics or poetry but the words that come out here seem oddly naive for them.

The slight mention of “Haga Castle” in the end of a 4-line lyric (spoken only once in a 9-minute ambient track) perhaps indicates a sly remark at the Swedish aristocracy.

The building quietness almost tumbles head-first into the unabashedly tribal beat “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” which clearly seems like a track inspired from cult Nigerian icon Fela Kuti. There’s hysterical chanting in different voices and a repetitive tribal beat (not a drum machine, mind you) steadily builds and breaks the rhythm. In terms of accessibility, this would be the most accessible song to a layman.

This naturally leads to “Wrap Your Hands Around Me” which evokes a heavy deja vu of Dead Can Dance, a popular British act who are known for their gothic influenced instrumentals and raging ballads. This seems similar in a sense as Karin’s voice for the first time in the album takes on a softer, more colder edge as she sings in almost a romantic tone. This being Shaking the Habitual however means that romance has a sinister tone with it as the much-despised castle is mentioned again in the line “free the unborn child at the castle” which comes across as a dual plea for people trapped both within and outside the castle. An interesting way to look at things I’d say.

There’s a short and a rather loud passage titled “Crake” which serves as nothing but a brief intermission before the album’s most divisive piece.

The Divisive Point — A 20-minute Ambient Drone

Shaking the Habitual is a brave album and despite its’ bizarre experiments and its confrontational nature it is still an album very much reminiscent of The Knife’s pop sensibilities. I believe a lot of the long-time fans would have embraced the album if it weren’t for this track (and its’ side two counterpart).

Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” is that divisive point. Down the road with about four songs where The Knife seem to have fairly rattled things with few intense and weird tracks, they go overboard with a 20-minute ambient drawl  that is essentially a massive drone piece. Fans of drone music like Godspeed!You Black Emperor or Boards of Canada know that drone music is best enjoyed in long listens where creating an atmosphere is the primary objective.

Problem is — The Knife are seen as pop traditionalists. Long ambient tracks is the exact opposite of what their fans expect from them. The longest The Knife have gone ambient before this was the 4-minute start of “The Captain” in their stellar album Silent Shout.

But let’s take a step back and judge the song for what it’s worth. Almost five minutes of silence with music bubbling underneath, it slowly rises to the forth and then falls back, it isn’t until the 10-minute mark something starts to surface. The 19-minutes go away pretty quickly if you take the song for what it’s worth. An ambient track. It creates an atmosphere even if I’m not sure if it’s a solid atmosphere. It’s not meant to be a track that grasps your consciousness. It’s just supposed to float around in the background quietly letting you know of its presence. It isn’t anything new but seeing The Knife do it and pretty admirably is quite amazing. They are clearly out of their comfort zone with this and what could have been their Achilles Heel turns out to be another feather in their cap.

Side Two — A Broken Mirror

For those who managed to survive the long intermission, The Knife reward with something akin to a mirror to Side One. The songs on this side (a double album if you have the CD version) are in a vague sense relatable to the songs that came before but only in a one-to-one manner.

The opener to this side “Raging Lung” is a six-minute structured pop song but using entirely unconventional elements. They still keep the tribal drums, there’s an ear-splitting horn which is the core melodic element here which runs through the song like its’ veins are burning with some mysterious rage. It extends into a three-minute long drone outro which retains some of the loose elements of the track but seems almost like an orphaned child of its own making.

Networking” is the most identifiable song on this album. Almost after an hour, The Knife drop the first track that can immediately be attached to a popular genre — techno. Despite its 4×4 nature, the beats have an odd time-delay signature which makes everything that’s arranged perfectly in order seem disorderly.

It’s like there’s a layer in the track’s perfectly arranged system that’s somehow misbehaving and that gives the entire song a chaotic feel. It wonderfully conveys The Knife’s message and the song itself is quite a joy to listen to.

Which is why the album begins its final section on a high. After a similarly loud and brief passage “Oryx”, we have quite possibly the two shining examples of this already stellar album. Firstly, there’s “Stay Out Here“. There’s wordplay in the song’s title itself. What does it mean? Is it warning us of a danger? Or is it wanting us to “stay out here” as an invitation? Your mind is puzzled and its’ that which draws it out slowly.

The track begins deceptively simple with a simple beat that appears catchy. But if the album has shown anything, it is destined to be anything but simple. Soon enough, the track disintegrates into random drum beats that emerge out of any order without any rhyme or reason while the original beat continues to beat — as if it’s the very heart of the track. Quite easily the most explicitly political track on the album, Karin outrightly says “They work the world as it will be/
Is now when they dance/Just so just now the euro falls

Album's promotional material neither featured The Knife or their masks but instead they chose drag queens to represent them

Album’s promotional material neither featured The Knife or their masks but instead they chose drag queens to represent them

There are also hints of the “intersectionalism” that Karin & Olaf talked about in the rare interview with “Being horizontal is wonderful/Most things we love are open ended” perhaps aptly placing their message of embracing people for who they are.

The track also gave me goosebumps the first time I listened to it because the song despite being eerie and chaotic has this almost scary transition of Karin’s voice from feminine to male singing “Lose a wall, love me” over almost a dozen times.

The Point Where You Give Up — “It’s Just Pulling Strings”

If Side 1’s 19-minute ambient drawl was supposed to discourage those with a weak resolve, Side 2’s equivalent comes across as more intimidating but merely in 9-minutes. “Fracking Fluid Injection” is basically repetitive pulling of metal strings for the entire 9 minutes with an echoing voice crying out in pain.

It has a sense of purpose which becomes more immediately apparent. Subtly, string by string, the pulling  becomes plucking. The intensity with which the strings get plucked result in sharper resonance and this is compounded by the echoing cries turning into shrieks and screams. As the track slowly proceeds with a sinister tone, it slowly continues but after a point, a hint of defeat sets down on it. The pulling of string is ever so furious. They are literally plucking it apart but the voice is almost a defeated cry now.

This is my interpretation — this is a track which describes humans exploiting earth for resources particularly the likes of mineral oil. Fracking Fluid is basically fluid injected into the ground to push out oil from an underground reserve. I see the pulling of strings as us injecting more fluid into the earth and the cries turning into shrieks and eventually defeated sighs are those of Mother Earth and the pain we inflict upon her.

It’s a beautiful theme driven upon in a manner only this album could. After this, the closer “Ready to Lose” hardly matters because the album has seen its best and what a peak it was.

Conclusion — A Statement

Shaking the Habitual is a powerful statement. For The Knife, it is a statement of their artistic integrity — that anything they make is primary for their own wishes and of nobody else. They create a powerful statement in this album one which speaks of many themes — political, economic and environmental but also speaks about the artistic integrity and how it is vastly ignored in today’s world of quick gains and riches. Every turn they challenge their listeners but The Knife never intended to do that. They just made an album because they had something important to say.

And for that I applaud them.

Final Score: 5 out of 5

Discussion

  1. Interesting interpretation.
    The album sure is tough to listen to. I’d describe my first listen as almost painful as opposed to the fairly comfortable and accessible music that fills the majority of Silent Shout. I’m not so fond of it. Not yet, I guess.

    And, I’d recently the book Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. So I was expecting some dystopian, bio-warfare and mutation references in the songs named after it. But they were just minute long atmospheric interludes. Strange.

    sumanthsrinivasan

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