The Knife: Shaking the Habitual
An analog thunderstorm, a full-blown, over-the-top extravaganza charged by static/electric strobes and proclaimed by booming thunder. A white hole has burned itself into the sky, leaving the ghosts in an apocalyptic frenzy. We all wonder at the sight of it: has the hour of salvation come? We can’t be sure because to look at the hole is to feel the sickness of burning eyes and a turning stomach. What could come through there: anything. What we hope: we dare not.
Zo Quivver and Quake performed a sold-out free show in the central plaza, using the white hole as lighting. I skulked near the back, dodging a few of the nuttier ghosts trying to devour the whole place before the end comes. I looked into eyes that had been bound into hell for a million years. Rims a mile deep ran under them, creases like crevasses, reminding me that I was, for all my tribulations, unbelievably lucky to have dropped in when I did rather than in the distant past.
Hopefully a kind of miracle will happen. Oh, did I write that we dare not hope? Well, I’ll keep my pen shut then.
Please bear with me. I have been lazing around these past few days listening to the new records that spill down from the tear in space. It seems that music is the first of the vanguard to arrive in this place. I cannot wait for the 16mm film reels.
One of the albums that I had been hearing about from my editor was Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual.
Hackles are bound to prick up the moment a band tries to make “important music.” That phrase usually conjures visions of ham-fisted political lyrics, overblown earnestness, and artless pretension. Nonetheless, an even more insidious thought can often give rise to all of those images: this group is taking a position that might be contrary to some of my own views. We often feel that music should stay neutral. We want great music, not political commentary–especially if that commentary is going to unnerve us or brush us against views we find reprehensible.
Artists have a narrow edge to walk when engaging explicitly political subject matter. Instead of calling such music “political”–what music is not at least unconsciously political?–I would prefer to call it “activist.” The Knife’s new album, Shaking the Habitual, lays bare its activism for all to see. Its demeanor is ferocious, its music abrasive, and its lyrics, while cryptic, are unmistakably pushing the listener outside the music and into the world. The Knife has always harbored a certain wildness, but here they let it have a freer reign, clawing at the fabric of their extended songs (six of the thirteen tracks run over eight minutes) and providing a spontaneity only partially evident on their earlier work.
Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish brother and sister duo behind The Knife, came into the recording process with a mission in mind, and their use of chaos, paradoxically, is surgically deliberate. Armed with extensive reading that Karin, in an interview with Catch Fire, said included “Mohanty’s ‘Feminism Without Borders’, also Franz Fanon, Judith Butler, Foucault, Spivak and some of Wendy Brown.” Ideas about feminist activism, intersectionality, and other critical theory therefore underly much of the politics on the album. The first song offers a blistering critique of conservative politics: “Under the Sun /Look what we have got / And those who haven’t: bad luck.” The music arms itself, invoking dance as a weapon and accusing its unnamed enemies of rewriting history to suit their own purposes. Shaking the Habitual is designed to do just what its title implies: inject some instability into the artifice of modern society, whose oppression of marginalized groups depends on false certainties.
Along this vein, The Knife has also launched the album with a publicity campaign that has served to underline their commitments. Upon the launch of the record, the group posted a long manifesto on their website along with a comic strip parodying the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Rather than calling for the elimination of poverty, however, they advocate a plan to eliminate extreme wealth, noting how the afflicted ultra-rich are “caught in a vicious circle of wanting more and more crap–a circle that is very difficult to break.” While it’s hard to tell if any material good will come of these efforts, the band is at least opening up space for critical reflection, which is more than this tiger can say for most groups.
Though they lack a certain feline touch, the music videos also have much to recommend them. There isn’t room for much discussion of them here, but I may choose to revisit them individually later on:
Also see this interview with the band, made by Marit Östberg who also made the “Full of Fire” video.
Perhaps mirroring its overriding concern with human bodies and the politics of identity, the duo has opted for a mixture of organic and electronic instrumentation. The trouble on most of the songs is attempting to discern which is which. On the second track, “Full of Fire,” what sound like programmed beats clash against otherworldly noises, synthetic bass, and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s often distorted vocals. Everything is tipping off balance while Andersson sings “Of all the guys and the signori/Who will write my story/Get the picture, they get glory/Who looks after my story?” In the album’s moments of clarity, when the hurricane of sound quiets and the words pierce through clearly, the effect can be touching, even moving.
A major chunk of the album’s running time is taken up by instrumentals. “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” an aching, lurching twenty minutes of ambient drones recorded in a boiler room, resembles a kind of nightmare played in slow motion. “Oryx,” and “Crake” are harsh, wordless homages to Margaret Atwood’s work, and “Fracking Fluid Injection” opens up into a kind of glacial beauty, icy but somehow healing to witness. It, along with the beautifully passionate “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” bring The Knife’s humanity to the fore, allowing us to see a modicum of hope emerge.
The question could well be asked whether a group with such a pointed message should be cloaking it in music this challenging and esoteric. Similar complaints were lodged at Radiohead when they abdicated their status as the Biggest Band in the World to pursue more radically subversive sounds. It could well be that smuggling queer theory into a populist dance track may reach a wider audience than putting the same message in a ten-minute electroacoustic freakout. That said, I believe this approach offers more impact, drawing The Knife’s considerable audience deeper and more critically into a new perspective. It might not always work, but the alignment of the activist and the artistic on Shaking the Habitual meshes remarkably well. It’s a fraught journey, but one well worth undertaking. As, I hope, will be my journey to the skies. I can already feel that white hole starting to pull.