The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Rabid Records / 2013
The Knife have come a long way from the sugary 80’s pop sound that once signified their arrival in the world. It’s an extensive road down a winding and variable auditory landscape, with pop signposts strewn around the edges.
If The Knife and Deep Cuts were a sunny drive through palm trees and Silent Shout was a midnight journey through the fog, Shaking the Habitual is a bumpy ride down an old dirt track through the gnarliest forest in the pitch black. It’s thoroughly disorientating in the most wonderful way.
It’s not the easiest listen: screeching metal vies for space alongside industrial drums and oppressive synths, while repeated warped voices circle in an ever decreasing circle.
The album starts off strongly with the one-two punch of A Tooth for an Eye and Full of Fire, both lead singles and not too far removed from previous Knife tracks, albeit in a more aggressive key. Both feature the oscillating synths that we have come to anticipate, coupled with ear-worming melodies. A Cherry on Top follows, and starts to introduce a darker tone, which continues to up the intensity through the fantastic Without You My Life Would Be Boring leading towards the downright unsettling Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized.
This twenty minute ambient track hits the half-way point with distorted drones and scratched metal, and probably marks the point that a lot of unsuspecting listeners might turn the album off and retreat to a safe distance. They will be missing out. It’s not an album you can get a understand immediately, and to risk spouting a cliché – it’s an album that requires attention and repeated listens to get a grip on. The second half feels a little less friendly that the first, as the album does seem to be front loaded with the more accessible songs. This isn’t to say there aren’t memorable and listenable tunes here, but the idea of any of these tracks being used in an advert is beyond comprehension.
Shaking the Habitual shares a similar mood with another recently released album, The Flaming Lips’ The Terror, but feels much more alive and consistent. Where The Terror felt artificial and dull, Shaking the Habitual feels organic and vibrant, due in part to its embracing of foley-esque sound design. Similar methods were used to great effect in last year’s WIXIW by the band Liars, and the two make excellent companion pieces. Where they differ is in their themes and how they react to modern life. WIXIW pushes away from the listener and isolates itself, whereas Shaking the Habitual hits it face on and forces the world to take note.
The album has a somewhat embarrassing set of promotional material, full of naive political and patronising statements; but these are easily isolated from the album itself, which carries itself well. The vague lyrical snippets and literary allusions carry a much stronger message than the sledgehammer phrasing of their press releases. The overall themes of the album are fairly extensive, touching on excessive wealth, the environment and an overpowering patriarchal society. Musically, it shares a lot of textures with their Darwin opera from 2010, Tomorrow in a Year, but adds a rich layer of percussion and a slightly more focused attitude. Shades of Peter Gabriel’s Rhythm of the Heat pervade a lot of tracks, also bringing to mind PiL’s Flowers of Romance with its staccato beats and alien ambience.
Some tracks have a tendency to overrun, and with the entire album pushing two hours, you can’t help but wonder if a little bit of pruning wouldn’t have gone amiss. This isn’t a deal breaker – it’s very easy to get caught up in the rhythms and I never felt any fatigue upon listening like I did with The Terror.
Double albums seem like a thing of the past, what with bands like Radiohead talking about doing away with the traditional idea of the album, so for The Knife to produce something so unwieldy feels like a definite statement. Shaking the Habitual brushes aside any worries about attention spans and wades out into untested waters. It’s hard to see where they will head next, but I know I’ll be looking forward to hopping in the backseat and letting them take the wheel.
<i>Pete Renton (Guest Contributor)</i>