The Knife’s fourth studio album, Shaking The Habitual, finds the Swedish brother-sister duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer in the most personal zone in which their dedicated fans have seen them create. The album is a 2-CD, 3-LP mammoth in which every facet of who we know of The Knife as a band shines – there is a clear statement (“End Extreme Wealth” is the focal point of the album cover artwork), a spectrum of beats and vocal styles, and a certain air of inaccessibility that has become a signature of theirs.
As an audience, with every release, The Knife has managed to both give us a glimpse into their conscious minds while still keeping an arms-length distance to make us wonder and want more. After all, this is a band who didn’t perform live until 2005, has only done a handful of public appearances and interviews in the years they have been active, and rarely take photos without masking their faces. This relationship with the media has allowed The Knife to cultivate an image shrouded in mystique. Could it be off-putting to a casual music listener? Definitely. Will it attract those fascinated by dark, textural sounds that get under your skin and haunting, androgynous vocals? Definitely.
Anyone listening to The Knife back when their 2003 release Deep Cuts came out can tell you that for as tension-bound and complex as the atmosphere is on Shaking The Habitual, The Knife came out of the gate with a more pop-laced style of electronic music. Songs like “Heartbeats” and “We Share Our Mother’s Health” from Silent Shout have been used on more than one television program, so we know that The Knife does have an appeal to a wider audience, for as much as this latest release would lead you to believe otherwise. The duo have taken on multiple challenges in the content of Shaking The Habitual, from gender issues to social class hierarchy to personal responsibilities of the individual in our society’s current state. “It’s good to ask questions instead of serving answers,” says Karin Dreijer Andersson in a Pitchfork telephone interview. The Knife are well-read, curious, and they are creative, which serves them well in their effort to explore the albums’ complex themes by turning multiple layers of relentless, difficult beats and rhythms with little aural appeal into commanding, perceptive music that forces the listener to envision beyond the sound.
The album’s opening track, “A Tooth For An Eye,” layers tribal drum beats against Karin Dreijer Andresson’s vocals, which strain with conviction (one line in particular, ‘I’m telling you stories/Trust me’ seems to go on much longer than it’s 10 second stretch). As with most tracks on Shaking The Habitual, this opener is dimensional, atmospheric, and commanding. Along with “A Tooth For An Eye,” the track “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” has an outstanding tribal force, while tracks like “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” “Ready To Lose,” and “Raging Lung” have a darker weight behind them (for fans of Karin’s other project, Fever Ray, these tracks will also be favorites). “Stay Out Of Here” is one of five tracks off the album which clock in over 9 minutes, but is a standout which features a dark, dirty house vibe, dueling guest vocals from Shannon Funchess and Emily Roysdon, and is as close to a dance track as you will find on this release.
“Full Of Fire” is the second track on Shaking The Habitual and the first single released from the album to the public. It is aggressive, stressful, and relentless…it is not a piece of music that should be appealing by any means. However, throughout the labyrinth of unnerving sounds and warped, androgynous vocals, you find yourself wincing with curiosity, trying to see how much you can stand. Along the same line, the remaining tracks (A Cherry On Top, Crake, Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized, Networking, Oryx, Fracking Fluid Injection) give the listener what we’ll call a mental endurance test…how many animalistic yelps, childlike whispers, hap-hazard violin rips and sinister industrial drones will you withstand? Where does your curiosity about the music end and your nervous breakdown begin? It almost happened to me on track 3, “A Cherry On Top;” the first 4 minutes are of creaking doors and distant wailing, then in comes what sounds like a broken music box, followed by Karin’s vocals swooping in at 5:14 like the phantom of the damn opera, singing about fruit flavors and sweet treats. “Crake” is 55 seconds of feeling like insects are crawling over you while you’re in paralysis. With tracks that convey such vivid imagery using only samples of sound, no one can deny The Knife’s commitment to their art – when they want you to hear them, they command you to use all of your senses in order to hear them properly.
If The Knife are new to you, do not hesitate to jump in and explore this album. You will either be fascinated by the bulk of what you hear, or be repulsed. The Knife experiment with their layers of sound the same way a visual artist would experiment with new media (The Knife made several instruments of their own which are used in samples on the album). This is not music that you will put on to listen to one track at a time while driving with your windows down in the summer – this is an album meant to be listened to in a full session with your headphones on. If you listen to Shaking The Habitual with this in mind, you will be taken on a journey through sounds that are rebellious in modern music and short stories that promote awareness for social issues. Shaking The Habitual is a dark piece of art, but in the midst of a manufactured media-frenzied pop music apocalypse, we need The Knife – probably way more than they want us to.