Following a seven-year hiatus of studio releases, Swedish electronic band The Knife (comprised of brother-sister duo Karin and Olaf Dreijer) made their comeback in April this year with their fourth release, Shaking the Habitual.
In their breakout album Deep Cuts, the band utilised 80s-inspired electro-based synth melodies that felt like a natural fit in your average club scene, whereas the proceeding Silent Shout was slower, morose, and embraced a more chilling, minimalist dark ambient style. The band progresses even further on Shaking the Habitual, where the duo fuses these styles from previous releases yet pushes them to extremes in a rougher, abrasive and experimental fashion. You only have to glance at the album’s length and the duration of some tracks to get a sense of this – as a double album, it borders on 100 minutes and contains individual tracks that last as long as 19 minutes.
However, the album does gently ease the listener into its experimental side with its first two tracks, “A Tooth For an Eye” and “Full of Fire”, which are probably the two most accessible songs. “A Tooth For an Eye” features instrumentation that is incredibly varied, with a tribal, afrobeat-inspired rhythm to it as well as pulsating synth beats. Karin Dreijer’s vocal style is reminiscent of her work on Deep Cuts, with not nearly as much distortion as there was on Silent Shout, and I love the way her voice stretches to its limit on parts like “I’m telling storie-ee-ee-ees” and “trust mee-eee-eee-aaa-hhh!” There’s also an occasional woodwind sound in this track that hangs around, and it’s a pleasant addition. “A Tooth For an Eye” is almost a near-perfect harmony of the styles from Deep Cuts & Silent Shout, but with far more complexity. And like in Deep Cuts, the opening track gives the listener a sense of the album’s general makeup, but in Shaking the Habitual, it’s only the Toothtip of the Eyeberg. (cue a chorus of groans, I know that was bad) The following “Full of Fire” is a cut that is definitely drawing on some of the synth-heavy elements from Deep Cuts, but as the upbeat synths ebb away, the track progresses into an erratic array of sounds with heavy and distorted electronic noise. But it’s only a taster of what is to come.
After the relative normality of the first two tracks, in “A Cherry on Top” the album descends into a spooky combination of sounds, and creates an atmospheric, dark ambient feel. The distorted synths that made brief appearances in “Full of Fire” dominate this track, along with various field recordings that sound chopped and reversed. After 5 minutes of noise, Karin Dreijer’s slow, haunting vocals enter, but soon fade away to more ambience and distortion. There’s a choral vocal track near the end which reminds me of the chanting heard from the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit edited. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” is a welcome return to the varied, organic sound featured on the opening track, featuring tribal drums, woodwinds and maracas accompanied by unobtrusive, thick synth lines. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” uses thudding drums and even more electronic distortion which envelops the song as it progresses, and Karin Dreijer’s vocals only linger in the background.
And then the closer of the album’s first half, “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized”. At 19 minutes it seems excessive. But it’s an eerie and foreboding ambient track, and as you listen you can’t help but get this overwhelming sense of dread and darkness. It’s lifeless yet captivating, creepy as hell, and easily induces goose bumps. Apparently composed and cut down from hours of sounds recorded in a boiler room, but there’s little evidence of its origin in the track. I highly recommend against playing this when driving alone at night, unless you want to spend nigh on 20 minutes on the verge of paranoia.
“Raging Lung” continues where the first side’s closer left off, but with an ever so slight increase in tempo, and aided by more tribal drumming along with Karin Dreijer’s vocals, which are a relief after 19 minutes of dreary lifelessness. But it eventually descends back into a dark ambient vibe towards the end, but with light percussion and soft whispering by Dreijer. The calypso-style beats heard throughout Deep Cuts make an understated, brief cameo in this track as well.
“Networking” contains a bizarre mix of sounds, in combination with a jumpy electronic beat, along with Karin Dreijer’s vocals that are distorted and looped, and “Stay Out Here” is another tribal-infused vibe, but with synths, not drums. Dreijer’s vocals suddenly transform into panting as the track plays, but are warped and distorted through various stages. Dreijer is also joined on this track by Shannon Funchess of synth group Light Asylum, whose vocal work adds a dash of smooth soul, and is oddly suitable and refreshing.
The second half’s experimental ramble, “Fracking Fluid Injection”, is an eerie composition with cawing vocals by Karin Dreijer that seem to vary on several registers and are looped and distorted over a bizarre, scraping metallic sound. Dreijer’s vocals suddenly become a low moan, then a raspy wail as the track winds down, and a dull, cumbersome synth sound begins to wallow around. This is easily the weirdest track on here, and is bound to grate on a few listeners’ ears the first time around at least.
“Ready to Lose”, the album’s final track, begins with more tribal-infused synths, followed by artificial claps and Karin Dreijer’s vocals, which have returned to some semblance of coherence. Compared to what has come before it, the beat here is tame yet interesting, and actually serves as a welcome comedown for an album that has dived within your subconscious and taken you from extremity to extremity.
As its name would suggest, Shaking the Habitual challenges and reconstructs the sounds within in The Knife’s previous efforts. Gone are the groovy synths that dominated Deep Cuts, gone is the cohesiveness of Silent Shout, replaced with sounds that seem hell bent on treading musical ground that is harsh, haunting and unfortunately irritating at times. People that were fans of Deep Cuts should approach this album with a degree of caution, fans of Silent Shout will feel a bit more at home with some of the sounds here, but I doubt many Knife fans will be ready for tracks like “A Cherry on Top” or “Fracking Fluid Injection”. I have to admire their bravery in committing to an album like this though, in an age of popular music where single albums consisting of 3 or 4 minute tracks are the norm. With this album The Knife throw those restrictions to the wind, and in the process craft an album that is indisputably eccentric, yet unforgettable.