Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Knife's Shaking the Habitual is an intimidating but rewarding listen

It's hard to decide which is more en vogue in 2013 -  electronic duos releasing comeback albums, or electronic duos releasing albums somewhere around two hours in length. The Knife decided to do both. Shaking the Habitual is their first proper album in seven years, and is part the year's theme on comeback records -- fellow electronic duos Boards of Canada and Daft Punk released long awaited followups this summer. Nor are The Knife alone in putting out a double disc album of experimental electronica -- Autechre beat them to the punch with their dual album Exai in March.

What we can ascertain is that The Knife will be pushing their boundaries much farther than any of those groups, and creating art that possibly few would dare to attempt. Their crowning achievement to date, 2006's Silent Shout, struck the perfect balance of weirdness to pop accessibility, and spawned an underground sensation. Shaking the Habitual, on the other hand, veers sharply in a much more abstract and arty direction.

The Knife have not opted to merely plunge down the rabbit hole; they have grabbed hold of the vast network of tunnels, shaken it up, turned it upside down and rearranged everything about it until you barely even recognize it as a rabbit hole. There's also an underlying political influence that runs under the surface but is never specifically addressed concerning an unwillingness to accept progressive values in their native Sweden. It's a presence that informs the record, albeit mostly indirectly, but provides a noticeable edge into the music. Yet ultimately, what makes Shaking the Habitual one of the standout records of the year is that the band continues to exercise their firm grasp of fundamental music principles while presenting a view of the spectrum that few have ever managed to attain.

Although Silent Shout was extraordinarily visionary, it was still based on the general idea of pop based song structure, but Shaking the Habitual shows their ability to break away from that format to create works that are much more experimental, progressive, and free flowing. There are still some pop based formats to be found, but The Knife are no longer bound by that framing mechanism. This is the album's true triumph.

The first five songs, with one notable exception are all reasonably accessible. "Full of Fire" is easily among the most ambitious compositions in the band's catalog. It starts off with an infectious drumbeat and some bird-like scratching and screeching that makes the listener feel like they just stepped into the world's most exotic nightclub. Yet Karen Dreijer Andersson's vocals become warped and tormented as it progresses, as elements of sexuality, and warped weirdness continue to develop and persist over the track's 9+ minute run time.  "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" sounds like it could be a boss fight on a JRPG taking place in space, while "A Tooth for an Eye" and "Without You My Life Would Be Boring" are more abbreviated pieces that wouldn't sound out of place on Silent Shout.

Yet as the album progresses it gets even weirder, as unlikely as that may seem. "Networking" shows off Olof Andersson's deep sense of experimental production work, with tingling synths that play on the fears of our subconscious by backing them up with the sound of swarms of bees buzzing. There are only a couple songs here that are rather peculiar and don't warrant more than a listen or two in most cases, but still leave an indelible impact due to their unusual nature. "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized," is an 18+ minute piece that relies heavily on drone, yet is also filled with plenty of faraway eerie metallic clinking and clanking that creates a feeling of isolation and desolation. Sort of like Godspeed You! Black Emperor but even icier and bleaker. The other track is "Fracking Fluid Injection" which is 10 minutes of really weird scratching sound and is barely listenable. Listen at your own risk.

Shaking the Habitual is admittedly a dense and difficult listen, at least on your first few playthroughs. For many the exterior may be too intimidating to break through, but if you do you'll find an album full of great ideas, creativity, and a willingness to buck the establishment. The Andersson's think for themselves and release a record that's catchy, listenable, and free flowing. The greatest thrill of this album is that you never know where it's going to go next.

Score: 89/100

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