After years of doubt and suspense, The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual was released in April, and its delivery did more than satisfy the gnawing need that had been building among their fans in the seven years since their release of genre-defining masterpiece Silent Shout. Not only is the highly conceptual album more than an hour-and-a-half long, it was released alongside a manifesto, comic strip, and rare interviews from the band laying bare the radical feminist and egalitarian principles the LP espouses. How they would bring this vision, a radical departure from their previous work, to their live show was a mystery. Would they have a “band”? Would their faces, for once, be visible? Would they just throw some bell hooks quotes up on a screen and walk away?
The Knife’s performance at London’s Roundhouse on May 9 was more spectacular and satisfying than I had dreamed. Their opener, simply advertised as “DEEP AEROBICS,” was a buff, black drag queen wearing a dreamcatcher as a necklace and a long white wig, who comedically worked out the crowd with hip and rib isolations and synchronized jumping as thumping electro played. If this seemed an odd choice for a band whose last round of shows had more in common with a horror movie than a jazzercise class, the inconsistency was quickly compensated for by their performance.
Shaking The Habitual is explicitly about breaking down our assumed perceptions in order to open ourselves up to different truths, and that’s exactly what The Knife’s show accomplished. They came onstage with a band consisting of five or six people in shiny hooded cloaks, playing, shockingly, what seemed like honest-to-god instruments. This in itself put this show in a different realm than the Silent Shout tour, which found Karen and Olaf standing alone between four screens of trippy projections. This time, one of the performers was playing an unrecognizable, custom-made, bass-like instrument that looked like a sawed-off part of a tree laid horizontal, and was used to replicate the unsettling strings on experimental track “A Cherry On Top.” It got better — at the conclusion of the song this instrument was flipped over to reveal a drum machine on the other side, which was played for the next few tracks.
But we hadn’t seen much yet: after a few songs as a “band,” the cloaks came off, revealing brightly colored sequined outfits, while Karen, Olaf, and cronies assembled themselves for what would be a nearly hourlong dance routine, while their music played in the background. Though they clearly aren’t professional dancers, their performances had obviously required a lot of training and forethought. The choreography riffed on everything from musicals like West Side Story to the Nutcracker to traditional African dance, creating a disconcerting post-modern atmosphere while both older tracks and new singles like “Full Of Fire” blasted into the incredible space, sounding like a showtune from hell. To me, this was the most important part of the show. As a former high school dancer, I’ve been mystified by the lack of dance in underground and DIY art spaces in recent years, so to see a band that is creating some of the most interesting and risky music today make such perfect use of it was awe-inspiring. Aside from the theatrics, to have the whole band, who we’d just seen in a traditional live music set-up, abandon their instruments as tracks were obviously played back out of their control certainly shook up at least a few long-standing ideas of what it means to play live as an electronic artist, a debate that has been raging for decades and has resurfaced recently in light of the EDM explosion.
But The Knife are never satisfied with one interpretation of anything, and what it became clear they were saying with their intentionally glitzy set was to force upon the audience the realization that what we consider truth is always a matter of perception, and human interaction always a performance, be it of your gender, sexuality, or belief in governments, economies, and traditions. Just as The Knife seamlessly transitioned from their seemingly sincere act as a “band” playing instruments to their winking experimentation with artificiality of show, what the experience was meant to teach us was that a world where the categories of gender, sexuality, race, and class are equally permeable is possible. But most incredibly, none of this intellectual politicizing felt oppressive — to the contrary, it felt like a celebration. It was no accident that they ended their set with a rave-infused version of “Silent Shout,” thanked the crowd warmly and then left us to dance to their DJ’s beats, while the crescent of lights at the beautiful Roundhouse lit the audience with rainbows. After a show like that, what else was there to do but revel in the ecstasy of breaking down the walls that oppress us — whether politically, physically, psychically or emotionally? In seven years, The Knife has gone from icy, creepy, and detached to sparkling with warmth and humanity, succeeding ecstatically in giving us hope that we can still try to change the world.