Shaking the Habitual
Styles: sola dosis facit venenum, non-cooperative barriers, protest songs
Others: Einstürzende Neubauten, Kevin Drumm, Nurse With Wound
“The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).”
– Michel Foucault
“We have made some decisions.
We want to fail more, act without authority”
– The Knife
As opposed to surmising the contents of Shaking the Habitual through the conceptual lens of those quotations, I find that they provide more of an insight as to the album’s structure, gait, and absurdist tendencies. Those words don’t allow breathing space for justification; instead, they offer a chasm of understanding into the intent of Sweden’s electro-pop duo The Knife and this, their most outrageous and mesmerizing beast.
Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer felt compelled enough by Foucault’s statement to base their recordings around his line of argumentation, and in so doing, they formulated a document called SOME FEELING IN THE BELLIES OF THE TANKERS WHO PASS IS MAKING SAD MANIC BONGS LIKE DRUMS. It’s not so much a manifesto in the typical sense, but a checklist that divulges the various thought processes involved in recording their latest release. The core of their agenda includes confronting manufactured knowledge, abhorring the injustices of neo-liberalism, criticizing classist social norms, exploring the principals of Queer Theory, and mutating the representation of the self, all of which is expressed across a cacophony of musical styles and patterns that are just as sonically flagrant as they are surgical and afflictive.
In accordance with Foucault’s claim, there is no visible intent to shape political will through the tracks that are presented here, but there is a clear desire to participate in its formation through protest songs. The brother and sister duo is predisposed with sparking a dialogue about privilege in the context of their field, the arts, and turning that on its head by fucking with the constructs of what an album by The Knife might otherwise sound like. In this way, they are measuring their own preponderance over their audience by drifting between both expectation and regard; one of the main discussion points concerning the record is “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” a 19-minute ambient drone composition that bleeds across the very center of its host. There are also three electroacoustic noise sections, two of which last less than one minute, then there is “Fracking Fluid Injection,” a tormenting slice of improv that is essentially a rusting medley of metallic screech and echo hauled over the course of nine minutes. These are instrumental experiments that dislocate recognition by rendering the sound’s original source untraceable; they also permit the Stockholm siblings to reevaluate their grasp of artistry and reexamine assumptions about their listenership. What remains of interest is how far The Knife can transcend the boundaries of a self-fashioned musical style that brought them to such prominence to begin with.
The combined artistic efforts of Dreijer and Dreijer Andersson are unquestionably groundbreaking; they are responsible for a heterogeneous garland of arresting sound art, music, and debate that is incomparable. But it is worth recalling that Foucault describes his take on the work of an “intellectual,” and before conducting any theoretical excavation, one should be reminded that Shaking the Habitual comes from a pair who recently distributed press photos of themselves wearing shiny green jump suits and playing on the swings. They enjoy dressing up as birds and have been photographed on numerous occasions wearing beaks. As well as lacing their 2003 LP Deep Cuts with electro-pop gems such as “Heartbeats,” they also decided to include “The Cop” — you know the one, “I am a cop, shut up / I piss in your mouth,” and suchlike. That’s not to say that this energetic twosome are lacking in intellect, quite the contrary, but that their ideas and concepts often come tongue-in-cheek, and that’s what I adore about them: only The Knife would criticize unequal wealth distribution in the same interview that they discuss the possibility of including 10 helicopters on their upcoming tour. They are surely the only musicians who would disclose the importance of constructing sounds that are distinctly composed so that their source remains unidentifiable, only to then provide an exact description of what they used and how — “a zither and a bedspring in a box, played with a bow, processed through a modular synthesizer to distort the sound.”
The Knife made their initial leap into esotericism by hightailing into the nether regions of opacity with 2010’s Tomorrow In A Year. Yes, it was a collaboration, but those ornithological manglings are being rampantly sidelined, where Shaking the Habitual is hailed as the first “proper” album since Silent Shout. But when you bypass the insipid squeaks and free-fall Darwinian biography splurge that the former record constituted, of course the latter is going to prove more difficult to swallow. Dreijer and Dreijer Andersson worked with Mount Sims and Planningtorock in producing an opera about the grandaddy of natural selection for a perplexing Danish performance group. Although Tomorrow In A Year was not crafted solely by The Knife, it was Olof who spent time in the Brazilian rainforest collecting sounds and composing material, while Karin featured in the production of every single track. The project resulted in a bewildering listen that proved a prominent indicator for Shaking the Habitual, which sees the duo moving even further into the depths of obscurity — only this time, they come armed with a discourse on gender theory and power relations as opposed to a copy of On The Origin Of Species.
Clocking in at 97 minutes, this 3xLP has not been recorded with the ease of amiable track-hopping in mind, its purpose built for a single sitting. Although that case could arguably be made for any other record out there, the combined length of each number on Shaking the Habitual operates as one of the project’s principal components: an embodiment of reexamining assumptions about the listening habits of The Knife’s own audience. Aside from obliging the listener to ingest an aural clusterfuck of liberated curiosity and compromise, Shaking the Habitual exists as a gateway to some of the most compelling, stimulating, and unrivaled music the outfit have released to date. Absorbing the girth of this behemoth in one fell swoop is rigorous and harrowing; one comes away feeling ruptured, dislocated from expectation but determined to listen again. It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as pretentious drivel, a wanky charade both pointless and irrelevant — it’s a justifiable standpoint, but one that lays waste to any audacity or inventiveness. It might also explain the five empty circles above, only it doesn’t (more on that later). Your perception could go either way, but mine falls on the side of investigation and intrigue as opposed to progressive dismissal.
The songs come in a variety of forms, destined to instigate cherry picking the “best bits” for the next subway trek. The resulting selection will presumably encourage higher play counts for the enchanting electro-pop sensation “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” an ecstatic and shimmering roundhouse of festivity that radiates gaiety with its incessantly catchy hooks and tropical patches. The song is instantly gratifying, bolstering any remaining hopes that The Knife might return to their ever buoyant and technically flawless Silent Shout; there are distorted voices, a hungry pace, and some tenacious dance-floor hubbub that utterly embellishes the chorus, though fits awkwardly alongside the oddball numbers that surround it. Each listen feels like coming up for air in some weird demiurgic tide. As a lively, pop-friendly addition, it also complements the album’s second single, “Tooth For An Eye,” a percussion-driven afro-beat showpiece that suits the duo’s power relation convictions through its accompanying video, which saw a young girl leading some strapping beefcake cohort in theatrical dance. It may have been considered a lure, an attempt at drawing in a pop-prone audience to the act’s long-form shenanigans, if only “Full Of Fire” hadn’t been dispensed as the lead single. That was my primary point of entry into this balmy new material, and I found myself immediately drawn to it — partly because of director Marit Östberg’s knack for making the most trivial matters devastating to watch: an elderly maid dropping wine glasses on the floor set against the coarseness of the track’s closing minutes, which disclose a deviant refrain after the most gauging and obnoxious tones. The music suited the video brilliantly, but it sits just as elegantly without a visual accompaniment, as an induction to the darker candy within.
“I want to bend my soul again / That’s what we do when we get older” Anderson presses on “Raging Lung,” her delightful undertones fluttering before a goading chorus. A gloomy bass wraps itself underneath steel drums and high-pitched synths, making for one of the most stupendous songs The Knife have ever produced — not only is it somber, catchy, and commanding, but it also touches on issues surrounding the album’s context “I’ve got a story that money just can’t buy/ Western standards/ The poverty is profitable” sings Dreijer Andersson. This isn’t the first time she toys with the subject of vulnerability, power, and respect, but it is the first time she sounds so utterly persuasive, which calls into question the very tactics The Knife have employed here in erecting “barriers” to demonstrate their argument as opposed to writing melodies as moving and fragile as this. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” dominates the spectrum’s flip side, with its wrenching soundscape of piston percussion that etches out the some humid pulse. Dreijer Andersson drenches the track with her trademark vocal manipulation in a fashion that remains marginally separated from her work as Fever Ray. Elsewhere, The Knife further surpass previous achievements in warping the confines of electronic pop on “Stay Out Here.” With an uptempo fissure and a triumphant display of vocal havoc from Shannon Funchess, it’s enough to claim a distinct return to form. However, it also precedes the only recording that specifically references any environmental concerns The Knife have.
The process of Fracking involves pumping the ground with high-pressure fluid in an attempt to release shale gas. After it was discovered in 1947 as a homegrown measure for uncovering natural resources, plantations started emerging all over the States as a means of not having to rely as much on foreign imports. Consequently, the gas began to contaminate local water supplies, so much so that people living in nearby areas found their taps could quite easily ignite, the shocking footage of which laid at the heart of Josh Fox’s stunning documentary, Gasland. There has been a great deal of recent discussion concerning potential shale extraction across Scandinavia, which was researched by the most inappropriately titled GASH project. This is the only issue The Knife tackle here directly, and their stance is made overtly apparent in the title of their “Fracking Fluid Injection,” the content of which provides more of a statement about the associated detriments than any lyric. In the context of the album, it exposes a fascinating set piece; as if Ben Bennett decided to explore the possibilities of electronics in his noise improv. But it’s not the sort of thing one might wish to hear from the same group who dropped “Tooth For An Eye,” which plays into the remits of the “manifesto.” These are not generic ways of working within music; the track is provoking the expectations of a listening audience, which makes the fact that I find it to be a spellbinding exemplification of improvised sound almost secondary.
“Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” falls into a similar category of experimentation, only the dosage is that much larger; its length is part of the sibling’s reevaluation as to what an album, or the perceived construct of an album, should constitute. It doesn’t play into a specific issue, but takes its title from egalitarian ideals and principals from the past that have not come into effect: “classless society, real democracy, all peoples’ right to move and be in the world with the same circumstances…” Sonically, that premise is completely undetectable, and the results call for an appalling amount of patience. As a long-form drone arrangement, it manages variation and even structure in its garbled tide, neither acting as a breakwater between songs — it’s far too extensive for that — nor a moment of calm after the grinding intensity of “Crake.” However, as a standalone piece, it fails to achieve the same level of fascination as, say, Kevin Drumm’s 150-minute Tannenbaum or the tonal elegance of Mohammad’s Som Sakrifis. Instead, it provides an additional layer of complexity that ultimately questions one’s motives for engagement. It might be out of place in the context of the surrounding material, but when taking this hellion on in a single hit, it’s enchanting: it’s the shiny green jumpsuit to an argument about “real democracy,” intriguing by its very nature and a complement to the project’s sheer absurdity.
As an album designed to be consumed as a whole, Shaking The Habitual is exhausting. But the experience is unique, not only because of its length, but because of the inquisitive nature of the project. There are some fascinating dimensions to the music, but to deliberately pull them from the surrounding material is dispiriting because of the music’s context and the artistic aspirations behind it. Scoring this release at zero comes not from some gut reaction to long-form drone, electroacoustic experimentation, or the maniacal way in which The Knife have approached protest music — I find it enthralling that they should go to such lengths to prove a point. When they say “we want to fail more,” their intention is to breech the album format as a construct, and in that respect, they have succeeded. Indeed, I’m not attacking The Knife for their daring feat, but reexamining my own familiarities with convention at the hands of their artistry, and that simply won’t register on a scale of one to five.
01. A Tooth for an Eye
02. Full of Fire
03. A Cherry on Top
04. Without You My Life Would Be Boring
05. Wrap Your Arms Around Me
07. Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized
08. Raging Lung
11. Stay Out Here
12. Fracking Fluid Injection
13. Ready to Lose