It’s always been tempting to regard the sneering austerity of post-punk as an attempt to rescue the world’s harsh economic foundations from the ornate bullshit that, momentarily at least, hides them from our desperate eyes. The angularity and incisions of the genre’s trademark guitars, the intractable monotony of its rhythms, and the Spartan aridity of its vocals are all clever devices for shaving us back down to the obstinate materialistic base that society tries to sweep under the fluffy carpet of its cultural and ideological superstructure. But while this invocation of Marxist terminology is arguably relevant to certain archetypal bands of the late 70s/early 80s era when left-wing politics still had some purchase to the Public Image Ltds, Wires, and This Heats, it doesn’t seem particularly appropriate to The Skull Defekts. The metallic tribalism of their first two albums was more mystical than political, and the lyrics of adopted frontman Daniel Higgs plumbed a rich metaphorical opacity that didn’t really lend themselves to historical materialism. Even so, with Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown, there emerges the sense that the Swedish quintet are using their lean aggression to cut through unreality and fabulation.
But there’s no overt indication that the group is shearing through rhetorical hogwash with a fine-toothed opener like “Pattern of Thoughts.” Here, stubborn warlike drums and a pinging android of a riff prepare the way for shrouded invocations from Joachim Nordwall, who heralds the renaissance of some ancient “dance/ A pattern of thoughts/ That was carved in stone/ From the cave/ Sealed with human bones.” What lends the song its jolted charm is that it resists a heavy-handed avowal of whether this atavistic resurgence will bear sweet or sour fruit, with its pointed march thereby accumulating an unsettling ambiguity before expiring after the five-minute mark. The same goes for “It Started with the Light” and “The Fable,” the slashing lurch of the first evoking and effectuating a “simple push through” to the “other world” that may or may not be “deepest hell,” and the almost bouncing crossfires of the second featuring a Higgs who recounts a trip beneath the ocean and above the sky that’s evasively encapsulated in the lines, “I found myself in a fable/ Faced down at the banquet table/ Somebody slipped me a substance/ I spoke in a tongue unknown to me.”
It’s possible that with these fractious screeds, Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown turns the purported economism of post-punk on its head, since a bulk of its mantric irruptions conceivably suggest that it’s the industrial matrix of society that engenders false consciousness, that strips humanity from its “truth,” and that what’s needed is a return to some primordial culture or state of being. In “The Known Unknown,” constantly rolling drumwork and an unfriendly syncopated hook agitate Nordwall’s outlining of “a battle of internal disagreements” between the socialized and instinctive parts of him. And while the song’s linear structure and insistent bile retain the underlying fixity that with many of their forebears was a mirror to the seemingly irrevocable constraints of the military-industrial complex, with a recurring libidinal motif like “It all started with a minor conflict/ Something about sex and confusion,” this fixity becomes expressive of whatever instincts and drives mulishly undermine the flux of the civilized world.
Accordingly, this flux and indeterminacy is conveyed more in the album’s lyrics than in its stringent poundings through trebly, high-strung guitar and draconian percussion. With “King of Misinformation” and its fleet lumbering, Nordwall commands us to “Listen to my voice/ I speak in tongues/ It is here to guide you/ It’s here to mislead you,” which in dyadic contrast to the embedded fear and menace conjured by the track’s measured, echoing distortion and accessorized static gestures toward the incoherent mutability of language. However, it’s at crossroads like these that Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown flags a little, at least to the extent that post-punk comments on the alleged deceit of language can be heard as far back as “Makeshift Swahili” by This Heat, “Words Disobey Me” by The Pop Group, and “Indirect Enquires” by Wire.
And this waves us towards the album’s single blemish, which is that despite its honed brunt and conceptual integrity, the album just doesn’t quite achieve enough to raise it above its similarly disaffected peers. It may boast of lyrics occasionally distinguished by fantastical and transcendentalist leanings, by the keening synth tones and Higgsian poetics of “Awaking Dream,” but for the most part, it’s characterized by arrangements that are sometimes too controlled and reiterative for their own good, too scrupulously modular to be a potent catalyst for the kind of emergence and escape that such words as those of the slowly heaving “Little Treasure” connote. Maybe this imbues it with a special tension, a subtle clash between epiphanic images and an unwavering music that consistently falsifies them. But in the end, it doesn’t always make for an exciting or rousing listen, and it’s the relentless material substrate that wins out, the “Cyborganization” that always has a grip on us even in art.