The Knife have always been mysterious and unpredictable, and anyone drawn to the Swedish brother/sister duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer solely by their 2003 hit “Heartbeats” and its pop-centered parent album Deep Cuts will have surely since been discombobulated and discomfited by the pair’s refusal to play the standard cards of electro-pop, from giving interviews in Venetian masks to performing clad in balaclavas. A recent interview in The Guardian highlights this malaise, with the interviewer expressing dismay at Olof’s use of the word “jam” (as in a musical jam, not the spread) and mocking the duo’s avowed political and philosophical stances. It’s a view born of ignorance, really, because as early as “Pass This On” (also from Deep Cuts), The Knife displayed their non-conformity, blurring the lines of gender and sexuality in the song’s remarkable video, proof that their elusively militant take on pop has always been a key element of their musical DNA.
Even with this in mind, Shaking the Habitual, their first album since 2006’s melancholic and minimalist Silent Shout, is a curveball. The mournful post-Soft Cell infectiousness of “Pass This On” and “Heartbeats” seems a world away, replaced with a rich and abrasive palette of sounds that takes in industrial, hardcore techno, minimal house and ambient across 13 jarring and unsettling tracks. Lead single “Full of Fire” is a case in point: nine minutes of crisp, juddering beats and drone-heavy electronic textures that evoke Halber Mensch-era Einstürzende Neubauten, with Karin’s heavily-processed voice ratcheting up the tension. “Full of Fire” is claustrophobic and oppressive, and is all the more brilliant for it. It’s a leftfield move to release it as a single (complete with an experimental and confusing video), one that shows that The Knife have become bolder than ever in the seven years since Silent Shout.
“Full of Fire” serves as a template for roughly two-thirds of the tracks on Shaking The Habitual. On “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” Olof juggles hypnotic deep grooves with jerky polyrhythms played on an array of “real” drums and percussive instruments, and Karin’s keening, shifting vocals are surrounded by a panoply of effects and sounds, from multi-layered flute parts to strange samples of birds and what sound like baby cries. The closest comparison I can think of would be the Gang Gang Dance of “Glass Jar,” except that The Knife are a much more caustic proposition. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” meanwhile, progresses at a more sedate pace, with cavernous industrial percussion (again, Neubauten springs to mind, as Olof turns to sheet metal and other non-musical percussion to flesh out his beats) and somber synth patterns, in a style not dissimilar from Blackest Ever Black stalwarts like Raime and Regis. “Raging Lung” is warmer, a sort of disconnected funk-pop not entirely removed from mid-‘90s Portishead, only with more aggressive percussion. Dreijer Andersson’s voice is uniquely suited to these relentless shifts, as she rises from deep moans to hysterical screeches in one breath. It equally helps to convey the duo’s takes on matters both political and social. The lyrics are not always easy to follow amid the dense clusters of percussion and noises, but her vocals are pregnant with emotion and, much like Throbbing Gristle and SPK, the presence of so many unsettling sounds in The Knife’s compositions is in itself a statement (albeit an abstract one) and fully debunks the notion that a pop band (a term that could be seen as reductive in the case of The Knife) can’t be engaged or even militant. Just don’t expect the message to be delivered overtly. The Knife wrap their ideas in layers of mystique and sonic riddles.
The minimalist “Networking” and “Stay Out Here” continue the album’s trend of manipulating and colliding various electronic styles, the latter being an edgy 10-minute shuffle propelled by wispy snares and occasional breakbeats under throbbing bass and moody, Eastern-tinged drones. But the album’s centerpiece, the colossal 19-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” is a complete about-turn: completely beatless, it’s a drifting slab of ambient drone similar to the likes of Lustmord or Thomas Köner, that ebbs and flows patiently, building in intensity, with wisps of textures and effects fluttering in and out. Even someone used to the vagaries of The Knife’s intricate vision will be surprised at this particular piece, perhaps all the more so because it is so troublingly beautiful, like the best of any dark ambient act you care to name.
It may be seven years since The Knife last threw out a communiqué to the rest of the world, but Shaking The Habitual is quite simply a triumph, a bold and experimental statement. The duo is still shrouded in that omnipresent aura of theirs, and few “pop” acts have achieved such levels of mystique whilst producing music this good.