Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
The world has changed a lot since The Knife released ‘Silent Shout’ back in 2006. There have been economic collapses leading to international austerity, revolutions, national demonstrations and international campaigns like Occupy. Sexism, homophobia and racism have become mainstream discussions once more. A lot of people are waking up to the fact that the world they live in and the power structures that support it are at best damaged, at worst broken, and a lot of people are feeling angry. And amongst those people are Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Deijer.
Whilst politics has always characterised The Knife’s worldview, their beliefs were usually expressed through relatively indirect means – in song lyrics, EP titles and in interviews. It was never overt enough to stop songs like We Share Our Mother’s Health being co-opted by middle-of-the-road TV shows like Ugly Betty or CSI:NY. The times when their politics have taken centre stage, like their history of boycotting award ceremonies with bewildering stunts, could easily be viewed as gimmickry.
“The numerous nightmarish, beatless tracks that pepper the album – like the much-discussed, 19-minute terror of ‘Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized’ – are endurance tests for the listener that, unlike political content hidden within the framework of a pop song, can’t be missed.”
Not so on ‘Shaking The Habitual’. Here, The Knife’s political beliefs, heavily informed by social and critical theory, shape their sound right down to the core, directly affecting the form that the music takes. First single Full Of Fire, for example, is a furious barrage of kickdrums and heavily distorted synths, its strobelight rhythm unrelenting for its nine minute duration. In the last 15 seconds, Karin growls “let’s talk about gender, baby”, flipping the famous Salt-N-Pepa line whilst her own vocal gets heavily manipulated, degenderizing it in the process. Likewise, the numerous nightmarish, beatless tracks that pepper the album – ‘A Cherry On Top’, ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’ and the much-discussed, 19-minute terror of ‘Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized’ that acts both as the album’s centrepiece and the closing track of its first CD – are endurance tests for the listener that, unlike political content hidden within the framework of a pop song, can’t be missed. These tracks might be seen as abstract or obtuse, but it’s quite the opposite – their intention is so clear that it hits you like a cinderblock.
The Knife – Full Of Fire
Another concept that The Knife tackle across the album is the notion of “quality” music. In the much-discussed album biography that was released before the album, the duo asked: “how do you build an album about not knowing?” The album attempts to “un-know” any ideas of how music should be made, which puts them in similar company to industrial artists like Throbbing Gristle – not sonically, but in the sense that they eschew any preconceived designs of a “right” or “wrong” way to make music, be it through non-standard structures or the use of non-identifiable sounds. The result accounts for those aforementioned ambient tracks, but it also means there are tracks like Without You My Life Would Be Boring, things that loosely resemble pop songs but which are utterly thrilling because of how unlike anything else they sound. It’s refreshing to hear a record that has no discernable point of reference to music that has come before it.
The Knife – A Tooth For An Eye
The music press has been keen to paint Shaking The Habitual as a difficult album, emphasising aspects such as the bizarre or obtuse manifesto or, in the case of The Guardian’s interview with the band, treating their political beliefs with suspicion (“[i]t sometimes feels as if the Knife’s feminist theory has an answer for everything”). Because it’s one thing to be politically charged on Twitter, but another to try and channel that anger in your art.
But ‘Shaking The Habitual’ is hardly as unwieldy as, say, a Sunn O))) record. And it’s nowhere near as unwieldy as their own avant-garde opera, 2010’s Tomorrow, In A Year. It’s bold and challenging, at times it’s hellish, but at other times it’s genuinely fun – think of the juddering house rhythms of Stay Out Here, or the truly stunning – A Tooth For An Eye. It dares to make the shocking assumption that the listener might have to bother investing some time in it, and if that’s what qualifies something as difficult, then everyone else is playing it far too easy.