Remember that time the Knife made a great pop song and everyone hailed it as the coming of the messiah to the dance floor? Well, that happened, and then the Swedish duo seemed to fade into the background, never forgotten but hiding in the shadows as it produced chilling music with solo projects (Fever Ray and Oni Ayhun) and scored Darwinist operas. But the Knife proper never disappeared. It was always there, looming, as we awaited a tour or a new album. There was distance to blame—Karin Dreijer Andersson in Stockholm, Olof Dreijer, her brother, in Berlin—but after three years of passing off songs between two cities, and a full seven years after the acclaimed Silent Shout, the brother-sister duo takes the uncanny to its sonic limits.
Never to deny Karin and Olof their much-deserved thrones in the temple of electronic art rock, Shaking The Habitual isn’t the pulsating beat of “Heartbeats”; this is 98 minutes of the Knife in long form, slowed down and stretched out, not unlike that bizarrely perfect recording-turned-meme of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” slowed down 800%. There are no casually digestible “songs” in the radio-friendly sense, which puts it closer on the sliding scale of “risky” to the all-out-oddball Planningtorock/Mt. Sims collab opera, Tomorrow, In A Year.
That’s certainly not to say the Knife has tossed away all pop inklings: What’s the Knife if not a team of skilled beatmakers with appeal to even those who eschew allegiance to dance music? Subtleties are not lost on Karin and Olof, who have the unique and enviable skill of adding menace to all they create. You’ll hear the beat of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” in the first 10 seconds of polyrhythmic assault “Full Of Fire” before the Knife takes the familiar beat and makes a complete u-turn onto an eerie moonlit path frequented only by nocturnal beasts with glowing eyes and vocal processors. Mixed in among dystopic Margaret Atwood references (the brief droning interludes “Oryx” and “Crake”) and an even stranger but satisfying Fugazi nod on “Raging Lung” are the jungle drums of which the duo is so fond, featured prominently on the shivering “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” and the throbbing closer “Ready To Lose.” Opener and early single “A Tooth For An Eye” is dotted with anxious peaks and valleys of elation and trepidation, and “Networking” is all nervous electronic percussion and constant threats of crescendos—build-ups without breakdowns, rising action without a great fall—it’s all the excitement, fear and joy of the slow, rickety ride to the top of the roller coaster.
But for every quick giddy feeling of excitement injected right into the bloodstream comes the cold-shower of lengthy ambience: “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” is a 19-minute atmospheric break in the album, and “Fracking Fluid Injection,” at only nine minutes, is a teeth-grinding whine. Yet, it works. It’s a perfect push-pull. It’s long, creepy, and it’s their electronic “Night On Bald Mountain.”
Still svengalis in sound, look and personality—see their bizarre manifesto—the Knife takes risks. And for a band as adept as the Knife, it pays off. It would be incorrect to say that the duo is pushing “weird” to its sonic limits; “curiosity,” mostly in the space of the extremes of human personality, would be most apropos.