Two masked siblings from Sweden making some of the most viscerally affecting electronic music imaginable – no, this isn’t the plot of some strange underground cult film, but the real-life story of The Knife from Gothenburg. Karin and Olof Dreijer formed their joint project in 1999 and went on to release 4 albums’ worth of catchy yet exploratory electronica. Today we’ll be focussing on the final record they created before splitting: 2013’s Shaking the Habitual!

Daniel Reiser

Riding solo on this one… Shaking the Habitual marks the end of an immaculate run for eccentric electronic weirdo siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer. For 12 years, they dazzled niche music spaces with an intricate, recognizable, and otherworldly sound that can’t be replicated, and still hasn’t. Something about the siblings relationship causes magical moments on record, and in a 5-album run, they moved from a quirky somewhat memorable electronic act to one of the most elastic and formless versatile powerhouses with a completely robust catalog.

This was their last album as the electronic duo. Each record carried a different energy to it. Where their eponymous debut laid the foundation and framework, “Heartbeats” drenched itself in eroticism and late night neon depths that led minds to wander and meander reflectively. Silent Shout was sharp and dangerous, anthemic, and was for reaping chaos in dark alleyways. With their last proper release, they chose to thrive on the obscure and the organic.

Karin’s approach to freeform is elevated by Olof’s reciprocation, as they volley energy back and forth building statues and towers that interweave between collapse and catharsis. “A Tooth For An Eye” carries the weight of a weathered exhaustion. The Knife have been profoundly political, yet never felt the need to explain their politics, and espoused a rather ‘figure it out yourself’ attitude to those whomever tasked themselves with understanding fuller. Karin’s vocals are stressed to various ideations throughout – sometimes it’s exhaustion, sometimes its deep-seated anger, and sometimes it morphs into catharsis. It’s humane yet worrisome and waivers between enlightenment and the primitive. The production reciprocates this post-modern tribalism with a combination of percussion and electronic instrumentation. Blocks clap and cymbals chime to provide the baseline of the tempo for the rest of the synths to bounce off of all with shapeshifting tendencies. It builds piece by piece, all with distinct differences joining together, like merging cells into an organism of sorts.

Each track marries the enlightened and the primal with egalitarian and humanist bents. Recording sessions were approached in a jam-band fashion, where the siblings would improvise to develop glorious and grotesque soundscapes for Karin to lament, wallow, praise, shriek, and outright live on record. On top of that, one of their inspirations for this particular record was their introduction to queer theory, which they incorporated into the compositions. Obviously in enigmatic terms, so when one tries to pinpoint in particular how that sounds, it can be potentially difficult. I sensed it leads the way to its unique and non-traditional production, and exploratory soundscapes that stretch beyond traditional comfort levels, both in length and tonality…

That offbeat nature seems be most prevalent on the 9-minute masterpiece “Full Of Fire” and “Without you My Life Would Be Boring”. The tempos on “Full of Fire” shapeshift from one atmosphere to another. Everything exudes a slight exploratory, unhinged bravery that propels the production into its next phase. Somewhere in that mix are slightly off-tempo shifts. It’s all cohesive, but not traditional, and all the more intriguing because of it. Karin expresses political anxieties, frustrations, anger, contempt, each in different tone and vocal effect shifts. On “Without…”, the tone still carries that organic and digital nature where a tribal drum circle beat gives room for different flutes to meander and explore freely, as a baseline synth slinks in and out throughout. The vibe is upbeat, but still tense, yet always playful in approach.

Elsewhere, on tracks like “Wrap Your Arms around me”, soundscapes are slowed to a drip, as everything transitions from anxious to eerie. Karin employs a soft, genderless vocal delivery of poetic profundity:

Wrap your arms around me
I felt the earth
I felt the time
The sky was blue
Come, normalize
Then I got the urge for penetration
When we meet
Wrap your arms around me
Tell me all those things you haven’t told me
In the crowd
I’ll find you
On your lapel there’s a red carnation
All the things that’s left to do
Feel love and build a house with you
And free the unborn child at the castle

Its somber and downtrodden nature is amplified with the lava flares Olof pushes behind the stark tone. “A Cherry on Top” operates the same way. The track oozes out like syrup, with everything congealing together with a creeping synth that continues to morph.

All of these tracks I just mentioned are not even the first half of the album. Its hour-and-a-half runtime staunchly delivers an antithetical approach to traditional records, in the sense that it is not worried about time, or structure whatsoever. The Dreijers, here, seem to be wholly deconstructing it, just for the sake of it.

This would and could potentially scare listeners off, but The Knife never seemed to be worried about making art for others anyway. This project, and their side projects are all vehicles for their expression, with authenticity at its core. These two artists’ abstractions are just as weird as they are authentic, and the shapeless nature of the project should be a staple for any audiophile’s collection, if only for its bravery and bold proclamations if its authentic beauty can’t be seen.

The Dreijers still understand the rules, however, they just choose to ignore them. “Raging Lung” is as close to a mainstream sound you’re going to get from these recordings. The production rests on a cello pitchshifted down to a rubbery base, as Karin shifts their vocals back and forth to keep pace. Synth horns flicker brightly, and are sudden in arrival and departure before paving the way for an angelic chorus and soft steel drums.

I could go on for so much longer about this album. I left a lot of the back half out writing this out, and in writing this solo, I know it leaves even more uncovered bright spots on this masterpiece, but I keep it brief with purpose. Instead of analyzing piece by piece the masterpiece The Knife have developed as their swan song, I encourage anyone who is a fan of art that is not indebted to any rules to seek out and listen to it on their own, to find out for themselves its importance.

Dominik Böhmer

Dominik Böhmer

Pretentious? Moi?

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