Shaking The Habitual
, April 16th, 2013 10:08
"No habits! There are other ways to do things," read a line from the press text sent out a few weeks before the release of The Knife's first solo album since 2006's Silent Shout. It offered a manifesto of sorts for Shaking The Habitual, dropping hints as to the thought process that underpinned the making of the album. The intention seemed primarily to draw a parallel between the increasing creative deadlock the duo themselves had been experiencing ("we didn't plan to make another album," it revealed, "we wanted to do something again but had to find a purpose") and the wider sensations of malaise and stagnation currently affecting a world that's never felt more toxically imbalanced: gender inequalities, destruction of the environment, free market fundamentalism, the excesses of rampant capitalism and the corporate takeover, "a blood system promoting biology as destiny".
The solutions to these personal and global issues alike, it suggested, might be brought about via the same basic internal processes: a return to mindfulness, and a breaking free from established patterns that have become ingrained more though complacency than conscious intent. "How do you build an album about not knowing?" they asked. "We want to fail more, act without authority... We choose process over everything else." In both the press text and interviews that have been published since, Karin Dreijer and Olof Andersson explained how they went back to the drawing board and went "temporarily acoustic". Starting from scratch, they built their own instruments, took location recordings of architectural spaces, rekindled a love of pure sound.
The resulting album, unsurprisingly enough, contains their most texturally diverse work to date. Shaking The Habitual plays like a reaction chamber of sorts - a space where organic and inorganic sound objects are introduced, heated to boiling point and encouraged to collide wildly into one another. Acoustic and electronic sources are often stirred together so vigorously that it's impossible to determine the origins of any one particular sound. On opener 'A Tooth For An Eye', crystalline, interlocking melodic patterns that hint towards Indonesian gamelan are roughly hewn from instruments more texturally akin to Konono No. 1's thumb pianos, each note buzzing and distorting around the edges. Lead single 'Full Of Fire' is full-scale, whirling berserker techno-pop, its anchoring rhythm - somewhere between strut and stomp - gradually drawing more and more detritus into its orbit until it all crushes together into a glorious, caustic shower of noise. 'A Cherry On Top' plunges plucked string figures deep into a bedrock foundation of tectonic sub-bass and seething, frothy distortion, recalling nothing so much as Bristol duo Emptyset's recent experiments in recording site-specific acoustic resonance. (And that's just the album's first three tracks.)
Intriguingly, there are further parallels with Emptyset's recent work - collected on the Medium and recent Material EPs - scattered throughout Shaking The Habitual. They're worth commenting on, even if only briefly. Emptyset's recent site-specific installations, set up in spaces such as a disused nuclear plant and a mine - where they set up sound systems to blast frequencies through these anthropogenic structures and recorded their responses - were stark and eerie reflections upon the effects of human society upon our environment, and the scars left when we up sticks and leave. Similarly, Shaking The Habitual's near 20-minute interlude/centrepiece (depending on your perspective) 'Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised' found The Knife exploring the resonant properties of empty architecture. "We set up with a PA system in [an old boiler room]," said Karin in a recent interview with Dummy. "[We] wanted to create a feedback chain and see what would happen if sound could develop and continue working by [itself], and also with our interference." The track is frostily beautiful and profoundly devoid of traces of life, reminiscent of the most stripped back moments of Pan Sonic man Mika Vainio's music as Ø (a strikingly common reference point in electronic music at the moment). And if the actual sound source used to make 'Fracking Fluid Injection' was very different - a creaky bedspring - its penetrative, phallic title and distressed cries directly allude to its theme: of rich white men very literally fucking the planet.
Indeed, that the thematic aspects of Shaking The Habitual have been so prominent in its presentation is something of a red herring, in that there's nothing as straightforward as a single, overarching concept to the record. Instead it's a series of interlaced meditations that touch on pertinent issues without ever being overly explicit. As well as 'Fracking Fluid Injection', track titles 'Oryx' and 'Crake' are among the album's most direct, referring to Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel of the same title, which details the destruction of a dystopian human society at the hands of a brilliant and demented male scientist convinced that he alone can cure its ills. Dreijer Andersson's lyrics throughout are delivered with enough barbed force to display righteous ire, though the words themselves are often veiled enough that many could be interpreted as equally personal or political. Again, it's the approach behind the record, and the musical results that that the duo's explorations have delivered, that speak most loudly of the overall message they're keen to put across: of consideration, rethinking and reshaping. For The Knife themselves that's given rise to mutant forms of earthy, polyrhythmic pop, jarring Detroit-ish electro (the sinister, rapid-fire 'Networking' bears more than a touch of DJ Stingray's post-millennial paranoia), contemplative electroacoustic experiments and broken, metallic techno. Texturally and musically, it's almost certainly the most diverse and sumptuously detailed record that will command the attention of the mainstream this year.
Perhaps one reason why some corners of the popular music press (many of whom should know better) have pegged Shaking The Habitual as "The Knife takes a turn for the weird" - or worse, dismissed it on that basis - is that the current pop landscape tends not to be overly interested in the working process or intention that lay behind the finished product. Anyone attuned to much modern electronic or (broad terms) 'experimental' music won't find much in Shaking The Habitual that's genuinely unfamiliar or shocking (off the top of my head there are sonic parallels with the sublime, post-human vocal deconstructions of Holly Herndon, Carter Tutti's marauding industrial pop, the virtuosic sample bricolage of Matmos, Surgeon's perpetual motion techno chug and Konono No. 1's joyfully distorted percussive racket, though that's only the tip of the iceberg). In the context, however, that's beside the point. Shaking The Habitual isn't a perfect record, nor is it something that everyone will find particularly enjoyable: it's very long and stylistically divergent, flitting busily from idea to idea throughout in a way that can make it tough to digest in one sitting. But it's deeply gratifying to hear a band like The Knife following up an accessible and universally applauded album like Silent Shout with a huge, sprawling statement focused on a process of reinvention, exploration and discovery. The approach they've taken with the creation of Shaking The Habitual makes as punchy a statement about the issues the album purports to address as its track titles, accompanying artwork and lyrics. That the music it contains is largely excellent serves to further reinforce its message. "There are other ways to do things." Indeed there are.