Review Summary: The best type of a pioneering album: a controversial one that shakes things up.
To understand the motivation of an album with the big anticipation this one in particular has gotten from its audience compared to the polarizing reception I feel it's important to find the essential motivation the artist has always had for making music.
If you have been paying attention to the very few interviews done with The Knife
you've probably stumbled upon a clip from the "Silent Shout" era where we meet Karin and Olof before a live show. Dressed up with the infamous bird masks they get asked about what their music is about. Hesitantly they explain that The Knife is not so much about communication as it is about playing, stretching and toying with formats that are around the medium. While the former is less true for this release, due to its intentions, the latter is undeniably a strong point to be made and even goes within the title of "Shaking The Habitual".
Because this time around there is great change involved in what used to be anchored as The Knife's "sound". Not only because this album offers tremendous variety, but also because of very little resembling the mysterious electronic duo from seven years ago. "Silent Shout" was hailed as a masterpiece, all around with excellent promoting and audio-visual tour. An electronic album that made it to the dance floor all the while having enigmatic lyrics and a depressing theme of dread in society. To say this effort is different is to put it lightly.
Of the comparisons that can be made to their earlier work it can be essentially said that if "Silent Shout" was a dark, foggy and introverted being "Shaking the Habitual" is an acid-injected and politically aware extrovert full of stark, blinding colours.
This is also why fans might feel thoroughly disappointed as parts of this 98-minute giant can be exceedingly difficult at first listen. Not to say it's not a rewarding experience because, if the right attention is given, this record delivers greatly.
The cover art is a powerful testament to this. An off-putting green and pink mish mash of cheesy fonts and weirdly placed images. Something that would make any graphic designer want to throw the CD out of the window or break the computer screen.
In contrast to this, though, album opener "A Tooth For An Eye" is surprisingly gentle to the ears. While wild and intoxicating with its exotic polyrhythm it is surprisingly harmonious as every aspect of the track blends together perfectly. It's the lead single, "Full of Fire", that proves to be the real shocker. An uncomfortable 9-minute long hypnotic rave that grows with unexpected turns and downright odd twists, which also succeeds in being bloody and raw political music.
For that is the center of The Knife's work now; at least to the current shape of the group that has been morphed over the years. The decisions made on this album are greatly affected by the duo's socialistic and feministic stances. Ideas of queer theory, hyper-capitalism being destructive and ending royalty through bloodlines might interest some and be boring to others. Where The Knife ends up with pioneering, though, is that the music reflects these ideas. Changing the identity and form of instruments, sounds and structures - breaking the habits and streamlined methods of creating music. Some sort of gender bending - and it works.
In the middle of the aforementioned track we hear this as the progression turns loud and psychotic with sounds that will surely weird out most people, but it makes the whole experience all the more hard-hitting. "Raging Lung" is yet another exotic track that is accessible, but with a second half that features a mind-bogglingly unique instrument. But, then again, it could very well be a blend of several. Ultimately it ends up sounding oddly organic and most certainly uniqe, which makes this track a highlight. "Networking" tumbles around with its freaky techno and creative re-shaping of a single sample, while "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" is a personal favorite as it warns of impending doom with tribal drums, but also emotional and sexual bliss. Think of a ballad on Karin's solo project "Fever Ray", only pumped on steroids and Viagra. The only track being close to a classic Knife sound, "Ready To Lose", arrives at the very end and is a deliberately short affair.
But if a surprising blow was dealt to the listener through the first two tracks of exotic drumming and intense raving there's still a completely different angle to meet. The third track "A Cherry On Top" is arguably the greatest achievement on the whole record. It's split up in roughly two parts; the former which builds tension with ambience and a sound that is surely one of the most original things to be heard this year. It reaches a halt in a hugely similar way of a roller coaster before the ride really takes off. Then we are introduced to oriental strings. It's a baffling and perplexing change of pace as a massive bass turns the whole thing epic and Karin sings a random few lines about royal luxuries. The lyrics seem culturally and atmospherically out of place and the whole song is experienced as being on two opposite sides of a spectrum. An experience that is wonderfully alien and which feels unexplored.
The ambient parts of the album can become a nuisance, though. Mainly on the 19-minute long drone piece "Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized". While interesting on its own merits and purpose (not many would dare to structure an album with this material midway through) it ends up being a long pause with plenty of emptiness. This is destructive as the rest of the tracks on the record, to varying degrees and arguably, can be heard as casual listening. Aside from that they're also tightly packed and densely layered, which makes the effect of this odd placement of a loose soundscape to be a slight buzzkill on what is otherwise a riot of an album.
But one can't claim The Knife are fan-pleasers. In the interview from 2006 Olof has mentioned that they make music for themselves and in a recent interview from this year he's also said that once the intention and goal is clear for an album it can't be affected - they have to stay true to the work. It's therefore maybe not completely unexpected that"Shaking The Habitual" is the boldest statement they've made to date and it has brought controversy all the way along the road: from the lead single's music video of dodgy camera work and SM-sex to their manipulating live shows where it's gradually revealed that most elements of what music is being played on stage is playback. Their latest effort is yet an artistic expression that sticks to its principles down to the marrow, whether it be serious politics or just dancing your ass off to infectious beats.
Maybe that's a part of why this release succeeds. Love it or hate the concept, the music is uniquely exhilarating, filled up with shiny colours and it just might make whatever else you listen to in the following days seem a bit dull in comparison.