Album review: The Knife, "Shaking the Habitual" (Mute) - Reverb

Album review: The Knife, “Shaking the Habitual” (Mute)

As years pass on without new material from a musical act, it’s easy to assume the worst. The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” released in 2006, was the platform from which the Swedish brother-and-sister duo took flight from pop into something darker and more original. Then they walked away, moving into new sonic territory with projects like the stunning debut of Fever Ray and then a collaborative electronic opera. Even though they didn’t need to, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer decided to upend their own rules and bring the Knife back this year with the highly anticipated double album “Shaking the Habitual.”

Clocking in at just under 100 minutes, the album’s size and experimental methodology make it uneasy to navigate. The pair were challenging listeners right out of the gate with the first single and easy album highlight “Full of Fire,” a nine-minute lurch of prickly hard-spun synth. Andersson’s inimitable falsetto provides the song with a perfect hook, even when digital processing transforms her into a chunklet-spewing mother of Grendel.

From there, “Shaking the Habitual” slows without stiffening, though it drifts into less accessible territory as it moves forward into elaborate orchestral selections (“Wrap Your Arms Around Me”) and invigorating rearrangements of trance (“Stay Out Here.”) While it’s an unfit intermission here, “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” will provide the more naïve among Knife fans a stimulating introduction to ambient music. Make no mistake, it’s an earnest ambient track, empowered with peculiar twists and surprises throughout its 19-minute span. The similar “Cherry on Top” would be the most uncomfortable examination of ice cream ever if not for Andersson’s unusually swollen manner, which hints at a deeper meaning.

On a first listen, “Shaking The Habitual” might sound like little more than a big muddled metaphor for social injustice across the globe. But the specifics are there, colored in with creative spirit. It helps reading the comic strip discussion provided on the front page of the band’s website, which targets a global wealth gap, systematic patriarchy and environmental neglect.

Deconstructing Andersson’s lyrics is satisfying. “There’s the lottery, about geography,” she sings on “Raging Lung,” where cleanly cut analogies simmer against Dreijer’s sauntering percussion. But she isn’t always clear. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” for example, entwines its romantic refrain with materialism, or perhaps to the timeless cycle of struggle to overcome barriers and authority. Even the the jarring instrumental “Fracking Fluid Injection” seems to be a moral warning of sorts, foreshadowing a calamitous future.

Ambitious yet only occasionally overdrawn, “Shaking The Habitual” is a memorable work from a duo who always reward close listening. They remain among the few popular artists who ride the whirlpool of experimentation without getting sucked down the drain.

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Electronic blogger Erik Myers is a Denver-based writer and new contributor to Reverb. Contact him at erikmye@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.