Even if you’re not a longtime fan of Swedish brother-sister electronic duo the Knife, you likely know their 2006 single “Heartbeats,” which was prominently featured in a Sony commercial and has subsequently been covered by a host of other artists. The fuzzy synths, midtempo beat and primal croon have become a kind of template for contemporary electropop but, given the band’s notorious reclusivity and outspoken anticapitalist values, it’s ironic that many should know them for this commercial venture—a decision they claim to have made in order to launch their own label.
Seven years later, Shaking the Habitual is the payoff for this compromise, a record so adventurous, daring, politically unabashed and genre-defying that it could have been released only under the auspices of their own Rabid Records. In the intervening years, singer Karin Dreijer Andersson released a solo record as Fever Ray, marking a shift in sensibilites away from the dance floor and toward the quasi-pagan elementalism of kindred Scandanavian Björk. Shaking the Habitual is more than a couple steps further in this direction, aided by her brother Olof Dreijer’s lush programming and production.
Opener “Tooth for an Eye”—the closest thing to a single they offer here—makes it immediately clear that the Knife still deal in dance music with a fleet Afropop lilt built from skipping claves, gongy cymbals and kalimba-like synths, but there’s something darker that bubbles up, like a fermented Yeasayer or a curdled Gang Gang Dance. What follows, “Full of Fire,” a 9-minute industrial anthem is the first taste of what’s in store, Olof using Karin’s processed voice as but one texture in a race toward the electronic underworld. As the record progresses, a series of 8- to 10-minute tracks push further toward the abstract, reaching a nadir with 19-minute centerpiece “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized.” The piece is barely audible at times, with foreboding drones and chimey feedback cresting and receding like an apocalyptic episode either passing or waiting to transpire.
Paradoxically, this is where the politics of the Knife’s music become most apparent. Like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who prophesy revolution in impulse and affect, rather than polemical language, it is their dissolution of genre and form that offers the greatest affront to a commercial system sharpened to coopt anything shiny regardless of its content. “What can a protest song be today?” Olof asked rhetorically in a recent interview. Sloganeering doesn’t seem to have much to do with it anymore, even though the album’s packaging features a long comic strip with the exhortation: “End extreme wealth.” Rather than demanding the collapse of class or gender-based barriers, the Knife cut through those designating genre and expectation to the point where, as Karin says, “the border between normal and strange is erased.”