It’s been seven years since they delighted fans and critics alike with their spooky, stunning third album Silent Shout, but if their extended absence had anybody wondering what was keeping Swedish brother/ sister duo The Knife (what, writing an opera isn’t enough?), one look at the running time of its eagerly anticipated follow-up should provide the answer. Shaking The Habitual is a monster, an epic in the truest sense of the word that easily justifies its lengthy gestation period: four of its thirteen tracks hover around the ten-minute mark, with a fifth clocking in at almost twenty, and yet in the company of these twisted siblings an hour and a half plus seems to pass in the blink of an eye. Because if Silent Shout often came across as a deliberately obtuse attempt to shake off casual listeners who had arrived at their music via their earliest Soft Cell-inspired synth-pop or Jose Gonzalez’s acoustic cover of their best-known song (“Heartbeats“, from 2003’s Deep Cuts), STH sounds like The Knife are once again having fun; fun in the dark, admittedly, but at least this time it’s more akin to taking a load of mind-expanding drugs and dancing with drag queens and tattooed she-males than lurking in the alley behind the club waiting for someone to abduct and torture.
Though built around the same core elements – Olof Dreijer’s industrial electronics and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s heavily processed, gender ambiguous vocals – STH is a much more propulsive record than its predecessor, with faster, heavier rhythms and vampish melodies that suggest the pair may have rediscovered their inner disco divas; indeed, with Olof’s clanging, thumping beats and electro flourishes and Karin ratcheting up the tension with moans, groans and repeated hooks, longer tracks like “Networking”, “Full Of Fire” and “Stay Out Here” (the latter featuring Light Asylum‘s Sharon Fuchness) play like extended dancefloor remixes of songs by Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire, pushing the extreme ever closer to the ecstatic with the wild abandon of early acid house. It’s this sense of perpetual forward motion, rather than the tunes per se, that really characterises the album; post-Silent Shout, Dreijer put out several 12″s of excellent avant techno under the alias Oni Ahyun, and it’s the sound of clubs like Berghain and Fabric – as opposed to dingy underground S&M basements – that echoes across STH, with the ghoulish gamelan of “A Tooth For An Eye” (below) sniffing at the heels of the Chicago Juke sound and “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” combining free-jazz flute and tribal hand drumming into a more manic version of Shackleton’s hypnotic psychedelia.
All of which shouldn’t be taken to mean that this is a one-dimensional record. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” envelops pleading romanticism in stately, grandiose avant-classicism, whilst the Bjork-ish “Raging Lung”, probably the closest thing here to The Knife of old (and Karin’s solo LP as Fever Ray), updates Portishead’s trip-hop blueprint for the dubstep generation. Then there are the ambient miniatures “Crake” and “Oryx”, and their more expansive counterparts “A Cherry On Top”, “Fracking Fluid Injection” and – most pointedly – the 18 and a half minute “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized”: depending on your mood, these will either serve as welcome breathers from the frantic percussive madness that surround them or pointless drones that merely spoil the flow of the album, but taken in the intended context they are mesmerising, especially the latter which – heard through headphones in a darkened room – will have you seeing creepy crawlies under your skin somewhere around the halfway mark.
That Shaking The Habitual is apparently the product of extensive research into “queer theory” and established gender roles, and its creators’ desire to challenge existing environmental and sociopolitical issues is almost irrelevant; the rambling “manifesto” the pair put out as part of the pre-release publicity campaign may have raised a few laughs (and eyebrows), just as the surreal videos for the two advance singles undoubtedly mean something really profound to those in the know, but any actual statements are so well disguised that their targets will likely remain unaware they’re even being attacked. They’ve certainly succeeded in making a spectacularly uncommercial record, an engrossing piece of high-concept experimentalism for highbrow people; if you don’t understand the thinking behind it – or just don’t care – then it works just as well as hedonistic, dirty dance music, albeit with some inconveniently placed sonic endurance tests along the way. Either way, there is much to enjoy in this exhilarating, thought-provoking opus. It’s a hell of a trip if you’ve got the guts – and the patience – to take it.