Somewhere between the birth of reality TV and the cult of ‘celebrity’ twitter, culture got hijacked by stupid. Pop stars are treated as the high watermark of innovation, and we live in a world where Beyonce is seen as the chief indicator of what’s ‘edgy’ or ‘cool’. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with pop, there’s something wrong with a culture that refuses to engage with work a bit trickier than button pushing, primary coloured reaffirmations of everything you think you know. It’s a relief then, that The Knife’s fourth album is a determined plunge into the avant garde. Whilst contemporaries get cleaner and poppier, The Knife have got harsher, weirder, and angry. Fans looking for a sequel to Heartbeats (their still popular debut single) are going to be disappointed. Shaking the Habitual is a dense mix of scratchy percussive techno, punctuated by unearthly sounds dredged from digital waste. If it sounds inaccessible, that’s because it often is. From the outset the album juts and judders like a Japanese Buto dancer, all tension and sharp stabbing motion. On Full of Fire the squawking rave bleeps popularised by American EDM are turned into feral beasts, wild birds battering their heads against a cage of rhythm. Karin Andersson’s lyrics are delivered in her uniquely Scandinavian accented tones, and whilst her meanings are oblique there’s an unmistakable anger running through her hisses of “Liberals giving me a nerve itch.”
Tracks such as A Cherry on Top and Without You My Life Would Be Boring throw up tinkling Oriental chimes, tiny, spiteful clockwork geishas. Like most of Shaking the Habitual they’re long, clocking in at over 5 minutes, and allowed to spin around and do their thing. This length, however, threatens to spill over into pointless self-indulgence on the albums midpoint – the 20 minute ambient sprawl of Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised, constructed from non descript drones fading in and out of focus. In many ways I’m glad The Knife have put something so wilfully difficult on their album, if only because it’s a relief to see artists still happy to take risks. Still, after 14 or so minutes of very little, you start to wonder what the point they’re trying to make is. Brian Eno did much the same before- and better- some 30 years ago. Thankfully next cut, Raging Lung, featuring a honking synth sax culled from the mutated remnants of a noir-ish 90s cop show, puts proceedings firmly back on track.
At over an hour and a half, Shaking the Habitual can feel a bit of a slog. Tracks such as Fracking Fluid Injection, which amount to 9 minutes of whale song and harshness fed into an echo chamber, are clearly going to put off the casual listener. But given time (such a precious commodity in our age!) they push you into new, unsettling spaces. Combined with the albums curious techno maladies, and a thrilling sense of rage pulsing through Andersson’s vocals, The Knife have quite possibly made their defining record. Cruicially, they’re offering a much needed alternative to the modern bland. Who wants to eat Big Macs every day?