The Knife: Dark Times
- Words: Philip Sherburne
It's been a while since "faceless techno bollocks" ruled electronic music; aside from a few renegades like Narod Niki and Rex the Dog, most dance-music artists seem to have torn off their masks sometime around the rise of the superstar DJ. But with their new album Silent Shout (Mute), The The Knife has revived the ideology of anonymity, converting themselves from an unsettlingly chirpy electro-pop duo into one of the more darkly intriguing propositions in post-techno.
To be sure, the Swedish act isn't anonymous–it's a brother-sister duo, he six years the younger, with a growing indie label, Rabid, and budding solo careers to boot–but despite the intriguing back story, Silent Shout throws a veil of mystery over Karin and Olof Dreier, from the crow masks worn in their press photos to their diversionary media tactics. (Olof has been known to conduct his interviews speaking through a vocoder.) Despite the ultra-modernity of their sound–arpeggios glisten and drum patches ring like struck glass, thanks to meticulous FM synthesis and the hot analog spark of the MachineDrum, their preferred drum unit–there's something both vintage and timeless as well. It's a confused kind of myth-time, conjuring sea shanties and forest families, robotic steel drums and the grumbling of the earth itself. Taken alongside its accompanying videos and live show, Silent Shout feels less like a mere album and more like an ancient song cycle at the heart of some vast, multimedia fairytale where a modern-day Hansel and Gretel walk hand-in-hand from the glassy, bureaucratic world of the contemporary EU into a magic wood where monsters still live–and only synthesizers can slay them.
In Too Deep
The Knife's last album, 2003's Deep Cuts, was far different. Best known for the single "Heartbeats"–famously remixed by Rex the Dog and even more famously featured, in an acoustic cover by José Gonzalez, in a Sony Bravia commercial–Deep Cuts sounded more or less in line with early '00s electro-pop, though odd instrumentation, cryptic lyrics, and Karin's tortured inflections suggested that The Knife was far more than just another shaving off electroclash's metal blade. It was a relatively sunny affair, though repeated listens revealed something unsettling beneath the Europop sheen, especially when Karin's vocals vaulted from pop sloganeering into the realm of coded manifestos: "We are the people who've come here today/I don't like it easy, I don't like it the straight way/We're in the middle of something, we're here to stay/And we raise our heads/For the color red..."
"Deep Cuts was much more about social questions," explains Karin. "But this time we wanted to get inside our heads and do something about how society affects you inside. We wanted to work in a more mental way." Lyrics like those to "Forest Families" bear this out. Over a galloping, virtually beatless trance arpeggio–one that has the strange effect of making trance seem like a good idea, for once–Karin recounts facts so banal they could be culled from a documentary: "So far away from the city/Some kids left on their own." As she continues, surrealism quickly takes over: "They say we had a Communist in the family/I had to wear a mask." With every new, unnamed character, the scene becomes more and more Kafkaesque. "I saw her by the organ/She was laughing while pressing the keys/She said my favorite book was dirty and/You should not show you can read." It's hard to say exactly what the song is... Psychodrama? Political thriller?
"I think it's quite singer/songwritery, really," says Karin. "In all songs, you go into some kind of character. You have some story you want to tell, and you try to find that specific person who tells it best. When you find the voice, that's when you finish the lyrics as well." Interestingly, Karin cites The Pixies' Frank Black as one of her favorite lyricists, which makes sense when you consider the tangled yarns he spins, syllables often trumping strict interpretation. "He writes in a way that takes very strange turns on you," says Karin. "As a Swedish person, you don't really understand all the words when you first hear them–but they sound really good."
Much of Silent Shout's curious, ominous sound is achieved by copious vocal processing, harmonizing, and multitracking of Karin's voice, eroding the idea of a single voice, or even one identifiable as male or female. The strategy isn't purely sonic. "With the choirs we tried to do something to maximize expression–sometimes you need to use as many voices as you can," says Karin, suggesting that social theory is as important as knob-twisting in defining The Knife's idiosyncratic sound.
"I think first we really want to work with the voice as an instrument," continues Karin. "And when you use modern techniques there are no limits. But at the same time I think it's quite interesting for me as a woman to sing in very different ways–as a man sometimes, or very androgynous sometimes. Normally a woman is not really allowed or accepted to use her voice in so many ways; it's either singer/songwriter or punk." The Knife, in contrast, manages not only to slice through neat binaries but to dice them into a million little pieces.
Maybe it's for this reason that Olof resists critics' categorization of The Knife as sinister or spooky. "I don't see [our music] as so dark," he says. "For me it's quite normal. I see it as more melancholic, more like a deserted, empty kind of feeling--and quite close to nature, with almost a new age touch to it. Sometimes the voice can sound scary, but we just try to create these characters [that] you can't really tell where they are or what they are like. I don't really have enough distance from the album yet, but I don't know if it's so dark...I think it's more white." Which sounds like a contradiction, until you consider something like Swans' White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, which similarly explodes shadowy inner space into a kind of collective sublime. Even more relevant might be the "white blindness" that affects the characters in José Saramago's novel Blindness, crippling the world in a chain reaction of private whiteouts.
The Knife does follow a fairly strict division of labor, however. "From the beginning, the main partition has always been that Karin writes the lyrics and sings," explains Olof, and Karin verifies his assessment. "I've never written any lyrics," he continues. "I don't even understand the content of Karin's. She's never done a beat"–though Karin, notably, is quicker to reel off the list of the band's gear. "But everything in between, we do together. When we started with the first album and Deep Cuts we worked very equally, choosing sounds and making sounds together. On Deep Cuts we wanted to have very democratic sounds that everyone can have. But on the new album the division isn't so equal, it's more like I've nerded into the sounds a bit more and Karin has been off on her own, writing."
Indeed, one gets the sense that The Knife's double blade is peeling apart. Olof recently relocated to Berlin to pursue a solo career DJing and crafting straightforward techno, while Karin remains in Sweden–though the duo's recent spate of arresting multimedia live shows gave them plenty of time together, rehearsing and touring. The shows will continue–when promoters can afford the band's surround-sound, audio/visual, theatrical setup–but after the remainder of Silent Shout's singles and remixes, the music may run dry for a bit. "I think we'll have a break of about five years," says Olof. "We've worked together quite intensely for seven years, and we've always had three years between albums–so it's not such a big step to go up to five."
Speaking to The Knife–each member in different cities, each one taking a 20-minute, solo phone-interview slot–one senses that their internal push-and-pull is part of what makes the music work so well, part of what instills it with such delicious (and disturbing) friction. "It's okay," says Olof of working in a brother/sister duo. "You know each other very well, but at the same time you don't; it's easy to forget to be polite. And politeness is kind of a part of you when you meet other people." Of course, "polite" is the last thing you'd think to call The Knife's music, which is precisely its strong point. The sounds and voices come from everywhere at once, a constantly mutating din always verging on chaos. Civil perhaps, and certainly sympathetic–in the best European socialist tradition–but above all quietly anarchic, Silent Shout creates a world to which each listener belongs, re-shaping its myth with every replay.
This Knife Cuts Rugs
Techno's finest turn out the band's most banging remixes.
With an enviable compositional focus and ability, The Knife crafts not mere tracks but killer songs. But that hasn't kept their music from fueling adventurous dancefloors over the past several years, especially in remixed form.
Heartbeats (Rex the Dog Remix) (Rabid)
Hollowing out the track to a minimalist bump, London's faceless canine speeds up The Knife's most famous tune to an electro-disco grind, loops Karin's vocals in cl-cl-classic old-skool style, and saves the big guns–the original song's steely sheets of synth–for the last euphoric minute.
Pass This On (M.A.N.D.Y. Knifer Remix) (Rabid)
This Deep Cuts track started life as a lazy, steel-drum-belted roller; Get Physical's M.A.N.D.Y. injects it with a healthy dose of electro, amps up the stabs and arpeggios, and piles on starry-eyed synth lines that sound like a player piano run amok.
Silent Shout (Troy Pierce Barado en Locombia Mix) (V2 Records)
Berlin-based minimalist Troy Pierce comes up with his strongest remix to date, swaddling the track in a mesh of brittle, crystalline beats while keeping all the acidic urgency of the original. Arpeggios fire without regard for collateral damage and in the new context, Karin's vocal processing draws a direct line back to Plastikman.
We Share Our Mothers' Health (Trentemøller Remix) (Rabid)
Trentemøller does the impossible by turning Silent Shout's most plodding, unruly cut–blasted with bent stabs, its vox detuned to drag-king extremes–into a lithe, focused groove that's part Border Community, part children's TV show, and 100% mental.
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