The Knife surprises with bizarre yet joyful performance

The Knife, a Swedish electronic duo delivers unique, thrilling sounds on their most recent albums. Photo courtesy of filtermexico.com
The Knife, a Swedish electronic duo delivers unique, thrilling sounds on their most recent albums. Photo courtesy of filtermexico.com

Listening to Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s 2006 album Silent Shout is an auditory nightmare. Often likened to a soundtrack for a haunted house, the music is threatening, disorienting and paranoia-inducing, yet undeniably thrilling and fascinating. The first three tracks send the listener down the darker side of the rabbit hole, plunging him or her headfirst into a world that’s bizarre, bewildering and utterly unfamiliar. As the tracks slowly slink through the first ten minutes, images flicker, bright eyes ogle and fleeting shadows rustle. As one walks down this deep sonic forest, suddenly an alarm starts ringing. A bell chimes to the rhythm of a frantically flailing animal, and then boom, you’re running. The bass and synths hit.
Seven long years later, the band dropped Shaking the Habitual, an album named after a Foucault quotation and designed to disrupt the traditional listening patterns and expectations of their audience. It swings wildly from irresistibly melodic and catchy to entirely chaotic and inaccessible. Careening 19-minute songs lumber while tracks titled “Oryx” and “Fracking Fluid Injection” offer little relief. Brilliant, and maddening, the band succeeded in accomplishing its original goals.
I was drawn in at first, wholly gratified by the few moments when The Knife deigned to satisfy my musical cravings. The disruptive noise in between bursts of melody and the continual delaying of release only further enticed me. I didn’t understand their choices but was still willing to engage. However, the more I actively compared Shaking the Habitual to Silent Shout, the more I grew puzzled, bemused, and slightly disappointed. The sound I lusted after was no longer there. For me the band simply wasn’t able to create the same atmosphere that propelled their previous album to reverence and acclaim.
When I went to see the band last week in Boston’s House of Blues I came with a laughably outdated image of the band. I associated them with their house of terrors aesthetic, bent on warping their audience’s consciousness with their aural brilliance. I expected a vivacious light show, fog and some machines and costumes befitting the shadowy atmosphere. The opening act would likely be some up and coming electronic producer who tied his work to various forms of social engagement.
Instead, we were met with a man in full wig and make up, wearing three layers of mismatched clothes and leading us in highly spirited, dance-centered, eccentric stretches (formally called Death-Electro-Emo-Pop Aerobics). Designed to “warm the audience up” his routine consisted of call and response, lewd jokes and an altogether overwhelming positive energy. Outspokenly gender neutral and proud, he preached love, happiness and self-assurance. As he exited, acrobats in shimmering silk costumes filled the stage, taking contorted stances at points throughout the stage. As the music came on, the drums began to beat and the lights gyrated. The dancers slowly began to move to different rhythmic patterns. As the song progressed and reached its full timbre, my focus shifted from acrobat to acrobat. Their movements each emphasized unique components of the music and by watching them, certain sounds became more pronounced. They all wore brightly colored jumpsuits and marked their faces with war paint and circus make up.
Thus, rather than being gloomy, the set was vivid and sprightly. The dancers smiled instead of glowering, joyfully rocking as the songs structures began to break down and the sonic experiments began. An interlude was taken as one of the acrobats read the poem “Body Possum,” an ode to queer theory, gender neutrality and progressive aesthetics. The poem cemented the concert as a tribute to ’80s disco as a counter-cultural force. Dance and the simple joy of kinetic movement centered at the heart of both their show and music.
From the band’s most divisive album came their most unifying and holistic act. My expectations, like my listening habits, simply needed to be reevaluated.