It’s shocking to hear Karin Dreijer Andersson’s voice break on the first track of The Knife’s new record. What we’ve come to even think of as her voice has actually been an eerily treated combination of human and machine tones. She’s used a cyborg’s voice to sinisterly, surreally express lots of pain and discomfort before, but the point in which she, a human woman, reaches the far end of her range has been elaborately hidden. It’s crazy how recognizable she’s sounded peeking out from a digital shadow. On “A Tooth For an Eye,” stretched out, screaming, she seems finally flesh and blood. It’s hardly a relief.
Ten years or so since their first hit “Heartbeats”, and it’s hard to even state how influential the band has become. It’s like synth-pop speaks an entirely new language because of Sweden’s Dreijer siblings. Where James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem sounded like the graceful send-off to decades of synthesized influences, the Knife’s 2006 masterpiece Silent Shout felt like a beginning of something new. Vocal manipulation is as important to modern music as guitar tone or drum sound once was, and no one has used the technique to more deliberate, uncanny effect. About two bands a week debut singles that press releases describe as “Knife-esque”, heavy with synthetically melodic steel drum sounds and vague, dark suggestion. On Shaking the Habitual, Olof Dreijer crafts deviously complex dystopian techno rhythms that make all those new bands sound instantly dated. If The Knife still even make dance music, it’s for a fucking weird club.
Their new record is formally challenging, to put it mildly. Its title’s narrowest interpretation is literal, describing an attempt to disrupt the way we routinely consume records on the edges of our lives, streaming from gadgets meant to do other things. Its very size is willfully out of step, a formidable 90-minute monster in direct opposition to eroding attention spans. There’s a perversity in how they lay down that challenge to pay sustained attention, and then test your limits even further, pausing the record for 20 full minutes of brooding ambient drone. Or how they layer beats into “Full of Fire”’s impossibly delirious stacks, emulating pressure building in your temples until your head might finally explode. It’s frequently assaulting and noncommercial. The torture they felt over taking the “Heartbeats” ad money that paid for Silent Shout isn’t about to be repeated, unless stress migraines decide to really start marketing themselves.
Compare it to a truly off-putting piece of recent music like Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch for some perspective on how far they go to actually repel a listener, though. Sure, they too can take things to excesses on the border of absurdity and disgust. (I mean, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” starts on the words, “a handful of elf pee…”) But their music feels way more connected and contained than the “pure unlistenable art” description that’s already setting in. It seethes with rage at the outside world, but it doesn’t keep itself sequestered from it.