Once you have heard Shaking The Habitual by The Knife, it will stick like a splinter in the back of your mind.
Mute Records, 2013
9.3 / 10
This is an older album by this point, according to the fast pace of modern music releases, so I think it’s a great time to take a more objective look at Shaking the Habitual‘s pros and cons, while distanced from some of the hype.
In terms of their sound, The Knife have basically been plunging to the bottom of a dark pit for the last ten years, taking the entire culture of synth pop with them. 2003’s Deep Cuts was menacing and hectic electro-pop, but it was pop nonetheless. Next came 2006’s Silent Shout, an eerie and terrifying work that ended up being as critically acclaimed as it was alienating. After this, came a somewhat ill-fated Avant-Garde opera about the life of Charles Darwin, titled Tomorrow in a Year. Without seeing this work performed, it is hard to understand what The Knife was trying to accomplish, so it falls flat on its own. However, this pattern demonstrates that The Knife has a superb commitment to experimentation, evolving their sound, and making their music a statement. It also shows a great deal of creativity, artistic integrity, and boldness, all of which The Knife continue indulge to a great degree on Shaking the Habitual.
First of all, I was given this album to review as a new writer for Earbuddy, which I think is highly indicative of how hard this album is to make sense of. Once you have listened to it, you will see why most people wouldn’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Even visually, the bright pink and greens on the cover make it so uncomfortable to look at; you know that there will be no refuge for you on the inside.
Sonically, this album plays like the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange; continuously eviscerating, stunning, and horrifying the listener for its entire hour and forty minute length. Despite the marathon duration, the Knife controls the pace very precisely in Shaking the Habitual. For every stretch of high octane, tribal insanity, there is another stretch of more relaxed and ominous horror to compliment it. For “Full of Fire” there is “Cherry on Top”, and for “Networking” there is “Stay out Here”. This pattern continues all through the album with a steady reduction in energy towards the finish, keeping you from feeling too overwhelmed, but constantly pushing it. For example, in the opening track, “A Tooth for an Eye”, they continue adding percussion throughout the entire song as Karin’s ferocious screams are electronically stretched to inhuman extremes, and they ease in and out of the intensity very fluidly, without ever really slowing down the pace.
In conjunction with the organic, overall pacing, each song seems to evolve naturally on its own time schedule. In this album, The Knife doesn’t shy away from a thought or a feeling until it has fully run its course, whether it takes 20 minutes in “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” or 37 seconds in “Oryx”, but despite the huge variation in song lengths and styles, it is consistently dark, bold, and unapologetically abrasive.
Because of its name, I was expecting something more pointed from this album. Instead I received an amorphous, impenetrable blob. This fact alone would annoy me more if the cathartic experimentation didn’t seem to be the message in and of itself. However, in-between the swaths of inscrutable insanity, the Knife has packed several different political statements. “A Tooth for an Eye” meditates on extreme wealth and stratification, “Full of Fire” takes aim at gender stereotypes, and “Fracking Fluid Injection” is obviously about environmental destruction. There are also some direct references to Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake through the two songs bearing the same name.
Now that I have listened to it several times, I think the Atwood references are the key to solving the message behind Shaking the Habitual. This is an album meant to attack the listener with the horrifying nature of our modern world. It shows us, through its musical form and tone, that the issues it discusses are hard to digest and comprehend, but these uncomfortable realities need to be faced. This is where the horror, and the filth built into the Knife’s music really finds its voice: the sound of their music is supposed to be as appalling as the subject matter that they meditate on in each song. I.E. You should be bothered by gender inequality, homelessness, extreme poverty, and global warming. Our passive acceptance of these issues is undermining the progress of our society.
But I digress. Even without the hype surrounding this horror show of an album, it is still fantastic. It is challenging, abrasive, horrifying, and obscure, and all of these elements come together to produce a critical message that is disarmingly on point, once grasped in its entirety. It took me many listens, another entirely verbose personal review, and reading the Knife’s own meandering manifesto to understand the point of this album, but the time put in was highly rewarding. I recommend that as a listener, you take the time to really dive in and try to immerse yourself in Shaking the Habitual, because I suspect that even reading my review won’t give you a great picture of it, not for lack of trying though. This is easily one of the most challenging and unique albums to come out in recent memory. Once you have heard it, it will stick like a splinter in the back of your mind.
Purchase: The Knife – Shaking the Habitual