As befits a duo that dreams up an opera based on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, The Knife is one of the smartest bands working. What couldn’t be counted on by the makers of 2010’s unlistenable Tomorrow, In a Year is that their 100-minute double album would be both smart and listenable—against all odds the best work Karin Dreijer Anderssen and her brother Olaf have ever done and a candidate for 2013’s best album, period. Think of Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition, John Lydon’s (and Jah Wobble’s) famously abrasive masterpiece, with coherent politics and forward motion in the grooves. Hell, forward motion in the drones. Think if Liars’ percussion monsoon Drum’s Not Dead was all it was cracked up to be. Think of last year’s Swans album, The Seer, if it was composed and programmed protests rather than improv goth comedy.
The band proper last left off on Silent Shout, a smarter, darker synth-pop album than anyone else made in the 2000s, while Karin went rogue in 2009 for the moody, critically acclaimed Fever Ray album, a detour the next year yet again for that goddamn opera. But Shaking the Habitual reaches further than any of these, for an ad campaign with the emblazoned slogan “End Extreme Wealth,” to the oddly entrancing sonics, many of which are pieces a la John Cage rather than songs a la OMD. The seagulls and rusty swingsets that comprise the deeply creepy “Fracking Fluid Injection” are one such highlight, while “A Cherry on Top” sounds like treated harpsichord falling down the stairs for nine minutes. The 19-minute odyssey “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” barely leaves the harbor; it’s all foghorns and whistles and crackling midnight sea.
These stand-alone installations almost never work except thatHabitual has glue in spades. The clacking mix of 808 rimshots, rattling symbols and notated percussion like pitch-shifted steel drums on the first disc opener “A Tooth for an Eye” is shockingly warm for an open-ended jam of mostly pipes clanging together, while the bracing “Full of Fire” follows it with speedy 303 acid hardcore, with Karin swiping Kim Gordon’s throaty whisper and growing more menacing over the course of (you guessed it) nine minutes. Disc two opener “Raging Lung” is a beat-driven ballad to match Silent Shout’s regal “Marble House” even if it’s several rungs less catchy. “Networking” posits grating “Venus in Furs”-style violin over grating Drukqs-style 808s flanged and jiggered to hell. And the most entrancing track on the entire record, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” rides jittery wood-panel drums and Egyptian flutes (recorders?) with small melodic references to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The entire set’s closing shuffle-shrug “Ready to Lose” harkens back to the Flying Monkeys singsong of Silent Shout’s “One Hit.”
None of this is concise, obviously. But this is The Knife’s first album to get lost in; like Hassell/Eno or David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, the duo has put together a dense, disturbing world that forces the listener to adjust to their uncompromising terms, with layers upon layers of undersea sediment, anti-patriarchal themes and supposedly homemade noises to spend the next three quarters of the year grooving to and picking apart. There’s so much to hear, all foreboding. It shouldn’t work—they went all or nothing. They got all.