It’s assaulting and explicit, yet remains danceable and fun.
A live show is its own beast; it can capture an audience’s imagination or, conversely, cause them to walk out. There were fan rumblings, on more than one occasion, that the experience of the Knife’s last tour, Shaking the Habitual: Live at Terminal 5, left much to be desired. MTV deemed one performance by the Swedish synthpop duo “dull.” Probably by design, the Knife keeps its distance from the press, providing scant details about how they create music.
But on the experimental band’s powerful and visceral live album, it’s hard to hear anything other than raw, at times controversial, art. It’s the type of music that, even without being there in person, your own imagination can fill in the visual gaps just fine. The Knife’s sound is a mysterious mix of offbeat time signatures, Björk on her weirdest day and Patti Smith’s urgency and angst, all pumped up to 12. The avant-garde, art-pop style of singer Karin Dreijer Andersson and her brother, Olof Dreijer, caught the public’s attention in 2003 when their sophomore album Deep Cuts hit the international stage to mostly high acclaim—and they only grew stranger from there.
Recorded at the Hell’s Kitchen, New York venue in 2014, Shaking the Habitual: Live at Terminal 5 mostly features music from their final album (the band has been in retirement since November 2014). Andersson is known for wearing Venetian masks, body paint and other ephemera during live shows—a striking visual aid. A bevy of performers, about two dozen, interpret the band’s tribal, percussion-heavy sound on tour. Andersson’s singing style can encompass everything from ghastly, pain-ridden cries that channel Yoko Ono to gentle purrs; she can reach deep down in her throat or sing from the heights, creating a jarring sense that no place is comfortable, at least for her. She changes notes abrasively, adding screeches, shrieks and moans. Her vocals are bizarre enough to match the off-the-wall electro-acoustic percussive elements that Dreijer unleashes.
For the most part, the Knife sticks to dramatic storytelling on this live record. “Collective Body Possum” is a spoken-word poem, a bold statement performed by Andersson. The poem seeks a world without sex abuse and sex discrimination, and celebrates personal freedom; a world where Andersson seeks “a body with no neos or –isms,” while simultaneously proclaiming “I want a body that screams, ‘Yes!’” During the performance, Andersson attributes the song to Jess Arndt, a member of the Poetry Project.
Other times, the band makes attempts at social parody. The boring line “Spending time with my family” from the techno dance song “One Hit” is delivered with the utmost in drippy sarcasm.
The twirling, revolving percussion and rapid clapping rhythms continue into “We Share Our Mother’s Health,” propelling the show forward. On “Full of Fire,” Andersson releases more visceral emotion on top of boiling percussion. At more than nine minutes, “Raging Lung” is a vibrating dragon that breathes and heaves dark hums. Had it been performed at the end of the concert, it would have been a massive stunner.
Seemingly without effort, the Knife created new subsets of sound, such as the calypso-techno fusion of “Pass This On.” The melodic “Bird” opens up a trippy, space-rock world, electric twangings tangled up with haywire synth blips. Throughout the show, Dreijer’s relentless boom-click, shuffling percussion and electric maze of sound keeps step with Andersson’s wild vocal personality, making Shaking the Habitual: Live at Terminal 5 representative of the Knife’s inimitable style—it’s assaulting and explicit, yet remains danceable and fun.