Sweden is a fairytale land of artistic prosperity that has, over the course of popular culture, exported some of entertainment’s most diverse, bizarre contributors: Greta Garbo, ABBA, and two very important Bergmans (Ingrid and Ingmar) — and let’s not forget to mention the less than savory artistic merits of Ace of Base and the curious phenomena known as “Swedish Death Metal”. The country may be just about ready to add musicians The Knife to this list of legends. After their fourth studio album, Silent Shout, they certainly are off to a bombastic start with their shock and awe style which somehow manages to be reminiscent of all of those things, often times simultaneously.
Eschewing the happy-go-lucky, Euro-trashy tones of their previous efforts (early signature tune “Heartbeats” was a minor hit for the duo overseas and was covered to nauseatingly sweet effect by Jose Gonzales), brother and sister Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Anderson have opted to construct a dazzling, dark, slickly-produced little record that thumps with club-ready bass flourishes and the metallic sheen of electro-clash that, for once during the genre’s arrival, doesn’t sound contrived or blasé. The pair conduct a sort of twilight séance that invokes the spirits of the Goth-rock, hyper-produced 1980s sounds, the kind that just about every band that starts with the word “The” is going for these days: “retro” distortion squeals, tinny, haunted house synths and organs (reminiscent of fellow countrymen Army of Lovers’ 1992 cheese-festMassive Luxury Overdose, minus the self-seriousness), and a stomping army of factory-made industrial percussion that destroys everything in it’s path. The clever thing about Silent Shout, though, is that it seems unintentional and organic. There is a thematic coherence present throughout the album’s entirety that is polished and professional and madly creative; the twosome’s experiments with melody and vocal effects are inspiringly novel. This is easily the year’s best sound and image overhaul, which somehow creates an unclassifiable new genre of music in its wake.
Comparisons to Bjork have been all the unimaginative, obvious rage when trying to put a simplistic label on chanteuse Anderson’s unique brand of delivery (if you’re interested in hearing another dimension of the singer’s voice, check out Royksopps’s “What Else is There?, from last year’s The Understanding; the song eases up on the effects and puts a more relaxed Anderson’s clear vocal front and center). For my money, she’s more evocative of She’s So Unusual-era Cyndi Lauper: if “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” would have been born in the Arctic Circle on a meth binge and then filtered through a laser, it might have sounded like “Neverland”, a stomping, razor-sharp ditty about “dancing for dollars and for a fancy man”, that manages to be both creepy, groovy and dire as it’s protagonist handles corrosive currency as she ponders “will I make it home tonight?”.
The desperation frantically escaping from Anderson’s voice invokes some harrowing imagery, but we are also treated to “From Off to On”: an ebbing calm tide in the center of the storm that gingerly laps at our feet towards the end of the disc. While having the most overt Bjork-y tones of anything on the album, the song could also be confused with a lullaby composed by Massive Attack. Anderson tackles each song as if she is playing a character (aiding her is a jaw-dropping array of vocal effects), and some of the cast of the record includes: “solitary sailors, a hermaphrodite, a sickly person or two, male-bonding groups in crisis, TV addicts, a scared housewife, and a biologically weighty citizen that desperately tries to get to know his body”. To be sure, this is an album about some degenerate, forgotten souls that isn’t for the weak of mind or stomach. Loneliness prevails in the world of The Knife, so be prepared for the hollow feeling that follows a listen.
Though the pair has been at it for years now, diligently producing sounds since 1999 in Stockholm for their own label, Rabid (which then licenses their music to companies around the world so they have no “boss” to answer to), it hasn’t been until Silent Shout that they had found what has become their signature sound: Surrealist, eerie, and mumbling, yet engagingly deviant, whip-smart, and acerbic (take, for example, the glistening “Na Na Na”, in which Anderson laments “Every month/ I’ve got my period to take care of/ And collect in blue tampons/ Na na na/ I’ve got mace, pepper spray/ And some shoes that run faster than a rapist rapes”, all in a barely decipherable baby voice). Parts of the record will make you want to fall asleep with the light on, others are pure amusement (the overall effect could be describes as a “demonic, robotic circus”).
Playing with mood, not only on their recorded format, but also in their visual realm, the siblings are able to keep the proceedings disconcerting and the listener never knows what is coming next: it could be metaphysical, shocking atmospherics (the “Marble House” clip features a narrative that could have sprung from the absurdist, horror-tinged imagination of 1960s Ingmar Bergman, circa The Virgin Spring and Hour of the Wolf, where the viewer almost expects Max von Sydow to be engaging in necrophilia with a laughing corpse) or an assault on the senses (“We Share Our Mother’s Health”, with a red-white-and-black animated treatment that forever nullifies Jack and Meg White’s claim to this color combination, recalls the sterile, deadly surgical instruments of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and austere communist propaganda, as well as the terrifying notion of the world being taken over by birds with blood-thirsty bad intentions and vintage Ataris). While the theatrics are a nice flight of fancy from the usual performance clips, they are also an important extension of the sound palette, never seeming out of place, despite some rather noticeable nods to Chris Cunningham’s work with established creep like Aphex Twin. Look for the band, presumably with their video collection in tow, on MTV’s 120 Minutes on July 28th to catch a rare glimpse of the actual people behind the madness.
This particular brand of “madness”, in fact, might be the most interesting thing about the Knife’s record (other than the fact that it was released in Europe last year): there hasn’t been such an overtly bleak and dangerous concept album like Silent Shout in quite a long time (and this one should, ideally, be enough to intimidate the likes of it’s spiritual godfather Trent Reznor). This is a genuinely brave and artistic move for the band, known generally for a more upbeat, chirpy sound to be so decidedly dour, but it is one that pays off in the end in creative spades. As a place of medieval, dark mystery, Sweden now has now found a trusty, oddly appropriate soundtrack in Silent Shout, a psychopathic amalgam of all things Scandinavian, tossed into one big kettle boiled down liquid form, and then knocked back like a shot of ice cold Hallands Flader.
The Knife – Silent Shout