Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 61 - The Knife

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Electronic music! It's the domain of nerds and dance fiends, of which I confess to adhering to the former group while completely eschewing the latter. The vast majority of music today has been influenced by the rise of synthesizers and other such computerized instruments. But except for Depeche Mode (Week 5) and Daft Punk (Week 15), I've given short shrift to the Music of the Future.

The problem is that, since most synthesizers went from analog to digital in the 1980s, most electronic music has been created for dance clubs. The genre has a long and storied history - from the experiments of Varèse and Stockhausen in the 50s to the early jams of Kraftwerk to the space-age psychedelia of Jean Michel Jarre. But one of the consequences of the Electronic Music Revolution is it's use to create funky, danceable beats. Enter techno and house music.

That sort of music isn't bad if you like to dance, I suppose. But the issue I have is that music conducive to dancing isn't necessarily the most interesting stuff to listen to; rather, it tends to be repetitive and predictable.

This is one of the reasons that I found The Knife so refreshing - their music represents a kind of middle ground between the relentless rhythms of techno on one hand, and the directionless of electronic ambient music on the other. I suppose you could call their music "electropop" or "electroclash." They combine a good pop hook and some catchy songwriting with more experimental electronic sounds.

It ain't for everyone, and there's a chance I found it so intriguing because of my unfamiliarity with current electronic music. But the music was unique and original without being offputting or needlessly experimental. The Knife uses synthesizers and digital effects just like any other instrument - which, in the end, made their music memorable to me.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had seen The Knife on a few "Best of the Decade" lists at the end of last year, which led me to procure their single "Silent Shout." It was good enough that I decided to devote a week to them.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Silent Shout (2006) every day this week, as well as listening to Tomorrow in a Year (2010) three times, and Deep Cuts (2003) twice.

WHAT I LIKED: The Knife's most acclaimed album, Silent Shout, is a masterpiece from start to finish. It's worth listening to even if you hate most electronic music. The duo manages to craft eerie but catchy pop songs, utilizing their digital tools to great effect without ever overreaching. The music shifts from danceable to ambient to pure catchy pop, but in each instance, the electronic effects serve the song - and always with amazing results.

The entire album trembles with an ethereal quality, as if The Knife is broadcasting music from some other world. I found it amazing how such incredibly catchy music can still feel so isolated and alienating. Part of it comes from the amazing vocal manipulation of singer Karin Andersson - from the sinister whisper of "Silent Shout" to the shrill screeching of "We Share Our Mother's Health" to the soft melody of "Still Light," Andersson not only uses her vocal talent to full effect, but utilizes digital vocal manipulation to go beyond what the human voice can do. What should have come across as silly instead highlights the otherworldly quality of the album - Andersson's voice is talented and almost human, but not quite.

The sheer variety of music on Silent Shout is also impressive for what could have been a one-trick album. The title track adequately sums up the unearthly pop aesthetic, but songs like "The Captain," which uses ambient noises for half the track, are contrasted with "We Share Our Mother's Health," a dance song with such amazing beats layered on top of each other that you can't help bob your head, to the old-fashioned singable chorus in "One Hit." Electronic innovators often have a limited bag of tricks, but this is not true with The Knife.

The Knife's next collaboration, Tomorrow in a Year, is a completely different beast, and one that may serve to alienate their audience. Dubbed an "opera" about Charles Darwin and produced in a collaborative effort with German DJ Mount Sims, this album defies easy classification. For starters, it's nothing like the group's previous work - the catchy pop songs have been replaced with ambient noises from the Galapagos and operatic singers wailing selections from Darwin's letters.

The moniker "opera" alone reeks of intellectual pretension, but the album lives up to the title. In a way, it reminds me of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, another experimental work dubbed an "opera" that really stretches the limits of the word's definition. Tomorrow in a Year is at first hard to tackle. A ninety-minute work that begins with hisses and garbled natural sounds, crescendoing with the duo imitating bird calls, and concluding with a cathartic anthem of Linnaean nomenclature, nothing of the group's easily digestible catchy tunes remains. But Tomorrow in a Year works on its own terms, if you take the time to digest it. Lie back, close your eyes, and listen to bizarre ambient sounds slowly morph into the electropop The Knife is known for.

A musical metaphor for Darwinian evolution? Perhaps. I do think Tomorrow in a Year deserves to stand aside the best avant-garde works of the post-World War II era. In a completely original format, The Knife manages to pay tribute to one of modernity's most important thinkers and, more impressively, manage to portray the man as both a shrewdly observant scientist, and as a man who stood in awe of the majesty and beauty of the natural world. I can't even recommend any single tracks - it would be like selecting a single aria from a Wagner opera. It just wouldn't work.


In case you haven't figured it out by now, I liked The Knife a lot. That being said, I acknowledge that it's not for everybody. As electronic music goes, it's some of the best that I've heard, and contains a human warmth that a lot of similar music lacks. But if electronic music is not your thing, you're probably going to pass on The Knife - it's not happy music by any means, even if it's infused with a certain amount of mystery.

Ditto with their electro-opera Tomorrow in a Year. The album begins with a weird smorgasboard of ambient sounds and operatic wailing. Tracks like "Epochs" are a good beginning to a work that eventually leads somewhere - but I understand that there are many who will find tracks like these unbearably pretentious and hard to stomach. As much as I disagree, I can't really blame anyone who feels that way.

I haven't mentioned The Knife's sophomore album, Deep Cuts, only because it didn't impress me as much as the rest of their output. Deep Cuts is not a bad album, but it's almost completely pop and dance music without any of the interesting ethereal auras of their later music. Songs like "Heartbeats" or "Listen Now" are catchy on their own terms, but unmemorable to me. It sounds more like stuff that would be background music for a dance club scene in a movie.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: In addition to their first album The Knife (2001), there's also Andersson's solo album Fever Ray (2009) to explore.


Maybe you haven't heard it, but I think it's a pretty good summary of everything good about the group. Just ignore the creepy visuals.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Colouring of Pigeons"

Again, it's hard to listen to tracks from Tomorrow in a Year divorced from their context, but I think this is a pretty good sample of the mounting conclusion of the album.