Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer have never been keen on playing live at gigs. They played no gigs at all for their first two albums, and finally showed up on stages to promote third album Silent Shout with intoxicating visuals, paid for by the proceeds of a Sony TV campaign which used a cover of their song Heartbeats. But even then they consigned most of the music to backing tracks; Olof tapped away at steel drums while Karin channeled her voice through processors. Both were masked.
A gap of seven years between Silent Shout and this year’s sprawling double (triple?) Shaking The Habitual album has done little to bring the siblings physically any closer to their audience. But that was never the point. When, as Fever Ray, Karin was given an award, she sent a meltyfaced, grunting creation to accept it. Was it her playing a character? Was it an actor playing her? It was a continuation of The Knife’s exploration of identity and fame.
The logical next step in this career arc is that anyone expecting to see The Knife appear on stage at the Roundhouse and straightforwardly play synthesisers would be indulging in wishful thinking. At no time in their career have they done this. That the siblings don’t appear at all (or do they?) was less expected.
With their political statements on everything from fracking to feminism, and masks that had “meant to question identity and fame becoming a product, an institution”, The Knife were always about more than having a dance. Even Silent Shout, despite its earworm loops and memorable melodies, wasn’t a record made to dance to. Shaking The Habitual’s clubbiest moments – Full Of Fire and Stay Out Here – are surrounded by epic, cold, industrial space noise, drone and often impenetrable lyrics. David Guetta‘s EDM this is not.
Given all of this, how to represent their music and their vision on a stage? Why, to rip up everything that made the Silent Shout show talked about. Gone are Andreas Nilsson’s elaborate visuals. Gone are the masks. In their place we have a dance troupe, sometimes miming, sometimes not – even when vocals are to be heard. You want a ‘main act’? Here are the actors.
To begin with – and following a ‘warm up act’ of equally literal proportions; a bewigged aerobics instructor hollering at the audience to follow his moves while the likes of Vitalic is played over the PA – the pretence of a live show is maintained; a giant, horn-shaped device is bowed and then patted, assorted flimsy looking harp-type instruments are plucked and hammered, various ‘home made percussion instruments’ are banged and tapped, and a singer goes through the motions of singing. Is it Karin? The next time Karin’s voice is heard, a different person is mouthing the words. Eventually, the ‘instruments’ are cleared and the troupe get dancey. And then, just shy of the halfway point, they all leave the stage, with the music still going, and only lights accompanying. A later peek behind a ‘piano’ of course reveals it to be a set prop – it has no keyboard.
What did the audience come to see? What expectations did they have? Were they happy watching a troupe high-kicking and flummoxing about in gaudy, shiny costumes? Did they feel cheated that the instruments weren’t real, that the show was mimed, that Karin and Olof may or may not have even been on stage? And, fundamentally, what is a gig? Whether the audience was happy parting with £30 for all this is besides the point. This was about questioning expectations. And if you’re going to be a cult band with mysterious identities, why not subsume it all in a dance troupe of equals and get a party started?
The final three tracks, Full Of Fire, Stay Out Here and a retooled version of Silent Shout, had elements of the audience dancing and enjoying themselves; plenty of others looked nonplussed. The set seagued almost seamlessly into Hannah Holland’s DJ set. Maybe The Knife are just about having a dance after all?
Whatever they’re about – and really this is open to individual interpretation – The Knife bother to ask questions. They take apart preconceptions of what a gig, a show, even art, should be, turn it inside out, shake it a bit, and put it back together as they see fit. They are not in the business of entertaining with their skills on instruments. And this bold approach says that you don’t have to like it, and they’re fine with that. But in the continued absence of The KLF, The Knife’s bloody-minded, esoteric approach to music has surely found its ultimate expression and, once again, it’s anyone’s guess where they go from here. Maybe next time they’ll confound expectations by playing every note live. Let’s not bet on it, mind.
‘The Knife’ ‘played’ Cherry On Top, Raging Lung, Bird, Boring, A Tooth For An Eye, One Hit, Networking, Wrap Your Arms Around Me, Got To Let You, Ready To Loose + Whirlies, Full Of Fire, Stay Out Here, Silent Shout.