My granddad died at 4am this morning – the kind of time for which Silent Shout was first fabricated. I suppose it’s the very essence of passing away amid the silence the quite literal dead of night brings with it, although these past few years had been something of an ordeal for him. I’d suggest an ordeal similar in tenor to The Knife’s latest full-length, the unrelentingly challenging and as yet unrewarding Shaking The Habitual, were it not to trivialise his in many ways tragic demise. He forgot who I was a few times, despised many of life’s finer intricacies in which I delight, and neglected my mother’s health in which I share. I look akin to her in the same way that Karin and Olof’s starkly Scandi features resemble one another albeit with genders realigned, though they don’t tonight…
Needless to say, I’m not exactly in the mood for the warmup DEEP Aerobics on offer though it seems I’m not alone in apathy toward such extraneous entertainment. “I want you to free your mind” implores a shirtless bloke at the shadowy back of the stalls, his muscles bulging; his clingy, spangly spandex jeggings tumefied likewise. “Touch your pulse! Say hey, I’m alive!” he continues as the show takes a turn for the inadvertently existential. It’s odd, there’s no two ways about it though is it really as eccentric as Karin and Olof would have us believe? I don’t think so, no, and a sobering dose of reality is served up in tone for our instructor overextends himself to the tune of En Vogue’s Free Your Mind. It does little of the sort.
Mere moments pass, prior to a thick fug of impenetrably nebulous nothingness descending, amorphous forms dotted about the stage which itself is scarcely visible but for what looks a malformed fungal growth that initially appears as though it ought to serve as some sort of idiosyncratic take on percussive equipment. As with the evening in all, it is but a transitory illusion and it’s utterly superfluous. This, as with every other instrument before us, isn’t even miked up.
Though visually, the show pertains to that of Fever Ray in years gone by: the cloaks, and the outré instrumentation which was then employed to a somewhat more credible effect, and the prevalent irrelevance of the individual within a collective whole. This is indubitably a piece of performance art as opposed to musical production per se, and that sense of democratic involvement whereby its architects are imperceptible throughout and perhaps absent altogether serves as a continuation not only of Karin’s solo shows, but so too of the duo’s Tomorrow, In A Year abstraction recited at the Barbican Centre now three years ago. There’s a sense that the works’ progenitors are but (albeit vital) organs in a considerably bigger body, yet it’s one which is still to find its feet. For The Knife are tonight directors in place of performers, and the deep, reverberant gurgles to initiate a sinister A Cherry on Top thus sound appositely alien. Musically, it resembles the reawakening of some cantankerous ogre after aeons of dense slumber while a Karin-alike mimes unconvincingly in the background, enveloped in a luminous purple smoke. Does it look the part? Perhaps. But does it look absolutely extraordinary? Not in the slightest. And sonically, it’s quite some way off all those Fever Ray shows aforesaid.
And our mutual reaction isn’t exactly one of awe either, but instead one of an audience impatiently awaiting Heartbeats and it’s difficult to not beat to that same pulse of palpable disappointment even early on. The Knife have been on my so-called, and so tenderly entitled Bands to See Before Clogs Pop list since the 2003 release of Deep Cuts – the sophomore recording that incidentally began with that track aforementioned – and even after tonight, they’re still lingering there such is my resolute persuasion that the duo weren’t in fact anywhere near NW1. But while we might question whether or not the notoriously farouche duo deigned to surface even in the slightest, what we can openly condemn is an unforgivable overreliance on material lifted from Shaking The Habitual. It’s the undiluted deoxyribonucleic acid of the show and always would’ve been, though not only is the performance itself quite contemptuous as a direct consequence of this, but it also feels reprehensible that they should choose to turn such a deaf ear to an audience that has stuck by them so adamantly through such rocky patches and impregnable recordings.
I’m not asking for hits here – I’ve all but abandoned hope of ever hearing Like A Pen played live, and whatever their reasoning may be for renouncing what is, without question, their masterwork I can blindly sympathise with. But what I find truly disdainful, and distinctly tedious is that they should compose a show comprising nothing but backing tracks (some of which have been gently tinkered with for an ersatz live effect; others are readily picked up by a popular iPhone app) brought to life by kitschy dance routines tarted up in chintzy sequins. It’s the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen’s Kejserens nye Klæder; a con on a Jackson Pollock-inspired scale of deceit – pure impersonation in place of performance art, in short. And to have paid £27.50 for the privilege of this elaborate rouse is positively gut-wrenching.
Gut-wrenching, almost, as the shuddering bass to all but obliterate Raging Lung. Reduced to a litany of ruinous detonations, the hoods huddle together as though a gaggle of occult shamans. Or just Gaggle. Either way, there’s an air of cultish rendering – the sort of representation to suggest when there’s little to turn to and religion has been all but relinquished right across all walks of society, this may ostensibly be the look of our future. And fucking heck it looks bleak, this improbable anthem of discontent a conflation of incongruously fluorescent rain sticks and squeaky synthetic. It’s bowel-recomposingly loud, and sounds immersive as a result though no more so than it would on some stonking sound system. Which is effectively what all this is – Shaking The Habitual shook loose as was from machinery few London homes could physically house.
But like wires plugged into all the wrong places, the primary sensation when not one of discontent is of disconnect: as their seemingly ill-prepared dance troupe predominate during a wompy Without You My Life Would Be Boring, despite the energy and frenzied exertion onstage there’s an all-pervasive static away from it. And vivifying as their loose manoeuvres may be (it’s almost as though it’s been so meticulously choreographed so as to seem concertedly messy), I’d actually quite like to see the sibs reproduce A Tooth For An Eye rather than some flamboyant bunch prancing about the place in gimcrack neon garb. Individually, their talents remain questionable though as an ensemble, they resemble the patients of some forgotten Scandinavian asylum let loose on the choreographers and costumery of Covent Garden. Grim.
The iPhones are out in protest, and over a shoulder I read a Twitter quip of this being ‘Riverdance for cunts’ and, a far more impactive, and with that incisive metaphor than I could ever conjure, it’s entirely true and essentially not what we’ve paid so dearly to see. It’s misrepresentation, and a damaging one at that for this really ought to have been the support, no matter how much The Knife may perceive this to be a sort of purification of their audience; an all too verbatim interpretation of Darwinism. Tomorrow, in a Year was of course indebted to his advanced theories on evolutionary biology and it’s almost as though this is the Swedes’ live enacting of natural selection: like, or even tolerate tonight and you can call yourself what can only be one of few true acolytes though loathe, and consider yourself a heathen unworthy of their irrepressible innovation. It’d be foolhardy to forsake years of adulation because of one dud tour, though when it’s the first in quite some time belief naturally begins to wobble.
The electing of such a portrayal, however, seems above all an intricate defence mechanism on behalf of the band. Their distaste for conventional production and disgust at those that perform it so is well documented, if primarily articulated by the highly verbose universal language of silence. But in attempting to renegotiate the norms of performance, they fall down the very pothole of mindless self-indulgence they so ceaselessly strive to evade. Yes, this is something of a bridging point between the pared back anonymity of the Silent Shout live show and the theatrical spectacular of Tomorrow, in a Year. It’s all the more exhausting and with that arduous than either, though it walks that line. And while One Hit proves aptly violent as their hoofers thud their chests in honed synchrony, the gross irony is that while they masquerade as a reputedly engrossing visual accompaniment, they fail t0 hold our attention as the moody Dreijer twosome would’ve doubtless done.
Henceforth, each track seems a separable act in itself with the themes of stilted dislocation and disconnection again recurring. An amateur gymnast clad in sprayed-on ’80s polyester swirls ribbons beside an holographic head in a lurid gold frame, all the while dubiously miming deep cut Got 2 Let U; school disco lasers flare up to pervade darkness during an instrumental Full of Fire, during which the stage is entirely vacated for a painfully protracted while; while Ready To Lose sees an is she/ isn’t she Karin cowering behind an is it/ isn’t it piano to wallow in its unapologetically swampy mania. Is any of the above live? Fuck knows, though by this stage fuck’s off elsewhere and would most likely struggle to care less.
But to revert to Full of Fire a moment (as whoever’s onstage indeed does, as it’s lazily reprised no more live a little later on) it’s its rudimentary lighting which highlights just how idle this whole staging really is. It’s the stuff of am-dram devoid of plot and so too purpose; it stinks of putrid indolence, and makes an irrefutably innovatory band out to be, well, fantastically bland. It’s like bad karaoke, with even a coda comprising Silent Shout thoroughly dispiriting. Sped up to a clumpy house bump, the troupe put on the inebriated jump of a suburban gay bar and the cruddy lighting similarly befits such a distressingly nondescript setting. Hysteria duly ensues, but it just seems inconceivably stupid. We’ve been conned, and this becomes clearer than anything on the night by the time Hannah Holland eases us seamlessly into an adept DJ set.
Bolstered only by suspect dance shtick, that’s all this was to begin with. It’s no more of a live show than the Tomorrow, in a Year performances past when the instrumentation at least seemed ever so slightly more extempore. Was that then reproduced? I’ve now begun to question all I know of The Knife, although it was certainly a more convincing imitation thereof. And the entirety of that particular show was better conceptualised and with it rendered than this, though both pale in comparison with Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray composition – one which complemented the music, without ever giving in to the redundant gimmickry of this evening.
Shaking The Habitual is a record I wanted to rid myself of no sooner than I’d heard it – I found it a pretty repugnant body of work, and the furore to have greeted its release I deemed nauseatingly obsequious with critics fawning over the thing more out of habit than relish. Which is saddening in itself, though not as much as tonight is emphatically perturbing. For The Knife’s penchant for the unremittingly avant-garde opens up, or rather it ought to open up so much scope for live reconceptualisation. It’s the one facet of their art they’ve so frequently neglected that perhaps it’s now beyond their realms of perception. But to have spent so much time and money on such an immaterial exercise in underdeveloped sacrilege feels treacherous at best, and leaves me brimming with an unshakable sense of self-loathing.
Should we care whether or not the Dreijer duo were ever there in the first place, and if so why? Well, without wanting to twist the knife any further, as pioneers of contemporary artistry I can’t help but think it their duty to pitch up and put in. There’s only a negligible worth to their existence as creative bodies if they remain forever invisible, if ever audible and just as the live experience serves as an opportunity to fully express genius, thus not only contextualising but so too completing the craft in question, Karin and Olof could’ve tonight carved out something special. Conversely, not only did they spoil the occasion but they sullied their legacy in the process.
“I never knew this could happen to me/ I know now fragility/ I know there’s people who I haven’t told/ I know of people who are getting old” is the lyric which continues to ring long out into the night, both in my ears and in my mind. Stanley would’ve hated it though truth be known, so did I.