Electronic music received a soulful boost at the start of the naughties by quiet and consistent achievers, The Knife. Where as Daft Punk and their peers before presented music with the emphasis on the machine and the synthetic, Sweden's The Knife, had the far greater ambition of adding a brain, a voice and broad palate of subject matter. Everything from references to their Nordic heritage to bulimia is sung over tracks carved with laser precision. Their unblemished musical legacy is set to continue with a new solo project for vocalist Karin Dreijer called Fever Ray. In the meantime, let's take a look back at the origins of this unique and unconventional duo, a brother and sister who created their own little world with the soundtrack as the beating heart.
In the beginning, two monkeys isolated themselves in a tiny cabin in the Stockholm wilderness with the intention of creating music completely uninfluenced by the outside world. They surrounded themselves with instruments both organic and electronic. There they stayed, learning the instruments and perfecting a sound all of their own. The boy monkey was named Olof and the girl was Karin. They were siblings who thrived in their isolation, only ever speaking in telepathy about their music. The sound of which was becoming stronger and more powerful than any words could hope to be. The monkeys lost all concept of passing time. How long had they been in that cabin making music? Neither one showed signs of having aged. Then one day a stranger arrived at the cabin. The stranger, a rabbit, was drawn to the sounds coming from within. So disillusioned with the music of the world, he cried uncontrollable tears of joy upon hearing the two monkeys' work. The monkeys introduced themselves. 'We are The Knife, we have been waiting for you".
The story of The Knife is one shrouded in fairytale mystery. Rabbits with heightened music appreciation is just the start. The reality is you can probably google their back story and find where Karin and Olof Dreijer were musically trained, how they got signed etc... However, listening to their music is an invitation into a very vivid world created entirely as an alternate reality. In The Knife's dimension, one foot must always stay in grim reality, while the other may wander into deep waters occupied by half-human beasties. Juxtapositions are important to The Knife as they present clear relate-able situations in the songs, but told by an alien observer. As with fairytales, which often use very human situations as their base and build around that using strange creatures as the storytellers. When Alice followed the white rabbit down the hole, it was the beginning of the journey we all go on. The journey called growing up. Lewis Carroll's story would hardly have become a classic, had it been told as a straight forward adolescent angst tale which is where The Knife come in.
Karin and Olof cast themselves as Wizards behind the curtain, allowing the image of two grinning monkeys to tell their stories from a fantastic and escapist angle, freed from limited realistic impositions. It may also have been a cheeky statement on how every chimp with a keyboard now is making 'arty experimental' (i.e. boring as shit) records. The rabbit, in the story of The Knife represents us, the eager listener in theory going to despair over the radio's terrible music constantly pouring into our ears. The rabbit is overcome by hearing them, and any music lover can relate to that first discovery of a band so amazing that it makes any music heard before seem like bad noise. The Knife confess that like many of us do, that they enjoy tacky pop songs and big 80s ballads as a way to relax after intense studio sessions. They even released a grand homage to Berlin's anthemic Take My Breath Away, a song which Karin would blast repeatedly on her car stereo while driving around trying to cure a bout of writer's block. Effectively that song's edgy but sweet simplicity was the contrast needed to push Dreijer out of her mindset. As a songwriter, she understands that to access her muse she sometimes has to sort through its cluttered room, allowing herself to get distracted along the way.
So what is it about The Knife's own music that prompts them to seek escape through somewhat bland pop songs? There is often many fine layers of dark underplayed synth bleeps and squeaks, clean razor-sharp beats, strings, echo effects and possibly The Knife's defining sound - their love of the steel drum. A wonderful contrast is at work when you hear this most tropical of instruments coupled with Karin's frighteningly low pitched affected vocals, and Olof's bleak synthesised strings. What observations are these monkey's are making that leave them needing a little 『dirty pop' to cool down after? Their second album Deep Cuts (2004) includes Pass This On, which deals with the possible subject of teacher/student sexual relationships. This is a good example of the Dreijers' interest in some bizarre and confronting topics. They do not however, wallow in macabre stories but simply walk through their landscapes, uncriticizing. As further proof of their detached attitude to the dark subject matter in Pass This On, the video humorously captures Olof in full drag miming to his sisters vocal while Karin hides amongst a crowd of solemn observers, seething and giving him the evil eye. Those monkeys weren't about taking themselves seriously, but the evolution wheel turned and the previously detached primates were soon to find themselves no longer simple observers but participants in the human experience deeper than they could have imagined.
The Knife had officially embraced their new found popularity and revealed to their increasing audience, a new evolutionary phase - two black winged bird-like creatures, who instead of isolating themselves from the world, took to the sky with their further evolved sound pouring out of their bodies for all to hear. The reality of Karin and Olof's mother passing away during the making of their triumphant third album Silent Shout (2007), caused the duo to focus on previously untouched, personal subject matter. On the frantic and gripping We Share Our Mother's Health these wounded birds mourn of losing the link to their ancestors through a parental death. The exploration of more relatable themes continued on the title track Silent Shout which had Karin and Olof immersing themselves into the world of adolescent fears and self-doubt. The topic of sex, the song claims, suffers from purposefully negative miseducation in Stockholm schools, designed to deter youths from experimenting. Hence the issue becomes one of paranoia at a vital stage in maturing. The Knife fairytale was by now a rather serious and even grim one, and coming close to chapter's end. They had evolved super fast and perhaps their ambitious 'flying beasts' weren't as sustainable as the curious grinning monkeys had been? Reality once again intrudes in The Knife's story and we find out that they simply grew tired of working together... for now at least. They wrapped up the first decade as The Knife with a brief series of incredible live showcases (appearing in concert as their primate alter-egos) before stepping back from the accolades and expectations to vanish for a while.
FEVER ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT
Karin decided to take one year off after having a baby (her second) but instead found herself writing constantly. That creative outpouring was the birth of a project called Fever Ray. The new mother found herself working throughout the night, sleep loss fueling the dream like quality of the new work. Dreijer embraced half-consciousness, allowing it to lead her through the creative process. There was no longer a need for story weaving beyond the songs. The topics were not detached observations but enveloping, sparse daydreams. Working this way meant that Karin could be more evocative lyrically without spelling out every detail for the listener. We could interpret these pieces how we wanted based on an overall feeling. The presentation of The Knife as evolving, non-human entities was a way of delivering music not restricted by flesh and blood limitations. In Fever Ray, Karin has maintained that lack of restriction by playing the ghostly chameleon speaking in the language of dreams. This latest evolution as a spirit between worlds, only accessible during sleep has afforded Dreijer greater freedom than ever before to present herself as the humble conductor of music rather than the physical creator. Though inevitably, the predominant factor in her waking life, her two young children, does emerge in the music. In new track, If I Had A Heart, Karin tells of their behaviour and constant questioning, from a first person account; "My feet dangle from the window frame/will they ever reach the floor?" On The Knife track Marble House (2007), Karin reversed this plot and played the mother, scared of failing the fragile life in her care; "I cut your nails and comb your hair/I carry you down the stairs/on the inside of this marble house". The previous over-protector becomes the happy observer full of childish wonder. Whether the Fever Ray project is a one off or not, is unknown. Karin Dreijer has a restlessness fascination with pushing herself musically to extremes, and how that will manifest next is impossible to say. In the meantime, an album bursting with ideas and originality has emerged. In its creators own words, "When you work with music, you have the possibility to create magic.」 That possibility is realised on Fever Ray.
here to check out Fever Ray's official site.