The last time that Swedish musician Karin Dreijer Andersson came to the Bay Area, it was almost five years ago, with her tribal-cum-worldtronic project known as Fever Ray shaking the walls of the Regency Ballroom and bathing its spectators in piercing green lasers amidst an incense-choked haze. When she and her brother Olof Dreijer announced the revival of their parent project, The Knife, almost two years later, the response was almost immediately acclaim and a frenzied desire for the pair to start touring again, and bring their infamously bizarre-but-mesmerizing live shows back to the performance circuit. Two years later, a teaser for their new album materialized on YouTube, with a statement from the Knife:
“Music can be so meaningless. We had to find lust. We asked our friends and lovers to help us.”
Thus, the Knife returned to the Bay Area, armed with their arsenal of strange tunes and carnal instruments, and offering a performance that was absolutely defined by the title of their latest record: Shaking The Habitual.
By nature, the Knife creates music that defies traditional description, but in the most indirectly specific form, it could certainly be called “electronic”, and they were thusly placed in the position of having the chance to put on a full-blown experience without needing to be attached to their instruments onstage. For the most part, they chose to avoid this option; many of the tunes involved thunderous performances on behalf of percussionists with all manner of objects at the receiving end of their strikes. Synth drums, toms, chimes, cymbals, and even a colossal hand-drum-meets-glockenspiel were littered about the stage, and each was struck, plucked, or otherwise manipulated by scores of different members of the ensemble onstage.
However, in keeping with the theme of their record, the Knife offered up a concert that sought to push the boundaries of what was to be expected in a “traditional” performance. Many songs had absolutely no movement, or at least physical performance with instruments, whatsoever; a decent degree of them also relied on one of the random members of the ensemble to lip-sync the harsh, alien vocals that Karen provided, while the puppeteers themselves retreated to the dark recesses of the back of the stage. Still other songs focused entirely on the visual accompaniment to the music, with the dancers and lights being the central elements of the piece while the instruments remained austere and untouched, framing the wild movements onstage.
The response from the crowd ranged from fully engaged — especially with older tracks like “We Share Our Mother’s Health” as they had new life breathed into them from the dizzying array of instrumentation onstage — to rather confused, especially with all of the mystery and ominous overtones of the music melting away in the face of a technicolor dance extravaganza. In the few moments where the members of the Knife came to appeal to the crowd for a response, said response was generally positive, with the main floor of the Fox Theater surging to life and flailing about to match the dancers onstage. Some of the longer numbers, meanwhile, gained their fair set of onlookers and phone-video-takers, but aside from pure observation, there was little interaction. The message that the show sent, however, was definitely clear — “we are throwing away your traditional view of what live music performance ‘should’ be, and offering our interpretation of how this music should be experienced in a live setting” — and those who went into the concert with this philosophy somewhat reverberant in their own minds were far more likely to experience joy and wonder in the way that the Knife had always intended in their pieces.
While the majority of the Knife’s setlist came from Shaking The Habitual, a few nods were made to older songs, even as far back as to their self-titled debut with “Bird”. The much-loved “Heartbeats” from Deep Cuts was shockingly absent, but new performances of “One Hit” and “Pass This On” seemed to also bring the crowd up to a palpable level of deep excitement. Rather than let their show’s energy be diluted by the stupor of an encore break, the Knife simply took their performance of the latter piece, blended it seamlessly into the monstrous “Stay Out Here”, and used it to center on Karin and Olof while the dancers took a brief absence from the stage, their place onstage filled with a dazzling array of spinning, strobing lights. Within many long moments, the group returned as the lights all but faded from the stage, changing instead into a cyclic, swirling void of color as the pulsing notes of “Silent Shout” kicked off the final song of the night, which faded into the thudding rhythms of DJ Rapid Fire, who took over the theater after the Knife’s dark shadows had all disappeared from the stage.
With the bar set impossibly high by Karin for her Fever Ray tour in 2009, it was reasonable for me to feel somewhat underwhelmed by this show, even though I was finally getting the chance to see the Knife perform live. It was an absolute thrill to see “We Share Our Mother’s Health” and “Pass This On” with the undulating humanity that accompanied them, and the energy that the Knife possessed for their almost two-hour set was as astonishing as it was unyielding. It took me a bit of introspection during and after the show to fully understand that Karin and Olof had set about to put on a show that was meant to defy the traditional notions of what a live concert “should” be, which was why the color, humor, banter, and choreography did not run afoul of the dark, entrancing strangeness that the Knife have always been known for, and in this case helped to compliment it. I would gather that many fans of yesteryear Knife songs would love the chance to see the Knife return with a new show that is centered on a wider spread of their discography, but I was still very grateful to be able to experience the vision that Karin and Olof brought to their short but explosive tour across the world in 2014.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2013 Jonathan Pirro.