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The Knife in Collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock - Tomorrow, In A Year

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Artist: The Knife in Collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock

Album: Tomorrow, In A Year

Label: Mute

Review date: Apr. 5, 2010

Whenever I listen to or think about Silent Shout, I imagine a huge black mansion. The title "Marble House" probably created the association between the album’s slick jams and a tapering, imaginary colonial edifice. I imagine a palace that radiates dark light from within, a hybrid of the Black Lodge, the House of Usher, and Hill House. The house’s construction is so solid, however, that there are no rooms inside — it’s solid, jet-black marble all the way through. This seems to suggest that Silent Shout is impenetrable, monolithic, and terrifying when the record is, in reality, well-paced and formally cohesive but completely hospitable — a critic’s record with popular appeal mostly outside purist electronic music circles. Its eccentricities, including the weird gender-shifting brother/sister dynamic, only make it more so. Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer’s conspiratorial intimacy ("We Share Our Mother’s Health") isn’t threatening but ingratiating when every well-appointed song has cushy brocade pillows stashed in the corners. It’s easier to enjoy an opium den when you know there’ll be scones in the morning.

Even though this metaphor is limited in explaining why Silent Shout is so much more satisfying than what came before — the self-titled 2001 debut and 2003’s Deep Cuts — it keeps coming up as I try to approach Tomorrow, in a Year, an opera commissioned by Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma. In most ways, Tomorrow follows the 2006 album only chronologically. The album-as-scary-house plane is one where the opera is continuous with the Knife’s previous work — Tomorrow sounds like the antithesis, with scattered moments of synthesis. In contrast to SS’s monolithic architecture, Tomorrow is all unmapped space, a vast expanse that often verges on formlessness but never gives in. A brilliant white tundra of synth sputter and operatic singing and the occasional bona fide jam. I count three songs identifiable as Knife songs by the casual listener: "Colouring of Pigeons," "Seeds," and "The Height of Summer," and their effectiveness is gauged by their formal differences. "Colouring" is long and liturgical, and "Seeds" borrows from straight techno. "Summer" actually sounds like standard Knife steez, but it’s the last song on the album and works well as a reward. 

Analog synthesizer spluh is a fetish object of note in an audio-fetish-object-cluttered 2010. The aural world the duo craft for the opera, with the help of Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, has nothing to do with cushy dream architecture, though. Much of the album will harsh a mellow, not induce a trance, and the quiet parts are ominous where they could easily be ambient. Some of the first disc’s only moments of consonance are when two oscillators cross paths on their windy detuned paths. Those moments are brief and possibly illusory, something like watching the flight paths of birds.

Reading Tomorrow, in a Year as a demonstration of evolution-in-process — the opera’s subject is Charles Darwin and his Origin of Species — seems like the least interesting way of approaching the frequently difficult sounds they musicians offer up. The modular synth squealing throughout "Variation of Birds," which has a semblance of song structure despite its dissonance, is aggressive without leaving behind poise. Sort of like Florian Hecker did on Acid in the Style of David Tudor, synth sounds on the album are pared down and then arranged according to some invisible and seemingly superior way of thinking about electronic sounds. It’s noisy, but never leaves behind a sense of form. Other reviews have traced the development of certain sounds into structures as illustrations of Darwin’s principles, which makes it easier to let go of the Knife we as listeners are expecting. Even their media-shunning ways are part of their appeal in that same media circuit. But here we have a radical experience of dissatisfaction. Unless you’re listening to it with no distractions or the benevolent open mind of an NPR critic, Tomorrow frequently comes off as an irritant that can’t be excused for its narrative conceit. This is probably its most appealing and relevant quality — after three albums of encroaching conceptuality and quality, they’re cutting back on their known strengths in order to give everything over to the concept and the creative challenges it brings, never quite abandoning the listener, but requiring an undue amount of effort. Evolution is, after all, not a linear progression, but adaptation to one’s environment. And in the current environment, nothing makes as much sense as escaping the fate of being creepy Scandinavian Twin Peaks Depeche Mode, at best inspiring a shitty bar night one and a half decades after their first "relevance cycle" has terminated.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Knife/Mt. Sims/Planningtorock know there’s an imbalance between entertainment and satisfaction heavily tipped towards the former — their opera does, though. Tomorrow won’t be evaluated as opera or as pop, and there’s no middle term between libretto analysis and "where are the jams?" Putting an artist’s latest record in sequence with its predecessors can be the dreariest part of writing about music; wrenching the latest apart from the pack isn’t necessarily the least dreary. The Knife pulling the rug out from under their listeners and their critical bread-and-butter (though it clearly hasn’t resulted in bad reviews for this album) might be a reaction to learning how to create long-form music for theater, but whatever the circumstances the music’s toughness and momentary obscurity ring true. Whatever might be said of its listenability, Tomorrow makes its logic available to any listener with a two-hour attention span. That’s limiting their audience. That sounds pretty good right now.

By Brandon Bussolini

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