March 10, 2010

Music Review: The Knife – Tomorrow, In A Year

When faced with a new work by Swedish Electro-Pop artist The Knife you would expect it to be strange, even want it to be. But with "Tomorrow, In A Year", the brother/sister team of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer bring the listener so far past the boundaries of “strangeness,” that all reference points become useless, like trail markers buried under snow. Known for their atmospheric and eccentric songs, with this album, the duo eschews the pop entirely for a ninety-minute electronic opera and a concept album based on Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species".

As strange as it may sound, the weirdness is perhaps not wholly surprising from a band who on their debut album had a song with the lyrics "making lasagna... above the clouds" and given that Andersson recently attended a Swedish award ceremony draped in a red veil to reveal a rubber alien mask and accepted the award, for her Fever Ray album, with barely audible raspy grunts in place of words.

Commissioned by Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma to create music for the opera they had written about Darwin, it began life as a soundtrack to a live performance before it took root as an album. The record was made in collaboration with Berlin based bands Planningtorock and Mt. Sims and features mezzo-soprano (medium soprano) Kristina Wahlin Momme on operatic vocal duties. As Olof Dreijer says: “At first it was very difficult as we really didn’t know anything about opera. We’d never been to one. But after some studying, and just getting used to opera’s essence of pretentious and dramatic gestures, I found that there is a lot to learn and play with.” If it took Dreijer that long to appreciate it, it will take the audience maybe longer, especially when juxtaposed with the overloaded bass, glitchy distortion and nature samples.

Charles Darwin traveled to The Galápagos Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands off the coast of what is now Ecuador, to research and write his famous work but The Knife chose the relatively nearby Amazon to record bird and insect sounds for this particular opus. The track "Colouring Of Pigeons" comes close to resembling a familiar sound but even in this, one of the more accessible tracks on the album, the opera and bass drone throw things sumptuously off-centre.

An ambitious, courageous album – opera fans won’t love it due to the distortion and most likely the average electronic music fan won’t love it due to the heavy presence of opera. It's obtuse, unwieldy, intense and astonishing. It is also one of the albums of the year and perhaps of the new decade but it will be one of those albums whose time hasn’t come quite yet. It will be talked about, half-forgotten, then dug up and lauded, probably once The Knife are in retirement; the familiar curse of visionary artists the world over.

With little of their trademark sweeteners - handclaps, pulsating dance beats or disco hi-hat – to balance the brooding darkness, this long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s Silent Shout, like Darwin's book, will be received with a certain measure of indignation and disbelief. The Knife is passionate about the evolution of its music: Let this album sink slowly into your skin and the rewards will be rich. Just don’t listen to it alone; “Tomorrow, In A Year” is as terrifying as it is unique.

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