By NATHAN READEY
DJ Rapid Fire
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: Whatever you call dubstep.
"Music can be so meaningless," muses Knife frontwoman Karin Dreijer Andersson, when discussing the inspiration for the band's new album, Shaking the Habitual. "We had to find lust." Lust indeed. Dreijer Anderson's remarks, though enigmatic, seem a fitting account for the ethos of the group, and their meaning is apparent to all who saw the band perform at the Fox Theater last night. For those in attendance -- let us call them "the initiated" -- it was clear that the Knife is about much more than music: it is, if I may put it this way, the invocation of a peculiar vitality, a lust which both inspires and transfixes. If you thought that all of the dark intrigue of Viking culture was trapped in a compressed sawdust box in some unmarked IKEA warehouse, there is good news: it is back; we call it the Knife.
The evening began ordinarily enough -- a crowd of mostly young hipsters milling around to the faint sounds of a disco playlist. There was the odd mohawk on display, and a scattering of men and women in drag appeared from time to time. But then, the towering red curtains parted and a caped, bedazzled figure stepped onto the stage. Promptly, he began to hype the crowd like a deacon at a Pentecostal church. "Self-consciousness is just the fear that this is only happening to me," he shouted at us. We repeated his words, tentatively at first, and then in a single, full-throated roar. He commanded us to dance, and we did -- bouncing, shouting, flailing our arms in the air. This was done so that we might become less self-conscious, he told us, so that we might become one. Somehow, it actually seemed to be working. And then it was time for The Knife.
The set began in near darkness with a slow, percussive dirge. Dreijer Anderson's voice rang out from the overheads like a spirit clawing its way back from another dimension. The crowd swayed slowly, unsteadily, trying to adapt to this lurching rhythm after the caped man's ecstatic invocation. But then the stage lights came on, and the dancing began. The familiar strains of "We Share Our Mother's Health" emerged from a dense thicket of percussion, and the audience clapped along with remarkable precision -- you need only consider how rare an occurrence this is to recognize that there was an uncanny connection between the band and the audience last night. And in the light of a dozen swirling colored beams, you could see that the Knife had expanded from the original brother/sister duo to a nine-piece phalanx of drummers, singers, and dancers. They skidded across the stage in pastel jump suits, executing a choreography that seemed part bacchanalia, part Broadway revue. It was utterly irresistible. The Knife had brought light out of the darkness, and we were grateful witnesses to their creation.
A few words about the lighting. You have been to a concert where there are lights, and lasers, and in all likelihood, fog machines. This show was something else. The visual elements of the performance were just as thoughtful and tightly composed as the music itself -- call it "total art" to borrow the Wagnerian term. The lighting schemes ranged from Lynchian, to Giallo, to something approximating Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense. It was cinematic.
And then the sound. How do I describe the sound? Keep in mind, this is a band with the peculiar distinction of having introduced steel drums to electronic dance music. Their ability to integrate warm and, at times, whimsical sounds into an icy bed of minimal techno conjures the image of Polish housing block circa 1983 that, by some miracle of retroactive global warming, is festooned with palm trees. There is an improbable, cargo cult quality to the music which is both refreshing and irresistible. And then there's the monster voice: you know that velvety inhuman bass that you usually only hear when something is being chopped and/or screwed? Woven into the demon's chorus that intones the Knife's anthemic hooks, this voice becomes a sort of whale song, a call of Cthulhu rather than the mere bi-product of sizzurp.
The remainder of the set included material from their earlier discography ("Pass it On," "One Hit," "Silent Shout"), though the greater part was dedicated to music from the new record (highlights included "A Tooth for an Eye" and "Full of Fire"). Returning to Dreijer Anderson's comments, however, it should be stressed that the songs themselves are almost incidental to the show. More than music, the Knife performs an incantation: the creation of a space in which we encounter what is both stirring and unexpected.
Personal bias: I had a phase in which I listened to "Heartbeats" at least once a day -- but didn't we all?
Overheard: From a fellow audience member just as the lights went down: "This is the source, man. This is the source. This is the end-all."