The Knife are adept at taking the abstract textures and intensities of electronic dance music and nursing them towards new, strange figures. Their live show, which was sold out the night I caught it at the El Rey Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, pushes this sonic method into the cultural and visual spheres as well. The light shows and computer graphics that lit up raves and club nights here and elswhere ten years ago, have, under the careful surgery of The Knife and their visual collaborators (Andreas Nillson?), been transformed into something bizarre and ritualistic. The lines of laser light become occult sigils, faces morph into skulls while chanting the lyrics, and video static becomes the planar surfaces of three dimensional trains and birds, flying away to suggest a failed reconstruction of lost childhood. In 'Forest Families', there's the line: "Too far away from the city, some kids left on their own, we had a communist in the family, I had to wear a mask". Brother and sister Olof and Karin wear masks on stage (if it was really them onstage at all), reminiscent of the painters masks smeared by Vicks worn by rushing ravers, and continuing a long tradition of 'faceless' electronic music performers who use mask or standins in their live shows. A short list of these would include Kraftwerk, Art of Noise, Altern8, and Daft Punk.
One of the places their music always seems to occupy is this apathetic wasteland left behind after the collapse of European and North American rave, arguably the last unified social, political, and cultural youth movement in the West. 'Forest Families', in the live show, takes the acid arpeggios, synth surges and handclaps of tribal trance, and lets them just float in space without the 4/4 kick drum, like a nostalgic reverie of every perfect dancefloor rush, intensity redefined and maintained, but undirected and left to fade into a memory of a symbol of something lost. All through their music there is this collapse of abstraction into figuration, presented as a kind of tragedy. When potentialities become things, doors to other worlds become closed forever, it's the comedown after the rush that makes us retreat into something familiar: "When we come home, we like it nice and calm ... we pull the curtains down, making sure that the TV is on." British music critic Simon Reynolds, in his book 'Generation Ecstasy', writes about the dancefloor experience as a Deleuzian 'desiring machine' of pure, undirected intensity and potential, the music of The Knife is about, in one sense, the tragedy of our inability to integrate this experience into daily life. The failure of any attempt to transform culture and politics in a meaningful way is excacerbated by the recuperation of the art generated in that period of productive abstraction into commercial culture at large. Techno music is the soundtrack of choice for car commercials.
The Knife's genius is to make sure that this is a bitter pill to swallow. The 'Ten Days of Perfect Tunes' from "Heartbeats" is the prelude to a murder or a suicide, or both: "One night to be confused". If the open cultural possibilities generated by the productive abstraction of mid 90s rave culture are going to collapse into closed forms, then The Knife make sure those forms will be strange and sinister. 'Heartbeats' has been assimilated, it is the soundtrack for an award winning ad, for Sony widescreen LCD televisions, but only in a more comforting cover version by Swedish techno/folk singer Jose Gonzalez, the dark and unsettling aspects of the song are downplayed, as it becomes a wistful ballad.
The collapse of abstract potential into closed figuration is a dark and strange tragedy, but in the music of The Knife it is a beautiful tragedy. The songs have a clear beginning, middle, and end, unlike the endless beat of DJ techno, this is foregrounded in their live show by the clear ending, applause, and then the pregnant moment before the next spectral riff or gut bending jeep bass comes spiralling out of their equipment. And I think this is why the songs are never as good when they're remixed into a more standard techno or house format. These formats are over a decade and a half old, and the music of The Knife makes them sound as dated and dead as they are, clearing the decks for whatever's next.