SILENT SHOUTS “Wish I could speak in just one sweep/What you are and what you mean to me/Instead I mumble randomly.”
The Knife, the Swedish synth-pop duo of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson (actual siblings, not just bro/sis in the Jack/Meg sense), have played only a handful of live gigs, maybe 10 or 11 in all. In seven years they’ve made three albums; 2003’s Deep Cuts won them a Grammi (the Swedish Grammy), and Silent Shout (Mute) came out earlier this year. The album isn’t just electronic in the sense that it takes the sounds and textures of early techno — the cheesy fluttering arpeggio lines and flimsy drum patches — and puts vocal melodies above them. It’s electronic to the point of human exclusion. And it’s unsettling. No sound is left untreated or un-FX’d, and Karin’s voice is wrenched and vocoded and garbled and disembodied till it’s not her own. Indie Rock America has compared Silent Shout favorably with Radiohead’s Kid A, whose extensively treated vocals and man-versus-machine subtext would seem to create common ground for the two. But Silent Shout, save the lyrics, has no semblance of man. It’s hardly man versus machine; if anything, it’s man as machine. And sometimes there are songs you can dance to.
At this year’s CMJ, I saw the Knife play their first US show (or second, to be precise, since it was the later of two performances), on November 1, at New York’s Webster Hall. Philip Sherburne, who writes about electronic music tirelessly and has had some success turning Indie Rock America on to dance music and its Knife-like perversions, played minimal techno records beforehand, but there was no opener — just a dark stage with a few clues as to what was to come. An enormous blank backdrop, video projectors, and a transparent scrim caged the stage from the audience, articulating that divide in uncertain terms. Was this screen to protect the audience from the Knife or to protect the Knife from the crowd?
Everything about the duo’s stage presence was shrouded in confusion. “The Captain” began with huge swells of sound, as if birds passing through the sky could cut swaths of icy glacial tone, as if the sky were one big theremin. But when the beat kicked in, you couldn’t tell which Dreijer was doing what, who was triggering the trills of marimba samples, who was producing that alien lullaby of a melody. It was either the one on the left in the androgynous union suit and red facepaint or the one on the right in the androgynous union suit and red facepaint. Sexuality was moot. Agency was moot. Except for some mimed xylophone playing here and there, they kept their movements to a minimum, a listless Blue Man Group streamlined to two.
And then there’s the tension in the Knife’s music, the mind-body dissonance of music made using the signifiers of dance music, the “futuristic” synth sounds and insistent drum-machine patterns that nevertheless are undanceable. At Webster it played out to uncomfortable effect. Songs like “Silent Shout” explore this swirling anxiety, which is compounded live when the people in costumes on stage could be anybody and might not be responsible for the sounds you’re hearing. It’s not as if we could even see them well behind the screen of geometric screen-saver-like visualizations. There was no basis for anything, only music, and we didn’t know what to watch or how to listen. It was overwhelming.
Maybe I’m making the Knife out to be melodramatic. And that’s unfair. There is humor here, nothing so much in the form of a joke, but laughter born of discomfort. During “Marble House,” an enormous, probably Swedish head “floated” off stage and mouthed some of the song’s words before deteriorating into a skull. There are lyrics that seem to make reference to the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel,” and the Knife have admitted in interviews that they cracked themselves up a number of times in the making of Silent Shout, what with all the vocoding, all the schmaltzy eight-bit RPG chord progressions at the heart of songs like “Na Na Na,” all the Kate-Bush-gone-wrong club-industrial pounds of “Neverland.” If nothing else, dark dreary music that backdrops a retelling of a fairy tale is pretty funny stuff.
Mid set, during “Marble House,” I fainted. Just dropped. I was unconscious, I’m told, for about a minute. Jelena dragged me through the crowd, and when I snapped back, I vomited. I don’t mean to be too sensational about this. I hadn’t had much to eat before the concert, and I’ve been having panic attacks lately. After the fact, I usually explain it all away, but it’s increasingly hard to laugh off the ER bills.