Music Features

The Knife: ‘Live’ at The Roundhouse, London 8/5/13

It’s a supposed-truth commonly conjectured that the live setting has somehow become the primary source of music consumption, that despite the on-going recession and falling record sales, ticket sales (and prices) continue to rise. Yet, there’s been very little conversation as to what this means, both for the consumer and the artist. Is it ok for artists to charge more, and play larger and more soulless venues, while still treating their fans to the haphazard disorganisation of a club show? Are audiences really best served by the live environment, not only by experiencing unclear and imperfect renderings of the performer’s work, but by having to wait around for hours while having little to do other than cough up for overpriced beer for the privilege?

The old, romantic idea of going to a gig to commune with other fans has perhaps been the major casualty of the now-widespread internet-enabled pick ‘n' mix style of music appreciation; we may be better informed, and have wider-reaching tastes than ever before, but the single-minded superfan has become an endangered species, and the sense of commonality went with them. Indeed, with the general proliferation of bad audience members - the incessant chatterers, the mobile phone-armed aspiring photographers, the guys who think they can half-dance, half-shove their way to the front (if you’ve not been annoyed by one of these people at some point during a gig, then odds are you are one of them), not to mention the overwhelming stench of stale sweat and the spilled remnants of that overpriced beer that permeates the air – going to a show is more likely to result in an irritated and isolated self-awareness rather than any sort of sense of belonging.

And so the question hovers in the air as to why we’re keener than ever to go and see bands. Presumably it’s to make the potentially dead idea of recorded music seem more alive, by bringing us closer to the artists responsible. Trust The Knife to use their eagerly anticipated latest tour to attempt to challenge this. 

This isn’t actually the first time the Dreijer siblings have taken an unorthodox approach to the live show. Following years of evasion, the duo briefly took their Silent Shout album out on tour, maintaining the anonymous complexity of their carefully-crafted studio image by performing in masks and leaving the backing tracks to do most of the work (it certainly paid off though; the resulting recording is arguably the strongest entry in their back catalogue), followed by the opera Tomorrow, in a Year, in which the siblings’ contribution began and ended in the studio. The closest they’ve gotten to a traditional live show has been in their respective solo ventures; Olof’s DJing and Karin’s touring under her Fever Ray guise, which was as much an exercise in set and costume design as it was a musical experience. 

Given the themes of The Knife’s recent album, Shaking the Habitual, which forms the vast bulk of the show’s thirteen track setlist, such questioning seems entirely fitting. Beneath the potentially off-putting, yet playful manifestos and ten minute singles, the album is a work very much based around audience inclusion (after all, while still flogging the record on their website, they were also perfectly happy to release it under a sharing-friendly creative commons licence), and the idea is taken to its full extension here. The rumours and cryptic press-releases might have hinted at what their show, a collaboration with feminist performance group Sorkklubben, was to be but they didn’t quite capture the sense that what it really is – part-slightly antiquated fringe theatre production, part-staged club night that seeks to put the idea of observing under the spotlight; as the majority of the night’s soundtrack comes from pre-recorded sources, the performers are as much listeners as we are. The nine-strong troupe on stage (who presumably count Karin and Olof amongst their number, despite subsequent rumours to the contrary) are for the most part dancers and occasional mimers (not much effort is taken to sell the illusion that these bizarre sculptural ‘instruments’ on stage have anything to do with the sounds we’re hearing) while at points, particularly during Stay Out Here (in which the record’s recurrent gender-bending theme is illustrated by having both male and female performers enact the contributions of Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess), they act as a surrogate audience in themselves, turning their backs on the crowd to cheer on their colleagues posing behind the microphones, with exaggerated enthusiasm. 

Oddly, with such theatrics, as well as the Dreijers’ reputation for fearless experimentation, the show at times comes across as a little timid. Support act DEEP Aerobics (it stands for Death Electronic Emo Protest… no, me neither) might be a neat idea in attempting to bring an audience closer together, but having it being delivered by one (extremely fabulous, it must be said, what with his purple leggings & high heels combo) guy, almost apologetically tucked away against the wall of the venue – even if it did mean that those who hid at the back in order to pre-emptively avoid participating found their plan had backfired - really wasn’t enough to break through the steely resolve of a Wednesday night London crowd. Attempting to get audience members to acknowledge the strangers next to them would be a tall enough order as it is, expecting them to scream ‘I want to be you’ at each other is not going to happen, or at least not in this truncated fifteen-minute version of the full routine. 

Having only played in intimate spaces on their first tour (which they were arguably already far too big for) there’s a sense that The Knife don’t know how to meet the challenges of playing in the relatively cavernous Roundhouse. Although the distance between many of the spectators and the stage adds plenty of fuel to the ‘are Karin and Olof even there?’ questioning (to be fair that might well be the point) there’s also the nagging feeling that the audience-performer breakdown that the siblings had been going for would have been far more effective if more of the venue’s space had been used. As it is, the evening’s bigger gestures are the ones that really hit home; by far the most potent sense of the joyfully absurd comes from the sole foray into second album Deep Cuts (pulling out the Sony Bravia-approved Heartbeats would understandably be far too commercial a move for a show that comes with an anti-capitalist bookshop in place of the usual merchandise stand) Got 2 Let U, in which one of the dancers mimes a duet with a video projection of Karin in drag, before pulling out a gymnastics ribbon. What most gigs could do with is a bit of rhythmic gymnastics… and mass vogueing (which happily also put in an appearance during the evening).

In fact, and in perhaps an unintentional nod to the general rules of the pop gig, the evening’s highest peaks mostly come from the few trips into the back catalogue: One Hit’s dance routine might have been a bit too amateur West Side Story to really add much but Bird, a perhaps odd choice to take from their self-titled debut sounded unexpectedly ferocious, rendering the borderline-cute sub-birdie-dance movements almost menacing. It was in the final triumphant run-through of Silent Shout’s title track that the show really came together though, in which (presumably) Karin gets back to (presumably) live vocal duties, while the dancers let go in what seems to be the evening’s most energetic and (presumably) unchoreographed moments. The image of their silhouettes picked out against the dazzling light display finally induces that out-of-body experience that the best gig moments are made of. The subsequent twist of the track segueing seamlessly into Hannah Holland’s concluding DJ set, while the audience themselves are picked out in the same lighting, sees the idea of the show as a community-building experience come together, it’s just a shame that that sensation didn’t hit earlier. 

That’s not to say that the Shaking the Habitual tracks were a drag, mind; A Cherry on Top and Ready to Lose come fairly close to the conventional idea of live music – but with the former’s sparse lighting and nightmarish sound establishing an ominous tone for the evening and the latter, coming close to the end of the set, seeming almost mocking in its approximated sincerity – and A Tooth for an Eye comes with an endearingly silly, yet militarily precise routine, while the Roundhouse's occasionally sludgy speaker set-up has never sounded so good; you’ve not really experienced The Knife until you’ve heard them at bone-rattling volumes. That being said, the rage-fuelled Full of Fire isn’t best served by having the company stand stock still throughout, and staging instrumental Networking as merely a light show on an empty stage was maybe taking things a bit too far. 

Considering the seven year wait since the last tour, it’s inevitable that there’s a touch of disappointment in the air, and when the £30-odd ticket prices are taken into consideration, there’s a sense of a very pre-recession decadence to what The Knife are asking their audience to put up with. Yet, the charges of laziness that have been thrown at them are arguably groundless; wouldn’t the alternative of a straightforward frill-free show be equally lazy in its own way? Ultimately, the evening itself doesn’t quite manage to transcend the usual problems of the live setting (mostly the audience) but it does have the rare distinction of being a work that grows and develops with later reflection - its most effective moments having a genuinely insidious effect that make you question the validity of live music in general. Given the transience of the concert experience it probably was asking a lot to deliver a show that really needs to be reflected on and witnessed more than once to get to grips with, and in turn the performers perhaps need to grow into it too (after all, the Fever Ray live act didn’t really hit its stride until the second tour), but, considering the absurd demands of the album that this tour is supporting, it actually seems entirely appropriate.