Dance music is chockablock with anonymous artists, but few have concealed themselves with quite the dedication of the Knife. The Swedish sibling duo of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson shun most interviews, never star in their own videos, rarely make public appearances and only recently revoked their steadfast refusal to play live, performing behind a screen, in the dark, wearing masks. They accepted the seven Swedish Grammys they won in 2007 via a series of unsettling videos, in which their faces and voices were grotesquely distorted and all the great guys who worked so hard at their record label went without thanks.
Animal Collective and the Knife have virtually nothing in common sonically, but the sequenced campfire shouts of the former and the latter’s chilly avant-synthpop do boast one strange area of congruence: each act has tackled the fears, rhythms and joys of childhood with a bracing sense of how growing up feels from the inside. Karin Dreijer Andersson’s performance on Silent Shout is still difficult to parse cleanly (the oblique lyrics and constantly shifting vocal filters turn her from a woman to a hall of mirrors), but songs like “Forest Families”, “We Share Our Mother’s Health” and “Neverland” suggest and evoke what it’s like to be old enough to notice things about the world around you but not old enough to understand them. Where Animal Collective tend to react to that state with something approaching joy, though, the Knife have always depicted the casual terror of meaning that’s only partly glimpsed or understood.
That the Knife's 2006 breakthrough Silent Shout didn't set the dominoes on a series of similarly grotesque and unnatural sounding imitators is less an indictment on its impact than a comment on its inimitability. The current apex of ten years' collaboration between siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, it's one of a handful of albums from the past decade that one might argue sounded like nothing before it. In the three years since, the Dreijers have treaded lightly, touring and remixing in carefully managed bursts before quietly receding back into silence altogether.
At first, it's a little difficult to determine where the Knife ends and Fever Ray begins. On paper, it's clear -- the Knife is the project of Karin Dreijer and her brother Olof, while Fever Ray is Karin with co-producers Christoffer Berg, Van Rivers, and the Subliminal Kid -- but the differences aren't as distinct when listening to Fever Ray the first few times. Initially, the album's dark, frosty atmosphere feels like a continuation of the Knife's brilliant Silent Shout, and the oddly bouncy rhythms on songs like "Triangle Walks" and "Coconut" recall the duo's exotic-yet-frozen Nordic/Caribbean fusion.
Electronic music – when it’s being made by natural performers, rather than solitary craftsmen – has always gone hand-in-hand with fluid identities; multiplying them, extending them, erasing them. Each medium, says McLuhan, is an extension of man; for every extension, says Baudrillard, there’s a corresponding amputation… or castration. These are the kind of dark jokes and symbolic manipulations you’d expect from Karin Dreijer Andersson AKA Fever Ray: are you entering another world… or being trapped in it? On Silent Shout (2006) The Knife’s secret theme was gender anxiety & gender dysphoria; it’s unclear who’s singing when Karin’s vocals are doubled and pitch-shifted: “I had a dream I was in the woods again / calling me woman and a half-man / I had a dream all my teeth fell out / a cracked smile and a silent shout” Is another lyric’s reference to “chemical castration” a woman’s revenge on rapists, or empathy with someone for whom masks aren’t enough - defamiliarizing the artifice of gender (common to all) by focusing on those who need surgery rather than just costumes? In any case, The Knife were creating a dystopia through electronics.
Historically, the "suburbia as Hell" theme is usually casted as an American literary concoction of the antiseptic '50s. It's the stuff we all love to hate: stultifying suburbs, the metallic taste of the daily grind. That grind, all lorded over by phantom gender hopes and a vapid consumer culture, bounces around the confines of Fever Ray's picket-fence prison.
The darkness all around us is hardly clairvoyant. The growing nature of this eeriness is something that we all must deal with on a day to day basis. Karin Dreijer Andersson, half of The Knife, has always been able to not only convey this coldness but with her debut album as Fever Ray, the Swedish artist has perfected the art of ominous tonicity. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a sad or depressing listen, it isn’t even an especially scary theme but with low, cloudy beats and Andersson’s rough and guttural delivery, Fever Ray is certainly ethereal.
Fever Ray is Karin Dreijer Andersson, better known as one half of the Knife, the Swedish electronic brother-sister juggernaut. For a duo who has hidden themselves from the public, literally, it’s pleasantly surprising how well known and adored they’ve become. Since their third album, Silent Shout, broke through in 2006, it’s left them in an enviable position – an art band with a following that spans the pop, indie and dance scenes.