Nostalgia trip: three takes on the theme of knives

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 June, 2015, 7:42am

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The Knife's Silent Shout cut a swathe for Swedish pop bands

Swedish music is a major part of the international art scene, and we can thank The Knife for that.

Brother and sister duo Olof and Karin Dreijer blasted open the gates on the Scandinavian nation's electronic music community with a sound that managed to be both icily foreboding and euphoric.

Arguably they reached the peak of their artistic creativity with the final album, 2013's Shaking the Habitual. But it was 2006's Silent Shout that established the electronic duo as a star attraction on the world's dance floors, and put them in the vanguard of a national artistic force that has been felt in all genres, from indie pop to heavy metal.

Formed in the southwest city of Gothenburg from the ashes of Karin's previous band, the indie-rock group Honey Is Cool, The Knife won plaudits with their debut album and then commercial success with 2003's follow-up, Deep Cuts. The beats-heavy club tracks were a far cry from Karin's previous work and won a wider audience when compatriot and indie-folk darling Jose Gonzalez covered their track Heartbeats.

Thus established, they turned to building up their Rabid Beats label and creating a studio in which they could indulge their craft. The first result of this gestation was Silent Shout. Darker than Deep Cuts in tone and malevolent in texture, Silent Shout is an unsettling record that was made all the more disturbing by the promotional material, which featured the Dreijers in crow-face masks and clad in black, their human identities hidden in a monstrous guise.

Recorded in a disused gasworks, the album drips with melancholic phrases and industrial elements that reflect the gloomy setting.

But the change of tone wasn't the most significant shift in the band's new sound. That distinction surely goes to the treatment of Karin's vocals. In a practice that the band would stick to and Karin would extend into her solo work as Fever Ray, her voice was run through processors that effectively turned it into another electronic instrument.

The process completed the "dehumanisation" of the band, rendering them almost entirely as an algorithmic creation of sight and sound. Thus ready to take their grand artistic plan on the road, they played their first gigs later that year, two stark individuals bathed in ethereal stage lights barely recognisable as humans.

Comparisons of this transformative programme were made to those of David Bowie, whose many characters inhabited a world only of the singer's psyche. For the Dreijers, the implication was that their world was not an altogether pleasant one. They burnished their other-worldly reputation by refusing to appear at Sweden's leading music awards ceremony, instead beaming a video of the pair in eerie garb and their voices manipulated into little more than haunting noises.

It was likely such an act would eventually collapse under the weight of its own expectations. After one more album and a worldwide hit under the alias of Fever Ray, the Dreijers called it a day on The Knife. The originality, experimentalism and power of their music persuaded the music-listening world to cast more than a passing gaze upon the rest of Sweden's underground music scene. It's difficult to imagine the likes of Robyn, Lykke Li, Niki and the Dove, or pop giants Icona Pop, having their current success if Karin and Olof hadn't drawn the world's spotlight on the country first. 

Silent Shout The Knife (Rabid Beats)

 

Knife in the Water (1962) by Roman Polanski

Knives, for better or worse, have constantly played a role in director Roman Polanski's life.

There was the harrowing, headline-splashing stabbing of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson's cult of freaks. There's the now-classic Chinatown scene in which snooping detective Jack Nicholson gets his nostril gruesomely sliced open by a ratty goon (played by the director himself) with a knife.

And there's Polanski's debut, Knife in the Water, a lean, sharp and incredibly piercing early 1960s release. It was the director's sole home-grown effort in Poland, the place where the 29-year-old cut his teeth and forever carved out a fascinating cinematic space for his soon-to-be-controversial name.

An attractive and well-off couple have reached a place of contempt in their relationship, pointing out each other's flaws while requiring regular reassurance in their close-to-middle-age years. After nearly running over a hitchhiker, the pair decide to invite the young man on their sailing trip, with the two males asserting their alpha status against the sole female on board.

If nothing else, Knife is a stunning exercise in the art of restraint. Polanski was armed with a low budget, amateur actors and a single sailing vessel, but worked incredibly efficiently within his limited means. He realised that the camera - the audience's voyeuristic, all-seeing eye - was his only tool for building tension in such circumstances and, utilising the European sensibilities that he'd come to be acclaimed for, arranged beautifully stark black-and-white compositions that alternated between offering meaning or suggestion - or both.

Down below, as the trio holes up in the cabin to escape an approaching storm, another begins to brew within. Each setting is heightened through the camera's sense of purpose, characters temporarily given the illusion of power before being taken away in the next frame.

Against all this is the lean-thriller cliché of "no words wasted" - and how Knife completely ignores it. The script is filled with the characters waffling on about all sorts of subjects unrelated to the inherent aggression and attraction, but its use of not-so-meaningful dialogue cuts right to the heart of his three characters. Each has a distinct personality, with thoughts, desires and emotions, and all embody the era's changing attitude of sexual awakening.

At certain points, Knife feels like a testing ground for Polanski's future masterpieces: marital discontent (Rosemary's Baby), zeitgeist paranoia ( Chinatown) and claustrophobic peculiarities (The Tenant).

His personal life is forever embroiled in controversy, with audiences torn as to right and wrong. But on screen, the director's sharpened sensibilities and knife-like approach cut new cloth.

Knife in the Water Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz  Director: Roman Polanski

 

Sword of Honour (1964) by Evelyn Waugh

The knives were out for Evelyn Waugh long before he sat down to take a predominantly fictional look at his life during wartime.

Here was a man who throughout his existence seemed to polarise opinion among both peers and public, an apparently abrasive character who - rumour has it - was so often obnoxious to the troops under his command during the second world war that his superiors didn't want to send him off to battle.

The fear was that the men would quickly aim at Waugh, rather than at the real enemy.

Sword of Honour was originally released in three editions: Officers and Gentlemen, Men at Arms and Unconditional Surrender. Waugh went back to work after the war, and by 1965 (a year before his death) he had tweaked, revised and rewritten passages so that the story could be told in one volume as he'd intended.

By then, Waugh had established himself and his genius, both for pure wit - as revealed from the get-go in his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928) - and for wit combined with a unique sense of pathos or of a longing for past times and traditions.

This was fully realised in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Waugh's masterpiece. Sword of Honour's mood fell somewhere in between the two, as Waugh sought to mock the absurdities of life in wartime, and of war itself, but he also wanted to reflect on how society and people of the time were changing.

Waugh presented us with a version of himself in the shape of Guy Crouchback, a man raised both as a Catholic and as a gentleman, and one who - like Waugh himself - was a little too old to sign up for military duty but felt honour-bound to do so.

We are taken with Crouchback on a rambling, often hilarious, tour of duty that includes a few serious brushes with the stark realities of conflict - in Africa and in Crete - but mostly with the paper-shuffling, bureaucratically bogged-down world that exists on war's fringes.

Waugh's pen is at times poisonous, too: he mocks the absurdities of an upper class that even at the height of battle seems very much removed from reality.

That Waugh is pretty much a failure as a soldier himself makes his mockery all the more savage. One can only imagine what his work was thought of by the people with whom he served, and with whom he fraternised when off-duty. The very same people whose words - behind his back at least - must have been as sharp as their knives.

Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics)