Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
This week saw the long-anticipated follow-up to the Knife’s pop-warping/ bleak-house masterpiece Silent Shout, in the form of a weighty, bracing, thrilling and ascetic double album, Shaking the Habitual. But to say there was a seven-year layoff between releases isn’t quite correct in the case of Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer-Andersson and Olof Dreijer. In conjunction with Planningtorock and Mt. Sims, the Knife scored Tomorrow in a Year, an abstract electronic opera about Charles Darwin in 2010. And Dreijer released her solo album as Fever Ray in 2009, further extending the queasy, uncanny, post-apocalyptic music she had commenced with her brother back in 2000.
On the surface, Habitual has few peers. In the interim since the release of Silent Shout, a slew of indie acts took up the mantle of that sound, ranging from Purity Ring to AlunaGeorge to Grimes. So it figures that the Knife would move further afield, beyond the easy grasp of their imitators, even folding in 20th century compositional noise from the likes of Diamanda Galas and Gyorgy Ligeti in the 98 minutes of Habitual. So there’s little that resembles “Heartbeat” or even “We Share Our Mother’s Health,” but by album’s end, it still sounds like the Knife. In terms of time and pacing and strategic placement of epic noise-drone tracks, Habitual most resembles Tomorrow. Lyrically, the issues of gender politics and queer theory have been latent in their work since Deep Cuts and were made most explicit on a now-rare 10” they released entitled “Gender Bender.” But the techno throb that propels this album arises from a rarely-discussed project from Olof Dreijer.
As his sister released and toured as Fever Ray, Olof decamped to Berlin (where he still resides) and began to release 12-inch singles under the nom de plume Oni Ayhun. Beginning in June of 2008 and carrying into early 2010, a series of cryptic, etched, untitled, inscrutable 12” singles began to appear in shops from this heretofore-unknown producer, some four in total. Even at a time when many near-anonymous extreme techno 12”s by unknowns like Wax and Frozen Border made the racks at Hardwax, Oni Ayhun’s singles were startling. The 15-minute first single featured the biomorphic polyrhythms that suggested fellow Berliner, Ricardo Villalobos, but there was this melodic bit of processed horns that brought to mind fourth-stream composer (and close Brian Eno collaborator), Jon Hassell. And much like these iconic producers, the sound itself seemed to mutate before your very ears, minimal but unstable. And the flip was even more skin-prickling, a noisy, beatless thing that brought to mind the monolith scene from 2001 (aka the chorale work of Ligeti) or else the swarming bees of Candyman. It’s buzzing menace even worked well when mixed with another horror film of sorts, Yoko Ono’sFly.
Wild speculation on message boards and the like proliferated as to the origins of these extreme and hallucinatory tracks; only around the time of the third Oni Ayhun single did the music get traced back to Dreijer, who by then was DJing avant-garde sets at Berlin clubs like Berghain and Panorama Bar. Only, if Ayhun was to manifest at one of these clubs, there were specific demands to be met. As Dreijer recently told Philip Sherburne: “With my solo project, I’ve been using the approach that I only perform at nights or festivals that have no more than 50% people who identify as men.” Ayhun himself (or herself) would appear in black shades with lipstick and long black hair, looking a bit like Japanese noise-guitar demiurge, Keiji Haino.
The singles that followed continued their masterful and tentacular reach. One could find power noise, clanging techno, analog synth snaking, tribal drum mesmerism, metallic minimalism, alien tonalities, industrial-strength migraine thumps and the type of winsome warm pads that once defined Aphex Twin’s mid-period productions. You know, the type of things that now underpin Shaking the Habitual. Last year, there was a distended, cartoon-ish remix of Shangaan Electro, but nothing from Ayhun since then, which I chalk up to Ayhun’s black wig merely being put aside once work began in earnest on the Knife. But perhaps in another year or two, when the next wave of indie acts begin to crib from Judith Butler and Ligeti in earnest, a new Ayhun production will just magically appear in the 12” section, no doubt presaging some alien world where the Knife might journey to next.