(Image from Spotify)
Picking this up on a whim, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember listening to an album by The Knife once upon a time. It didn’t make too much of an impression on me then, but I was in the mood for some electronic music. The sparse cover and track names like “Epochs”, “Geology” and “Minerals” had me excited for some sort of concept album about a geological or archaeological expedition, but I did not expect what I got, which was a full-fledged opera based on The Origin of Species that was over 90 minutes long!
To my great pleasure, no effort seems to have been made to bend this album towards any sort of traditional operatic style, musically, apart from the use of an actual opera singer on a lion’s share of the tracks. The music is felt as much as heard. Great swathes of the album go by with only the noise of nature to keep you company (“Schoal Swarm Orchestra”). The introduction (“Intro”) begins with what seems like an anomalous blip in your ears, but is actually stretched out and evolved upon into a swaying bit of percussion. There is no need felt here to use every available instrument – only those needed for the track are present at any one time. Creaks and obscured crashes (are they cymbals or someone injuring themselves?) serve to mark a strange sort of time as the synths ebb and flow, burbling and diving and scratching into its surrounding area, with no sense of “song”, but simply of atmosphere.
The operatic vocals stand in stark contrast to the experimental tack of the backing music, but never sound out of place – they come from the same place as the music does, though the music gives the vocals a wide berth when they are present. My one complaint is that the operatic vocals make it difficult to understand the lyrics, with the vowel-heavy pronunciation (but such is opera). Vocally, the best moments come when the vocals are used percussively (“Upheaved”, “Colouring of Pigeons”), in which they are interwoven with the rest of the piece quite deftly and give a fantastic ominous feel to the proceedings. Strewn throughout are the vocals which I expected to hear on this album – quiet, almost whispering in a jumble of close notes with the occasional lash out higher.
The significant album length allows the band to stretch out a lot in the experimental department, devoting entire tracks to one or two effects in order to simply play them out and discover where they can take them – animal call-like vocals and a short echo, for example (“Letter to Henslow”) – nothing is hurried or over-the-top. The album takes all the time it needs to deliver exactly what it wants. There are some lulls and long form songs which allow for reflection within the album itself. It’s never pared down to nothing, but the time that it takes to build scenes from a drone or blip lets you acknowledge the changes as they happen and focus easier. There’s no all out attack on this album. When you hear a clip of just rain and wind for a minute or two, it makes sense within the context of the greater story. in order for them to place you in the story, they have to establish the setting. Feel is all important here, and the use of multiple instruments tracks to carry the story along in an opera is a risky proposition, but it pays off in spades here.
A fantastic experience! One of the best blind buys I’ve ever made. Everything has a nice build to it, despite the fact that what is building up seems to make no sense initially. The noises The Knife begin their songs with morph into little passages that take some time to come together, but become all the more satisfying when they finally do. They make something out of seemingly nothing and combine these disparate elements to create what feels like a proper, whole experience. A very low-key opera, but wholly enjoyable from start to finish.