Bands have never been particularly good at bowing out. If you’re breaking up because you all hate each other, then your swansong is often a disheveled affair where someone walks off halfway through and everyone gets refunds from their point of purchase. More undignified still is if you wind things down because you’ve realised your band is no longer commercially viable, then do a long-drawn out “goodbye” tour hoping to squeeze every last penny before you all become part-time music teachers.
Or you can bow out like The Knife, barely mentioning that this show is your deathknell, instead indulging a crowd in Reykjavik with one of the most astonishing visual imaginings of a body of work you’re ever likely to see. There could be no greater celebration of one the 21st century’s most innovative duos than what went down in a concert hall at Iceland Airwaves festival this weekend.
Like all their recent shows, the show began with some DEEP aerobics (Death Electro Emo Protest, obvs) in which a self proclaimed master-teacher-guru-shaman-dictator-aerobics-instructor-new-age-workshop-leader type gets the crowd going with some self-help musical movements. I get that if you’ve not seen this show, that might sound a bit gimmicky, but think how hard it is to get a tastemaker crowd of trendy Nordic types to scream, shamelessly, at the top of their voice, “I am alive and I’m not afraid to die”, after less than five minutes of being on stage. What she’s doing, although cloaked in irony and silly dancing, is actually incredibly skillful; and I've seen some of the best performers fail to get a room shaking this quickly.
It’s also during the aerobics that the fluidity of our identity is established as a theme, with the crowd being told to chant, “I am a not a woman, I am not a man, I am both, I am neither, If you don’t like it, take a breather.” That’s a mantra that underscores much of the main show. The songs - taken mostly from their last two records Shaking The Habitual and Silent Shout, with a couple of deep cuts thrown in - are entirely reimagined mostly as energetic performance numbers. Karin Drejer Anderson’s vocals are revoiced so that they are sometimes performed by her, and sometimes by new addition Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess, or mimed or performed by any number of other performers - men and women, from the straight-faced or theatrically ridiculous.
The authenticity that is normally demanded of artists - for the original singer to perform the songs in the style they perform them on record - disappears immediately, leaving everything to play for; and the Knife really know how to play. Each song is staged completely differently, so while one five-minute incarnation of the band might be based around interpretive dance and someone doing mime DJing, others have epic instrumental sections with the lead vocal being shot across the stage through different singers.
One of the most spectacular portions is when a solitary woman begins reciting a poem by Jess Arnets about the transience of the body (opening line, “I want a body with two dicks, five pouches, and fifteen holes.”) This poem has nothing to do with The Knife, but tonight it feels like it absolutely does. As does everyone on the stage. They have expanded the meaning of their band beyond the tenuous connection of who wrote or performed on their record. Even Björk - the first lady of Iceland, who stands on the balcony at the back of the venue and loses her shit at various points - feels part of the show.
A lot of electronic artists struggle with making their laptop music translate into a live setting. The previous night I’d seen Kiasmos, one of my favourite artists of 2014, play their brilliant self-titled album. It was fun, but it was just two guys standing by their laptops, jumping up and down. Elsewhere artists like Disclosure have tried to make their shows more visual by adding in pads and what have you, which does make things look more energetic, but it’s still mostly a bunch of guys hitting things. In this show, you can see exactly how the music comes together when they want you to - every steel drum pad boshed with virulent intensity, every soaring pitch bend played out in a MIDI Clarinet, each of the brightly coloured paper-mache classroom shakers, and something that looks like the cornucopia from the Hunger Games: they all fuel the rhythmic backing. And when they think it’s unnecessary to provide a visual accompaniment to the music, they refrain from pretending to play a laptop, and simply perform to the track.
It’s not like bringing elements of theatricality to a stage performance is anything new, but there is something about this band, who were previously known for hiding behind masks and barely moving, to expose themselves in this way. They have come from a world of Pitchfork decimal points, thinkpieces and srs face, to expose themselves in this huge and demanding production, and it is a rallying cry, as spectacular as anything you’d see at an arena pop show.
At one point they whisper about this being their final show, but they don’t dwell on it. There is no time. Even at the end of the final song they segue straight into a loud EDM set, so it takes people around five minutes to realise they’re not coming back.
One question I’ve been asking myself a lot with music recently is this: could what I’m watching or listening to now have existed at some other time in the past? If you take the natural improvement of production values out of the equation, would this show have basically made sense 10, 20, or 40 years ago? Sure Kate Bush blended theatricality with live performance, Daft Punk brought narrative and spectacle on a grand scale to electronic music, Kraftwerk found a way to bring experimental ideas into a live arena, Kathleen Hanna deconstructed gender live on stage, but none of them did it all at the same time, and none of them did it quite like this. We will always remember that The Knife played their last show in 2014, because there is no other time that could have coped with them.