If “Full of Fire,” the first single from The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual, says anything about the brother-sister duo’s brutal, difficult and often beautiful career as musicians obsessed with austere sterility and ghostly vocals, it’s that there’s plenty more to be mined from that concept. They could return to that well forever.
In the years since their last album together, Silent Shout, they’ve written and composed an opera (2010′s Tomorrow, in a Year) and worked with Planningtorock on her album, W; Karin Dreijer Andersson, the female half of The Knife, released a solo album as Fever Ray that was so ahead of its time, its effects are still being felt. All this music is worth seeking out. Some of their productions are more difficult than others—Tomorrow, in a Year is a particularly weighty listen—but it all points to an obsession with crafting electronic music that pulses thick, with a life of its own.
For whatever reason, Olof Dreijer, the other half of The Knife, hasn’t received as much attention for his solo work as Oni Ayhun. The answer to why that is is relatively simple: Dreijer has released the music on import-only 12-inches with obscure, catalog-based song titles like “OAR002-B.” If you came across it at a record store, you’d probably think it was functional house—maybe a 15-minute minimal track to help your DJ set transition. What Dreijer’s actually been making as Oni Ayhun, though, points directly to what The Knife are doing now.
I first heard Oni Ayhun’s “OAR002-B” in 2010, before I had any idea that Dreijer was behind the music. I liked it because the drums were blown-out and slowed down, like an even more alienating version of The Clipse and The Neptunes’ “Grindin”, and there are crystal-clear pops and squeaks that are so bright they’ll probably cause some people to leave the room when they hear them. But it’s worth sticking out: warped synths are gradually added in, giving the song some much-needed softness and warmth. It becomes a world, constantly mutating and shifting. At times, “OAR002-B” is murky and rugged. Then it’s warm and inviting, and then you’re questioning what the definition of music even is, and asking how did we get here?. It does what any difficult work should: it makes you question borders and definitions and the way you listen.
After a personal obsession with “OAR002-B” that involved me playing it in my headphones and not really knowing what to do with it otherwise, I put it on at a particularly experimental DJ gig, just to see how it went over. I couldn’t tell you if people liked it. Some people looked confused, other people ignored it completely and a few craned their necks. Dreijer is making something that exists on the absolute outer edges of accessibility. It’s not noise music, but it’s not a straightforward listen either. It takes some work.
Now that The Knife are back, I’ll be curious to see if the Oni Ayhun project continues as a boundary-bursting exercise in sound sculpture, or if Dreijer will burrow further into austere weirdness to create something no one could ever predict.