Monday 17 August 2020

Retro Reviews: The Knife - Hannah Med H Soundtrack

This one has been a long time coming. After a noted absence The Knife announced on Friday that they would be putting almost everything released on their label Rabid Records on Spotify and Bandcamp (though being the massive fan that I am, noticed there is a distinct lack of Karin's old non-electronic band Honey Is Cool). Not that there was anything wrong with their own store but it's still nice to see, and if anything gives me an excuse to talk about them more, so I am doing!

The Knife are one of my favourite acts of all time; after being introduced to Karin Dreijer via Röyksopp's ethereal anthem What Else Is There?, she had already become one of my favourite vocalists. It took me a little while to jump on the Knife train but I was absolutely immersed when I did, I don't quite remember when it was but it was a whirlwind of sound as I picked up almost their entire discography up until that point in one swoop. But enough nostalgia, today we'll be talking about the black sheep of the Knife's output, their soundtrack to Swedish indie film Hannah Med H.

And I say black sheep for a couple of reasons: First, this is one of the albums that was curiously missing from Spotify and second because while it was released the same year as their sophomore album Deep Cuts, it exists in this strange valley between the DIY indie sound of their first album and the out-and-out electropop of the second. And this makes itself immediately known from the first track; Real Life Television embodies that odd transitional stage from the get go. To be clear, this isn't a critique of the album, in fact I quite like the slightly menacing undertones that tracks like this have and while I won't talk about it too much their work very much suits the film (though admittedly it has been years since I've seen it).

This does lead to an internal dichotomy within the album however, where more atmospheric soundtrack-style tracks like the above rub shoulders with more conventional Knife songs. Here we start to see more of a move in that direction with the introduction of Karin's vocals, albeit without proper lyrics. Hannah's Conscious with it's powerful synth stabs would fit right in on Deep Cuts, though curiously if you have one of the later releases like I do, this and a handful of other tracks from this soundtrack are included on their self-titled debut. It definitely feels as if they're testing the water of how close they can get to the Deep Cuts sound while still maintaining that soundtrack element, and I think it works very well in that respect: the song stands alone fine but it can also play under dialogue without being *too* distracting.

I could honestly do a track-by-track breakdown of this album but I will skip some just to rein in the length. Jumping back to that contrast I was talking about, it only gets more pronounced as the album progresses, there is one scene in a Nightclub where they obviously needed some diegetic music to make it seem real, so The Knife lay down a pounding techno track with those trademark pitch shifted-down vocals in Handy-Man which is completely unlike anything on either of their releases so far, I still like it but it definitely sticks out in the track-list.

There are other examples of this that I think work better: the track New Year's Eve (that fitting plays in the background of a New Year's party) just bleeds that Deep Cuts style of sound, from the sugary sweet synths of the intro, to the Steel Pans that would define the early tacks of that album it is all there. In context it makes sense; it It certainly feels like a track that could play at a party circa the early 2000's I can't shake the feeling that this could very well be an otherwise unreleased demo from Deep Cuts, just reworked slightly to fit here, especially given that the lyrics have nothing to do with NYE. That is purely conjecture though, I have no proof of that but I think the description is spot on.

Like I say when so many releases finally make it to full streaming / bandcamp coverage, I am mostly happy that people have easier access to these releases because there is often some really good stuff on them. Some of the tracks from this OST made it onto the re-issues of their debut album as mentioned above, but some of them remained exclusive, This Is Now is one such example, and it's one of my favourites from this album. Its got a very unique style to it, the descending notes of the intro are unlike anything on either of the two albums before and after it and it is beautiful to listen to. It still feels as if they're holding back a little bit, while we get full vocal accompaniment from Karin on this one, her voice is almost in the background of the mix. I suppose this is understandable as it's for a soundtrack and all, and truth be told I do enjoy that kind of dreamy atmosphere that it gives the whole thing, which also compliments the film very well too.

As much I as love Karin's contributions to Knife projects, I must say that the Hannah Med H soundtrack is home to some of my all time top ten instrumentals from them too. Take The Bridge, I was taken in by it's charmingly euro-sounding intro anyway but it only gets better as the track goes on. The peak being the hands down euphoric breakdown at around 1:48, maybe it's my love of 90's trance talking but I could happily listen to those synth power chords all day, and the way it just slides back into the main body of the mix with the rapid fire crashes is fantastic. It's been a very long time since I first heard this one and it's still as excellent as ever. What I wouldn't give for an album of instrumentals like this from the sibling duo. Like I always say when talking about soundtracks too; I enjoy tracks like this too because they are just so much more interesting that your usual cinematic orchestral string affair, the electronics here convey that sense of tension perfectly well without them.

Keeping on that intense theme we have Wanting To Kill, and a better title for a track there never was. It is the embodiment of those closing lines of mine above: from the beginning until the end it is non-stop techno-fuelled intensity. There are so many things I love about this one: the way that those swooping bass pulses telegraph progressions in the song, the absolutely relentless beats and the way those claps build up to bombastic levels over the runtime. And all of it perfect in representing that feeling. And that's perhaps something I haven't praised enough so far when it comes to this soundtrack; the versatility of The Knife is on full show here, the same band that could make the heartfelt electronic-come-acoustic N.Y. Hotel can also flawlessly deliver pounding techno as well.

And speaking of versatility and that acoustic sound, there is actually a few tracks on here that embody that too, this is going to be the final selection of mine but the album does continue past this point. Vegetarian Restaurant is potentially my most played out of all the tracks I've talked about so far, I cannot ever skip over it whenever it comes up (and sometimes have to repeat it once more to get my fill), it's made its way into many a playlist and mix-tape and has played host to some amazing memories over the years. I know I try to avoid getting nostalgia tinged when writing these but I feel it's especially important here, as to me this track has that same quality that so many Boards Of Canada tracks have, where they already do feel nostalgic even if it's your first ever listen. The band themselves obviously think highly of it too, as this is once again another one of the tracks from this OST that were included in the re-issues of their debut. And that makes more sense than all of the others so far, as it does share a lot of sound DNA with N.Y. Hotel mentioned above from that album. Once again I know they evolved past this sound as a band but man, I could go for even just an EP of jams like this.

And that does it for my quick rundown retrospective. It's a hard one to review as an 'album' as if you do that it's super all over the place with sudden 180s in sound and all that. But I think it's still a solid addition to their discography, and home to some of those sweet exclusives I talked about. I don't think this is an ideal jumping in point if this is your first proper look at The Knife, definitely go with Deep Cuts if that's the case, the self titled debut The Knife also works too, but I feel that Deep Cuts better sets up the direction they'd take going forward, leading to one of my top ten albums in Silent Shout, but that is a tale for another day.

Do check out their whole Bandcamp if you have a minute, it's home to some albums I would recommend to any fan of electronic stuff, Silent Shout for one, but also Karin's first album under her Fever Ray alias, the self-titled Fever Ray, is nigh perfect and worth a look if you missed it back in 2009 or have just never heard it before. And as always, stay safe and enjoy the music.


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