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Extraordinary Machines: How The Knife’s weird and wonderful custom instruments shook up the habitual


Befitting for a band whose beat was unearthly, mercurial, and all of its own, The Knife concluded its illustrious existence in 2013 with a record titled
Shaking The Habitual. An intensely political outing, the record urged a radical reconsideration of societal structures and institutions, particularly on tracks like “Raging Lung” and “A Tooth For An Eye”—a message also embraced in the innovative shows that made up the Shaking The Habitual tour. For, while serving as platforms for notions of reform and inclusion, those stages, too, reimagined the conventional dimensions of a live act.

Replete with color and choreography, these 2014 performances—notably the final dates at New York’s Terminal 5 that were captured for posterity—celebrated the transformative power of art and music, when not cementing The Knife’s offbeat legacy. Costumes and dance aside, a large part of the shows’ atypical sound and style hinged on the unusual, custom-made instruments that dotted the stage.

The Knife onstage at Terminal 5, New York, 2014.

Designed by Swedish artist Bella Rune, these instruments were built with unique materials, and gave form to the band’s weird and otherworldly sound, which, of course, they also produced. “These ‘instruments’ attempted to visualize some of the sounds on the album along with the dance group, negating expected conventions in electronic music, like one-man-one-laptop,” she said in a 2017 statement. “This is what the sounds looked like to me.”

Among the highlights were an asymmetrical harp strung with a rainbow of ThinLight LED lights, a leaning drum set coated in a holographic skin, and a glockenspiel, suspended with metal tubes and bell elements made of discarded Ikea bowls.

The Bell and The Harp, designed by Bella Rune.

The spotlight, though, belonged to the titanic presence of The Cone. A pentagonal device crafted with plywood, oak, and wood stud, the instrument generated a variety of bass sounds, depending on how it was played. One side of the Cone came strung with a single metal string, which could be plucked or played with a bow to produce a deep, sonorous sound, as heard on “Raging Lung.” Another side was lined up with trigger pads that when activated, occasioned percussive bass notes. (Last year, the Cone, along with the harp and glockenspiel were auctioned off to benefit the No One Is Illegal Network.)

The Knife’s custom instruments in their original form, designed by Bella Rune.

The role of these instruments in the Shaking The Habitual shows was not just sound-making, but convention-busting. According to Rune: “When making the set/costumes/instruments/show for the tour, we were interested in the upheaval of hierarchies and static roles in relation to the production and performing, of a stage show.” Multi-hued, angular, strange, and impossible to ignore, they overhauled dyed-in band and stage setups of guitar-bass-and-drums, re-injecting a sense of wonder and play into the live spectacle. If The Knife planned to shake and shatter the habitual, they couldn’t have had better tools at hand.

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