Around the time of release of her Fever Ray album last year, there was some discussion as to what Karin Dreijer Andersson’s band-mate in The Knife – her brother Olof – had been up to, with reports suggesting that he had been last seen recording bird-song in the Amazon. And, despite it sounding like a wind-up aimed at the press by the publicity shy band, it turns out he really was, finding inspiration for an ‘electro-opera’ to mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Now, following a handful of performances in Denmark, Switzerland and Germany, the opera has been rearranged into a ‘studio version’ and released to the wider world. Or at least to those brave enough to get past the term ‘electro-opera’.
Honestly, the band are doing themselves something of a disservice referring to the piece as an opera. Although the album, and stage show do prominently feature mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin, the rest of the vocals are handled by actress Laerke Winther and pop singer Jonathan Johansson (and on the studio version The Knife, and Berlin-based electro acts Mt. Simms and Planningtorock), and as a result it borrows as much from the conventions of electro pop as it does from opera. It would even be fair to describe the show more as a dance piece considering the fact that dancers outnumber singers in the cast two to one, and that much of the first half of the album is taken up with instrumental tracks.
Divided – quite cleanly by the break between discs – into two parts, the first dominated by electronic noise and static – not entirely unlike an Aphex Twin record – and featuring rather cold scientific lyrics, the second being effectively a song cycle covering more emotional territory. One of the few things to run through the whole album is the dominant use of heavy, almost menacing percussion, which highlights a problem with this album’s release – although the piece has been reworked by the band for the recording, it’s not hard to get away from the fact that this is music created for a large space and as a result releasing it first as a digital download where most listeners will only experience it through tinny computer speakers or iPod headphones means that it will probably not reach the audience that it deserves. While the description of the work as an opera suggests it’ll be something delicate and pretty, it ideally needs to be listened to in an environment where the sounds have room to reverberate and the drums are felt at a physical, almost primitive level, which is somewhat apt, considering the album’s evolutionary subject matter.
In terms of lyrical content, Tomorrow In A Year is more abstract than most opera, indeed there isn’t a linear story to follow, rather the songs offer snapshots, presumably the gaps are filled in during the performance. The first disc of the album is based around Darwin’s field expeditions and his observations of the geography and flora and fauna that he comes across, and as such makes a demanding start for listeners. The piece’s heart, and a much better way in on first listen, is in the second disc, which covers similar territory to Creation, the biopic about Darwin that was released last year, although without the religious drama that film fabricated (that the first track on the disc is entitled Annie’s Box indicates that both film and album have taken inspiration from Randal Keynes’ book of the same name).
If a comparison is to be made with other operas, then Tomorrow In A Year’s closest relative would probably be Philip Glass’ Einstein On The Beach. Besides the obvious similarity that both are biographical works about scientists, both approach their subject in an abstract, non-linear manner and often the singers’ voices are regarded more as an instrument than as a method of story-telling, for example the track Upheaved where The Knife have cut up Wahlin’s vocals is very reminiscent of Glass’ trick in Einstein On The Beach of using constantly repeating vocal phrases. However, where Einstein was an epic both in terms of running length and (to an extent) cast numbers, Tomorrow In A Year is a much more intimate affair, and perhaps this is a weakness with the piece. The use of more opera singers, even just a single male voice, would have arguably resulted in a richer, warmer listening experience, and judging from the abstract nature of the narrative, some more exposition wouldn’t have gone amiss. Although the album is too difficult to find much of an audience, even among fans of The Knife, there is something exhilarating about a band working so far outside of their comfort zone, and attempting to provoke both a mental and a physical response, and the pay off far exceeds the effort needed to be understand the album.