[2 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The difference between Shining the live act and what you hear from the band on record can be vast at times. In concert, the Norwegians are an absolutely formidable, visceral presence, hammering out an astonishing blend of progressive rock, extreme metal, and free jazz. On the other hand, on such superb albums as 2005’s In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will be a Monster and 2007’s Grindstone, it’s a different story, the aforementioned influences still present, but often offset by a much more experimental, ambient, almost introspective quality that can be just as disarming, especially if you see them live before hearing them on record. For all the wonderful unpredictability of their wildly eclectic studio work, Shining’s more aggressive, immediate fare (“Goretex Weather Report”, “In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster”) does turn out to be their greatest strength, the kind of extreme music hybrid that most technically oriented metal bands wish they could pull off but never know fully how. And judging by the undeniable power of the band’s live presence, it certainly doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect them to take things into even more extreme territory on subsequent releases.
So it comes as no surprise that their fourth full-length is heavier than anything the band has put out to date. What does take us aback, though, is just how ferocious the aptly named Blackjazz truly is. All the elements that drew people to Shining in the past are still present, as band leader/guitarist/saxophonist/vocalist Jørgen Munkeby continues to mine the works of Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and Ornette Coleman with reckless abandon, but what’s most prominent, and what hits us in the face on this album is the careening math metal madness of “The Madness and the Damage Done”. Starting off with a psychotic, heart-pounding riff more indebted to Genghis Tron, the Dillinger Escape Plan, and the Fucking Champs, the track shifts from menacing movements reminiscent of the Jesus Lizard to hyperkinetic keyboard and guitar shredding that will remind some of Ocrilim, the climaxes mastered so loud it’s unsettling. Munkeby follows suit with his most vitriolic vocal performance to date, delivering a blunt, grindcore-like scream instead of his more idiosyncratic melodic singing from past records.
The tension on Blackjazz is extraordinary, “Exit Sun” a perfect example, distorted guitar and bass cranking out a taut, lurching groove as synthesizers howl away like sirens and twitch in Aphex twin-esque fashion, filtered guitars screeching out atonal solos, the final coda launching into a Nine Inch Nails-inspired march. The Manson-referencing “HEALTER SKELTER” is the most literal encapsulation of the album title, Munkeby’s saxophone underscored by a throttling arrangement, but it’s on the more abstract works were we can feel that “black jazz” truly coming to life. “Blackjazz Deathtrance” morphs into a towering epic that’s equal parts Meshuggah, Ministry, and Mingus, while “Omen” dares to approach the more adventurous soundtrack work by Ennio Morricone nearly 40 years ago. However, it’s “Fisheye” that turns out to be the album’s strongest and most fitting track, a thrilling performance that doesn’t so much leap from genre to genre but meld them all ingeniously, Munkeby projecting a maniacal presence on both vocals and saxophone.
Shining’s King Crimson influence has always been present, and although some might groan at the pure obviousness of the band’s decision to cover the seminal “21st Century Schizoid Man”, but it’s a song this band was born to perform, and they do so with reckless abandon, putting their own stamp on the track (with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson providing some brutal lead vocals) on the prog rock classic while retaining its familiarity. It’s refreshing to come across young bands that display this much musical invention. We’re in an age where a new generation of extreme musicians is displaying staggering technical skill (just look at all the YouTube clips of little kids shredding on guitar and blasting on drums), but at the same time, we’re seeing an astonishing lack of songwriting skill as band after band comes along with all the chops in the world but without a clear idea of what exactly to do with it. Shining is a rare case these days, a progressive-minded band with the desire to push boundaries with each record yet with enough discipline to know just how much is too much, and with Blackjazz, this band is starting to peak.