[22 May 2013]
With 2010’s career-defining Blackjazz, Norwegian band Shining (not to be confused with the Swedish depressive black metal outfit of the same name) held back from polishing the roughness that was always present around its sonic edges. Despite moving away from its origins as an acoustic jazz ensemble and into the realm of extreme metal over the latter part of the ‘00s, even when it went all-out crazy, there was a surprising restraint on the part of the musicians. Take the groove-riff saxophone of “The Red Room”, one of the highlights from 2007’s excellent Grindstone; on the album version, it sounds solid enough, but in its live iteration—captured with magnetic intensity on 2012’s Live Blackjazz—it becomes something else entirely. On Grindstone, “The Red Room” is a blueprint; live, it’s a full-out auditory assault. The saxophone playing of frontman extraordinaire Jørgen Munkeby is unreal in a live setting; he manages to get noises out of the saxophone one would imagine impossible. It sounds like he’s torturing the thing at times.
On Blackjazz, Shining let the unfettered energy of its live performances dominate the style, and the results were nothing short of revelatory. The all-hell-breaks-loose free jazz of “HEALTER SKELTER” is still to this day the emblematic depiction of this band’s MO: simultaneously controlled and unrestrained chaos. One of Shining’s best assets, Torstein Lofthus’ tempo-eschewing drumming, stood out on that track; though it seems as if he’s just pounding on toms without aim, close attention reveals that underneath whatever technics the rest of the band members are doing, he’s always keeping a steady pace underneath it all. This is a group that realizes the key fact of free jazz: it’s not about foregoing all musical reference points, but rather about letting the music go with the flow dictated by the interplay of the musicians. Amidst the crazed structure of “HEALTER SKELTER” there are still grooves and even hooks present. Those latter ingredients are also part of what made Blackjazz so vital; for all the genre-melding Shining is keen on doing, it’s still aware of the need to bring real hooks to the table. Weird though the lyrics to “Fisheye” are, it’s easy to get Munkeby’s screams of “ONE THREE SEVEN FIVE!” stuck in your head.
And, as it turns out, it’s the hook that has come to play the biggest part in the newest addition to the Shining discography, One One One. Having adopted the title “blackjazz” as the name of its style, these Norwegian provocateurs have taken the visceral sonic of Blackjazz and incorporated it into the framework of… the pop album. There are no gonzo instrumentals or covers of King Crimson on this LP; every song follows a basic verse/chorus structure, and the most distinct characteristic of this music is the emphasis on hooks and memorable choruses. This is made evident right from the gates being kicked open with “I Won’t Forget”, whose ingredients are not what one might expect from Shining. The single-note chug of the first verse recalls surf rock, and the riff in the bridge preceding Munkeby’s saxophone runs comes close to copping “Footloose”. (The former aspect is especially evident in One One One‘s uncharacteristically bright sleeve art, which Munkeby has stated is a tribute to the record’s being mixed in California.) It’s both disarming and unexpected; far be it from anyone to think that Shining is above tinkering with pop fundamentals, but for the guys who on their last record were meshing industrial with Enslaved-esque prog, the music of Kenny Loggins is probably not a “logical next step” in the progression of a style. But, then again, “logic” has an interesting definition in the universe of Shining.
Though One One One is not as definitive a work as Blackjazz, it’s as much a portrait of the kind of outfit Shining is. Pop is as believable as a point of exploration for the group now as trip-hop could be on a future work. A word like “boundaries” is a curiosity in the outfit’s lexicon. Like Lofthus’ shifting-yet-consistent rhythms, however, the band’s core style remains the same even through differing individual genre explorations. The industrial stomp of “The One Inside” has clear predecessors in Grindstone and especially Blackjazz. The “Sexy Sax Man” opening of “How Your Story Ends” hints at the off-kilter moments of In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster. Along with these instances there are also more blatant echoes of past works on a few of the songs: “Blackjazz Rebels” and “The Hurting Game” contain explicit call-backs to “Fisheye”. The former continues its affinity for counting, and the latter copies the saxophone riff nearly note-for-note. Some press materials for this LP have listed it as part of a trilogy (with Blackjazz and Live Blackjazz comprising the first two parts), and in most cases such a characterization is correct. In the overall sound quality and mixing, One One One is not at all far from the evolution that Blackjazz captured; the main points of departure from that LP comes in how the songs themselves are structured. The record’s title is itself an indication of the listening experience: each piece stands on its own, though when put together in a cohesive whole you’ll get as unconventional a pop metal collection as you’re likely to hear all year.
This individualistic streak in One One One is not without its downsides. Shining have never been keen on ballads—or whatever might resemble one in its sonic—and while the consistently high energy of this LP makes it an incredibly fun experience (and at 35 minutes, not a very long one), some breather room would have been much appreciated. Stacking nine excellent verse/chorus tracks on top of each other often has the effect of drowning a few out, which occurs to a small extent here. The monster hooks easily rise to the top—“I Won’t Forget” and “Paint the Sky Black”, for example—but if listened to all the way through, this can be, ironically enough, too dense a thing.
But, of course, part of the reason why this is the case is the nature of Shining itself; even in its thirty-second interludes, it’s always cramming in as many ideas as could be fit into a single piece. Like any expert jazz combo, these guys are acutely aware that exploration for exploration’s sake is no virtue, a fact made quite evident by the concise and meticulously organized One One One. Following its last LP, Shining have risen to the forefront of the global metal scene, and this album is only further evidence of its unmatched creativity. A pop album for metal fans, a pop-metal album for jazz fans… however one looks at it, One One One is yet another work of brilliance by an exciting band at the top of its game. “I Won’t Forget”, indeed.