Shining: Blackjazz From the Band at the Edge of the World
For a band so out on a limb, so close to the edge of experimentation, to have come so close to mainstream success is a minor miracle.
Norway has a long and chequered history when it comes to one of their principle musical exports: black metal has long been a divisive subject in itself, mired with controversy and often misunderstood. In the case of Shining -- the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter Jørgen Munkeby -- mixing progressive, technical metal, jazz, avant-garde and experimental sounds with cutting-edge visuals and blazing live performances has seen them carve out a niche of their own over the past 15 years.
Successfully cutting through the swathes of metal bands pouring out of their homeland, they’re slowly refocusing the media away from the horror stories and inflammatory hack journalism and back on to the sheer musicianship required for some of the incredible feats of musical acrobatics within the genre. With the release of their latest album, International Black Jazz Society on Spinefarm Records, the ante has been well and truly upped, something they held no punches about proclaiming with the hair-raising and headline-grabbing video for ‘Last Day’. Shot at Norway’s iconic Trollguna (Troll’s Tongue) rock jutting horizontally out of a mountain about 2,300 ft above the north side of the lake Ringedalsvatnet, it was as brave a PR stunt as it was thrilling to watch; a band standing on the edge of the world battling with the Gods and the elements. In other words, it was about as metal as it’s possible to get.
“Yes, that's a special one!” laughs Munkeby when we catch up with him to discuss the new record “Most definitely the absolute craziest thing we set out to do. The idea came from a local guy in the area. Modern recording technology has made it easy to create perfectly played recordings. While it's definitely a good thing to have great tools, it has also made it hard for a listener to know if recorded music is being played by humans or not. On our live shows we try to make a point out of the fact that our music is in fact played by real humans. I want our music and our performance to be physical, so the audience really can feel the energy and friction.”
“Here's where the video comes in,” he continues “Our idea with the 'Live On Location' videos was to not only set up the band in a cool looking location to play live, but also make sure that the locations were places where you as a band cannot have total control over the environments, so that the fight and friction between the musicians and the circumstances would give the performance extra energy and edge. If you’re looking for uncontrollable and dangerous environments, what better place to play than on a freaking mountain rock jutting directly out over a 700 meters straight drop into certain death in the middle of the Norwegian snowy mountain?”
So, just the small matter of flying two tonnes of equipment up there with helicopters then -- a PA system, power generator, instruments, backline and amps, drums, cables, microphones, material to build a drum riser so the drums didn’t just roll off the cliff, cameras and a recording setup. An extreme amount of preparation went into the shoot. The band and their team had to consider if the rock itself could stand the extra load of the equipment coupled with heavy playing and loud bass frequencies, or if there was a change it would just break off.
Munkeby is matter of fact about the consequences; “The conclusion was, unfortunately, that it could break off, but since nobody had ever tried it before we couldn’t really be sure about anything, so we decided to just hope the rock, and we, would survive.”
From a brief conversation, it’s clear that the front man and band leader is as invested in his music, his band and the lifestyle as it’s possible for a man to be. After deliberating several options around the world, Spinefarm Records felt like the natural home for the band to take their new material -- a label that shared the scope of his vision, and wasn’t afraid to dangle thousands of pounds worth of equipment from the edge of a mountain in the name of rock and roll.
“They had a great roster of bands and albums and they had great, young and enthusiastic offices both in London and New York with a staff that I fully identified with and loved hanging out with. After all we’re going to be working close together for a long time, sometimes with strict deadlines and high pressure, so it’s important that you like the people you work with on a personal level. Although we’re now a few months after the release, I can say that it’s proven to be a great choice going with Spinefarm. They’ve done an amazing job, and we’ve become great friends.”
The concept of “blackjazz” in itself is an interesting one, which underpins the album as a whole. In combining his two loves of metal and jazz, Munkeby hit across a magic formula which, rarely, hadn’t yet already been exploited by the mainstream. “When I was a kid I listened exclusively to metal music…Pantera, Sepultura, Death and Entombed. At age nine I started playing the sax. I have absolutely no idea why I chose to pick up the sax, though, because I had not been listening to any music featuring the sax, and especially not jazz music! But nevertheless, sax it was, and I soon started playing the sax in a fusion rock band with some friends of mine, where I did my best to emulate guitar shredding solos on the sax. I also remember sitting in my bed room playing the sax to my old metal albums. I’m pretty sure it didn’t sound very good, but it’s definitely where the seed of Blackjazz was born that was to finally break ground 20 years later.”
Before Blackjazz was born, Munkeby took a serious and long detour into the jazz world, leaving all metal behind. He jumped into this new world with both feet, discovering John Coltrane who would later become his biggest musical hero, and eventually moving to Oslo aged 18 to study jazz saxophone at the Norwegian State Academy Of Music. This is where the seeds of Shining were planted. To Munkeby, it’s entirely natural that Shining started out as an acoustic jazz quartet in the vein of late '60s and early '70s John Coltrane. It wasn't until he grew tired of both jazz and classical music, and started missing the metal and rock music from his childhood and youth, that the need to create a definite mix between jazz and metal reared its head.
“We threw out the classical stuff, sharpened the focus on energetic and aggressive free jazz and blackened metal, added a flair of industrial production courtesy of our new LA producer Sean Beavan, who had been in the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson camps from the beginning, and out came this new and shining Frankenstein’s monster we called Blackjazz.”
Looking at it now, Munkey thinks there are (possibly surprisingly) many similarities and reasons why this combination of genres works so well. Historically, they are both seeking to free themselves from established musical rules and limitations; atmosphere is more important than technique; they both tend toward a spiritual focus; both utilise harsh, metallic and screaming sounds (most notably saxophones in free jazz and distorted guitar in black metal); and perhaps most importantly they both require total commitment and an injection of energy from a musician. Of course, straddling genres comes with the double-edged sword of having an incredibly wide ranging fanbase.
“We most definitely have a very varied audience! We gather old and young, men and women, metal heads, jazz fans, prog nerds, hipsters, and mainstream rock and pop listeners. This is both a blessing and a curse. While we certainly can fit on a wider variety of festival bills, the fact that our music doesn’t sound exactly like any other band sometimes makes it hard for us to find a management, a booking agency, a label or a promo company.
"Although the music business love new and fresh musical styles, albeit only after it has broken through and become an established hit, the industry more often defaults to the easy solution of trying to find something that matches a band that has already become huge. So metal labels are looking for bands that sound like Pantera or Metallica, agents looking for an opener for Slayer wants the band to sound like Slayer, and very few promotional companies specializes in metal and jazz at the same time. But our forte is that we sound like no-one else, and we try to use that as an advantage.”
Another clear cut advantage of being out on a limb is that you’re more often than not going to be a target for critical acclaim and, subsequently, awards ceremonies. At this stage in their career, Shining have been nominated for a fair few, but Munkeby isn’t losing any sleep over winning. He’s more concerned about creating a viable financial vehicle for his music and ensuring that he builds a sustainable career doing what he loves for a living.
“I loved receiving awards in the beginning, and we’re lucky to have received quite a lot of them. They helped me reinforce the belief that there was potential in the music I was making, and they helped give me the energy to continue on. But to tell you the truth, now the only thing that matters to me with awards is whether they can help our music spread to more people.
"Other than that I don’t care that much for awards anymore. What matters now is that we get our music spread to as many people as possible and that we can tour without losing money, so that we can come back and have the opportunity to make new and better music. But if an award can help us with this, then hurrah!”
With a flurry of experimental bands beginning to break through to a bigger audience, the corridor for innovation grows narrower by the year -- boundaries need to be pushed further and extremities need to be tested more rigorously than ever for newcomers to stand out. The front man is hesitant to express a positive opinion when quizzed on how he sees the future of the Norwegian music scene which gave birth to the band over the next ten years. He sees a step away from artistic experimentation towards a broader scrabble for overnight success and fame.
“I’ve seen a huge shift in the mentality in the Norwegian music scene in the last few years. It seems we’ve had an inferiority complex towards our neighbours in Sweden for so long; they have been much better than us at exporting music, especially pop music. Traditionally ‘art music’ has had the high ground in Norway, but now we’re seeing a strong focus on pop, and I mean really, really commercial pop, taking the status role. Pop artists are filling the media, getting grants, getting awards, and the music industry is almost purely focusing on pop music here nowadays.
"While some of the artists are in fact managing to make some waves outside Norway, I am also getting a bit tired of the constant focus on quick money and quick fame, because I feel it takes away from where the real focus should be in music -- great music that lasts for decades. I can’t really help you with a list of Norwegian pioneers, because I have a feeling that whoever are big in Norway right now, on Instagram or wherever it is, will be gone in a year or two.”
After what has at times felt like a whirlwind of hype and media attention surrounding the release of the new record, and picking up on his grievances about the fleeting nature of Norway’s latest batch of rising stars, it’s only natural to wonder if Munkeby feels any sort of pressure to use his artistic outlets and newfound position of influence to comment on political or social issues. He explains that shortly after the recent Paris terror attacks of 2015 the band resiliently decided not to cancel a concert in the city just five days after what he described as an “abominable and bloody night” to send a message about what the band felt was the correct way to respond to the events.
“Back in the day it seems to me that it was more common for artists to be outspoken about political issues, while now I think a lot of artists are afraid of losing their fans. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that artists now immediately see what their fans say on social media, while in the pre-internet age it took longer to know what your fans thought, and also not everybody had access to letting their voices be heard. I try to be vocal about the things I feel are important, like economic inequality, both nationally and globally, the current refugee crisis, and the even bigger global warming crisis.”
The year 2015 was certainly a big year for global events, as it was for Shining, starting out supporting Devin Townsend and Periphery on a four week tour of Europe to sold out crowds. When then new album was finally finished; they played the insane show at Trolltunga (which had the band stuck on an adrenaline high for about a week after), they embarked on another European release tour which exceeded all expectations, topped by an extremely emotional and energetic show in Paris which saw the audience in a frenzied celebration of life and liberty. For a band so out on a limb, so close to the edge of experimentation, to have come so close to mainstream success is in itself a minor miracle. Can life get any better for Jørgen Munkeby at this stage?
“Just a few weeks before the album release, my first child -- a beautiful and strong little boy -- was born, so 2015 has definitely been the most exciting year in my life, but my goal is to have 2016 top 2015! At the moment the only grand plan we have is to tour as much as possible with the new material, and we’ll take things as they come. I’m sure it will be great!”
Jamie Otsa is based in Liverpool, UK and is the editor of national music website Glasswerk.co.uk. He also contributes to The Skinny, The Metro, The 405, Punktastic.com and several other websites."