Shining’s music has always been an intellectual proposition. Emerging as one of the more cerebral and frenzied of Norway’s celebrated jazz collectives at the tail-end of the nineties the band have gradually embraced darkness and bite as playful jazz whimsy gave way to huge snarling riffs and metal menace. On their latest album Blackjazz Shining embrace their metal tendencies to such an extent that the whole affair has the air of a calculated project: the aim being to channel black metal through their supreme jazz-informed musicianship to produce a semi-conceptual metal record that is not only technically impressive, thought-provoking and boundary-pushing, but also oh-so-fucking heavy and downright scary. Their study in darkness is a profound success.
On Shining’s last record, 2007’s epic Grindstone, there was still a reasonable argument for labelling the group an experimental jazz band that just happened to dabble in occasional prog-metal intrusions. Not any more. Blackjazz crunches and screeches from beginning to end; every aspect of the record – the packaging, the song names, the semi-audibly barked vocals, and of course the music – adopts and adapts genre clichés and tries to simultaneously inhabit and reinterpret them. The cover art is angular and steely, the liner notes find what are presumably the lyrics printed in black on another shade of black. Good luck reading that. ‘Exit Sun’, Fisheye’, ‘Omen’ – the song titles hint at apocalypse, brutality, horror and destruction in contrast to previous albums’ allusive and bookish track designations, whilst the lyrics are totemic portents growled and howled through the bluster.
But to call these adoptions mere parodic affectation would be to do Blackjazz a crass injustice. Shining’s metallisation feels both natural and fully justifiable. The band have long been a tinnitus-inducing live prospect, and the highlight of Grindstone was the body-slamming opener ‘In The Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster’, so to ‘go metal’ feels like an organic musical evolution that finds Shining playing to their strengths, and also suggests a willingness to generally tighten up and give out a more coherent product. There is no time here for fluttering flute solos, for morse-code evocations of Bach, or nods to Milan Kundera. Where there are intertextual citations they are twisted to the dark side. ‘The Madness and The Damage Done’ opens the record with a reverb-heavy shriek before pounding riffs tighten and swirl amidst addictive chanting and pained klaxon cries. As if to compound the notion of Blackjazz as an experiment in genre this flurry gives way to a repeated guitar shriek that thrashes and squeals in a seemingly endlessly held loop. Some bands might perform such a trick in a bid to show off intricate musicianship – and Shining certainly possess that in reams – but here the groove is stuck almost to the point of absurdity, the repetition becoming deconstruction.
There is a sense in which Blackjazz is a metal album for people who don’t like metal, its heaviness and atmosphere rendered acceptable by the musical journey the group have been on, their avant-garde background, and by the feeling that the metal touchstones are nothing more than a skin the group have chosen to slip into – the black adornments, howled vocals and evocations of destruction stemming not from any psychological bleakness or angst, but because they go hand-in-hand with the chosen musical direction. When I saw Shining live frontman Jørgen Munkeby howled and gurned until veins stood out in his neck midsong, but in-between tracks he was soft-spoken, genial and friendly; and by seemingly separating what they do musically from how they are able to reason their endeavours Shining appear to be able to shape their musical output on a level that refuses to be influenced by convention or the genre hallmarks they so gleefully wink at. In the end Blackjazz manages to satisfy both followers of the group’s earlier acoustic jazz and staunch metalheads.
‘Exit Sun’ opens with chaotic percussion tumbling over a sharp heavy-metal riff that speeds into a frenzy before nailing breathless progressions to the shin of Muse’s ‘Hysteria’ bassline, all of this followed by guitar crunches and reverberating vocals that are inaudible aside from the repetition of the track’s title. If the sun does pack in then this should be odds-on to soundtrack the doom-mongering newsreels. Being Shining, though, this beast is followed by ‘Healter Skelter’ which spills epileptic saxophone yelps over clattering drums and thrashing guitars. If the album closer, a black-metal cover of King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ (another knowing evocation – Shining are oft compared to the prog experimentalists) is the most pertinent example of the album’s explanatory title, with wailing free-saxophone adorning prog guitars as Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson growls rumbling black-metal vocals over the whole affair, there is plenty to suggest that influences come from other areas too. There is a recurring industrial edge to the guitars that hints at a more meaningful relationship with Nine Inch Nails than the similarities of the logo on the cover art, and album stand-out ‘Fisheye’ opens with a barrage of screeching rave-metal guitars that make this perhaps the band’s most powerful track yet, whilst the vocals – sounding like a twisted call-and-response between a demonic killer and his hysterical victim, alternately barking or stuttering out a hypnotic and frightening cryptic verse – ensure you will come away both spooked and hooked.
Shining are built on contradictions, and the album title, whilst seemingly meshing two diverse genres, in fact confirms that the band’s strength lies in exploiting disparity. Grindstone broke off passages of extreme noise with airy trembling wind intrusions, but here there is far more ‘black’ than there is ‘jazz’. But whilst this feels continually intellectual and calculated, Shining’s project also comes across as wholly natural, the organic next stage of a band who have enough ideas, skill and power to mould a genre rife with wearying clichés into a shape both exhilarating and compulsive. ‘Same old same old’, Munkeby can be heard snarling at one point, but ‘same old same old’ Blackjazz defiantly is not.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010