(DGR reviews the new album by Norway’s Shining.)
Years ago, in reviewing the then newly released album One One One by Norway’s Shining, I joked that the band were one of those groups I would listen to in order to pretend that I was much smarter than I actually was. I hypothesized that I might not get much of what the band were doing, despite a love for the album Blackjazz, with their freeform jazz routines, constant instrument abuse, and love of all things dissonant, but the parts that my brain could grasp onto would surely fool people into never figuring out that I am, and always have been, a rube with the ability to write a lot.
One One One was a drastically different turn for Shining and pretty much insured that every disc the band had put out was different from the one before it. In comparison to Blackjazz, One One One was remarkably straightforward — it still had its spazz-out moments, but overall the album was a lot easier to get into and had its fair share of infectious songs. “I Won’t Forget”, for instance, is still prime volume-way-up-blasting material and “The Hurting Game” is another driving monster of a track.
Given that oddball albums thus far have defined Shining’s career, though, International Blackjazz Society — the group’s new album — initially seemed like it might be one that would be hard to pin down. Who knew what the band were going to do? The answer is a lot simpler than one might expect, and how you react to it depends on how much you enjoyed One One One’s veer away from Blackjazz’s more chaotic moments.
With International Blackjazz Society the band are making a serious play for new listeners, expanding upon the catch-and-hook elements on One One One and instead of dropping into chaotic freeform dissonant jazz sections that are maddening to listen to and tailor-made for me to pretend to be smart, the band have become a hit-factory — pumping out catchy song after catchy song, becoming even more straightforward and on-the-nose than before. It results in Shining producing a couple of their most “traditionally” heavy songs to date as well.
The easy accusation to throw at International Blackjazz Society is that the album could be referred to as Two Two Two, and there is quite a bit of truth to that. In the gap of time between One One One and Blackjazz Society, it seems Shining have been doing some serious study into how to write a catchy song, and at the same time have become even more concise than before.
All fat has essentially been melted away from Blackjazz Society, leaving a very finely sculpted core, which means that if you’re not here for the more pop elements of Shining’s sound, then Blackjazz Society can be a bit of a hard pill to swallow — it’s essentially the maturation of all their ideas on One One One.
Outside of a bombastic saxophone opener in “Admittance”, most of International Blackjazz Society is hard-rocking, kick-your-foot-out, jazz and metal head-on collision. There is some seriously driving drum work that steers hard into hammering punk territory, while at the same time using some of ye-olde fashioned Motörhead beats. There’s even the occasional moment where it seems like Shining went on a serious latter-era Nine Inch Nails bender and wanted to put some of that through their own filter.
If you had pulled me aside while I was fascinated with the doublet tracks of “The Madness and the Damage Done” on Blackjazz and told me that Shining would eventually be kicking out songs that could be described as “danceable” (despite how demented the lyrics get), I would’ve been fairly bewildered. It’s a pretty natural progression for where Shining were headed from One One One, but still, the fact that International Blackjazz Society is a blatant hook machine can throw one for a loop.
There are still some Shining trademarks for sure, though, as the saxophone does get some serious abuse throughout the disc — it has almost become the group’s mascot, in addition to the disco hi-hat cymbal-run that seems determined to invade everything the band writes.
There are also a couple of songs that share similar themes again, with two pairs this time around, in terms of title: the duo of “The Last Stand” and “Last Day”, as well as the pair “House Of Warship” and “House Of Control”. “Warship” serves as an extended instrumental solo opening to the bluesier themed “Control” — which could be Shining’s ballad if they wanted to get ballsy and call it that.
Musically the songs are fairly different from each other, but the occasional motif does rise up again, with “Last Stand” and “Last Day” having the driving drum work and vocalist Jørgen Munkeby dropping the word “Fuck” like it was being given away for free at the local corner store.
Of course, the song that sees that word getting the most mileage is the angst-ridden “Burn It All”, which is one of the songs I was referring to in the opening crack about the band actually having a “traditional” heavy metal song. It’s an explosive and angry song, about as far from the usual jazz-freakouts we would normally equate with Shining, and instead relies heavily on some guitar and drum abuse to get its message through. Coming after the finger-snapping “Last Stand”, it’s a bit of a hard turn, but if you approach International Blackjazz Society as a collection of singles, the whole thing is a series of very hard turns.
“Burn It All” also features something of a light callback to “The Madness And The Damage Done” in the synth work, and for a brief moment before the final chorus the band gets noisy as hell and you can hear the notes getting hammered out in a fairly similar fashion to the utter destruction the band got up to in the bridge of the Blackjazz opener.
Many words have likely been devoted to “Last Day”, whose performance video — which is equal parts terrifying (seriously, I cringe every time their bassist does a kick by the cliff) and X-games — was premiered over at Invisible Oranges. But the song itself is going to be one of a handful from International Blackjazz Society that will likely be fighting it out for a spot on our year-end “Most Infectious” list. “Last Day” is one of the songs where Shining become something of a punk band, and yes, they could likely strangle some radio play out of it, if I weren’t convinced that the few light seconds of double-bass-pedal drumwork might terrify some of its listeners.
The first few tracks on International Blackjazz Society are actually a pretty good harbinger of the experience with this disc overall, though. It’s a nine-track romp through a handful of headbanging songs with occasional freakout moments, but is overall about as tightly composed as anything Shining have ever done.
If you are a fan of heavy drum work, though, then the opening thirty seconds of “Thousand Eyes” have some fantastic and varied drum kit obliterations throughout, including some unexpected blast work for a handful of seconds — before the drums become the hammering pulse of the song.
“Need”, Blackjazz Society’s closer, is another one of the heavier songs on the disc and is also the song where I zeroed in on the Nine Inch Nails comparison, because I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself noticing some hefty similarities between it and the song “1,000,000” from NIN’s 2008 release The Slip. There are differences, since Shining obviously have an arsenal more instruments available, including the trademark noise-machine of the synth and sax combo, but in terms of structure and tempo, “Need” feels like a faster take on that song. It seems able to pack the same volume of words per verse, and the chorus even has the same drum beat. I found myself multiple times humming the words to “1,000,000” whilst “Need” was playing.
That said, “Need” continues the pattern of being a hard-driving track and insures that International Blackjazz Society comes to an almost breathless close. “Need” serves as another neck-snapping headbanger on top of an album built around them. If anything, Blackjazz Society seems to be Jørgen Munkeby’s excuse to yell a lot, and he gets some serious mileage out of just screaming at the top of his lungs.
Together, One One One and International Blackjazz Society are the two most mainstream albums that Shining have pumped out so far. Both discs are straightforward and concise rockers, with International Blackjazz Society a more refined version of its older sibling. Depending on your stance on One One One, International Blackjazz Society may not be your cup of tea; if you’ve been following Shining for a while, I can see where the disc would be divisive.
One One One was a favorite of mine, so Blackjazz Society feeling like a more refined sequel is right up my alley. It is absolutely a disc with single stacked on top of single, with enough deviation to remind you of the fact that Shining are incredibly skilled musicians and do not fuck around when the time comes — but the current incarnation is intensely capable of writing some hard-driving rock songs that have solid foundations of straightforward guitar riffs and are built up from there.
The pretend sophisticate side of me can absolutely relax though, as Blackjazz Society isn’t necessarily as challenging as the band used to be, but the side that loves rocking out and the occasional diversion into dancier territory should be absolutely excited because Blackjazz Society is an album tailor-made for that. While it is a little bit of a bummer that the prog-jazz-fusion-madness-and-dissonance side of the band has seemingly been eschewed in favor of the hard-rock approach, with Blackjazz Society Shining manage to do it better than a lot of bands out there.