Extreme music fans rejoice! This is the genre-exploding mindfuck that you’ve been praying for every single night as you prostrate yourself in front of your Mike Patton shrine. For those of you equally down with prog rock, jazz, and metal, the fifth album from Norway’s Shining is really going to rock your socks off (if, in fact, you are wearing socks and not just a pair of ratty Tevas). I’ve long suspected a strangely cohesive cross-section between the aforementioned genres; all can be filed under the tag “difficult music” — if not necessarily difficult to listen to, then certainly difficult to compose and perform. Prog, jazz, and metal are all undoubtedly thinking man’s music, where instrumental virtuosity and compositional chops are lorded over to no end by true aficionados, with all-night, Mountain Dew-fueled, Dorito-intoxicated debates raging over what exactly is the sickest solo or best live recording. Indeed, it is the emphasis on skill and composition that stokes the fires of prog, jazz, and metal to always seek to take it there. Nothing can be easy and everything has to hurt.
Since these genres share some especially strong bonds, it only makes sense for a band to come along and perfectly synthesize it all into a cohesive whole. Shining is that band, and Blackjazz is that record. Shining is ostensibly a one-man project with Norwegian multi-instrumentalist and composer, Jørgen Munkeby, acting as a sort of sound alchemist and creative overlord, toiling away to finally deliver this autocratic new genre, so aptly named “blackjazz.” Surely music critics must be happy with the hand-delivered genre tag, especially those long puzzled over a way to qualify Shining’s music. Ever since 2005’s name-making album, In the Kingdom of Kitsch, You Will Be the Monster, Shining has existed without a convenient label; how considerate, then, of main man Munkebey to issue such a concise, definitive statement concerning his own music. A portmanteau of Venom’s Black Metal and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, Blackjazz functions not only as a wonderfully descriptive label that sets some ideological parameters for Shining’s sound, but also potentially as a fitting banner for other similarly-minded artist to operate under. Blackjazz, as an album and as a modus operandi, takes the theatrics and menacing atmosphere of black metal and marries it with the attention to detail and wild phrasing of free jazz. Throw in a pinch of prog reverence and aggro modern rock production, and that goes a long way to describe something as amorphous as Shining’s sound.
It would be convenient to say that Blackjazz is a clean break with the past, but there are many elements to Shining’s sound that suggest that this record is more about alchemy than “Let there be light” powers of creation. Here, Shining is at its most adroit when it comes to synthesizing its influences into a cohesive whole. One element new to long-time Shining fans will be the modern rock sheen provided courtesy of producer/engineer Matt Beaven (NIN, Marilyn Manson, Slayer). In fact, promo photos for this release depict the band in nightmarish, Slipknot-esque masks and Dead Snow-inspired zombie Nazi outfits. This nod toward early 00s American radio metal is actually an intended result of Jorgen Munkebey’s wish for Blackjazz to be “much more open to a larger audience,” and of the fact that he “wanted commercial catchiness mixed with the ultimate in aggression.” Indeed, at certain points in the album, Shining would not sound out of place sandwiched between Rob Zombie and Disturbed on modern rock radio.
Despite a move toward a cleaner sound and relative accessibility, Shining still manages to exhibit other, perhaps more credible influences, such as the meticulous jazz metal of Meshuggah, the schizo nature of Frank Zappa, and the prog rock prowess of King Crimson. “The Madness and the Damage Done” is the album’s first cut, delving immediately into layered, scorched-throat black metal vocals before giving way to a mosh-inspiring romp played with such veracity that even Cradle of Filth fans (generally a hard-to-please bunch) would be awed. “Fisheye” is another menacing song that is sure to please a wide swathe of extreme music fans, featuring another moshable groove among keyboard and saxophone theatrics.
“HEALTER SKELTER” is the album’s “single” and is sure to please long-time fans of the band. Sax skronk and athletic jazz drumming feature heavily, eventually mixing with wicked arena-sized guitar that makes for a breathless five and a half minutes. “Blackjazz Deathtrance” is perhaps the ultimate statement made on Blackjazz, a glacier-like centerpiece that is an intended expression of Shining’s technical prowess. It immediately rises from blackened waters like a giant cybernetic troll, and for over 10 minutes obliterates all in its path, including your thought patterns as a listener. “Omen” is perhaps my favorite track on the album, because it stops to breathe and lends a certain gravity to the maniacal rush of every song preceding it. sunn 0))) would approve of the mammoth drone dirges and ambient lurch until Munkebey asserts a gorgeous, eulogistic saxophone solo coupled with mournful keyboards. “21st Century Schizoid Man” closes the album, almost in celebratory style, with Enslaved vocalist Grutle Kjellson adding his considerable weight and talent to a song that, being a King Crimson cover, is a natural fit for Shining to recreate. It is an honest, somewhat perfunctory cover, but is nonetheless enjoyable not only for the performance, but also as a self-aware nod by Munkebey to his fanbase and an open acknowledgment of King Crimson’s influence over his compositional aspirations.
Blackjazz is an undoubtedly bold statement from an incredibly gifted compositional genius. Munkebey has been working toward this album for a while, and it is a real achievement in synthesis of the band’s overriding influences. In recruiting a new producer and adding some down-tuned guitar aggression, Munkebey has succeeded in gaining the attention of a wider audience. Despite a move toward relative accessibility, Blackjazz is an immaculate treat for longtime fans. It is as ferocious as it is accomplished, and will be used for years to come by extreme music fans as an instrument to measure not only compositional smarts and technical wizardry, but also pure aggression.