Review by Thom Jurek
Grindstone is the fourth album -- and second on Rune Grammofon -- by Norway's completely unclassifiable Shining. The band contains two former members of Jaga Jazzist (including multi-instrumentalist Jørgen Munkeby), which took hard bop jazz in a whole different direction on the Ninja Tune label, and power bassist Aslak Hartberg from hip-hop duo Klovner i Kamp. There is little in the way of hard bop here -- although there are some Chet Baker-styled synth lines in "Winterreise." What is here is, well, what the hell do you call this music, this gargantuan noise of harmonic collision, layered instruments, sampled woodwinds, guitars, basses, and drums and drums and drums (machine and actual) -- and what are they trying to do? Who cares? They already did it. Grindstone, like its predecessor, In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster, is a complete thing of its own. From metallic prog rock and synthetic percussion and samples comes a music that weds classical and the absurd. From the notion of jazz composition and shifting rhythms comes clattering barely uncontrolled chaos that somehow manages to keep melody, modality, and dissonance perfectly balanced. From the avant-garde comes a sense of raw childlike invention that gives the spirit of "play" free rein. One need only listen to "Stalemate Logan Runner" to find it all in place -- where huge synths create a heavy metal riff that gives way to cheesy Casio keyboards playing a lilting melody as a synth bass waits its turn to let loose. Big monstrous guitar noise à la King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2" cut loose with syncopated rhythms and knotty lead lines and arpeggios before swirling blessed-out synths cover it all. The piece finally ends with the sound of a harpsichord playing a prelude. There is a song named after a Morse code symbol, another after their previous album, and something of numerical interest in "Psalm," which is among the truly strangest things here, introduced as it is with heavily vocodered singing highlighted by a Rhodes, muted blips and beeps, and a melody line played on an organ. It builds instrumentally and harmonically with layers of noise flitting in and out, wordless female operatic vocals crossing the center of the mix, and sequencers and oscillators finding their way inside the melody. From its relatively gentle beginnings comes a track of absolute drama and menace -- but it is all done with a rueful smile. Shining want to mess with you, they want to mess with themselves, and above all they want to mess with music. It makes no different that they don't have a category; these cats are among the most sophisticated of the new European generation that listens to absolutely everything and learns to play it, too. On repeated listening to Grindstone, one cannot help but think that both Frank Zappa and Charles Mingus -- especially in his later years -- would have loved this orderly disorder, this apparent madness that is both wise and wry, and that lets its outrageousness become part of the aesthetic. Fantastic!
[Rune Grammofon; 2007]
Shining's fourth album, Grindstone, spits the same flammable energy of 2005's out-of-left-field In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster, but with more tightly plotted, ultra-extended dynamics and a stretch of chillier, loopier atmospherics. In other words, it's a whole lot weirder than its predecessor. Last time, the hyperactive Norwegian quartet located a smoky Blue Note wrangle. That's here too, along with other signature Shining ingredients (crushing metal riffs, jazzy skronk bleats, dime-splitting time changes), but they also bring some Switched-On Bach and plenty of crystalline, near silence.
With a band this frantic, end results are bound to be uneven-- certain dervishes come off like mini-exercises, some stretches flop earthward, a few passages sound a tad familiar-- but then come the stunners, ringing out perfectly with a baroque stylishness and slaying explosiveness that, if maintained for an entire album, would suffocate the hearts of even the proggiest. That said, the incessant exploration and imperfections make for a more enjoyable, human listening: Refusing to follow threads to their natural conclusions, each bifurcation points toward a fascinating possibility even if that possibility doesn't pan out. The band's "led" by Jørgen Munkeby, who signed up with the over-crowded Jaga Jazzist at the tender age of 16. That was 10 years ago. When I saw Jaga in Oslo last summer they bored me, but a prodigy-on-the-loose's youthful energy is invested in every second of Grindstone's crazy climb.
It isn't random. Shining know to put their best material first-- they've done it in the past, and here tracks one through three are the most compelling stand-alone compositions. For a few moments of the name-echoing opener, "In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster", the boys lend a few extra fifes and gongs to Black Sabbath Jr. As on many of the tracks, what at first can seem like technical noodling develops a specific force over repeat listens. The vocals-- slicing and dicing the title into a few accented Art Blakey slivers-- serve as a drill-instructing percussion for a King Crimson spy movie drop-off.
Second track "Winterreise" -- dig the Schubert reference-- opens like Fucking Champs before introducing icicle jazz and then modern classical moments. Themes are repeated in pin-drop avalanches: A sighing saxophone, Bitches Brew wafts, dry heaves, a tinder piano, a drumstick's tap.
Each of the early pieces is like this, but "Stalemate Longan Runner" offers the heaviest, crunchiest guitar riffs before giving way to a pastoral/chirpy childlike Nobukazu Takemura tableau, more heart-rate guitars, and synthy bomb drops. Then, yup, more Bach or Schubert or whatever. It's sorta cyclical.
After that stunning opening triad, "To Be Proud of Crystal Colors Is to Live Again", a brief toy box tinkle, is almost silent. As the album continues, the earlier rock drops out, and the album almost seems to disappear. It's pretty-- as if the strands of the bookmarks separate momentarily for easier scientific study.
"Moonchild Mindgames" is old school muted horn with piano. Silver Apples on harp with voices that, really, conjure Animal Collective. There's guitar feedback for the final minute, but with, again, a tinny angel sound threaded through it. Increasing the jazz ramble, "The Red Room" double-times sax against drum rumbles and joyfully short-distance hand claps. The last two tracks bring back the fuzz: "1:4:9" has a Boris lift-off guitar that's exacting while treading water against the wind: Kabuki dramatics with a tease and some of "Psalm"'s gothy squeal (check the female soprano in both pieces). After some noise and lapping skree, "Fight Dusk With Dawn" tweaks past tracks as faintly remembered, shuffled echoes (listen, for instance, for "Goretex Weather Report" from the last record. Or, this album's opener).
The play-by-play's necessary because for all of its oddities, Grindstone relies on its neighbors, gliding insistently from rock to fragile snow drift to feedbacking silly string to a rather grand anti-grand exit. It took dozens of listens to catch the refractions: The pieces within each track came together easily; the album itself proved more of a puzzle. It's refreshing to chart the geography-- the permafrost center, especially, packs a mountain of intrigue. Think of it as a palimpsest subdivided. For a long while I wasn't sure, but discovering the morse code holding this thing together has given it a plot and a shape that keeps thickening.
-Brandon Stosuy, February 21, 2007