The delightfully indescribable Norwegian group Shining are a reviewer’s worst nightmare in the best way possible. The unholy amalgam of metal riffs, jazz composition, avant freakouts and classical departures make writing about the band a true test. Even the Shining’s own press material relies more on comparison than actual description; to try and creatively write about the group’s forward thinking music wouldn’t capture the pure joy that comes from listening to Grindstone.
The first thing to understand about Shining is that everything it does seems to fly in the face of convention, and nearly provokes confrontation. The music is too heavy for jazz fans, too arty for metal fans and too structured — and at times gorgeous — for avant-garde enthusiasts. Even the song titles seem to deliberately cause confusion with the lead track, “In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster” named after Shining’s previous album. Another is titled in morse code dots and dashes (it translates into “Bach” by the way), while two other songs share the exact same title. And if all of this sounds like pretentious nose thumbing, well, it probably is, but it’s forgivable because the band is more than good enough that a little intimidation aimed at less adventurous listeners can be allowed.
And to be certain, Shining does a great job of giving listeners the lay of the land within the first two songs. The aforementioned lead track begins with a blast of aggressive, choppy guitar riffs and a burst of keyboard bleats. Yes, those are flutes you’re hearing by the middle of the song, and there’s even a gong somewhere in there as well. Not to mention of course, the quasi-psychedelic passages between riffs and arena drumming. If you’re still hanging on, “Winterreise” ratchets the adrenalin up a further notch with some delirious drum programming and full on horn sections that are at first disorienting, but amazing with subsequent listens. Of course, the track’s final third just as suddenly turns into a quasi-film score, moving seamlessly from gutter pulses to soaring mountain heights.
There are many groups who, on the surface, perform similar, spontaneously shape-shifting, genre hopping rock/jazz hybrids. What makes Shining so exceptional is how utterly organic it all sounds. To that end, Shining is much more “jazz” than the rest of its contemporaries. In the hands of other performers, Shining’s work would at best be jarring, and at worst be unlistenable. B in this case, it’s revealed on subsequent listeners not only careful intent, but also astounding craftsmanship. It isn’t surprising that two members were formerly in the more traditional Jaga Jazzist, while the remaining two are session players and composers for dance, film and theatre. With Shining, it seems apparent that the members are exulting in the ability to free themselves from their formalist musical backgrounds, and the result is a sonic adventure that offers innumerable rewards.
I haven’t spoken much about the other songs on the album and in part it’s simply because to do so would be a grave injustice to anyone listening to it for the first time. Also, to do so would be to reduce the disc down to a series of reference points or endless variations on “jazz excursions”, “filmic orchestration”, “thunderous metal riffs” and “soundscapes”. What I can say, is that Grindstone, even as we’re only just entering spring, will be unlike anything else you hear this year. Challenging, accomplished and exciting in a way music rarely is, Grindstone is a towering achievement.