31 January 2010

Shining - Blackjazz

Indie Recordings (2010)

Recent Shining single 'Fisheye' was initially showcased on Norwegian TV, and seemed uncharacteristically violent for the Oslo band. Granted, they changed completely from the reasonably polite sax-led jazz of Sweet Shanghai Devil (2003) to the epic, soundtrack-inspired In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster in just two years. But there was still jazz, if viewed through a Tortoise-shaped kaleidoscope, at the heart of both that and Grindstone (2007). Even shouted vocals were performed in a playful group manner, and no ill was meant by heavy rock passages. 'Fisheye', though, was different. Here was hewn-from-granite groove riffing, FX-drenched snarls, and blast sections. It was exhilarating and brutal. And a mere hint of what the new record, Blackjazz, has in store.

Grindstone hinted at heavy metal thunder in places, but that metamorphosis seems to have completed in convincing fashion on Blackjazz. As the title implies, the musical freedom, technical acumen (and sax) of the band's jazz past remain, but the sound has been fortified infinitely with the sheen of an effortlessly futuristic form of metal. This isn't the knowing wink of a Fucking Champs or The Sword: it's an honest, revitalising take on the genre from a band who understands both its past and its possibilities. Beginning as it means to go on, Blackjazz opens with 'The Madness and the Damage Done', bearing little overt reseblance to Neil Young, as it races out of the traps with the confident power that characterised Slayer's 'Angel of Death' (1986), or Soundgarden's 'Rusty Cage' (1991).

Following 'Fisheye' is a brace of songs called 'Exit Sun'; one a semi-epic death race along a track designed by M.C. Escher, the other a brief coda. The former, once it hits full throttle, rewrites 'Army of Me' as if Björk were a group of leather-clad Norwegians, before slipping with ease into the kind of shifting, false-footing riff-as-riddle on which Meshuggah have built a career. 'HEALTER SKELTER' takes the bare-bones sax sketch of Kingdom of Kitch...'s 'REDRUM' into this dark new world, symbolising the journey the band has taken in the last few years. The melody grows, as the band has, quite comfortably into its current aesthetic. During songs like this, the riffs are so catchy that they recall prime White Zombie; they're just nestled within far more complex arrangement.

'The Madness and the Damage Done' returns, midway through the album, with a violin sample so disquieting it could have been on Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Alatt Született opus. The theme of growth, of evolution, continues with this track, as the violin is replaced by the full band, still faithful to that initial melody. Revelling in the sound, the noise grows: as its crescendo tops out, you get the feeling the structure of the song couldn't handle its own intensity. As the sound of electromechanical malfunction sputters into the mix, visions of cabling lashing out like PCP-addled cobras, spitting sparks like venom, we are aware the song was consumed from within by what is to follow, overwhelmed by the focal point of the record.

'Blackjazz Deathtrance' is an eleven-minute mindfuck of the highest degree. A song of massive dimensions, it takes nearly three minutes to even get going, barrel-rolling drum fills doing their best to jump-start guitars, idling menacingly. With a scream, it begins. Future-world vikings tear strips off each other as a sampled audiences loses its collective mind in a reality show bloodlust frenzy. It's The Running Man 2K10, with fittingly frantic music backing the violence. But the shred isn't coming from guitars. It's coming from... distorted bass? Satan's synth? While countless bands have married rock with electronics, few have done so sufficiently seamlessly that it doesn't matter to the listener from where the sounds emanate. The mix is so dense, so armed with weapons of sonic warfare, that it - like the preceding song - eventually can't take the strain. The malfunction takes hold once more; the song bides its time as it readies its return unto the breach. It begins again, with more velocity than before, taking in rave melody lines, blast beats and noise, building cyclically into an orgy of noise before consuming itself

A brief passage of silence represents the cut-off point of the excess. Considering not much could follow 'Deathtrance', Shining opt to use 'Omen', if it is a portent, retroactively; a reflection on what has passed. The tempo drops sharply, with the metallic sonatas still fresh in the memory. This is where the Sin City soundtrack-sax of old returns, roaming safe in the knowledge that the brutality has exited, leaving only charred remains. 'Omen's a fittingly elegiac counterpoint to the frenzy that preceded, rather like Jane Doe's title track, or Strife's untitled conclusion to In This Defiance. This is the real denouement, though we do get an epilogue King Crimson cover, '21st Century Schizoid Man'. It's a fantastic rendition, re-writing the classic in Shining's dehumanised image, while paying due respect. But, after the overdose of original, impeccably modern music, its inclusion may be considered a step too far. Especially considering how well 'Omen' ostensibly finished things.

That display of musical opulence aside, Blackjazz is a pretty vital piece of work. Though some quarters of the metal audience may balk at the absence of 20-minute drone-backed monologues, and the presence of no small amount of testosterone, it's been a long time since a metal album sounded so of its time. At points its gleaming, reflective surfaces may reflect other artists, though taken as a whole it sounds like nothing else. The shape of metal to come? Don't count on it. We should just be thankful Blackjazz exists in the here and now. If Tool or Trent Reznor were capable of this kind of thing in 2010, it would sell hand over fist. As it is, Blackjazz may just have to settle for cult classic status.

10 January 2010

Warpaint - Exquisite Corpse

Manimal (2009)
See it pon de posh new FACT site ere.

There is lush 'n' longing, and then there is Warpaint. You remember on Beavis and Butthead, when our brace of budding reviewers used to assume Pantera was just the singer, and not the band?* Warpaint is a quartet from Los Angeles, but on the basis of this record's bold personality and unity, could well be a single girl. And on Exquisite Corpse, our girl is in a club, eager to impress her potential bloke. As all three original members sing, this approach is probably for the best. The skeleton of the record is formed from fluttering guitar arpeggio, like eyelashes batted at you across a Minty Mudshake, though the songs are filled out with silky layers that never feel as though they're making the arrangement too busy.

After making a good first impression with 'Stars' and 'Elephants', the third song is fantastic, and also the most baffling on here. Named 'Billie Holiday', the chorus features just breathy spelling-out of the chanteuse's name. It's Faith No More's 'Be Aggressive' re-imagined by a distaff Great Lake Swimmers, all close-mic'd vocals and that muggy atmospheric humidity of nothingness, while Warpaint softly quotes Mary Wells at us in the verses: 'nothing you can say can tear me away from my guy...' It's vaguely insane, but performed with such aplomb and delicate touch that it almost reaches the heights of Hanne Hukkelberg's spine-chilling cover of The Pixies' 'Break My Body', from a couple of years back. And it has a false finish!

But for every ethereal slice of gently yawning loveliness such as 'Billie Holiday', or the opening 'Stars', comes something with more bite, like 'Elephants' or 'Beetles'. Having the songs alternate between Cocteaus-style opium dream sequence and near-Riot Grrl racket could have gone horrendously awry, but Warpaint walks that particular line with ease. The dynamics never threaten to tear the record apart. There is a definite progression here, as 'Beetles' sees Warpaint become agitated since earlier on in the record, bringing on the Sleater-Kinney nostalgia.

The end of the evening arrives in the form of 'Krimson'. Warpaint has grown tired, and more than a tad intoxicated. It's been a long one, she's all danced out, and has grown too impatient for any pretence at subtlety. So she hurls herself at the object of her affections, accompanied by a disco bassline. 'Hold me closer and don't ever let me go', Warpaint pleads, before having a little scream. Not sure what she wants any more, Warpaint complains 'I need a little room to sway / you hold me anyway'. It's getting late, and the bombastic declarations are coming thick and fast: 'I want you more than anyone ever wanted anyone before'. We're flattered, but it's probably time for a taxi...

Harmonies that are simultaneously tight and airy; melodies that largely couldn't be mistaken for anyone else. Sweet, sweet music that never gets cloying. Way more sophisticated than the (charmingly) messy Vivian Girls, but displaying that same knack for articulating the slow-death heartbreak of yearning. Without wanting to stir up controversy through positive comparison with anyone's album of 2009, this is nevertheless a perfect match for the lovely xx record.

* 'Damnit Pantera, this beer's warm! Get me another one!'

07 January 2010

Emika - Drop the Other

Ninja Tune (2010)

Listen to the songs here.

With little more than a modest piano motif to announce its arrival, 'Drop the Other' is quite the eerily seductive gem from Ninja Tune debutante Emika. It's one of those songs that reminds you of something, but you're not sure exactly what. And the thought process that triggers embeds the song in your head. Listening again, and again, as you attempt to pinpoint the source of familiarity - too clear and crisp for Portishead, too emotionally involving for 'King of My Castle' - is less something you don't mind than it is a pure pleasure. You get drawn into its world of deceit and self-doubt.

There is certainly an air of cool melancholy pervading this one, as increasingly numerous clipped minor-key melodies spiral downward among isolated bass stabs like so many coptering seeds helplessly plummeting from a monochrome sycamore tree. Her vocals are interesting: I'm not sure whether Berliner Emika is not that comfortable singing in English, or if this is a conscious aesthetic decision, but there's an endearing mumble to her delivery that adds tons to the rather demure emoting that goes on. Even the beat starts off unsure of itself, nestling next to the melody as though it's not really supposed to be there. It's 'The Book Group', but set in one of Distance's album cover tower blocks; paranoid and winter-bleached: '[you] assured me that everything I need was waiting / I'm so stupid...'

Scuba's 'Vulpine' remix of the track may improve on the original. Its woodblock-echo grandfather clock beat and cooling tower-didgeridoo melody transmute the ennui into cold menace while automatons inhale through their teeth, Hannibal Lecter-like, in the shadows. Somewhat interestingly, there is a brief rising sound halfway through, unconscious symbolism of the greater confidence exuded by Emika on the remix. She's dropped into the K-hole, disembodied and reverberating through fractal-filled tunnels, an extra life in Scuba's game of Rez. 'If you've really got faith, then I know you'll invest''s ultimatum is more serious this time, born of being free from the emotional ties rooting her into reality in the original mix's fear of letting go. If Emika was trapped in an unhealthy relationship in her own song, Scuba has released her, even if it is into overdosed denial. A fantastic one-two.

06 January 2010


So I still haven't played SFIV. I don't even have a console to play it on. But that doesn't stop me from being very excited about this. It's like that, but more, apparently. Good enough for me. I think, after waiting too long (I had initially tested myself to see if I could last throughout 2006 - or was it 2007? - without buying a new home console), that 2010 will be the year I finally join this gaming generation. And you can bet your butt that I'll be getting this in as soon as I do.

I dread to think how many versions of Streetfighter I have bought since 1993. Lots...

04 January 2010


So I was sent the new Shining album last night, and I listened to it on the way home today. Well, most of it. It was a lovely experience: increasingly rarely as I age do I get the chance to indulge in that exciting first listen to a album for which I've waited. And I have waited for this one for three years. I first heard their last one, Grindstone (2007), back when I was a big downloader, in January '07. (As it was such an early album for that year, I have to admit it suffered when it came to the end-of-year festivities. Recency innit! Not sure where it should have been, mind. Higher) And so I hear this new one in January of this year. Obviously. Shining are a cool band. They're probably the coolest rock band going, and they probably have been for a few years now. This new one is a hell of a lot more metal than their past couple of efforts, which straddled jazz and massive, soundtracky, rock rather smartly. It's nice to see them nail their colours to one flagpole, if that's the right metaphor.

The main difference is the vocals, of which there are loads on this new one. They tend to be of the growly, effects-drenched variety, and seem effective. I have rather a bad habit of making loads of comparisons in my reviews, so I'm gonna attempt to get that out of my system somewhat in this post. So: the singing is a bit reminiscent of Steve Austin's (not that one) late 1990s work in Today Is The Day. Austin used to pretty much stuff a microphone in his mouth when singing, which made it sound really noisy and high-pitched as load of feedback happened. Nick Terry, then-editor of Terrorizer, compared the sound he made to a giant, buzzing insect. And that's bang on the money. Rather less on the money was Terry's assertion that TITD's Temple of the Morning Star (1997) was as though Neurosis' Through Silver in Blood had been chopped into bite-sized chunks, when that most definitely was not the case. TITD's record was a more calculated attempt to shock than the Oakland sextet's force-of-nature delivery. I think he was just trying so see the best in their record, as he made similar comparisons when reviewing Bloodlet's The Seraphim Fall*, the next year. I don't blame him: we all wanted something as good as TSiB to emerge. It just never actually did. Plus, I kind of have to let him off because he was a bloody fantastic reviewer. Anyway, the combination of rasping, effected vocals and epic music reminds me also of Samael, but I have less to say about them, so let's move on.

There is a definite awareness here. I don't want to accuse primary composer and main man Jørgen Munkeby of being a copyist with these comparisons, as that is clearly not the case. However, Munkeby is a very intelligent writer and evidently a student of the heavy metal game. So it comes as little surprise to spot various Scandinavian metal reference points. The mix of throaty roar and brutal music is a tad reminiscent of the awesome early Haunted stuff, albeit slowed from the Swedish band's uptempo thrash and with added charisma. The crisp production and off-kilter riffing put me in mind, in places, of Meshuggah's often mesmerising polyrhythmic assault, only a heck of a lot more varied. I think there were some more, but I'm being a bit silly. I'm not sure many other people would think the album sounds at all like The Haunted, Samael or Meshuggah, any more than it would Misery Loves Co. or Entombed. But I think there is a loose unifying thread running through the dark, often monstrously powerful, brand of Scandinavian metal. Are Samael even Scandinavian? *looks* Nope, Swiss. Well there you are.

So Shining are a lot more metal than they were. There were hints of it on their older records, in the atmsphere, the wild dynamic swings, the sense of revelling in how they harnessed musical power, even the font. But it's not in a retro, kitsch, sense, like Mastodon, Kylesa, Melvins, even sunnO))). Though they're hoary old rockers with a doomy background, I don't include Harvey Milk, as you can tell a lot of method lies in their ostensibly redneck madness. Which is in stark contrast to the Melvins, whose last two albums (2006, 2008) sound not dissimilar to their 1993 and 1994 efforts. Shining, like the 'Milk, learn from metal's past rather than merely repeating it. But they are way more modern in their approach, and not just aesthetically. It's in the crisp production as compared to the sludge of Harvey Milk (which admittedly does work for them). And, yes, the jazz influence does help in that, as it does Dillinger Escape Plan, who are as technically impressive, aesthetically sussed and genuinely exciting. Except the advantage Shining enjoy over DEP is that Munkeby is comfortably more charming than DEP's sometimes overbearingly jockish Greg Puciato. I am super-looking forward to their new album too, though, due in March.

Pretend I said something about sunnO))) being really great, but not so great that I stop thinking they're being just a tiny bit cynical in their super-super-metal aesthetic. And about Genghis Tron being beloved by me, but their combination of electronica and heavy metal not sitting as well with each other as they do on Shining's record. But that's kinda the point with GT; the juxtaposition of Plone/AFX-ish electronica melodies with the all-out cybergrind onslaught, with no half-measures. And, I must admit, it did work incredibly well on the obscenely exciting Dead Mountain Mouth (2006). (Believe me, if I did an 'albums in the year 2006' post, like I should have done, DMM would have been top 5. Easy.) Follow-up, Board Up the House, was very satisfying in its own right, but felt somewhat like a halfway - err - house between the binary metal of DMM and the all-out eclecticism you feel they eventually want to achieve.** Anyway, I'm off to bed, so I'll just say Blackjazz rocks. Some people might be disappointed that it's not superficially as eclectic as the last couple of records, but I think it might really reveal itself to be after a few listens. But I'm just guessing here. What it certainly does have is a bunch of great, brutal riffs. And it's damn cool. There, random stream of thoughts out of the way. I guess it's as good a way to introduce 2010 as any...

* I think it was he who reviewed that one, though I might very well be mistaken.
** And I think they're due another album sometime soon, now their surfeit of remix EPs has concluded.

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