Posted on December 26, 2010


Unbearable light



When Stanley Kubrick was searching for literal sources that guaranteed an appeal to a wide audience, he bumped into Stephen King’s The Shining. The idea of a haunted house was the perfect metaphor to point out to at least a part of the human condition: evil in man. Kubrick underlined that he didn’t want a conventional horror movie that was set in the dark caves and corners. Every tiny spot of every set must be bathing in merciless white light. It makes for a setting that is sometimes hardly bearable and more crushing than every other horror movie. The resemblances to Shining – the band – are finding.

The Norwegian’s fusion jazz, art rock or whatever ugly term we could use for Shining’s rock opera from outer space, meets a standard of perfection that is comparable to the unbearable light that characterises Kubrick’s screenplay. There’s nothing as horrible as complete insight and an unveiling of everything that is normally dark for the human eye. Isn’t that the moment where lunacy settles itself in the human mind? Shining doesn’t want to sound too conventional either. The red threat though, is that conventionality is closely connected to the context.

The band has released four albums so far. Where The Ragged People Go and Sweet Shanghai Devil were stocked with experimental postbop jazz. It was with In The Kingdom Of Kitsch You’ll Be A Monster that Shining began its metamorphose, crushing the barriers of both jazz and rock. Early 2007 album Grindstone is far more away from jazz, although the music’s structures are constructed by jazz in almost every vein. The album gained wider recognition and got the Alarm Award for best jazz album in 2007. The last two releases are now released as a double vinyl version in 500 copies with a sleeve from Kim Hiorthøy.

Composer, saxophonist, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jørgen Munkeby joined the well-known Jaga Jazzist when he was only sixteen and appeared already on their first release. Drummer Torstein Lofthus is besides Mr. Energy in Shining also a member of different local pop acts and is one of the most acclaimed session drummers in Norway. Even Helte Hermansen, one of the two new live musicians is – as the bio states -,“Norway’s young free-jazz guitar mastermind. He feels as natural with Pantera‘s Vulgar Display Of Power and Meshuggah‘s Catch Thirty Three as he does with John Coltrane‘s Meditations and Ornette Coleman‘s The Shape Of Jazz To Come”. Andreas Ulvo is a classical trained pianist that knows the harmonics of jazz and bass player Morten Strøm inserts one of the layers that creates that untypical output.

We talked to Shining when they construed a travelling companionship with Norwegian metal bands Enslaved and Keep Of Kalassin. The latter we never found interesting. The first got our biggest respect with the critically received Eld and their Yggdrasill demo that was released as a split-album with Satyricon. The complete band was there when the interview took place, but it was Munkeby that did ninety percent of the talking. The other ten he left for the drummer. The gap that we think to see when we watch John Coltrane and black metal is bridged in two sentences, so: read on please!

Napalm fire

We would call Shining pearls before swine, but Munkeby was more polite, when asked how it is to play in front of an audience that seems into metal exclusively. “In a lot of places people are expecting our music. Today they didn’t at all. You have all kind of metal, going from old school like Bathory and Darkthrone, but you also have mainstream metal and all that is in between. A band like Meshuggah is metal that is far out”. That band maybe has had the biggest influence on the rock-aesthetic that is so typical for Shining. Fredrik Thordendal lead guitarist of Meshuggah, red) has made a solo-album, with all kinds of special effect, even saxophone. King Crimson could be seen as a starter for all kinds of fusion metal. There’s nothing like a metal audience. It’s pretty diffuse. Some like us, but for others it’s easier to listen to things that they’re more familiar with.”

If there’s one thing that defines these Norwegians it’s that they don’t kneel before the altar of safety. Munkeby points out to the mental set in which people can be. “For some people it’s easier to listen to songs and music that resembles sounds and things that they know, which makes them feel safe. Others want to be put through a test and expand their knowledge.” Playing King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, opening song from the 1969 album In The Court Of The Crimson King, in front of an unexpecting metal audience you can definitely see as a test. They also could have chosen the easy way and play their most forwarded and accessible stuff. Anyway, maybe we could also have compassion with that audience, as they could be seen as “innocents raped with napalm fire”. We’re not sure.

In every sense the Shining members appreciate a portion of bravery. “This guy with his Cannibal Corpse or other unreadable logo on his chest”, Munkeby says, pointing at a young man who in fact was wearing a Marduk shirt, “was banging his head until he ended up lying on the floor. I like that because he showed guts. We are using both hands, he his arms and limbs, shake his hands and constantly smiling. He was alone there and he managed to keep on. He was conducting and going on the riff, and got into the right rhythm. Mostly, at least. (smiles)”

Although there are some structures that remind to metal, Shining obviously is a product of an imaginary and non-existing continuum between metal and jazz. The last two albums are as diffuse as your grandma’s patchwork, with diverse colours and a pallet of musical styles, going from prog rock, metal, big drama film music (we had to think about the ET or 2001 scores more than once), hard rock, bebop to classical music, but always with the claustrophobia that characterises the cited screenplay from Kubrick’s. We forgot at least six more styles and influences. Shining is tributary to John Coltrane, Meshuggah, Ornette Coleman, Johan Sebastian Bach, John Zorn, György Ligeti (whose music Kubrick also used in his movies) and Khanate among others. But not without doing their peculiar, distorted thing with it. Munkeby “Today, at the end of the concert we played a long outro that comes from Fight Dusk With Dawn from Grindstone. The riffs and tones are our version of a Motorpsycho bassline (with which Munkeby did a short European tour, red). The song Grindstone we’re playing like Khanate or Sunn O))) could play it. In the song ASA MISI MASA, we’re repeating the riff, but it moves in time, just like Meshuggah is doing. That idea came directly from them.” The band sounds more direct live than on their albums. The atmospheres on the album are more diversified. Munkeby declares that the next album will be heading more in the direction of the live setting.

Please, come home

In The Kingdom of Kitsch You’ll Be A Monster, which the band used for their third album and a song on their fourth, directly comes from Czech writer Milan Kundera, although “You’ll be a monster” was “You would be a monster” in the novel. Munkeby never read any of his books, but has seen the screenplay of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Kundera’s most acclaimed and popular work. “In one of the scenes (one of the main characters, red) Sabina is saying that sentence, which I instantaneously found a good title.”

Kundera’s concept of kitsch points out to the illusion of a perfect world. Munkeby: “We have a famous painter in Norway, Odd Nerdrum who is gaining millions of dollars in the US, who says he’s a kitsch painter. He’s embracing kitsch, which he sees as having a focus on the craft, on the abilities of the painter and the performer. We’re also focussing on the technical side of our playing. We’re professional, trained musicians. We combine that with a lack of focus on that very same technique, and focus on the aesthetics. It’s kind of kitschy. The last two albums are some kind of illusion, too perfect.” That’s also displayed in the work in the studio. “We don’t get there, press record and play. We have extremely polished it. It’s like an illusion of a perfect world. But, we’re not that smart. We didn’t know that before you told us (laughs).” Well on than: it’s a universal concept Kundera probably would say.

What is important in Kundera’s concept of kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, where everybody lives like (the symbolic) shit doesn’t exist. Have you ever wondered why you are ashamed that much of the secretions that your body produces? Kitsch is an esthetical ideal. It does exclude everything that makes the human existence essentially unacceptable. Or like Kundera wrote: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” The point is that Shining’s music doesn’t make the second tear appear. They leave that to the Whitney Houstons of this world.

We found the title quite pretentious, but totally fitting the Shining atmosphere. “We’re not pretentious”, Munkeby states, “at least, I think I’m not. But we’re both serious and trying to have fun with our music. The fun is not a Frank Zappa kind of fun. We’re trying to use different codes and try to expand our possibilities. The title is as serious and pretentious as it’s a crazy, LSD-influenced kind of title, almost Dadaistic. We try to make our lyrics as unclear as possible, so we don’t end up saying ‘Hate the world’ or ‘I love you, please come home with me’. In that kind of setting there’s nothing left for the listener’s imagination. The title you can interpret in many different ways. It’s semi-pretentious, maybe.”

My biggest fan

The Shining-members are skilled, trained musicians. John Coltrane, a big inspiration for the band, used to practice a lot, while Miles Davis was more of a natural talent. He hardly practised, came on stage and began to hum his tunes. Lofthus says that they have to eat more from the Coltrane tree when it comes to need of practice, although it’s very individual from member to member. “It depends on how you want to sound. We have an ideal of being good musicians, but we don’t have an ideal of being too good or too clinical.” Munkeby thinks that Coltrane is his “biggest fan”. The other members burst out in laughter. Aware of his mistake, he corrects himself. “Ok, my biggest idol of all time. Also in his ethics of getting a lot of practice, getting better and better. He got more focused on the music and not really on the playing.”

Making profit of Munkeby’s mistake, we asked him what Coltrane would think about a band like Shining and the choices they make. “Maybe it would be the kind of music he would play today.” So, Coltrane would be playing in his band? “He could play some solos if he wants to” Lofthus laconically laughs with an awesome Norwegian accent and a brutally funny intonation. Munkeby comes to the point again. “He was constantly searching for new things. The paradox is that, if you want to be like Coltrane you shouldn’t do what he did more than forty years ago. That is also what happened to black metal basically. When it was born it was about a new thing, provocative and against established things, and about renewing music. Today most bands are looking backwards to what it was 20 years ago. Enslaved for example is trying to expand. People that created black metal, would be creating something completely different if they would be young now.”

Fleurety and Dødheimsgard’s Svein Egil Hatlevik aka Magic Logic in 2000 said to us that his idea about the band playing in women’s clothes and fluorescent paint was to re-demonise the visuals of black metal. He said that if you go to a fancy dress party in a policeman’s uniform, everybody would understand what you’re trying to look like. He thought the same counted for the black metal uniform. Polish artist Viktor Witkowski, eight years ago wrote that that “warriors, evilness, black metal are branded trademarks like Schiesser, Calvin Klein or Benetton” (Noise Magazine, 1999). Munkeby understands completely what they talk about, as the black metal musicians “didn’t paint themselves to fit in or to be part of society. Now they’ve become part of it. Our most famous writer Hendrik Ibsen, says that a ‘truth is only a truth for twenty years’. It becomes an old untrue thing afterwards. And then people celebrate it.”

Pop band

We asked if Shining has a provocative nature. They’re playing in front of an audience that is – and we say it with prudence – not expecting them. There follows a firm “No”. Lofthus says that they’re just on tour with Enslaved to play. Their fellow countrymen are friends that are open enough to dig their music. He thinks they “could be far more provocative in a jazz club. At the other hand, when we were playing at the Hole In The Sky festival, I felt like I was playing in a pop band. We played after Lasse Marhaug. We were the happy people.” It shows the relativity of extremity and the importance of context. Lofthus points at a very interesting aspect of Shining. “We have an extreme output on stage, even in a physical way. We struggle through the set. It’s an extreme and honest way to do this. In that way we’re more extreme than metal bands. Most of them are just turning up there amps.”

Munkeby has done a metal interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for which he obviously composed the music. “It has been performed in theatre, but the music hasn’t been released as an album. Kare Chr. Vestrheim, who also produced our latest albums, mixed it. Torstein played some drums on it. Have you seen the modern film version called Romeo + Juliet, with Leonardo Di Caprio, in which they have fast cars and they walk around in bermudas? They retained the original verses. Di Caprio calls his gun, like Shakespeare called the sword in Hamlet. That’s what I wanted to do for a theatre piece. It didn’t actually end up that way, because all the costumes were almost traditional. I hoped it would be more neo-nazi or Fifth Element kind of costumes. How it sounds? Well, they used Goretex Weather Report from In The Kingdom.., so it sounded like Shining, but less good as we couldn’t work on it that much. In The Kingdom of Kitsch.., the song, was recorded in another version for that play. The version that ended on the album is the fourth one.”

When we ask Lofthus and Munkeby if they dream of the definite musical piece, Lofthus says he “doesn’t know. I’m not the biggest thinker in the band. I’m the biggest drinker.” In other words: lots of nuance and mutual laughter. Munkeby thinks that if a “musical piece is perfect, it’s imperfect. Things change, thank God for that. If you would play Shining in front of a Neanderthal I think he wouldn’t be able to hear anything. A perfect musical piece today, would be boring in hundred years. It doesn’t exist.” With this he again focuses on the importance of context.

Does that means there isn’t timeless music? Munkeby: “What is timeless? Some people see timeless as not so dated, as not so typical for the time they’re living in. Timeless as fresh, as new or as important as it is in 1000 as it is in 2000, doesn’t exist. Bach his harmonic expansions were extremely expanded. They’re utterly mainstream today. John Coltrane’s expansion of the harmonical chords was way out when he created it. Now it is in the curriculum of every jazz saxophone player. Harsh sounds from hundred years ago sound smooth now. That’s the way it goes. Some of the shocking effects of music will disappear, but when sounds are good people will keep loving it. Hopefully.”

Peter, Vosselaar, 24th May, 2007

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