(Rune Grammofon; 2007)
By Mark Abraham | 16 February 2007
Si! Sa! “Asa Nisi Masa”‘s superlative Shining-via-Fellini syllables render the band’s vision of our de- and reconstruction. I mean, I don’t put much stock in Jung’s concept of anima (or animus), but then I don’t put much stock in gender. I also don’t think the Shining are using “anima” in the Jungian sense; Fellini used Jung in 8 1/2 when Guido’s cousin tells him the phrase “asa nisi masa” is magical and leads to treasure. The pig Latin-ish morphemes “-sa,” “-si,” and “-sa” encode Jung’s technical term to child-code foolery; Norwegian geek-squad the Shining use the reference (I think) not because of the psychoanalytic implications of men unable to access their feminine sides, but because the structural modification of this theoretically loaded term into meaningless, magical words encapsulates the way the band views music: importance disguised with inanity, erudition breathed through giggling lips, lucidity rearticulated as gibberish. It’s also a bridge between the past and present (Fellini has two magicians pull the phrase from an adult Guido’s mind as a way to link temporal states in his film); it’s a bridge between different spaces; it’s the way Dumbledore inevitably recalls Gandalf, but also the way Gandalf will inevitably recall Dumbledore for kids who met them the opposite way; it means that animus “boy” and anima “girl” (or any other category) might exist, but none of us exist that simply, animated only as girls or boys (or any other category). This album is just that serious, and just that glib.
I’m not saying Shining have all of this worked out (I’m not saying they don’t, either) because, really, the definition of “anima” matters very little; neither am I claiming that Grindstone is some fabulous Jungian Valentine with subliminal serious “x“s and “o“s buried beneath the glib, obvious ones. You won’t need Guido’s magical phrase to find them. This ain’t eros-complicated; serious and silly are always here, because rearticulating both at the same time means each have equal valence. Consider: “Asa Nisi Masa” gives the band less than two minutes to unfold similarly tangled syllables, here the presumed mutual exclusivity of noise and house and metal. The band reframes these ideas slowly, Torstein Lofthus doing one of those cool shifting drum beats that slowly pushes the track closer and closer to guitarist Jørgen Munkeby’s eventual disco-robot vocal line, effectively mutating hilarious cacophonous noise into the most accessible and straightforward track on the album—an act that, in and of itself, is not that straightforward. You might love the first half and hate the second, or hate the second and love the first, or love or hate it all, but the very fact that somebody out there feels the exact opposite is built in to the song. If you can’t please everybody, and you can’t please anybody, then treat everything with equal sincerity, right? And also play it loud.
But that does a piss poor job of conveying the point, which is hard to communicate because communication—or language—is exactly what this album is about. And I’m not talking language in the sense of English or Norwegian; I’m talking ur-language that we communicate with despite words. I’m talking about the choking noise that hits at 1:35 in “The Red Room,” or the way it sounds like somebody is angrily knocking on the wall behind you at 1:44 in “Fight Dusk with Dawn,” or how the only fault with the gorgeous “Moonchild Mindgames” is its stupid, stupid title. You get drawn in and out, your focus is directed outside the album and back into it; the very act of listening to what the album’s saying is complicated by the way things get fucked up in conversation. We often choke up or laugh while trying to say we love or hate somebody. Talking itself is hilarious and depressing if you think about it even a little. With all of its “si“s and “sa“s, Grindstone asks this question: “Why shouldn’t music be that way, too?”
It’s not the first album to ask that question, and it won’t be the last. But it’s been a long time since I heard an album ask it so well, with so many vowels and consonants at its disposal. Consider what language means to a band that spells “Bach” in Morse Code and then proceeds to play a song that sounds like. Bach modified with Morse Code. Is the title just to make it annoying for me to type? Or is the point that condensing the space between Bach, the telegram, and a modern synthesizer is not only vaguely educational, possibly artistic, profoundly political, but also kind of fun? Consider what stress this band puts phenomenal producer Kåre Chr. Vestrheim under, asking for flutes and toy pianos and industrial rhythms and free improv drums and crazy thick guitars at the same time. He translates beautifully, but is anything lost? Consider that the few (heavily filtered) words we get on Grindstone all sound short and clipped—they sound like “Si! Sa!” Talking up and down, the album is a see saw; it’s the apocalypse on a playground; it’s absolutely fucking astounding.
Because we all think we know what, say, love is. But try to explain why you love that thing you love to somebody who thinks that thing is shit and you’ll get the sieve through which Shining squeeze their ideas. It’s not so weird that the first track of this fourth album reclaims the title of the band’s third album—this band thrives on the gravitas of kitsch. But kitsch is sort of everything, and to understand why this album is fucking astounding, you need to understand why some ageing relative takes so much solace in Dalton figurines, or why Warhammer and coin & card role-playing shops still thrive in our MMORPG society, or why “In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster” (once an album, now easily consumable!) can move from shifting metal time signatures to serious techno keyboards to funk bass cowbell manipulation to sludge-core bridges adorned with hilarious rock guitar leads to feedback to a nauseating flute assault to heavy organ chords to the opening riffs again with the flute playing overtop to a wild jazz/rock/metal/Si! Sa!/bass cluster-fuck to that gorgeous drum-led outro that shifts and spills and anticipates its own demise with a soaring eulogy.
See, my own favorite film ever isn’t by Fellini or Lynch or any of the other film geniuses referenced on this album. It’s Bring It On, and this album forces me to. Because you need to also understand why middle class values and mowed lawns and raving bigotry appeal to some people. It’s all kitsch, and we build subcultures around kitsch, and we create languages to communicate within those subcultures, and all Shining are doing is taking those stray threads and tying them together, expressing sincere, serious emotion through unabashed geekery and playful emotion. But, you know, doing it incessantly, unforgivingly, and really hard. I’m scared because this shit is claustrophobic, and I’m alone in a hotel room, Cornell is closed, it’s bucketing snow in Ithaca, and I suspect that prolonged exposure to this music in isolation really would make me an un-dull boy. Or maybe it’s just my unanswered questions: why are these Motorpsycho junkies sincerely wearing motorcycle helmets in their press pictures? Or is it ironic? Is my confusion the point? Si! Sa! Every single noise on this album is a phoneme packing a calculus of allophones that sparkle with the intricacy of a snowflake.
Fortunately, this awful weather is apparently the ideal environment to listen to this music, at least insofar as what we can infer from the Franz Schubert/Wilhelm Müller reference. Schubert’s Winterreise (1827) was about wandering through a barren, snow-covered landscape checking out crows and abandoned postal carts and lime trees that try to convince you to commit suicide. There are no lime trees on South Meadow Street, but some of the display models at Maguire Ford across the street from the Super 8 may have been trying to seduce me. Am I an anima? How is it that the almost-palindromic movements of Shining’s “Winterreise” so ably update Schubert’s 19th century sexual angst to encompass the harsh metals and machines of post-industrial society? How does the track get away with quoting Toto? I mean, it’s Dune, fine, and Eno was involved, but it’s still fucking Toto!
It’s that kind of playfulness that sets Shining apart from their colleagues who work this brand of metal-tinged Rock in Opposition (RIO). I could see where the vocoders and some of the cheesier synth patches might turn people off, or the irrepressible geekiness of it all: “1:4:9” is the ratio volume of an Arthur C. Clarke monolith, and very possibly the song’s basic chord progression. “To Be Proud of Crystal Colors is to Live Again” (both times) does sound like that fake sci-fi crystal patch, but the actual melody is quietly beautiful. Every Dr. Who would be reduced to tears. “Moonchild Mindgames” wonks Gypsy indecision, modulating between thick-footed rhythm led by bassist Morten Strøm and untethered horn and synth play. Certain passages of “Stalemate Longan Runner” are typical Shining brilliance—they sound exactly like that goateed residence neighbor who was always playing Pantera on a cheap acoustic guitar. For me the appeal’s in the way these more proficient neighbors seem to be snarking at themselves. Vestrheim’s production smartly lets the band deflate their own intensity rather than ride on a wave of look-no-hands maneuvers that would quickly get stale. The music is intense, yes, but it also sounds like the band is having a blast playing it rather than having a blast showing it off. This is, after all, their kitsch.
I obviously love the whole thing, but Shining really shines on two tracks. “Psalm” is a livid masterpiece, a strange vocoder and soprano love duet that sounds very much like an opera written by the soundtrack to All of 1980s Sci-Fi. But then…hold on. There’s a moment on “Psalm,” just as the vocoders give way to Andreas Schei’s early rendering of what will become that eruption of a refrain, where his opening keyboard chord enters like it’s a fucking Whitney Houston song. I love Whitney Houston, and nothing in music has ever made me as happy as this moment. And then the thing goes absolutely nuts. Lots of songs build, so whatever on that point, but the chord progression here sounds nothing like the kind that would normally unfold beneath this kind of pompous catharsis, which is exactly why it doesn’t sound pompous at all. Instead, chugging drums and enclosing chords underlay a rising soprano lead. We get a slight interruption for some tape manipulation (as if epiphanies themselves are flea-marketable) and then the full-blown score explodes from the speakers. I’m pretty sure it caused avalanches here in Ithaca; the sleepy valley town is buried. “Psalm”: gorgeous, angry, all seven plagues.
“Fight Dusk with Dawn” is its polar opposite, although just as plague-y. Influenced by free improvisation and progressive electronics, the final track updates movement-based collage music brilliantly. Like “Asi Nisi Masa” it constantly mutates, but unlike that track it deliberately stays obtuse despite several cues that it will coalesce. What’s important here is the temptation, the band’s ability to set up ideas but reframe them before they have a chance to develop. It could fall apart, but the band seems to let mood motivate the song more than gratification; as a result, they’ve created a concluding song that acts as a microcosm for the entire album: stream of consciousness, but good stream of consciousness, coaxing big ideas out of small fragments of information strung together.
This is RIO of the highest caliber, strongly performed, well-considered, and fastidiously produced. This is a band that cares about things like correct guitar tone, modifications on drum mic placement, carefully picked synths and samples. This is a band that knows how to play their instruments, but also how to make us care. I’ve tried not to mention any other band names in this review. When In the Kingdom came out, we all stepped on each other’s tongues trying to find the correct list of bands these guys sounded like: Pantera, Sepultura, King Crimson, This Heat, Mr. Bungle, Art Bears (and with this album you can add the Boredoms and M83). But I don’t really need to do that this time around. Shining is just fucking brilliant, god-awful motor-gear promo shots and all.