Shining: Post-Prog Madmen Expand on Jazz Roots

The latest album by Norwegian post-prog madmen Shining is a claustrophobic, exciting, and ingenious amalgamation. That album, Grindstone (Rune Grammofon), encompasses elements of bop, funk, and metal. It’s so diverse and accomplished that it has begun winning major Norwegian awards, including the Alarm Award (no relation) for album of the year.

Shining began as an experimental jazz group in 1999, led by multi-instrumentalist Jørgen Munkeby. Munkeby, who joined electro-jazz countrymen Jaga Jazzist at the age of sixteen, plays countless instruments with ease and discipline. Besides routine noise makers like guitar and saxophone, he enjoys playing more abstract and unique instruments like the EWI.

EWI stands for electronic wind instrument, and it is a cousin of the saxophone or clarinet. The instrument combines a wind controller with an electronic synthesizer; it is held around the neck and looks like a soprano sax. There are no keys on the instrument. Instead, they are replaced by electronic sensors that pick up the finger positions, allowing for extremely fast playing. Instruments like this help define Shining’s sound.

The group’s first two efforts were largely jazz records. The switch to Norwegian label Rune Grammofon brought Shining into a new light. They disposed of the jazz foundation and moved into the now recognizable Shining lineup.

“In Norway, it seemed at first that the critics liked us better when we played acoustic jazz, which we did on our first two albums,” says Munkeby. “We had kind of a cult status in Norway in the jazz scene, but people had a hard time trying to swallow our new music.”

The resistance did not last long. Norway and the rest of the world began embracing this new, razor-sharp sound. “Grindstone got a straight Yahtzee of dices in the Norwegian newspapers,” says Munkeby, speaking of their one-through-six rating system. The accolades and grants from Norway are now making it possible to travel to North America. “All this makes it a lot easier to survive as a band,” says Munkeby. “It seems like the US is a good place for our kind of music, and now it’s finally happening.”

The insanity and energy of Grindstone is frightening at some points, calm and serene at others. There is plenty of tension and dissonance, which is submerged by graceful melodies and headbanging breakdowns. “I wrote compositions — not only short and simple tunes, but more complex and progressive stuff — at home and recorded demos,” says Munkeby. “Some material was recorded in my bedroom. We ended up using a wooden church organ at a rehearsing room at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. We worked for a year.”

The opening track of Grindstone is titled after the band’s previous album, In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster. The song is formed from metal riffs and funk that transforms to the synths and keys that ground the whole album in a dense cinematic scope. Words come out in small slivers as the drums roll and resonate through the opening minutes.

On Grindstone, anything goes. Even while cheap Casio tones ring down, the toy pianos smother against a big, hairy, raging monster. “We try to explore and push the boundaries between what’s too much and what’s just enough,” says Munkeby. “This applies to the aesthetics, genre blending, and the amount of musical information in a given time span. We try to combine all the genres of music we love: contemporary compositions, extended romantic harmony, rock, metal and jazz.

Munkeby does not let his inspirations end with music. “I’m also very much influenced by occult philosophy, which you can find traces of in lyrics and titles,” he says. “I also love good movies, and I think our music is very cinematic.”

From the futuristic motorcycle helmets they wear in press photos to the Federico Fellini and Franz Schubert references within their music, Shining’s work feeds off cultural references. The title for “Bach,” the tenth track on Grindstone, is written in Morse code, and “1:4:9,” the eleventh track, represents the proportions of the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Besides their appreciation for the artistic side of American pop culture, Shining have a great love for American jazz, rock, and folk. They thank America for their contributions despite the obvious drawbacks of pop music. “The rest of the world is drowning in crappy mainstream American pop, hip hop, soul, and rock music,” says Munkeby. “The rest of the world tries to mimic this shit. This is really a pity, because there’s so much great music that never reaches us.”

Music in Norway is much more communal and diverse, leading to possibilities for Shining that they might not receive anywhere else. “Oslo is a very small city,” says Munkeby. “Everyone plays with everyone; jazz saxophonists play with rock groups and noise guys play with classically trained pianists. The government also has several systems of funding art that make it possible to create new forms and ideas without being too worried about selling them. But of course, we have a lot of crappy music also.”

Munkeby is the official spokesman for Shining because his English is best, but he also was the creative force behind Grindstone, penning all but one of its songs. He is the most dynamic member of the group, the idealist with potential genius riding behind his dramatic scope and reach.

Shining’s founding keyboardist Morton Ovenild, also a Jaga Jazzist member, left the group before recording Grindstone to concentrate a new project, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra. For the recording of the new album, Munkeby was joined by session drummer Torstein Loftus, bassist Morton Strom, and another former Jaga keyboard player, Andreas Schei.

“Right now we have a new band with three great new members,” says Munkeby. “So I think the next album will be created more like a band would do it. The other guys in the band are now equally involved in what direction we want to go, so I’m really looking forward to our next album.”

With the backing Shining has received and the accolades that await them on this side of the world, 2008 is looking bright. They recently played their first US tour, including dates in New York, Chicago, LA, and at SXSW in Austin. Munkeby could not be more excited. “It’s really happening,” he says, “if only for a short trip this first time. Hopefully, we’ll come back again soon.”