Reputations can be terrible for a band, especially when their music fails to live up to its unachievable billing. Shining are a metal band from Sweden who are most notable for their outspoken (and occasionally violent) lead singer, Niklas Kvarforth. His radical statements concerning the band’s purpose are hard to ignore, disrupting anybody’s preconceptions of the group before they’ve even listened to their music.
He thinks of his songs as a weapon of sorts, doggedly bombarding the listener with wave after wave of stifling depression. He initially referred to his band as “suicidal black metal,” before repudiating the title entirely, expressing disgust at the other bands who shared the label. His reason being that these other bands (most likely referring to depressive black metal pioneers such as Xasthur and ColdWorld) were using their music as a sort of catharsis, enveloping the listener in bad vibes in order to cleanse them of these destructive emotions. Shining are ostensibly darker in motivation: in interviews, Niklas has often seemed proud of the fact that people have committed suicide under the influence of Shining’s music.
From this info alone, many people (including myself) might listen to this band as a sort of endurance test, morbidly curious as to the validity of Shining’s public persona, and the effects it will have on the listener long-term. Judging by my (admittedly limited) experience with this band’s music, though, it doesn’t seem any more dreary or hopeless than the depressive black metal bands that Niklas Kvarforth loathes. In fact, throughout their career they’ve distanced themselves from the cold, abstract depression of black metal, towards a more straightforward, prog-metal influenced sound, which is epitomized in 2007′s Halmstad. That’s not to say their newer stuff lacks atmosphere entirely; it just seems more active than lamenting and passive, blazing through solos and energetic grooves instead of lingering on a few gloomy chords.
Yup, it’s safe to say that Halmstad doesn’t exactly live up to its notorious billing. But it’s fascinating in an entirely different sense, subliminally revealed throughout the course of the album. Through Niklas’s unharnessed vitriol (which is just as likely to elicit laughs as it is tears) he puts the spotlight on his own personal demons, painting a picture of internal struggle which is far more engrossing than any sort of general assault.
Make no mistake, Niklas Kvarforth has been affiliated with the extreme music world for a long time now. He founded Shining at the tender age of 12, and by the time he was 14 they had released their first EP, called Submit to Selfdestruction. Bypassing any kind of flowery juvenilia phase, these early tracks were hard-hitting, already developing the recurring themes that would appear in their later work. You can’t scream about misanthropy and despair for over a decade without it affecting you in some way. Or alternatively, you wouldn’t maintain such an undying attachment to a genre like black metal if you didn’t share at least some of the sentiments talked about in the genre’s music. Good-old-fashioned Satanism is a lyrical topic in Shining’s music for sure, but skimming over the lyrics for Halmstad, it reads more like the journal of an unhinged depressive.
You could almost call it a concept album, for the character whom each song focuses on is markedly similar in demeanor, having grown embittered (and almost violent) in resentment and hopelessness.
“I hate all the life that surrounds me/The stinking fucking air I am forced to breathe.” (from ‘Another Step Closer to Total Fucking Ostracism’)
“Show me your world and I shall destroy it/bare your dreams to me and I shall demolish them.” (from ‘Long to Get Away from My Heart’)
If you can understand Swedish (or if you take the Breton Campbell route and find a translation on a sketchy lyrics forum) Niklas’ vile words are a welcome addition, providing context to the wild vocal acrobatics and visceral yelps that take the place of traditional black metal vocals. Never mind that the two snippets of lyrics above tread identical ground. The repetition suits the album just fine, plunging the listener into a never-ending vat of monotonous despair, with no real ending or exit in view. Somehow, the album’s ‘protagonist’ (Niklas?) sees no way out of his situation, and neither do we for 42 minutes.
If you take the lyrics out of the equation though, Halmstad is almost unwieldy in its overblown darkness, throwing every musical trick in can at the listener in order to convince them of its grave undertones. The singer’s voice is what really pops out first. Even during the calm sections Niklas barks out syllables in twisted agony, bending his words in an audible expression of decay. Without warning, he will place additional emphasis on a specific section, shrieking out garbled notes in a way that is both disarming and repulsive. His entire performance has a strange sort of charismatic aura to it, sounding almost insincerely depressive, desperate to pull the hapless (and by now fascinated) viewer into its self-effacing universe.
The record gorges itself on this darkness it creates, not ashamed to resort to kitschy gimmicks in order to make its messages understood. The record begins with an excerpt from the William Hughes Means poem Antigonish, a Gothic ghost tale narrated by an amusingly somber man. This isn’t the only unnecessary sample that’s thrown on Halmstad. Multiple tracks contain sounds of a woman crying and ranting about her depression, apparently taken from the 2001 movie Prozac Nation, which I haven’t seen but looks sorta terrible. And before they end the album with the 8-minute “Deny Tomorrow,” they make sure to throw in a dubious reworking of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” complete with the vocal accompaniment of a man… sipping some sort of drink? Humming along to the classic tune? The ambient sounds of depression, I suppose.
These parts do little to help Shining’s case, serving as an unwanted detour from the reasonably competent progressive metal riffage. It doesn’t help that the samples are always situated alongside bland acoustic bridges, paint-by-numbers interludes that are only elevated by Niklas’s signature throat sounds. The rest of the band seems a little reigned in during these parts. They do their best to liven things up a bit (the bass guitarist in particular is quite adept at crafting a second layer of harmonic mesh underneath the guitar’s predictable minor key arpeggios), but it ultimately falls flat. Every single track, besides the Beethoven ‘cover’, contains intervals such as this, so it would have been nice if they could have found a way to make them consistently engaging and variable. The only exception is the second track ‘Longing Away from My Heart’, where a gleefully wicked piano section slides into the mix, the wispy howl of a synthesizer evoking the image of a haunted mansion from a children’s cartoon. It’s pleasant, but not in the way Shining intended it to be.
But let’s disregard everything else for a second. The real tragedy here isn’t in the incorporation of unnecessary components, it’s the fact that these components stifle and cheapen the language of the record, both the oral language of Kvarforth’s poetry, and the universal language of corpse-painted, church-burning guitar exposition. The slick production of this album is a perfect opportunity for the subtle nuances of blackened metal guitar work to be exposed and admired, but this possibility is never really explored, save for a few impressive moments. The opening track powers forward in a dissonant wall of snapping distorted sound, utilizing queasily unorthodox voicings to marvelous effect. It seems to disappear before the brain can even fully appreciate it, giving way to acoustic droning at around the one minute mark.
Also left relatively uncharted is Shining’s unique brand of traditional metal, where palm-muted headbanging collides with pensive black metal solemnity. The last song is a breath of fresh air arriving much too late, a bouncing hard rock stomp working in concordance with bending tremolo-picked high notes, a rich collage of warping, barely compatible phrases. Can you guess what happens three and a half minutes into the track? That’s right, back to tepid acoustic meandering.
I’ll admit, Halmstad is still an album worth listening to, if only for the unpredictable character of Niklas Kvarforth. Part of the fun is determining which portions of the record are real cries of despair from the guy, and which ones are daft grabs at attention and public shock. Maybe there is no vast emotional iceberg beneath this album. But then I’m left asking myself: with a character this great, does there really even need to be?