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When an “AP” story about Madonna’s plans to reissue the work of experimental-noise/Palestinian-liberation avatar Muslimgauze hit the Internet a couple of weeks ago, the April 1 dateline should have been a tipoff. At the very least, someone should have raised a skeptical eyebrow over the phrase “a feature length film by husband Guy Ritchie is now in the works.”
But then again, stranger things have happened in the music biz. Take the case of Rune Kristoffersen. As a member of Norwegian New Wave act Fra Lippo Lippi, he scored a contract with a major, scaled the pop charts in his native country, and worked with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker—who, in the role of producer, had just turned down a similar offer from Crowded House. The guy was particularly huge in the Philippines, of all places, where Fra Lippo Lippi earned several hits and sold 70,000 concert tickets on its first swing through Manila alone.
These days, however, Kristoffersen says he wants nothing to do with hits—or any kind of accomplishment measured in sales. Since 1998, the former star has been running Oslo indie Rune Grammofon, a fetish-inspiring boutique label known for its austere graphic design, pristine fidelity, and, most important, boundary-disrespecting music. Last year, Kristoffersen, who still records music as Monolight, even released a label-thus-far compilation under the aesthetics-first title Money Will Ruin Everything.
One would be hard-pressed to identify a Rune Grammofon sound. After all, the Scand-centric label is consistent in terms of quality only—or “soul,” to quote the man in charge. Its most recent exports have run the gamut from the Sharrock rock of Scorch Trio to the Björk jazz of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra to the Eno metal of Deathprod. (The latter was treated to a lavish four-disc box set that spans the entirety of its decadelong, under-the-radar career.) But if there’s a single Rune Grammofon act that typifies Kristoffersen’s prismatic array of musical interests, it’s Shining, a quartet the label describes as “progressive artrockmonsterjazz.”
In truth, that descriptor is hardly expansive enough. Shining, which takes its name from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror flick, is like many Rune Grammofon acts in that its roster is remarkably restless, full of musicians who play in multiple contexts, in multiple genres. Twenty-four-year-old band leader Jørgen Munkeby, for example, is a multi-instrumentalist who picked up the saxophone when he was only 9, got interested in death metal as a teen, and joined Tortoise-esque rock outfit Jaga Jazzist when his American counterparts were just learning how to drive. Shining also includes the keyboard-playing portion of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra (Morten Quenild), a conservatory-trained session drummer (Torstein Lofthus), and a contrabassist who also drops rhymes in his country’s, um, best-selling hiphop act (that would be Aslak Hartberg).
Those curious about the glories of Norwegian rap have little to look forward to on Shining’s third full-length (and first for Rune Grammofon), In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster. But the Oslo foursome—augmented here by additional horns and percussion—offers plenty of other far-flung genres for the musically intrepid. Opener “Goretex Weather Report,” for example, is a mere minute old when Munkeby drops his sax and busts into some dense, prog-via-black-metal six-stringing. Elsewhere, the band evokes John Carpenter’s clunky synth scores (“The Smoking Dog”), Tom Waits’ junkyard ballads (“Perdurabo”), and Faust’s apocalyptic funk (“Magazine RWRK”).
Yet for all its cross-disciplinary energy—not to mention its aggressive digital editing—Monster is a jazz record at heart. You can hear it in the French Quarter–ish reeds that slink through “Romani,” in the boplike horns that drive “REDRUM,” and in the ECM-style asceticism that turns “31=300=20 (It Is by Will Alone I Set My Mind in Motion)” into a series of ghostly washes—that is, before the thing turns full-on freakout about two-thirds of the way through. Shining’s jazz foundation is there, too, in the group’s approach to song structure—the way composer Munkeby leaves himself and the others plenty of room for improvisation and displays of instrumental prowess. In other words: There are plenty of pleasant little tunes here; just don’t expect to hear them played the same way more than once.
That Shining’s latest transcends aural schizophrenia should tell you much of what you need to know about the quartet’s alchemical approach. Not only does Monster add up to more than just a parade of beard-stroking influences, it actually comes across as something truly foreign, something close to otherworldly. It’s not hard to imagine these sounds emanating from one of those discs sent up with a deep-space probe: an almost absurdly wide-ranging sampler that nonetheless reveals some essential identity. To judge by Monster, the world Munkeby & Co. inhabit must be strange and wonderful indeed.
Veteran Rune Grammofon act Alog is less complex, less variegated than Shining, yet still damn hard to pin down. A cursory spin of the band’s third and latest full-length, the mostly instrumental Miniatures, suggests alt-techno—or what indie rockers used to call “intelligent dance music.” The problem is, there’s only one tune on the new album with a halfway danceable beat (“The Youth of Mysterious Conversations”). And both Alog members, Norwegians Espen Sommer Eide and Dag-Are Haugan, say that they’re influenced by the rhythms of hiphop, not techno.
Even Alog’s method is problematic. Like many a Clicks & Cuts type, former rock drummer Eide does much of his jamming on a laptop. Analog enthusiast Haugan, on the other hand, spends his time with what most folks would recognize as actual instruments: synthesizer, electric piano, guitar, and so forth. And tellingly, Eide, who also records for Rune Grammofon as Phonophani, and Haugan, who records solo under his own name, claim not to pay attention to “sound hierarchy”—meaning they refuse to differentiate between the notes they create and ones they borrow from other sources. This, of course, makes it difficult to figure out who the heck is doing what and when. Is that gong/chime sampled? How about that Stereolab guitar strum? Or that wizened-sounding female singer?
The upshot is that the deeply melodic Miniatures is both more diverse and coarser-grained than your run-of-the-mill electronica. “St. Paul Sessions II,” for instance, is dominated by Steve Reich–alike drumming and very electric Krautrock guitar. Then there’s “Steady Jogging of the Heart,” which layers New Age cut-ups over honk-and-splash roadside ambience. And album-opener “Severe Punishment and Lasting Bliss” pits heavy-metal drone against bright, percolating synth, the latter losing out by the song’s halfway mark.
Toward the end of Miniatures, several tracks eschew the bleep and blurp of electronics altogether. The Folkways-esque “Buffalo Demon” resembles a field recording from an outdoor market—its lazy Indonesian percussion mingling with early-morning voices and the clink of coinage on wooden tables. And the melancholic 13-minute album closer, “Building Instruments,” is equally rustic and raw: From amid the cautious footsteps and guitar tuneup emerges a wall of harmonium buzz ’n’ thrum that is as craggy as it is beautiful.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, electronic-music writer Simon Reynolds details his beloved genre’s flagging fortunes. These days, he writes, even the most accessible techno record is racking up disappointing sales. Maybe he could learn from Kristoffersen: Money ruins everything, remember? In that sense, the unorthodox, commercially unpromising Miniatures is another Rune Grammofon success story: a classic nonhit.CP