By Jake Ebdale
Here's a catchy new chant for today's youth, courtesy of New Zealand's own Shihad. All together now:
G! C! S! B!
Or how about this one?
They smile at your face but fuck you later!
OK, I made that first bit up about Shihad's new stuff being catchy. It will slay the unsuspecting masses, but yeah, nah - FVEY isn't your standard bogan's RTD bourbon. Pronounced ‘Five Eyes', the title is named after the FVEY network, a surveillance circle jerk between five nations, which includes New Zealand. The band's ninth album isn't a political record, but bassist Karl Kippenberger says it's the closest they've come to a statement.
"I guess historically we've delved into political issues, but also kept away from being a preachy band," Kippenberger says from the phone in Melbourne. "For Jonny's sake, he kept the lyrics to the early songs open ended - so people could interpret them how they wanted. But as citizens of the earth, and especially in the last few years: we've become dissatisfied."
Acting out on that despondency and turning it into an album is the mark of a passionate, reinvigorated group. "I mean, we all talk politics privately and we're interested in what's going on in New Zealand - three (out of four in the band) are still citizens there, but it extends to Australia and the rest of the world too."
Karl doesn't elaborate on exactly what pisses him off, but judging from first single, ‘Think You're So Free' and the bleak song titles (‘The Great Divide', ‘The Big Lie', ‘Model Citizen'), one could guess it includes the outrage in response to the GCSB surveillance bill, as well as certain political parties rising to power, serving the rich man, reaching into the deepest pockets. "I guess it's come to a crunch. There have been some recent decisions which have pissed us off more than in the past."
He's not blowing steam either: FVEY is their most important album for at least fifteen years. It's basically the sound of Shihad blowing up their own myth.
FVEY's story has proved to be a truly cathartic experience for the boys. The writing had its origins overseas, supposedly to take the Kiwi rock veterans out of their comfort zones ("We wanted to see what other parts of the world lived like, ones that weren't so well off, but it didn't work out" - most likely due to the outbreaks of violence in Egypt). FVEY also brought the band full circle, being the final album recorded at Parnell's legendary York Street Studios, which was dismantled a few months ago. Their debut record Churn was the first.
But surely the biggest point of interest is that Shihad have reunited with Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman, who produced Churn's industrial stomp back in 1993. Following that record's unexpected success, the union became toxic, and the band "didn't want to know about" him. Talking about this period, Kippenberger is matter of fact: "We were young. I was like 20, 21. We were all head strong, and like most new novice bands, we thought we knew everything. (Coleman) was in his thirties and to us that was old as". Being a rabid conspiracy theorist, barking orders in military fatigues, and being majorly boozed "made him quite gnarly to work with" too.
To boot, Coleman's outspoken nature plagued Churn's mixing and sound - disagreements that would result in the fatter, punishing sound of their career defining follow up,Killjoy. With Coleman supposedly having first dibs on producing Killjoy until the band chose Malcolm Welsford instead, they didn't speak for over ten years.
There would be encounters. First, both parties entered a verbal spat whilst attending a Powerstation gig, with Coleman inviting the band to "a big debate on Great Barrier Island about the new millennium" to settle the score. They declined. Recently, Jon Toogood tried to slink past Coleman at an after party until he was dragged over to the circle by drummer Tom Larkin, which prompted a conversation that lasted hours. Coleman had also stopped drinking at this point, which made things easier. The band had grown up.
"Jaz had his orchestra stuff and had been doing that for years. He said to us 'I don't do rock any more, except for Killing Joke. The only other band I'd ever work with would be Shihad'." Reuniting with Coleman still took the band out of their comfort zone, but instead of visiting Egypt, they'd visit their fraught past. Jon, Karl, Phil, Tom - and now Jaz. The fifth eye of the quintet.
To understand this new album, it's important to know about what's happened. Along with Metallica and a host of Flying Nun bands, Killing Joke was a major influence on the young Kiwis. Churn sounded like a distant cousin of Joke's classic 1980 debut. After that initial, brutal period between thrash EP Devolve and Killjoy that gained them notoriety here, everything ground to a halt. Their manager Gerald Dwyer tragically died on the day of the Auckland Big Day Out in 1996, which deeply affected the next phase of their career.
They were forced to start a new chapter - the band cut their hair, Jon's songwriting chops matured - it was bogan shedding time. The Shihad/Fish Album was a classic hodgepodge of styles, which contained a bonafide anthem in ‘Home Again' as well as the punky ‘La La Land' and the beautiful ‘Boat Song'- crucial turning points that expanded their sound and audience. This branching out would lead into The General Electric, by far their biggest seller here and abroad. It contained five stadium sized singles including the title track, ‘My Mind's Sedate' and ‘Pacifier' ("Do you know what the tiiiime is, is it messing with your miiiind kid?"). This new wall of sound launched the band into the stratosphere (in Australasia).
Caught up in this deserved success, there was the well documented name change to Pacifier; in hindsight, a near sell out move that caught them huge amounts of flack, albeit one justified in the eye of bright lights and a big future. The resulting eponymous album, released worldwide, had great sounding singles, but also contained some shit - including a collaboration with a Limp Bizkit member. America unfortunately passed.
So, there was a conscious retread into heavier music, and the return to their destined moniker, with 2005'sLove Is The New Hate. A reaction to the failed campaign in the States, it contained ‘Alive', a classic mix of new and old styles - and shorter songs like ‘Day Will Come', ‘Big Future' and ‘Traitor', all full of spittle and drive. Billed as a return to their roots, it also signaled the end of an era. Performing a free Aotea Square concert as a thank you, Toogood's greasy locks swayed in the wind, the Shihad name flew high once again.
This ongoing creative spark would birth a new direction: the synth heavy pop of Beautiful Machine and the jagged Ignite - which now sound like underrated gems. "There is a spiking thing (with the sound of Shihad records)," says Kippenberger. "It kind of goes heavy, not so heavy, heavy, not so heavy. We naturally react to the last album we've done...I guess after doing a mellower record, it made sense to do FVEY."
The thing was that Shihad - the heavy, relentless group of old - have slowly re-emerged. Over the past five years, the band has performed Killjoy and The General Electric in full. They reissued and remastered Churn, released a greatest hits package and toured it (even playing first song ‘It'), brought out a career spanning documentary. They would open for Black Sabbath, fulfilling a childhood dream (Kippenberger recalls opening with ‘Factory' being "a perfect way to start the set"). Toogood purged all remaining pop through his stellar group The Adults. This manic activity created excitement around their earlier music, which in turn has influenced FVEY's meaty, no bullshit sound.
FVEY is by far the bleakest album since their debut. It's shaken up the classic ebb and flow of a Shihad record. There are no breaks. And it sounds live.
One word: Relentless.
‘Think You're So Free' is a mechanical, droning boot to the face, Toogood shredding his throat red raw. Kippenberger rattles away at the low end, driving most of the record, whilst Larkin keeps things tribal, rumbling, dynamic. Phil Knight ruptures most tracks with off kilter guitar screeches, whilst both his and Toogood's guitars are towering, ugly, and thick as molasses. The title track pulses with absolute fervour; ‘Grey Area' rides a Mastodon sized riff, ‘The Great Divide' gallops like a warhorse that's just run over AC/DC. ‘Cheap As' is their longest track ever - a snarling bit of cock rock gone sour. ‘The Living Dead' is going to absolutely ruin people live. Toogood sounds fucked off through the whole thing. Wow.
The sound of this album boils down to that key word, vitality, and the band being on top of their game.
"The big part of (the sound) was Jaz - again, adding that vitality, that urgency. He was lighting the firecracker, really pushing us in the studio. I think if Jaz wasn't there (FVEY) wouldn't have sounded that way. As older musicians, you start thinking that you know everything. I'm sure it's the same with any field of work - you know the tricks of the trade, you know what you can get away with. It's not that prior to this record we rested on our laurels. Every album, we've tried to take a different angle. It's just that it worked really well with Jaz at the helm, because we could just be musicians again."
Let it be known that while listening to FVEY, you have to be present. You've got to dedicate yourself to the eleven tracks, get in the right head space. The first run through is exhausting. It makes the listener work hard, as hard as the band did in short bursts of insanity, Coleman again guiding them in the sessions like a crazed personal trainer.
FVEY doesn't just work as a record: it kicks the Shihad legacy into overdrive. If they naturally react to their previous albums, look forward to an all acoustic EP. Officially slayed.