Shining is remarkably long-lived if one considers mainman Niklas Kvarforth’s admonitions that everyone should commit suicide. Twenty years into Shining’s career, Varg utan flock (Wolf without [a] Pack) marks the band’s 10th full length, and first since 2014. I have been holding out hope that Shining will regain the form of their earliest masterpieces, but since 2011 that field has been fallow. It’s tough to live up to records like Halmstad—one of the best albums of the 2000s—and Född förlorare. Those albums were excellent, memorable, and loaded with great writing and riffs. But starting in 2012, Shining/Kvarforth made a lot of noise about change. This was particularly present on 2012’s Redefining Darkness and even, to an extent, on IX: Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, Ends. The reasons for this are unclear—it could simply be that Kvarforth was bored—but the “redefinition” meant English lyrics in 2012, and a significant lack of intensity in 2015. So, you’ll forgive me if I approached X – Varg utan flock with some hesitancy.
Varg utan flock corrects for some earlier problems and seems to intentionally break with the declared ‘redefinition’. Gone are the Van Halen solos, thankfully avoided are the banal English lyrics, and with these exits, a certain depressive bleakness has returned. Back is a slow, groovy burn, which boils over at times into something more intense. The album has a bleak feel, with Kvarforth sounding more like he did a decade ago than at any time since. His shrieks are painful, the mood is dark and desolate, and this speaks as loudly as any lyric possibly could. On “Svart ostoppbar eld” (“Black, Unstoppable Fire”), Kvaforth sounds like he’s genuinely in pain. The impression that he’s beating his way out of a shackles made of glass also gives “Gyllene portarnas bro” (“The Bridge of the Golden Gates”) that feeling—a slightly disturbed glint in the band’s proverbial eye—which makes their music special.
The more I listen to X the more obvious it becomes that Kvarforth is intentionally quoting Halmstad. “Han som lurar inom” (“He who tricks within”) fades in and rocks a riff reminiscent of “Neka morgondagen.” “Svart ostoppbar eld” features the same rhythm and feel as “Besvikelsens dystra monotoni”—pulsating with familiarity under his tortured screams. “Jag är din fiende” (“I Am Your Enemy”) mirrors “Låt oss ta allt från varandra,” while the piano track “Tolvtusenfyrtioett” (“Twelve thousand forty-one”) parallels “Åttiosextusenfyrahundra,” though it showcases Shining‘s shift toward using more Swedish folk music in recent years. The record closes with “Mot Aokigahara” (“Toward Aokigahara,” which is the suicide forest in Japan), which also echoes “Neka morgondagen” (“Deny the Morrow”) in content and tone. These parallels are obvious and seem intentional. And there are certainly benefits to imitating one of the best black metal records ever—especially when you wrote it.
The echoes of Halmstad, which turned 10 in 2017, makes X feel like it’s Kvarforth circling back around to what made Shining unstoppable in 2007. The record seethes with a sense of desperation. It hovers with a brutal misery. The riffs are addictive and the acoustic work is brittle and beautiful, and this is topped off with a blasty intensity that had largely gone missing of late. While Varg utan flock is more similar to the band’s later material in speed—a bit slower, a bit more acoustic, more time with clean vocals—X certainly feels heavier than anything since Klagopsalmer. This intensity is most obvious on “Han som lurar inom,” but the closing of “Gyllene portarnas bro” is genuinely extreme and tortured, as well.
There’s a fatal flaw in the strategy of quoting Halmstad so freely, however. A record that feels like a quote of a band’s earlier material exists, by necessity, with reference to the earlier work. In this case, X lives as reminder that Halmstad is a truly exemplary album. Quoting it so heavily, then, becomes a recognition that the band will never quite do something new again. Instead, Halmstad stands as the pinnacle of their achievements, and must be emulated for the band to regain its footing. And this leads me an unresolved conflict: how good can such an album1 be?
In light of this conflict, it is tough to declare X – Varg utan flock a “triumph,” but it is a return to form. It’s 6 new songs which are all a very good addition to the Shining discography. The record’s old school feel is marked with Kvarforth’s best writing in a while—though it does noticeably lack a song that truly transcends the record like “Besvikelsens dystra monotoni” or “Människotankens vägglösa rum.” Still, the writing is marked by consistency and a groovy, but deep, depressive pall, which is Shining at its very best. And despite ongoing instability in the band, the lineup is good. Andy LaRoque’s production gets the job done, loudly of course, and I was especially impressed with new bassist Marcus Hammarström’s performance throughout. The music these guys play isn’t challenging technically, but at its best, it can be subtle and interesting, which Varg utan flock is. And despite likely overthinking the album’s resemblance to Halmstad, and thus having complicated feelings about it, when I get to the end of “Mot Aokigahara,”2 I want to listen again. That’s never a bad sign.