Shihad are back with a new album, after four years of solo projects, films and raising families. And, on FVEY, Jon Toogood and his Wellington-formed band have got some things they think you need to be paying attention to.
There’s no band other than Shihad about which I can say that I was there at the beginning and am still with, many albums and decades later. But when Shihad formed in 1988 there were very few bands playing or fans listening to that Metallica and Megadeth-influenced style of metal. And to us kids getting into the sound and forming our own thrash metal band out in Upper Hutt, the guys in Shihad were our heroes and our inspiration.
Shihad were older than us (only by a year or two, but that seemed a huge gap back then), far cooler (they were from Wellington, after all, we were just black-jeaned suburban bogans), and far more musically accomplished and successful.
We were in awe; but it was more than that. Because Jon Toogood (guitar and vocals), Tom Larkin (drums), Phil Knight (guitar) and Hamish Laing (bass) (later replaced by Karl Kippenberger) were so damn friendly and supportive to us and other kids like us, as we formed shitty little bands in shitty little high school music rooms. Looking back it seems ridiculous, but we looked up to Shihad as if they were amazing rock stars when, of course, they were just a bunch of kids themselves, living off their parents and the bones of their arses, doing what they could to make their own rock star dreams come true.
I remember trips on the train into Wellington, in our best cheap knock-off Metallica t-shirts and jean jackets, to see them play live. From my memory all these gigs seem to be at Rocky’s, that live music venue on Cuba Street that continues to this very day, where it is now known as San Fran.
We were far too young to be allowed into a live music venue with a bar, of course, but in we’d get when one of the Shihad guys – who were all under the 20-year legal drinking age themselves – would stick their head out and see us. Sometimes it was Tom Larkin but more often Phil Knight – the blistering lead guitarist with the mop of curly blonde hair – would come out and escort us in past the doorman on the promise that we wouldn’t buy or be bought any drinks. (Yeah, right).
(I still think back to the decor of Rocky’s with a shudder. Inspired by the bar’s name, the seated area of the bar was decorated to look like a cave, with pillars and partitions of sprayed-on and spray-painted polystyrene intended to look like cave walls and stalagmites. How it ever got permission from the council or fire service I’ll never know; the potential for a Great White-like horror in the dark, smoke-laden bar seems terrifying to me now.)
But, that was then, this is now; 2014 and the release of Shihad’s most recent album. Twenty four years since we played the thrash of Devolve at garage parties when our parents were away, Shihad are back working with Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman, who produced the blistering industrial metal of Churn, the first of their nine albums. And this reunion with the driven, ornery, outspoken Coleman has come right when Jon Toogood is sounding pissed off; more pissed off than he’s sounded in years.
Toogood’s always had a political slant to his lyrics, a left-leaning, liberal, socially aware and observant nature that sometimes shows itself in unusual places (listen to the lyrics of ‘Debs Night Out’, for example). He’s never been shy about putting his thoughts forward either, like when he, soon after supporting Metallica for the biggest gig of Shihad’s short career, remarked how disappointed he’d been to see a “Don’t Call 9-11, Use .357” sticker on James Hetfield’s amplifier.
Toogood’s often sung of frustration and anger at corporate greed, bad government, the insensitivity of the powerful and privileged, the grey acceptance of a docile population. And those songs are here, such as with ‘The Big Lie’ (“it’s the year of distraction, have we had enough, have we had enough of the big lie?”), the remorselessly pummelling ‘Grey Area’ (“I am a reflection, I am what you wanted to hear”) and the venom-fuelled rage of ‘Model Citizen’ (“We want an end to this terminal cancer”).
Toogood’s big target on the album is Echelon, and the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement (‘FVEY’, geddit?), and a government who he accuses of breaching our privacy and lying about it. The shouted “G! C! S! B!” bridge of the album’s blistering opener, ‘Think You’re So Free’ leave you in no doubt of what Jon Toogood has on his mind.
But, no matter how venomous and driven Toogood and Shihad may be, it’s an open question if the level of musical intensity and anger on this album would’ve been expressed if it weren’t for the return of the mad, maddening and vibrantly outspoken Jaz Coleman to the role of producer. Coleman looms large on this album, no doubt having stoked and goaded Shihad until he got what he thought they were capable of, until he got what he wanted to hear.
And what Coleman wanted to hear – and what we can now enjoy – is an album that returns Shihad to a level of tightness and targeted grunt that it is almost reminiscent of the industrial metal of Churn. But even more than that, it is Killing Joke that might be the nearest musical touchstone for FVEY. In particular the precise roar of metal madness that has been the sound Coleman’s produced with his band in the 21st Century.
But if the album’s tight and focused, full of groove and riff, it’s certainly not slick. You can hear microphones bleeding into each other and ad-libbed shouts and yelps (some, you suspect, from Coleman who stood in the room as the band recorded mostly live). During the breakdown the reverb on the drums is crisp and natural, speaking of a good room rather than good software, while there’s a looseness to the propulsive riffs, a constant slight variation that speaks of endlessly repeated takes until the right one was recorded rather than of being built from loops.
It all reaches its apex, perhaps, on ‘Cheap As’, where Toogood’s near spoken polemic builds until he’s shouting “Cheap! As! Fuck!” over and over until the song explodes into a double-time riff, Tom Larkin’s drumming leaving the listener open-mouthed and forcing your head to band along. It might be the most metal thing Shihad have done since Killjoy.
But for me, it’s ‘The Great Divide’ that is the standout track. It begins with a solo-guitar riff, loose but somehow tight and, just before the rest of the band kicks in, you can hear the microphone bleed and yelled enthusiastic laugh of someone in the room. Then Toogood, with layered vocals, strikes a gorgeous vocal that ascends in harmony over the repetitive guitars of the song’s chorus. It’s harsh, intense, beautiful metal – and then, it explodes into a double-time crescendo, a catharsis as Toogood screams his anger at the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
It might be my favourite Shihad song, ever. And FVEY might be my favourite Shihad album. Not the album of a band heading into soft middle age, but of a band driven by the world around them, by an idiosyncratic producer, and by the desire to play some good damn metal.