In 1993 four young long-haired lads walked into a brand new studio in Auckland to record their first album.
The band was Shihad, the album was their boundary-pushing debut, CHURN, the producer was Jaz Coleman, and the studio was York Street in Parnell.
CHURN was the first album to be recorded at the iconic studios, and since then many great records have been cut there. So it was only fitting that almost 21 years later Shihad were reunited with Coleman to record the last ever album at York Street.
And there was no question what the new Shihad album, FVEY (pronounced, Five Eyes), was going to sound like.
“Total brutality from start to finish,” says drummer Tom Larkin gleefully.
“Because,” chimes in frontman Jon Toogood, “we make really good heavy metal and heavy rock and we know how to make it sound really big.”
For Toogood and Larkin, heavy music is the foundation of Shihad’s sound – a sound that they came up with in Wellington in the late 80s and early 90s as a band who were just as influenced by Metallica as they were New Zealand’s own Skeptics.
“At the end of the day the spirit of the band was built around heavy music and that’s the nature of the beast at its best. That’s what we do most strongly I feel,” says Larkin.
When Toogood, Larkin, bass payer Karl Kippenberger and guitarist Phil Knight reconvened in Melbourne during the winter of 2013 for a lock down writing session it was a natural move to conjure up a brutal set of songs.
Then, last December, it was into York Street with Coleman – the British-born frontman of Killing Joke, producer, composer in residence at the Prague Symphonic Orchestra, and New Zealand resident – for a focused and fiery recording session to bring the songs to life.
Fair to say back in the CHURN days Shihad and Coleman couldn’t stand each other by the end of the recording session. His confrontational production style, in which he barked and screamed orders at the players as they recorded, and his volatile personality was hard to handle.
However, when Toogood and Larkin met Coleman at the Metal Hammer magazine awards a few years ago things had changed.
They got on so well that a plan was hatched for Coleman to produce what would become FVEY.
If anything, the new album is most like a combination of CHURN and 1995 follow up KILLJOY, with moments of seething intensity that recalls 2005’s LOVE IS THE NEW HATE. And with Coleman on board there’s the primitive post punk graunch and groove of Killing Joke thrown in too.
But really, the album sounds unlike anything Shihad have done before, which is not bad for a band who have been around for 25 years.
“I love that about it,” says Larkin. “It wasn’t our intension to recreate anything, it was about having Jaz and us at this point in time, and he would stand there like a conductor and drill us until we nailed the take. We all had to deliver simultaneously and if one of us stuffed up we’d start from the beginning again. So the amount of collective focus and determination was huge.
“I think on this album we’ve done a full circle where the band has found a method of working that we’re all ridiculously excited about. It feels like a collective rebirth about how we go about things and what we’re going to do. It’s a return to something darker and heavier.”
The album states its intension right from the outset with the relentless, chest-beating riffs and pounding heaviness of opener, ‘Think You’re So Free’, where Toogood shouts himself hoarse and haggard throughout. Up next is title track, FVEY, with its pummelling and torrid twang and Toogood spitting “They smile at your face, but fuck you later”. It’s a sentiment echoed on the chugging and sonic assault of ‘The Big Lie’ with lines like “whatever the truth we’re taking it, we’re letting them get away with it”.
It’s a beautifully raging and rumbling record but danceable and laced with grooves. Or as Toogood puts it: “It’s heavy but you move all the way through it. That’s what Jaz does, even the heavy stuff, he always makes sure you can dance to it.”
Coleman still yelled and screamed at them in the studio to coax and coerce unbridled and grunty performances out of the band, but this time round they were all on the same page.
Larkin: “The thing with a guy like Jaz Coleman coming in, he’s like a drill sergeant. That’s exactly what we need and we thrive off it. We’ve been doing it for over 25 years and we’re really good at it but Jaz put us outside our comfort zone and then magic happened.”
Toogood: “There is a really nice twist that we were the band that saw York Street in with Jaz, and 20 years after we’re the band to see the studio out with Jaz. He’s still edgy, he’s got heaps of energy, he’s still angry as fuck, and he still hates injustice.”
INJUSTICE is also something Toogood has been preoccupied with lately – and it’s a strong lyrical motif throughout the record.
“It’s been my whole trip over the last year or so. So Jaz was the perfect foil for me, because I knew what I wanted to say, and he encouraged me and he would come in and say, ‘Stop whining and fucking finish’. It was great because I need someone to tell me to stop whining.
“And I just wanted to talk about the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the ugly conclusion of free market capitalism when it goes fucking crazy without any constraints and how it’s a soulless and selfish, disgusting void.
“I’m sick of all those greedy fucks. I’m sick of people being coerced into voting for people who haven’t got their best interests at heart.
“My intension for the record was to illuminate that for myself and just to say what was in my head rather than grumbling about it on fucking Facebook,” says Toogood with a grin.
He’s raging yet reasoned on the album, and the intensity that goes into the words is perfect for the fiery and fearsome heaviness of the music.
Toogood has been through the best and worst of times in the last three years. This included an “ugly and disappointing” divorce from his first wife and the sad passing of his father. The beautiful measured thud of ‘Love’s Long Shadow’ is his deeply personal reflection on the death of his father seen through the eyes of his mum.
“It’s about sitting in a chair and there used to be two people there and now there’s only one. I feel more pain trying to empathize with her than I do about my own loss of my own father,” he says.
But he’s also experienced the best of times, like taking more responsibility for himself (“I grew up I think.”) and marrying his new wife Dana (“Someone who loves me for who I am.”).
The couple got married earlier this year in Dana’s homeland of Sudan and they featured on the front page of the country’s two national newspapers because they changed their marriage contract to include equal rights between men and women.
“There are a lot of women over there who get stuck in loveless marriages, and they can’t get a divorce until the man says it’s okay, meanwhile he can go off and marry and second wife,” says Toogood. “We were like, ‘No way’, so we made it completely equal.”
Not that he wants to be a poster boy for the underdog and standing up for injustice. “This is a personal record for me and I don’t have the answers. I’m still working things out.”