Editor’s note: We are big on Space Rock in this Shithole of a Website (TM). It’s probably the combination of shoegaze emotions and posthardcore sensibilities that make this genre such a joy to listen to. Hum, Failure, Castor, The Life and Times, Shiner, Withershins, Centaur, Vast Robot Armies, Withershins, Gazelle, National Skyline…you name ’em, we love ’em.
When we heard that Shiner was re-releasing 2000’s Starless, our wallets suffered explosive decompression. As money flew by, I managed to get Jason Thomson (Vast Robot Armies) to write a bit about the album. A quick message session with Withershins‘ Isaac Arms reminded me that this was due a while ago, so let’s not waste more time with intros…
Jason Thomson: Shiner was one of my transition bands. Throughout key points of my life there have been bands, and more specifically albums, that have brought an abrupt halt to what I was currently listening to, and spurred me onto a whole new path. Bands like Genesis, The Cure, Ratt (I know) and Jane’s Addiction & Drive Like Jehu. Shiner, it seems was the last band to have that sort of impact. I’ve been a fan of many bands since, but they were the last band that caused me to re-think my own approach in listening and writing music.
Shiner came to me from an old bandmate, in the form of their last album, The Egg. He played me the songs ‘The Egg’ and ‘Surgery’, I was immediately intrigued. So the very next day I went to Sam The Record Man’s (at the time a Toronto landmark for records) and looked for the album my buddy played for me. As it turns out my buddy had bought the last copy. But they did have an album, that’s cover caught my eye. It was a heavily washed out photo of a man in a white suit with a white crown standing on the edge of a tall building. It was called Starless. I decided to grab it. This was a time when Discman’s were still a thing. I loved walking the city with headphones on and just letting records play themselves out as I meandered from place to place.
The first song, ‘Spinning’, filled my earbuds and I thought to myself, this is something different. Though, admittedly It didn’t quite grab me yet. It was the next song (as it turns out) that began the process of the hooks sinking in. ‘Giant’s Chair’ starts with an odd rhythmic helicopteresque pulse with some random synth notes colouring it (I’ve always meant to ask Allen what they did to get that effect), and then, the moment. The wall of sound, the crushing guitars and bass drop the halftime down beat of the song’s opening verse. As I recall, the first time I heard this, I had one of those, stop in the middle of a sidewalk, headphones on, and a lean forward and a under breath muttering of “Oh man…” It was (and still is) brilliant. By the time the chorus hit, and all my synapses were firing. I wanted to get to band practice and say
“We’ve been doing it all wrong...”
“Hey Chuck..this is your cousin Marvin, Marvin Berry. You know that sound you’ve been looking for ? Ya, well listen to THIS!”
That was what ‘Giant’s Chair’ was for me. The melancholy vocal and counter uplifting nature of the guitar melody in chorus is still something that fascinates and eludes me.
I let the rest of the record play out. ‘Kevin Is gone’ followed. It’s constant movement and brilliant refrain within the chorus was stunning to me. The thought that one could back off slightly in a chorus but still deliver intensity wasn’t something that occurred to my young ears. The acoustic intro of ‘Unglued’ with its stark vocal line off top was the perfect segue out of ‘Kevin Is Gone’.
One by one the songs pushed me to listen to the next with completely captivated ears. I had no idea where I had walked at this point. It didn’t matter. ‘The Arrangement’ and ‘Glass Jaw Test’, finally gave way to what (to this day) is one of my island songs. ‘Semper Fi’. The title couldn’t have been better. The delayed, almost duelling guitar effect of the intro giving way to another unexpected and again brilliant half-time rhythm of the drums and bass to lay the foundation to the verses. I once mentioned that ‘Semper Fi’ and ‘My Last Hostage’ (The Life and Times) are amazingly clever and perfectly structured pop songs (at their heart) but wrapped in a unique sound and approach. I stand by that. The rest of the album played out the dark tones of ‘Lazy Eye’ and then ‘Rearranged’, gave way to a more major (and criminally overlooked by fans of this record) ‘Too Much of Not Enough’. Then finally the end arrived in the form of the title track. So, dark, so beautiful and so perfect. ‘Starless’ (the song) was a master-stroke of the closing song. The sequencing of this record was only out done by the fantastic music that was within it. – Jason.
Meanwhile, on Facebook:
-Hey, Isaac, could I get you to write a short bit about Starless?
-I came to Starless late. [Withershins’ Neil Yeager] introduced me. I had Splay when I was quite young. Mostly what I would say is it stands as a testament of Post-hardcore for me in that the guitars are so gnarly, but unlike most music I listen to, I am most enamoured of the drums and vocals. The drums are so huge and creative, and the vocals are beautiful but bleak. There’s a sardonic nihilistic quality, almost sneering, yet lamenting.
Last time I wrote about Shiner, I neglected to mention that I arrived late to the Shiner party. Really late. I heard The Life & Times before Shiner. It was a chilly 2005 and after depleting my collection of TLAT, serendipity pushed me towards ‘Third Gear Scratch’. I limewired my way through Shiner‘s hits and megahits and eventually got my buccaneer hands on a used copy of Starless (cheers, Amazon Marketplace.) I’ve mentioned that The Egg was a meeting point between Shiner and TLAT, and I think Starless is Shiner at their fiercest.
Sure, there’s very atmospheric moments in the record, with the prime example being the the pensive ‘The Arrangement’, but this is a vertiginous ride through emotions. ‘Giant’s Chair’ is a bonafide example of Shiner being perfect, with the frailness in the vocals juxtaposed with a flaming wall of guitars, bass and Jason Gerken‘s drumming.
Pop quiz, hotshot: can 2 guitars fill a room? Allen Epley and Josh Newton know the answer is yes. ‘Spinning’ manages to do so without feeling like you’ve stumbled into an episode of Hoarders. The impeccable guitar work through Starless serves a purpose: never too technical, but far, far away from basic.
Even when the album gets weird, the sometimes overlooked magic of bass is clearly there, watching you, ready to pounce. Paul Malinowski‘s bass is never buried and it comes up front during ‘Kevin is gone’, shepherding the wild beasts into an ordered chaos. The understated beauty of ‘The Arrangement’, my favourite track, is when Paul‘s bass creates a momentum (around the 2:30 mark) that helps the song seep through your pores. It’s THE moment I truly feel in love with Shiner. The fact that I listened to this song a day after a funeral gives it a special feeling attached to it.
Jason mentioned how the second half of Starless is sometimes overlooked and I agree 100% with him. ‘Semper Fi’ and ‘Lazy Eye’ are granite-solid tracks and ‘Too much of not enough’ is Shiner going for a harmonious cacophony; sounds overlap, tone increases and a sense of everything coming down is accomplished. We are rewarded with the trippy ‘Starless’, that showcases a kinder approach that still grips experimentation with iron fists.
The white king might be alone. Surrounded. His face displays an acceptance of the inevitable checkmate. Yet he stands prideful, with a serenity displaying that no matter what you throw at him, he’s had worse. It solidifies that it’s always good to be king (but it’s never good to be me.)
Starless vinyl re-issue can be purchased here.
Words: Jason Thomson, Isaac Arms & Sam J. Valdés López