Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s Best Of series takes musical genres and categories and highlights our staff’s personal favorites. You can read more entries from this series here.
Going over the twelve entries we’ve selected as the cream of the musical loner crop, it’s amazing to see not only the variety of genres present, but the fact that such enormous, impactful music can come from a single individual. From guitar porn to one man black metal to a whole slew of electronic subgenres, these artists prove that “strength in numbers” may not apply to everyone. Because while this crew may not have been the most social group on the playground, they spent their alone time producing some of our favorite music and proving that collaboration isn’t a necessity for quality tunes. So without further ado, sit back and reminisce with us over our favorite one person projects, or enjoy discovering what any one of these twelve musicians has to offer. And of course, feel free to comment with further suggestions of exceptional musicians who handily do it all.
Ok, close your eyes. No, really, close your eyes. Good. Now, imagine you’re standing on a shore. It’s not the idyllic shore of a postcard but rather what a shore actually looks like. Now, the sea is at storm but for some reason the waves don’t reach you, the sea spray falling just short. However, the wind and the tinge of salt is exhilarating. In fact, your heart is doing about 100 BPM and your breathing is shallow. Right there, at the peak of your excitement and on that stony, cold shore, freeze frame everything. The picture then races out, out and above to about 20,000 feet where it rotates backwards to look at the sea in storm and you standing there by the shore, breathing quickly with fists clenched and sweating.
That’s Cloudkicker. Ben Sharp’s wizardry can only be described as a complete scene, a complex and intricate tapestry, because that’s how it is: it weaves, ducks, rolls, collapses and coalesces into new and beautiful forms. If you seek peace and grand beauty, go for Let Yourself Be Huge: its post-rock influenced melodies will scatter you and make your heart expand. Do you long for intimate, warm hummings? Woum holds all you need, a personal, close, fragile album that will charm you with its wiles. The Discovery is raw and primal, progressive in its honesty and delivery. Subsume is true to its album cover, sun glimpsed through hazy trees. Sharp has it all, kicking clouds left and right whether he handles bright mountain tops or deep, churning trenches of ocean.
If you want the ultimate Cloudkicker experience however, Beacons is where your heart pulls you. This album is a masterpiece of modern, instrumental music: it flirts with the chugged phrases of djent but mixes them with an infinity of leads, intricate drum lines and haunting synths. It is also Sharp’s heaviest work: dense, massive and breakneck, the album rarely slows down but instead pummels us with riff on top of riff on top of improvising leads. The “story”, shattered as it is and created only by the track titles, is of a confused and meaningless modernity, a philosophical wasteland. It is the waves in storm of our initial imagining; it is Cloudkicker at his best and a true beacon for one man bands, instrumental or otherwise.
Being a one-man band by necessity requires being skilled at many things. But even by those standards, Clément Belio is kind of a freak of nature. This young French native has been on our radar ever since the release of his epic and phenomenal album Contrast in 2014. Not only does the album showcase an impressive and wide-spanning array of musical styles and influences – from heavy Meshuggah chugging and riffage, to the more elaborate and operatic work of Devin Townsend, to the frenetic and bright jazz of Tigran Hamasyan (and even a direct quote from A Sense of Gravity) – but he manages to piece them together with a strong compositional voice all his own that moves well past mere homage and tribute. And not only that, but Belio truly fulfills the one-man band criteria as he performs all guitars (other than a couple of guest spots), most of the piano, all bass, and all drums with an almost maddening level of deftness.
The real surprise of Contrast though is the sheer depth and variety of sound Belio accomplishes. As the name suggests, it’s an album marked by wild fluctuations in style. It’s not unusual to jump from straight-forward metal riffage to jazz fusion to more progressive-minded metal and modern classical playing all within the span of a few tracks, sometimes even within the same track. Belio proves to be not just ambitious and impressive in composition, however, but also in arrangement, as he employs piano, horns, and strings at times to create a deeply rich tapestry of sounds that seems utterly antithetical to the entire one-man band enterprise. Belio does not seek to woo you with the most impressive technical playing or the most mind-spinning riffs, but instead seduces you with songs that are just fundamentally well-written, original, and most importantly, always interesting.
Thankfully for us, Clément shows few signs of slowing down this year. He’ll be releasing his first album as a full member of the heavy progressive fusion band Itzamna, and though there haven’t been any announcements of a new solo full-length yet, the man is constantly writing and releasing music in some form, most recently this delicious single called “Layerland.” You can be assured when the time comes for a new solo full-length we’ll be one of the first places (if not the first place) to write hysterically about it in anticipation.
David Maxim Micic
Modern progressive metal unfortunately continues to suffer from an apparent oversaturation of bands. While this is a testament to the subgenre’s appeal and the fact that its frequently DIY-based nature encourages fans to try and make their own music — often as one man outfits — it’s made the task of sticking out from the crowd somewhat difficult. But when someone does cut through and make a name, it’s for good reason, and David Maxim Micic’s work is a particularly excellent example of this. While some may know him primarily through his work with Destiny Potato, his five releases have enraptured the progressive metal world like few one man projects before him, and with the release of last year’s ECO/EGO, he’s quite clearly risen to the ranks of progressive metal stardom.
Such recognition does not come from naught. Although his works have often featured an abundance of guest artists, including our very own Dan Wieten on the gorgeous “Satellite” off ECO, Micic has increasingly demonstrated a uniquely measured grasp on songwriting in his usage of ambience and texturing, composing gorgeous soundscapes with immense attention to detail but in a way that still makes for effortless listening. But, soundscapes aside, the man can write a mean riff — the Bilo EPs in particular are loaded with some of the finest chops and leads to be found this side of progressive metal, drawing from a large host of influences but also staying true to his own musical voice in the interspersed piano lines and electronic touches. With ECO and EGO crowning his already solid discography, it goes without saying that no other consistently one-member progressive metal projects can claim the same kind of admiration Micic’s musical accomplishments demand.
It’s hard to believe that anything so harshly misanthropic as the power electronic works of Prurient could ever be made by one person. After all, it surely must be hard to keep such raw, powerful anger pented up inside at all times, only releasing it in sweet bursts of warped, disgusting sound on occasion. However, even with Prurient’s music being as raw and hate filled as it is, the mastermind behind it all, Dominick Fernow, understands that harsh walls of static noise only remain interesting for so long before having to deviate in some way to keep in unique and interesting.
Prurient does this in abundance, deviating from the typical, drone approach of much harsh wall noise to incorporate borderline synth-pop taglines as a way to contrast the raw hatred present in his black metal-esque vocal delivery and painful assaults of noise. It feels almost wrong to compare Fernow’s work to any other artist as it is so stylistically distinct and unique, certainly being uncopyable, but at the same time it is easy to hear a plethora of influences ranging anywhere from dark wave to black metal to some of Merzbow’s more experiment work (such as Merzbient or Merzbeat) in an abundance. All of these are then stirred into some unholy pot to make some of the most oddly difficult but interesting music ever created, pushing the listener to question why they might still be listening while constantly giving them something new to grab onto and become engaged in.
Prurient is the rarest of all in a genre made to turn listeners off in many ways, being both one of the most trying, testing artists, while also still (somehow) having by far one of the most accessible discographies in all of experimental extreme music. With Prurient, Dominick Fernow does not just test the limits of what music can be, but largely erases them, ignoring any conventions one may have and moving in whatever direction he deems appropriate.
Usually, the place where one-man projects fail is in their depth: either because one mind is not typically enough to fashion music that can fully and richly enfold enough idiosyncratic foibles and quirks, or because the person in question can only play so many instruments, one-man bands tend to fall apart because of the extreme focus on one aspect and disregard for others. It’s easy to get caught up in mediocrity and monotony when the only person in the music-writing process you have to satisfy is yourself.
However, there are certainly ways to circumvent these issues, and Austin Lunn’s long-running, uniquely American black metal project, Panopticon, shows that with the right amount of commitment to one’s own musical process, a good helping of technical knowhow, and a diverse knowledge of not only one, but all of the instruments you need, it is possible to truly become a one-man band. Lunn’s vision of American black metal has been around for quite some time and gone through many iterations; whether it’s the unfiltered hatred and rage of Social Disservices or the richly-textured synths and harmonicas that accompany much of Autumn Eternal, it’s hard to believe this is the product of one mind. If Lunn is one thing, he is persistent, and that tenet of forward motion pervades through his music, both in his forward-thinking attitude towards how he mixes and swirls together all the sounds of a full band into his singular focus and vision, and in how with his work, he is constantly striving to evolve his art form into something greater.
Panopticon is just as deep as any full band, if not even deeper, in both the way the many odds and ends of the process shape the art produced into a living, breathing, evolving creature, and in how much Lunn has to say on his own. If you’re searching for a one-man band that has the depth and breadth of a typical, full act, but benefits from the singular vision and focus of an individual, look no further: Panopticon is here for you.
Author & Punisher
When it comes to the term “one man band”, few projects take the name as literally as Tristan Shone’s Author & Punisher. From the ground up, A&P is entirely Shone’s creation; the instruments used for this drone-influenced industrial act are created by Shone himself thanks to his background in mechanical engineering. Whether it be a self-made microphone array, a sliding mechanical arm that triggers drum samples, or repurposed hodgepodge midi instruments, Shone’s independent limb movement builds a true one-man industrial jam session. Where other acts on this list tend to draw in session or touring musicians to help fill the void, everything on record or on the stage is Shone. Further, with each album cycle, Shone’s revolving-door setup gets an upgrade with yet another inventive means to induce noisey synths and samples. His latest invention? A collection of masks with their own voice modulation effects.
Gimmick (for the lack of a better word) aside, Shone’s music certainly shines on its own right as a welcomed twist on industrial music and doom alike. The Godflesh-cum-Sunn O))) sound perpetuated across the discography melds propulsive beats with swelling distorted synths to create an atmosphere of avant garde doom. Nine Inch Nails is even beginning to creep into the void as Shone experiments with piano and clean singing. Given Shone’s knack for engineering both sonically and mechanically, Author and Punisher have a breadth of possibilities of where he can go from here.
Though we give credit and mention to the prolific nature of Malefic’s work in this article as well, it can only be rivaled by the discography of Leviathan, the insanely dark black metal project led by Jef Whitehead (aka Wrest). With a catalog comprising of dozens of albums, demos, splits and singles, Leviathan has been an almost constant force in American black metal since Wrest first came onto the scene in the 90s. Since then, some of Leviathan’s output has gone on to be regarded as classics within the style. Whether it’s the chilling and claustrophobic atmosphere of the debut The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide, the avant-garde leanings of 2008’s Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, or Leviathan’s triumphant return with last year’s black/death metal monstrosity Scar Sighted, quality is almost always at an all-time high with this project.
No matter what year or what influences Wrest is tackling at the time, you can always be guaranteed as a listener that you’re going to be delving into a miserable and bleak sound. It’s one that will immediately make the listener feel isolated, upset, and sometimes hopeless. Sure, this may seem like a huge deterrent for some (and that’s probably the point), but the sense of catharsis and true anguish delivered throughout most of Leviathan’s career has been almost unrivaled in the past decade or so. Knowing Whitehead’s past and his attempt to take his own life back in the early 2000s gives these albums and even greater sense of misery and dread, one that most listeners will not soon forget.
It goes without saying that there has been a new wave of progressive metal and rock music. One could even argue that this new wave was spearheaded by bands such as Animals As Leaders and Scale The Summit, who both took prog and transformed it into something that could be understood as a whole without the need for vocal lines. While the genre has definitely experienced a shift, there is still a sense of harmony within the prog community, and many new bands have found ways to stand out and be interesting. Plini is no different. Hailing from Australia, he has successfully built up an extremely solid fan base and an even more stand out reputation as not only a top musician at the guitar, but also as a songwriter and humanitarian.
Listening to albums such as Sweet Nothings and The End Of Everything will highlight why. His scope for writing melodies seems to be unlimited, and his ability to craft beautiful pieces of instrumental music is a testament to that. His guitar work is not flashy or in any way meant to show off, but rather serves as a template for how songwriting, particularly for instrumental music, should be approached. Where songs would normally place vocals, he places some great guitar work, and even sometimes just lays back and generates a certain aura that makes each song a pure joy to listen to. In fact, his music make me smile every time I hear it, simply because that’s what it feels like he wrote the music for: to make us all smile.
He is also a very charitable man, having written two songs for the charity Raw Impact, with whom he has also volunteered numerous times. This is a man that not only cares about the music he creates for the world, but also about the people living in the world less fortunate than him. It’s remarkable to see how one man can achieve so much in so little time, but Plini has done it. My only hope is that he can continue to do this for a long time, because a world without new music from Plini is not a world I want to live in.
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Planning for Burial
One man bands tend to be hit or miss in some cases, mainly because it’s such a one-track mind. In other cases, that one-track mind can be full of a plethora of ideas and soundscapes. This is exactly the case for the (now) Pennsylvania-based shoegaze/drone/gloom artist Planning For Burial. Thom/Planning For Burial has an expansive catalogue of music that is still growing, but each release is different from the last, yet still keeping that drone/gloom essence alive. Like with most drone/doom projects, the music is repetitive, but that is by no means an insult. Planning For Burial’s songs are repetitive, but keeps the listener engaged in the music with layers on top of layers, and so on, as well as including a stanza’s worth of lyrics in most songs. Other songs of his are either instrumental or have enough lyrics to carry out through most of the song, as well as repetition of lyrics. For example, he repeats the lyrics in the song “Being A Teenager and the Awkwardness of Backseat Sex” over and over for the last two minutes of the song, and it’s only a sentence long. In my opinion, Planning For Burial has a very unique form of drone/gloom music, and is one of my favorite depressive, dark, drone artists.
I think his darkest song/lyrics is the song “Verse/Chorus/Verse”, and the lyrics are as follows: “Dress me in my best prom dress. I want to look good in my coffin. Thank you and goodnight. Farewell, my friends.” I remember first hearing that a few years ago when I first started listening to Planning For Burial, and it just sent chills down my spine. After finally seeing him perform live in the summer of 2013, it changed everything for me and I instantly became more of a fan of his work. His latest release, Desideratum, is probably the more accessible album for those who want to get more into gloom bands, and is one of my favorite albums, followed by its predecessor (that I believe ultimately put Planning For Burial on the map), Leaving.
Other than the general meaning of “one man band,” only one of these words accurately describes the nature of Pharmakon, the solo death industrial project of Ms. Margaret Chardiet. In a genre dominated by men, Chardiet achieves feats with her music that establish her as at least a peer – and realistically a leader – in the art of tortured sonics. But to call Chardiet’s work as Pharmakon “music” is misleading; her art must be experienced, not merely heard. And in this way, Pharmakon isn’t a “one man band,” but a one person project capturing the the most visceral elements of the human mind, body and soul. In Greek, Pharmakon means both “poison” and “cure,” and in the case of Chardiet’s music, this translates into the embracing of the poison of life and the reality of death in order to find the cure of acceptance regarding both.
Chardiet hinted at this with Abandon, her exceptional 2013 debut topped with a cover depicting her fully alive but playing with maggots and graveyard flowers. Painfully morose and unsettling, the record churns and thuds within every corner of the mind, and quickly pulled the Pharmakon name from out of the underground. But then the art of depicting death became an actual struggle, as a cyst in Chardiet’s body threatened organ failure and possibly death just before a European tour meant to support the release of Abandon. And while her debut has no lack of pain, the creative response Chardiet had to her flirtation with death – entitled bestial Burden – brought the concept of Pharmakon to another level. Whereas Abandon is an excellent attempt at capturing death, Bestial Burden is the actual embodiment of mortal aftershocks. When Chardiet hyperventilates on opening track “Vacuum,” you can feel the experience of cold, frantic air jolting to and fro along your windpipe. When she vomits and heaves on “Primitive Struggle,” the taste of puke swirls in your stomach and jabs at your tongue. And when she shrieks in panicked anguish through walls of oppressive noise, you can’t help but cringe and ache while the fetal position becomes your new best friend.
None of this is meant to be hyperbolic; at a bare minimum, a Pharmakon record will leave you feeling uncomfortable, if not profoundly perturbed and physically ill. Chardiet may be a young musician with only two full-lengths, but she has a bright future of capturing the bleakest sounds imaginable. It’s safe to expect a new Pharmakon record in the near future, but I wouldn’t describe myself as “prepared” for it; not in the least. I intend to engulf myself in Chardiet’s next sonic statement and see what levels of tangible torment she’ll drag men into next.
DSBM. Sounds kinky, doesn’t it? Not very. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite of fun, and embraces insularity, sadness, and nihilism more than any other subgenre of music in history. We’re talking about depressive-suicidal black metal; more specifically Xasthur, arguably the most well known “band” within the subgenre. Scott Conner (known as “Malefic”) unintentionally spearheaded an underground movement of one-man black metal bands and fans of the style by harnessing the bleak atmosphere and melodic sensibilities of bands like Burzum and Weakling and adding a deeper layer of despair within his lyrics. He eventually tweaked his sound to incorporate severely dissonant melodies based on slightly out of tune guitars, and experimented with acoustic guitar near the first dissolution of the project.
Malefic was incredibly prolific, putting out nine albums and two singles between 2002 and 2012 and doing various guest appearances, highlights of which include the first album by black metal “supergroup” ’s Black One. Perhaps his level of contribution to the music world was due to the cathartic release inherent in such emotionally demanding music. Whatever the case, we are thankful. It is apparent from the gate that he is not the most technically proficient musician, and for this many people write his music off as nothing but talentless noise. Too bad for them, because Xasthur is pure art in its most literal definition, so much so that for many it can only be ingested in small doses because of the visceral and uncomfortable feelings the music induces.
Where to start? Anywhere really. If you’re a sucker for seeing the artistic progression of the musician then by all means start at the beginning with Nocturnal Poisoning (which would be the moniker for his post-Xasthur acoustic project, which is now just called Xasthur again). Portal of Sorrow is the best example of the later acoustic style he began to embrace, but is far from just being “Xasthur Unplugged”. The atmosphere is still incredibly dismal within the chord structures and melodies but the tones are just a bit easier on the ears. As a matter of fact, the clean and acoustic tones just make everything that much more eerie. The self-titled EP is great if one doesn’t have the mental and emotional capacity to withstand a full-fledged listening experience but just needs a dose of hatred and anguish. The pinnacle of the band’s career is undoubtedly 2007’s Subliminal Genocide, highlighted by the nearly thirteen minute ‘Prison of Mirrors’, which is the aural equivalent to a schizophrenic person whose every personality hates them with a passion. Be afraid.
Nine Inch Nails
Nowadays we’re used to the idea of music projects run by one person; we’ve got bands like Leviathan, Saor, and Author & Punisher who have been redefining what one person can do with modern metal. Trent Reznor, however, was one of the first metal musicians to really find success with a solo act, and he has put out consistently solid albums since the debut of Nine Inch Nails’s Pretty Hate Machine in 1989. He’s experimented with industrial and electronic music throughout his career with albums like Ghosts I-IV and even won an Academy Award for Best Score for his work on The Social Network.
In my opinion, Reznor’s best work is a close tie between 1999’s The Fragile and 2007’s Year Zero, with The Fragile just managing to scoot ahead. Here is an album—a double album, at that—that takes the depression- and drug-fueled darkness of Nine Inch Nails’s previous effort, The Downward Spiral and brings it to new heights, experimenting with a lot of different ideas along the way, including more forays into ambient music.
Honestly, it’d be redundant to go into Reznor’s history further. The man has been able to bring a signature form of twisted darkness into all of his music, all the while progressing his sound over and over again. Instead of looking to Trent Reznor’s past, we should look towards the future. There’s a new NIN album planned for this year, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that Trent Reznor doesn’t disappoint.