ONE MAN BANDS
Varg & Trent & Al
Lone Wolves of Industrial/Metal
by T.K. McNeil
When one hears the term "one-man-band," absurd images of Dick Van Dyke with an awful cockney accent (in the original Mary Poppins) is usually what pops into most people's heads. At least those who are of a certain age. Not an image that lends itself easily to metal or industrial music. That's despite the recent jokes about Death Metal sounding like "Cookie Monster and a one man band falling down the stairs."
Despite such close-minded flippancy, Metal and industrial have a long, proud history of bands that, if not made up of a single member, have one main person who is in charge of every aspect of the creative process. The most obvious example of this later case is Nine Inch Nails. Started by Trent Reznor in 1988, the act has long had Reznor at its creative core, often seeing him play all the instruments himself when it comes to recording. For touring, he would hire a cast of backing musicians to play all the parts that he couldn't, having been cursed with having only two hands. It is a similar situation with Ministry. Despite technically being a multi-piece band, those pieces have changed at regular intervals, founder Al Jourgensen being the only consistent member (though Paul Barker had been his long-time partner in crime in the late '80's and early '90's).
Despite both acts being very unique in their own way, there are certain similarities between NIN and and Ministry. This particularly shows in terms of guitar tone and the noticeable use of synthesizers and samples. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that both bands fall within the "Industrial" sub-genre and there are only so many steel barrels one can hit with hammers. This also helps in terms of playback, synthesizers, particularly in the early days, coming outfitted with sampling, recording and playback capabilities. This is similarity is particularly clear on the tracks "Wish" by Nine Inch Nails and "NWO" by Ministry.
Another act strongly associated with Metal is Burzum. The stage name of Varg Vikernes, Burzum first came to attention in 1991 and was part of the initial push of Black Metal in Norway, the genre originating in Britain with bands such as Venom. Unlike Reznor, Vikernes always did everything himself, writing, recording, producing and publishing all his records on which he played all the instruments and provided all the vocals. He also never performed live, his entire creative output being limited to records.
Despite being separated from Reznor not only by age but also culture, nationality and genre, there are elements of Burzum's sound that are common to NIN. This is particularly true of later work by both artists, Reznor and Vikernes following similar career trajectories. While early NIN was recognizably Industrial, tracks such as "Hurt" deviate from this greatly, not to mention his most recent album which, while it still has an edge, is closer to Dark Electro. Burzum similarly started out representing Norwegian black metal in all its hellish glory, employing guitar tones, layering techniques and intensity similar to that of both Reznor and Jourgensen. This is particularly clear on his self-titled 1992 album. Twenty-three years and a lengthy prison sentence later, however, Vikernes shook the black Metal world with the album Fallen. While still featuring the relentless, buzz-saw guitar tones of his earlier work, his technique improved exponentially as did his sense of harmonics and counter-points, layering and opposing riffs and vocals in a truly masterful way. This was before going full Ambient, which had long been an element of his work but became front and centre on tracks like "Der Tod Wuotans."
The craving for independence has not ended however. If anything it has gotten stronger and new advances in recording and playback looping technology, particularly in terms of pedals, have allowed more musicians to do it themselves, creating their own vision their way. Acts like Eneferens from the USA, Boreal Tundra from Canada and Spectral Lore from Greece are adding new dimensions to what trailblazers like Reznor and Vikernes managed to do back when the available technology was less than hospitable, while also staying true to their roots. Following in Burzum's boot stomps in more ways than one is the Norwegian musician Mathias Hemmingby, the core of the digital-based independent music project Eldamar which he started in 2015. Having the benefit of hindsight, Henningby combines several elements of those who have gone before. Earthquake like guitars and bass sounds, pile-diver drums and celestial keyboards counter-pointed with death scream vocals in the background all often over-laid with sweet, near operatic female vocal sounds, combining the two extreme ends of careers like those of Reznor and Vikernes into one, unified sound. It should be contradictory and is certainly counter-intuitive but, then again, so is the idea of a "band" made up a single member.
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