What image automatically pops in your head when you hear the phrase "One man band"? Perhaps you imagined an attention-whoring drifter who plays acoustic guitar on street corners, antagonizing tourists. Maybe you visualized a blemished, virginal Elliot Smith imitator singing curdled odes to the women who reject him. Or you imagined a noise artist, that sadistic breed of loner who creates sound collages between stints in the mental hospital. Finally, there are DJs, those pretend musicians whose rapid-fire wrist movements and acumen with the Mac are coincidentally the same talents needed to quickly locate and masturbate to Internet pornography.
If you are fan of metal, in particular extreme metal, you had none of those folks in mind. Thanks to its inherent can-do attitude and a nearly paralyzing attention to detail, metal has spawned solo acts whose music is just as explosive and engaging as the efforts of an entire band. Read on for our list of the Ten Best Solo Metal Acts.
See also: The 10 Best Metal Duos
Jake Rogers of Salt Lake City accomplishes two unthinkable tasks with his band Gallowbraid. He plays genuinely melodic black metal and lives openly in Utah despite his music being the antithesis of all things Latter Day Saints. Either those Mormons are supremely tolerant or Gallowbraid is accessible enough to avoid detection (we're guessing it's the latter). Rogers' only LP, Ashen Eidolon, meets all the brutal quotas yet his loose, cymbal-driven drumming and catchy guitar leads make it just as appealing to fans of less abrasive metal.
We're almost tired of thinking about this next guy but we like to give respect where it's due. As sole member of Burzum, the lanky Norwegian delinquent Varg Vikernes is one of the first people to play black metal as we know it. Varg is also a self-proclaimed pagan warrior who in 1993 knifed a former bandmate to death and allegedly burned down three churches to protect his fellow pagans against Norway's population of 486 elderly Christians. You can learn more about his miniature crime spree in the book "Lords of Chaos" or the documentary "Until the Light Takes Us." Then you can jump on the comments section and argue about which one tells the "real story" of Varg. Get to it!
Although you can hear in them the blueprint for much of today's darkest metal, Burzum's early records are less immediately affecting than those of his peers, namely, Darkthrone. It's Burzum's ambient records, made with a keyboard and tape recorder in prison, that we like best. Check out 1997's "Dauði Baldrs," a layered and contemplative soundscape perfect for plotting your very own arson spree or, if you're feeling ambitious, massacre of Internet writers who make fun of your metal heroes.
8. October Falls
Finland's Mikko Lehto, aka October Falls, take a somber and depressive approach to black metal, meaning his crunchy vocals are interspersed with thoughtfully grinding rhythm guitars and sparse, almost bluesy leads. Parts of his latest, "The Plague of a Coming Age," remind us of black metal as performed by someone who ingested a megadose of painkillers and in his stupor decided to hit the studio, songwriting skills intact. Purists might find some of it a bit too casual, but we think the deliberate pacing and extra anguish in the vocals amplify the hypnotic aspects of every song. Dim the lights during the next thunderstorm and play this on your headphones, and you'll see what we mean.
Originally a full band, Bathory had so many personnel changes that it eventually became the solo project for guitarist and vocalist Quorthon (Tomas Forsberg), who died in 2004. In its time, Bathory tackled several genres, playing thrash and black metal before settling on Viking metal, a folksy sub-genre that celebrates the hard-drinking longhairs of antiquity who raped around Western Europe. Sound grim? Sure is! Even the band name is vicious. Bathory, as any informed vulgarian will tell you, refers to an infamous 17th century countess who tried to retain her youthful looks by bathing in the blood of murdered peasants. We would have advised her to use Oil of Olay if we lived back then, but as discussed earlier, we are not ferocious pagan warriors.
6. The Ruins of Beverast
Doom artist The Ruins of Beverast has released four albums in the last 10 years, a more industrious schedule than those of bands with five times the personnel. Songwriter Alexander von Meilenwald lays on the occult atmospherics so thick we regrettably have no choice but to use horror novel language to describe his work. Sorry, Alexander: "The corrosive atmosphere and pummeling riffs evoke images of skinless, disembodied hands crawling up your leg." Or, if you'd prefer, we can knock off the Stephen King shenanigans and just say that his second album, Rain Upon the Impure, is a criminally neglected classic of blackened doom.
5. Gnaw Their Tongues
Maurice de Jong, the lone Dutchman behind Gnaw Their Tongues, describes himself as a demon channeler and decorates his bandcamp page with S&M photos and woodcuts of Lucifer. Fittingly, his music sounds exactly like what you'd hear after a marathon Ouija board session opens a portal to hell in your bedroom. De Jong makes his blend of black metal, tape loops, and twisted drones at a prolific rate so there's no shortage of his material to check out. Just keep in mind that he is strictly about being a nasty, Satanic son of a bitch and not ironic enjoyment. We regret we didn't know about him in high school and had to rely on Slayer and Deicide to mortify our mothers.
4. Sivyj Yar
Vladimir, sole member of this Russian band, describes his music as black metal but we respectfully disagree. On "From the Dead Village's Darkness," Sivyj Yar does employ scathing vocals like the finest bands in face paint, but his music is otherwise more complex. Sivyj Yar is actually a mid-tempo metal band in the vein of A Perfect Circle that incorporates black metal intensity and technique into its larger sound. Take the song "Distant Haze Was Arising," which amazingly accommodates blast beats and a guitar part reminiscent of The Cure's "Fascination Street." More than anyone on this list, Sivyj Yar is evocative of several people with slightly opposing agendas working on the same goal. In other words, the mysterious Vladimir adopts a different identity for each instrument and plays the living shit out of them all, making him either a profoundly gifted or fractured personality. We hope it's the former, because we'd love to more from him soon.
One could be glib and say Saor merely grafts Celtic mob choruses and flexible arrangements on top of the black metal formula. A closer listen shows Saor to possess a deep appreciation of metal, rock and world music history. "A Highland Lament" is a 14-minute, moody epic that mixes phlegmy shouts and brutal guitar with strings and flutes, the latter two mirroring the guitar without sounding a bit out of place. Eventually this pleasing sonic clusterfuck collapses into an interlude of whispered verses and melodic bass. Strings, flutes, hooky basslines...what gives? Saor is almost too fancy. At its most indulgent, the music can resemble a classed-up soundtrack to "The Hobbit," but just as Saor gives their all to the D&D sequences, so do they deliver on the harsher, cathartic parts. You can call them folk metal or you can call them atmospheric, but just don't make our mistake and call Saor "them," because remember, Saor is just one guy: Andy Marshall of Scotland.
2. Woods of Desolation
The critics like to get cute and call it blackgaze, but to us Woods of Desolation, fronted by an Australian known only as D, plays a hybrid of black metal and the swinging instrumental rock of Explosions in the Sky. D's latest, "As the Stars," has plenty of anguished growls and blast beats but the shimmery guitar tones redirect that nihilism into an inspiring reinterpretation of extreme music. The typical black metal guitar part is the audio equivalent of crude oil; Woods of Desolation is the cleaner unleaded gasoline you sniff with abandon as you fill up your jalopy. If the song "Unfold" doesn't have you pumping a fist within 40 seconds, you are deaf, comatose or built entirely out of microchips and plastic.
The geeks at various indie rock blogs have red-tipped boners for this guy, and so do we (note: our boners are larger, firmer and more likely to spend time with a quality lady than the boners of our peers at stereogum). Why do we share the love for Panopticon? Listen to the song "Chase the Grain." We could describe its weird guitar tunings and collage-like production with our usual five-dollar words but the only apt description here is "happy mind fuck."
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Panopticon is dark enough to warrant inclusion on our list of metal bands, but Panopticon is more than metal. Harping on its sinister qualities does founder Austin Lunn a serious injustice because his ambitions go beyond scaring, shredding, and rocking. Panopticon records are designed to build worlds or at the very least, start cults. Lunn incorporates samples, bluegrass instruments and even free jazz into structures that are cinematic in scope yet never meandering. If some bands make great music for jogging, Panopticon makes great music for doing Cross Fit on DMT.
So who is this guy? One of our friends theorized he is a musically gifted schizophrenic man who goes off his meds long enough to harness his chaotic illness for songwriting. We doubt that callow theory because Lunn hews to a strong internal logic just like the best computer programs and TV private eyes. Panopticon offers a scrupulous intensity designed to thrill the listener rather than overwhelm with gimmicky shake-ups. At his best, he expands not only the definition of what is called metal, but what we call music.