Many people are quick on the trigger to cry fowl when they notice recognizable influences in rock artists. Were they to be employed as time-traveling originality police, they’d be arresting Elvis, the Beatles, and pretty much every artist ever who got their start by covering favorite artists and paying direct homage to their influences. Given that the genre of rock music values such references to important architects, these people come off as ridiculous. The drubbing of Savages is one of the most recent examples. The irony is that most of them wouldn’t recognize innovation if it were whacking them in the face with their naughty bits. Author & Punisher and Wardruna are two such artists who have remained largely under the radar, despite making some fascinating music in new ways. Both create their own instruments, but in completely different ways. Author & Punisher’s Tristan Shone applies his engineering background by creating elegantly simple, but powerful sound machines. Norway’s Wardruna apply their studies in ancient runes and create new interpretations of hand made folk instruments. Both have backgrounds in heavy metal, a genre that is often derided for being backwards-looking, but is in fact a fertile ground for innovation. Both have been working years on their craft, creating stunning music without a lot of attention. This is hopefully starting to change.
Author & Punisher
While in school in New York and then working as an engineer in Boston, Tristan Shone moonlighted as a metal musician at night. Unable to keep up with that schedule, tinkering with a headbanging robot gave him the idea that he could merge his two passions more efficiently. His first invention was Throttles in 2006, a simple dual-pitch controller built to create some crushing bass frequencies.
Deciding his original one-man-band setup with a laptop was “lame,” he moved to pedals, and while figuring out how to play everything else, “it just dawned on me, okay, I have to make everything.” Given his preference for heavy doom and drone, he chose to aim more towards weight than efficiency, solid but beautiful machines made from wood and steel with physical moving parts and giant knobs.
When Shone began performing with his machines as Author & Punisher, he experienced some dissonance between two distinct worlds — playing in dirty rock and metal clubs, and in art galleries next to the wine and cheese. He honed his performance in rock shows, but had to be careful not to get in a rut and lose the improvised aspects. And in art venues, he often felt marginalized and out of his element, like a graffiti artist painting on canvas.
The most important challenge would be to create some compelling music that wasn’t just clinical demonstrations of the features of his sound machines. His Bandcamp page documents his progress since 2005. When I first heard Ursus Americanus (2012), I didn’t know much about Shone’s backstory, but still found the album a refreshing twist on heavy drone-doom, with sounds industrial fans would be impressed by. The new Women & Children is an even more impressive step forward.
Wardruna rose from the ashes of Norwegian black metal outfit Gorgoroth, founded in 2003 by Einar ‘Kvitrafn’ Selvik (multi-instrumentalist/builder), Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal (vocals, clothing design, former jailbird who used to shock with talk of blood rituals, then came out as gay in 2008) and singer Lindy-Fay Hella. They sound nothing like black metal, nor like any of the pagan folk metal bands littering Scandinavia (many who are totally great). Inspired by Kvitrafn’s study of the 24 runes known as the Elder Futhark, he builds and plays all the instruments like the Kraviklyra, tagelharpe, mouth harp, goat horn, lur and more. The sounds of some of these instruments had not been heard for hundreds of years. They sing in Norwegian, Old Norse and even Proto-Norse tongue, often recording outdoors and in the forest.
They completed the first album, Gap Var Ginnunga of the planned Runaljod trilogy in 2009, and Yggdrasil in May 2013, which is even more frightening and beautiful than the first, and features guest appearances by renowned Icelandic composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Iceland’s leading rímur singer Steindór Andersen. They have developed a formidable live show that sound like an event unlike anything you can find today according to accounts of performances like the one in front of 100-year-old Gokstad ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway. A deluxe version of the new album with a 32 page digibook and Jörmungandr/Sun-wheel necklace is available on their site. The last installment of the trilogy will be called Ragnarok. By then they should hopefully have an exponentially large audience anticipating it.
Another band that’s bending genre boundaries between metal, noise, electronica, goth and industrial with striking originality is Pinkish Black. I will write more about the keyboards, synths and drums duo once I hear their upcoming album, Razed To The Ground, out on September 24 on Century Media.