J Robinson (Noisey / VICE) “One Man Metal” (2012)
An interesting if bare-bones three-part documentary, this film looks at three one-man black metal acts: Leviathan, Striborg and Xasthur as interviewed by the Noisey / VICE reporter J Robinson. The artists talk about their music, how they were attracted to black metal and why they decided to record solo, playing all instruments on their albums and other recordings. Why did they strike out on their own, what inspires them and why do they live, work and compose and play music on their own, deliberately cutting themselves off from other people? Why do they not perform live but concentrate on writing music and playing and recording it for small audiences?
Not all these questions are answered but the three artists take Robinson and the audience into their worlds and we see something of the isolation, physical, psychological and spiritual, that surrounds them. Russell Menzies aka Sin Nanna who heads the Striborg project refers to the rural and wilderness surroundings of his farm home and how nature inspires him and his music. Jef Whitehead aka Wrest of Leviathan and Lurker of Chalice and Scott Conner aka Malefic of Xasthur may live in urban surrounds (Oakland and Alhambra in California respectively) but their inner worlds are also very isolated as they deal with personal pain and other demons in their lives. Of the three, Menzies / Sin Nanna comes across as goofy and eccentric, the most well-adjusted who happens to have a hobby his rural neighbours don’t understand; Jef Whitehead is a tragic figure who has had to deal with an unstable childhood and family life, personal tragedy and depression which led to a suicide attempt; and Scott Conner appears as a lost child, perhaps stuck in an immature phase still, in the body of a twenty or thirtysomething man.
The three artists are very guarded about their lives and personas, and we should perhaps take much of what they and Noisey say with a pinch of salt. Whitehead opened up a great deal about his life and experiences; by comparison, Conner preferred to talk about his music and influences, and what he’d like to do in the future. It seems that at some crucial point in their childhoods, Whitehead and Conner were spurned by people at home, in school or elsewhere, and from that moment they were lost. They exist on the fringes of society, eking out a living: Whitehead has a day-job as a tattoo artist while Conner doesn’t reveal what he does to pay his bills or if he exists on welfare. One interesting aspect about these men as musicians is that while their spare time revolves around music, they don’t invest heavily in musical gadgetry or gabble at length about their technical skills and what their instruments and equipment are capable of.
The entire documentary is filmed in black and white which shows up the dreariness of Conner’s surroundings and shrouds Wrest in shadow. Although Conner seems likeable and talks easily with Robinson, and is affectionate with a black cat that wanders into his room, it’s possible that in the past he had health issues which prevented him from experiencing normal social development and hindered his entry into the rat race. The film makes no attempt to ask what it is about American society today that leaves so many people like Whitehead and Conner adrift. The scenes with Menzies show off the mysterious beauty of his Tasmanian temperate forest home; while some viewers might wish these scenes had been filmed in colour, the monochromatic filming emphasises the close bond between Menzies and nature.
Had the film had a bigger budget, Robinson might have delved more deeply into the musicians’ song-writing and the creative processes they adopt when composing and recording, plus he might have roped in other one-man black metal acts like Judas Iscariot, Krieg, Draugar, Sapthuran, Petrychor and Oskoreien to find out what it is about black metal that attracts so many loners and why in particular so much black metal about isolation, depression and despair is created by so many one-man American acts.