From the lyrics of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” to the cover of Voivod’s Nothingface, extreme music has long explored humanity’s struggle with technology. This conflict can inform a dystopian concept album like Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails as easily as an abstract noise collage like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Even on a continuum this expansive, the ominous dirges of Author & Punisher stand out.
But the man behind the machinery isn't as bleak as his art. Tristan Shone has been steamrolling a prolific path since 2004. Shone is a trained engineer with an MFA in Kinetic Sculpture, and currently works as a researcher at UC San Diego. He’s an archetypical rock tinkerer and fashions one-of-a-kind musical instruments with names like Trachea Quad Mic, Linear Actuator, and Dither Mask: monikers as menacing as the sounds they produce.
Beastland, Author & Punisher’s 10th release, is a concise 38-minute blast of dense electro-doom metal. It’s a post-apocalyptic streetfight set in a crumbling city, the avenues drenched by decades of downpour. It’s also packed with Shone’s most refined songcraft to date—the vocals hooks are pronounced while still managing to sound unhinged. “The Speaker is Systematically Blown” and “Ode to Bedlam” boast bona fide choruses, while the closing title track delivers a slow-building storm of crashing electronics, the likes of which first brought Author & Punisher attention. Bolstered by robust promotion courtesy of Relapse Records, Beastland should widen Author & Punisher’s audience considerably.
In the often hidebound metal landscape, Shone is an opinionated outsider. Speaking with Noisey on the phone, he offers pithy statements on everything from playing a Satanic Temple event (“a bunch of wacky progressives who don't want people impinging on their rights”) to 3D printing (“not a huge fan, I wish people would learn to mill things”). Ever the dissenter, he reserves special bile for a particular musical trend. “I hate the fact that every heavy band seems to have a modular synth guy now,” Shone says. “It’s like when all the nu-metal groups had a DJ onstage with them in the 90s.”
He also doesn’t mince words when discussing Author & Punisher’s move to Relapse after departing Phil Anselmo’s Housecore Records. “He paid for the things he did and he's gonna continue to pay for them,” says Shone of Anselmo’s much-maligned White Power snafu. “I had to go somewhere where the beliefs about him and that image weren't going to prevent me from selling records. It's hard enough being an underground musician as it is. “
Still, despite Anselmo’s mistakes, Shone remains upbeat about his time on Housecore. “Phil spent three weeks with me on one album. Every day we got up and recorded and he really put his mind to it. I'm proud of what we did.”
In contrast to the grimy soundscapes of Author & Punisher’s albums, Shone has spent most of his life surrounded by natural beauty. “I grew up on a farm in New Hampshire where it's all peach trees and country,” he says.” I've always lived in places that didn't echo or reflect the sounds I ended up making.” After years of listening to Led Zeppelin and Crosby Stills and Nash with his parents, he discovered Sepultura, Godflesh, Quicksand, and Cannibal Corpse. Streetcleaner and Selfless by Godflesh shaped the formative musician.
The comparison to Justin Broadrick’s project isn’t off base. At the heart of Author & Punisher are layers of grinding guitars and clanging rhythms. Sure, he creates a dystopian clamor—but don’t call it “industrial.” Shone has little time for the latex trappings of that scene, finding the legions of xeroxed Skinny Puppy and Front 242 imitators too costumey, too mannered. He points, instead, to Modern Love Records out of Manchester, UK—home to fringe electronic acts like Andy Stott and Demdike Stare. “That's what industrial is to me,” he explains. “It’s the difference between a horror film with cheesy gore and a Lars von Trier movie.”
A cinematic visionary like von Trier is another apt reference, as Shone’s aesthetic sensibility infuses Author & Punisher as much as his engineering. “Visually, I look to Survival Research Laboratories and people like Arthur Ganson,” he says, giving some clues as to the origins of his unique concepts for machinery. Ganson, in particular, remains an influence on Shone’s craft. “Instead of making robots out of plastic he uses oil, really accentuating the materials and the way they touch each other—the meeting of the gears.”
While his own mechanical creations require a great deal of planning, Shone stresses simplicity of design above all. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously. “What I do is basically like four buttons and a few knobs,” he says, with a laugh. “I have an Elektron synthesizer with four channels that I blend into one and use during the entire set. I'm very single-minded that way.”
He thinks too many techies assume gear can replace inspiration. “People get hung up on having a wall of synths and never write any music. That's the beauty of the guitar: Metal Zone distortion pedal plus an amp. There you go.”
Even with his intricate stage setup, there’s room for improvisation. “I can weave in and out, drag a bit,” Shone explains. “Plus, I have foot pedals and controllers, so if I decide I don’t wanna do a certain song, I can go play something from Women and Children.”
Pulling levers, hollering into esoteric microphones—with its nonstop physical exertion, an Author & Punisher performance must be a draining experience. “ Beastland is far more difficult to play," he says. "It keeps coming at you. My voice takes a real toll, so I've had some throat problems. I'm really tired at the end of the show.”
That exhaustion isn’t even taking into account schlepping gear around, both stateside and overseas. That’s why Shone built his current live setup with touring in mind. “The main difference between the Drone Machines-era and now is that I’ve designed all this stuff to fit in three cases, each under 50 pounds," he says. "With fly dates, you gotta be flexible or you’re not going to play.”
Eventually, though, Shone will return to home to San Diego, to the sun and the university lab. He’s even got a hobby. “Here’s the thing about San Diego," he explains. "I'm a big surfer. That keeps me entertained and grounded.”
Catching waves may seem an incongruous pastime for an artist who performs inside a mechanical cage, but that’s Tristan Shone: forever confounding expectations, and surfing the unknown.
Ari Rosenschein is authoring and punishing on Twitter.