Once upon a time, Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects put out a record called Sol Niger Within. This Meshuggah-adjacent project is an under-the-radar mythical creature as not many people are aware of it, but those in the know understand that it’s a truly unique collection of music. Despite being released in 1997, music theory Youtuber Daniel Crawford has paid heartfelt homage to Sol Niger Within in March of 2023 with an EP entitled Inanis Without, released under the name Helial Cloning Project.
Artist: Helial Cloning Project
Album: Inanis Without
Label: DXC Records
Release Date: Feb 18, 2023
Written by Christian Voltaggio
Once upon a time, Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects put out a record called Sol Niger Within. This Meshuggah-adjacent side project is something of an under-the-radar mythical creature as not too many people are aware of it, but those in the know understand that it’s a truly unique collection of music. Despite being released in 1997, music theory Youtuber Daniel Crawford has paid heartfelt homage to Sol Niger Within in March of 2023 with an EP entitled Inanis Without, released under the name Helial Cloning Project.
The plotline of how we came to arrive at this scenario requires a bit of exposition. Flash back to 1997: Fredrik Thordendal, lead guitarist for Meshuggah responsible for most of those completely alien sounding solos and leads, once released a truly wild record with his aptly named side project Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects entitled Sol Niger Within. If you thought his lead playing in Meshuggah was kind of out there, you ain’t heard nothing. Sol Niger Within is definitely a close relative of Meshuggah’s music, but way less structured in its composition, drawing on loads of Holdsworthian jazz fusion concepts. Based on a truly esoteric grab-bag of abstract themes relating to death, transcendence, alien abduction, consciousness, and cosmic rebirth, Sol Niger Within revels in its own profound bizarreness as these lyrical themes are matched with equally wild and unusual playing. Highlight moments include literally every guitar solo, a random organ interlude with accompanying “hmm, sounds like someone is being murdered” vocals, and the seemingly impossible success of throwing huge odd meter guitar grooves up against mumbly spoken word breaks. I truly don’t have the ability to articulate what a trip this record is. It’s a real coin toss whether the listener will love it or loathe it, but it should absolutely be experienced by any Meshuggah fan (or any BRAVE jazz fusion fan) at least once.
Fast forward to 2023. Daniel Crawford is a multi-instrumentalist, guitar instructor, and Youtuber who produces some extremely high-quality metal music theory analysis and, as it turns out, fantastic music! As the mastermind behind Helial Cloning Project and this singular release, he is the composer, drum programmer, lyricist, and performer of all the material on the record, with the exception of vocals by Leo Plat and saxophones by Juan Ignacio Varela Espinoza. Inanis Without is a concept record revolving around a cyclical adventure through outer space, in and out of asteroid belts, towards terrifying black suns and, hopefully, back home again. The record is plainly stated by Crawford to be a tribute and love letter to Sol Niger Within, and thus wears that influence plainly on its sleeve, by design.
From the jump, the first track of this five song EP sets the stage for our cosmic journey. Leo Plat introduces the theme, referencing Jens Kidman in his Meshuggah-like vocal delivery:
“Come with us now on a journey through time and space, as we bathe in the vile radiance of a black sun within.”
Umbral Descent begins as massive guitars and pounding double kicks introduce the kind of Meshuggah vibe that feels like simple 4/4 to your nodding head, but convinces your brain it’s anything but. Daniel Crawford’s lead playing shows up immediately, invoking Thordendal in a convincing manner conveying Crawford’s comfortability with playing over these types of heavy riffs while retaining jazz fusion melodic sensibilities. Modes shift, time signatures change and it does immediately feel like we are going somewhere. The balance between mimicry and creativity is excellent as references to the tribute material are obvious, but the content is still fresh and interesting. This is an impressive feat as it would be easy to fall into hitting too close to Sol Niger Within and winding up with a boring rehash. An overall exciting and satisfying first step on our journey.
As described by Crawford in his youtube video detailing the inner workings of the record, Closed Universe refers to the notion that the inevitable heat-death of the universe is a compelling rational argument for a nihilistic outlook on life. The upbeat pace of the album’s introductory moments gives way to a far calmer and quieter moment here, as eerie clean guitars hang over a plodding rhythmic motif. Leo delivers suitable dreadful spoken vocals before things briefly pick up again. The production is precise and clean but the vocal has a distortion around the edges which keeps things from being too sterile. It’s obvious that this is a record all about the guitars, but I do wish the bass had a bit more of an audible presence, though it does thankfully deliver enough low end to keep things feeling strong and heavy. Crawford plays a really sick solo here, complete with some very outside sounding tapping licks before tapering off into the third track.
An instrumental piece representative of the beginning of the return portion of the journey, Aphelion Return Trip is a progression through increasing intensity. Clean, reverb drenched guitars introduce a lonesome motif before things get jazzy. Saxophonist Juan Ignacio Varela Espinoza skillfully navigates the challenges of playing over dissonant space-metal guitar accompaniment while maintaining shifting dynamics. Starting off something like a crooning solo in a lounge club back on Earth, Juan’s playing reaches its peak sounding more like the internal monologue of someone rapidly losing their mind inside a wormhole a la 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a very human moment in a quite inhuman story, the only thing on the record that evokes a feeling which could have taken place anywhere terrestrial, anywhere other than the cold emptiness of space. Mention of the incredibly not-programmed sounding programmed drums needs to be made here. As Crawford explained on Youtube, he made use of midi featuring Morgan Agren (a legendary drummer who played on the original Sol Niger Within). That is not to say that getting the samples of the man himself will make magically human sounding drums spring forth from the computer monitor. Crawford clearly understands drumming on a drummer’s level and has programmed everything on Inanis to a convincingly believable degree, and then some.
We have reached our final destination as the headbanging commences yet again on Zero Reflection. This is possibly the fattest, most satisfying riff on the album and we are treated yet again to Crawford’s artful ability to play wild solos over material that would make most players squirm. Little details like the nod to Meshuggah’s Future Breed Machine in the background, the motivic return to material from Umbra Descent, and the disgusting drum fill at 0:17 make this a finale worthy of the epic journey we are concluding. The tight groove shifts into a wide expanse of big chords as the lyrics outline the full depths of the narrative perspective’s nihilism. While fantastic guitar playing is certainly the centerpiece, the depth and detail given to the lyrical concept is considerable: we have come full circle on this physical journey through space, originating in the asteroid field, passing dangerously close to the black sun, escaping that fate only to arrive back where we started. On the other hand, the internal, existential element of the journey regarding the narrator’s perspective also alludes to a closed loop – nothing has changed, no information is gleaned from the journey. Only the nihilistic, bleak,soul-crushing philosophic outlook remains, as it was in the beginning. Sol Niger Within, indeed.
Overall, this brief EP is an endearing, refreshing, fun throwback to SNW. Inanis Without is all at once highly complementary and reflective of the source material while delivering on new ideas, especially the deceptively heady and satisfying dual-layer concept. It’s clear that Crawford and company are true fans of the source material and their enthusiasm shines through. Furthermore, I applaud the idea of this kind of musical love-letter and would love to see more of this kind of thing in the future. I highly recommend giving Inanis Without a listen and keeping your eyes peeled for further Helial Cloning Projects to come. Also, do be sure to check out Daniel Crawford’s instructional content if you’re an aspiring metal guitarist – he has graciously made instrumental loops of his album available for your improvising practice, for free on Youtube.