Monday, November 21, 2011

A reboot of black metal's aesthetics

Black metal is dead- at least according to every black metal musician who's given an interview on Invisible Oranges and is capable of stringing together a sentence (if not a thought.) Frankly, lamenting the death of the style has become as much a part of it as tremolo picking and church burning, so I suppose it's unreasonable that my hackles are raised each new time I hear it. But I can't really help it; it's a bizarre sort of psychological exercise or stylistic statement that's half hipster and half tragic childhood- if black metal is dead and you play black metal, then you have no responsibility for its failure; that was the fault of people long before you.

I've never been much for abdicating your role in the scene. I'm forced to echo Soulja Boy's response to Ice-T's inept criticisms of his music a few years back: if black metal is dying, then save it, nigga.

Of course, anyone with a brainstem knows that black metal isn't dead simply because black metal isn't a discrete "thing" made up of a few musical elements or aesthetic tropes. I've often said that the "classics" are really the worst way to explore any genre of music you're unfamiliar with, because it improperly colors your expectations of the style itself. The majority of kids out there (especially those raised on the internet, where the canons of various styles of music are so rigidly codified) are getting into black metal via "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" and "Hvis Lyset Tar Oss"- excellent albums, of course, at the very top of the heap of black metal, but how much do they actually resemble the faceless, generic "black metal" you hear in your mind when you think of the term? Liking albums like those doesn't necessarily mean you like what we know as black metal- they mean you like good music. I love Townes Van Zandt, but I'm not about to claim I'm an aficionado of country. The classics are great because they're so unique, but without a background of a few hundred bullshit Peruvian blast'n'shriek CDs, you don't have a very good perspective of what makes them so fantastic. Thus, a skewed perspective, and a reductivist one that sees every style as basically stillborn even though Darkthrone doesn't really embody what black metal "is" better than Pogrom 1147 does.

While the metal scene frantically jerks itself off, trying to find more and more self-indulgent note arrangements and bizarre compositional techniques in a desperate bid to differentiate one band from another, I think that what's really needed is a revision of aesthetics. Black metal, like any style of music (or art for that matter,) is really a matter of atmosphere: the feeling it creates, the ideas it produces, and the intangible sense of being that the very best works manage to foster in their respective audiences. The musical elements of black metal are just fine as they are- thrash beats and buzzing neoclassical melodies are always going to sound wonderful- but the presentation, I would wager, could use some rejiggering by now.

Despite the relative simplicity of black metal's ideological and atmospheric objectives, I'd like to suggest a few alternatives to the most tried and true tropes of the genre, all of which I'd say need to be shelved for a while before they're as gripping again as they were in '92.

1. Satan

Satan is of course an inherently cool sort of bro, but the sheer saturation and lack of creativity in his unholy presentation is making him seem pretty stale now. A million bands all bleating the same bland interpretation of the black woodsman has reduced the idea to nothing more than a static image; a black metal band reps their brimstone-constructed hood simply because they feel it's a necessity rather than due to a real appreciation. It's unfortunate, but if we could distance ourselves from it for a while, I bet we could get back to him in good time.

Alternative - Occultism

Yeah, the occult seems like a barely visible sideways move from Satan, but hear me out. The concept of occultism is an incredibly broad field, filled to the brim with different permutations begging to be explored- anything from demonology to voodoo to a Woodland Critter Christmas spin on animism would work. What I appreciate most, though, is a rediscovery of witchcraft. Artists like Valhom, instead of presenting Satan and the occult as a destructive, omnipresent force choose to portray the darker edge of the supernatural as a seductive, nocturnal, esoteric sort of power, less concerned with raiding heaven than being a malevolent, romantic trickster on earth. It's a very different paradigm for the music to explore, and one that I really enjoy whenever it pops up.

2. Misanthropy

Much like Satan, the problem with misanthropy as an aesthetic center is more in the way bands portray it than an issue with the idea itself. Metal bands are by and large staffed by the nearly retarded, and so the "I hate everyone" crooning that dominates the portrayal of misanthropy is just as bland and unconvincing as you'd expect. Since misanthropy tends to be used as a comfortable sidestepping of actual ideology rather than an ideology itself- "I hate everyone equally, I'm not a bigot!!1"- it's naturally robbed of any strength or intimidation that it might have otherwise carried. It's never going to leave, but it would be better if bands focused it more.

Alternative - Hermeticism

People who actually hate something rarely endeavor to destroy it- instead, they typically choose to simply withdraw from it. What better alternative could there be to the juvenile resentment inherent to most misanthropy than the weathered, bitter isolationism of an artist like Striborg? The grey, distasteful solitude of hermeticism and its naturally intellectual and indirectly misanthropic bent allows a band to express many of the same ideas of the more outwardly antagonistic black metal artists with a great degree more breadth of tone and style. I suppose some believe that black metal has to be a perpetually forward and destructive force, but I think the lonely and hideous life of the recluse is just as legitimate as its more vigorous and stupid younger brother.

3. Mythology

I know this will probably draw some ire, but sorry guys, I just don't really care about the old gods too much anymore. Like every other metalhead out there, in my youth I feverishly masturbated to the pagan religions of Scandinavia, Egypt, Greece, and others, but too many rounds of Age of Mythology and too many Thyrfing albums later and it's difficult for me to give a shit. While it's fair to say that these sorts of stories are timeless (they are a part of history, after all,) they're also static and don't offer most bands the opportunity to be truly creative. Most references to Valhalla these days feel less like a magnificent, epic journey to a world beyond and more like the product of those too uncreative to invent a Blashyrkh of their own.

Alternative - Dark fantasy

Is there a particular reason the actual aesthetics of the classic black metal albums have been forgotten? Look back on them and you'll find a wealth of fun, exciting, lively ideas to explore, from Mayhem's gothic, vampiric, delightfully Transylvanian tales to Emperor's stories of wizards and cosmic magic. As Varg Vikernes stated, despite modern perspectives of Burzum, the project's primary influences in the days of its intellectual inception were things like Lord of the Rings and childhood daydreams where sticks became swords. It might not be the most overtly grim sort of thing to draw a style from, but beneath all of black metal's angry bluster has always been a curious, youthful vigor for life and its myriad of possibilities- why not channel some of those again and actually get some enjoyment out of things?


It goes without saying that Satan, misanthropy, and mythology are still perfectly valid ideas to use as a springboard for a band's aesthetic- they've simply been oversaturated by uncreative and bland bands across the world. If your particular dumb black metal project has a clever and interesting spin on one of those subjects, don't let a post like this dissuade you- absolutely, bring some new life to those old topics. That being said, though, black metal is rapidly approaching three decades of existence and still the scene is reflexively resistant to anything but the most obvious sorts of expressions. If black metal is dying- or its icons are dying- it's your job to save them by not doing the same thing over again. Ideas are infinite- why choose to use someone else's?


  1. This is a pretty well-thought out post, Noktorn. I applaud it.

  2. this is what I say - and what everyone should say- when people are whining about "oh x genre is dead boo hoo"

  3. I don't know how or why anyone would say black metal is dead; it's as popular as ever, probably more now than any time prior. So if the new found popularity is what's doing it in, then it seems that the genre wasn't intended for widespread acceptance, or so that's what some would say. Overall I agree with the proposed amendments, although I'd put occultism and hermeticism under the same banner, if only for simplicity's sake.

    To me, it always seemed like the point was the individual experience as filtered through negativity, revulsion, depression, etc.; the darker side of things, basically, brought to an end through the music created. By no means is it uplifting but instead a way to arm one's self against the world, like a perpetual war of the individual versus society, religion, shit of that ilk. So, I guess if one chooses to view it as a positive force or as a source of ecstatic inspiration, that's great, but it's necessary to credit the source of such things: the horrors of life and the accompanying negative thoughts and feelings.

    This is something I've thought about for a while, but nobody's really addressed it, so cheers for this post. (Apologies for rambling.)

  4. I liked this a lot. I mean, maybe they're saying the core of the Second Wave lacks that kind of youthful creativity and energy that it once had, which isn't too outrageous but I'll be damned if that means black metal as a whole is DEAD. I also have some brief rambling.

    Regarding Paganism/Alternate mythologies, I've had my own reservations. On the one hand, there is an element of cultural reclamation, a return to the old ways before the spread of Abrahamic religion, that I absolutely admire and appreciate. On the other, coming from a staunchly secular humanist viewpoint, replacing one religious constellation with a new pantheon of deities (even if it's only for the purpose of generating thematic content) is less desirable, at least for me than, say, lyrical and thematic content based on observable, real world phenomena like conflict, murder, misanthropy, et al. Then again, those themes are definitely a little tired, as you say.

  5. @morgenstern/tim

    thx bb


    i'm not so sure that it's inherently negative; maybe kinda dark or brooding, but not overtly negative. for instance, despite the dark imagery of bands like emperor or immortal, i don't really see much actual negativity in their music, particularly when most of the songs are all about being some super powerful ice mage doing 3d20 + 12 frost damage. i get what you mean by negativity but i think that perception of what "negative" is is a bit too informed by a conventional judeo-christian sense of good and evil. not trying to condescend, just saying that i think the better and more ideologically informed black metal exists outside of that sort of worldview rather than just stamping its feet and rebelling against it.

  6. @flemming

    over the past couple years i've started to get super resentful of the interpretation of black metal as a sort of response towards abrahamic religion, especially now that it's somehow been codified into more or less accepted knowledge as to the genre's formation. it seems to me based off at best a very selective view of black metal and most definitely a sort of revisionist one. i'm not going to claim that it's not at all a part of it- it obviously is an element of black metal- but nowadays it feels like everyone just sort of assumes that varg and co. (but really, varg) were playing blast beats to call unto wotan to smash the unbelievers etc. ad infinitum.

    i have a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards religion in general, so that barely comes up as some sort of "thing" with me in regards to black metal- at this point i just consider most of the anti-abrahamic, satanic, or pagan murmurings as so much window dressing, of no more consequence than an ichthys on the back of a suburban suv. talking about fistfucking jesus is objectively cool, but i don't really believe it goes beyond that for 99% of artists.

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  8. Just Noah doing his thing.

    I (and what's left of anything related to the topic should) feel safer knowing this guy also monitors godawful feeds like 'Invisible Oranges'.

  9. i want this theme in black metal = cookies and cream and eyeball, so youthful, creative and energizing!

  10. Re: Noktorn

    Ah yeah, absolutely, I meant that less as a statement on the ideological core of the Second Wave (for me only Enslaved and Burzum come to mind right away) but rather how well-tread Pre-Christian lore is, cumulatively speaking. I believe you are correct though, "window dressing" is an appropriate descriptor -- closer to the heart of what I meant to say, I would welcome a greater usage of more rationalist themes, e.g. urban black metal, maybe -- again, this is merely a different lens and is of tertiary importance at best to the more substantive qualities that a theoretical band could have. I'm spitballin'. Oh, by the way, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.