Friday, November 25, 2011

What black metal is (and what it isn't)

"What do you wish to hear now? The things that almost all will say? That they are actually normal people and their corpse-painted faces are only artistic attributes? The fact that we cross the street on the traffic lights or visit the post office doesn't mean that we are the members of society."

Khlyst of Lucifugum, 2006

This is the third time I've attempted to start this piece after deleting reams of unfocused, circular commentary about nothing. Let's see if I can make it work this time.

In a response to a comment by regular reader Flemming, I talked about my intrinsic suspicion of black metal subcultural narratives which make the genre out to be a response to something in mainstream culture: Christianity, democracy, egalitarianism, whatever your pet demon of the moment may be. I think the more intellectual sect of the metal scene has gotten way, way ahead of itself when it thinks of black metal as some thought-out pagan retaliation against Judeo-Christian culture. It's not as thought I don't appreciate this sort of perspective on the genre, and it does have (in my opinion) some roots in reality, but it's also way too refined, precise, and conscious for my liking. The origins of black metal are probably not too far from death metal's origins in teenagers from Tampa doing bong rips and drawing skulls in the margins of their high school textbooks: probably not as glamorous and intelligent as we'd like to imagine.

I understand and to some degree agree with Pavel's ruminations on what black metal is, but his summation of things is still a bit more antagonistic than I perceive it. I've never seen black metal as being so necessarily oppositional in nature; this may be because I've never felt like a "black metal guy" so much as one in tune with death and grind (a topic for another writeup.) As a young teenager getting into black metal for the first time, it never sounded to me like the sound of hate, aggression, or violence, as dark and stormy as the music might inherently be. I had death and grind for that sort of emotional catharsis. Black metal had a much more fun, purely aesthetic sort of feeling to me; it was the soundtrack to fantasy novels and daydreams and pretend-fights I had in the woods with my friends as a nine year old. The misanthropy and anti-Christianity never felt very material to me, and even today, I never get a particular sense of ideological fervor while listening to black metal. Instead, the best black metal gives me a sense of invigoration, joy, and quixotic enthusiasm. I don't want to burn down a church; I want to go hiking and take pictures of mountain vistas to make into Vinterriket album covers.

In a nutshell, I agree with Pavel that black metal inherently stands against the egalitarian, permissive dogma of modern society, but where we diverge is in what that stance materially means. While it seems to me that Pavel suggests black metal's ideal form is in a sort of retaliatory, revolutionary gesture against modern culture, I see the ideal form as one that simply dismisses that culture, choosing to isolate itself and create the sort of world it desires, ignoring the pressures and concerns of the mainstream. Why smash Christendom when it's so much more effective and obtainable to simply live a life without it- establish a community in which Jesus is irrelevant. In fact, my very favorite black metal (on a lyrical and ideological level) tends to be the sort where overt commentary on society is wholly absent- Taake, Spite Extreme Wing, Hirilorn- choosing instead to create its own world rather that bother with the content of someone else's.

It occurs to me that where Pavel and I diverge on the nature of black metal is just about the exact place where we diverge politically. Eep. Makes you wonder how your perceptions of art are colored by your experiences, doesn't it.

I suppose all of this works back around to my words on how I feel black metal should reboot its aesthetics- I feel that the style is getting bogged down in an oppositional stance that most of its constituents can't even remember the purpose of. Perhaps paradoxically, I've always seen black metal as perhaps the most positive face of extreme metal; for all its trappings, I see black metal as a much more creative sort of style than a destructive one. While I love Marduk and Dark Funeral as much as the next guy, the black metal bands that resonate with me are the boundless, fervent ones that I connect with on an emotional level rather than an ideological one. "Goat Horns" doesn't impact me or inform my actions to a hundredth of the degree that "Magnificat" does, and for me, the sooner black metal starts defining itself rather than painting itself as merely the opposite of the mainstream, the sooner we'll get back to the fecund creative territory of Norway circa '91 than we will otherwise.


  1. you know dude, i agree that our perspectives on black metal "diverge," as you say, but they're not necessarily in conflict. i think you're right that we're drawn to different things in it, partly because we're coming at it with different ideas and experiences, but ultimately i think its more a case of "two sides of the same coin." I agree that its EXTREMELY important to find the joy in black metal, which is more apparent in the whimsical stuff you favor but also hidden in a lot of the grim shit I tend to seek out. as i wrote i got caught up in heathen rage, and tended to emphasize the destructive side of things, so it's cool that you brought out the other side of the music.

    and if some of us prefer secession to rebellion, whether in music or art, that's cool with me.

  2. btw, from the imagery and what little i can make out from the Italian, I'm pretty sure Spite Extreme Wing are straight up fascist militants.

  3. yeah, i don't think our perspectives are necessarily in conflict, just portrayed differently by different ways we arrived at black metal. def two sides of the same coin. more than the destructive/creative dichotomy i think a bigger point of divergence between us is the secessionist/rebellious aspect which is probably something worth a writeup on its own.

    oh and as for spite extreme wing, they seem politically of the same angle as all those ukrainian black metal bands that TOTALLY AREN'T NAZIS but yeah totally are, but substitute mussolinni for hitler.

  4. yeah, you could certainly categorize bands and subgenres as either secessionist or rebellious... the idea of secessionist BM, which I hadn't really considered, goes a long way towards explaining how shit like DSBM and misanthropic BM, or the "hermetic" aesthetic you propose, is still black metal.

    also, i agree that getting past kneejerk oppositionalism, perhaps to something more exuberant and creative, is key to revitalizing the genre. one reason the new Taake is just so damn good! hope you've heard it by now.

  5. oh christ secessionist/rebellious is our transcendental black metal, god damnit we've impaled ourselves on our own swords

  6. heh heh, we better milk it for all its worth! i came up with some even more ridiculous black metal category yesterday, i'm trying to remember it... btw today doing my "true black metal part III" post to dovetail with this stuff, it's gonna focus on another underexplored sound.

  7. This series is so good. Both of you.

  8. These discussions are interesting, but I very much dislike that black metal is often singled out as being, unlike, say,  death metal, "not just about the music", and that ensuing discussions of black metal focus almost exclusively on extramusical concerns like lyrics, album art, content of interviews etc.  Noktorn recently wrote a piece on Mortician that elegantly describes what makes the band unique, and it is a discussion of their musical choices: riff composition, song structuring, sample usage, the timbres their unorthodox production affords them.  He doesn't complain that their lyrical themes are overfamiliar, nor does he argue which  economic systems are appropriate for death metal artists to support - such complaints would seem absurd.  Why is black metal regarded as somehow different?  In my experience the artist's politics stance or lyrical choice is nearly irrelevant,regardless of genre: I listen to music because of the arrangement of sounds in time and anything more (an appealing cover, lyrics that are well-written, politics that aren't braindead) is only a bonus.

  9. oh, we're not suggesting at all that it's impossible to listen to black metal divorced from its various ideologies; in fact, that's how i listen to it. don't get the impression that the above post and its ruminations on the sort of meta-narrative of black metal is something essential that i bring to every spin of transilvanian hunger. for me (and probably for pavel to a somewhat lesser degree) discussions like these are armchair sociology- a game of catch for pseudo-intellectuals. while nothing that i wrote is untrue in my opinion or inauthentic insofar as how i see the music, it's also not as big a deal to me as these big, dense posts might suggest. as far as importance goes, thought experiments like these rank just below how cool the band's logo is and barely above the quality of corpsepaint in informing my listening decisions.

    as for why black metal is so ideologically informed- well, i couldn't tell you. right place, right time i guess. as for why it's so married to the music even now, we had the misfortune of the style being pioneered by a bunch of loudmouthed, angry adolescents with lots of weird opinions and no one to yell them at. apart from grind due to its proximity to punk, black metal is probably the side of metal most closely interwoven with ideology simply because in most cases death or doom or folk or whatever just don't have one. i get what you're saying, but i actually come from the opposite side of things: rather than wishing that black metal wasn't so closely tied to extramusical concerns, i instead wish that death and doom and what have you had more of that.

    nutshell: that's just kinda how black metal is based on how it was created, but you're not really missing anything if you choose to ignore it, and frankly we spend a great deal more time on this blog talking about blast beats than the sort of navel-gazing above. i don't want to speak for pavel necessarily since me and him are really, really fucking different on just about everything outside of metal, but you might like these sorts of discussions more if you see them as a sort of allegory for our personal feelings and attachments to the metal scene rather than a distinct mission statement to be taken at face value.

    p.s. seeing someone else talk about mortician all fancy like made me nut

  10. lol i clicked on your name and just realized you're the dude from rym who hit me up. yeah, we'll give it a whirl. your comment definitely did bump you to the front of the line (the rest of the line being staffed by my own apathy and laziness exclusively)

  11. oh jesus and now i just realized you're the same guy who hit me up back in fucking may to review your shit. i would come up with a reasonable-sounding excuse but more to the point i do a lot of drugs which makes my already terrible followthrough even worse. fuck me now i'm gonna have to do some giant goddamn piece about your band to discharge the shame. also to make us pop up in a google search for jute gyte before nausika.

  12. Yeah, despite my petulance I do see the value of this kind of discussion, and it has been interesting to read.  And I think I'm more or less in agreement with your aesthetic argument.  I like your suggestions of hermeticism and dark fantasy themes - I think those topics are appealing because they suggest that the artist is producing their work to satisfy a personal vision (creating their own world, as you say), not according to external pressures.  I certainly prefer them to what have become the genre's defaults.  In short, please ignore my complaints and carry on.

    And yeah I contacted you on RYM.  I would be very happy to hear your thoughts about my work and can send you physical copies if you'd like.

  13. @Jute Gyte: I'm with you that there's way too much talk about everything BUT the music in black metal criticism, and on the scene in general. Leads to a lot of shitty bands getting hyped just because of their image. But I do think it's important to think about what I call the "spirit" of black metal. It's less any particular ideology than a complex of ethical precepts, aesthetic values, and emotions. And I don't think it's this thing that can be totally separated from the music as such, because it's something that we hear IN the music, something given life in the sounds. I'm pretty sure that to write *musically* valuable black metal you have to grasp the spirit of the music in some way. In my WITTR review I wrote about them as an example of a band that fundamentally DOESN'T get it, even though you can go through their music ticking off all the stylistic boxes of black metal. You should read it!

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comments, I look forward to checking out your project and reading Noktorn's review.