Friday, November 25, 2011

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

I really dig Noktorn's "A Reboot of Black Metal Aesthetics" post. In fact, it seems to have started a conversation that should be continued here, among us TBO writers and you TBO readers. You've heard how much we hate USBM, how we look skeptically at the Deathspell Omegas and Blut Aus Nords of the world, how we refuse to like an album JUST because it has a picture of a giant goat impaling Jesus on the cover, etc. But where should black metal go? Or, what interesting places is it already going? And what was it? This is all stuff our earlier reviews have touched on, but maybe now we can expand on those ideas. Here's a small contribution.

In the comments section of the "Reboot" post, our buddy Willard Flemming said some stuff I happen to really disagree with, and my reply was going to be long so I thought I'd turn it into a post.

Willard wrote:

"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."

He later added that he would "welcome a greater usage of more rationalist themes."

Now, from Willard's blog and his comments here it's clear that he knows a ton about the music, and has great taste in it. But I think he sort of misses the point here. A secular humanist black metal is an oxymoron, as is any sort of black metal whose chief aim is a rationalistic portrayal of the "real world."

Above and beyond any particular ideological content, black metal is a call to re-enchant the world. It's about wild, joyful, boyish fantasy, the sort of thing people tell you to stop enjoying once you hit puberty. The myth, the theology, the theater, and the self-aggrandizement aren't peripheral to the genre, they define it. Certainly the music stands on its own, but what black metal music does is brush away prosaic reality like so much useless clutter. Black metal replaces schematics with visions, plans with urges. To lose yourself in a Darkthrone album is to jack into a current of power that is not truly of this world.

That might sound awfully strange and abstract, but it's borne out by the genre's actual history: The social milieu from which most of the best Second Wave bands emerged wasn't originally a militant anti-Christian coven or "just a bunch of wild teenage kids getting their metal kicks." It was a LARP-ing crew. They went into the woods and they fought with sticks and wooden swords and they told stories. But these kids were made of sterner stuff than your usual D and D nerds. Their fantasies were full of hate. Full of hatred for a social order in which danger was criminal and adventure was impossible, and for a plodding monotheist faith that had stripped magic from the world and delegated it all to a petty desert god. They hated a world where fantasy was becoming impossible, where imagination was dying.

Because for black metal, imagination isn't just the power to build self-contained worlds for entertainment. It's alive. Like the ancient myths, fantasy should flow back into the world, permeating it, infusing it with meaning. At the very least, black metal's fantasy is in dialogue with reality, looming over it like an oncoming storm. At most, it comes bursting into the world with a lawless power that covers audiences in blood, burns churches, and leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. Black metal is what happens when traditional metal's indulgence in paperback fantasy collides with punk's rigorous emphasis on social reality. It's the concept of "shock rock" taken to a place undreamed of by kind old Alice Cooper. It's magic enacted. It's the conviction that the unreal can and should and must become real.

And as for humanism, that's just Judaeo-Christianity for atheists. Whether they're talking about universal human rights or a binding obligation to respect the Other, humanists are deeply indebted to Christian thinking, especially the assumptions that power is evil and suffering is a crime. In fact, early black metal was a critique of this tendency. Those bands didn't just rail against God, they railed against social democracy. They saw it for what it is--a secular institution animated by the ghost of Christ. Moreover, secularism itself is conceivable only from within the Christian intellectual tradition--it's the bastard child of Augustine's City of God and privatized Protestant piety.

So, all this is to say that black metal could never be reconciled with rationalism, secularism, or humanism. It is not only distinct from these things, it was created in opposition to them, and continues in that tradition to this day. Bands that attempt to help the genre "progress" by wedding it to humanist concerns (ala Liturgy or the new wave of hippie anarchist bands) or rationalist ones (I'm sure there's some shitty prog-BM band making songs about "science") are making a horrible mistake. Black metal isn't just a "sound," to be wedded to any worldview. It's always been animated by a vengeful, otherworldly spirit.

This is not to say one can't write true black metal songs about the contemporary world. But focus on real places and events that verge on the mythical, or propel us towards fantasy, or suggest another way the world could be. Focus on social criticism from a perspective outside monotheism AND secular humanism. Or perhaps it is possible to write black metal as a negative critique, a hammer-blow against this corrupt reality...



  1. I'm loving this series of posts. If I haven't chimed in with any of my bullshit opinions, it's because I've felt underqualified to do so.

  2. Dude, you make a damn good argument. I'm not 100% dissuaded from the idea of someone, somewhere eventually tapping into a formula for separating at least a few strands of other-worldliness from real-deal, non-Pitchfork BM but you've convinced me that I'm going at this all wrong.

    More importantly I think you're right on the money and I think you've highlighted a major omission on my part earlier, where I was arguing from a position that ultimately created a false dichotomy between the mystical soul of black metal and the idea of black metal feeling "real."

    To use my own example, I still get goosebumps when I listen to "Bergtatt...", even if it's based around fairy tales because, to paraphrase how you experience Darkthrone, I find myself tapping into a different reality. However, it wouldn't be so moving, so vital, so familiar yet mysterious, nor so REAL were it not so closely tied to "reality."

    I don't know if that kind of moving experience is completely exclusive from what I consider more humanist but for now, I think the way I've initially approached it, it would seem just that, completely exclusive. I'm glad you felt moved to discuss this. This is a regular symposium here.

  3. One of the best goddamn things I've ever read on any blog ever.

  4. @WF, in particular: I appreciate your seriously considering what I wrote! Good call on the false dichotomy between the mystical/imaginary and the real/authentic/immediate, that's certainly one good way of looking at it. And something I didn't really make explicit above. And your Bergtatt example is spot on. That album's awesome, I should listen to it again.

  5. "So, all this is to say that black metal could never be reconciled with rationalism, secularism, or humanism. It is not only distinct from these things, it was created in opposition to them"

    "Black metal isn't just a "sound," to be wedded to any worldview. It's always been animated by a vengeful, otherworldly spirit."

    Thanks to you a lot for this article. I always thought that, and I was always amazed so few black metal fans did too.

    Oh, and it seems we hate both the "black" metal band Liturgy equally.

  6. @L: Thanks a lot, it's always great to hear from people who really understand black metal and care about it passionately. I am glad you've found this blog.