Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Fuck "darkness"


A few days ago Wolves In The Outhouse played a well-publicized, apparently wolf-themed gig with Chelsea Wolfe in LA. For those of you who haven't heard of her, Wolfe writes pretty standard singer-songwriter stuff reminiscent of that disgusting "freak folk" thing from 6 or 7 years ago, but she laces it with inoffensive atmospheric noise and some vaguely metallic electric guitar riffs, while shamelessly copping imagery from black metal, neofolk, and goth. Half a decade ago it would've been kinda weird for a solo artist, even one as painstakingly edgy as Wolfe, to play a gig with an extreme metal band, even one as flaccid as WITTR. But now it seems perfectly natural. Something is wrong here. Of course, I'm not at all against cross-genre performances or collaborations, but I'm sure as hell against what this performance represents--the scooping-out of formerly rich musical genres into hollow vessels for a homogenized, affected gloom that renders them all commensurable. How did this come to pass? I think we can get to the heart of the matter by focusing on one little adjective.

For the last couple years, the internet echo chamber has resounded with the flagrant overuse of the label "dark," as well as cringe-inducing synonyms like "occult" and "doom-laden." Hack critics and cynical culture salesmen bandy about variants on "dark" as a kind of catch-all descriptor for everything from extreme metal to hardcore to indie rock. They say it as if it actually told us something about the music. But nothing could be further from the truth. "Darkness" is such a nebulous concept that it's virtually useless. Mayhem is dark. So is Throbbing Gristle. So is The Cure. So is Tom Waits. So is Schoenberg. Of course, these artists exude completely different feelings, have completely different sets of thematic concerns, and work with completely different musical vocabularies. "Darkness" isn't an emotional affect, isn't an atmosphere, isn't a proper mood--it's a tone, a shade, the shadow of a shadow of a feeling. When we say that something is dark, we're saying little more than "it's not cheerful." Sure, there are times when it makes sense to say that, but writers who treat this as some sort of substantial statement about a band are fucking idiots, or really fucking lazy.

I'm not just ranting about bad writing, though. I have two concerns. First, all this babble about "darkness" makes a fetish of it. It's as if "darkness" were a real aesthetic quality with some kind of inherent value, as if its mere presence made music good. Eg: "Dude, how can you say Leviathan is for posers? That shit's so dark!" With this attitude holding sway, "darkness" has become a stylistic condiment to be liberally sprinkled on almost anything. Just look at the new roster of "dark-core" bands on Southern Lord. A few of these bands happen to be really good, and seem to come by their atmosphere honestly (APMD, Xibalba), but take a look at the rest. The Secret? Nails? Seven Sisters of Sleep? A couple tremolo riffs and some "occult" imagery on their merchandise doesn't make these bands anything more than mediocre screamo, powerviolence, and sludge, respectively. (SSS goes beyond mediocre. When I saw them live they lived up to their name, literally inducing me to doze off while standing up.)

"Darkness" has become a brand, a buzzword, something to be touted in press releases and in a body of critical writing that has increasingly come to resemble said press releases. Just head over to Pitchfork and read their new shit on Factory Floor--they work "dark" into the first fucking sentence, and it's prominently featured in the link to the article. When you read that a band is "dark," it's not just a feeble attempt at describing their music, it's a signal that the music is pregnant with cultural capital.

Second, lumping together disparate genres under the risibly nebulous heading of "dark music" disregards the fundamental differences between them, obscuring the distinct ideals and musical strategies that make each style what it is. Finding common ground between genres is fine, but it's folly to look for commonality in a pseudo-feeling, in an aesthetic concept so devoid of content that its embrace is all-encompassing. It's not just stupid, it's pernicious. Why? Because people start mistaking a trivial point of convergence between far-flung bands for some kind of essence shared among them. "It's all just about the darkness, dude."

That sure makes things easier for the dilettante. Black metal is "soooo craaaazy" and a real trip--if you just forget that it's a glorification of war, a religious invocation of Satan or Odin, and an expression of total scorn for the comfortable world of liberty and equality. Death metal can be great fun at parties--if it's just about zombies or whatever instead of graphic accounts of murder and rape. Neofolk is really nice background music--if, to you, the Algiz and the Sunwheel are just edgy "occult" symbols that you can't wait to purchase on some new Mishka crap.

Thinking in terms of "darkness," then, allows listeners to hear their own garden-variety malaise and rebelliousness instead of hate, bloodlust, elitism, nostalgia, total alienation, and any other number of genuinely challenging emotions and ideals. And then the trendy kids seek out worthless bands that channel the "darkness" without any of the cognitive dissonance or complexity. Even worse, they treat the music as a vehicle for dark vibes while paying almost zero attention to the music itself. Bands that can write songs are ignored. Bands that can pay a good graphic designer thrive.

Of course, this isn't just about "darkness," per se. My goal here was to diagnose a cultural disease--the reduction of strongly defined musical genres and subcultures to a single set of empty gestures--by working up from its most prominent symptom. All sorts of current musical and cultural ventures contribute to this flattening effect without necessarily using the word "darkness." If you're still not quite sure what I'm on about, there are some websites that embody it. Just take a look at Cvlt Nation or Actual Pain, or the aforementioned Mishka. And for the record, FUCK THAT SHIT.

31 comments:

  1. yeah. i'm sort of sick of my stuff being co-opted. i remember when vampires were horrible, hellish creators of satan, too. i miss those guys (and girls). they had fangs, and drank blood, and got naked and everything.

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    1. now they just wait til marriage

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    2. by the way, this will make you turn blue with rage: http://guccigoth.tumblr.com/what

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    3. Well, "goth" has always kind of been a made up term, anyway. Rozz Williams never thought the sub-genre fit his work. The whole "goth scene", to me, seemed more about dress-up (although quite hot dress-up) than anything else.

      What I don't get is how this guy references "the noise of SWANS" as something that can gets thrown in to "dress weird and have fun" and "goofy and sexy and brief." Dude, have you ever fucking LISTENED to SWANS? None of Michael Gira's work in any of his projects, most of all SWANS, has ever been about those things. You really need to listen to both COP and the GREED/HOLY MONEY albums (via my blog) to understand how out of place that is. There is a depth of pain, simultaneous spiritual purity and dissolution, conflict of submission and domination, and more, at constant play in this music. No one is "just having fun."

      Obviously, the author of this blog is a rampant post-modernist ("my love of the dissection and re-appropriation of pop culture in general") who sees all forms and systems as fundamentally void and meaning as the creation of the individual alone. The above mentioned bands are doing something similar, as well. But that song and dance has been played out to the point of redundancy over the past fifty years. Its time to move the fuck on.

      Maybe not "blue with rage" like you said. More "wow, that's a really shallow and dull way to perceive the world" kind of feeling.

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    4. oh, yeah, and vampires. in french.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toRZ90UMag0

      vampire music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktdfyK92LQQ

      Satan's favorite mistress. Satan has impeccable taste.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxZAm_wXvpg

      and a looooooooooongtime personal favorite:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=driOnl8mi0s

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    5. i agree about how boring the cult of appropriation has become. and your reaction about Swans is also how I felt about his mentioning Coil. if there's one good point implicit in what he wrote, it's that the dress-up of the original goth scene was undoubtedly much more "hip" than a lot of today's lifer goths would like to admit, and when that hipness wore off it really did ossify into an identikit (especially after Sisters and The Cure hit the big time).

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    6. i'll watch the vampires later, when i have time to savor the blood

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  2. Good grief, thanks for addressing this. While the blurring of lines could possibly produce something new and, ideally, exciting, the reality of it is much different. I don't want to hang out with poodle-haired hipster wieners EVER much less at a heavy metal show.

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    1. thanks for getting it. though i will say i have no idea what poodle-haired looks like (glam rock??). and many of my friends could be accused of being hipsters. i just get tired of hearing them ask me what i think of liturgy.

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  3. Piss all over CvltNation as much as you want, but that site actually gives exposure to some decent bands, regardless of who they hired as the designer to make some cool shirts for them. If a site like that exists that brings all types of bands together through the scope of 'darkness', then I trust I'm intelligent enough to filter out the hype and look for the substance. I can skip the WITTR interview and head for their quick snippet on Ash Borer or Nekromantheon instead. Maybe you want to give other people benefit of the doubt or living in Hipster Central has really made you too cynical for your own good over the state of music in general.

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    1. well in theory you can filter through anything to find the content you appreciate as "substantial" given enough time and attention, but the form can indicate the content as well as vice versa, you dig? i.e. site that calls "the cult is alive" a masterpiece of modern black metal probably shouldn't be trusted to have a useful opinion on "under a funeral moon" either.

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    2. I'm glad you raised that point dude. And I actually agree, Cvlt Nation does feature some good bands. My problem isn't so much with their content as how they present it. If you do a writeup on, I dunno, some totally legit band like Bolt Thrower, but don't really touch on anything except how DOOOOM and HEAVVVY Bolt Thrower are, you've done nothing for me and you've done a disservice to the band. If, in the context of your site, Bolt Thrower appear as just another cool vintage band with *CRUST INFLUENCES* for me namedrop, then again...I don't see what's happening here except a total refusal to engage with the things that make music worthwhile and meaningful.

      Also, the writing on that site is often cringe-inducingly bad. And just look at the fucking website itself. If that doesn't trigger your bullshit detector, I don't know what will.

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    3. but yeah, i'm certainly not saying you should stop reading it, or not trusting you to filter through to the good shit. everyone keeps talking about this Ash Borer band, i'll have to check them out sometime.

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  4. Pavel,

    If I were to tell you that you were a bitter pompous fool with a myopic point of view, I'm guessing I wouldn't be the first?

    Either way, rage on! All poseurs must die, death to false metal and all that jazz.

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    1. i've pretty much never seen a response like this from someone who DIDN'T happen to like the bands that were getting ragged on

      like, you were literally at the show in question, weren't you

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    2. Blarg,

      As a matter of fact I've heard similar things a couple times, always from people who had just lost arguments with me. But you're certainly the first who's been brave enough to say it from behind the shelter of an internet pseudonym. I salute you!

      And yes, death to false metal for sure. Death to false everything!

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  5. The problem with adopting an aesthetic of "darkness" as the sum total of your personal identity is that just about everyone who does it is miserable and incapacitated by pessimism. I would actually fault hipsters less for that, since they generally tend to have a more nuanced perspective on things than the typical black metal elitist. Besides, it's hard to see conservative ideologies that my grandparents would love as somehow transgressing against the status quo. Sure, if you've been sheltered in a left-leaning liberal arts school or other upper middle class environment there will be a lot of unnecessary political correctness, but for the rest of the world talk about egalitarianism is just an attempt to avoid a death sentence.

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    1. Interesting, three points in reply:

      1. I think we might be talking about different senses of the word "darkness." For me, "darkness" refers to something totally superficial, a kind of ready-made style that may have almost nothing to do with whatever personal identity lies beneath. This darkness consists in listening to witch house, buying a Burzum t shirt and a couple necklaces with stock "occult" symbols, and maybe vaguely talking about what a bleak place the world is, all the while living it up on a fixie bike or whatever.

      2. I do agree with you about the BM elitist mentality. THAT version of a life governed by darkness is all too often a self-imposed prison for people without the inner strength to seek joy or make friends. It's also SO boring. To me, these people are kind of missing the point of black metal, and music in general. On the insert of the Malveillance album "Just Fuck Off," the guy wrote: "Baby face boo hoo hoo, misanthropy is for cowards." I couldn't agree more!

      3. "Talk about egalitarianism is just an attempt to avoid a death sentence"--wise words for sure. My point was simply that much of BM is coming from a place that, especially to many of its new fans, is GENUINELY scary/ugly/challenging, whatever. Much easier to simply refuse to engage with that part of it at all by subsuming it within "darkness."

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  6. "darkness" can also be used to describe the pointless rantings of a whiny faggot

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    1. wow, that doesn't even make sense.

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  7. ^if you're reading a blog that writes exclusively and in depth about metal in the first place, you reallllyyy shouldn't be using words like 'pointless'

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    1. i guess the anons who always post that sort of thing got lost on the way to a DIY carpentry blog or something. actually makes me want to do a totally unrelated post on home carpentry since it's i guess inherently "useful".

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  8. I personally find glorification of war, religious invocations of Satan or Odin, and expressions of total scorn for the comfortable world of liberty and equality uniformly ill-considered, but that has no bearing on issues of musical value (or even lyrical value, really). The chief problem I see with combining post-rock and indie music with metal is that music of the former genres often has simplistic structures, blandly diatonic/"white key" harmonies and melodies, and unfortunately short musical phrases (there are exceptions, of course) and the obverse is true of most of the metal I like.

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    1. Sure, of course! Nobody's saying you HAVE to believe in these things to like black metal, or even to really understand it. My point is simply that black metal's new fans are drooling over the impression of "darkness" rather than facing the core of real EVIL from which that darkness emanates. Regardless of the degree to which you sympathize with the spirit of black metal, you'd at least better acknowledge it.

      And yes, of course, the focus on a "dark" aesthetic is to the detriment of any serious talk about how the music works as music, what makes it good, etc. Which is one reason there are so many shitty new bands. I actually wasn't talking about post-rock/BM crossover so much in this article, or at least that wasn't central. It's more the idea of someone lumping that in with Darkthrone AND with Tragedy AND with Blessure Grave, etc...

      Gotta say I love me some black metal with white key harmonies, though. Rotting Christ!

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    2. Sorry, I could have been clearer. I agree with you, and think that both our complaints stem from the lowest common denominator of "darkness" as you describe in this article.

      And of course immediately after I wrote my comment I thought of a dozen exceptions to my stated preferences. The ultimate white (plastic synthesizer) key metal might be Summoning.

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    3. Word. Summoning rules. And for the white key all star team, don't forget Seigneur Voland!

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  9. Darkness, or at least what our culture has come to recognise as darkness in music, is an aesthetic component that I value. For any band/composer wanting to conjure up a strong visual image with their music, it's great that Western music offers them a well-defined harmonic and textural vocabulary for expressing and evoking darkness. The various genres you mention each pick out different bits and pieces from that lexicon and exploit them to different effect, so on that level it's just lazy criticism to lump them all together under the label 'dark'. But the darkness is, nonetheless, an inherent and fundamental aspect of the music. Listen to any Snorre or Euronymous riff. Within the framework of Western music, the effect produced is unambiguously dark, and I love it in great part for that reason. Not because it resonates with me as a "dark individual" or any of that shite, but because it produces a powerful psychological response that is, in some hard-to-pin-down way, tightly linked with the visual experience of darkness. So I'd say that darkness actually *is* a valuable aesthetic quality with an inherent value.

    This is hardly a counter-attack on your main argument, which makes total sense to me. I just think there's a risk of taking the cynicism too far.

    Oh god I just had a look at that 'Mishka Bloglin' page. No idea what/who that is, and I understood absolutely none of it. Don't let this bollocks jaundice your view of music fans. We don't all use the word "darkness" so lazily!

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    1. Rob,

      What a well-reasoned and, dare I say, quintessentially English reply! It's that sort of thinking that makes Analytic aesthetic philosophy worth reading. You're right--there IS darkness IN the music. It certainly makes sense to talk about it as an effect achieved by specific musical devices. Now that I look back on that bit about the fetishization of darkness, I should've made it clear that I wasn't talking about this "thick" conception, but about its thinning-out.

      People hear the true musical darkness of a Euronymous riff, and then misinterpret that as a mere "atmosphere" produced by a cluster of relatively arbitrary musical/visual gestures (rather than, as you say, the harmonic and textural vocabulary). Eg. They think it's the fact that he's playing tremolo riffs that makes it so sinister, when in fact it's that he's playing THESE tremolo riffs. etc. And a fetish is born...

      Anyway, yeah, I hadn't thought about it at all that carefully. Thanks. Oh, and linking it directly to VISUAL darkness is a pretty ambitious idea. I certainly don't think it's the only thing that makes certain phrases sound dark. For instance, I often hear really bodily ripping/tearing/pushing/pulling relationships between notes. But it could certainly be a factor, and I'd be interested in whatever else you've thought about that...

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  10. Good post. I have a hard time talking music with a few of the people I regularly hang out with, mostly because they think I'll eat up anything that is "dark" or "evil" or what have you. I inquire further by asking them to explain certain artists' sounds, and I almost always get a response along the lines of "uh...y'know, dark!". I usually never look into said artists/bands as a result.

    And hey, Nails is awesome!

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    1. Glad you dig it! And yeah I know those conversations well, ugh.

      As for Nails, I concede--I was harsher than they deserve. But throwing in too many qualifications weakens the rhetoric and sorta blocks the flow of the post, you know? They've got a fucking HEAVY guitar sound and I guess they're pretty good, certainly one of the only PV bands I actually enjoy, but they definitely are a perfect example of the "just add DARKNESS" mentality, seeing as they've gone to such great lengths to slather their grindpunk with a black metal image (and that Stockholm-y guitar sound).

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    2. Ah, I get what you mean now, haha. Awkward black metal imagery on their merch aside, I find them to be one of the more honest bands of that particular style. They just have this sincere, primal aggression that a lot of the bands they're mentioned in the same breath as do not possess. Can't wait to hear the other song on their upcoming split, and I definitely can't wait to see them live again. Hopefully they can keep the ball rolling!

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