In order to survive in the day to day, we possess a wealth of behavioural norms carefully cultivated to navigate the complex world of the civilian. To engross oneself in the world of metal is to temporarily take leave of these things. Part of the point of subcultures is their offer of an alternative and ultimately more appealing version of reality to the one that most individuals inhabit and experience. Further, if your only lens of self-reflection as a metalhead is with other metalheads, just as engrossed as yourself, it becomes all too easy to lose any grip on just how alien and absurd this can look to outsiders. Like any subculture, metal has its own vocabulary, its own etiquette, its own agreed truths, and notorious points of contention re-debated with each new generation. It is easy to forget that all the things seasoned metalheads take as read are far from given to the uninitiated, frankly ridiculous to outsiders. This goes some way to explaining my frustration with the way mainstream media outlets tend to handle the subject. They remain insensitive to nuance, disposed to clumsy generalisations, understating some elements whilst overstating others.
But beyond having a good old moan about how no one really understands us, I wish to explore the idea that to intellectualise the sub-intellectual, or rather the non-intellectual, is to do a disservice to the intuitive and instinctive artistic expression that metal at its best can be. But this is not my point either. Step-by- tedious-step we are getting closer though. The point is more with the artists themselves. I find myself consistently drawn to the conviction that art made without self-awareness, without a preconceived purpose, is generally superior. Further, when artists approach the creative process with an agenda, an idea or a scheme, armed with their degrees in the liberal arts and critical theory, with their manifestos and mission statements, the finished product often comes across as a confused mess. I am going to take liberties with this little rule of thumb I have just cooked up and ignore all exceptions to it, and simply state without justification that as far as metal is concerned, they remain just that, exceptions to this rule.
Let’s take a look at American black metal as a case study. Or rather, more broadly, let’s not just look at the artists themselves, but America’s relationship to black metal in general. I do not know what it is about North America, whether it’s their overly sincere approach to subtly European phenomena, or whether they are over compensating for being a country whose reputation for trash culture is global, but the wave of bands that took up the black metal mantel across North America in the late 1990s and 2000s displayed a plethora of misunderstanding and substandard music relentlessly propped up by the rhetoric and hyperbole of artists and amenable critics alike. Indeed, the liberal media ate it up with gusto and openly declared what an interesting new direction this was for the genre, a breath of new life away from the negativity and violence of the European scene, happily dismissing outcries from established fanbases as the rants of purists, traditionalists, elitists. If you want to read this as a defence of traditionalism you may, but I have never considered myself anti progress. It is more a counter weight and unfriendly reminder that for the majority of this music, the relationship it bears to black metal is one heavily influenced by it certainly, but not in the same league as their European counterparts, and in some cases not even playing the same game. Which I would guess is how some of these musicians would have it any case.
Look at the volume of rhetoric and nonsense that can found on such documentaries as ‘One Man Black Metal’ and weigh it against the quality of musical output by these artists. The film is an interesting study in solitude certainly, and as characters they appear articulate and thoughtful, but the music these artists have produced simply fails to stand up to the scrutiny of their European counterparts. Compare this to the interviews of simplicity and honesty found on ‘Until the Light Takes Us’, the in depth study of the movers and shakers of the Norwegian scene. Indeed, this documentary shows Varg Vikernes of Burzum at his best. He comes across as almost charming, reminiscing about his youth, explaining his disquiet with the symbols of capitalism encroaching on his home town, and discussing the early recordings of Burzum. The Varg found on UTLTU remains a big step away from his current public persona, that of a paranoid racist, devoid of the wit that can be found in earlier interviews. Fenriz, the self-proclaimed caretaker of the scene’s memory, comes across as equally compelling as he shows us around his old haunts, his memories of other musicians in the scene, and his discussions of the history of black metal’s musical influences. These characters remain compelling not because they are particularly good speakers – they fail to effectively articulate what it meant to be a part of the original movement, and even when they do manage to put forth a verbal idea one cannot help but feel disappointment at its lack of depth, or its chosen direction (yes there is a subtext) – but when weighed against their musical output, and the influence it has had, one simply has to take notice. They may not be as deeply thoughtful and well-spoken as Xasthur or Leviathan, but beyond a certain point the music speaks for itself
This idea is closely linked to youth, our obsession with it, and the notion that many of the genre’s crowning achievements were written by people under 25, and in some cases under 20. This is not unique to black metal, but this cry from the souls of young people trying and failing to come to terms with the world as they find it is a powerful illustration of the idea that some things cannot be expressed by words even if we had the vocabulary to do so. In this sense the wave of American black metal artists did things backwards. The musicians themselves are obviously intelligent people. So intelligent that they based their artistic direction on an assessment of the scene’s past, both philosophically and musically, and the direction they believed it should take going forward. Then they made music. One of the reasons the extreme metal scene of the early 1990s has such a pull for successive generations is its spontaneous and intuitive feel. What attempts the artists involved made to articulate a philosophy around the music came after the fact, and remained comical and quaint at best, thuggish and racist at worst. Of course in the case of Euronymous he did say a great deal about what he believed black metal was both musically and philosophically, but so over the top and inconsistent were his ideas that even those closest to him admit that they struggled to take him seriously.
It is important to note that I am not trying to imply that this music existed in a vacuum, indeed no music does and it is trivial to point it out at all. Rather, I am saying music that is conceived in a spark of inspiration from some unspoken muse, seems to carry the musician along to artistic heights untold, almost as if they relinquish their agency completely, and become a mere vessel for the expression of the human condition. And only after the event do they find themselves able to comment and philosophise on just what exactly it was that took hold them, and they inevitably find their intellect not up to the challenge. This adds a certain charm and mystique to the music. Further, however eloquent the critics of the music become on the topic post event, they can never truly enter the mind of the artist, and are left in the world of speculation, which however well versed and educated it may be, remains inexact. Compare this to the reams of nonsense spouted by the fans and artists of North American black metal and its variants, sometimes dubbed blackgaze. Empty words used to over emphasise the importance of a vacuous and lifeless form of indie music which pales in comparison to their European counterparts.
Indeed, the pull that American black metal offers to the liberal media is understandable. They admit to being attracted to extreme metal as the ultimate form of alternative music. But they struggle to reconcile this with the fact that metal is often too keen to explore certain forbidden or unacceptable ideas in their eyes. This has made metal something of a dark horse in alternative music over the years, alternative music which in general leans towards the left of the political spectrum, the liberal side of the social. It is amusing to watch some of these people try to discuss this discomfort. More frustrating is watching them prop up the music of second or third division black metal artists simply because they are more comfortable with the political orientation of the musicians. Indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that in some cases this move is politically motivated more than artistically motivated. ‘At last’, they will say, ‘we can listen to extreme music in a safe space’. As someone who proudly occupies the same moral territory, I would reassert that one facet of metal’s pull is the fact that it offers a distinctively unsafe space, containing artists who hold abhorrent views in my eyes, but who all the same make profound music. This is beyond politics, and for that reason a liberal/progressive agenda cannot and does not have a monopoly on the creative territory.
I’ll reiterate that I am aware how simplistic and unfair this distinction between Europe and North America is. Indeed I maintain that in other areas, death metal and grindcore for instance, North America has been consistently ahead of the curve for nearly thirty years. Whatever the exceptions with black metal however, and however more complicated the actual picture is given the international setting black metal now finds itself in, this distinction is unashamedly being used here as a vehicle to explore the notion that stupidity, or rather non-intellectualism (rather than anti), can often lead to profounder artistic statements than those bolstered up by endless critical theory, academic language, theoretical frameworks, and fancy music journalism, in short, the alienating language of the modern left. As a second case study, let’s look at German black metallers Absurd.
Absurd gained undue notoriety in the black metal circles of the early 1990s after members of the band murdered a 15 year old boy who attended the same school as members of the band. It is also no secret that past members of Absurd are fully outted neo-Nazis. One of their demo tapes featured the headstone of the teenager drummer Hendrik Mobus murdered with an electrical wire. Due to the fact that the individuals involved in said murder were underage at the time, the maximum sentence they could be given was 8 years. Later, Mobus was charged with breaking his parole, by fleeing to America, he was subsequently caught and deported. All this adds up to a group of individuals that are pretty much the antithesis of our new wave of North American black metal friends, who are liberally minded, left wing orientated, progressive, and articulate. Absurd by comparison are not only repulsive as individuals, but are also fucking stupid. Now I wish to immediately side step the issue of National Socialist black metal as irrelevant to the main line of the discussion, other than to confess the childish curiosity I feel towards music of quality that falls under the banner. Coming from the liberal democracies of the west there is a sense that fascist music, or rather, music made by fascists, holds within it the ultimate kernel of nihilistic rebellion, however irrational and morally reprehensible.
However, the point in mentioning Absurd was more to pick a strong example of a band whose output of notable quality was made by teenagers, poor and poorly educated teenagers at that, with clear behavioural issues to boot. Again, yet another qualification I would make is that their musical output is not quite on the same level as renowned classics of early 90s European extreme metal from the likes of Burzum, Beherit, and Rotting Christ. However, there is a certain charm to their blend of black metal, folk, and punk, clearly made by musicians learning how to play their instruments on the job. They would play gigs at local community youth centres, until they were forced to abandon this due to certain other bands that used the space refusing to share it with known neo-Nazis. They subsequently appropriated a cabin in the local woods to serve as a practice space, which would become the site of the notorious homicide. Despite all this a unique creativity shines through all the external and self inflicted obstacles, at times with an almost neoclassical flare manifesting itself behind the substandard production values. Absurd, despite at the time being under 20 and filled with confusion, half-baked political opinions, and a hatred for authority figures they were still not fully developed enough to understand, despite all this they managed to create music with more artistic merit than all the hours of bland and sweeping tremolo strumming and flat acoustic passages produced by so called blackgaze/post black metal ‘collectives’.
Far be it from me to state that there is a direct correlation between stupidity and quality musical output, despite having heavily implied it throughout this meditation, indeed I can almost smell the temptation to say whether well-educated or no, this has nothing to do with the artistic instinct; the same artistic instinct thinkers far greater than I have struggled to pin down throughout history. But I will say that couched within this little subset of a subset that is the state of post 2000 black metal, there is a stark reminder that the intelligence, or indeed the charm and likeability of the musicians, is just another form of window dressing propping up what is oftentimes a hollow corpse. And this extends beyond mere intelligence and education. Artwork and imagery in heavy metal circles is an industry in itself. But however impossible it is to separate the image of a beloved album’s cover-art from the experience of the music itself, it should never be forgotten that a striking piece of art cannot be used to prop up substandard music.
Indeed this brings us on to an interesting question unearthed by these distinctions; because for metal – like all subcultures– of course it is not just about the music. To some, imagery is every bit as important. This does not just relate to the artwork daubed on album covers, but also to band logos, to clothes, t-shirt designs, and closely related to all these superficial but lucrative facets of a subculture is the image of the band, their public persona. Impossible as it is to take the music completely on its own terms after gleaning knowledge of all this, is it something we should even be striving for? If the musicians are known to be likeable characters, it will often be taken as another reason to be attracted to their music, and vice versa for certain repulsive individuals. Taken in the current context, are all the add-ons of certain shades of modern black metal, made by laid back musicians who look like interesting company over a pint, and all the richly painted album covers and slicker band logos, is all this actually serving to add to the music itself in spite of anything I say against this fact? Or, rather than if it does as I believe it is clear that it does, we should be asking whether we should embrace this fact at all, or resist it.
Rather than end on an invitation to consider the matter (I cannot begin to express how little interest I have in your considerations), I will end on what I believe to be the case. Music as one manifestation of the artistic will is spontaneous, intuitive, and irrational. Even at a time in our history when physical capability was essential for the survival of the individual and the species we were spending enormous amounts of energy on musical expression, dance, and ritual. Aside from the time it takes to become proficient enough at an instrument to effectively communicate something, it seems that all great moments in metal’s history were a happy meeting of circumstance, talent, will, timing, and luck. It was only after the fact that commentators attempted to intellectualise the event, and explain just what it was about it that made it so special, this piece included. Large portions of modern metal are reversing this trend. I point the finger at North America merely to throw the accusation into sharp relief, but as already conceded, this is a simplistic duality I make unapologetically. However, the point is that now the intellectualism is coming first, then the music. Or rather, the music does not make an impact without the window dressing around it, and this is not just referring to the window dressing of the artists and fans, but journalists and liberal media alike, whose only involvement in the history of the scene has been to work backwards through a simplistic version of its story in a token gesture of contextualisation.
I am aware that in even calling this out in such a long winded fashion I am probably adding to the problem I have identified. I am aware that it may come across as a shameless dictation pertaining to why you should not enjoy the music that you do in a convoluted, tedious, and roundabout way. I am aware that you may not even give a solitary shit about this. But I am also aware that I’m pretty much right.