The oxymoron of English black metal, and the lessons of USBM

Why did the UK never witness an enduring black metal scene? It’s a question nearly as old as black metal itself. And one that continues to be asked despite this particular hole being filled with a suspiciously Cradle of Filth shaped peg. But looking past fingers of blame, the fact that the UK never established itself as a black metal hotspot fits within a wider historical narrative about the UK’s role as Europe’s black sheep. Scandinavia, Eastern, Southern and Central Europe, and Russia if we extend the geography out to Eurasia; all boast distinctive and internationally renowned scenes.  

But more pertinently, black metal has always forged strong links with place and nationhood. We see this replaying now with the rise of scenes in China, South America, and the Middle East. But in the European context, the UK – as should be abundantly clear by 2021 – is a uniquely contested group of islands. Scotland and Wales have a proud and rich cultural heritage that makes a point of its distinctiveness from England. Theirs is not just a story of national identity, but one that continues to be defined in part in antithesis to their former English oppressors. This point only intensifies if we look to Ireland.

Even looking at England’s internal frictions in isolation reveals an increasingly fractious collection of disconnected regions. Parts of the North and Midlands define their identity and pride in opposition to London and the South East, and Cornwall continues to nurture an enduring independence movement of its own.

“England” as a national identity was arguably dismantled for the sake of “Britain” once the United Kingdom had taken its place at the top of the imperial food chain. London and its orbital cities were stripped of local character for the sake of accommodating not just Scottish and Welsh identities under the banner of “Britain”, but also that of its many colonies around the globe. But today that empire is gone, and Scottish and Welsh nationalism is back in the mainstream consciousness, along with stark reminders of Northern Ireland’s second-class status in the eyes of many in Westminster. If the United Kingdom does break apart, whither England? And whither black metal?

We’ll dispense with the question couched within this question first, and detractors be damned. Venom were an offshoot of NWOBHM that dressed up the sound and ethos of this movement in comedic barbarian outfits and occult theatrics. The formula worked for them, and many took influence from it. But their actual musical achievements don’t take us much further than an aberration of heavy metal as it was in the early 1980s.  

Which leads us to that other internationally renowned bastion of UKBM, Cradle of Filth, who – given the above sketch of the foggy cultural boundaries that define these islands – in many ways fit the description of what English black metal should look like far more than their Geordie forebears. Broadly speaking, they lifted inspiration from gothic melodrama and literature from the Victorian era, which was itself a period defined by a new nostalgia for medieval architecture and occult English mythology, the vestiges of post-enlightenment Romanticism. The enlightenment was defined by the application of scientific rationality to every aspect of life from economics to anthropology, and informed the infrastructure and administration of imperialism. It’s backlash in the Romantic movement, along with the more populist notion of gothic horror, continued to garner popular attention throughout the 19th Century; the mad scientist, the tragic poet, the spectres of England’s pagan past, the new and exotic forms of mysticism brought back to London from the far reaches of the empire.

All was part-manufactured part-genuine cultural brew nurtured in the newly industrialised cities, defined by their stifling smog, poverty ridden slums, overcrowding, and a desperate search for a more spiritual notion of “England” beyond bourgeois capitalism. Imagined versions of England’s past lifted piecemeal from medieval and even pagan England, mixed in with complete fabrications and new ideas from abroad all fed into the strange miasma of Victorian thinking on nationhood. And Cradle of Filth in turn created a copy of a copy of this, and set it to music part way between Iron Maiden, early Emperor, Hammer Horror, and the English gothic doom of My Dying Bride and Anathema.

The fact that this amalgamation of clumsy stereotypes has become a shorthand for the worst ways in which black metal became commercialised in the 21st Century is well documented. What’s less examined but infinitely more interesting is the backlash that immediately followed in the mid-2000s. A new generation of English artists attempting to remedy the clunky treatment of nationhood found in Cradle of Filth looked to older or more authentic treatments of English heritage; much of which has been well documented in this piece by Tourmaline Films:

Whatever divergence in quality across these artists and the wider UK scene, the motivation to convey a sense of local identity in antithesis to received mainstream wisdom is apparent in many of these interviews. Whether it’s Winterfylleth emphasising an ancient yet pastoral form of Englishness that stands opposed to the forces of global capitalism, or Old Corpse Road’s quest for “Weird England” through buried folk tales and the peripheral lore of coastal and seafaring communities, or A Forest of Stars reclaiming Victorian histrionics in a more authentic and nuanced manner than Cradle of Filth ever did; all express a desire to reassert the continuity they embody with an English past that really existed, in opposition to the theme park world of Churchillian rhetoric, little England’s “Keep calm and carry on” ethos, the ghosts of imperialism, and the metropolitan urban sprawls that New Labour superficially cashed in on, whilst decimating working class communities in the name of globalisation, and sweeping away vestiges of England’s endlessly complex local histories in the process.

Other European nations have equally complex stories to tell. Other nations have collided with the ghosts of their history in recent years, playing this out in similarly multi-dimensional national dialogues. But few have been so contested as England’s, to the point where many have been questioning what England – if stripped of its oldest colonies in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – actually amounts to. Some have gone as far as to wonder whether England has existed at all for the last five hundred years or so; subsumed as it was under the manufactured umbrella of “Britain” for the sake of holding the empire together (see Alex Niven’s recent polemic New Model Island for example).

For this reason, drawing comparisons with European black metal may not be all that instructive. So maybe it’s time to look to our friends across the pond for instruction. As divergent and mismatched as our history may be, there are similarities of heritage and contested identities that could prove to be instructive for a locally orientated subculture such as black metal.

For one, the newness of the USA as a coherent entity combined with the multiplicity of old-world cultures that have gone into fashioning said identity has led to an equally ghostlike history of folklore and spiritualism; one whose mixed basis in fact and complete fabrication lends it a similar half-reality. But before we dive into a cultural survey of the USA as compared to England (sidestepping the genocidal and exploitative history of both nations in the process), it’s enough to note that the national antecedents that black metal tends to arise from are somewhat similar in both histories.

Both have crafted a chimera of national identities, both have taken on an artificial life of their own, and both have been subject to and made subjects of the whims of capitalism; England being the birthplace of modern capitalism, America its logical conclusion.

But America, unlike England, has a relatively rich and distinct history of black metal artists, one that often gets overlooked in favour of their ownership of death metal and thrash. If we set aside certain pretenders to a new black metal avant-garde in Liturgy, Deafheaven, and Krallice, or the blandist ethos of latter-day scene darlings such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch (although this in itself is an interesting and contested subject of study), America boasts a rich and characterful collection of black metal artists to rival many of the best in Europe. But more interestingly for our purposes, the philosophical drive underlying their music has an oddly locationless undercurrent to it. But through the means of creating music out of time and place, it takes on a uniquely American aspect.

Take the trajectory of Paul Ledney’s career in Profanatica/Havohej. On the face of it the philosophy behind his work was a blunt object: strip the blasphemy and religious fixations in metal of any reference to Satan and leave nothing but an obscene and unpoetic tirade of anti-Christian sentiment in its wake. But if we look at this as a continuation of a tradition started by Venom, Profanatica offer a uniquely American variant. By Americanising theatrical anti-religious feeling they also removed the whimsical irony and humour inherent in British treatments of…well, anything.

The result was music so potent in its hatred, so outrageously single minded and aggressive, so committed to achieving its end, that whether one’s reaction was repulsion or delight the impact was nevertheless undeniable; a subject worthy of closer study. But more importantly, it’s an approach few British acts have been able to replicate with success. Demoncy arguably follow in a similar vein, offering a more low-key variant of ultra-primitive, ritualistic black metal steeped in the occult and the bestial, but retaining a degree of sincerity and commitment starkly lacking in the layers of humour that we British insist on drenching everything with. Similarly, the early works of Krieg took the philosophy of hateful nihilism to its clunky extreme, and despite his first two albums being widely panned (including by Jameson himself) there is something compelling about these early forays into the limits of noise, free of irony or any wink to the audience. Only when Krieg attempted to formalise these loose concepts on ‘The Black House’ did the artistry lose its lustre.

If we look to someone like Absu, who took a more structured and formal approach to lyrical material and used it to inform their music, we see this American commitment to authenticity more starkly. In reaching to Sumerian and ancient Celtic mythology in something approaching a formal, academic methodology, Absu as a cultural artifact become far more compelling than the playful chimera’s of Dani Filth’s cultural and historical safaris. Averse Sefira took a similar approach. Their fixation on crafting music to exactly suit the underlying mysticism of their lyrical themes led to some of the most sophisticated black metal this side of the new millennium; completely devoid of any concern for whether an audience would be ready and willing to receive it in the intended manner.

Yamatu, VON, A Transylvanian Funeral/Temple of Abraxas, Judas Iscariot, all have followed in similar veins. You’ll note the focus is on ritualistic, mystical or occult USBM artists over those that attempted to draw inspiration from nature. This is entirely deliberate. Despite the USA boasting areas of outstanding natural beauty far surpassing the modest green pastures of England, the artists that have fed off this tend toward a more atmospheric or post black metal direction (WITTR, Panopticon, Agalloch), or else full-on medievalist/fantasy metal (Caladan Brood, Obsequiae). Connected but distinct is America’s ambient and depressive black metal traditions, but again, these artists tend to get so bogged down in high concepts that it begins to decay the actual musical output. The exceptions of quality (an I Shalt Become for instance) tend to be very stingy on curator notes to go with their output, using the music’s abstract qualities to their advantage.

So, what are the lessons to be taken from USBM from an English perspective? Well, the most obvious caveat is that this no attempt to write a formula for artistically successful black metal: “take 30% of your influence from natural landscapes, add 50% mysticism, and 20% fabricated history”. We are rather aiming to draw out broad themes and approaches that have worked in America to lay in stark contrast to those that have not worked in England, or at best had limited success. For example, the reason drawing on ancient mythologies works so well as a creative vehicle in black metal is not for the sake of national historical continuity, but the new worlds and entirely unique philosophical structures it allows the artist to create, using them to guide the tone and direction of the music. There’s no second guessing the authenticity, no barrier of irony, the music can be enjoyed by the listener with or without foreknowledge on the subject matter.

Of black metal that defines itself in terms of antithesis – the bloated profanations of Paul Ledney for example – there is nothing but utter commitment to artistic expression unshackled from knowing nods to the audience or ironic undertones. How this would translate in an England that prides itself on its sense of humour is hard to say. The rampant nihilism that sits underneath theatrical blasphemy could potentially be turned against the very notion of humour in artistry itself maybe, or mutated into an unending joke with no punchline.

The point is that many of these American artists reached straight to the core essence of black metal in a way that rivals their mainland European counterparts. This essence comes in many iterations, making specificity a fool’s errand. But beyond escapist platitudes about the alternative worlds black metal creates as a shelter from our living plastic tombs, it might be beneficial to be less literal. Black metal is a resounding yes to life, a line in the sand in defiance of the excesses of modernity, a challenge to the mores of contemporary music, and a vehicle for the individual to connect with an existence beyond their own sense of self.

The tentative steps UKBM – or rather English BM – has taken in this direction have thus far been just that: tentative. But the purposes of a music as enigmatic as black metal might be better served by the bold, brash, and ultimately unselfconscious iterations of USBM listed above. Imperfect, clumsy, and yes, sometimes comical. But undoubtedly far more artistically successful than English artists who have thus far merely attempted to link up with some unbroken thread of English history and culture that was never quite real in the first place. The lesson of USBM is this: if your surroundings can’t or won’t provide you with the soil on which to grow a distinctive identity, then craft one anew, unshackled from the limitations of place and local identity.

One thought on “The oxymoron of English black metal, and the lessons of USBM

  1. Fantastic article and insights! Enjoyed reading it a lot, unusual language for todays blogging standards and almost socio-psychological analysis of trends and BM history. Thank you for the effort composing this piece 🤘

    Like

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