Metal’s Retromania Part IV: the Icarus factor

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Dickensian cliches aside, the 1990s were perhaps the most forward looking and adventurous years for metal. Sure, we could analyse this decade as the regicide of death metal and thrash at the hands of alt metal (and later nu metal), we could analyse it as the final irrelevance of heavy metal, or fixate on the briefness of black metal’s tenure as a legitimate artform before its appropriation as goth carnival.

But if you fly too close to the sun, you will crash to earth. And throughout the 90s metal dared to push not just at its own borders but at the very edges of what contemporary music could and should look like. Whether it was producing some of its most sophisticated and rampantly creative works or making deals with music industry devils, the one thing on nobody’s mind was yesterday.

It was a decade that started with the final gasp of thrash metal. Megadeth had written their magnum opus in the form of ‘Rust in Peace’, Voivod had just released ‘Nothingface’ as a final farewell to metal altogether, and in 1991 Metallica finally turned off thrash’s life support machine for good with ‘The Black Album’. But the offspring of metal’s alpha male had grown from runt of the litter to clan chieftain by the early 90s. Death metal had finally become master of all it surveyed in both the commercial and artistic realms.

This wasn’t just a step beyond thrash in terms of extremity, this was metal shedding its rock roots and accessing new frameworks of music theory and emotive expression, severing its bonds with contemporary music almost entirely. Works like ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’, ‘Unquestionable Presence’, ‘Blessed are the Sick’, and ‘Nespithe’ were birthed from minds ripe with originality, offering an utterly novel approach to guitar based music. They were also completely unconcerned with their allegiance to, and place within, history. All that mattered was furthering metal as a sui generis form of musical expression, accessing places other counter cultures were unable to reach.

Black metal – in part born of a desire to rescue extreme metal from the clean and clinical direction of death metal by returning it to the primitivism of early Bathory and Celtic Frost – began to take metal in a totally different yet equally unique and ambitious direction. ‘Transylvanian Hunger’, ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’, ‘Far Away from the Sun’, ‘Dol Guldor’, and many others pushed at the boundaries of metal as a neo-romantic form of expression wholly divorced from anything resembling the rock allegiances of yesterday’s metal.

Where death metal saw order in the chaos and forged new worlds from the rubble, resurrecting music as an exercise in sonic extremity, black metal immersed us in textures from a deep past, from outside of individual experience and the immediacy of everyday life. Whether philosophical or spiritual, metal had truly transcended its context in the timeline of post war Western music.

The important thing to note about both these new pillars of metal was their scope as musical projects. It was not just the presentation, the aesthetic, or the ethos behind these works that spoke of music utterly divorced from its past, but the mechanics behind the compositions, the drive to push music beyond what had come before, to innovate new and unique approaches to music theory alongside technological advances that aided in this quest.

But they were not the only story to be told of metal’s severance with history in the 90s. Perhaps the most explicitly futurist arm of metal came to be in the form of industrial. Today the term has such a broad reach and mixed legacy that linguistic precision becomes a tedious necessity. Seeing its early lineage in Throbbing Gristle, Swans, Killing Joke, Fall of Because (later Godflesh), and Head of David, the repetitive, monotonous rhythmic pulses to motivate droning guitar chords or tonally neutral static had as much in common with hardcore punk and grindcore as it did anything remotely metal.

Indeed, this relationship to punk was solidified not just in the career of Justin Broadrick and his early association with Napalm Death, but also of Mick Harris’s dub project Scorn following his departure from the pioneering grindcore Brummies. As an aside, see also his collaboration with John Zorn in the form of grindcore cum jazz project PainKiller for another example of how metal became deeply embedded in the avant-garde by the early 1990s.

Skin Chamber

But it was the rise of Godlfesh, Pitchshifter, and Sonic Violence in the UK, and Ministry, Fear Factory, and Skin Chamber in the States that saw industrial become its own branch on metal’s ever more gnarly family tree. There was great potential in a style that took the expansive conceptual ambition of metal, the raw aggression of punk, the nihilism of early Swans, and blended this together into a rhythmic philosophy celebbrating the perseverance of artificial activity.

Work of actual quality from this left-field offshoot was in short supply however. With key artists barely managing more than one album apiece of truly innovative material. Its headier ambitions were quickly swept up into the long arms of a commercial music industry bent on selling “alternative” metal back to the kids.

Having clipped heavy metal’s wings and shaped it into a form of radio friendly rock in the 80s, and later forcing thrash metal into a box of groovy beats and power ballads, the music industry set its sights on the fresh blossoming of extreme metal which took root in the early 1990s.

Alt rock, whatever the term means now, could be viewed as a last gasp of the punk mentality as reinterpreted by Gen X. In his book “Capitalist Realism”, the cultural writer Mark Fisher noted that Nirvana were in a sense the embodiment of the punk philosophy at the point of its final defeat at the hands of the establishment. Kurt Cobain’s anguish went far deeper than political protest, it was anguish in the face of the entire complex of Western Globalisation and the empty consumerism at the heart of its promise of a life worth living. All found its expression in the vulnerable and emotive outpourings of early alternative rock.

Moneyed interests predictably smelt a quick buck, and slapped the “grunge” label onto it. This was later understood under the umbrella term “alternative rock”, a label used to coerce the last gasp of protest music into a consumer-friendly, homogenised package. Youthful ideals fraught with anxiety about the world they were to inherit were quickly sold back to the very same youth as crass angst in the form of the fledging nu metal genre. This not only killed industrial metal before it had a chance to realise its futurist ambitions, but it also brought death metal to heel by the mid-1990s, cutting off all but a few outliers of artistry by 1995. Whatever holdouts could be found in a ‘Diabolical Conquest’ or an ‘Obscura’ were the exceptions that proved the rule by the latter half of the decade.

Black metal in its purest form was unique in this regard. By its very nature it could not be repackaged for a commercial audience. By the mid 1990s metal as an exercise in extremity had reached its end game with the trial of Varg Vikernes. Thanks to the murder of Euronymous and the adversarial public pronouncements of its key figures, black metal had, in a sense, crossed the Rubicon, and gone where other countercultures were unable to tread. And for this crime alone it would be forever banished into ridicule.

The metal community at large would shun black metal, dismissing it as music for attention craving virginal males with no talent, hiding a lack of substance behind corpse paint and spikes. Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir would be the useful idiots in black metal’s decline as a serious and forward looking artform, willingly bringing it back into the fold of the commerical music complex by reducing the unselfconscious theatrics and limitless ambition of its inception to a series of empty and clownish gestures fitting of a Disney film.

The constant cycle of underground music birthing experimentation only to be neutered by commercial interests into a pop music format is not primarily a function of nostalgia. However, the need to concrete over nuance and cordon off ambiguous complexity is at the heart of capitalism’s relationship to art. And this inherent will to simplify carries within it the kernel for the nostalgia complex. Younger fans coming of age in the late 90s who were greeted by the newly packaged pop metal harvested from the underground would find themselves mourning the fact that they had missed a golden age of only a few years previous.

The desire to recreate the magic of the early 90s manifested itself as explicit nostalgia as the new century took shape. This is in direct contradiction to the original, unselfconscious drive to create the new. Not just to development forward looking music, but to express emotions and ideas that were simply inexpressible in the music that had preceded it. In the dying years of the 20th Century, metal had been around long enough for generational shifts to be a function of its development as an artform. Older artists wishing to return to their heyday, or kids idealising an era long before they were born, both are key factors feeding the nostalgia industry.  

We can see a foreshadowing of this in how older metal acts responded to the increasingly complex picture that unfolded throughout the 90s. Anthrax gave up on metal entirely, seeking new creative energy in their collaboration with Public Enemy. Judas Priest woke up to their complicity in the commercial excesses of the 80s by releasing ‘Painkiller’, something of a last gasp for “true” metal values before Halford embraced industrial music as an outlet. Slayer released ‘Undisputed Attitude’, a covers album attempting to bring punk and thrash back to its roots in the face of the fledging pop punk movement. And Metallica, never one to refuse a buck, embraced the alt rock trend with open arms, jettisoning any remaining dignity in the process.

Given all this, it becomes easier to see why the 90s were such an enigma for metal. Artistically it saw the highest peaks and lowest troughs within the movement. In his book “Retromania”, Simon Reynolds describes the brief periods of unbridled and forward-looking culture within contemporary music as the “present annexing the future”. Seen in this light, we could view the 90s as one long intoxicated frenzy. Under the influence we are wont to spit forth our most profound insights into the nature of existence. Yet we are also prone to uncontrollable and meaningless excesses.

The 90s could be summed up as a Bacchanalian fixation on the present. The community of artisans that make up metal – whether they were beholden to the puppeteers of big business or independently honing their craft – had no concern for the metal of yesterday. All that mattered was what could contributed to today. And this, as anyone who has been highly intoxicated will know, is very much akin to drunkenness. There is only now, and the only way you can interact with the now is by contributing to it. All else is peripheral. 

But as we know, what goes up, must come down, and down, and down. Just as the present annexes the future, drunkenness borrows happiness from tomorrow to use today. By the time the 2000s hangover kicked in there would be nothing left in the tank, leaving a scorched earth populated by metal-as-consumer-product. Another homogenised package sold back to us under the same roofs that sell us buckets of chicken and plastic happiness.  

Sure, a few brave outliers remained committed to the idea of metal as an artform. But the wider response from the underground, when it came, was the most explicit and enduring form of nostalgia yet to arise in metal, one that still dictates terms to this day. It would expel the quest for the “new” – once the very engine room of creativity – to a utopian dream pursued by a mere handful of outliers tweaking at the experimental borders of the genre.

Music from this point on would primarily be understood in terms of its relationship to the past. New releases were either explicitly pining for a lost golden age or indulging in a form of contrived futurism. This latter usually took the form of smuggling in nostalgia-as-innovation by mashing unrelated genres of the past together with little to integrate the competing and ill-matched influences into a unified work. These were predictably overhyped by the usual champions in the press, all too happy to spew out overcooked rhetoric to justify a facsimile of innovation. In reality, these works were a symptom of a much deeper malaise, a seemingly limitless compulsion to harvest imagery and symbolism from the past in order to contrive a hazy vision of a future that had long since slipped from our grasp.

“Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

Metal’s Retromania: Part I

Metal’s Retromnia Part II: the great explosion

Metal’s Retromania Part III: the eternal return

Metal’s Retromania Part V: whither is fled the visionary gleam?

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