Metal’s Retromania Part VI: until the light takes us

This series is a result of one of many book clubs that formed during lockdown. A friend put forward a book by music journalist Simon Reynolds’ called ‘Retromania’, an exploration of the nostalgia cult within pop culture. Many of the themes outlined by Reynolds resonated deeply, and his implicit invitation to his readers to apply his ideas to one’s own experiences of culture led me to writing the ‘Metal’s Retromania’ series. The backbone of my own attempt to make sense of the endemic nostalgia within metal has centred on an analysis of metal in terms of a perpetual push and pull between the forces of regression and progression. Those few flashpoints that escaped this cycle produced music we repeatedly return to: NOWBHM, early thrash, late 80s death metal, mid 90s black metal. They are defined by the fact that, as far as is possible, they dispensed with chronological context entirely.

Despite the many hotly disputed artists and albums within the metal community, an enduring consensus continues to surround the metal canon. Each major subgenre has its body of works that are generally accepted as classics, and the content of these canons rarely changes. The persistence of this consensus can in part be explained by the fact that the majority of the works and artists that make up the metal canon emerged at unique moments of flux.  

Since its inception, metal has been a self-mythologising subculture. The self-sustaining community of artisans – fed by an army of teenage recruits whose rites of passage include an intimate knowledge of the subculture’s history and mores – are engaged in a constant process of research, revision, discussion, and interpretation. This hyper self-awareness creates a paradox for the musicians themselves. As the factory floor at the heart of the movement, they are creatively free in the sense that anything goes; drama, extremity, aggression, orchestration, theatre, compositional complexity, and a degree of flamboyance which is utterly disallowed in the restrained “cool” of parallel subcultures. But this freedom may well be an illusion when we consider that it must be understood and enjoyed within very strictly defined parameters. Parameters which themselves remain hotly disputed.

Whenever metal has reached a state of total transcendence of time and place it has not simply dispensed with these parameters, it has acted as if they never existed in the first place. This is why artist’s who self-consciously attempt to reach forward – various progressive subgenres, the futurism of industrial metal, the post black metal tendency – so often produce works straight from the uncanny value. They look like a new chapter in metal’s evolution, but beneath the veneer are often found wanting; ghostly effigies formed of disparate spare parts of discarded histories, hastily stitched together in desperation to find the novel.

The internet poured gasoline on the already volatile compulsion for historical self-awareness in metal. In Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Retromania’ there is a particularly interesting discussion around the compulsion to archive every fragment of our history facilitated by the internet. Written in 2011, this comment on Youtube rings truer today than ever before:

We have available to us, as individuals, but also at the level of civilisation, immensely more ‘space’ to fill with memorabilia, documentation, recordings, every kind of archival trace of our existence. And naturally, we are busily filling that space, even as its capacity continues to balloon. Yet there is no evidence that we have significantly increased our ability to process or make good use of all that memory*

This will be our jumping off point to wrap up this series and insert ourselves into the decade that was: the 2010s. How has metal applied the revolutionary tools of internet databases, streaming services, and social media? Has it made “good use of all that memory”? There are two ways to look at this question. One is a direct treatment of how the music itself has adapted in this new environment. The other is to look at the changing picture of metal’s infrastructure through which the community sustains and understands itself.

From a purely musical perspective, granting fans instant, free, and unlimited access to any moment in history has exacerbated a pre-existing compulsion within metal fandom to idealize yesterday. “Old school” is now a subgenre tagged onto to each major branch of the family tree. Artists born decades after the heyday of a particular style take great pride and care in authentically imitating and recreating the music of the past, everything from the aesthetic of promo flyers, a newfound appetite for cassettes, hand drawn artwork, analogue recording techniques, and obtaining period correct gear, all are highly prized markers of quality.

This old school movement was in part a direct response to the cold digitisation of the metal aesthetic in the late 1990s and early 00s. Everything from garish album covers rendered on early Photoshop (many of which would later become memes), the triggered drums and heavy handed compression that led to rampant uniformity in sound, marketing campaigns and press releases that looked more like corporate events than a subculture, festivals as theme parks, branded kitchenware. All this created a state of blind panic. Had we well and truly dispensed with metal’s promise as a grassroots, fan led movement?

The quest to reassert the DIY aesthetic triggered by this panic begins to look like an entirely logical response. And the internet was there, ready and waiting to aid in this quest. Thanks to the pioneering archival work of its early converts, it offered the most immediate escape from metal’s assimilation into the culture industry by allowing younger musicians to simply replicate the alleged authenticity of the past.

By definition, the music to emerge from this movement had a shelf-life. There are only so many times we can analyse new albums in terms of its loyalty and treatment of specific historic markers. From Black Sabbath clones to old school death metal, surely this demand has its limits? Perhaps more pertinently however, as Simon Reynolds points out, what happens when we run out of past to revive?

As urgent as this question may seem, it is not a fundamental concern to out and proud revivalists. Having selected their style and identified their audience, both parties are happy repeating a variation of the same moment in history ad infinitum. Fans liked that thing you did, and they would like another one. This question should rather be addressed to the heir apparents of metal’s future. From the facsimile of progressive death metal in a Blood Incantation, the lawless avant-gardism of a Liturgy, the progressive pop metal of a Gojira, an Enslaved, a Meshuggah, or the will to dispense with metal music entirely and retain an as yet ill-defined “spirit of metal”, all come up against the same roadblock: the limits of genre alchemy.

Genre alchemy is an important facet of musical evolution. But the explicit iteration that is currently being celebrated by larger metal publications is often championed as revolutionary. Its proponents aggressively defend it as expression without borders, a middle finger to metal’s notorious gatekeeper boogeymen, or just plain old-fashioned fun. But the underlying discomfort I feel when confronted by some artists heralded as the way forward for metal is a kind of temporal whiplash. A form of rampant postmodernism that deliberately stands outside of context, and therefore can provide no context – no meaning or commentary – on the present moment. From the overt historicism of Wardruna and Heilung, to nu metal’s redemption in the form of trap metal, to any number of progressive or post offshoots, these impulses are not so much about finding inspiration in other subgenres as they are a move to escape metal itself.

Seen in this light, the champions of metal’s future look more like the retro complex once removed. In defining their artistic endeavours as a rejection of the conscious impulse to revive the past, they embark on a quest to meld metal with disconnected artefacts lifted from global music history in its entirety (a quest happily aided by the internet), with a view to dispense with the very idea of metal itself. Whether this results in truly sui generis music that can be analysed without reference to stylistic crossroads or rattling off the genres that make an appearance within each album is probably too soon to say. At present the experience of listening to some modern metal is akin to skipping through a hastily assembled playlist on shuffle, connected by only the loosest of themes. It is music that appropriates certain metallic qualities, but when it comes to the future of metal itself it has very little to say.

Even the deeper dives into history taken by the fledging Nordic folk movement – not so much retro as archaic – are a very postmodern response to conditions and events that seem to be running out of our control. A direct descendent of Western counterculture’s interest in paganism as a means to eschew Judeo-Christian globalism, Nordic folk is another iteration of mining the past in order to give voice to a very modern (and understandable) disaffection with the present.

But no matter how sincerely one attempts to pay homage to the music and traditions of European paganism, it remains defined by something exterior to the music itself. How historically accurate is it? Is it nothing more than a glorified re-enactment? If it’s conscious of its own inauthenticity, then what does it amount to as an artistic statement? Is it nothing more than an elaborate expression of panic, a resounding “not that” to a civilisation that could well be the end of humanity’s short tenure on this planet?

Perhaps more pertinently however, Nordic folk was able to reach a semblance of popularity for the same reason old school revivalist genres were able to gain such traction. The last twenty years have been characterised by a certain atomisation of fandom. Everyone gets to have a say. New bands can form, record, and release material in the space of a week. Amateur critics can churn out reviews and commentary and share these with a global audience instantaneously. Whilst these democratic ideals should be celebrated, not least for breaking the hegemony of major labels and publications filled with paid-up sycophants, it has meant that movements that truly grab and pull a wider population with them have struggled to take root. With so many voices being added to the fray, new bands (barring a few notable exceptions) struggle to attract anything more than a modest following.

Retro doom metal, OSDM, pizza thrash, sword and sorcery power metal, Nordic folk, all manage to subvert this trend by tapping into pre-existing familiarities. The tropes they appropriate, the aesthetic, worldview, and image they put across have already been established in the minds of the audience. In a sense they have a readymade fanbase, waiting and eager to lap up another re-affirmation of these agreed upon symbols.

Looking at metal as a perpetual re-enactment of real or imagined pasts on the one hand, and the identification of metal itself as something to be transcended on the other, the contemporary picture begins to look like a crisis of existential scope. We as citizens of metal, armed with a library of information and resources unimaginable just a few short decades ago, are trapped into analysing every step, every new develop, every self-certified bold leap forward in terms of its sensitivity to history. Does it revel in the past, or does seek to shred context entirely?

But it’s worth cutting short this line of inquiry for the simple reason that the picture is obviously not that simple. Parallel to metal’s expansion backwards or forwards through time has been its rise as a truly global phenomenon. The picture on the ground may well give the impression of an overly curated mess of false starts and replays, but the global picture tells a different story. From the Middle East to Africa to China, musicians are creating music in every subset of metal that is unapologetically itself. By that I mean that it comes with very little in the way of explanation, historical forethought, or deliberate references to metal of the past or present. It simply exists. From the new wave of Chinese black metal championed by labels like Pest Productions, to the bracing thrash and death metal emerging from Chile, to the longevity of Eastern Europe’s pagan metal movement. If I was a betting man I would place money on these being the next hotspots for metal’s evolution, both in a sonic sense but also in terms of ethos and worldview (It’s not in my gift to decide this future, but for those interested in specific artists I would hold up as examples of this, my 2020 retrospect and new avant-garde lists offer some starting points).

Chile’s Demoniac

The underlying thread to a lot of this music is the fact that the novelty is subtle, not self-congratulatory, sonically familiar yet compellingly new, there is no need for the contextual hyperbole that usually accompanies the artists of tomorrow vaunted in major metal publications. But I would argue that it’s this very incrementalism that will give these new shoots their greater longevity. Because the point is not simply a musical one.

I may be straining my consummate optimism here, but I believe the rather bleak account of the 2010s thus far given in this article is only one possible future for metal. Metal has taken one path in response to the internet and the changes it imposes on contemporary culture, and I believe that path has been followed to its logical conclusion. The other possible future that has yet to fully emerge is a reckoning with the awesome power the internet offers for grassroots action, for groups of likeminded people to organise, share, and sustain culture as a form of community as a well as an artistic outlet. If we set aside legitimate preoccupations over the music itself for a moment, this is where metal begins to look like a means by which to organise in defiance of the culture industry itself. In his essay ‘Metal is Radical’, metal academic David Burke states that:

This [disillusionment with the State of Things] derives from the scale of the project metal wishes to undertake in the world, aiming for a total transcendence of the present, a revolution which has the force to shrug off all the symbols metal currently contents itself with inverting. The intended result…is freedom, both from the imposition of tyranny, and to engage in transformation.

He continues:

However, it must be admitted that currently the metal community is only partially conscious of its own endeavours. Most musicians are, quite rightly, caught up in the moment and the process, whilst…juggling employment and family alongside, although political radicalism is increasing in metal following wider discursive trends. Here we also see the labour of love that typifies the metal subculture, its own world of micro-commerce sustained with limited recourse to Big Business. Hardly anyone makes money in metal, but it really doesn’t seem to matter. Compared to most subcultures, the ratio of producer to consumer in metal is relatively high – if you’re not in a band, you might be a promoter, a designer, a web developer, a journalist – which is one of the reasons that the culture has persisted and grown, long after it was largely abandoned by major labels and removed from MTV. The devotion that metal inspires is truly a rhizomatic desiring-production, which blossoms constantly into new intensities and radical disjunctions (dissonance, bizarre time signatures, genre fusion, etc.) and can be harnessed to do more.*

Metal is a self-sustaining community of artisans. If you are not a musician, you are a promoter, an artist, a label owner, an amateur journalist. Even the average fan is so heavily invested in the culture that they go to great lengths to learn and retain intimate details on a vast body of knowledge. They radically alter their physical image in order to be easily identifiable to others, often with a personal and professional cost. Metal’s self-mythologisation, identified as an Achilles heel at the start of this article, could well be its greatest strength. Regardless of whether new music is more of the same, proudly historical or clumsily seeking the “new”, it will be nurtured, supported, analysed, and ultimately given meaning under the care and protection of metal’s proudly communal population.

The internet, a tool so radical that it had to be immediately brought heel by neo-liberalism, is still the means by which metal could once again re-negotiate and understand its place in the world. A community of volunteers, creating, distributing, and evaluating important cultural artefacts, and doing so in a context that is at last unshackled from the totalitarianism of the capitalist economic model. If this nurturing environment is maintained, and if – as Burke points out – metal can become more aware of its potential as a movement, I remain confident that the Retromania complex within metal that has come to define its 21st Century musical iterations will become a mere footnote when the next fifty years of metal’s history come to be written.

Atvm, London, summer 2021

*Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania. Faber and Faber

*Burke, D. (2020). Metal is Radical. Bath Spa University

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