Review – USBM: A Revolution of Identity in American Black Metal

By Daniel Lake, out on Decibel Books

The BBC is often accused of bias from both the left and the right. Many claim that this is a good thing, an indication that its reporting is honouring its core tenet of impartiality. So it would seem with Daniel Lake’s recent book ‘USBM: A Revolution of Identity in American Black Metal’. Despite the many glowing reviews, the book has received heat at one end for daring to mention Grand Belial’s Key and Inquisition, and from the other for including the likes of Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy.

Given the level of criticism Lake has managed to attract from all sides, what’s perhaps most remarkable upon reading ‘USBM’ is how little his own voice actually features. For the most part Lake adopts a Brothers Grimm stance to his subject matter, travelling the land, collecting stories from a myriad of artists across America with a view to document, not explain. He offers some brief thoughts on key releases, and the occasional exposition, but the vast majority of the text is made up of extensive interviews, allowing the diverse array of actors to tell their own stories.

The chapters are ordered roughly chronologically, or else in the case of simultaneous scene evolutions, by geography. This can get repetitive. As each new artist is introduced we have to read through the same story of how they discovered black metal through the trail of heavy metal, thrash, and death metal albums we’re all familiar with. The tales of interpersonal drama, disastrous tours, and the strained finances of underground scenes are retold by each new subject, the minutia of which may only be of interest to die-hard fans of particular artists.

But for those bands that the reader is less familiar with, it’s still worth at least skimming through their chapters. They all contribute to the faint narrative arc that gradually takes shape as the book develops. The evolution of USBM is traced from the early days of isolated artists splitting away from thrash and death metal in the 1980s and 90s. VON, Profanatica, Absu, Black Funeral, Judas Iscariot, and Krieg all feature heavily early on.

What becomes apparent is not just the isolation of these artists within an American metal scene that was openly hostile to black metal, but also their struggle for legitimacy alongside their European counterparts. The introduction attempts to address America’s second tier status in the world of black metal. Whilst it’s definitely true that certain individuals may have been done wrong by an aggressively hostile European scene, it’s difficult to have sympathy with a broader argument that positions America as an underdog in this regard, given its long history of cultural imperialism and appropriation.

That being said, I’ve written extensively elsewhere on UKBM’s potential affinity with USBM, and the lessons we Brits can learn given the ghostly and chimerical forms our national identities tend to adopt. What both nations have in common historically directly impacts our confused and divisive relationship with black metal, one that never troubled mainland Europe or South America in much the same way, leaving the UK and the US to beg, steal, and borrow their interpretations of the style.

This is where the difficulties of structuring a book such as this become apparent. American artists have wildly divergent ideas of what black metal should be. By carefully ordering each artist’s vignette to provide context to the next, Lake deserves credit as a curator as well as writer. America is a big place, both geographically and culturally. Maybe not quite as divergent as the distinct European nations where black metal scenes took hold, but covering California, Washington State, Chicago, New York and many places in between without making ‘USBM’ into an unwieldly tome deserves praise.

But here is where the book’s central argument for the legitimacy of American black metal  warrants more serious consideration. The narrative that does emerge as we move from the Californian millennial wave in Weakling, Ludicra, through to Leviathan and Xasthur, is the individualism at the heart of USBM. Although this era is decried as the origin story of “hipster black metal”, it’s worth asking why this pedestrian interpretation of the form took root in America specifically, and found solidification in the confused intellectualism of Liturgy, Deafheaven, and Krallice et al.  

Although Jef Whitehead and Scott Conner come off relatively unscathed in the book, betraying embarrassment at the DSBM label their music got tagged with and speaking of their hopes for legitimacy in taking black metal “out of the bedroom”, there remains a starkly individualist attitude colouring their understanding of black metal, one which has forever shackled USBM to second tier status. As divergent as Europe’s various takes on black metal were – both in quality and style – the underlying ethos was always about connecting with something beyond the self, a universe far larger and more dangerous than our immediate experiences.

But with each fresh interview in ‘USBM’ the American dedication to individualism becomes apparent, as artist after artist describes black metal as a thing to be appropriated in order to express some personal inner turmoil. This domestication of black metal robs it of its uniqueness as one of the few expressive nodes within the lexicon of contemporary music capable of giving voice to forces beyond the self.

And this, ultimately, is why the US never fully grasped black metal to the extent that Europe, South America, and more recently China has. This book is a valiant attempt to salvage this prejudice, and many of the individual artists in its pages are indeed “worth celebrating”. But the fact remains that as long as black metal is understood as a means of personal expression it loses its sui generis aspects and becomes yet more material for atomised self-help quests. (And what quests they are, with many of the milestone albums mentioned in ‘USBM’ dispensing with the sparse brevity of classic black metal runtimes, instead reaching the hour mark with ease.)

Of course there are exceptions, especially among the early progenitors such as Absu and Demoncy, and many acts that simply took a pre-set style like blackened thrash (Goatwhore) or symphonic black metal (Ceremonial Castings) and added worthy entries to the respective canons of these genres.

Other exceptions to this rule who explicitly identified with the Scandinavian style are traced out of the Pacific Northwest and Cascadia. But aside from the truly unique medievalist approach taken by Obsequiae, the widespread appeal of many of these artists remains a mystery. Try as I might, all I can garner from the legacy of an Agalloch or a Wolves in the Throne Room is that of taking the most exhilarating, dangerous, and life affirming forms of contemporary music imaginable and somehow reinterpreting it as a boring and sterile experience. Whether Lake and other’s attachment to these artists is sincere or sentimental is not my place to say. The fact remains that they have an audience, and it would be criminal to omit them from a book on USBM.

Lake attempts to frame a hostility such as mine as the push and pull of old and new (or worse, false vs. true), with the indie bands featured in the final chapters of the book positioned as the new, and the likes of Profanatica and Grand Belial’s Key squarely as the old. But as time moves on, framing the debate in this way looks increasingly suspicious, a red herring that metal badly needs to move past if it is to endure.

Beyond overtly retro albums, or explicit “genre” releases, occasionally there appears those truly avant-garde releases that justify their own existence without the need for curator notes, music that leaves us grasping in the dark for language to describe it. These works tend to happen at a flashpoint between old and new, between “the museum curator and the maverick”. To be fair to Lake, he all but acknoweldges this point in the final chapter of the book. But I honestly cannot say that this third definition has anything to do with the latter-day saints of American black metal. John Haughm of Agalloch in particular shows his hand with this telling quote:

While we were writing [The Mantle], we were going through a period where we didn’t really listen to metal as much. We were exploring other forms of music. I personally hated metal culture at the time. Everything we did on that album ended up being a ‘fuck you’ to the typical metal image and lifestyle…We were influenced by everything but metal on that album

Similar sentiments can be found in the chapter on Gilead Media who originally signed Krallice.

The idea of lifting black metal textures piecemeal and applying them to a new brand of indie music is benign enough. But it remains unclear why these same individuals, who apparently don’t really like or understand metal, are suddenly laying claim to determining its future? Genre eclecticism is not an end in itself, and given that many of the interviewees lack the artistic chops to back up their statements, they amount to nothing more than blowing an obsolete raspberry at traditionalist bogeymen.

The chapter on Liturgy proves particularly illuminating in this regard. The treatment of Hunt-Hendrix following Transcendental Black Metalgate remains a particularly dark moment for 21st Century metal. This is made even more apparent following her account of events in ‘USBM’, as she explains her attraction to black metal, her motivation for incorporating elements of it into the avant-garde approach of Liturgy, and the limited academic environment that the controversial ‘Transcendental Black Metal’ essay was originally intended for. What becomes apparent is how little Liturgy wanted to be involved in black metal at all, and were it not for some chance bookings with some metal bands and snowballing media coverage, the metal community would have been none the wiser.

Whether Hunt-Hendrix’s ideas about black metal hold any merit is really by the by, as is the question of whether Liturgy’s cross pollination of styles – one of which happens to be black metal – has anything to do with the scene that repudiated her. What matters is that somewhere in between is a yawning chasm in which there is ample room for a respectful intellectual and artistic difference of opinion. Hunt-Hendrix values very different aspects of black metal to dyed-in-the-wool fans like myself, but none of that justifies the venomous barbs levelled at her as a person.

In the spirit of respectful differences of approach then, it’s enough to say that it’s all well and good decrying metal’s oftentimes confusing genre dogmas, it’s another thing entirely to simply throw out the ethos of metal wholesale and dress this grandiose retconning as a bold leap forward for the genre.

That being said, their willingness to mesh genres holds many important lessons for metal at large. Especially if it is to survive for the next fifty years. The output of a Liturgy or a Deafheaven may not square up to the insufferable praise that is lavished upon their work, but the fact remains that their scorched earth policy toward metal’s genre dogma was a step that needed to be taken. And it leaves the door wide open for more nuanced and ambitious artistic minds to carry the mantle, one that still retains the unity of purpose and longform ambition of metal as an idea if not as a strictly defined set of musical parameters.

One unique positive of USBM that does come to light throughout this book however is the comradery between what at times were very isolated musicians. Neil Jameson of Krieg is a frequent voice throughout the book, as is Jef Whitehead of Leviathan, both offering sincere words of praise and admiration for their fellow artists. This communal spirit in American black metal that grew from the solitary and restrictive environment foisted on them by the wider American metal scene that refused to accept black metal’s legitimacy is a heart-warming undercurrent that runs throughout the narrative.

Another fascinating theme of ‘USBM’ – especially for aging millennials such as myself – is the early 2000s era this book largely centres around. The book slowly progresses through the dying days of tape trading culture in the 1990s, to the rise of the internet as the universal infrastructure through which metal was negotiated by the 2000s. It becomes unsettling reading about my years spent on Myspace and MSN as a relic of history. But as the tension between early social media forays and black metal’s antagonistic ethos become more explicit with each new chapter, the changes wrought on our culture in the last twenty years becomes increasingly apparent. 

And lastly, I guess we should address the “bad shit”. To Lake’s credit he frontloads the book with a chapter addressing this head on, seeing as a number of the artists featured are either associated with far-right ideologies or have been convicted of serious crimes. Lake attempts a refreshingly sober and balanced tone, sidestepping the rampant hysteria this topic tends to inspire. Yes, these individuals have done or said things beyond the pale and should be condemned for it. But to exclude them from history is a form of self-denial.

Whilst Lake acknowledges the cognitive dissonance most black metal fans live with, he leaves it largely up to the reader to figure out where their own boundaries lie, implying that the lines of acceptability in this area are deeply personal. Given today’s age of social media storms I can understand Lake’s reluctance to weigh in too heavily on this, positioning himself as a facilitator of the debate rather than an opinion maker*.

Despite my misgivings with the book and the subtextual hierarchy of old vs. new that emerges in the second half, it makes for a fascinating document of some fascinating music. Every artist featured has earnt their place in its pages. And this point goes for the maligned “hipster” metal of the book’s final chapters as much as anyone else. For better or worse their contribution has shaped the direction of extreme metal in the new millennium, and simply omitting them entirely would be disingenuous. We may be none the wiser as to what these artists have to say about the future of black metal, but it is at least clear that their postmodern outlook leads them to value very different facets of this music to those prized by stuffy modernist/incrementalists such as myself.

‘USBM’ also works as a curious first step for extreme metal as it attempts to formally take stock of its evolution under the increasing scrutiny engendered by social media, its benefits and dangers. It serves as a reminder that we have lived through a truly unique period for culture at large, one that we are only just beginning to come to terms with. And if for no other reason than this the book is well worth picking up.

*I’m glad you asked. My feelings on this are forever evolving, as everyone’s should be. Currently I take the view that to treat these things in isolation as the behaviour of a few bad apples is a dangerous road to go down. Fascism in the 1930s was not the result of a few bad apples, but the culmination of centuries of antisemitism in Europe, a rising interest in eugenics, and unchecked capitalist greed amongst Europe’s core powers in the first decades of the 20th Century. Fascism’s appeal was born not of pure evil alone, but historical precedent alongside a viciously slick propaganda machine that captured the imagination of millions, proposing a genuinely ambitious vision of what their future could be. To shut ourselves off from these facts is to shut ourselves off from an understanding of how fascism gains traction.

We can and we must condemn individual actions and actors whilst still acknowledging that the danger of this music is part of its appeal. Just as we can admit that part of the appeal of a Panopticon is down to Austin Lunn’s impeccable politics. The world is not ok, and toxic ideologies do not spring from nowhere, nor are they all devoid of any appeal to those who consider themselves progressive. Turning away from this is to shut ourselves off from certain aspects of reality that warrant closer scrutiny. Those interested in black metal are presumably drawn in part to its extremity, and to demand that all those who create it share a similar worldview is pure fantasy. Black metal says “yes” to aspects of life and reality that are either distasteful or utterly forbidden by the tenets of consumer capitalism, and this point extends well beyond its relationship to extremist politics.

Is toxic ideology baked within the core of black metal? Or is it the result of a few bad apples? These are the wrong questions to ask. The real question should be: what is the cost of ideological purity? A society where fascist ideologies do not take root can only be built by structural changes that address the causes and not the symptoms. An incessant moralism that seeks to weed out every individual instance of fascism may feel necessary, but it ignores the collective dimension of struggle for justice, favouring instead public flayings designed to sooth personal guilt, a guilt born of our own complicity in the injustices that capitalism forces us to inflict on each other every day.  

Until that time, we have to find a way to deal with the fact that extreme people make art, and as any Burzum fan will attest, some of it is deeply profound. In understanding this, the real question then becomes: is their music profound because there are aspects of this extremity that we share? And if the answer is yes, then surely their art should in part be used as a vehicle for deep and honest personal scrutiny. This acknowledgement is not tantamount to complicity, nor is it a demand that black metal needs to remain trve to retain legitimacy, and to paint such a black and white picture of our relationship to the arts is an act of reckless cowardice. 

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