Review – Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge

By Keith Kahn-Harris, 2007

Reading ‘Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge’ in 2022 is an odd experience, juxtaposing the quaint with the prophetic. Quaint that there was once a time when such an academically thorough survey of extreme metal was even possible within one compact volume. Prophetic because extreme metal – ever the self-contradictory belligerent of underground music – is fulfilling Harris’s hopes for the scene but in perhaps the most characteristically painful and slow manner possible.

The book itself is an attempt to position extreme metal within contemporary society from a sociological rather than musical/cultural perspective. This makes it refreshingly free of anecdotes and dry accounts of band personnel. Written at a time when extreme metal was perhaps at its most peripheral, it could also be read as a farewell to the scene as a non-digital phenomenon. The predictions for what the internet – such as it was in the mid-2000s – meant for the future of extreme metal are kept tentative, whilst much energy is spent on how metal’s older non-digital natives built the scene around them in the 1980s and 90s. Detailed accounts of the paper correspondence, independent print media, and of course tape trading that was necessary to fashion and sustain the scene in its germinal phase sit alongside an acknowledgement that these arcane and rather intimate forms of correspondence were becoming less relevant in the 2000s with the rise and rise of social media.

Before we go further, we should address the tone and intention of this book. It approaches its subject matter from the orientation of empirical research. Those not used to academic writing may find this jarring at first. Harris spends considerable energy defining words like “space” as the dimension in which scenes play out, dedicating much ink to locating extreme metal within the nexus of modern society, economies, and political climates to an extent some readers may not be used to. But for what is essentially an academic study, Harris is eminently readable.

Another point to note is the academic orientation itself. The book takes empirical research in the form of interviews, data on record labels, publications, releases, and various media accounts and uses this to fashion a thesis on extreme metal as a transgressive musical movement. This again stands apart from armchair rhetoricians who make it their business to lob value judgements into the fray, attempting to reposition the various narratives of extreme metal with an explicit agenda in mind.

That’s not to say that Harris is without agenda, but the intention is focused toward illuminating these learnings from the manner in which scene members create and maintain infrastructure, attitudes, and imagery over a detailed analysis of the music itself and its complex and contested evolution since the early 1980s.  

In attempting to place the narrative of this book from outside of the scene, Harris must take the proclamations and accepted doctrines of the genre at face value, including the many infantile pronouncement of the interviewees that make up the research.

For instance, an analysis of national differences in scenes looks first at the social and economic conditions of each country, not on an evaluation of the key bands and developments within the scene, which are taken as a given. But as the book progresses, the thesis gradually emerges. In situating extreme metal as transgressive, Harris must spend considerable time reconciling definitions of transgression with extreme metal’s famously dogmatic and often contradictory rules, and the hard line conservative attitudes adopted by many of its members.

Extreme metal – according to the book – is transgressive in the sense that it pushes at and breaks the boundaries of the society’s surrounding it, invoking “the joys and terrors of formless oblivion within the collective, while simultaneously bolstering feelings of individual control and potency”. This takes on three variants. The sonic, meaning the musical excesses of extreme metal. The discursive, meaning an engagement with extreme subject matter. And lastly bodily transgression, an interest in music as a physical experience, engagement in violence or substance abuse, and even suicide and murder.                                                                                                                                                   

These are broad concepts designed to yield greater explanatory power when applied to specifics. For instance, extreme metal is not sonically transgressive just for the sake it. It is more a flirtation with formless chaos as a means of exercising or “proving” one’s control over the void. Equally, although extreme metal is discursively transgressive, it remains fixated on a limited set of themes that are generally blocked by other cultural movements; death, violence, gore, the occult, and far right politics, but ambivalent about the possibility of social redemption, sexual transgression, or anything considered traditionally “effeminate”. And lastly, although bodily transgression is observable within extreme metal, its relationship to sex, dance, substance abuse, and bodily modification remains highly policed, contested, and limiting.

In identifying these contradictions, Harris must then allow for them in his theoretical framework. As we are dealing with a piece of empirical research, this must come first through a review of the ontology of various scenes. What follows is a surprisingly detailed analysis of fanzines, magazines, tape traders, correspondence between scene members, and interviews. All of which are used to paint a picture of the “space” in which the scene plays out, but more importantly this is frequently related back to the economic and geographic context.

Although the first half of the book makes for a curious read stylistically and methodologically, there are perhaps few revelations to be had for readers already immersed in extreme metal. The second half is where things become really interesting however.

Harris deploys the concept of subcultural capital adapted from Bourdieu’s cultural capital, which is achieved – as one may expect – through understanding the scene’s many shibboleths, its lore and history, but also understanding how to act and carry oneself in certain situations, how to “perform” the role of being a scene member.

Subcultural capital therefore takes on two forms. The mundane, which broadly covers the depth of knowledge, understanding, and vocabulary we as fans gather and deploy, but could also cover a knowledge of the institutions and practices within the scene, requiring a direct involvement with said institutions to acquire. Members are said to undertake “careers” within the scene, as musicians, promoters, publishers, and record label owners, activities that demand an enormous amount of day to day admin, and are subject to certain collective expectations of how we should conduct ourselves within the scene. Harris therefore places mundane subcultural capital as a collective act, in that we apply it to sustaining and maintaining the scene, not just through archiving, documenting, and preserving knowledge, but also by understanding the “right” ways to conduct business with each other, what we owe to fellow scene members and the shared sacrifice and voluntary labour we are each expected to commit.

Transgressive subcultural capital by contrast eschews extreme metal as a collective endeavour, and emphasises difference and independence of thought; the entirety of or the Norwegian black metal scene being obvious examples of this.

The scene requires both to survive. For instance, I’m currently volunteering my free time by listening to new albums for a ‘Beats and Yelling’ review feature whilst pouring through the dogeared pages of a book on extreme metal in order to share said content with a given readership. But I also intend to introduce “transgressive” elements into my reviews that I hope will mark me out as an independent thinker, at odds with orthodoxy, and highly critical of group-think within the scene. We could also understand this through the lens of change and stasis; in maintaining the scene do we too readily allow it to fall into complacency and homogeneity? Or, in demanding more of the scene in explicitly combative terms, do we risk discouraging newcomers, musical growth, and the willingness to evolve?                

Harris introduces nu metal as a fascinating case study in the exercise of subcultural capital:

“Even if the scene has become musically diverse in the 1990s, that diversity is still founded on members paying due respect to the history of the scene. Since the display of historical knowledge is a crucial way of gaining mundane subcultural capital, nu metal bands have effectively excluded themselves from gaining capital within the extreme metal scene.”

From here Harris finally enters the arena through the concept of “reflexivity”. Reflexive communities are continually active and self-aware of themselves as communities, they continually problematise their own existence, members self-consciously and willingly throw themselves into the community, and they “are founded on the breakdown of certainty that modernity engenders, but they nonetheless avoid the atomization of individuals. They offer the empowerment of reflexivity without its concomitant insecurity”.

There’s one problem with applying this to extreme metal however, illustrated in this priceless passage referencing the fanzine Imhotep from 1997:

“‘As some have probably noticed we (Euphonious Records/Voices of Wonder DK where I work) have placed an anti-nazi logo on our releases. This doesn’t mean we are n*****-lovers or something like that. But since Voice of Wonder have been accused of being a nazi-label several times we just had enough!!’

The temptation would be to rely on an easy explanation for this quotation – that Peter Mesnickow is a complete idiot. To put this in more sociological terms, in not attending to the obvious contradiction between printing anti-Nazi logos and using the term ‘n***** lovers’, Mesnickow appears to be demonstrating a failure to be fully reflexive.”

This individual is aware that racism is bad, yet engages in explicitly racist language, simultaneously anticipating and appeasing criticism from an overtly racist fanbase, whilst acknowledging that their actions have real world consequences, he attempts to be trying to placate both racist and anti-racist fans whilst being unaware of the impossibility of this project.

Ultimately what Harris is driving at here is extreme metal’s technique for dealing with the unsayable. In creating a space for extreme viewpoints to exist in the open, it must also acknowledge that such viewpoints are damaging, so in order to resolve this contradiction it reverts to deafening and (to outsiders at least) baffling silences. But it is not the case that extreme metal actors are simply ignorant, they are rather what Harris calls “reflexively anti-reflexive”, in that they know the rules but refuse to acknowledge them. We maintain the “illusion that the world is simple and obvious…If unreflexivity is ’not knowing better’ and anti-reflexivity is ‘not wanting to know’, then reflexive anti-reflexivity is ‘knowing better but deciding not to know’.”

Harris takes humour as the most appropriate starting point to unpack this concept, via Immortal’s infamous ‘At the Heart of Winter’ photo shoot. Like a wish you must not utter out loud lest it never come true, Immortal appear to be deliberately provoking us to laugh, but we have all collectively agreed not to know any better, thus maintaining the power of the myth. Extreme metal’s ability to absorb humour whilst maintaining complete sincerity remains a source of continuing fascination, but this reflexive anti-reflexivity becomes a more serious matter when looking at attitudes to politics, racism, and sexism within the scene. It allows us to engage in these topics whilst backing away from them, creating spaces for certain views to be expressed whilst absolving ourselves of the consequences. It also leads us into inexplicable alleyways, such as metal’s flirtation with highly charged homoerotic imagery happily coexisting alongside rampant homophobia.  

Politics specifically is seen as a polluting factor within extreme metal, dirtying the purity of musical expressions. Again, I’d argue most extreme metal musicians are aware of the political implications of their music, whether in the abstract or explicitly, but insist on burying this beneath the veneer of apoliticism in order to avoid fully engaging with the latent consequences of their cultural output. This can also be a source of strength however, ensuring that the scene does not become entirely hijacked by far right ideologues as much as it diminishes the potential for more thorough engagements with political discourse.  

Having diagnosed extreme metal with a serious case of reflexive anti-reflexivity, what does Harris think the future of the scene is? Ultimately, extreme metal walks a tightrope. Its marginality is a source of strength. Through the interaction of mundane and transgressive subcultural capital it has nurtured an almost unparalleled artistic radicalism whilst maintaining the communities and infrastructure required for art to perpetuate itself. The obsessive ordering behaviours of its many fully engaged members creates a buffer against which artistic extremity is nurtured and procreated indefinitely. Such transgression would not be possible without the strong communal bonds required to sustain it. Yet it also remains an isolationist state within the lexicon of modern culture. Derided or feared in equal measure from the outside. This is both a detriment to the evolution of the scene and a loss to parallel musical movements that could learn from it.

But ultimately, Harris wants to argue that whilst the scene may have undergone radical leaps in musical output throughout the 1990s and beyond, politically and socially it remained resistant to growth beyond this reflexive anti-reflexivity. If such musical evolution was only possible thanks to some individuals “thinking the unthinkable”, it may therefore be necessary for us to rethink extreme metal’s entire political makeup to achieve an equivalent evolution from a social perspective.  

What are we to make of this conclusion in 2022? Extreme metal since the publication of this book has in one sense been a battle between the museum curators engaging in mundane subcultural capital and daring experimentalists pushing at the borders of what extreme metal could look like. For the longest time it looked like the curators had won out, with endless retro and revivalist movements dominating the airwaves, using the knowledge banks of the mundane subcultural capitalists to shackle the shape of the music itself to its own past. Subcultural capital quickly morphed into subcultural hegemony. But it was also during this period that extreme metal underwent a dramatic expansion into popular consciousness, taking its place as “just another scene” within the plethora of subcultures vying for space both on and off line. It has garnered a great deal of outsider attention, and it is this latter fact that is perhaps most telling.

Such attention has been far from welcome from older holdouts within the scene. Discontent is often expressed in musical terms, but this tends to cloak the more conservative views of many actors, hostile to artists with an explicit political axe to grind, or those who do not perform identities considered acceptable from within the scene.

But interestingly, the real vanguard of the scene from both a musical and social perspective seems to be developing from within the scene itself. Again testifying to the strength and importance of the non-musical labour that goes into recreating this subculture. In leveraging those positive aspects of social media infrastructure and finding novel ways to develop the music that remain true to its lineage, and by engaging in a positive narrative of extreme metal’s musical strengths rather than a negative one fixated on what it is not or should not be, the scene is beginning to take a constructive position on equal terms in relation to other comparable international underground cultural movements.

The communal bonds that Harris spends considerable time documenting are arguably stronger than ever. But they are now positioned in such a way as to create room for negotiation, development, and respect for other groups. There is a long way to go in this regard, arguably the project has only just begun. But equally, there is still much more to be said about how extreme metal continues to be “extreme” when sized up in the cultural milieu of the 21st Century. Can it, or even should it, continue to be a space where “unacceptable” views, images, ideas, and aesthetics can be expressed, and if so, is it still uniquely situated to express them, or must it cede ground in a cluttered cultural field? Can it or should it maintain a fundamentally combative attitude to the surrounding cultural fauna, or should we open the floodgates and abandon the policy of isolationism?

Answers to these questions are still up for grabs. But one thing is certain. Based on the sheer growth of the scene since ‘Extreme Metal’ was published in 2007, one would be hard pushed to write such a comprehensive and compact book on the topic today. The exponential growth in scenes around the globe, in the boundaries of acceptable musical variety within the scene, and its own understanding of its position and role within society as a radical artform, all make the scene better placed today than ever before to begin offering some answers to these timely questions.      

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