Review – Black Metal Rainbows

Edited by Daniel Lukes & Stanimir Panayotov • Designer: Jaci Raia

Enjoying music on the edge of acceptability is a delicate and multidimensional activity. But after (and possibly before) reading Black Metal Rainbows I think I can sum up my current feelings on this debate space: STOP TREATING YOUR HOBBIES AS YOUR PRAXIS.

Black Metal Rainbows is a curious collage of queer art, informal conversation, creative writing, anecdote, and opaque critical theory. Despite the diversity of perspectives, it generally treats black metal as a basket of academic resources. Materials for “takes” essentially. Black metal to this book is a set of cultural signifiers – musical, philosophical, aesthetic – that can be freely melded and mutated into limitless iterations of postmodernist expression, the meaning of which is imparted to us by aggressive curation and needlessly dense academic prose (the jargon laden style undermining any calls to end gatekeeping in metal).

Many of the essays address the Nazi problem, or the more general predisposition in black metal for hetero white male hegemony (and of course the irony of this in the face of black metal’s screaming queerness). Some of it reads like consumer advice, some reaches for a kernel of intrigue (should black metal be inherently dangerous? dangerous for whom?), some of it reads like group therapy for people that accidentally enjoyed a Burzum album once.

Beyond the obvious corpse paint, latent queerness, satanism, environmentalism, and misanthropy, this book has very little to offer someone interested in the philosophy of music looking for a deep dive into black metal. It sees itself as a form of activism rather than philosophy, starting from the premise that black metal has a soul that can be saved and is worth saving insofar as these authors understand it.

But the underlying problem with this book’s general orientation (not all the contributors agree) is an inherent liberalism that makes it incapable of doing any material analysis of why fascism finds a footing within communities like black metal. The “correct” position is often framed as anti-fascism. But anti-fascism is not a coherent political stance, unless it feeds into some concrete political movement or intellectual tradition that directly combats the material conditions that give rise to fascism (of course we broadly mean socialism here). In a rare moment of clarity Hunter Hunt-Hendrix touches on some of these themes in the curious essay ‘Queer Traditionalism’, before devolving it into a rather wordy Liturgy promo (I’m actually surprised at how little she has moved on from banging the incoherent “transcendental black metal” drum).

The performative anti-fascism practiced by some of the contributors views black metal as a form of consumption, and consumption must be moralised. Despite my opening hyperbole, I have some sympathy with this stance. The left can bang on about underlying structural conditions as the root cause of fascism all it wants, but the reality is that the road to structural change is long, hard, and demoralising, requiring persistent membership and agitation within macro political structures, an avenue not open to everyone. In the meantime, why not make your hobby an arena of political struggle? With that in mind, I’ve left an overview of how some of the contributors in Black Metal Rainbows frame this obligation at the end of the review.

But setting aside whether this book fails on its own terms, there is a greater divergence at play here. Black Metal Rainbows places black metal fandom (and engagement with challenging culture more broadly) in the same arena as our relationship to consumer products that facilitate self-expression. The editors are right to assert that black metal is for everyone, but apparently it is also for anything, as long as you can string out some vaguely undercooked “take” on a random facet of black metal in impenetrably lumpy prose. 

A lot of said lumpy prose understands black metal as a form of individualism, here interpreted as freedom, a vehicle for individual expression and the rejection of authority. This is indicative of a general unwillingness to engage with black metal on its own terms. And, to speculate wildly, probably a symptom of the fact that the majority of contributors are from the US and the UK.

As a reappraisal of metal at large, black metal evolved out of Scandinavia, South America, Europe sans the UK, and more recently China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. These scenes established the shared set of symbols and compositional techniques we understand as black metal today. The history and culture of these countries is diverse and complex, and informed how many foundational artists understood metal and their obligation to it.

Regardless of what many of the authors here would have you believe, this space has always been hotly contested and negotiated. The evolution of black metal within these scenes was mediated by a two way stream of communication between an artist and a rich body of source material, both within the genre itself and from the regional folklore, mythology, philosophy, and history it drew upon. This is one of the reasons it appeals to both the far right and far left. It remains one of the few areas of contemporary culture capable of resisting assimilation into into capitalism’s dual demands of selling labour and purchasing consumer goods. With achingly vulnerable (and often farcical) sincerity it asks us to step outside of our relationship with capital.

Black Metal Rainbows eschews this nuance for the sake of unpacking black metal via a series of atomised vignettes on self-expression. This perspective values individual freedom and expression above all else, falling broadly into an Anglo/North American liberal tradition that is anathema to black metal.

The perspective of this critical theory sees black metal as a toybox, giving us license to lift its visual and sonic signifiers piecemeal as a means of self-expression. It becomes an affectation, a pose, a performative gesture toward extremity. But what’s really being communicated is individual identity, self-expression, having a “take”.

That being said, if we receive Black Metal Rainbows on its own terms and in good faith, there is quality writing within its pages. At its best it fires up the progressive base within the scene, demanding room for marginalised groups and reminding people that they are not alone. But at its worst, it casts black metal as a simplistic binary between good and bad actors, with the “good” defined as a playground of individualism, limiting its scope to a treatment of the symptoms of fascism over its causes.  

Finally, if we are to insist that “saving” black metal is our praxis, it’s not the progressive base that needs firing up. We need to be engaging with the unconverted, the undecided, uneducated, the apathetic, all of whom are susceptible to the far right’s pull. It’s precisely this arm of the scene needs saving. Black metal’s untamed core is not an inevitable ladder to far right thinking. Unfortunately the dense prose, obscure critical theory, self-indulgent “take” having, the failure to engage with black metal beyond the superficial, all make for a needlessly impenetrable prospect for anyone outside of a tiny intersection of critical theorists and extreme metal fans.

The fact that there are segments of articulate and snappy writing in this book is therefore a shame. Because the people that would benefit most from reading it won’t find their way past the deliberately combative curation. But if you’ve got this far into the review, Black Metal Rainbows is probably worth your attention for all it has to offer thinking metalheads.  

Afterward, Black Metal Rainbow activism

  • Editors Daniel Lukes and Stanimir Panayotov open by immediately positioning black metal as a battleground, with the book’s purpose being to resituate it as bright, colourful, and queer. The needlessly bellicose tone is rather misleading given that a significant portion of the essays are rather dry cultural analysis.
  • Drew Daniel – who some may remember from The Soft Pink Truth fame – offers an essay entitled ‘Putting the Fag back in Sarcófago’. Clumsy attempt to contribute to the queer community’s re-appropriation of gay slurs aside, the fact that this had to take the form of a rather careless pun with a Portuguese word that has nothing to do with queer slang – despite the inherent queerness of Sarcófago themselves – is indicative of a broader issue with this book’s place within the discourse. Black metal’s function as a vehicle for the export of non-Western cultural mores and languages is steamrolled for the sake of a cheap (white) quip.   
  • Stuart Wain’s discussion of anti-fascist black metal raises some interesting talking points, but treats the battlefield as a simple binary of good and bad guys. If enough “good” bands are formed and supported black metal’s soul will be saved.
  • Margaret Killjoy’s essay almost touches on some interesting points by acknowledging that black metal allows us to engage with the cultural values espoused by fascism in more critical terms, acknowledging that it is not some alien evil but a sliding scale.  
  • Espi Kvlt’s account of their life as a black metal fan and sex worker trails off into a confessional on their obsessive and sexual interest in Per Yngve Ohlin (Dead). Can music scenes stop tolerating this needless deification of artists? They are flawed (and sometimes disgusting) individuals who will only ever betray the ridiculous expectations we place on them. We will never know, but it’s unlikely that the person Dead would have become would bear any relation to the fantasy.
  • Daniel Lukes’ own essay ‘Bizarre Black Metal’ pivots on the sole observation that a lot of black metal resembles a carnival, which ends with Lukes just manically naming bands he views as supporting this observation, eschewing the need to develop it into a working hypothesis.
  • Patrizia Pelgrift gives a superfluous account of her time working for the deranged manbadies Satyr and Fenriz at Moonfog records (I assume we are supposed to be grateful for the tedious anecdotes on these has-beens).
  • Eugene S. Robinson of Oxbow fame describes a gig where he damaged a venue’s PA system, kicked monitors into the audience, and brandished a mic stand at security guards for doing their jobs, because their set was cut short by ten minutes. This makes Oxbow more evil than King Diamond who they were supporting.
  • The inclusion of Nina Power on DSBM is unfortunate. This author may start with the noble intention of addressing the epidemic of male suicide. But rather than engaging with the political, economic, or social reasons for this, she delivers problematically vague platitudes about cosmic differences between the sexes and how they impact our experiences of depression and anxiety (no evidence is offered for these claims).
  • George Parr’s skewering of rape culture in metal is only somewhat blunted by their foregrounding of Venom Prison as fighting the good fight despite being headed by the alleged TERF Larissa Stupar.
  • Steven Shakespeare’s comparative analysis of melody in black metal has some useful insights, as does Avi Pitchon’s exploration of femininity within the form. Langdon Hickman’s ‘The Dialectical Satan’ is also more substantial than much of the material that surrounds it.

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