Crystalisation entails death

I have recently read an essay ‘Aesthetic Transcendence’ by Trine Paulsen and Kim Solve, part of Trine + Kim Design Studio. They are (among other things) involved a lot in the graphic design aspects of many Black Metal acts. In their discussion of black metal aesthetics, Solve points out how the iconography and messages have developed a distinct form of currency, but in the process it cannot be said that Black Metal exists as an underground movement or a form of rebellion.

 

Solve makes the point that Black Metal is a visible subculture with imagery in children’s programming, entries in Eurovision and talked about by academics. These are hallmarks of something that can hardly be addressed as revolutionary.

 

This gives me pause to think. I could try and resist this conclusion and address metal subcultures where there is a genuine underground such as Africa, depressive-suicidal black metal, non-European and non-North American metal or even specific genres like NSBM being inherently underground due to the political beliefs associated with it. In fact I would try to resist this conclusion and say there are many different concentric circles of BM in the world and the Nordic type may be the hegemony but it is not the only type.

 

What if we accepted the conclusion that BM had lost its revolutionary edge? Perhaps this is inevitable. Could we say that Schoenberg is still radical? It is true that Black Metal probably wouldn’t have a mainstream AOR radio station presence, but it could have enough of an audience to fill out say, a 300-capacity venue and work within the engine of the indie label toilet circuit tour, for instance.

 

If it were the case that BM can be part of the cultural industries, even to the extent of being talked about by academics and having mail-order t shirts. What does that say of the potential of the revolutionary fervour in general? Is everything reducible to a t-shirt slogan? Well I suppose my only answer to that is: sapere aude (have the courage to use your own understanding).

 

P.S. 7 years ago to this day the blog was born. Belated happy birthday.

 

On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael

 

Non-European Black Metal

The one thing I really like about Black Metal, is how many countries have made it their own. Yes, there was all the stuff about the satanism and the church burnings and Burzum’s activities. But Black Metal means many things to many people. I’d like to talk about a blog I’ve recently been following. The blog Black [sic] Spring often hosts a lot of self released material, material that is purposely made available by bands for free in the bootlegging spirit.

 

I really found this blog interesting because of the non-metal albums it refers to. There’s a lot of ‘folk’ music from North Africa and broadly Arab countries listed. I admire how a particularly sensitive attitude is being displayed about the music. The music is often referred to as ‘folk’ but also acknowledges how some of it embraces more popular and western styles, often in subtle ways. I love how this music local to countries like Algeria or Egypt are drawn from as insightful from and directed to an audience who would normally listen to raw black metal cassettes. I love the renaissance attitude of openness towards difference, and a Romantic openness towards the folk culture, and using it as a cultural and idiomatic resource.

 

As the bands of Sweden and Norway became more polished after the 90s and a commercial culture emerged around Black Metal. The African, Latin American and Asiatic demo tapes that have come out of places like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Algeria or even Iran and Iraq continue to express a rawness and despair coming from their local situations. Black Metal is daring from those places, often they are stylistically interesting. Particularly when the distinctions that many black metal conosseurs make about subgenres do not hold.

 

When I think about writing that commentary on ‘In Search of Wagner’, an open question is in my mind about Adorno’s outlook: is there a possibility for cultural defiance, is there a possibility for a radical reform of our social consciousness through culture, in the light of the cultural industries and the European history that has preceeded the Second World War? I am increasingly convinced that Black Metal is an answer to that question, and that answer is Yes.

 

I wonder what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would have thought of the radical potential of Black Metal, the nationless underground nation, and the way it has been adapted to various localities, including to political ideologies that are deeply uncomfortable. I recall an interview (I think it was with Fenriz from Darkthrone), where it was said once the news went international about scandals about murders and church burning with the Norway scene of Black Metal, black metal at that point was no longer theirs, it became something for everyone. Non-European Black Metal is a frontier within a frontier, showing that there is still underground potential, and still an expressive capability within the genre. Another frontier is DSBM, which in a way has an opposing direction, instead of being internationally expansive, it is inward.

Michael

Black Metal Hegemony

I’ve finally started to read ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (Stosuy Eds). My recent penchant for musical thinking reflects a cultural and intellectual sensibility that art should aspire to be radical and affect change.

 

One of the things I like about the anthology is that at the outset, it tries not to tell the same old story about Black Metal, instead, portraying Black Metal as a scene, a mindset, an art form that has been claimed by many people in different ways. There are many documentaries and places where the same old stories are told about Mayhem, Burzum, Bathory and even the British band Venom. In a way those stories have formed an hegeomonic claim to the genre, and this is wrong.

 

I like the notion of hegemony as a conceptual frame here. I was talking to a friend who brought up to me how certain cultures have hegemonic loci that relate across cultural and linguistic boundaries: for example, how India forms a cultural hegemon to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or the USA to many parts of the English speaking world. Some voices are more prominent than others. When it comes to Black Metal, it is my view that the really interesting voices come from plurality, and avoiding the temptation (and it is particularly strong for me), to generalise too much.

 

I really liked the chapter on the overview of concurrent black metal scenes at the same time as the Norwegian movement. Poland and France have particularly brutal reputations when it comes to ‘rawness’. Greek Black metal (which I have more familiarity with in terms of 2000s bands) emphasies mysticality in their own unique way that is not imitating anyone else. One author wrote an essay about their own band from Latvia and how cultural contact was limited due to economic and cultural conditions such as the ‘Iron Curtain’ and scarcity of outside music. I thought it was interesting when Kvetkovskis of Skyforge points out how the pirated cassettes of outside metal music was brought alongside more popular outside music like Madonna.

 

Growing up I spent a little bit of time in the Philippines and saw the way that cultural products from outside came in. Often there aren’t really hard distinctions made between say, rock and metal; or likewise, extreme metal genres (black metal, grindcore, death metal etc.). Each country, due to their own circumstances, draws from it in a different way. It would be far too judgmental to critique a band because of the ways they categorise metal genres.

 

Perhaps the one thing I thought notable about many of the European black metal scenes described in the book, is how they have differing relationships to the issue of their nationality and the connection to their folk culture, particularly the relationship to Christianity and their folk culture. As I’m reading another book on Wagner at the moment, the comparisons are inevitable and too obvious. I feel that the more I read about black metal, the more I seem to understand Adorno’s perspective on Wagner. I see a certain blackness/negritude to the cultural politics of Wagner; and I also see a certain Wagnerian Romanticism about some elements of black metal scenes too.

Michael