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

 

The idea of plural narratives

Plural histories

Something that has been on my mind of late is the idea of historical/cultural narratives that rely very much on stories which are often told. There are many kinds of stories which people deem significant and which are significant which are often told or have some aspect of it disputed: the story of the HIstorical Jesus, for instance, or the discovery of the Americas. The World Wars and the rise of Nationalist Socialism are other examples of narratives often told. But of course they are not the only stories.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how emphasising some narratives may undermine others. To emphasise unitary or specific narratives can both posit or prime non-rational assumptions about such a period of history. I am reminded of the kind of person who can only talk about the little they know about a subject even if its not relevant, and who is not content with an humble ignorant silence or agnosticism.

There are narratives which are not well known, but does that mean they are forgotten? It may be said. To not know that attributed first known composer of written music scores was a woman, is not as well known as it should be, is something that if we do not know about, we may not even think about. This I may consider a form of erasure. Likewise, it is said that many of the early writers of Tin Pan Alley established their careers through the uncouth musical genre known as ‘Coon Song’. Some things are ugly in history that if we forget, let the attributed get away with what they did. To some extent there is a moral character to our remembering and our histories: we remember the great achievers and celebrate them, and we should also remember those who should be shamed. We should not forget the shamed of history, of course we can also revise and dispute who we valorise or demonise.

There are many narratives in a single epoch. Some stories are told too much and it is the repetition that people become obsessed with, instead of the story. I am tired of hearing the anecdotes about Immanuel Kant and how he knew when it was 3pm. Why not the anecdotes about the influence of his friend Joseph Green? Reading the Black Metal anthology recently explores the other scenes that emerged, including USA black metal, where it was said that Depressive Suicidal Black Metal was developed.

I guess I’m reminded of this particularly today because the infamous nature of Varg Vikernes being on the news lately. Every mention of Burzum (and that includes this piece) increases the cult of what the early 90s scene was, and the potentially overhyped nature of it reminds me of that old saying ‘if you had all the pieces of the ‘true cross’ you’d have enough wood for a forest’. What about the other scenes that emerged within the Black Metal aegis, such as in Greece.

The other day I was having a conversation with my actor friend about the idea of a theatrical version of Star Wars. My friend suggested that would be a logicially ambitious project. But I suggested that (I was also simultaneously explaining my approach to musical score-reading), one must have an interpretation of the text rather than creating a literal facsimile. The Empire Strikes Back would work in my view as a drama if we focussed on specific situations, persons and mentalities. The Battle of Hoth from the perspective of a Rebel Soldier about to die; the engineers inside the Executor Star Dreadnought as they go to Bespin; or the inner worries of Lando Calrissian in his offstage behaviour away from Solo and Organa. There are many stories to tell, and being a judge of the multiplicities is an interesting critical question. What I would say to summarise though is: there’s no single history.

Sinistre