Metal as religion

Some good stuff to chew over:

Lyrically, early black metal fused virulent anti-christian politics with Nietzschean-inspired satanism and ecological mysticism. As the scene grew into the 1990s, however, satanism became a problematic notion and several figures tried to find new ideological backing to their music. One solution, adopted by figures like Ihsahn, the vocalist for Emperor, was to treat satanism as merely a metaphor for Nietzschean individual freedom. Another far more problematic move was that taken by Varg Vikernes of Burzum, who dropped satanism in favor of nazism, and emphasized themes of mystical ecologism in opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The third path was to reject satanism for a return to traditional Scandinavian paganism, a move made in the early years by Enslaved and one which has since spawned a new sub-genre: pagan metal.

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

What if metal is drawn to the religious because it aspires towards a similar goal? What if it is not in opposition to religion, but in competition with it? In the 2005 documentary Metal: A head-banger’s journey, a fan is quoted as saying: ”Is heavy metal a sacrament? For some people it is. If it keeps kids alive, if it gives them hope, if it gives them a place to belong, if it gives them a sense of transcendence, then its a spiritual force and I believe it is a pipeline to God.”

Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit. The goal of metal is extremity—to push music to the boundaries of noise without concern for the comprehensibility of the final product. Black and death metal groups in particular manipulate time structure, tonality, tempo and production quality to ensure that anything resembling a traditional rock, jazz or classical sound is deformed beyond recognition. Of central importance to this manipulation is the need to be heavier, faster, more technical, more “brutal” or more “true” than the past generation. – James Robertson, “Death Metal: A Pipeline to God?” Social Sciences Research Council blog “The Immanent Frame”

While I agree with much of this, I think metal’s conception goes back to the word heavy, the idea of horror movies, and a rebellion against the counterculture.

Metal sprung from the counterculture… but in opposition to the peace and light, it was the dark and heavy. It wasn’t music for taking life non-seriously or coming up with with trivial answers like “love will save the world” (you truly have to be fucking stupid, delusional or corrupt to believe that).

Metal’s message can be found in the song “War Pigs”:

Now in darkness world stops turning,
ashes where the bodies burning.
No more War Pigs have the power,
Hand of God has struck the hour.
Day of judgement, God is calling,
on their knees the war pigs crawling.
Begging mercies for their sins,
Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.
Oh lord, yeah!

While humans distract themselves with trivial shit, including the hippie con about love and light, the cruel manipulators are profiting behind the scenes and laying the seed of mythological levels of destruction.

While every popular music act except metal is espousing the “it’s all about you, have some fun, we’re all important, it’s about humans being individuals” karmic snake oil, metal was telling you to look at history, look at bigger patterns, realize that technology and “good intentions” were not going to save the day. We are insignificant, it said. What matters is not that we’re alive, but what we do with the time.

In other words, metal is an entirely different existential coping strategy than Christianity (an inherent God judges you based on your deeds) or hippies (if you just make happy socially, you’ll be OK and part of the group). Metal’s idea is this: the world is out there and it’s very real, which makes life very intense, so make sure you have an intense life, in part by not doing the stupid self-defeating shit that has dogged humanity like an expert parasite through the modern time.

It was only when black metal came around that this got fully Nietzschean, and people started talking about how equality was bunk, how most people are too oblivious/distracted to have any competence in making political or social decisions, and how we’d be better off if we slashed down the weaker/stupider and handed glorious victory to the strong, rising above the herd and exterminating them so humanity would evolve to a new level. Eugenics, Social Darwinism and natural selection as a purification of the artificial, sterile, “everyone wins” equality-based world of both the Church and the liberals (1789: “liberty, equality, fraternity”).

But this is an extension of the horror movie theme, which in turn derives itself entirely from the work of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Here’s the basic plot: something from a foreign culture or undiscovered part of our world emerges and starts wreaking havoc. People panic and the dumb sheep screw it all up by not only failing to respond to it with any intelligence, but also by shouting down anyone who tries to deal with it as a real, functional question instead of an emotional/technological one. Finally, the loners re-invent technologies to defeat it — or not — and the few beat the threat, so that the many live. But it’s not democratic. The point of horror movies is mainly to make you hate your own species as you see that all but a few cannot discipline their minds to respond to new stimulus. They panic, they make excuses, they steal now-worthless cash, they get drunk, they run away, they flake out. What they don’t do is achieve any effective action at all.

If you want the origins of metal, I think that’s it — modern society grips our society like a plague, and as years go by and the decay gets more advanced, people are still unable to do anything about it because they’re caught up in their own emotions and drama. But that point is far too realistic for any academic.

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History of death and black metal

I want to say that I will start with the year 1984. Death metal had been around since 1984/1985 depending on who you ask. Mantas, Genocide, Deathstrike, Possessed, Slaughter and others had started years earlier and wanted to make music that made Slayer sound like Wham. “Black metal” had already started with Venom and Mercyful Fate. Then Bathory and Hellhammer came along. The term “death metal” was more widely used back then. Hell, there was even a compilation called “Death Metal” that had Running Wild and Helloween on it! Although I do dig both of those bands, they are hardly death metal! But the comp did have Hellhammer as well. So there was a back and forth there for a while. Even Sodom came along and called themselves “witching metal” to start off with! hahaha. But bands jumped back and forth and it was common for bands to be called both at times. Once Massacre, Repulsion, Death, and later Xecutioner, R.A.V.A.G.E., Morbid Angel and others started getting going with demo tapes flooding the underground, death metal was really starting to spawn. My comment about Slayer was a joke. Slayer upped the ante, so to speak, on playing faster and more aggressive. Slayer was influenced by D.R.I., Cryptic Slaughter and the fast hardcore punk that was coming out. Just like those hardcore bands became influenced by Slayer and other metal bands later on. So these death metal bands took the Slayer formula and made it even more aggressive and even faster and heavier than ever before. Black metal was kind of regulated to the same bands for a while. Possessed had the imagery of a black metal band, but were total death metal/thrash. Mercyful Fate broke up and Venom and Bathory started getting a little different in their musical direction.

Flash forward to 1989. I was already a couple years deep in the metal underground, but this is when I really got into the DEEP underground scene with the tape trading and fanzines and all of that. ALL KINDS of underground bands, that played different “styles” were all in the same fanzines and on the same compilation tapes. The black metal of Samael, Beherit and Blasphemy was featured right next to the death metal of Autopsy and Nihilist. The thrash of Merciless and Sindrome was right next to the grind of Agathocles and Anarchus. Everyone seemed to get along in one, big happy underground metal family! Then over the next few years, death metal then broke as a worldwide phenomenon. Everything either had a Swedish guitar sound or was recorded at Morrisound Studios with Scott Burns producing it. And had Dan Seagrave doing the artwork on the cover. Morbid Angel became mainstream, Carcass and Obituary started getting play on MTV more often. It seemed EVERYONE was familiar with “death metal”! But then weird stuff started happening with these bands. In Sweden and Finland, some of the old death metal bands started getting more rock or gothic (or both) with their music. Opeth and Katatonia followed suit with a progressive rock or gothic rock sound. Entombed did a horrible mix of death metal and rock and roll. Therion got weirder, then went all show-tunes. In Finland Abhorrence became Amorphis and ended up having more in common with classic rock. Disgrace went punk rock. Xysma went hippie. Convulse went “death and roll” (PUKE!) There was a disconnect that started and some bands and members of the scene felt slighted. But it was felt that death metal went cheesy as fuck. Some people grew tired of all of this, and decided to form a new thing. And the leader of this new movement was Euronymous of Mayhem.

Flamingly interesting post, on Metal Maniacs of all places.

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How to fail as a metal band

This amusing list has been making the rounds:

One of the real delights of listening to truly great music is the capacity it has to continuously surprise an attentive listener. Great music makes itself known, in part, by the ways in which it yields up its secrets: slowly. In a sense, great music never “gets old” because each experience of it reveals new insight, allowing us to approach it as if for the first time.

The corollary to this, of course, is that while genius manifests itself in infinitely variable ways, all bad music is pretty much bad in the same predictable ways. Error was always thus: it cannot grow, it cannot meaningfully change, it can only, like a virus, reproduce itself in hosts who have not previously been exposed (which is why, to the experienced and attentive listener, each new iteration of bad music becomes more easily identified symptomatically while the inexperienced and/or stupid listener is likely to fall for FAILS that their more competent brethren spot from a mile away).

A Taxonomy of FAIL

Carnival Music

Symptoms: Like a carny barker or a snake oil salesman, many bands try to distract listeners with novelty or wild stylistic gesticulations designed to steer attention away from the underlying emptiness of what is being offered. Often, this will take the form of superficially “innovative” gestures like adding flutes, “technicality,” exaggerated, cartoonishly executed additions from “surprising” outside influences, or maybe just really long songs.

Classic FAIL Archetypes: Opeth, Dimmu Borgir, Deathspell Omega, Necrophagist, Cynic, later Therion

Sonic Wallpaper

Symptoms: Most often associated with black metal, this FAIL is typified by a failure to grasp the dramatic, narrative aspects of metal. As a result, these bands make music that is often pleasant, inoffensive and even impressive in its constituent parts, but devoid of meaning, spirit, passion or lucid organization. It may work as background music, but it cannot stand on its own merits when listeners pay close attention. Basically, when you find yourself hitting the snooze button four minutes in, you’ve stumbled on this brand of FAIL.

Classic FAIL Archetypes: Ulver, Drudkh, Negative Plane, pretty much anything involving Stephen O’Malley

Metal as Mainstream Pander

Symptoms: Most often spotted in the wild among established bands who have depleted their creative fire and genre tourists with no established connection to metal, this FAIL can be easily spotted by the way it apes mainstream music while superficially applying metal technique. Often includes elements of either Sonic Wallpaper, Carnival Music or both. Comes in both “high brow” and “low brow” versions.

Classic FAIL Archetypes: later Metallica, later Enslaved, Wolves in the Throne Room, post-Hell Bent For Leather Judas Priest

Angst for Autistics

Symptoms: FAILS of this sort reveal themselves by an emphasis on dumbed down rhythm to the near total exclusion of all other traits, usually accompanied by some sort of superficially “shocking” or simply mind-numbingly aggro lyrical content. Basically, they exist to mollify the angry impulses of speds, emotionally crippled jocks, JNCO-sporting malltwats, meathead bigots and assorted other human defectives.

Classic FAIL Archetypes: Pantera, Cannibal Corpse Origin, later Deicide, pretty much all metalcore, deathcore and NSBM

From a user named Dylar114.


Diocletian – Doom Cult

One of the most well known of the close-knit and virile New Zealand death/black scene, Kiwi act Diocletian‘s full length falls and fits clearly within the war metal sound as was pioneered by Blasphemy, and taken to a more nihilist, apocalyptic climax by fellow Canadians, Conqueror and their suceeding act, Revenge.

Structurally, the songs of Diocletian adhere to the musical formulas that define Canadian death/black metal hybrids, but the production whilst still raw, is not as lo-fi and has more streamlined engineering on the guitars and drums, with the bass guitar playing, an unlikely rarity in such high intensity music, thankfully audible. Barked, roaring vocals commonplace within this niche of metal predominate Doom Cult. The tonal quality of the guitars whilst not trebly are less bass-heavy than what you would expect from an Revenge or Sacramentary Abolishment record, is of enough clarity to possess a harmonic distinction that has a similar quality to a less Norse-influenced Demoncy, and even draws a parallel to the first full length by Profanatica. To add to this, a similarity that vaguely resembles the Cut Your Flesh And Worship Satan album by Antaeus is present, in that nuances of distortion and feedback, samples of a warlike nature are used to build and intensity the framework of the album.

Along with a savage execution and great understanding of the pattern language that informs this style of music, Diocletian put forth an excellent full length.


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Glorious Times: A Pictorial History of the Death Metal Scene 1984-1991

Glorious Times: A Pictorial of the Death Metal Scene (1984-1991) presents a retrospective of the early death metal scene, written by the bands themselves, and edited by Alan Moses (Buttface Zine) and Brian Pattison (Chainsaw Abortions Zine). If you want to see what the early bands were thinking, doing and how they helped invent death metal, this original book gives you a window into the past and future of death metal.

Here’s my original review of the book from August 6, 2010:

When Kontinual lent me his copy of this great book, I had no idea what I was in for. It’s not a retrospective and not so much a nostalgia swipe as an attempt to preserve the past of the death metal genre through the words of the musicians who created it.

Outside of an introduction by Laurent Ramadier, the book is entirely composed of short retrospectives written by the bands themselves. Some are apologetic and wistful, others charging ahead full of verve, and still others factual or like the odd literary piece by Revenant’s Henry Veggian, insights into the mentality of those days.

It doesn’t make sense to group this book in with other death metal books like Choosing Death or Lords of Chaos, which attempt to analyze and formulate a coherent single narrative for the evolution of the genre. Instead, this is primary research material, with each essay providing approximately a short interview’s worth of primary source material for the growth of the death metal underground.

Compiled by Alan Moses (BUTTFACE ‘zine) and Brian Pattison (CHAINSAW ABORTIONS ‘zine), this half-folio tome brings out the best in death metal, including introductions to a veritable treasure trove of early partial evolutions of death metal. If you want a shopping list for the most obscure neo-death out there, get a pad and paper before you read this.

Printed in an initial run of 150 copies, the book will be heading back for a reprint soon. In the meantime, here’s the list of bands who contributed material:

  • Autopsy
  • Paineater
  • Deicide
  • Baphomet/Banished
  • Groovy Aardvark
  • Sepultura
  • Prime Evil
  • Brutality
  • Master/Abomination/Death Strike
  • Nuclear Death
  • Hellwitch
  • Malevolent Creation
  • Vomit
  • Death
  • Derketa
  • Cannibal Corpse
  • Deceased
  • Massacre
  • Insanity
  • Disharmonic Orchestra
  • Possessed
  • Incubus/Opprobrium
  • Revenant
  • Massappeal
  • Unseen Terror
  • Lethal Aggression
  • Incantation
  • Tirant Sin
  • Morbid Angel
  • Hideous Mangleus
  • Dream Death
  • Nocturnus
  • Ripping Corpse
  • Soothsayer
  • Acheron
  • Where’s The Pope?
  • Napalm Death

It will be great to see this book hit the racks for the long term, because it’s chock full of raw material for anyone curious as to the birth of death metal, the underground, and the related genres that spawned from the raw ferment of metallic anguish in that era.

For more information, consult the blog about the book, or its myspace.

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“Heavy metal is tribal music”

Someone finally explained heavy metal in terms simple enough for the nodding nobodies to comprehend:

Biff Byford, lead singer of 1980s heavy metal behemoths Saxon, is preaching to convert the non- ferrous among us to his cause. “Heavy metal is a tribal music and everyone is a member of the tribe,” he explains.

A wistful look passes across the features of a man memorably described by one critic as “the dray horse of heavy metal”. “The music’s not about love,” he adds, warming to his theme. “Our songs are more about Richard the Lionheart, steel trains and thunder. But when you do click with a big audience, it can be quite an experience, a massive connection… I suppose you could say it is a religious experience in a way.” – The Independent

As some people have been saying for years, metal is the one true alternative in pop culture — most of pop culture is about the individual and its desires, and the ethic of convenience that accompanies them. Don’t do the right thing — do what feels good! Ignore history, we’re inventing a new regime! One for the people, by the people, about the people. And when we gain power, and throw out those bad old fuddies with their social standards, everything will be totally awesome!

Heavy metal is the opposite. It minimizes the individual, and reduces you to the role of one in a tribe. It de-emphasizes the now, and replaces it with a broader view of history. It makes desires secondary to quests, goals and heroic struggles. It’s the anti-pop-culture, or the counter-counterculture. It’s a war against all of the illusions that allow our modern time to be corrupt. You can’t fight a corrupt society with flower power, pacifism and universal tolerance.

You can fight it by taking a look at reality for once, which is what heavy metal does. And because we’re the oddballs, we are the tribe of those who drop out of the “consensual reality” created by media, social pressures, advertising, government propaganda and what the crowd is talking about. We look at hard reality, fire and iron and blood, instead. While we may look like the other drop-outs, space-outs and individualists from the outside, we are in fact made of different stuff.

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