Black Metal is Art

by Brett Stevens
April 14, 2006 –

What makes music connect with your soul

Phenomenal leaps have occurred in the skill level in the black metal genre. Where black metal drummers used to be a source of amusement for anyone past the first handful of percussion lessons, now it is easy to bump into a qualified candidate at any show. The guitar work is precise in ways the founders of the genre could not have imagined, and new degrees of technique in tremelo picking, sweeps and arpeggios dwarfs the old ways.

Even in the simplistic bands great advancements have occurred. The song structures are well-known in all of their variants, and bands now are so proficient in this area they can tell from a single glance what type of song must be built around a riff to complement it. Everything’s less awkward; we know the best tempos to carry the audience, and what paces from them we can leap without causing abrupt disconnects. There are ratios for melodic riffs to blasting atonality, codices for when the keyboards come in and percussion layers boil off, tables for the use of dual vocals… black metal is almost a science, now.

Aesthetically, there is much less confusion and far fewer missteps. No band today would put out that awkward video that the Immortal guys did, or screw up like Burzum did and make those very earthy and not very black metal flyers. No self-respecting 2006 black metal band would be caught with the mishmash of gear these guys attempted to use at first, the wrong string guages and pick widths, the wrong amplifiers and pedals, even drumsets all mis-arrayed for the task ahead… no, we’ve got a much better grip on the craft of black metal, these days.

We’ve got the whole thing so much farther advanced than the founders of this genre that it’s doubtful they’d get a second listen today. Just hearing those sloppy riffs, the un-slick arrangements of keyboard, seeing the awkward band photos and hearing their very-far-from-pro sound, well, they’d probably not make it. We’ve come so far that we probably don’t even need Immortal, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, Mayhem, Emperor, Varathron or Bathory; we’ve got bands that are so much better at what they do.

There is one crucial difference, though — the recent Summoning CD pointed out beyond doubt that black metal which preserves the epic feeling of past grandeur, and the sense of lawless abandon in the night which frees our souls from the preemptive frustration of morality and profit ethics, could still be written. What was the difference? Summoning don’t appear to have varied equipment or technique since 1993 or so. The answer is simple: it’s in the composition.

After all, each work of music has two parts: inside and outside. The outside is how it sounds, including what speeds you play it at, what instruments you use, and how the vocals sound and the production works. The inside is the notes and the ratios which determine their timing, and the structure of the song, that is to say which musical phrase goes into the next and how they carry you from a beginning state to a different mindset at the end of the song or symphony. A truly articulate piece of music is recognizable when played at half-speed on a kazoo, double speed on a Casio keyboard, or when transposed on an acoustic guitar, even if it was originally created by a metal band.

The greatest bands in metal’s history created songs that were that distinctive, and what made these songs distinctive was not random and unpredictable permutations, but that all of their parts made sense according to a certain order designed to communicate something specific. The goal was to make the audience appreciate an experience, and music was the method; because the artists approached the problem from this angle, they ended up creating works that are not only recognizable out of thousands of others but capture our imagination to this day. “That song expresses what it’s like to –” we say, and then relate some part of life we had to undergo and might again. Sometimes it’s an emotion, sometimes a condition: frustration, loss, fatalism, exuberance.

It is the inner part — the composition — of music that makes the difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is catchy and easy to tap your foot to, maybe to sing along, and you might even remember it — but did it say something to your soul? Did it take you through an experience to the other side so that you can say you learned something from that song or symphony? Art goes deeper within than entertainment and explores the existential core of our survival, that is the delicate balance of choices by which we make the decisions that determine how we spend our lives.

Entertainment is the same base function by which we buy things, pay taxes, endure jobs, use prostitutes and clean our hindquarters. Art is heroism in battle, art is a love that lasts a lifetime, art is the joy of discovery, the force behind our personalities and wills — Art is all of that which makes life not just bearable but of a higher state of mind, a “transcendence” by which we gain a spiritual sense of meaning to life without relying on the crutches of imaginary gods in the sky, demons in hell, etc.

When I think of metal, I think of the best, because I don’t want to waste my time listening to anything but the best. This is less from some elitism, or perception of my own position as important enough to require the best, than it is from a sense of taking my time seriously. I don’t get as much time as I could fill. Unlike most people, I don’t need television because I don’t normally have hours on end when I have no idea what to do with myself. There’s more here that I want to do than I can in this lifetime. So why fill hours with less than the best art? It only makes sense if you don’t value your time, or have no idea how to amuse yourself, or no higher purpose in life than to consume (and to those people, I always ask: why bother with metal, when rock music is easier and there’s more variation?).

We should aim high in our listening, unless we’re so fascinated by the activity of being involved in music that the music itself doesn’t matter because any music will give us an excuse to be involved, but those who think that way tend to be hobbyists who “get involved” for a handful of years and then drop the whole thing just as quickly but more quietly so they can find another diversion. They aren’t serious about metal as art, so to compensate these people are “serious” about all sorts of accessories: clothing, symbols, behavior, social groups, intoxicants, porn, horror movies — it doesn’t matter what, so long as there’s enough of it to keep them busy.

Unlike entertainment or functional products (porn), art requires us to look inward and to realize what makes a composition great is its ability to communicate a journey: art isn’t like an essay, which communicates by showing us a series of logical thoughts, but it communicates nonetheless by taking us on a tour of the experience that represents the idea it wishes to convey. For example, in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald shows us the ambition of Americans and how it causes us to contort appearances to hide our souls, which we cannot confront without realizing too much about ourselves and losing our will to live.

Black metal brought us into a dark mood and showed us meaning within it, leading us from outsidership to being comfortable enough with that mood to understand it, and then showing us how it sustained our souls in ways that our society could not. There was a sense of magic, of letting the daylight existence fall away and having an invisible nocturanl world rise up among us, a world of meaning and not the external forms which show clearly in the sunlight so they may be judged as equal or given a dollar value… our daytime world is one of products and moral judgments based on headcounts, of bureaucracy and utilitarianism, of individual morality and ownership; the nighttime world has none of those rules and liberates us to act out the stuff of dreams, the visions of grandeur that come alongside anything important enough to touch our souls, our sense of why we are alive. — that is the art of black metal.

Those who make black metal now are (with a handful of exceptions) making an obsolete genre because while they have more than successfully imitated the appearance and sound of the original black metal bands, they cannot duplicate the inside — the composition, the actual songwriting that makes music sound just as good on an acoustic guitar as on a professionally-recorded CD — which was what made the original bands amazing and started off the whole genre. It’s worth noting that we remember the great bands, and are content to let also-rans like Forgotten Wolves and Ritual and Goatlord fall by the side; they were simply errata.

In the future, whatever metal inherits from black will need a more detailed exploration of the nocturnal world of inside emotions and lightless perceptions, because while the original obsession in black metal was portraying the difference between worlds of light (utilitarian, based on external forms) and dark (things invisible in daylight but unleashed at night, based on internal qualities like emotions and intellect) there now must be a greater depth in exploration. We know the other world exists; we need to see its details and its breadth, and to again find its inspiration in ways that we might bring back to the daylight world. Escapism is not enough, and merely dividing dark from light is not enough; the lushly descending forays of Emperor, or the dark cavernous wanderlust of Burzum, or the ancestral worship of Enslaved, can be brought again to full understanding, but our goal is not longer to show the world we want but to flesh it out.

It is a Romantic spirit, a Gothic spirit, a dark sense of what goes on when the eyes of control in the current world go to sleep; night is liberation from function, because most people are busily preparing for their next empty day of work, school or retirement. In the night one can discover the reasons one is alive, and inevitably, they are linked to the potential death and meaninglessness all around us; much as darkness shows us light in contrast, nothingness shows us what we value. If enemy tanks roll down your street, who or what will you try to save?

Black metal now is a slick product because those who could invent the world inside have mostly gone away, and no one has written new songs showing us the beauty and power of the mystical world black metal created; unlike propaganda, those songs existed first as sensual experience, an adventure, but for this journey to capture our imagination it must delve into the dark regions of our subscious which knows the natural world better than our daylight, socially-conditioned selves — but this mindset of black metal includes many things we hoped to deny, including the medievalism of black metal, its amoralism and nationalism and transcendental mysticism and violence.

For now, people still fear these dangerous grounds; they have, however, perfected the art of aping black metal. We can now make Britney Spears sound like Immortal from our computer desks! But it is an age of nothing for black metal, an inversion of its fundamental belief in the inner world and rejection of the outside world; today’s black metal is like a modern product or forms designed to be processed by machine, because it focuses on external form and permutations of known successful formulas of sounds invented over a decade ago. It is stagnant because it can only re-arrange the externals, and shies away from the spirit or meaning behind the music… the fans no longer need to buy Darkthrone, or Immortal, because these are no longer relevant. They understand the myth of black metal as it would appear on a movie scene, but do they understand how the ideas behind it would be lived, and could give meaning to life?

When this state of mind changes, quality metal will return, and whether it’s in a new form or old form is immaterial. It would not make sense to abandon the flexible lexicon developed through the death and black metal years, because it’s the best adaptation of artistic voice for metal music yet found, but what matters more is what it is used to say. Not just the melodies, but what they represent… the landscapes to which they take us, the nocturnal forays on which they impel us. Art is more than that which conveys it; art is the adventure on which it launches us, and when our spirits once again accept that sacred task of nurturing imagination, metal will once again have the strength it did 1990-1995.

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