Both religions have the same core: me first, reality second
Of all the subcultures to emerge following the dominance of rock over popular music, heavy metal and its associated genres remain unique in that they have maintained a counter-culture that targets not just the visible “establishment,” but also all things that hold the core values of that philosophical system; metal is a naturalistic movement opposed to the utilitarian values of modern society, but it has kept its head up and thus far mostly avoided assimilation by not taking an explicitly political stance, but an artistic and metaphorical one.
This outlook has increasing driven it out of the mainstream consciousness, which has allowed it to keep its independence in part by mostly separating itself from the crowd of hopeless people looking for an identity and an easy, one-size-fits-all solution to they subliminal angst they feel about living in a fatalistic and submissive era. Of course, it has not managed this exclusively; some of the biggest sheep, and most profound losers, of our time have been metalheads, even some who have been very influential in the genre. In this way, within the metal genre the drama of the larger society is acted out in microcosm: the few who understand pulling away from the mass which wants what they have, and would emulate it to the point of drowning out legitimate voices in the genre.
What makes the mass destructive is the nature of a crowd, by definition: it is people who come together on the basest pretense and, out of fear for their individual selves, enacts a mass-will upon society at large to remove anything that threatens the herd. When you see a crowd, you are not seeing uniform people, but vastly different people who are disorganized and thus can only accept the lowest common denominator motivation, which is usually as follows: do not criticize me for anything that I do, insofar as I do not violate this basic tenet of crowd-belief toward others; give to me everything that our best people have, as I am participating in the crowd and thus “contributing.” As with all utilitarian systems, this mentality punishes the more capable in order to keep the broader masses from feeling inferior, or that they’re missing out.
Heavy metal music, by its very nature and alienation, recognizes that society operates on two levels: a public level, which comprises the kind of things you’d tell a crowd to make them feel you have their best interests at heart, and a private level, at which actual motivations are acted upon using the tokens of the public level in such a way that their function does not match their definition. It is a lot like hacking, actually; you overload some kind of input buffer with data that appears to be harmless, but contains concealed instructions that the machine, unaware that something labeled “data” might be “code,” executes and hands control to the intruder. William S. Burroughs famously declared, “Language is a virus,” and thus explained the same concept as applies to modern mass-media psychology.
What happens in a computer is that it confuses appearance with reality; the code is reality, but the idea that it is harmless data is the appearance. Similarly in our society we are divided between appearance, which generally consists of happy nonsense to keep you distracted, and reality, which is the relentless pursuit of wealth and a spiritual emptiness that justifies it. (As mentioned here before, this takes us back to a split that the Greeks noticed, between things as they are and their abstractions, which are often mentioned as that which casts a shadow, with the shadow we see being what we know of “reality.”)
Since any tokens manipulated on the public level have dual meaning, and are thus meaningless, heavy metal targetted something more sublime: emotions and self-image. The Gothic, Romanticist, naturalistic and elitist-individualist imagery of even Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin did this, but it flowered from there into a proliferation of forms, each of which took the basic concept and developed it further, all without explicitly knowing why or what was being done. This ignorance of an articulation of what is being done allowed it to be passed, from mind to mind, through the subconscious channel of appealing imagery and concept in personal life, much as it was done in Romanticist literature, art and music: those who found greatness in the past, specifically medieval and ancient civilizations, and could process a melancholy acceptance of death and desire for personal greatness in heroic accomplishment, would naturally find the music appealing.
This is in part because, in addition to imagery, metal music literally sounds like the description of Romantic ideals above. It doesn’t embrace the centralized harmonic structures of rock music, which is Indo-European folk music simplified to the degree of fixing a harmonic center and manipulating major/minor changes for mood, over a syncopated beat so that even the dumbest person can follow it, and it doesn’t embrace the pleasing sounds and casual human vocal noises of pop. Where pop attempts to define beauty and approximate it as a medium, metal attempts to find what is beautiful in that which is, on the level of things that explicitly defined, ugly. If society exists on a level where public discourse is manipulated by private reality, metal is an inversion of that, such that the meaning of public discourse is found within private reality.
Metaphorically, metal almost exactly mirrors Romanticist literature, even down to its fascination with nature and the occult. Loneliness and alienation create independence; obsession with the forces of nature and the power of warfare creates a post-moralistic sense of seeing how life works rather than judging it; wandering into the embrace of Satan affirms the pagan belief that there can be no public level of “good” separated from “bad,” but that good and bad are forces which together create a meta-good, mainly the ongoing process of life itself. These are the values of metal, and they are almost never explicitly spelled out because to do so, in the music, would be to expose the inner workings of the subculture to manipulation by those who have not discovered this meaning on their own; emulation and cheapening would follow.
For this reason, it is important to remember that Satanism in metal is metaphor. Many of the largest proponents of Satanic imagery in metal were Deists and some were Christians, but used Satan in a way similar to that of John Milton or William Blake to describe the individual Will or Ego; when Black Sabbath wrote “War Pigs,” and described how modern society sends its workers off to die in foreign fields for abstract and mostly irrelevant political objectives masking a private reality of profit and power, they concluded it with “Satan laughing spreads his wings” not to praise Satan but to describe, in theological metaphor, what had occurred: humans had confused public reality with absolute truth, and thus been manipulated, and from that, an inner resentment and fatalism expressed itself in the confusion that followed. Satan laughing spreads his wings: a statement of the futility of our time, and in later bands, of the uselessness of religions that conflate Absolute truth with the public level of reality.
In doing this, metal attacked the fundamental Platonic split between the world of appearance and the world of structure; appearance was seen to be aesthetic, and not necessarily related to structure, which was defined by context, something which theological and occult imagery, by the nature of its cosmological outlook, expresses succinctly. While hardcore punk musicians attempted to rearrange the symbols of the public imagery into a meaningful private discourse, metal brushed past and declared the public reality defunct, urging its listeners to look instead toward their inner motivations and animal feelings. However, as with all things, the surging crowd – those who by definition did not and thus could not do it the first time around – sees something it likes and apes it furiously, producing a parody of it by only understanding the level of appearance and taking that appearance as truth, something which belongs to the domain of structure alone.
For this reason, although I have never been a Satanist, I have often employed Satanic and occult imagery in my writing, much as the smarter metal bands have done. In a world ruled by a Christian or secularized Christian (liberal) concept of absolute truth as public reality, one strikes back by upholding all that cannot be ruled by such a petty device, in the process pointing out that such dualistic thought patterns are in fact a simple rhetorical device misinterpreted by the crowd and thus used for its own purposes. In contrast, the crowd embraces Satanism as a truth in itself, and tries through silly literal rituals and laughable posing to be “truer” Satanists that the others, or more “extreme,” or some variation of attempting to find a devotional truth in life. It cannot be done, and therefore these bands and individuals tend to ring hollow to the thinker, and their works — well, let us say that in the years following 1996, there have perhaps been three black metal bands of the caliber of those who occurred 1990-1996, and it is similar in their own times with other subgenres of metal.
I can extend this concept further. National Socialism is popular in some black metal circles, but that is mainly because it’s easier to label oneself a National Socialist and start collecting gear and posing than it is to understand the core concept of National Socialism, which is a feudalistic ethnocultural post-moral revival of classical Indo-European culture. That relatively complex thought gets distilled down to, as Faulkner said, “a hatred of black skins” alone, and thus parodies itself. What kind of idiot believes that African genocide will solve humanity’s problems? Black Sabbath were more advanced in thought with “Satan laughing spreads his wings” than all the goose-stepping fools, or those from the opposite end who make the same mistake, the leftist: they assume that by labelling themselves as egalitarian and tolerant that humanity’s problems will resolve themselves on the level of public discourse. All of them are misguided, and represent waste by the roadside of a path to knowledge.
Death metal and grindcore had its own version of this comedy. Bands like Carcass and Morpheus used intricate descriptions of death and decay as a way of reminding their audience that public reality is a dream designed to deny death, and that when we realize our own mortality, we can comprehend that meaning is not found in public discourse or in liberal/conservative platitudes, but in addressing reality – yes, actual reality, including that good and bad are needed to produce meta-good – we liberate ourselves from illusion and can begin work on the real task. They were followed by unnamed and now thankfully forgotten bands who found an identity in glorifying death, bloodshed, violence, disease, perversity and disgust, all in full ignorance of the original concept. It is not surprising the music of these bands was also of a lesser nature, as their thinking was clearer on a more basic, linear level.
In my view, there is truth to be found in all of these viewpoints, if interpreted correctly. National Socialism and liberalism are not that far apart when we look at their basic motivation; both want to establish healthy cultures where people are not left to the predatory whim of speculative capital. Satan and gore both wish to affirm natural belief over that of the thing-as-named public reality. Even Christians and pagans have the same essential goal, which is to find a larger reason to have values outside the material and thus find meaning in existence. However, our time is confused, as somewhere along the path to this “great” industrial society we have lost the systems of thought that give a whole meaning to the entire process of life, instead of selecting some aspect with which to label oneself and hold up as a shield of “meaning” against death. In a confused time, only a few actually seek truth, while everyone else looks for it as they might a product on a shelf or the best fruit among the ripening burden of branches.
This article is not an attempt to discredit or assault bands who use Satan as metaphor; much like Blake, or Dante, or Eliot, or any number of artists, their quest is legitimate. It should serve, however, as an introduction to the theory of metal as an art form, and an explanation of why there are so many mediocre imitators, of “Satanist” or leftist or NSBM variety alike, and only a few leaders, and thus, a mandate for future thinkers in this genre to start with the leaders and not the followers. Metal remains under assault by both public culture and public “counter-culture” (an anti-establishment affirmation of public cultural beliefs, in trendier form) alike, and thus must keep an intellectual and artistic lead or it will be assimilated and left with Slipknot, Korn and Creed as its tombstone.