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Metal and Nihilism: the realist principle

January 27, 2013 –

black_sabbath-nihilismMetal stumps many people because there is a values system within it which has been consistent across the years, but from reading metal lyrics it is hard to figure out what that values system is.

From the imagery and topics of songs, we know metal has a spread not unlike that of European Romantic poetry: nature, horror, the occult, ancient ruins, melancholy alienation and war-like power worship are frequently mentioned. It is difficult to translate those ideals into our contemporary individual-based values system.

Arguably the primordial ‘Lucy’ of metal bands, Black Sabbath augmented the aesthetics of heavy blues rock bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin with occult imagery, pagan and mystical overtones.

However, at the same time as they were seemingly ‘up in the clouds’, there was a nuanced and satirical realism present in the band’s aesthetics that prayed on rosy-eyed optimism.

For instance, in the lyrics of ‘Solitude’ we get a stark, if not sentimental, picture of the fragile nature of human life:

My name it means nothing
My fortune is less
My future is shrouded in dark wilderness
Sunshine is far away, clouds linger on
Everything I possessed – Now they are gone

‘Hand of Doom’ is a satirical jab at the escapism of the contemporary hippie drug scene:

First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm
Disillusioning, you push the needle in
From life you escape, reality’s that way
Colors in your mind, satisfy in timeYour mind is full of pleasure, your body’s looking ill
To you it’s shallow leisure, so drop the acid pill
Don’t stop to think now

To many, this would seem hypocritical given Sabbath’s legendary history of drug use. However, as any user will tell you, there’s a difference between use to escape and use simply because you like getting high.

This seeming paradox extends to other areas. For Sabbath, the means-ends relationship between an action and its intention is important. It may not be bad to use drugs, but to use drugs to escape reality in such a way that you then end up with an ideology of denying reality, could well be bad.

They apply this lens to other areas, such as politics and religion.

More interestingly still, Sabbath were regarded by many as a ‘Satanic’ band owing to the cover art of their first, self-titled album. However, in the song ‘After Forever’ a charge of ‘group-think’ mentality is directed at, ironically, atheists:

Is your mind so small that you have to fall
In with the pack wherever they run
Will you still sneer when death is near
And say they may as well worship the sun?I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced
Will you be so sure when your day is near, say you don’t believe?
You had the chance but you turned it down, now you can’t retrieve

The above content makes sense when we consider that one of the things that sets the best metal apart from its heavy rock is its nihilism. Nihilism is a form of extreme realism that rejects the intentions of human individuals when used for the sake of those human individuals, and respects only viewpoints that are oriented toward the larger reality outside the individual.

Metal has always been about blowing overly-optimistic and unrealistic view points out of the water, and worshiping what is ‘heavy’ about existence. Black Sabbath started this trend by calling out many of the convenient lifestyle viewpoints of its contemporaries.

Is death metal essentialist music?

essentialismDuring the second world war, while most of humanity was involved in mass warfare, the writer and thinker Jean Paul Sartre was instead laboring away in the libraries of occupied France. He was solidifying what has become known as the philosophy of ‘existentialism’. One of the main tenants of existentialism is that ‘existence precedes essence’, or in other words, that there is no fixed and immutable basis from which human life proceeds and from which it derives its meaning.

According to an existentialist, an individual human being is borne, becomes conscious, and then creates his or her own meaning from a point of reference of personal choosing, in a subjective act of pure freedom. Indeed according to Sartre, existentialism is a form of humanism, and we can see why. Secular Humanism, or modern humanism, is the normative or ethical ideal that individuals have the right and responsibility to give meaning and purpose to their own lives, free from tradition, scripture or ‘higher’ authority. So ‘existentialism’ and ‘humanism’ are both cut from the same cloth, the former being a complex (and some would argue, intentionally obscure and obfuscate) philosophical justification for the latter.

Existentialism is a reversal of the traditional metaphysical notion of ‘essentialism’, or the idea that there exists a fixed point from which values and meaning can be derived, by an objective act of intellect or rationality. The most commonly encountered form of essentialism is, in fact, religion. In the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, God is the basis for existence. He forms the immutable point from which values and meaning are derived. The actions of individuals, their lives, even the actions of entire cultures and cultural movements, derive their value (Good or Evil) from their particular relationship to God. A figure representing the extreme end of the essentialist spectrum, in so far as absolutely positioning life in relation to something prior and fixed, might be Osama Bin Laden. For Bin Laden there is one Word, one Truth, one measure of values. Human ‘choice’ is only as valuable insofar as it leads to a life proscribed by the Word of God. You are beheaded with a bread knife, held down on a concrete floor in panic and terror, if, in choosing to give your life ‘its own meaning’, you align yourself against God. Needless to say, Bin Laden and Sartre would not have got along.

In light of the issues discussed above, death metal is a curious art form. Its position on the existentialist <–> essentialist spectrum is unclear. In its aesthetic outlook, it mocks religious sentiment and tears down religious imagery with truculent glee. Its lyrics praise Satan, evil, darkness and anything, it would seem, that runs against the grain of monotheism. Hence it could be swiftly concluded that death metal is anti-essentialist art, par excellence, tearing down that that last barrier to human freedom: religion.

With a shift in perspective, however, death metal could be viewed in a thoroughly different light. It could be viewed a form of essentialist art. If this is true, then what prior structures could death metal be said to worship? Firstly, death metal posits an immutable essence from which individual human existence stems and from which it cannot escape: biology. Death metal abounds in morbid liturgical hymns about dissection, disease, the tearing of flesh, and the wrenching of bone. Secondly, death metal posits an ‘absolute’ point of reference from which all human actions are judged: death. That ‘all life ends’, is embodied in roaring sentiment in the whole show of death metal. Everyone dies, and reality cares not one whit for the individual. So you, buying your coffee table and matching coasters, beware; your time is finite. Death metal might well be an artistic conduit for spiritual readjustment in the face of something inescapable that, whether we like or not, at some point we are going to have to judge our lives in reference to.

Thirdly, in compositional method and production death metal seems to be inspired, if only implicitly, by prior natural forms. Compositionally, a death metal piece evolves via the linking of riffs according to geometrical shape as opposed to the normal way of linking parts in rock music which is harmonic. This is what give death metal its atonal and, at first, unattractive sound to the uninitiated. Production wise, nihilistic individual units of distorted tone depend on their relation to other such units, or the overarching structure of the song, to achieve beauty in death metal, a bit like matter and the physical universe where a piece of matter, taken by itself, is unremarkable and unsexy.

The list of ways in which death metal could be viewed as an acknowledgement of prior and apparently inescapable aspects of reality is a long one. Battle, night, winter, solitude; all are frequent topics of lyrical subject matter and fodder for imagery. Of course, there are all sorts of aspects of reality that are fixed and inescapable yet which death metal ignores: love, growth, joy, etc. But this is because death metal is concerned with those prior structures to human life that we choose to ignore because they are uncomfortable. Hence its ominous and brooding aesthetics. But while death metal is dark music, anyone who cares to pay enough attention can apprehend that the most worthy contributors to the genre are a world away from writing protest music.

Death metal is not ‘rebelling’ against the uncomfortable parts of life that we are doomed to face up to at some point. It is an attempt to give these aspects of life an artistic redemption. In this, and only this sense, can death metal be said to be ‘humanistic’. It is an attempt at representing those aspects of reality that we often ignore, in order to give them some relevance in human affairs so that we might adjust our lives accordingly, in full awareness of the place of human live in the cosmos.

If all this is correct, then death metal may very well be ‘naturalist religious’ music: A ‘yes’ to, and artistic redemption of, life as process, renewal, conflict and reductive energy.