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Status in metal

Part of being a metalhead is observing other metalheads. At concerts, in record stores, or in public. I was first attracted to the idea of “status,” or social rank within a community, above and beyond normal status when I observed how brazenly metalheads wore their tshirts, and how much they selected as a group by what was on each shirt.

Some guy dodging through a crowd at a metal show is going to look for a tshirt that appeals to his “type” of metalhead, and he may scorn the guy wearing the Cannibal Corpse shirt as an idiot while wanting to know the dude wearing a Demilich shirt. Your shirt signifies your taste, which signifies where you’re going in life.

Metalheads don’t like to talk about this, but each group has its goods and evils. Power metal people fear the kvlt black metal tshirt; death metallers scorn the power metal people; in black metal, your tshirt marks your political identity as well as whether you like mainstream black metal or kvlty underground stuff.

Even in social groups, metalheads tend to prefer people who share their taste in music or at least approximate it. Social networks like last.fm capitalize on this tendency among music fans in general, but among metalheads, the competition is even fiercer. If you like power metal, you may scorn black metal for its low technique. If you like black metal, you may scorn power metal for being crowd-friendly.

The first person to really bring status into the public eye was the author Tom Wolfe, who explained in social terms what sociologists tried to explain in academic prose. These definitions resonated with me as I immediately thought of metalhead status:

I was by no means the first person to get excited over Weber’s “status.” The concept was well known within the field of sociology, although it was more often expressed in such terms as “social class,” “social stratification,” “prestige systems,” and “mobility.” Six years later Weber’s terms “status-seeking” and “status symbols” began showing up in the press. Soon they were part of everyday language.

The great American sociologists of the 1950s, W. Lloyd Warner, the Lynns, August B. Hollingshead, E. Digby Baltzell, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, were turning out studies of how Americans rated others and themselves, often unconsciously, according to race, ethnic group, address, occupation, vocabulary, shopping habits, bill-paying habits (personal checks in lump sums as opposed to installment payments in cash), bureaucratic status symbols (corner offices, fine wooden desks as opposed to metal ones, water carafes, sofas as well as chairs, speaker phones, etageres of brass and glass), education (the great divide existing between those who had bachelor’s degrees from a respectable four-year college as opposed to those who didn’t), even sexual practices. The upper orders made love with the lights on and no bed covers. The lower orders–in the 1950s–found this perverted.

Sociologists never rejected Karl Marx’s brilliant breakdown of society into classes. But his idea of an upper class–the owners of “the means of production”–and their satellites, the bourgeoisie, in a struggle with the masses, the working class, was too rigid to describe competition among human beast in the 20th century. Weber’s entirely novel concept of “status groups” proved to be both more flexible and more penetrating psychologically.

Status groups, Weber contended, are the creators of all new styles of life. In his heyday, the turn of the 19th century, the most stylish new status sphere, no more than 30 years old, was known as la vie boheme, the bohemian life. The bohemians were artists plus the intellectuals and layabouts in their orbit. They did their best to stand bourgeois propriety on its head through rakish dishabille, louder music, more wine, great gouts of it, ostentatious cohabitation, and by flaunting their poverty as a virtue. And why? Because they all came from the bourgeoisie themselves originally and wanted nothing more desperately than to distinguish themselves from it.

- Tom Wolfe, The Human Beast, 2006 Jefferson Lecture

In many ways, metal itself was a status-driven offshoot of rock. While rock musicians worshipped simple blues songs and had a hippie ideology of hedonism and universal tolerance, metal was dark and embraced the “historical” view, in which universal tolerance was a failed idea and individuals were flotsam in a sea of larger forces, ideas and ideologies.

I’ve identified three general ways that metalheads use memes, or ideas conveyed through language or image, to manipulate each other through status:

(a) Convince people their lives as they are constitute the best option for them;
(b) Convince people that by picking a “higher” form, they are raising their status;
(c) Convince people that they can raise their status by construing another group as stupid or destructive.

Included in this is “anti-status,” where one trades rising in social ranks for a desire to dive to the bottom of them in the idea that being more Satanic, more impoverished, more intoxicated, or more violent makes one more authentic or “real.” Like Bohemians, they are trying to escape the direction everyone else is going, which is heading upward to bourgeois contentment and wealth in the suburbs, so that they can be “real.”

Here’s a short list of status trends in metal:

Category A:

  • Pantera – Want to feel like your hard-working blue collar life, and hard-partying weekend lifestyle are the best it gets? Pantera affirms this through its projected masculinity, defiance and disrespect for social order. At its heart, Pantera is a revolutionary band: screw the people in charge, we’re doing fine right here, because this is our identity.
  • Venom – Venom makes people feel good about treating life like a joke. Its humorous Satanism and poppy songs convey a basic message that the world is a farce, and it’s fun to oppose it, but nothing’s really going to change so let’s hang out and praise Satan ironically. It is no surprise this band is the favorite of hipsters.

Category B:

  • Cynic and Opeth – With a single CD purchase, you can feel like a guitarist on the rise. People love Cynic and Opeth because the purchase of a few CDs gives them an excuse to feel more musically literate than others. They believe they are raising their status by going “higher” in musical complexity. At the same time, at the core of their compositions, both of these bands are very poppy and often discontinuous. This technique is valuable because it is baffling, and that allows the Opeth or Cynic fan to tell people, “You just don’t understand it” and feel smug as a result.
  • Kvlty black metal – Ever wonder why someone is listening to incomprehensible, chaotic, droning dreck that sounds like ten thousand other bands? They’re competing for anti-status by trying to pick the most obscure, violent, primitive and dirty metal they can. They frequently one-up each other in contests for naming the most obscure band, and have created a cottage industry out of recording engine noises and selling them on eBay in 7″ format.

Category C:

  • Political bands – Some band like Rage Against the Machine or Arghoslent wears their political ideology on their sleeves. The point is to find an absolute political “truth,” and to construe themselves as higher in status than those who oppose it or are ignorant of it. The main objective is to make others feel politically illiterate and thus inferior to these altruistic, seemingly wise bands. While we deliberately mention a rightist band, this phenomenon is far more prevalent among leftist bands because they are inherently altruistic.
  • Manowar – “True metal it is or no metal at all, wimps and poseurs leave the hall” says it all. Listen to Manowar, because it’s the true and authentic experience, and by definition, others are poseurs and wimps who may need beating down. Either way, you raise your status by finding the true authentic experience while others flog on in ignorance. (Note: this doesn’t mean that there aren’t wimps and poseurs out there, just that the division may not be as simple as envisioned in Manowar lyrics).

Does this make these bands any less artistic? Possibly; it varies from case to case. What it is, however, is smart marketing. You want someone to buy your product again and again, even if it’s unsatisfying? Convince them it makes them smarter than others. Most television ads work by this principle: one housewife muddles through with her broom, while another has a super-vacuum that cleans it all. Same principle.

Does this negate the truth of say, a political band? Not necessarily. However, it’s a great way to market your political ideology. Just vote for this guy, and you’re automatically smarter than others, and therefore have raised your status. Other people think they know the truth? You’ve got a higher truth, or in rare cases a lower truth (libertarian Social Darwinism zealots, raise your hands!). Either way, you’re smarter and have higher status as a result.

Status-raising products are popular because they’re easy. There’s no initiation or lengthy learning process. Instead, you find a place that has the CD, and they’re never more than two steps away from the neighborhood record store, and buy it. Some erect barriers like demanding cash only, using obscure formats like CD and tape, or even screaming fascist rhetoric at you, but still: the stuff’s for sale and they need to sell it. Ka-ching! Thanks, you’re now elite.

Socioeconomic status is not the same as status, as Wolfe points out. If “all you do is” earn a bunch of money, many people are going to view you as another ignorant bourgeois fool, unaware of the authenticity of true kvlt black metal as well as the legitimacy of popular revolt in crustcore. You may also earn very little money, but claim you’re “keeping it real” by living in violent primeval poverty with your true kvlt black metal or crustcore.

Status can also compensate for other factors. You’re starting out on guitar, and the kids who know more really shake you up. Go get an Opeth CD and ram it down their throats. They may have years on you in playing, but you figured out the game ahead of them because you’re a smarter monkey. They like Pink Floyd? Opeth and Cynic to the rescue: they’re more syncopated, technical, harmonized, or something, and that kicks your status above theirs. Take that!

By the very nature of this compensation for both socioeconomic status and ability, status is addictive. Once you buy one status-raising product, it’s not enough. Time passes; it’s not new: you need to buy another. So you do, and you keep doing it, because your identity is now wrapped up in the status-raising properties of these products. Some call it cognitive dissonance, or using status to “compensate” for real-world disappointments.

When you walk into a crowd of metalheads, and see them assessing each others tshirts and knowledge, you’re seeing a battle as old as nature: a quest for dominance. In the case of most teen metalheads, they’re just trying to grow up and emulate the adult world. But in others, especially career metalheads, you’re seeing a gambit for social power that will define their relationship to this music for life.

Blaspherian – Allegiance to the Will of Damnation

While most of the world has gone nuts trying to make black metal into a blasphemous yet trendy extreme, Blaspherian go back to the roots of the death metal genre. Allegiance to the Will of Damnation uses the simple riffs in complex formulations that made bands like Morpheus Descends and Asphyx favorites among the old school.

Nodding to the American punk tradition, Blaspherian also employ a number of one- and two-chord rhythm riffs that ride an unsyncopated rhythm into bounding, pummeling heaviness. Vocals resemble the occult rantings of Sadistic Intent or Resuscitator, and song pacing calls to mind the spirit of the aforementioned Asphyx. At its heavier moments, this EP will appeal to those who enjoyed early Obituary or Infester.

While it does not work to distinguish itself in style, this music gains a voice of its own by how it combines the artifacts of the past and finds a new voice for them within that style. This expression, while somewhat chaotic as first releases always are, surges forth with a voice of its own despite keeping itself firmly anchored in the old school tradition. In that, it succeeds where others have gone nuts over style and forgotten substance.

Nocturnus – Thresholds

Nocturnus - Thresholds

Thresholds, the second offering from Mike Browning’s (ex-Morbid Angel) sci-fi death metal tour de force, is an uneven, messy, fusion-inspired, lurid and occult death metal album. The best bits on here such as the sparkling, baroque, Mozart-ian lead guitars on “Aquatica” and the super-addictive chug and rhythmic chant on “Climate Controller” will stick to mind but at times the observation leaps through that Browning & co. are nowhere near the composers that for example Azagthoth & Brunelle were. The polyphony of the looming synthesizers is mostly awkward atmosphere building instead of solid thematics incorporated with the guitars. Browning does have an uncanny primitivistic yet accurate touch with the drums, one he obviously is going for, even naming a track “Tribal Vodoun”. All in all, it was probably a disappointment for many who bought it back in the day simply because Trey Azagthoth was always wearing a Nocturnus shirt in promo pictures. Nowadays as a rare and seldom heard item it has both nostalgic cult value and alongside the equally fusionistic, strange but compulsive “Spheres” by Pestilence shows imaginative directions where death metal could have followed if it hadn’t been abandoned to the blind flocks with their “brutal chugging” and “melodic wanking” trends.

-Devamitra-

What is heavy metal?

In the night, one can hear many noises. Some sound scary, and others signal scary events. For example, the roar of an animal is disturbing, but to someone alone in a house a stealthy footfall or the click of a lock is scarier. Similarly in art, the context of a sound defines its significance, and what makes music frightening is the meaning it encodes.

Among all forms of art, what makes heavy metal unique is that it embraces disturbing sounds which are not ugly but which portend disturbing patterns found in reality. Heavy metal is the music of the apocalypse, and whether warning it off or cheering it on or both, achieves this heaviness through the context it conveys.

What makes heavy metal heavy?

Both fantastic and literal, heavy metal explores the ideas our society will not endorse. It is not protest music, whining “it should not be” into a secondhand microphone, but a war-like genre which describes destruction with the joy of a painter who could use it as a color in a new epic landscape. Metal is about the experience of life, but it disciplines that with a clear sense of reality and consequence, as is appropriate for “heavy” conversation. Where society hides from fear and allies itself with the threat of the consequences of fears, metal allies itself with death to dispense fear.

When metal first arrived, new fans began to understand what made Black Sabbath “heavy”: the patterns which revealed the thinking behind such noises, putting context to the fear they instilled. Thundering distorted riffs were not new; Blue Cheer had done that. Neither was aggression; Iggy Pop had done that. But Black Sabbath, inspired by horror movie soundtracks, came up with a new style of music that used melodic phrases played in power chords, and by targetting the weighty topics that social conversation did not admit, creating a terrifying form of art.

Rock music had grown through the 1960s from simple boyfriend-girlfriend pop to apocalyptic rock like the Doors or King Crimson in the same way the Beatles rejected their sugarpop roots to become morbid and political. Whenever given a chance, the music reverted to a simple, tolerant, peaceful hedonism that hid its escapism and narcissism. The future members of Black Sabbath, upon seeing a horror movie and wondering if people would ever pay to have that experience in rock music, created the antithesis to distracting escapism: a descent into the complex and violent world of reality.

Its heaviness migrated into a different style of composition: other bands wrote songs around open chords which were strummed in a repeated pattern, and then modulated, while Black Sabbath used moveable power chords to make phrases into riffs and it was the change in those phrases that communicated a difference in outlook. It was more like classical music, where harmony is so well-studied that it is used as a device toward “narrative,” through-composed pieces where the change in motifs and their accompaniment conveys a string of moods that like a mythology or a fable convey the idea of a journey from one point to another.

With this development, they gave meaning to the sound. Its context of topics gave its heaviness form, but musically it was heavy as well, using thundering chords that stripped out traditional harmony and made the riff instead, like the nihilistic voice of an angry god, speak the truth that completed the poetry of contrast in each song. By throwing away form, and the form of socialization which “peace” and “love” implied, Black Sabbath brought danger back into a stagnant modern life — specifically, the danger that in all the attempts to stay away from the darkness, we as a civilization had missed an essential truth.

What does metal believe?

As an art form, metal has continuously developed visions of a human apocalypse lingering in the absence of our willingness to face reality. Reality is, as the saying goes, not entirely pleasant, and so is less popular than simple partial truths called “symbols,” which create an illusion of completeness by super-simplifying reality. Morality is not scientifically accurate but it is more comforting to our minds to have two options instead of nearly infinite ones.

During its maturation, metal wavered in and out of the public illusion, called “consensual reality,” which is the alternate reality of values most people use to navigate their lives. Consensual reality includes the symbols people want to believe in and, reinforced by preference-enabling activities like democracy and consumerism, makes itself “real” by the fact that most people believe it to be true. This public illusion takes many forms and metal has not been immune, but is strongest when it kicks aside the illusion and goes for the kind of heavy contexts that always made good ambiguous truth.

One view of metal is as a reality mediator showing the darkness underlying our pleasant illusions, and that in doing so, it is not deconstructive but attempts to make clarity of life by finding beauty in the dark and heavy as well as the light. As a holistic approach, this outlook negates both dualistic worlds (heaven, hell) and secular morality in favor of a scientific, historical and abstract design-oriented perspective on life. This then returns us to the idea of metal as orthodoxy, or a genre in which there is a clear direction and those who deviate from it are parasitizing on the popularity of the genre while weakening it with ideas that oppose it.

The terms “sell out” and “poseur” arose in the 1970s to refer to those of this intention, most specifically the bands like Def Leppard who turned their heavy metal roots into radio trash that was essentially rock music with power chords. A poseur was someone dishonest who adopted the most rigorous pose, or identity-affirming lifestyle and opinions, of a genre but was like all hipsters using it for his or her own benefit and believed none of it. These terms persist to this day.

Any ideology is necessarily orthodox, in that if it does not assert a right way and wrong way of doing things, it is not an ideology at all but an ethic of convenience much like the opinionless, directionless motions of rock music or its deferential humanistic political counterpart. Rock stands for a big party and everyone having it their way; this is a meta-orthodoxy that opposes all orthodoxy.

Metal on the other hand is orthodox and opposes meta-orthodoxy because an orthodoxy of no orthodoxy is a lack of direction. Directionless self-assertion does not address the apocalyptic or religious aspects necessary to unite human thinking toward survival in an apocalyptic time. To clarify reality, metal music embraces nihilism and worships power and beauty, because these things connect us to a reality that will forever seem flawed to us because it is full of horror, doubt, fear and death. However, the metal outlook shows us the wisdom of these things and makes living with them seem “fun,” where rock music and other anti-orthodoxies retreat into human activities and social realities, pushing reality itself far away.

As a result, metal is sandwiched between protest music of the anarchic left and the wisdom of the conservative ancients, forming itself through fantasy into a vision of a more realistic and more enjoyable vision of life. Rock music is a product of the wealth and convenience of a modern time that allows us to have inconsequential lifestyles and opinions, while metal is a revolution against that outlook, a seemingly deconstructive art form that in actuality opposes deconstruction.

We can trace these ideas through consistent beliefs found across metal generations:

  1. Beauty in darkness. It is not ugly, pounding music but music which discovers beauty in distortion, in anger and terror, in violence and foreboding dark restless relativistic power chords. The point is not to deconstruct, but to go through deconstruction and find meaning. This is evident in the works of Black Sabbath and every metal band since, and is what distinguishes “real” metal from hard rock.
  2. Worship of power. Unlike pacifying rock music and jazz and “new music” classical, metal music adores powerful, vast and broad simple strokes; it loves the majesty of nature and its crushing final word. It does not have love songs. Instead, its love is directed to forces of nature, including physical forces like storms and intense human experience like war or loss, as if trying to find meaning in these.
  3. Worship of nature. Linked to metal’s adoration of power is its appreciation for the function, including its “red in tooth and claw” aspects, of the natural world. Where most are repulsed by the idea that combat exists between animals in which one is victor, and one is prey, metal idolizes it. It finds beauty in ruins, in destruction, and in death, as if praising the cycle of life they engender again.
  4. Independent thinking. Metal does not buy into the individualism of a modern time where the only goal is material pleasure of the self (materialism) and keeping others away by granting them the same (humanism). It prefers the independent thinking that looks for higher values in life, mountains to climb and challenges to be met. Where punk music enmeshed itself in a callow “I wanna do what I wanna do,” metal saw this as part of the same gesture of rock music and discarded it.

These are expressed artistically by the following:

  1. Dark, morbid themes that clashed with the “love will save us” hippie mentality. These are explained by Black Sabbath as being derived from the horror movies of the day, a genre which features a union between technology and the occult (zombies, werewolves) producing a force humans cannot oppose. Normal technologies and methods cannot defeat it. They struggle against this force but their emotional instability causes them to sabotage one another, and often the dark force wins. Examples from this genre: Mothra, Dawn of the Dead, Alien, The Exorcist, The Shining, War of the Worlds.
  2. Songs written from short cyclic phrases called riffs, which unlike rock riffs used moveable chords of inspecific harmonic bonding, making the melody and rhythm of the phrase more important than key or voicing. Metal bands tend to use more riffs per song, and not in the traditional cycle of verse-chorus, in a way quite similar to progressive bands like King Crimson and Yes, both of whom used aggressive distortion.
  3. A focus on the holism of the human effort as determined by our moral state as individuals in a way that can only be described as “religious.” Metal, in addition to sounding eerily like angry Bach-scripted church music, has a similar focus to dogmatic transcendentalism Christianity: what is our future as human beings, and how does how we shape our personalities effect it?
  4. Bass-enhanced overdriven guitar sound, or distortion, which encloses the primary instrument used in making heavy metal. In rock, guitars and drums come together to emphasize a vocal melodic line; in metal, guitars lead a melodic line for which vocals are a complement and drums a timekeeper, enclosing it in a regularity to give listeners context. The guitar is the loudest single instrument heard and the one that invokes changes in song.

These beliefs and musical techniques reinforce each other. Using distortion and loud music, yet finding beauty in it. Using longer narrative phrases so as to tell a story, creating a holistic view in which emotion emerges, instead of citing pre-configured emotions like rock music does. A darkness and melancholy exhibited in lyrics and imagery, corresponding to aggressive music, expressing a desire to seize all of reality, good and bad together, and make something better of it.

Heavy Metal as Romanticism

We have seen ideas similar to these before in the form of a genre that, once birthed, refused to die, even as history moved on. In fact, it has re-emerged throughout the modern time because it was the step before this new type of rationalism,

Although metal borrows from both classical and Romantic periods of classical music, its most intense similarity is to the Romantic period in literature, which in its later years diverged into Gothic horror and transcendental idealism. Much as embryological theory tells us that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or that a fetus goes through the same stages of evolution as its species did to arrive at its current state, metal theory shows us that metal — as a revolt against what rock music stood for, e.g. distraction — forms an embryo which rediscovers its musical past. In this sense, metal is starting with classical and venturing through late Romanticism toward modernism.

According to the experts, Romanticism in literature and music has several tenets:

  • It is not clearly defined as a single thing, or several versions of this thing.1 Most of Romanticism existed before it became a concrete movement, and heavily overlapped with classicism.2
  • A desire to explore organic culture instead of high culture, especially tales of the medieval age and its feudal society.3
  • Worship of the imagination, and of creative and individual truthfulness in emotion.4
  • Reverence for nature as “an organically unified whole,”5 and intuition, instincts, and feelings were seen as necessary complements to reason in contrast to “mechanical” rationalism.6
  • Symbolism and myth were given great prominence.7
  • Rejection of the universalism in exchange for study of the individual as distinct from others.8
  • Shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation, meaning that art no longer imitated life, but expressed a truth found in it.9
  • A willingness to strive “for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted,” and a rejection of morality for situational or naturalistic interpretation.10
  • An appreciation for the melancholy, remote and ancient.11

Romanticism was a response to neo-classicism, which was the most recent form of the surge in rationalism brought about by The Age of Enlightenment. Where the Enlightenment rationale brought individual rights, focus on personal emotion, and a linear logical process by which one could dissect the world and find an absolute response to it, Romanticism both inherited that tradition and began dissolving it. It is for this reason that we can find Romanticist themes abundant, in everything from Star Wars to presidential speeches: the conflict of rationalism-versus-Romanticism has never been resolved.

Unlike modern individualism, Romanticist individualism meant using yourself as the justification for your own wants, instead of trying to find some external justification. As Nietzsche phrased it, “I prefer” and “I find beauty in” are more important than all the equations, statistical summaries, studies cited and popular votes in the world; Romanticism (of which Nietzsche was an ambiguous defender but spiritual comrade) rejects the idea of externalized truths and knowing, and instead prefers a sense of unity between the individual’s aesthetics and a “mythic imagination” which lets them see possibilities in the world using holistic logic, instead of the linear (single-factor) logic used by rationalists.13

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

- The World is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth (1789)

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist.

And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing.

- On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, Friedrich Nietzsche (1873)

Heavy metal inherits this conflict because in order to be “heavy,” it must tackle the dark issues everyone fears. What makes these issues dark is that our normal methods cannot defeat them. We then must ask what we exclude from our methods, and we see that any anti-social information — that which might offend someone, or mention death, or suggest that morality is an imposed and artificial condition — is excluded from our methods. As a result, heavy metal becomes a kind of peering behind the curtain of an externally-imposed reality, and in seeing the horrors within, finding a new desire for both warlike apocalyptic intensity and a beauty discovered in darkness.

Romanticism re-occurs because it is generally seen as the only idea which can oppose modernism, which is like neo-classicism but even more insistent upon rationalism and the hybrid between individualism and groupthink that is utilitarianism. Metal, as a genre exploring Romanticism with a masculine and warlike approach, most closely approximates the philosophies of Nietzsche and other post-Romantic writers who wanted to escape the bureaucratic approach to society and restore a sense of adventure.

Metal is fantasy that can be applied to reality, neatly briding the two categories of art as entertainment/mimesis and art as politics. It is not protest music, nor is it the kind of wallpaper-like distracting pleasant activity that we see on most television shows. Instead, it is a manifestation of the Faustian desire for forbidden knowledge. From classical literature and music, it borrows a rigid sense of structure and a desire for resurrection, Tolkien-esque, of the ancient times of honor, blood, warfare and magic. From Romantic literature and music, it takes its major themes, including the sense of an individual trapped in a moribund society reaching out and the idea that when the individual escapes society to nature, reality can be seen for the first time. The most similar Romanticists to metal lyrics are probably the following:

  • William Blake – wrote about metaphysical topics from the perspective of the universe, and mocked humans for being weak and obsessed with the trivial.
  • John Milton – wrote Paradise Lost, in which Satan is an anti-hero who rejects the rule of heaven in order to discover life for himself.
  • William Wordsworth – enshrined anti-social behavior with his classic The World is Too Much With Us, which calls for rejecting society in favor of mythic imagination.
  • Mary Shelley – wrote Frankenstein, in which technology creates a new form of life which discovers it has no place in the world, and it turns destructive.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – a realist who did not shy from horror, Goethe believed in a universe where human perception was a small and unnecessary part of its divine function.14

If we had to summarize metal as an artistic movement, it would be fair to say it has more in common with European Romantic art than the popular music and boutique art of our present era. Like the Romantics, it sought a transcendence in accepting the world’s inequality and horror and using it as a relative opposite against which to project challenges; it wants to bring back the fighting spirit of an ancient time, and give us independent thinking and goals instead of buying us off with the humanist-materialist tripe that the mainstream media proclaims — dogma which, interestingly, has failed to solve a single widespread problem of humanity.

Even more interesting is that the genre of horror movies, an intersection of proto-science fiction and occult lore, was born of the Romantic movement. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, was the wife of Percy Shelley, a Romantic poet. Bram Stoker’s Dracula came from the Gothic fringe of the Romantic movement as well. One of the greatest descriptions of Satan ever, Paradise Lost by John Milton, was also a Romantic work.

“I believe in tragedies…
I believe in desecration…”

The Sun No Longer Rises, Immortal (1993)

Like its Romantic forebears, metal music desires transcendence: finding the beauty in darkness by accepting the physical struggle that is life, and instead of trying to run away from that struggle into personal material comfort, accepting it as something that gives significance to our existences. Metal music desires to overcome our fear of death and of nature, and by accepting them, to show us a new world of meaning. In this, it is both a continuation of Romanticism and an evolution of it to a more coherent state.

How did this change for underground metal?

Appearing in the early 1980s, underground metal arose from a hybrid between crustcore/hardcore (Discharge) and the structuralist, neo-classical heavy metal of the previous generation (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath). It took the Romantic themes of earlier metal and made them more extreme. If underground metal has one unifying concept, it is the one emphasized by Hellhammer, “Only death is real.”

After heavy metal blew out by getting absorbed into its own popularity, and then speed metal copped out by softening its stance and sound to be more popular, underground metal roared away with pure nihilism: facing life as it is without a thought that anyone or thing in the universe cares if we collectively or individually survive. This was orthodoxy retaliating against anti-orthodoxy, which always takes the form of individuals preferring to avoid reality and so passive revenging themselves against those disciplined enough to want, in the time-honoured method of survival common to all creatures, to adapt to reality. In overcoming the anti-orthodoxy of individualism, underground metal became the first popular music genre ready to face ego-death.

The question, of course, could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.

- William S. Burroughs, Junky

Ego-death is a concept that psychedelics and zen monks alike discovered. In it, the person realizes they are one part of a giant system, and stop seeing the world through themselves. They see themselves in the world, but they see the bigger process first. Ego-death tends to lead to a transcendent state where one sees all of consciousness as a continuum, and becomes less afraid of d-y-i-n-g. Ego-death forces us to see life through a filter that is super-realistic, or dedicated to bringing people into a moment of realization that what they are touching and doing is real and they need to grasp command of their own minds to survive. It opposes panic and illusion, moral and social judgment (“knowing” from Nietzsche above), fear and pleasant unrealistic thoughts.

Not coincidentally, “only death is real” resembles topics from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. In both, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the protagonist is thrust into a delusional, dysfunctional, chaotic world that he alone can see is wrecked, and takes a long journey in which she or he can see that the nothingness is very real and pervades everything, and that our denial of this emptiness of life makes a greater emptiness, or a hollow illusion that cannot satisfy us. As we try to live in this illusion, we see reality peeking through, and so become neurotic.

The characters in these books overcome their situations only by throwing away the rule book, avoiding what other people tell them is the truth, and acting on their animal intuition. Conrad’s protagonist Marlowe begins the book impotent and ends it with a powerful tool, like a sword or fire, to explain why what he sees is as impotent as he once was. It’s like an adolescent story, but for humanity, growing out of its moral illusion and seeing reality as a pragmatic task. In Paradise Lost, Satan is appealing but has made an error in opposing the order of nature/God, yet still he has to make this decision, to explore the world in a Promethean sense of fearlessness and self-command. His undoing is too much self and not enough command.

Underground metal recognized this duality of human thought. Official knowing was bad news; unguided knowing was chaotic and destructive; therefore, a new type of knowledge had to be created, and this knowledge was nihilistic literalism as found in hardcore punk merged with the fantasy and epic worldview of heavy metal. The political nature of punk had made it easy for foolish people to slap anarchy stickers on their rockabilly guitars and start repeating the same old stuff, like the aged activists who whine “why can’t they just see” when life has passed them by.

Underground metal was not political or social, but philosophical: it viewed the world from outside human eyes, seeing it like a large scientific experiment in which history was the result, and based its knowledge on the abrupt interruption to human illusion created by death. When we see that wisdom, we recognize that we are tiny and inconsequential, and that adapting to life is more important than the moral, social, media and political worlds made of human agreement to have a symbol stand for something.

“Only Death is Real” conveyed ego-death: no matter how big you think you are or how important, death is more real than your visions, so you must accept nothingness. To accept nothingness is to cast aside the unhealthy parts of the ego and to give it context, so that the ego is a motivic force but only one of many on a planet. To see only death as real is to wonder what else can be real. The answer is right past the end of our noses: the world is real, and it’s a continuum that renews itself, so it’s worth working for. If you like life, you work to make it better. If you hate life, you deny the reality of the world and you go further inward into the self and its desires, which has never worked for making anyone happy no matter how stupid.

We are social creatures, and it is as mathematically logical why that is so as the collaboration between parts of a computer program. We are all of the same thing, and we want to take our part in this thing, which includes nature and our fellow humans, and if we like being alive, we want to do what’s best not just for ourselves or for humanity but for the whole thing. What a stream of interesting thoughts “Only Death is Real” can unleash, in part because our society does everything it can to deny the reality of death.

The archetypal death metal bands — Hellhammer, Bathory, Slayer — all used occult imagery much as Blake, Milton and Goethe did. With that in mind, we can re-interpret Slayer’s Satanic imagery as more than being opposition to Christianity. For one, they do not seem to oppose Christianity. If anything, lyrics like “South of Heaven” or “The Final Command” illustrate, like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” before them, a world in the grips of evil based in power based on an illusion. In Slayer’s complex theology, Christianity is Satanic because like political strength and industry it is a false outward power when inward the person is underconfident and weak. Christianity however is seen as often accurate, in that the apocalypse does come from selfishness, and Christian morality (“bastard sons beget your cunting daughters”) is the best way to live, but a way that makes no sense in a world addicted to the power of illusion.

As in Milton, Slayer’s Satan is a rebel against a singular order encroaching upon the world, a necessary force like magnetism that opposes any such centralization. In Slayer and Milton’s view, to have any single power controlling the universe is to bring the universe toward sameness, something thermodynamicists call “entropy,” or a state when any direction yields the same results as any other because of the uniformity of the universe. Milton was edging toward a transcendental view of God as being a property of the universe, and not an ego or personality such as that overbearing one against which Satan revolts, himself a victim of his own excessive egoism.

I feel there is some hideous new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting. Remoter parts of the world seem better now, because they are less touched by it. Control, bureaucracy, regimentation, these are merely symptoms of a deeper sickness that no political or economic program can touch. What is the sickness itself?

– William S. Burroughs

In the Milton-Slayer worldview, “God” encompasses both bad and good, because together these create a reality in which we can strive for better things. Similarly, in Conrad, the tokens of good and profit are chased in such a way that they create an illusion sustained by greed, in which the only heroes are amoralists like Mr. Kurtz who use brutality and combat effectively, but are conflicted over the underlying reasoning for their goal, namely the need to produce income through ivory when greater challenges await. In the worldview these artists offer, profit motive and morality are a going-inward into the protective mantle of fear, and morality is something we impose on the world to avoid the heroic challenge of leaving that inward sanctum and achieving goals that are not justified by physical survival (morality) or material comfort (profit).

When we look at metal with these opened eyes, the sound and imagery and lyrics are far less random. Distortion is a finding of beauty in darkness, a clarity emerging not when one looks at individual grains of sound but when one hears the blurry whole and deducts from it both pure tone and the harmony of randomness to that clarity; distortion forces us to take a view from above, and see the whole picture in order to understand what occurs at any moment. It is also a metaphor for our inability to ever fully perceive the universe, telling us that if we look at the center of the distortion we will find what is occurring, even if we cannot see it perfectly. The gritty, chaotic sound of distortion defies our logical containers that look for purity and instead finds a reality that although hazy is as clear as it if were pure.

The “riff salad” of metal bands is a way of establishing that music is not a cyclic loop of verse-chorus, resembling our going inward to the world of our own thoughts and preferences, but a journey in which our inward struggle parallels our outward struggle (much like the jihads of Islam: the lesser Jihad is the war against ignorance/infidels, and the greater Jihad is the war for spiritual clarity in oneself). Metal is art because it does not preach a political solution, but shows us the reasons for it. When that sort of higher thinking fails, metal relapses to liking noise and hedonism but little else.

It is one thing to preach, as if politically, against the ego. It is another thing to show a path beyond the ego. “Only Death is Real,” like nihilism itself, is a way of dispensing with “belief” in order to begin the journey to discover what is real and what is supra-real. The supra-real is that dimension where heroism and creativity lie, where one has accepted the feared attributes of life (d-y-i-n-g, disease, sodomy) and has transcended them by seeing what is not material/tangible yet is also important. It is this journey that metal music, classical music, and all great art describes. It is starting from nothing, like Satan exiled from Heaven, and getting over resentment of life and fear of death to see the beauty in darkness and to return to life with a desire to make it better. It is a recognition of the inherent distortion of our perception, and tuning our ears and minds to see past that faltering.

When only death is real, the ego dies for a moment and we see the world as a whole, and can get out of the prison of our limited perspective and re-bond to the life that produced us and produces all we value. It is a hedonic state higher than hedonism, to love life and want to make it better through better design. This is where death metal broke from heavy metal, and it is where all thinking that rewards strong souls begins.

The Evolution of Black Metal

Death metal brought images of impending doom and a fascination with the macabre into a dark world. It built upon what speed metal and grindcore had already established: an apocalyptic epic where the only future was decay. Death metal incorporated the righteous integrity of speed metal and the nihilism of punk into a musical onslaught warning of destruction. It fit into Kurt Vonnegut’s famous metaphor for art: that artists are to society what canaries were to the coalminers who brought them into the depths of the mine as warnings. When the song of the canary turned weak or stopped, it meant that suffocating coal gas was flooding the mine.

Death metal is an extension of the complexity of speed metal, partially arising from the attitude of that genre that any large problem can be solved by reason. Speed metal and thrash believed in rationality, and preached insanity as a negative characteristic. Death metal became the science of understanding insanity and breakdown, not preaching against it as speed metal often did but explicating it in epic songs and vivid imagery. Black metal, as a response to the failure of death metal to avoid the crowd, was an embrace of all things destructive to human illusion: natural selection, warfare, predation, violence, cruelty and tyranny.

Black metal restored romantic side of metal as its primary vehicle; its emotion is more obvious as that is its obsession. A death metal band would never argue destruction of the world, calling it irrational, where a black metal band would call for destruction of all life on emotional grounds. Black metal’s sadness comes from its emotional entrapment in a mechanistic world, and for that reason it rebels against order, whether in Heaven, on Earth, or in Death Metal. Black metal is in many ways a return to the mission metal left when exploring the scientific mindset of the technological age (as computers revolutionized life in the eighties, quantitative rationalism experienced a resurgance of influence).

If we look at metal’s history, we can see how this conflict brewed. Black Sabbath retaliated against the hippie music of their time as unrealistic and distracting. The following generation of metal turned it into more of a party for alienated kids, which punk retaliated against by returning the focus to all the negative aspects of reality. The next generation of metal, speed metal, picked up the punk outlook but channeled it into the heroic stories of past heavy metal, creating a less lamentatory and more assertive, masculine “we can fix this” outlook. When speed metal collapsed into its own popularity, death metal returned with pure nihilism balanced by a structuralism that suggested life was understandable but denied by the individual. Grindcore rose simultaneously with death metal and restored the punk/hippie attitude of tolerance toward the individual. Black metal retaliated against this just as Black Sabbath condemned the hippies of their day by brushing aside morality for an awareness of horror and our impotence against the real threats in this world; it rejected all protest rock and literal music for a spiritual conditioning which embraced struggle, darkness, melancholy and other Romantic traits.

Black metal grew exponentially since its emergence as a distinct musical style in the early 1990s; previous “black metal,” from Venom through Hellhammer, had been a variant on the dominant style of the time and often indistinguishable from death metal. Like a new civilization, it grew from a small group of innovators who were disgusted by the “jogging suit” mentality: people who were essentially products of a modern time, who blindly bleated its ideas, figuring out how to play death metal and becoming popular in the genre by making their music more like what audiences accustomed to rock music expected. In essence, the crowd had infested death metal as it had speed metal before that, and black metal was a response to this.

Recognizing that no matter how they dressed up the music as something “new,” appearances could be cloned, black metal musicians decided to go where the crowd could not follow: they would write music that expressed a grandeur of nature and feral amorality, hearkening more to the values of Samurai or European knights than to the disposable ideals of modern time. Since such a topic requires music that infuses the listener with a sense of awe and beauty in the cycle of destruction and creation that renders our world, they could no longer rely on “three chords and the truth,” but had to actually put the truth in the music, and write more poetic and complex songs.

The small civilization within civilization that was black metal was united more by ideals than by aesthetic or musical tenets, although all of its music by aiming to express the same kind of idea had similarities, mainly in its use of poetic complexity and truth within the music (and not necessarily the lyrics; you listen to black metal, and because of its intense artistry, find truth there). Because we are surrounded by infinite voices repeating the same few ideas in many different forms, here are the basic ideas of black metal that are distinct from the mass:

  1. Nature as a supreme, rational and all-pervasive order. Natural selection and an embrace of struggle took the center stage through celebration of predation and death. Even more, black metal celebrated the nature “within,” or our inner feral nihilism that made a mockery of morality.
  2. Anti-Christianity/Crowdism. Crowdism is the idea that respecting the will of individuals is more important than finding a realistic idea. It is a form of backward logic where we see the individual as the cause, and not the effect, of all that is around us and so convince ourselves that a human social consensual reality can override nature. Crowdism is secular Christian morality.
  3. Introspection. The only meaning comes from what the individual can interpret; there are no boundaries between individuals and the world (nature) as whole, but individual perception is limited to natural abilities and learning from experience. This is the opposite of the “if it feels good, do it” rhetoric of hippie rock.
  4. Morbidity. Viewed as an essential giver of meaning. Where most view death paranoiacally, and see it as a great entropy removing all value, black metal musicians viewed it as something giving meaning to life.
  5. Organicism. Like Romantic poets, black metal musicians tended to place more faith in organic growth than imposed social order. A sense of differentiation from the herd, hatred toward the incompetent and delusional, pride in unique ethnic origins and a celebration of older culture makes this a huge part of the genre.

To any student of European history or art, these values are not new; they are traditional to all Romantic forms of art, whether literature or visual art or symphonies, and were upheld by artists as disparate as William Wordsworth, Anton Bruckner, John Keats, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Lord Byron and William Shakespeare. For all of these artists, nature was a higher form of order than the rules of civilization, and civilization had become decadent by praising its own “equal” order more than the “unequal” order of nature. Many philosophers, including the celebrated F.W. Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, explicated these sentiments in their own work. Black metal’s ideology is nothing new.

What was new was an expression of these ideas in popular music, because rock music and blues and all of the associated disposable art has always been a manifestation of the crowd revolt mentality: simple music so that everyone in a room could get it, diametrically opposed to the grand works of classical music which were too complex and emotionally involved for a crowd to appreciate (or even to have the attention span to endure). Rock music focuses on one emotion per song, bangs it out in riff and chorus, and makes it very simple by using a relatively fixed number of scales and chord progressions. Rock music is the perfect product because it’s easy to make, is appreciated by customers of all ages and not limited by intelligence, and is inoffensive on a certain level in that it has nothing to say that will disturb. The basic message of rock music is to include everyone equally, to appreciate them for being alive and not for their inherent traits, and to come together on simple human values and not higher ideals; rock is inclusivity. Black metal is not.

Much like when watching Lord of the Rings, Braveheart or Apocalypse Now one has a sense of an ancient warlike order, when listening to black metal one sensed a realistic and amoral entity underneath the Romanticized skin of the music. This eternal form of the human spirit grows from the naturalism of black metal as well through its belief in a karmic cycle based on natural selection. At the lowest level, humans are little more than animals. If they exert a form of natural selection upon themselves, and attempt to rise above that level, those who survive will be apt for it; if they do this for several levels, they eventually rise to a state of having a higher intelligence, degree of physical strength and beauty, and moral character (“nobility”: the ability to see what is correct for the natural order of society as a whole, and not to get distracted by personal or emotional issues). At the very top are those who are fit to lead by the nature of having a transcendent consciousness; it is thought that these much higher IQ than most modern people and were far less fearful, neurotic and self-obsessed. This, too, derived from Romanticism.

Underground metal goes mainstream

Underground metal reigned in part through its mystique. Hated by almost everyone, in and out of jail, preaching ideas which were anathema to both heads of state and hippies in the gutter, underground metal seemed a fragile and rare thing. This mystique faded as the economy shifted again, as it had done in the early 1980s allowing a rush of “indie” bands, and distribution contracts loosened up in the late 1990s.

Where once there had been “import” racks for CDs from abroad, and it was hard to find music, starting in 1997, underground metal became available in mall stores and through Amazon.com. Its identity as a separate entity became difficult to maintain, and the process of assimilation began. In response, metalheads attempted to rally around an identity as “different,” but in doing so, they focused on external aspects (distortion, imagery, indie status) instead of what did make the music distinct: it saw hope for the future in ideas outside of the same accepted dogma all the mainstream newspapers, television and radio sell to us because it is a popular product. If the truth is difficult and therefore unpopular, metal rebelled against popularity as a selection matrix, and from that developed a range of thought which made it a genre distinct from all others.

Far from being alone in this, underground metal has fallen into a general trend of independent art producers seceding from reality. “Literature” has collapsed into a few thousand tiny magazines read by no one but MFA candidates in creative writing, and “visual art” has become a network of small galleries selling cute expensive paintings to uninformed patrons. Even classical music has gotten in on the decline, with “new music” — micro-symphonies of human voices, squeaking dissonant noise, and other trendy types of sound — appreciated by a diehard cult following who need a raison d’etre outside of their civil service jobs.

These genres used to speak an independent voice, but now they repeat lockstep the strange formulation of modern liberal democracy — a “neo-conservative” viewpoint which both champions civil rights and “social issues,” but also affirms the need for a strong economy and constant warfare against evil enemies. Political theorists might try to make sense of it, but it is more direct to understand it this way: popularity sells.

“One could argue that American fiction has ghettoized itself by insisting on a self-reifying view (humanist/materialist?) in which all answers are known, the political binary is carved in stone, we all have swallowed whole certain orthodoxies, and the purpose of the fiction is just to reinforce these. At the heart of this lies a selfish agenda, that has (one could arge) really ceased seeing the world as a unity, and has begun aggressively internalizing certain capitalist dogmas that say: Of course you are the most important thing, of course you exist separate from the rest of the world.”

- George Saunders, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

In this situation we find a repeated structure from metal itself, and even, larger society. Metal music goes through cycles where a new idea comes about, is looked down upon by others, and then fully expresses itself, at which point it is cloned to death by the same people who were speaking badly about it earlier (by this I mean new subgenres, not recombinations of existing genres like – eh – “nu-metal”). If you look at it as a conflict between people of able character, and those who are by nature followers, what you see is that the able create; the followers imitate, and in so doing, drown it and condemn what was created to being of the same mediocrity it helped to escape.

Indeed, the death metal of today more musically resembles rock than that of ten years ago; same with black metal. They have been assimilated, but from within the metal genre, by people whose character is so low that their highest values are to esteem what is valued by the larger society, and thus to reproduce it in the appearance of something which is not larger society, assuming that by controlling appearance, they control content. They are wrong, and they drag down everything they touch. It is this way with the creation of music, the promotion of music, and the choice of who runs hubs; most run them for the popularity, and don’t mind if there’s a whole bunch of support for moronic rock music thrown into the mix. In fact, they encourage it, as by appealing to everyone, they feel like Christ on the cross, being both a victim and a conqueror by the sheer fact of being needed.

This conflict repeats itself in all human endeavors: one group starts a process that creates benefit, and then others surge in and, not understanding the struggle of creation, parasitize it and destroy it. We can see this in the tendency of sequels to intelligent movies being junk; in the revolutions of the masses against the elites that leave nations with lower average IQs and third world levels of dysfunction; in the killing of Socrates by democratic Athens; in the denial of reality that lets Americans run up record debt, or our species to deplete fish stocks, pollute the ocean with floating plastics, and poison our open waterways with enough chemicals to turn amphibians hermaphroditic. The eternal human struggle for clarity of reality, versus withdrawing into our own perspectives and becoming oblivious, is repeated in metal and its struggle to resist assimilation.

The ‘heat-death’ of the universe is when the universe has reached a state of maximum entropy. This happens when all available energy (such as from a hot source) has moved to places of less energy (such as a colder source). Once this has happened, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Since heat ceases to flow, no more work can be acquired from heat transfer. This same kind of equilibrium state will also happen with all other forms of energy (mechanical, electrical, etc.). Since no more work can be extracted from the universe at that point, it is effectively dead, especially for the purposes of humankind.

– Andreas Birkedal-Hansen, M.A., Physics Grad Student, UC Berkeley12

With human beings, our tendency to act for ourselves alone — individualism, or selfishness — divides up our civilization and encourages entropy. Metal, as a perspective beyond the individual and the ego-drama that rock bands promote through love songs and peace dogma, encourages us instead to get over ourselves, transcend our egos, and look at reality for the potential beauty within it. In this, we enact a familiar drama to any post-agrarian-civilization art, which is that of the lone individual versus the crowd. The individual wants to do what is right, but the crowd wants him to be selfish like them, so that together they do not challenge each other and no one can ever be wrong, or face conflict, or be lonely. But in the end, the crowd always makes itself miserable because its vice is essentially cowardice. Metal reintroduces some clarity through a simple formulation: either one goes inward, and tries to know reality through oneself, or one looks outward and tries to know oneself through external opinions, and as a result, loses oneself in the crowd and its lowest common denominator inclinations, namely fear, selfishness and narcissism.

Assimilation of metal

Whether this larger conflict will be resolved is not yet certain – definitely, however, metal is a reaction against it. When people sang hippie songs, Black Sabbath brought in dark reality, and woke many out of the stupor that assumed extending democratic liberties to all humans would solve far deeper-rooted problems. As rock music headed toward an effete protest against Reagan in the 1980s, metal retaliated by condemning left and right for their ignorance of basic human dissatisfaction and the threat of nuclear warfare. Finally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal and black metal arose to remind us that we are mortal, and that there are greater values than that which society can bestow, such as nature, the upholding of tradition, and pride in our national origins.

The clones have closed in fast on those, since they are indirectly the greatest threat to clone culture to ever arise in metal. For this reason among others, it’s worth upholding in them what gave people hope: the belief that someday the war of clones versus leaders, masses versus elites, would come to an end. Some keep trying to dumb it down into a political trend that gives us a partial truth and tries to make it represent all of reality, effectively blinding us to the big picture so we can focus on a vicarious struggle:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

“Metal is expanding and evolving and becoming more diverse,” said Canadian anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn, who directed “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” released on DVD this summer. “It’s at a much more vibrant state than it was even five or 10 years ago.”

“It’s becoming global and it’s becoming a tool for social and political commentary,” Dunn said. “It takes on a greater meaning in countries where people have had to struggle to survive. It takes on a much stronger political tone.”

Metal music in the 1980s was often homophobic and “very white,” she said, but current bands tend to be socially conscious and suspicious of political power. There’s also more women in the audience — and fronting the bands.

The lyrics on Lamb of God’s two most recent albums have been expressly political, and the politics lean heavily to the left.

Napalm Death’s Greenway is considering work as a political activist when his metal days are over, but he doesn’t think metal will ever completely stray from hedonistic and supernatural themes.

MSN

It is not surprising that mainstream media misunderstands underground metal. After all, they virtually forced its creation, since any band darker or heavier than Metallica received no recognition; the media wanted to sell us metal as party-lovin’, loud and crazy rock music. And so while the underground bloomed in 1985 to 1996, they praised stadium heavy metal and hard rock bands. During the current time, they embrace as “metal” music that is mostly emo hardcore: metalcore and nu-metal.

To an observer of the recent black metal scene, it’s tempting to get bitter. The newest style and trend appears to be “black hardcore,” or bands putting together two three-note riffs in a standard song format in recombinant order, and even the most ambitious bands are succumbing to this influence. Reminiscent of when hardcore punk music bloated itself into entropy and collapsed because no one could tell any two bands apart, this is like gangrene creeping up the legs and finally into the bloodstream of the genre.

When the genre is healthiest, the winds of coming winter oppose all new bands with brutal hardship, so only the most determined make it to the stage of releasing an album. This encourages others who have talent and brains to take a stab. If a lone artist looks at a genre, and sees a thousand albums of which two are good, the conclusion will be that the genre is fattened and the fans thus unable to tell the difference between good music and bad.

If the genre seen has a handful of albums, most of which are excellent, it is instead a compelling argument for further exploration. This is how genres rise and fall, and is why hardcore punk and death metal both eventually fattened themselves into insignificance to the point that now, once you’ve heard one band, you’ve heard them all. So for the health of the genre, it’s better that fewer albums of a higher quality are released.

Ideals of assimilated metal:

  1. Everyone must get it. It must be simple, not challenging, and most of all not have any poetic essence to its soul, as most fans can’t get that and thus will not buy it.
  2. Appearance over structure. It must have a unique appearance, but say the same old things philosophically and use familiar musical ideas so that even the dumbest fans can understand it and buy it. Even more, it must be upheld as dogma truth that adding a flute or screeching spotted owl to the same old music somehow makes it “unique” and worth owning.
  3. Form doesn’t apply to content. In other words, appearance is more important than structure, which is the form that moulds itself to the content, in the same way a story about a rescue at sea has a different flow and arrangement than a story about contemplating death in the bathtub.
  4. Simplistic emotions are important. Forget the depth of “Inno A Satana”; blindly praise Satan with roaring, consistent anger, because that way every fan, even the ones with Down’s Syndrome, can get what it’s about and get into it. Start a big singular emotion party, and make it simple so everyone can buy the CD and come along.
  5. Everyone can participate. Black metal clones are not specific to a certain land or belief system, as they are essentially musically the same and are designed so that even a retarded outer space alien could “get it” and start tapping its feet and wearing Darkthrone-brand jogging suits immediately. Nationalism, even elitism, eugenics or belief in anything at all is out; what’s in is having some music that sounds angry, is written like punk rock, and can be appreciated by everyone so they can buy the CDs or praise the “underground” scene queens who created it.

The average black metal fan today has not heard the formative works of the genre: Immortal, Emperor, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, Darkthrone, Beherit and Varathron when they were making essential, complex, beautiful music. All they’ve heard are the newcomers, both of the blatantly commercial Cradle of Filth variety, and the scene whore “loud, fast and antisocial” type of band. The newcomers are uniformly worthless, as they express nothing that rock music does not, and by giving it an extreme aesthetic, allow their fans to convince themselves that they are “part of” some movement against the dominant trend of society, even though much like Democrats and Republicans in America agree on the same core values, newcomer “black metal” repeats the same empty rhetoric that rock music has been feeding us for fifty years. Newcomer black metal is black metal only in the world of appearance; in terms of musical and artistic structure, it’s closer to punk rock or even Dave Matthews Band. It’s rock music.

Agents of Assimilation: The Hipster

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization — a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” — a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Ad Busters — Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization

Adbusters doesn’t mention this, but there’s a simple pattern:

Normal, healthy people pick music they want to listen to.

Hipsters pick music to make themselves look good.

A hipster is defined by this reversed cause/effect, and this is why they parallel our society: like people looking for political handouts, they are justifying themselves to others instead of acting as they know is right.

In metal, the hipster is the person always trying to be different, to pick music that is brainy or “authentic” (simple), the person spreading trends and fads. Instead of being an authentic fan who picks the music he or she thinks is best, the hipster is using the music as adornment to conceal their ordinariness.

What’s the damage, you ask? Hipsters bloat genres with people who don’t understand them and, in the ensuing confusion, pick the lowest common denominator. So heavy metal returns to rock, death metal returns to heavy metal, folk becomes punk, and so on.

Healthy societies work from cause to effect. We need an empire, so we build it (cause) and then it appears (effect). Dying societies work from effect to cause. We want an empire, so we create the appearance of an empire (effect) and hope it will show up (cause). This is why old black metallers fear trends, hipsters, fads and mass media like the plague: they promote this unhealthy psychology.

In the postmortem over humanity’s failure, our new reptilian overlords will discuss this issue, and conclude that humans had two modes of thought: a healthy forward-thinking one, and a negative and sick backward-thinking one. The hipster, like every other form of decay in our society, is backward thinking.

Metal is currently awash in hipsters because hipsters use something called irony to disguise their low self-esteem. If they’re listening to IRON MAIDEN, it’s because they find it amusing — not because they believe in it. In fact, they believe in nothing except what others believe in within their social group, which makes them always right. If someone makes fun of them for liking IRON MAIDEN, they can always claim their enjoyment is ironic. It’s a race to the bottom with the hipster, because believing in anything but illusion and evasion makes you a target, so they believe in nothing except “ironically,” and that’s how they infiltrated metal.

In the same way hipsters find trailer parks quaint and amusing, they found death metal and black metal intriguing. It was untamed, unsocialized material, and a threat to everything the hipster stood for. So they assimilated it, and moved in by taking positions in the community. Start buying metal, or selling metal, and others depend on you. From that they branched out by using the hipster tactic of focusing on the external. “Well, this could be more unique if we added a flute…”

When you focus on the external, and don’t pay attention to the fundamental quality of music that distinguishes it, which is how well it communicates, you end up norming the music. Structurally, it becomes all the same, but externally, it’s all tricked out in motley so it appears “different” and “new.” But the real name of the game is not being different, but being the same so you are universally accepted, while having enough adornments that you stand out in a crowd… just like the hipster.

We’ve seen this steadily increasing in metal since 1994 or so, and it was helped by some in metal who would rather leave a bad legacy with a full wallet than the inverse, such as Death and Cannibal Corpse. It will reverse, but only as soon as metal bands and fans start communing on the idea of forward-logic instead of backward, negative logic.

The end result of complete cellular representation is cancer. Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.) Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action, to the complete parasitism of a virus.

(It is thought that the virus is a degeneration from more complex life form. It may at one time have been capable of independent life. Now has fallen to the borderline between living and dead matter. It can exhibit living qualities only in a host, by using the life of another — the renunciation of life itself, a falling towards inorganic, inflexible machine, towards dead matter.)

Bureaus die when the structure of the state collapses. They are as helpless and unfit for independent existences as a displaced tapeworm, or a virus that has killed the host.

- William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Hipsterism is reality-avoidance, in the same way Crowdism or any other mass movement is: the assimilation of the individual by the crowd in order to destroy reality, which in turn destroys the collective. Societies, genres of music, groups of friends and businesses all fit this pattern, which is fundamental to human psychology. Either the individual stands up for what is true in reality, not what the individual prefers, or the crowd declares its own reality and then the collective veers off course because it has lost touch with reality. Assimilation is a byproduct of individualism without reality, just like bad music is the product of people pandering to each other and not finding a beauty in reality, including its darkness and horror, as heavy metal has throughout its four decades.

Resisting Assimilation

The problem with combatting assimilation is that assimilation is less an act than a passive lack of acting. When good metal is not made, and people do not assert what makes metal unique, assimilation surges in like water filling the space where it was swept out of the way. Like all things in humanity, the default state is one of disorganization and failure, and it is only when wise minds step in and re-direct the chaos that prosperity of any kind happens.

We have learned what does not stop assimilation. Trying to keep the music rare means hipsters buy it on eBay. Trying to keep it indie and obscure means that hipsters only prize it more. Trying to make it more offensive or extreme just makes it more novel. These methods do not work. What also does not work is trusting a “scene” or “underground” to keep away the mainstream, because underground scenes are an advanced form of maintaining rarity through social networks.

A “scene” means music that is consistent enough for people not to care what band is playing, so they can socialize in the same environment time and time again. A “scene” is clubs that play music that sounds very similar time and time again so they know they can draw an audience each time. A “scene” are sellers of music who find bands that sound like each other so they can compare past successes to the next generation, getting a crop of already-proven fans to come buy it all again. The variation is dead – the conformity is absolute. And worst of all, it’s voluntary and in a moral facilitative society there are few arguments accepted against it.

That kind of consistency kills music by raising the level of expectation to an entry requirement. The hardcore “scene” murdered hardcore by making it consistent – acceptable – “fun” and extremely similar. Bands who used to fight for a living could suddenly find central places to play, sell and broadcast their music – but in order to do so, they had to make it fit within expectations. Metal will die with a scene or without some form of one.

The problem with this flood isn’t its quality in itself. The problem is that when there is a flood of undistinctive material, (a) anything that does not conform to the pattern is not recognized and (b) the information overload is so great than any excellent band that does rise will be ignored. In essence, the underground has replicated the errors made by gigantic record labels in the 1980s.

Interestingly, the same thing happened in hardcore music in the 1980s when it became cheap and easy to release seven-inch records. Suddenly, there were no “fans”: everyone had a band, zine, label or distro. Consequently, quality went down, because no leaders were picked, and a great averaging occurred. Everyone could participate, but because there was no specialized fanbase, the farthest they got was participation, getting their share. No one great rose above and therefore, the great people stopped trying. There was no direction.

Analogous to the effects of democracy and consumerism on the quality of people in society as a whole? You bet it was. Analogy to egocentricism of the west, and its own cultural failings? You bet: the same mechanism was in effect: a lack of appreciation for quality because popularity/social pressures dictated participation, an external factor, not hierarchy, which requires a measurement of amorphous qualities such as “artistic worth” which are unrecognizable to most people in the crowd. Consequently, hardcore declined to the point where, in 1985, all the bands sounded exactly the same and there were no leaders.

Another concept, that perhaps will embitter some because of its practicality, is that of your personal landfill. What you produce on compact disc or vinyl or tape doesn’t magically disappear. It ends up in the landfills, with all the other waste you produce, to rot in insignificance, slowly leeching poisons into the earth. You like being alive, right, or you’d be dead — why create more personal landfill if it won’t achieve something you desire? For every CD you buy, there’s one more CD in that landfill. Buy the best, ignore the rest, and your personal landfill will not only be small, but will possibly not exist as others enjoy those CDs, since good CDs can be enjoyed in any age while trends are temporal.

My suggestion to all those who love metal is simple: stop supporting bands that are OK instead of great.

Few genres demand as much long-term allegiance as metal, and get it. Of styles likely found in a record store, only metal, industrial, country, jazz and classical have enduring audiences. Other genres are bigger, but people stay with them for fewer years. As history has shown us, metal is too easily absorbed by the mainstream. Black metal selling out and the rise of nu-metal occurred at the same time – is anything in the universe “coincidental”? It’s interesting to note that a similar absorption afflicted death metal, heavy metal and hardcore punk, all of whom relied on popular-music-style short song formats.

The Case for Metal to Follow Classical

However, there is one guaranteed way to take metal out of the mainstream: leave behind the mainstream song format. Most songs are three minutes of a verse-chorus nature, and they use devices such as rhythmic predictability on the offbeat (“expectation”) and melodic hooks. If metal were to expand on its riff salad nature, it would join genres like jazz and classical in a musically distinct form, and become inaccessible to those who want to make or consume bite-sized music. Every other metal band aspires to classical guitar anyway; why not liberate our impulses toward something that is clearly enjoyed and valued?

For example, consider these micro-symphonies:

When people tell you what they want, they usually tell you what appearance or experience they want — the effect — and do not understand the device for achieving that effect — the cause. They think in terms of the appearance of what they want and not the underlying structure.

For example, when people say they want simplicity, what they really want is organization. It’s why “My Journey to the Stars” works even though it’s “complex” in theory — complex means having a central idea that is simple and clear, and then manifesting it in different forms so people can compare them like metaphors and see the abstraction. People will tell you they want raw, fast, brutal, simple but they’re talking about the one riff they remember, kind of how most people can identify the opening riff to Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 — it’s the simplest, most memorable part of a complex music experience.

The role of art is to be a silent philosopher, meaning that it does not make explicit commands and references to everyday objects, but gives us a clear spiritual commandment and its corresponding aesthetic from which to work. Art organizes our spirits and approach to reality. It is important that art does this because most people know the end result they’d like to see, but are completely unaware of the context in which it exists. They see a riff, and figure that if they just heard that riff, they’d have the whole experience, or they think of one moment when they were happy and assume that correlations which occurred simultaneously to that moment — a cigarette, a postcard, a summer day — are the cause when the real cause was the sequence of events that led up to that one moment having great significance, or that one cigarette being the break that really helped them find mental clarity. It wasn’t the cigarette — it was the context.

In human life, once civilization is established, we face a causal breakdown. Person A does something, and Person B sees the results, and tries to work backward toward the cause. Metal bands see how others have succeeded, and try to imitate the outward aspects — faster drums, harsher vocals, floaty keyboards — without understanding that it’s the songwriting and beneath that, the ability to reference “meaning” in experience shared between artist and listener, that makes the song great and not just average with above-average execution.

At this point, the genre doesn’t understand its own spirit or aesthetics, so bands make salads where they throw together unrelated stuff and figure that since it has everything, it must be good. This “carnival style” metal is a salad of distractions from which each piece returns to a few exactly repeated themes. As a result, there’s a lot going on, like riding a merry-go-round and seeing the world outside flash by in disorienting random order, but there’s no development of theme; it’s just a more complex version of verse/chorus pop music.

People can’t put into words what they want. When shown what they want, they will initially resist it because it doesn’t “look like” or “sound like” what they want — people in 1990 “wanted” simpler, catchier, groovier speed metal, and that movement went nowhere. While sub-sub-genres like metalcore, deathcore, or “black punk” (hybrid of pop-punk, shoegaze, emo and black metal) have momentary peaks of popularity, these seem to fade quickly, unlike the lasting appeal of the best of death and black metal. They’re popular, but no one seems to love them like true classics.

However, there is still great room in this genre for those who can translate the spirit, aesthetics and organization of classical music — narrative motives — into death/black metal. That’s the real ground to conquer. Whoever does that will be initially unpopular, like death metal and later black metal were, but later acknowledged as a hero. Like the songs listed above, such music will be passionate but leave the repetitive, formulaic, simplistic structure of pop music behind.

Metal music will never fit into the framework of other genres. Where other music might sound scary, metal communicates the meaning of scary, and this means that it will always oppose the anti-orthodoxy of mainstream logic. For those who understand its message and the power of its sound, assimilation of a distinct genre into the indistinct mass will always remain a threat.


  1. Romanticism, on the other hand, is what the writers of the Romantic Period practiced: there is not much agreement about what that is exactly, and there is in fact a longstanding debate about whether there is such a thing or only Romanticisms. See A. O. Lovejoy, “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms,” PMLA, 1924; René Wellek, “The Concept of `Romanticism’ in Literary History,” Comparative Literature, 1949; and finally, Jerome McGann’s Introduction to The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (revised edition). – http://www.users.muohio.edu/mandellc/eng441/urllist.htm
  2. A movement in art and literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in revolt against the Neoclassicism of the previous centuries…The German poet Friedrich Schlegel, who is given credit for first using the term romantic to describe literature, defined it as “literature depicting emotional matter in an imaginative form.” This is as accurate a general definition as can be accomplished, although Victor Hugo’s phrase “liberalism in literature” is also apt. Imagination, emotion, and freedom are certainly the focal points of romanticism. Any list of particular characteristics of the literature of romanticism includes subjectivity and an emphasis on individualism; spontaneity; freedom from rules; solitary life rather than life in society; the beliefs that imagination is superior to reason and devotion to beauty; love of and worship of nature; and fascination with the past, especially the myths and mysticism of the middle ages. – http://www.uh.edu/engines/romanticism/introduction.html
  3. Some of the earliest stirrings of the Romantic movement are conventionally traced back to the mid-18th-century interest in folklore which arose in Germany–with Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collecting popular fairy tales and other scholars like Johann Gottfried von Herder studying folk songs–and in England with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele treating old ballads as if they were high poetry. These activities set the tone for one aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs.

    Whereas during much of the 17th and 18th centuries learned allusions, complexity and grandiosity were prized, the new romantic taste favored simplicity and naturalness; and these were thought to flow most clearly and abundantly from the “spontaneous” outpourings of the untutored common people. In Germany in particular, the idea of a collective Volk (people) dominated a good deal of thinking about the arts. Rather than paying attention to the individual authors of popular works, these scholars celebrated the anonymous masses who invented and transmuted these works as if from their very souls.
    - http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html

  4. Emphasis on the activity of the imagination was accompanied by greater emphasis on the importance of intuition, instincts, and feelings, and Romantics generally called for greater attention to the emotions as a necessary supplement to purely logical reason. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  5. While particular perspectives with regard to nature varied considerably–nature as a healing power, nature as a source of subject and image, nature as a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, including artificial language–the prevailing views accorded nature the status of an organically unified whole.
    - http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  6. It was viewed as “organic,” rather than, as in the scientific or rationalist view, as a system of “mechanical” laws, for Romanticism displaced the rationalist view of the universe as a machine (e.g., the deistic image of a clock) with the analogue of an “organic” image, a living tree or mankind itself. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  7. Symbolism and myth were given great prominence in the Romantic conception of art. In the Romantic view, symbols were the human aesthetic correlatives of nature’s emblematic language. They were valued too because they could simultaneously suggest many things, and were thus thought superior to the one-to-one communications of allegory.
    - http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  8. In addition, neoclassicism had prescribed for art the idea that the general or universal characteristics of human behavior were more suitable subject matter than the peculiarly individual manifestations of human activity. From at least the opening statement of Rousseau’s Confessions, first published in 1781–”I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe that I am not made like anyone in existence. If I am not superior, at least I am different.”–this view was challenged.
    - http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  9. Certain special features of Romanticism may still be highlighted by this contrast. We have already noted two major differences: the replacement of reason by the imagination for primary place among the human faculties and the shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation for poetry, and indeed all literature. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  10. The hero-artist has already been mentioned; there were also heaven-storming types from Prometheus to Captain Ahab, outcasts from Cain to the Ancient Mariner and even Hester Prynne, and there was Faust, who wins salvation in Goethe’s great drama for the very reasons–his characteristic striving for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted and his insatiable thirst for activity–that earlier had been viewed as the components of his tragic sin. (It was in fact Shelley’s opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.)
    - http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  11. A literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, characterized chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and an emphasis on the imagination and emotions, and marked especially in English literature by sensibility and the use of autobiographical material, an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a predilection for melancholy, and the use in poetry of older verse forms. – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/romanticism
  12. The ‘heat-death’ of the universe is when the universe has reached a state of maximum entropy. This happens when all available energy (such as from a hot source) has moved to places of less energy (such as a colder source). Once this has happened, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Since heat ceases to flow, no more work can be acquired from heat transfer. This same kind of equilibrium state will also happen with all other forms of energy (mechanical, electrical, etc.). Since no more work can be extracted from the universe at that point, it is effectively dead, especially for the purposes of humankind.
    - http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae181.cfm
  13. But the rising materialism and focus on business at the cost of the mind and the spirit was spawning reform movements all over America…Many felt a psychic dislocation, that the bottom had dropped out of their world since traditional values and conventional reality were just not enough for them. They tried to impose meaning individually, for institutions and dogmas seemed to possess little truth. Philosophically, they reacted against the materialistic educational theories of Locke and rationalism. They found Truth more a matter of intuition and imagination than logic and reason. They rejected the mechanistic view of the universe so dear to Franklin and Deists and opted for a more organic view, seeing the world more as dynamic and living. – http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/intro.htm
  14. “He was recognized as a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang, which celebrated the energetic Promethean restlessness of spirit as opposed to the ideal of calm rationalism of the Enlightenment. Goethe’s poem ‘Prometheus’, with its insistence that man must believe not in gods but in himself, might be seen as a motto for the whole movement.”
    - http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/goethe.htm

Classical Music for Metal Fans

Underground metal — the more artistic and less crowd-pandering arm of the heavy metal genre — headed downwards in quality simultaneously heading upward in quantity, starting in about 1994. As the old bands got sick of their day jobs and sold out in failing bids to become “professional” musicians like crowd-pandering heavy metal, and the new bands started imitating the effects of older metal without knowing the causes, underground death metal and black metal fans began casting out for something new.

Our choices are bleak. We can try jazz, but it’s not only pompous, repetitive and random, but also the exact contrary spirit to what metal espouses: a charging ahead and saying YES to life by accepting the intolerant and violent aspects of nature as necessary for its beauty. Jazz is socialization music. So is rock, pop, etc. What’s left? We could listen to neofolk, but after about three albums it becomes clear that neofolk is a sham, namely bad rock music that sells because it is controversial and played acoustically sometimes like folk music. Then there’s electronica, which has a few acts but is mostly more party music. Popular music does not offer another genre with the power and sincerity of metal, so instead you get “soul” which means blind compassion and encourages, rather than discourages, submission to conformity.

There is an option but unfortunately for modern listeners, it does not conform to the production values of rock, so you can’t throw it on and have it aggressively grab your head the way loud-mastered, constant syncopated drumming and “soulful” human wailing will. It requires you to clear your desk, empty your mind and listen with your whole attention, and as a result it’s less convenient than the junk they’ll sell you at the record store. It’s not as cheap to produce or promote either, which is why that record store is there — listening to classical is not just bucking a trend, it’s bucking an industry based around trends, and the same industry that afflicts metal and turns good bands into crowd-pandering drek.

For the metalhead looking to get into classical music there is almost no recognition of this effect. The classical fans have no idea how to communicate with metalheads (and generally don’t understand or like metal, conflating Guns and Roses with Demilich, Atheist and Gorguts in the most oblivious way possible) and the classical industry has been sidelined for so long that it has no idea how to explain the beauty of classical or give modern listeners a chance. It operates like a cult, assuming that those who are in the cult belong there and everyone else is crazy — not a horrible assumption, you’ll find after six months of listening to classical, given the wide gulf of quality and brainpower between classical and mainstream music.

To address this problem, we list here some good introductory pieces and recordings for metalheads. Unlike popular music, classical music is written by a composer, shaped by a conductor and performed by an orchestra — and that does not even take into account different recording times, technologies and locations. So there’s another four layers on top of the mind-numbingly-simple “Band Name – Album Name” that we’re accustomed to, thanks to metal’s heritage in rock. These pieces are here because they capture the spirit of metal — a Romanticist transcendental idealism — in a way that eases you into the transition.

  1. Brahms, Johannes – The Four Symphonies

    Pure Romanticism, which is the most beautiful classical genre but also its most easily misled into human emotional confusion. Flowing, diving, surging passages which storm through tyrannical opposition to reach some of the most Zen states ever put to music.

    Four Symphonies by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  2. Respighi, Ottorino – Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome

    Italian music is normally inconsequential. This has an ancient feeling, a sense of weight that can only be borne out in an urge to reconquest the present with the past.

    Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome by Louis Lane/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

  3. Schubert, Franz – Symphonies 8 & 9

    A sense of power emerging from darkness, and a clarity coming from looking into the halls of eternity, as translated by the facile hand of a composer who wrote many great pieces before dying young.

    Symphonies 8 & 9 by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  4. Saint-Saens, Camille – Symphony 3

    Like DeBussy, but with a much wider range, this modernist Romantic rediscovers all that is worth living in the most warlike and bleak of circumstances.

    Symphony No. 3 by Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

  5. Bruckner, Anton – Symphony 4

    Writing symphonic music in the spirit of Wagner, Bruckner makes colossal caverns of sound which evolve to a sense of great spiritual contemplation, the first “heaviness” on record.

    Romantic Symphony by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  6. Berwald, Franz – Symphony 2

    The passion of Romantic poetry breathes through this light and airy work which turns stormy when it, through a ring composition of motives, seizes a clear statement of theme from its underlying tempest of beauty.

    Symphony No. 2 by David Montgomery/Jena Philharmonic

  7. Paganini, Niccolo – 24 Caprices

    Perhaps the original Hessian, this long-haired virtuoso wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the devil, and made short often violent pieces that made people question their lives and their churches.

    24 Caprices by James Ehnes

  8. Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis – Sonatas by Brahms and Schumann

    We list these by performer because this informal and sprightly interpretation is all their own. Played on period instruments, it captures the beauty and humor of these shorter pieces with the casual knowledge of old friends.

    Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Cello; Schumann: 5 Stücke im Volkston

Some conductors do an excellent job of certain styles, and so get picked more than others. Herbert von Karajan, in particular, is the original master of the Faustian style of conducting Northern European classical music. Certain performers like Orkis and Bylsma are also preferred for their ability to interpret certain ideas that — like genres have ideas in common and as a result, sounds in common — composers explored as part of their collective membership in certain time periods or recurring ideas, like the Faustian, the Romantic and the reverent/sublime outlook, all of which are shared between metal and classical.

These similarities in composition explain why metal and classical have a lot in common — and this is why the correct interpretors are needed. Rock is harmonic-rhythmic, metal is phrasal-narrative. When making rock music, you pick a rhythm, and then use a standard song form or variation to fit it into a scale, which in turn determines harmony. Rock riffs are not as active or as shaped as metal riffs, because generally they are variations within a scale whose goal is to return to the chord being played; they are based around open chords and lead rhythm playing of the scale. Metal is phrasal, meaning that its riffs take the form of phrases made of power chords, and narrative, which means that metal song structure is determined by content of each song more than by a standard form — that’s the infamous “riff salad” rock musicians bemoan in metal.

Classical music also uses narrative composition. While imbeciles will focus on its fixed forms — sonata, fugue, aria — the more important idea here is that the song follows the poetic content being expressed. This mirrors the epic poetry of ancient European and Indian civilizations, where it was understood that each adventure had stages of ritual, much like we have stages in acceptance of death or change. As a result, there was a need for an overture, a reconsideration, some changes and a recapitulation and synthesis of themes, and these got formalized in the song structures that today imbeciles regard as iron laws. The narrative style however is the common thread in classical music from its beginning to the present.

In rock music, you write to fit the scale to the rhythm, and then melody is added to accentuate that. This is easier work because all of the real variables are defined by the form. Similarly, in jazz, the form is fixed and within it the player riffs off harmony and rhythm, and inserts fragments of melody to that end — this is why most jazz artists make thousands of recordings of a song, and only one or two are considered “the real deal” by collectors: without the artist making it happen, cerebrally, the pieces fit together by random convenience. Classical works by the opposite principle, which is creating or adapting a general form to the poetic needs of a piece — expressing the change in both listener and “actor” within the story or feeling being related — and then designing a combination of rhythm, melody, theme, motif and form to express it well.

Metal is similar, although less schooled in this regard, because it seeks to express a similar worldview — underlying philosophical assumptions about life — to that of classical. Metal is reverent for the sublime; it sees the power and the horror of nature as necessary for its perpetuation, and is like nature intolerant of the oblivious and unrealistic because they create a parasitic slowdown of the exciting experiences in life. It derives much of its thematic development from the pace of horror movies, in which a few “awakened” people realize that they face a supernatural — or invisible pattern underlying all reality — foe against which technology and their oblivious, unrealistic social partners are useless. Finally, metal like classical expresses the Faustian spirit, or a sense of struggling for the rare and inconvenient beauty life offers, and fighting back those who submit to static obedience or dogma; this sense of purity through struggle is called vir, or the virtuous warlike acts of ancient man. These themes repeat throughout classical music, like metal, and while there are exceptions, it’s more than a coincidence that the best among metal and classical use these themes repeatedly.

If you find yourself enjoying the above, we recommend you move on to other classical music that expresses these ideas, and bypass the trendier “new music” and quirky classical that your friends, in an attempt to impress you with how knowledgeable or non-normal they are, will tell you are important. Our attitude is different: build outward from the greats and later get into the novelties like “new music” or Eric Satie, Charles Ives or John Cage, if you decide at that point that you want to explore postmodernism, which is deconstruction of all that metal and classical music desire. In any case, we hope you enjoy the music and can turn on some friends to this treasure of musical beauty that hides in plain sight amongst us.

When To Stop Listening

If the motive is to pander, not find adventure, the music will be worthless

If you’re faced with a problem, you fix it through the scientific method. You come up with a number of possible solutions, test them against reality, pick the ones that succeed — looping through a few times to refine them so they’re accurate — and use those. You throw away the ones that did not work.

Our universe is mathematically stable because it has something (reality) to test solutions against, and because it allows the discarding of bad solutions. This avoids a state of entropy, or a condition where every solution possible has about the same effectiveness. Entropy afflicts everything we do through a type of organizational decay, but when it becomes the state of a situation, all motion and change ceases. Heat death, or the lack of motion to energy and hence its dissipation, occurs.

This information logic to our world underlies natural selection just as much as it describes how our brains work. Imagine multiple ideas; pick the ones that converge; throw out the rest. In the case of heavy metal music, we strengthen the genre when we as fans pick only the best bands and albums. We weaken it when we tolerate mediocre metal, because then being mediocre is just about as important as being good, so people stop trying to be good — heat death.

While heat death is comforting because it enables us to avoid challenging ourselves, and to feel like we’re heroes and geniuses for recording any metal music, it means that we no longer have great metal music — the kind that makes you sit up, pay attention, and rediscover life through a worship of power, saying a kind of cosmic yes (in the James Joyce sense) to accepting life as constant conflict for a few rare, beautiful possible outcomes.

For those who still have red blood coursing through their veins and so aren’t so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to try, it’s imperative to pick good metal music. This means not making the categorical mistake of buying an album just because the band that made it was good once, or because that band is trendy, has some novel implementation like flutes and tubas, or because you know the people in the band and you want to make them happy. It’s important to know when to stop listening and throw out the bad ideas.

What makes music bad?

Bad music is all the same. Most bands record music that is competent but fails to articulate anything that makes us sit up and take notice, because they’re either repeating the past or suggesting something unrealistic, which means we cannot feel that sense of the music being vital to our lives because we have to live in reality. At least 99% of music falls into this category, but perhaps more, because out of tens of thousands of metal bands, only a few hundred stand the test of time.

In that mindset, we can see that what makes “bad metal” is not that it’s unmusical, or stupid, except in a few cases. In most cases, it is simply unremarkable because it hasn’t challenged itself to find meaning in life and sing about it. This is why almost all reviews of albums that are destined to fail go like this:

This CD recombines past methods that worked, without knowledge of the reasons why they worked. Quirky as a result, it is a unique collage of instruments and techniques. Yet it is without direction because it imitates the effects of the past without knowing the causes, like someone looking into the genre from outside. Therefore, it’s not bad, but not great, and so we’ll forget it soon because time is valuable and this CD is not going to make us feel a sense of connection to life through power.

In other words, the CD is bringing us to a state of entropy. It isn’t bad, it isn’t good, which means by default that it’s not good. You will see this review format on many metal sites. It usually looks like this:

I don’t normally like ultra-brutal death metal, but this CD combines ultra-brutal death metal with hardcore vocals and black metal riffs. I have never before heard a flute used to make brutal riffs come slamming home. Guitar solos are like fire in the veins of a poisoned dragon. Although it’s really brutal, parts of this CD are riff salad where they get confused about whether they are black metal or death metal. But the end result isn’t bad, even if it won’t make my top ten for this year. If you really like brutal death metal with flutes, get this CD.

That’s a review done by a fan, a zine, or another band. What does it look like when we combine the art of making people think they should buy something — marketing — with this review type?

Brutal death metal fans have waited too long for a real masterpiece, but [ name redacted ] is going to change all that. With pummeling brutal riffs, you might think this band were closed-minded, but they have a full-time flute player who brings a progressive, liberal touch to the old and musty genre of brutal death metal. This groundbreaking act goes where no metal band has gone before! Don’t expect mercy from these powerful slamming riffs. This CD is brutal and it’ll tear your fuckin head off!

In the above, you will see something all smart marketers do. They find an audience for something, and then try to convince them that a product is better than others. If you can’t sell it on “better,” you sell it on novelty. It’s unique. It does something others don’t do. What you really want to do is avoid mentioning whether or not this is important. For example, who cares if a band uses a flute if their music is just as boring as if they did not?

What is pandering?

Most people will recognize, after hearing enough music, that while good music is made to be bought, it isn’t designed so that it will make the most money by offering the least challenging listen. If you’re not listening to radio pop, it’s because you got tired of melodic hooks and three-minute songs using verse-chorus structures. The riffs in such songs may be good, but since they achieve a state and cycle in it, but don’t really change, it’s hard to call them art — or claim they’ll inspire our lives. They’re like pretty wallpaper or television shows: background noise to make life pleasant, not give it meaning.

What separates good music from bad music is what separates scientific information from marketing: marketing is designed to appeal to a need that’s already there, and exploit it as a way of making money. Where good music/art is designed to make life more meaningful by showing us a new vision of it, marketing is designed to affirm our current vision of life so we can fit a product into it. Marketing panders. Art doesn’t.

Pandering – We use the panda image to suggest that music panders, and so has not only suspect motivations but minimal joy in listening. You may think this is sorta neat for a couple weeks, but then you’ll forget it. In the meantime, the band and others like them will start making more of this crap, so that instead of getting albums you can listen to for years, you’ll get lots of new albums you have to buy that won’t really satisfy you.

Selling Out – When a band goes from having made quality music to a state of extreme pandering, we realize that a psychological change has occurred in the artists. Instead of trying to make good music so that they can make money, they bypass the middle step and make music that makes money not because it’s good, but because it panders. We use the tombstone image to suggest that this band has left the reservation and headed for pop territory, so we’re not going to bother reviewing any of their other stuff until this changes.

Why so judgmental? — you are trained to ask. Why not just write about the music as it is? The answer is that mediocre music far outnumbers good music, and we are interested in preserving the good, and so instead of leaving you wondering about why we stopped reviewing a band, we’re just going to point out that they have changed motivation and results. It’s no different from reviewing every metal album ever made, and writing the generic review above 99% of the time and not telling you that there’s something all bad albums have in common.

You’re also trained to ask: Who made you the judge? Who are you to decide? — these questions are illogical. In a relative universe, we all decide, and our value is decided by the decisions we make, although it takes someone who has a clue to see that. Who made you the judge to decide we’re not the judge? Who are you to decide who is to decide? These questions make light of how ridiculous those common questions are.

If you want to know why a band’s CD or performance is referred to this page, it is because the above is the best that can be said about it, and we do not wish to be ironic or condescending to you, our reader. We are here to praise the art in the genre and its best incarnations, and we treat you and the artists with greater respect by having such reverence for the art.

What Makes Good Metal?

Metal is Romantic art, much as the novel Frankenstein or the opera Parsifal are: discovery of transcendent meaning in life by embracing its struggle and suffering as means to a higher end, an idea beyond material satisfaction or fear. To those who see the greatness of this idea, it is a worldview and a life-philosophy, and metal is one of its voices.

When we say metal expresses this idea, we are speaking only secondarily of imagery and lyrics (which mainstream academics prefer to study because they’re easy). We speak of the music and the spirit it evokes. Much like songs can convey sadness, fear, anger or hope, like the leitmotifs of Wagner different impulses are encoded in metal music that together suggest a Romantic worldview.

As art, heavy metal music is unique among popular genres for this viewpoint. What makes sonic art “metal” is its expression of this spirit more than any dogma or musical conceits; after all, other bands have appropriated metal riffs for years but without grasping this idea, much like innumerable Hollywood soundtracks have borrowed from Wagner without capturing his ideal.

When a metal band ceases to make Romantic art and becomes another voice for the easy, non-transcendent answers of life — material comfort, self-satiation, revengeful morality or simply self-obsession — it is no longer metal, but an imitation of metal, much like advertising jingles often “sound like” a genre without having its artistry or ideas.

Why metal needs frontiers

Evolutionary skips like humanity do not occur without the introduction of a radical new method. In the case of humans, it was language, which allowed us to form societies of larger than familial groups, specialize in certain tasks, and so preserve a massive knowledge of tools and methods that would overwhelm any human. As a result, we are smarter chimps with socialization in our blood.

From this origin, it is easy to see why humans crave company, but approach it with an unease rooted in the need to keep a balance over social obligation and personal obligation. Too much obligation to society, and we become Stalinist slaves; too much obligation to the individual, and we become modern Americans shuttling between the shopping mall and the psychologist, wondering why we cannot fill the holes our souls with our rank, our wealth, and the possessions we pile up in our castle retreats before shipping them to third world landfills.

Too many people around us creates a hubbub that drowns out our own thoughts. In such situations, we get overwhelmed and it becomes harder to hear our own minds and memories because as we are concentrating, other voices intervene. It is like having someone talking to you when you type; inevitably, you type pieces of the conversation instead of what you meant to scribe. When we are overwhelmed by socialization, we get beaten down into accepting external trends and ideas as our own thoughts.

Someday this condition will be recognized as belonging to that indefinite area between disease and pathology where alcoholism, drug abuse, promiscuity, compulsive gambling, religious delusion and overeating fall. Just as the right dose of a compound has medicinal effect, but too much is poison, and too little is apathy, we need some degree of socialization: murder is wrong (except when necessary), don’t defecate in the water supply, help your neighbor if her house is on fire.

These thoughts are helpful when we can take them into ourselves as a logical conclusion, and realize their necessity, but when societies get too big and too unequal in the abilities of their populations, large centralized institutions or social movements occur which try to hammer these thoughts into our head. The fine line between “murder without reason creates anarchy” and “murder is bad in an absolute sense, and you’ll go to hell” is where things go wrong. If we get afraid for ourselves, and insist on making ever more rigid rules, we take American individualism and turn it into Stalinist persecution of those who step out of line.

In the same way that suffocation might be viewed as CO2 crowding out oxygen, this social overdose might be seen as nature, abhorring a vacuum as the cliche goes, flooding our minds with the will of others which magnified by the credence we give external objects for their self-evidence, take on a higher weight of appearance than our own thoughts — or observations which, while not our own, ring true with what we know from experience and analysis. Civilization can drown us in what makes it strong, which is its support network for us.

Nature thrives on complexity, and like most patterns in nature, this sequence of logical events is repeated in any situation where individual brains must form one brain for the purpose of supporting greater knowledge. One such case is that of musical genres, especially those which derive much of their power from their claim that they are an alternative view to the dominant cliche, which may be either Stalinism or Americanism, or the hybrid of the two mentioned above. Neither Stalin nor Americans invented these two extremes; they are repeated patterns formed by the constraints of nature itself in the task of uniting individuals to perform the functions required for civilization.

When such patterns form in a musical genre, equality results, because when there are too many people in a cycle they make an unspoken agreement to treat each other equally so that none are seen as aggressors. This is similar to Americanized Stalinism in that it is the fear of the individual which motivates a stronger society with more rigid rules, such that the rules themselves become the goal, instead of the avoidance or promotion of consequence that the rules were intended to cause. Fear is the cause, and the result is a type of negative thinking that presupposes bad consequences to justify radical and extreme actions taken against its possibility. As the negative thinking spreads, it dominates every form of social and political discourse, and becomes accepted as a fact of civilization itself and not an option.

This negative thinking aims to nullify possible threats instead of treat the source of threat, so it has a neutralizing effect, and soon standards lower. From the best of civilized intentions, collaboration, we produce unending compromise. The compromise arises from our fear of transgressing against well-intentioned but rigid rules, and because the rules are irrational, all other thinking becomes irrational. The individual becomes the root of all justification, and so even if the individual produces mediocrity, there is a demand that all respect that individual for the sole reason of he or she being an individual — otherwise, the negative thinking is violated, and we all will descend into anarchy (the thinking goes).

In an artistic genre, this results in tolerance for all artists which means an information overload so great that none can rise above the crowd. As a result, you have many people happy to have achieved mediocre success, because that’s where 99% of all artists are going anyway, and 1% of the artists who could do better standing alone, longing for a frontier. All suffer because they can’t promote this 1%, because those are the superstars who keep new people coming into a genre, which is necessary because fans age and drop out or die. However, they prefer on an individual level to be rockstars of their block instead of allowing others to be recognized artists who lead.

This pattern repeats itself time and again. It’s how nature sloughs off the dead and dying before they actually exterminate itself, kind of like the sudden summer colds the gods wisely designed to erode the elderly population (think quickly: die for months in a hospital bed, or get the sniffles, go to sleep and kick off in a matter of hours? if the two were methods of execution, we’d quickly decide the latter was more “humane”). If any society cannot find a balance between individual and collective, it tends toward the extremes, becomes rigid and collapses into the kind of third-world entropy we see in the ruins of past superstar civilizations and, hehe, black and death metal today.

One on extreme, in black and death metal, you’ve got the “let’s be one unit” people, or Stalinists, who call themselves “true” but are true to looking like they’re the past, but not understanding, because they’re actually there to be rockstars of the block (note that the first pose adopted by rockstars of the block is humility; it lets them manipulate other people into supporting their own mediocrity, under the guise of “helping one another” and when no one’s looking, taking advantage of the situation; a community of rockstars of the block would rapidly starve itself: “I swear, Jimbo, there was a whole bushel of grain there we were going to share! I don’t know how it got so small, but let’s split it anyway”). The faux true contingent of death metal and black metal bands take the past, put it in a blender, and then drift toward whatever their childhood influences were, which is what they were going to do anything. As a result you have Suffocation-style death metal with black metal choruses mixed into what sounds, at its core, like a Def Leppard ballad. You should buy it because it’s unique.

The other extreme are those who want to embrace the crowdthink through individualism people, or Americans, who want to make that uniqueness be the central feature of the music, but they also tend to play exactly what their childhood influences were, and spend a good deal of time neurotically trying to cover it up. To them, good music has a combination of instruments, images, or quirks never done before, so they specialize in making funk-based death metal with black metal face paint and electric tuba solos. These combinations are inherently unstable, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the Def Leppard peeking through underneath. These musicians deal exclusively in re-combined aesthetic, but never change the structure, form, or musical language of the music. It remains Def Leppard, cut up by jazz breaks and horn solos, grindcore blast beats and disco choruses.

Both extremes share one thing in common: Because the music they make is blatantly ludicrous, and at its essential level unremarkable and in fact in agonized neurotic contortions to hide its ordinariness, the “artists” adopt a pose of self-reflexive irony: “It’s supposed to be entertainment, and between you and me, most of them don’t get it. We’re laughing at ourselves! The people in the audience who know the hip joints are laughing with us, at themselves and ourselves. It’s a big, UNIQUE, party!” Unfortunately for humanity, most people are barely entering maturity when they start listening to this stuff, and it can take them another decade to take a long hard look at what they were listening to, cough, and throw in the towel. At that point, most are so cynical they expect all forms of potential truth or vision to be scams, and so embrace a Gene Simmons-style “it’s all entertainment, don’t take it so seriously” attitude. Doubly unfortunate is that they approach religion and taxes with the same attitude.

The interesting thing about patterns however is that they do not have a central controller. Instead, they emerge from a situation when multiple conditions are correct. The horde of people making stupid music would like you to believe that at some point, the hand of G-d descended upon Earth and wrote in clear Spanglish that all metal must be insincere, and either imitate the past or combine motley cliches to make a new horror of self-analytical but unprofound music. Like all things in the modern time, the pattern of clueless music emerges when a genre makes a name for itself, and then the hordes of bored kids accustomed to being lied to in the suburbs surges into the genre with the assumption that it should be as lie-ridden, popularity-dominated, and self-marketing like their parents as every other media they encounter is.

Ocean streams are another example of emergent patterns. They flow a certain way because that way is the path of least resistance for water to flow, guided by gravity and tides, shaped by shorelines and underwater formations, channeled by differentials in temperature; the paths of ocean streams are not inherent, but appear again and again because the needs of their waters are met by the situation. It’s like horses and open barn doors: you don’t need to tell them to leave, because any creature cooped in a barn wants to leave and will do so, given (a) an aperture and (b) the promise of relative impunity in escape.

What is common about emergent systems is the need for an attractor, which can either be something valuable (atoms bonding with atoms to form stable molecules) or something empty, like a void or frontier (horses rushing toward open barn door). There is in nothingness always possibility; in somethingness, there is safety, but at the expense of variability. It’s like picking a boring day job over a more chaotic self-employment, or choosing to be a domesticated dog instead of a wolf, filling your head with television instead of thinking, or deciding to stay single instead of risking a relationship in which real work must be required. Metal music requires a frontier, unfilled in nothingness, so it can have space to expand.

In this however we see the parallel roles of creation and destruction. For creation to occur, there must be empty spaces but these are only acquired through the removal of something that exists. This principle underlies both natural selection and our tendency toward, in boredom, smashing boring things. When there is too much somethingness, we must make nothingness by removing that which is and is also unsatisfying. For example, if we burned every death and black metal recording but that top slice of really profound works, would the genre be stronger or weaker? Weaker in quantity, stronger in quality, with lots of empty space in which others can visualize their musical/artistic dreams being fulfilled.

Underground metal flourished in a brief period of frontier. Indie labels were a creation of the 1980s when, with digital recording technology becoming affordable just around the corner, printing plants began to more widely open up the new digital technology of compact discs to smaller businesses. As it became possible to print just a few thousand CDs, it became possible to run a small label without it being a complete financial loss, and so indie rock and eventually, indie metal (known as underground metal: thrash, death metal, black metal, grindcore, doom metal) expanded. To distance themselves from mainstream rock, and to compensate for their lack of big bucks for flashy studios, both indie rock and underground metal embraced a gritty aesthetic that made them unpalatable to the average consumer.

However, the average consumer wants to buy something that is intangible, which is that hipness or cachet of authenticity of which rock writers rave. This is why white kids bought forbidden “race music” called the blues, even though it was essential Celtic-Germanic folk music repackaged with a constant beat and gritty vocals. This is why punk music grew rapidly once people living boring lives saw it as a chance to walk on “the other side.” This is why freaks of nature and often pointless artist from Klaus Nomi to Insane Clown Posse have always attracted an audience, because they’re “unique” and “different.” The history of rock music is of one undending scam that sells inferior music to bored kids who are seeking an alternative to the staid social lifestyle of compliance that they see in their parents, who because of their dysfunctional attitudes, treat their children like objects and are consequently covertly hated.

In metal, this desire for the other side manifested itself in Pantera making death-metal-like albums for the real meatheads out there, Cannibal Corpse making a parody of death metal (later parodied by art rock band Fetid Zombie) that had enough groove and bounce for the masses, and eventually, in boutique black metal like Ulver and trend-oriented death metal like Opeth, as well as a horde of “blender bands” who throw past successes into a blender, make an incomprehensible melange, and then wrap it around the same three-chord boring moron rock music that has afflicted the “culture” of industrialized nations since the 1950s.

Frontiers are the antidote to this, but they must begin in destruction. Idiots will tell you destruction is bad, because in their view, more metal means more power in metal. However, life is a science of pattern organization, and this is why patterns of higher organization (complexity) trump those of lower organization; this is why one Beethoven outshines 6,000,000 rock bands and forces their fans into denial of their inferiority. Idiots naturally feel defensive when they develop the resulting inferiority complex, so they come up with endless insincere excuses for why they should continue to listen to stupid music instead of facing reality and finding better music: we like it, it’s unique, every person has musical taste that is unrelated to their mental capacity, it’s our right to like garbage if we want, stupid music is more profound because it has a perspective contrary to the ruling classes, and so on. It’s all mental chewing gum that will keep a brain noshing, trying to find the substance, until it realizes that these statements are broken tautologies of the form “this is important because it claims to be important,” and then moves on.

Artists long for frontiers because they understand the odd relationship between creativity and power. We all want to feel power in life so we can think that our time was well spent as we lie on our deathbeds, and before, as we question daily whether we should keep going. Power is felt by having the ability to change things for the better, and this ability is afforded by looking at life, understanding the rules of nature, and using our creativity to find a way to work greatness within those rules. Freedom is not the answer, because freedom in human minds means no rules, which means our creativity has nothing to chew on, so we make garish “unique” and uniquely useless melanges instead. For creativity to thrive, we need an empty space in which to exert our power, like ancient men approaching their fields and streams and leaving behind farms and windmills irrigating them.

For those who want a frontier in metal, the path is clear. We must laugh at the now-dead past of fifteen years of unsuccessful metal which was “good enough” but never really good, and as we laugh, smash it aside. We do not need greater numbers. We need better fighters. We need bands on the level of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Morbid Angel, Burzum and Gorguts in order to make for ourselves a new space in which healthier metal can grow. For those of us who are not active musicians, this starts in intolerance of garbage music, progresses to its destruction, and then manifests itself in the tolerance of a gardener: we accept everything, but ignore all but the exceptional, and since we water that exceptional and nurture it, we let nature carry off the rest to an early death. This is both natural selection and common sense: if you tolerate everything, you will never have great things, but if you focus on the great, you will bring more of it upon yourselves.

Metal exists in a dual state of brain/body because of its hybrid origin in soundtracks/rock music, even though it was a fundamental rebellion against the careless hippie music of the time which introduced non-solutions as a good way to stay oblivious and justify personal profit, sexual conquest and hedonism despite the obvious need for hard work to resurrect a confused and dying civilization. Metal brought us back to the heavy, but because people living pointless lives like easy solutions and would like to think that buying a CD means they can “walk on the wild side” and feel OK with their mediocrity, it fights this dual nature. It’s 25% Demilich-Burzum fans, and 75% Cannibal Corpse-Skinless fans. However, as the morons fill every available space with garbage, there’s room for the 25% to return in vengeful fashion, mocking and burning the stupid, and opening up a frontier horizon for exploration.

Jazz, Jazz-metal and the future of a hybrid

Our society is fascinated by outsiderness. This neurosis comes from the fact that we exist by the support of a civilization we see as going down a bad path, if we think about things at all. Our outsiders look more askance at this society than we who must maintain it, but they also do so from within it, so they are both critical of and dependent upon it. This creates a need for not a new civilization, but a new psychology of civilization, and it is mostly commonly engendered by song: poetry, jazz, prose or violence.

Jazz is “America’s music.” A hybrid of the blues and public-school training in European classical harmony, it nonetheless is not unique, because it has existed on every continent at some time in their growths. It is a universal language, the free and open jam, and appeals less to theory — despite being heavy on theory — than it does to an impulse of the soul which wants to start playing first, and then figure out how to cram the symbolism of emotions into song. Even so, when we speak of jazz we speak of the American variety.

Because jazz is extreme compared to pop music, and both in its day and today an outsider music, and because it went through a ring cycle from innocent complex pop music to nearly total psychoacoustic noise with the extremes of free jazz, we see it is parallel to heavy metal and hardcore punk. Both of those as well are falling from grace, exiling themselves from a comfortable modern existence to be extremes. Both of those totally reject society. Where jazz is cool alienation, and an attempt to find itself through degrees of emotion, metal and punk are a rejection of human emotion and a hot alienation that points to the hard, cold historical record — the abstract. Jazz is earth and metal is sky.

As metal expanded through its own cycle of growth and decay, its growth mirrored the process jazz underwent. At first, metal was just a heavier form of rock with more phrasal composition as evidenced by the long melodic riffs of Black Sabbath, but then it became a “serious” art form with speed metal, after the 70s stadium metal wrecked its credibility but good. When that “serious” social consciousness art wasn’t enough, it became crypto-symbolic art with death metal, with an extensive philosophical interpretation required to get from “only death is real” to a philosophy of abstraction to rival Plato.

When death metal got itself established after a painful birth from fragments of thrash/hardcore punk and speed metal, it found itself as an art form embracing simplicity and yet structure, shying away from mainstream consonance or even harmonic structure. Its structure came entirely from worship of the riff, or rather the way death metal bands would string together seemingly unconnected riffs that made sense as the piece culminated, like poetry unifying disparate symbolism. Death metal was unlike the harmonies of heavy metal, or the rhythmic culmination of speed metal, but it was pure structure in arrangement of complex riffs, and the distinct phrasing that made each one both evocative and complementary to others.

Because these riffs operated independently of scalar or chordal structures, death metal was compared to free jazz by the savvier elements of the music press. Much of this comparison occurred before death metal was fully defined, when the more jam-friendly elements in hardcore (Black Flag’s “The Process of Weeding Out” most notably) and more dissonant, theoretically detached elements of grindcore (Napalm Death’s opus of microsong disrhythmic chaos, “Scum”) were noticed by bored, underpaid and desperate writers looking for a story. Death metal being half-hardcore, half-heavy metal, the genre rotated to face jazz for a golden period of about five years.

The first real salvo in this battle was fired by Atheist on their first and second albums, “Piece of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence.” The increasing mixture of jazz crept outward from the rhythm section to the point where the second album embraced much of the aesthetic of jazz, especially the fusion-tinged variety that used intense dynamic variation to resemble a soundtrack, more like Al DiMeola’s “Cielo E Terra.” Atheist embraced the same jazz direction, but added to jazz what punk and hardcore had, what made them “hot” and not “cool”: that inhuman, abstract, theoretical structure that allowed them to stitch riffs together on the basis of phrasing and melody alone, leaving behind the artifacts of tonal context needed by most people to orient themselves in the composition.

If emotional is cool, abstract is hot, and it fits better with the raw anger of death metal, because rage without some idea of how it might manifest itself to soothe its source of irritation becomes impotent and self-serving. What makes jazz cool is its acqueous descent into pure organic emotion, a casting aside of all structure that lets the psyche move with total freedom, given a few rules to keep its motion consonant — like a morality of sound, it throws out conceptions of hierarchy and shared goals and lets the individual freestyle it, but imposes some rigid rules. What makes metal hot is that it throws out that coolness, and imposes an order that transcends human limitations, giving rise to speculation about the motion of empires and epic ideas in collision, like a heavenly war of symbols.

Atheist fused these two outlooks, and in doing so, unleashed a revolution in metal. First, the clones came, but since metal is hot and not cool we pay no attention to them. Next, other bands picked up on this revolution and put it to good use. The two remaining explicitly jazzy death metal albums came from the Netherlands and Florida, respectively, and further advanced the science of jazz-metal. Longstanding death metal/speed metal hybrid legends Pestilence had been growing increasingly toward a greater display of musical skill, including conventional means such as harmony, and after going halfway on their third album created a jazz/metal fusion for their fourth, “Spheres.”

Spheres split a room full of metalheads into people who hated it, and people who loved it. With guitars plugged into MIDI samplers outputting in a range of voices, and offtime tempos marching past with unpredictable variations, Spheres was difficult to grasp as a listening experience much less a piece of art, but many did enjoy it so much that fifteen years after its release, it has been re-released with new live tracks. Metalheads at the time were fascinated that one of their own, from a genre so alienated it was not listed on any mainstream music reporting or labels, could go toe-to-toe with the progressive and jazz bands of its day. Others were appalled at what they saw as an attempt to reduce what made metal unique, and make it more like the conformist music of the mainstream.

Cynic’s “Focus” came out the following year and further divided the community. It did not enwrap its guitars in synthetic sounds, but chose to do that for the vocals, creating an otherworldly but rarely forceful effect that jarred with the assertive psychology of death metal. That coupled with Buddhist-influenced positive lyrics, a tendency toward light interludes, and lush keyboards backing guitars made the album rejectable by most metalheads. Riffs resembled those of the first Atheist album, making many jazz-metal diehards wonder if it was an evolution in artform or production.

While these four albums were the most evident manifestations of the jazz aesthetic, jazz influences abounded in works from other bands. Morbid Angel, known for their otherwordly seizure of souls through intense music, showed a familiarity with jazz technique especially in percussion, but without being jazzy. Demilich created a monstrosity of lead-picked intricate riffs that resembled the most avantgarde of jazz fusion, but with the subtler rhythmic introductions of death metal. Gorguts showed more of a classical influence, but balanced with lessons from avantgarde jazz.

As the death metal experiment with jazz ended, many reflected on the similarities and impossibilities of the two genres. Jazz and metal are both outsider music; both reflect a perception of persecution by society at large, it being supposed to be ignorant of some principle, and offer up radically different solutions. Jazz, it might be said, is a nurturer; death metal, it might be said, is a reality check. While the two overlap somewhat, ultimately they don’t overlap in ideas, and this carries over to aesthetic. Death metal sounds abstract; jazz sounds emotional. Death metal builds a tension for dynamic release through structuring of phrase, where jazz develops phrase to emphasize an underlying harmonic pattern.

Much as Ornette Coleman rebelled against jazz and created free jazz, metal (through hardcore, most notably Discharge) rebelled against the structure of pop songs and created through its new freedom of abstraction a language of expression. Ultimately, its rebellion was that in a world of humans singing about individual fascinations and neurosis, it would be an expression of the structures of the whole. A pattern language of ideas and consequences, death metal is intensely structured music in the way classical is, using narrative composition to unite disparate elements in a storyline, like a poem. Jazz is more like the visual arts, showing exactly what occurs and winding details together in an anti-narrative.

Since the death metal flirtation with jazz, two paths have been taken to resolve this paradox. The first recognizes that death metal’s structure is closer to progressive rock, and incorporates jazz into progressive rock with death metal riffing, as Gordian Knot (featuring Cynic members) or grindcore-influenced acts like Dillinger Escape Plan have done. The second recognizes that jazz’s rhythm can be used to wrap heavy metal-styled riffs into the jaunty, bouncy aesthetic of jazz/funk based music, and this has exploded forth in bands from Candiria to Mordred to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The problem with both of these approaches is that they must distill death metal to rock in order to proceed.

It may be that a fusion never happens because the genres are too different. Jazz is inherently aesthetic-heavy, because it lacks structure to differentiate its songs; metal exclusively differentiates its songs through structure, and is uniform in aesthetic. Where metal is structured music, jazz is unstructured to permit wide-open jams, but the result is that sets tend to run together and, outside of aesthetic innovations like switching instruments or making the musical elements more bizarre, it has nowhere to evolve, where metal as an inherently storytelling format still has room to expand. But by the same token, metal is pulled downward by its attachment to an audience shared with rock, who will often try to make it into something more like the mainstream even as its most intelligent creators pull in the opposite direction.

Metal as Mythic Imagination

The notion of a prism represents the first challenge to our early worlds of concrete time and space. A device that fragments light, and reveals a space withina solid known quantity, seems to us an expansion of dimension. As we get older, we realize the expansion of dimension occurs within ourselves as we assemble a more complex view of the universe.

Metal music as art is composed of sound and lyrics and imagery. The pure aesthetic expands as we analyze it and recognize that it is beauty found in chaos; the songwriting expands as we see that its narrative motivic composition is more poetic than the looping closed circuit cycle of rock or pop; the keyless melodic nature of it becomes in our fertile minds a sense of construction not by a “third party” of rigid harmonic theory but by the unfolding narrative. Metal music like all great art begins by appearing simple, but opens to reveal greater complexity when we look into the dimension that it creates for itself.

From this alone, we might conclude that metal is prismatic in the same way modernist classical composers and the ancient Greek plays that bonded song to poetry to theatre were. Two more elements demand our consideration: that metal represents an escape from the karmic cycle as described by numerous philosophies, and that it inspires mythic imagination in the way both Sophocles and Wagner did.

***

Most of what we see in life affirms the karmic cycle. The rock music that plays from passing cars, the lighted billboards over our roads, the conversations of our friends and neighbors: who are you going to be in love with? And marriage? Or what will you buy? Where you go? How will you build your identity using material things, including your body?

This fascination might be called aphilosophical because it is not reaching for anything more than what is in front of us, one object after another, in the process of life. This is called the karmic cycle because it deals with the functions of birth and death and sustenance and nothing else. It is not an active philosophy or an aspiration toward ideals, but a continuation of what is presented to us, a reaction to life itself.

Metal music does not oppose the karmic cycle, as it is fully hedonistic, but it views it as secondary to an idealistic quest for meaning. This quest is expressed in the sound of metal, which unites beauty and ugliness in the pursuit of a kind of power, or “heaviness,” in which the burdens of life are converted to a sense of pride in not only survival but a quest for higher things. Metal bands glorify war and the occult, death and heroism, victory and defeat, without taking on that tone of self-serving lament which protest music brings.

Fear runs wild in the veins of the world
The hate turns the skies jet black
Death is assured in future plans
Why live if there’s nothing there
Sadistic minds
Delay the death
Of twisted life
Malicious world

The crippled youth try in dismay
To sabotage the carcass Earth
All new life must perish below
Existence now is futile

Convulsions take the world in hand
Paralysis destroys
Nobody’s out there to save us
Brutal seizure now we die

- Hardening of the Arteries, Slayer

Death is now the day
When the fires fall from the sky
Let us pray
When the darkness falls we will die
Endless pain
Crucifying death from above
We must pay
Day of darkness

Question our fate when day of darkness
Forces of evil now upon us
Forces of evil on display
Forces of holy brought this day

Death is now the day
When the reaper calls for the dead
We’ll be saved
In this world of desecrating minds
We must pay
Crucifying world of evil death
Let us pray

Day of darkness

- Day of Darkness, Deicide

It is an introduction to basic transcendental theory in that metal does not deny the suffering and horror of life, nor our desires within it. More pointedly, it looks beyond them to the beauties and greatnesses that can be found in this vast unpure mix of good and bad that forms a “meta-good,” or the space of life itself in which our decisions can reward us — even if we are personally destroyed. Where rock music is a descent into the karmic cycle, metal points its gaze above it toward the ideals a karmic cycle can serve.

In doing so, metal introduces meaning through nihilism, or a denial of all accept the immanent. It rejects morality and eschews religion, preferring a pragmatic idealism in which death may be final but there are things worse than death such as dishonoring oneself or becoming cowardly. It seeks to find meaning in the emotions of an individual that have accepted the logic of life as suffering and transcended it, or found meaning in existence to balance that suffering and make it less consequential. Metal tears away all of our illusions to show us life, and then reconstructs our belief in life by showing us the beauty and power outside of our artificial reality of morality, money and social esteem.

Among popular music genres, metal is the only one to explicitly strive for this goal, although it might be said that industrial acts like Kraftwerk or folk acts like Väsen aim for the same as exceptions to the norm. In a time when most products are tangible, and therefore require karmic fascination, and most political power is derived by tantalizing people with the reward of karmic tangibles, and all social prestige falls within the egosphere of karmic need, metal is the odd man out who has cast aside the normal trappings of life and is staring at the sky into the infinite space of his own mind and that of the universe.

***

In this idealism, or belief that thoughts and the physical world act by similar principles if they are not outright dimensions of one another, metal reawakens something that has lain dormant in humanity during its time of modernity: the mythic imagination. While our modern world deals exclusively with attempts to allay the suffering of the karmic cycle through technology, metal is geared toward finding uses for that suffering in the form of greater glories against which suffering and death become puny. In that state of mind, one has awakened not just a higher aspiration but a sense of magical possibility (miracles, dreams, a positive order beyond the visible) in which life itself is a living continuity of mind and reality.

Pascal is right in maintaining that if the same dream came to us every night we would be just as occupied with it as we are with the things that we see every day. “If a workman were sure to dream for twelve straight hours every night that he was king,” said Pascal, “I believe that he would be just as happy as a king who dreamt for twelve hours every night that he was a workman. In fact, because of the way that myth takes it for granted that miracles are always happening, the waking life of a mythically inspired people — the ancient Greeks, for instance — more closely resembles a dream than it does the waking world of a scientifically disenchanted thinker. When every tree can suddenly speak as a nymph, when a god in the shape of a bull can drag away maidens, when even the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen in the company of Peisastratus driving through the market place of Athens with a beautiful team of horses — and this is what the honest Athenian believed — then, as in a dream, anything is possible at each moment, and all of nature swarms around man as if it were nothing but a masquerade of the gods, who were merely amusing themselves by deceiving men in all these shapes.

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. Whenever, as was perhaps the case in ancient Greece, the intuitive man handles his weapons more authoritatively and victoriously than his opponent, then, under favorable circumstances, a culture can take shape and art’s mastery over life can be established. All the manifestations of such a life will be accompanied by this dissimulation, this disavowal of indigence, this glitter of metaphorical intuitions, and, in general, this immediacy of deception: neither the house, nor the gait, nor the clothes, nor the clay jugs give evidence of having been invented because of a pressing need.

– from On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873) by Friedrich Nietzsche

A myth elides the tangible into a visible manifestation of invisible forces, only some of which can be explained by material science. Whether or not it is technically “correct” regarding the immediate causal relationship between impetus and result, it is a correct description of the cosmic order as the human sees it and feels it. There are balances between voids and solidities, certainties and doubt, horror and beauty. In the mythic state, a human being focuses less on a singular moment and singular end result than on the continuing relationship between many results and the tendency of mathematical organization to the universe they suggest.

The foremost thrust of mythic imagination into art in the modern era (post-Middle Ages) was the art of the Romantics, who in literature and painting and music and dance crafted a world where symbols were no longer literal but spoke of a personality of a living existence. They replaced God the judge of moral actions with Nature the god of function that rewarded the best, and in this more realistic view of life crafted a conception of the human being as looking inward for ways to complement this external greatness. They were not individualists in the modern sense, rewarding themselves with pleasures of the flesh, but they looked into the individual soul to find by intuition not only what was true but what was desired.

Some attack this view as “aestheticism,” meaning that it rewards that which seems beautiful instead of that which is functional, or, in the humanist view, moral. Humanism like materialism is aphilosophical in that it approaches the karmic cycle as an end in itself, and tries to preserve “freedom” and material comfort and survival for all individuals. Humanism does not recognize that a tragic death is beautiful, or a heroic death majestic, because its only concern is with maintaining the flesh and meat of human beings. Humanists claim mythic imagination is aestheticism because it sacrifices individuals to beauty and thus is amoral.

To this those who have made the journey from materialism and fear of death to the other side where death is not only accepted but seen as a challenge, by nature of the learning gained on this journey, admit gleefully to being laughing amoralists who are unconcerned by morality. In the aestheticist view, having a beautiful and meaningful life far surpasses living for the safety of morality and spreadsheet-style risk management; aestheticism sees the best life as the one lived intoxicated with the beauty and potential of existence, and that precludes safety labels, warning rails, and fear of dying. Death is certain, but life is not, and that uncertainty comes in the form of finding an “aesthetic” that bestows upon us meaning.

In this sense of the world, where the entirety of life is connected by a logical yet invisible system of purpose, it is possible to have vir or the “warlike” virtue of ancient peoples. The Greeks and every other civilization that rose from the mire of infighting over karmic goods and status possessed this warlike spirit, as Nietzsche noted, and metal reflects this in its “inhuman” sound and lack of personal, gender and desire-oriented language in its lyrics. It reaches beyond the karmic cycle for the cosmic order, and in doing so, transcends humanity to find what makes us most human: our search for meaning beyond the suffering that being alive entails.

A dream of another existence
You wish to die
A dream of another world
You pray for death
To release the soul one must die
To find peace inside you must get eternal

I am a mortal, but am I human?
How beautiful life is now when my time has come
A human destiny, but nothing human inside
What will be left of me when I’m dead?
There was nothing when I lived

What you found was eternal death
No one will ever miss you

- Life Eternal, Mayhem

When night falls
she cloaks the world
in impenetrable darkness.
A chill rises
from the soil
and contaminates the air
suddenly…
life has new meaning.

- Dunkelheit, Burzum

Tears from the eyes so cold, tears from the eyes, in the grass so green.
As I lie here, the burden is being lifted once and for all, once and for all.
Beware of the light, it may take you away, to where no evil dwells.
It will take you away, for all eternity.
Night is so beautiful (we need her as much as we need Day).

- Decrepitude I, Burzum

Where modern society in a desire for safety imposes values designed for an average person onto all of us, and assumes that our material and humanist wellbeing constitutes meaning in life, Romanticism explodes from within. It is not a philosophy of cautions, but of desires for the intangible, and as so it worships risk and conquest and a lack of fear toward the karmic existence. It transcends the desire to either live karmically, or live akarmically, because it sees karmicism as a means to an end and concerns itself only with the end: the ideal.

In this, Romanticism constitutes a philosophy because it posits intangible ideals as a balance weight to the certainty of death. It seeks a sense of unfolding; the discovery of something new in a prismatic space hiding behind the mundane. In doing so, it renovates life itself by working from within and renewing the brain in its aspiration and heroic transcendence of the karmic drag, in the exact opposite principle to modernity, which is materialism/humanism as supported by technology and populist political systems.

Its philosophy rises above life, and above categories like political and religious and cultural, because it is a principle of the highest abstraction and so can be expressed through any number of outlets. Like Zen, it is a discovery of the connection between life and mind with a slap, but unlike any other formalized system, it goes further to demand that the slap of life have a meaning, and it invents this meaning and then creates aspiration within it through its mythic imagination. Despite the overwhelming solidity of most modern art in affirming the opposite, Romanticism continues to live on.

One of its voices is metal music, whether through the seize-the-night ethos of heavy metal or the “only death is real” of underground metal. It is nihilism, but it is also idealism; it is realism, but it is also religion. Perhaps this is why every time we think heavy metal is dead it rises again, as people still seek meaning in life despite the crushing gravity of need and obligation that is modern living. Heavy metal is eternal because its truth is eternal, as for any existence there will be a potential end, and thus a need to find not only a reason why but a reason for living not just to survive but to exceed.

As this emotion was true to the existence of thinking beings in the time of the Greeks, and allowed them to rise and make one of the greatest civilizations known to humankind, it is true now and inspires those who have rejected the long path through lighted signs and fleshy desires and moneyed popularity. For those who seek more, it is a doorway. Like our souls, heavy metal is a prismatic dimension unfolding beneath us and within us, and a journey we are only too glad to undertake.

The Mythology of Death Metal

Death metal arose in the early 1980s, when the children of the post-WWII generation matured in the West (USA, Europe). These individuals grew up during an era when the capitalist/democratic West pitted itself against the communist/totalitarian Eurasian and Asian states, in the shadow of the second world war which established this division.

This was an era when the constant threat of nuclear conflict or invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union was perceived to be not only real but likely, a shade short of inevitable. The Baby Boomers, born 1944-1953, hoped for a prosperous future without the threat of Nazi Germany, but faced instead a “Cold War” in which six minutes of warning could announce total nuclear annihilation.

Most popular music took a populist approach and warned against the increasing conservative powers of the West, but death metal eschewed the political for the philosophical. It portrayed a world of death, disease, and occult torment hidden behind a smokescreen of technology, religion and politics. Its lyrics, dripping with references to horrible ways to die or decay, and frequently referencing Nietzschean concepts as well as a strong anti-Christian bias, referred to a side of life not seen in the media or political dialogue of the time.

To most, this was baffling — in a political, economic or social context, how does one understand “Only death is real”? It seemed a reminder that beneath all of our social constructs, containers of consensual reality, we were missing something. In this it was not entirely divorced from the post-Nietzschean fascination with deconstruction, exhibited in the literature of 1959-1976 as “postmodernism,” or a sense that our definition of the “real world” was illusory and leading us astray. Somehow, we had lost sight of the actual world — reality — and were living in a dream turning rapidly to a nightmare, as all illusions do when they confront reality. Reminders of mortality, of an occult religion where no morality of good/evil existed, and visions of decay rather than an abrupt apocalyptic end marked the lyrical and imagic differences between death metal and the speed metal, heavy metal and hardcore punk (ancestors contributed its hybrid genetic material) before it.

Where death metal was most influential however was its style of composition. Where rock bands put together a verse and chorus loop united by harmony, death metal borrowed from the classical, progressive rock and electronic music (the latter two genres being influenced by classical music most profoundly of mainstream styles) to create a synthesis between the theatrics of opera and the melodic phrasal composition of classical. This led to a “narrative” composition, or a journey through many riffs and motifs which changed the listener between start and finish; this contrasted rock and jazz, which in their simple loops with embellishments of improvisation crafted a single state of mind in which the precepts were fulfilled by the conclusion. Death metal, in this sense, was both structuralist or a study of how events connect as a whole, and Romanticist, in that it emphasized change in experience over solid assumptions.

Having learned from the speed metal and heavy metal and hardcore punk experiences, in which new genres rapidly became absorbed by the same groupthink they attempted to evade, death metal deliberately styled itself as unlistenable. Heavy, bassy distortion created an angry and violent sound, as did the intense rhythms and howling, hoarse, screaming, shouting, rasping vocals it utilized. This was outsider music, not another product to fit into a functional modern life as an aesthetic complement to expensive decor and an entertainment system.

When all of these traits are analyzed, it is clear what death metal brought as art to the West: the idea that our modern life was an illusion based on a shallowness similar to the categorical division of life into good and evil, right and wrong, us and them. We had lost sight of reality through these illusory divisions, and the result was an apocalyptic confrontation that threatened all life — and while most wanted to evade this realization, death metal wanted to reinforce reality instead.

Twenty years later, no radical changes in this outlook have occurred, although black metal formed to address (in part) the shift from conservative to liberal politics in the West in the 1990s. Death metal is as relevant as it was in the 1980s, with black metal as an added commentary. Its physical presence as a genre has been mostly assimilated by groupthinkers who want an “authentic, radical” perspective, but the original music remains.

To see its relevance as art, and a more intensely artistic form of underground genre is hard to find, it is important we turn to philosophy. Kant saw us as living in a time of “radical evil” when our mundane actions of survival constituted a great future downfall; T.S. Eliot, interpreting Nietzsche, saw the modern time as a triumph of the taste and judgment of the masses absorbing the better wisdom of actual thinkers. Death metal, with its allusions to hollow men (Entombed) and Nietzschean topics as well as its perception of a pervasive occult evil, explored and explained these ideas.

How does a death metal artist or fan think about the world? As a slow suicide. These individuals grew up in a time when masses of credulous voters and buyers could be swayed from trend to trend, and easily duped by political lies of the basest quality. Death metal saw this mass of undifferentiated people as the sustaining force of our public illusion, and injected a dose of grim reality to counter the tendency toward pleasant illusion denying actual dangers. Death metal is the revealing force of our modern dread as we are slowly dragged toward a grisly doom by a popular opinion that resentfully denies any who assert reality.

Interestingly, despite all that has been written about death metal, very few thinkers touch on these points. They are not popular. They are dangerous ideas, and difficult to prove because they are stated in metaphor. Much like death metal itself, they are outsider perspectives which will never be accepted by the crowd, which speaks both for their accuracy and urgency as the slow suicide continues.