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Resurrecting the best of the underground

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It is a seldom-known fact that you get more of what you allow to exist. In a musical community, this means that whatever albums sell enough to attract some audience will produce imitators.

When a community is thriving, this means that good albums replace bad. When a community is dying, it means that labels pump out thousands of near-duplicates in an effort to reap profit.

The community that proves intolerant of the bad is a good step, but the community must act in the corresponding opposite, which is to celebrate the good. To hold up all that is excellent means that more of it will come, because it is rewarded.

As we pass through the 20th anniversary of the demise of death metal and black metal, which perished in a flood of imitators who pushed the quality material to the periphery, it behooves us to celebrate the excellent and use it to push aside the rest.

What follows is a partial summary of the highlights of the last five years. These are albums that should be played loudly, given to metalheads at Christmas, forced onto MP3 playlists and constantly affirmed as excellent. This is the only path to better metal.

Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death

blaspherian-infernal_warriors_of_death Underground metal began with Slayer, which mixed hardcore punk and heavy metal to make a new sound, inspiring in the next generation bands like Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who made a darker and more detuned sound. By the time the genre flowered in the late 1980s many bands integrated the Hellhammer style of bass-heavy thunderous material alongside the faster Slayer style of tremolo phrasal riffs. Picking up from that era, Blaspherian combines the thunder of Deicide and Immolation with the simplicity of early doom-death, creating songs that simultaneously use primitive parts and arrange them into more than the sum of those parts. A morbid and violent atmosphere emanates from this music as it rolls through a few basic riffs per song, setting up a Possessed-style verse chorus but then like Incantation and other old school acts, expanding on that context to create a ritual atmosphere. This mysticism of thunder and subterranean blackness pervades the resulting metallic onslaught which favors the dark, antisocial and evil side of metal. What defined the underground was this stepping away from the modes of seeing that most people use to look at society, and to instead associate itself with the bestial forces of nature and occultism that array against any form of order that has no goal but itself.


Beherit – Engram

beherit-engram When Beherit makes an album, the result will not only open full throttle on the ears of its listeners, but also change how we think of black metal. Its violent and simplistic early days took the deliberate primitivism of Blasphemy and Sarcofago and made from it violent amalgamation of dark moods and the unleashed human id which wants nothing more than to crush this overgrown, spoiled, decadent and indulgent world of directionless people and purposeless activity. With Drawing Down the Moon, Beherit created a standard that few bands could exceed, which was an album both inventive in its use of occult symbolism and distinct for its memorable, infectious and yet dread-intensifying riffs. After years and permutations later, Beherit returned to the fray with an album that aimed to expand the relationship between black metal and ambient music and operate as an album, moving us from one frame of mind to another through immersion in fragments of idea that add up to a whole picture. This is no trivial task! Engram begins in tribute to Venom and Bathory and ends in an entirely different style where hermetic atmospheres mingle with riffs that seem to use ancient numerology to achieve the balance between ear-addictingly hook-laden and a dark mood like atavism which creates a feral disconnection from the failed mentality of this world and transports us to another. The violence seems subdued at first but emerges in the mindset this album creates. It literally reprograms the mind, much like the thought objects that its title references. Better than most of its critics realized, Engram showed black metal a new way but that set the bar too high for most of the hack ‘n slash three riff crowd. It remains a testament to what this style can achieve even two decades from its foundation.


Sammath – Godless Arrogance

sammath-godless_arrogance-cover_photo Sammath always made quality black metal that favored the duality of the original work: primitive/barbaric and yet elegant/beautiful. Shocking as it is, black metal appears designed after the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler, which favored fancy uniforms and grand ceremony as they bombed, murdered, and subjugated their way across the world. If you can imagine a beautiful warplane with graceful curves and an inner beauty, and then visualize it destroying 10,000 enemies without mercy or even a pause for a snack, that is the sound of the new Sammath. It combines the elegant melodies and song structure of the band’s first album with the battering ram war machine approach of their middle works, resulting in an album that has the melodic elegance of early Immortal but the attack speed of Morbid Angel. Not only that, but this album shows across the board upgrades in songwriting for this Dutch band, with no extraneous material and tightly integrated arrangements.


Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_gods Later Graveland inhabits the difficult zone between black metal, the Conan soundtrack and ambient neofolk. These albums are harder to distinguish at first listen because songs are based on the interaction and harmonization between different melodies instead of the emergence of a single guitar line melody which then defines the song. Starting with Memory and Destiny, Graveland morphed into its own genre with more in common with Summoning and Empyrium than conventional black metal. As a result, few know how to understand these albums, but it appears the best approach is to listen to them as albums and to fully intend to lose yourself in the sonic environment they create. Most descriptions of Thunderbolts of the Gods will combine “lush” with descriptions of martial power and motivation because true to its name, this is an album not just about war, but the reasons for war that mix sociology and theology in a potent brew that stimulates emotions deep within your average red-blooded metalhead. Like the earliest of Graveland releases, these describe lonely Celtic nights in the frozen Pagan mountains while waging warfare against unnamed unending enemies (like a buffet gone wrong). Not only does Graveland possess the same epic vision as before, but now the band has added epic instrumentation including layers of keyboards, synth instruments, strings and a guitar line that now organizes the other melodies instead of trying to dominate all alone. The result is like being lost in a book more than tapping your foot along to a record.


Profanatica – Profanatitas de Domonatia

profanatica-profanatitas_de_domonatia Many are turned off by the somewhat amateurish album title but they should stick around for the music, which combines the best complex long-phrase tremolo riffing in the Incantation school with the acerbic and vigorously rhythmic black metal for which Havohej/Profanatica are famous. Before you can say “I vomit on God’s child!” (and you should say this daily) the album tears into its circuitous riffs that give relatively straightforward compositions an air of esoteric bafflement in addition to enjoyment of a good tune with forward momentum and acrobatic guitar work. While this album is not as raw and purely rhythmic as earlier Profanatica, it makes up for that by creating instead an air of mystery and paranoia, like walking into the court of a Satanic adversary and being told to justify oneself. Vocals retain their traditional rasp and as usual, Paul Ledney’s drum playing adds a richness of rhythm that most bands do not have. The result is pure enjoyment of the musical aspects of this band with the constant blasphemy as a garnish. Its inventive riffing and foray into death metal territory adds a depth to black metal that corresponds to the raw aggression this band has always used as the charge behind its warhead of apostatic occultism, and in this album the entirety comes together for a complex series of moods within a similar idea. If anything, this improves on older works which could be too straightforward for repeated listening, where Profanatitas de Domonatia holds up as a musical companion.


Demoncy – Enthroned is the Night

demoncy-enthroned_is_the_night Always an outlier, Demoncy saw its greatest career height when it produced a death metal record with black metal atmosphere in Joined in Darkness. Not content to revisit past victories, Demoncy launch in a melodic direction and mix death metal and black metal influences into a smooth voice by always retaining the black metal atmosphere and refusing to get into the more abrupt stop/start mentality of death metal which loves contrast. Black metal is after all about emergence of ideas instead of discovering them at the end of labyrinth, and so Demoncy creates an album where riffs establish atmosphere and song structure provides gathering mood, creating a momentum of dark emotion which eventually dominates the entire experience. Unlike most black metal bands, Demoncy prefers to create atmosphere through steady application of layers and then selective removal, which avoids the charge into the abyss sensation but instead creates a sense of slowly sinking into the depths of human emotion. Riffs and ideas on this album borrow from the classic years of death metal, specifically the first two albums from Unleashed, but add to it the sense of an arch-predator on vigilant patrol above a wasteland of miserable, helpless souls that Joined in Darkness made so effective. Instead Demoncy lets these riffs ring out and then join simultaneously simpler and more cryptic song structures to create a sense of delight in the possibilities of darkness.


Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate

divine_eve-vengeful_and_obstinate Divine Eve combine death metal with the newer veins of doom metal, mixing in classic heavy metal and punk to give the genre more of a listenable approach and higher energy. What results is a command to battle that suffuses with the dread and morbidity of doom metal but joins it to a violent but almost boyish delight in the possibilities of music and life itself. As a result despite its doom inclinations and death metal styling, this album more resembles the adventurous explorations of a world falling apart that bands like The Doors embarked upon a generation ago. Guitar work prefers the boxy charging approach of punk bands or minimal acts like Cianide and Motorhead, giving these songs a bounding energy even when they slow down and removing the polish that later death metal used to obscure its dark intent. Although this is an EP and so runs shorter than an album, it gives a vision of Divine Eve joining the style and substance of their 1990s EP As the Angels Weep with the material most of the band released as Crimson Relic and some of its recent appearances. Rumor has it that Divine Eve are currently working on new material for release in the near future, which makes it more exciting that this promising release presages onslaughts which may amplify the promise it unveiled.


Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007} Modern metal makes itself hard to like, both because it is a hybrid and thus a loss of direction, and because it is fundamentally annoying, being based in the late hardcore style of “carnival music” where the goal is to make each riff dramatically contrasting the rest, resulting in a type of randomness that appeals to lost teenagers in a lost land. Blotted Science take that approach to its logical conclusion by removing the vocals and the randomness, and preferring instead to stack together related riffs that initially do not appear to be so, causing songs to flow together like collapsing buildings where many disparate parts suddenly become a single momentum. Most reviewers will focus on technical ability, which is not lacking here, but the real triumph of this band is using adept songwriting to pull together a mess of a genre and make something better out of it. These songs, like those on Gorguts Obscura, embrace the chaos of life and impose order on it in unconventional ways, much like objects seen through a microscope do not resemble the physical whole seen without magnification. These songs speak to a delight in the power of music itself and the imagination to twist and obscure a message only to bring it out with greater impact after a roller coaster of riffing distorts reality and deranges the senses.


Don’t support the scene

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After death metal and black metal had made their meaningful contributions, a cry rang out: support the scene!

By that it was meant that you should go to local shows, buy records, and otherwise give monetary subsistence and publicity to local bands.

They left off a key detail: which local bands?

Actually, they don’t want you to ask that question. All local bands, they hope. That way, even if their bands are talentless, they’ll be able to sell merch and music because, y’know be cool man, support the scene!

In fact, what “support the scene” really means is “abolish quality control.” Forget trying to have good metal bands, let’s just have a lot. That way everyone can play at this neat game called being as cool as Euronymous or Azagthoth.

I have a different philosophy: support the good bands, and ignore the bad. This idea is often called “natural selection.” It means that if you want a strong scene, you only support the strong candidates, and let the weak ones die out.

Post-1994 people have no idea how cruel, judgmental and intolerant the older scene was — or how much this worked to its benefit. People shunned bands that weren’t the complete package: music, lyrics, name, imagery, music, production, visual art, and personalities. The scene was more elitist than these faux-elitist hipsters could ever dream of being.

It was downright hostile to people who didn’t “get it,” where “it” was a complex and insular culture so alienated from the mainstream it saw anyone who believed society had a future to be a mental failure. It saw society itself to be insane, and headed for doom. It realized how modern life was constructed of very many ancient lies, fluffed up and re-covered to look shiny and new.

The underground is not a place for joiners. It’s not a place for me-tooers. It’s not a place for the extra people of humanity who, having nothing they really care about, go casting around for an “identity” they can manufacture out of things they buy and activities they attend.

Don’t support the scene. The scene is a parasite. Support the good metal bands, and death to the rest.

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How the internet ruined metal

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A common sentiment expressed by “diehards” (or as cynics call them “tryhards”) is that the internet ruined metal. It was a paradise before, they say. You bought zines, traded tapes, bought from small labels, and everything was pure and innocent. The demon of convenience and commerce had not yet reared its ugly head.

With the internet, it is said, all of that ended because it became easy to acquire a band by just typing the name into a search engine. There was no commitment that way, the story goes. People became accustomed to everything being easy and no longer cared about quality. They stopped going to shows and “supporting the scene.” Underground metal became armchair metal.

While I don’t doubt there is some legitimacy to those complaints, I offer another view: what made the internet kill metal was that it turned the process of being a fan inside out. In the old days, you picked bands you liked. Now, you pick bands to make your online personality look good. When someone asks a question about a type of music, you want to have something unique to answer with.

The result is blog posts and threads on forums which are dedicated to “being different.” You get zero scene cred for stating the obvious top ten, and that list can be found anywhere, so people are now craving bands that are more obscure. But the problem is that wanting something for a trait unrelated to its content means you no longer care about quality. Thus quality has plummeted as people seek novelty.

For the aboveground metalheads, this novelty-seeking manifests itself in the same trends that black metal talked about. This week it’s shoegaze; next week it will be “industrial black metal” again, or maybe punkish black metal, or ironic ABBA covers by grindcore bands, who knows. For diehards, the novelty-seeking is obscurity bias: a desire to dig back in the vault and find something that no one else knows about, then make it your favorite band ever.

The point is that no one is a fan anymore. Fans decide what’s good and celebrate it. But hipsters and scenesters have a different approach. They look for ways to make a name for themselves. “That’s my man Bill, he’s an expert in Seattle drone metal.” This is why there are ludicrous genre names in the post-internet arena, and why the advice you get on metal from the internet is almost universally garbage. It’s hipsters being hip, not people talking about quality or relevance.

The internet has made us all into hipsters. To get people to pay attention to your online profile or blog, you need to invent something “important” whether it’s there or not. You to find novelty either in the past or the present. The last thing you’re going to do is offer up some honest opinion. It’ll never get you Google AdWords dollars. It’s not unique and different enough for the social environment the internet has to offer.

Diehards need to quit complaining about the internet. It has had no different effect than moving all of metal into a dense, high social and cosmopolitan city like New York City would. City culture has always rewarded the “different,” which is why cities have always had hipsters. Bands struggled against that culture, not succeeded because of it.

What’s ironic about this whole situation is that complaining about the internet is another way of being “different.” That in turn serves to conceal the fact that since 1994, metal has produced little worth writing home about. Why has that been, you wonder? The black metallers told us: when hipsters appear, trends arrive, and then quality leaves the hall.

The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

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As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

Why metal will never be understood, and never wants to be

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We live in a land of confusion. Most people here have trouble differentiating between a conclusion and a method used to reach a conclusion.

Take for example the phrase, “That’s logical.” To most people, this conjures up a list of things that are accepted as having a basis in logic. When you ask them to parse something new, which involves applying a method to each sequential detail in order to find out how they fit together. That’s difficult; tracking conclusions and having a whitelist/blacklist of accepted ideas is easier.

If you want to know how metal calcifies itself, it is through these conclusions. Darkthrone ended up sounding the way they did as a result of their method, putting together all the pieces and coming up with a bigger direction. When bands imitate Darkthrone, none of this happens, and thus none of the music is nearly as good. They know how to imitate it from the surface inward, but they don’t know why it came about it and thus, how to charge it with the meaning the original had.

Especially threatening to popular music is the process of calcification by which the method of the past generation becomes the conclusions of the next. Darkthrone makes a great album; everyone imitates it; as a result, that sound becomes stale and disassociated from the meaning it once had.

It was once common for metalheads to complain about being misunderstood, and their music not being understood and accepted. Now it is accepted, and it has rendered it harmless. What did that rendering was all the metal bands ripping each other off, churning the original ideas into a mush of imitation. In fact, the problem is that metal when understood is in fact misunderstood, and keeping it not-understood is what is required for people to go back to method instead of just trusting its conclusions as gospel and repeating them in recombined form.

Metal is in fact like a snake consuming itself. As soon as orthodoxy is established, it is destroyed and its destroyer rises only to be in turn consumed itself. Parallels can be drawn to ocean waves cresting and then self-destructing, the need for forest fires, how predation ensures that prey animals get smarter, or other natural metaphors. What it fears is the calcification and a related process known as social acceptance. When a group of people encounters a new idea, it mocks it, then tries to destroy it, and finally accepts it. But once the idea is accepted, the process of calcification happens as society assimilates the idea as conclusion and throws out the methods, but even worse, the nature of having the idea accepted means a process of compromise which shaves off the parts of that idea that offend various segments of society (think of a PTA meeting: can’t move the parking spaces, or you upset either the church ladies, the teachers’ union, or the parking authority). Social acceptance destroys ideas through imitation and compromise.

This process goes back to metal’s birth. The members of Black Sabbath couldn’t get on board with the happy hippie world around them, so they made their own music which destroyed that illusion with powerful sound. They were reacting to the acceptance of conclusions from the past period, the 1950s, in which people were fed on Dale Carnegie style salesmanship as a means to success. As a result, society stopped being truth-oriented and started being feelings-oriented. Happy feelings meant a sale. Ten years later, happy feelings meant social success. Salespeople knew that acceptance and inclusiveness made sales, so they made their advertising as innocuous as possible. The hippie movement imitated this but used politics instead of profit (at first) as their guide.

The problem was that the hippie portion was just as fake as the 1950s salesmanship portion. Similarly, the current imitation of the 1990s black metal scene or worse, the 1980s emo and shoegaze scene, is completely fake. The fifteenth Blasphemy clone is as burnt out as the fifteenth Beatles clone or fifteenth Dale Carnegie graduate. All of it is emulation of the past through its surface, which fundamentally disturbs the metal outlook. For underground metal, all that is left is to seek total nihilism or negation of values, or to pick values that cannot be compromised and thus cannot be assimilated by society. If you want to know why metal has been drifting toward extremes lately, this might explain it.

All of this is a rather long path to saying what every teenage music fan does not want to face: it’s time to stop talking about how you are misunderstood. You don’t want to be understood. Even more, being understood would destroy your chance for growth and turn you into an identical suit-wearing conformist droid marching off to do the same stuff the last generation did, and we can see them drinking themselves to sleep every night. When people obviously don’t get what you’re about, thank them. They’re helping you grow, just like they’re helping metal grow every time they run into a WTF moment and toss it out in the dustbin.

Music doesn’t need to be explained.

“Things that are genuinely sublime speak for themselves.”

ideological_zombiesOnce upon a time I used to cringe whenever I read interviews with my favorite metal musicians, as no matter how well they started they would almost always lead up to the same sort of question and the same disappointing response. Something along the lines of: “What did you mean by this song/album?” followed by “It’s up to the listener to decide what it means.”

This is a stock response almost across the board in metal (from the brainless to the most inspired of bands) and it used to annoy me. After all the effort I was putting in trying to convince people that metal was a legitimate and thoughtful art-form, whose creators are both articulate and deliberate, it would all be undone in one swift blow by what sounded to me like an under-confident and poorly thought-out response.

Was it embarrassment at talking about their motivations? Or a lack of deliberation over the creative process (which just didn’t seem true at all when I listened to the music)? This kind of off-hand, Hallmark-card relativism belonged in rock & pop, where the music really is an empty vessel for the listener to paste in their own experiences and fantasies, but not in metal.

Surely metal bands didn’t believe this of their own work — that their decision to come to this outsider genre, to innovate and/or fervently uphold an enshrined sense of metalness against a society that wanted to assimilate, emasculate and repackage it, the meandering music and reference-laden lyrics — none of it had any significance outside of whatever the listener felt like, however trivial or stupid?

I now get that I was looking at it wrong. It’s not that the listener gets to choose what the work means, but that they must explore it in order to find its meaning. This is a standard approach toward learning called esotericism, which means simply that the learner advances as his or her own pace, and without that readiness in the listener, more cannot “be taught.”

What they do not need is to be told what it means and how to think about it. Long-winded explanations kill the sense of mystery that’s inherent to good metal. In the same way that reading Quorthon explain how the guitars on Blood Fire Death were recorded in the toilet of a garage kind of dampens the mythical, Viking warrior image of that album, too much talk about the background mental processes that go into any piece of art takes away from actually experiencing the art itself. Things that are genuinely sublime don’t need too much explanation, they speak for themselves.

The nerd in me will always enjoy finding out about how and why something was made the way it was. But unlike, say, cathedral architecture, metal doesn’t really have generations of pedagogical artistic and academic development behind it that a person can study and still be filled with a sense of how awesome it is that human endeavor conspired to make it possible.

Even when there is this kind of background to an art-form, it probably only benefits those of a technical mind to find out about how and why something is done. It’s a bit of a Promethean bargain, in which you lose the sense of wonderment in order to find out how to recreate or add to it. Metal is a relatively young genre of music with murky origins and a strange streak of conservatism about it, combating a world that is at various levels hostile or antithetical yet constantly influxing it with new, clueless people looking to join in and take ownership of it.

Amongst newbies misunderstandings will always abound, and whilst it could be argued that clearer explanation by bands of what their work stands for might stop some of this, the opposite might also be the case.

The inverse of metal is the modern art world, which with its aptly sterile settings (the white walls and straight, squared lines of a typical pretentious art gallery) has decided that the explanations are more important than the quality of the work. A turd in a tin can, a cow sawed in half or a semen-streaked bed can all pass as acceptable art, provided they are accompanied by an essay qualifying the artist’s ‘creative’ decisions.

This is where the likes of Liturgy are approaching metal from – a liberal arts background that name-checks all the right theories and schools, and values the backwards relationship between aesthetics and explanation espoused by modern art. Bands like this show us that some people are only ever going to be interested in using metal as window-dressing for their own social posturing, and that too much intellectual naval-gazing (of which there has been a lot over black metal, although not necessarily by the bands themselves) helps attract the sort who are interested in appearing clever without making anything clever.

Being a hessian does not necessarily mean being caveman thick when it comes to understanding or articulating the genre’s purpose and intentions; but something of metal’s primal energy definitely gets lost in too much chin-stroking, as well as in directing people too much to the source or meaning of it all.

Music although underpinned by logical systems is not an entirely rational process, but a visceral one; which is not to diminish rationalizing things, but to say that ultimately art needs to be this way in order to work as it does – it needs the sense of release from talking about stuff in order to express that which is both inexpressible and more than the sum of the parts.

Similarly, life as a whole is more like a journey than an exam study session; the motives and end-point are never always clear, but the actual act of going on the adventure and finding for oneself how to place things within their context is much more fulfilling than being told by someone else what it’s all supposed to mean.

A Legend Out of Control

Bathory’s relation to the band’s fanbase is an infected story of contradictory interests concerning very human desires for truth and meaning. Oftentimes fans and creator pulled in opposite directions, fighting over whether to leave the Bathory mask on or reveal Bathory’s inner workings.

Debuting in 1984, Bathory’s cult status was rapidly acknowledged in the musical underground. But during a long time a certain air of mystery surrounded the band. It seemed beyond time, beyond space, and even out of national context (to a Swedish person this Stockholm wonder didn’t seem as typically Swedish as many of the later Death Metal bands). In general, main man Quorthon kept to himself, few pictures of the band existed, and there were hardly any live gigs at all, in particular once the music got closer to Wagner than to Motörhead. Bathory took one heavy metal tradition to extremes: it created a mythos out of nothing more than a few cover images and an interview or two. This obscure and ambiguous myth bound people together. They wanted to live out this vision as they found it more appealing than their world. When the fanbase went looking for answers, and found little else but songs of evil, darkness, destruction and conspiracies with Satan, imaginations ran wild and filled in the gaps with what they wanted to see, not what they saw.

People have a desire for continuity in an individual’s past. In this case, that desire was expressed among metal fans by trying to explain Bathory’s music through references to a heavy influence from a band which prior to Bathory was seen as the most extreme: Venom. In several interviews Quorthon himself has denied any Venom influence, but in many biographies the memory of early Bathory as a Venom clone is nevertheless quite persistent. (According to Quorthon, his main influences were Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Exploited, and GBH, and later on Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn among others.)

The will to interpret Bathory’s music as a logical continuation of Venom, and accordingly seek out a sense of “eternity” in the genre which these two bands (among others) officially created in the earliest of times, is hardly surprising. A consistent pattern which suggests some sort of intention is simply more attractive than a chaotic mess of a genesis produced by two groups entirely unknown to each other.

It is, however, easy to recognize among the authors of reviews of early Bathory albums an aspiration towards and an acknowledgement of a distinct identity of the band and its founder. Regarding Bathory’s self-titled debut album and its follow-up, a mantra is repeated: these records are the starting point for a whole genre and Quorthon is its first hero. This is, so to speak, the creation myth associated with Bathory.

Repetition of this myth is presumably what makes it go beyond historicity and is what makes it timeless. It’s a way for a metal fan to not only “create” Bathory, but also be a part of the phenomenon. Even repeated listens to Blood Fire Death is a repetition of a mythical Now, which gives us a sort of “vertical anchoring.” If myth is a celebration of life, a summary of the Past in the Now, then this is certainly what Bathory is to the band’s followers.

Quorthon himself seems to have had an enormous respect for the mythical power of Bathory. Referring to his fanbase as “The Bathory Hordes”, he tried to reach out to it in order to receive answers on how to deal with this beast:

[…] send me a letter of what you think, what you would want us to do in the future […] Remember, it is you the fans out there on whom we depend on. […] Stay united and may the northstar shine on you all, keep metal at heart!!

This kind of democratization most likely rendered him unable to control the myth of the band. As Quorthon “grew out” of Satanism, and myths surrounding his persona still insisted on his being a demonic devil worshipper, he wanted to set the record straight. And this is where things get interesting.

In 1996, Bathory released Blood On Ice, a retro album with liner notes containing a lengthy exposition on the band’s early history. Presumably, Quorthon had wished to update his biography and rid it of the misconceptions that according to him were abundant in the metal world, but it was probably also a way to pay tribute to the legend by contributing to it with a few “behind the scenes” stories.

This, however, proved to be a serious miscalculation of what the fans wanted. The unmasking threatened the consistent cultural memory of Bathory. And reactions weren’t long in coming: fans spoke of sacrilege and treachery in the many letters that were sent to Quorthon as a direct reaction to the liner notes. The memory of Bathory was now to a great extent a social concern and no longer only the creation of one man. Quorthon writes:

I realized then more than ever before that BATHORY was surrounded by the same sort of stuff only legends are made from. The element of mystery and suspense was still very important to a lot of die-hard BATHORY fans. [The truth] didn’t suit the image that a lot people had of BATHORY or myself.

Quorthon died in June 2004, but shortly before his death he founded an official Bathory website in which he denies the old image of himself as someone who eats children, drinks blood, and lives in a cage, an image that apparently still needed to be denied. Quorthon tells of an interview many years after he abandoned his satanic image: despite the time that had passed, he was still expected to pose for a photo session with pentagrams, skulls and cobweb.

Ironically, many fans have as of recently noted that Quorthon himself tampered with the truth quite deliberately. The iconic Bathory goat – which has become a sort of identity marker among fans – is, according to Quorthon, a collage created out of bits and pieces “from several horror comic magazines”. In fact, the goat is taken from a finished illustration in a book on witches from 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the originator, Joseph A. Smith, got to know that his drawings had been used as subject matter for tattoos and the like all around the world for decades. It also turns out that the lyrics and title to Bathory’s “For All Those Who Died” is more or less stolen from a feminist poem by Erica Jong.

The legacy of Bathory will nevertheless die hard. Quorthon created a legend so powerful neither he nor its fans could control it, an art that hovers above independently of its creator and its receivers. Yet we shouldn’t forget the core quality of its longevity: Quorthon’s compositions. These are what will always create very much alive “elements of mystery and suspense” in the mind of the listener. That’s where the magic happens. Hence the art of Bathory is stronger than both the fans’ myth-making and Quorthon’s myth-busting.

Going through Bathory’s albums again, experiencing the passionate evil melody of “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” or the haunting existential angst of “Twilight of the Gods,” they contain the same everlasting power they ever did and is what makes Bathory eternal. The mask is put back on. Continuity reappears and everything returns.

If Metal was a Painting

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonThe other day I looked up Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I had seen it before a couple of times and heard it was important. It’s basically some chicks from a brothel with bodies deformed by Pablo’s furious brushstrokes, eyes staring at you uncomfortably and somewhat comically. A painting central to the evolution of Cubism, apparently. The point is that this is where visual art collapsed. The year was 1907; the nightmarish figures of modern art had already been around for decades, but now all traditional assumptions had to be annihilated, paving the way for all modern things to come – for all things post-modern as well. In hindsight, it’s simply the putrefaction of dying tradition doing its job. And we understand you, Pablo; you, the genius, had to show us what this meant, you had to show us the horrors of having no perspective at all. (How do we even start looking at a woman with two and a half arms?) Comedy aside, make no mistake: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is sheer terror. As such, it suffices, it does what it should – it works. Those disconnected shapes told of all modern art to come, avoiding conformity to the most extreme degree.

But as with all such experiments, it fails to tell a story. It’s easy to point fingers at modern art because of its apparent ugliness, but its real weakness is that it’s a simple cry in the dark. Yes, the modern world leaves quite a few existential challenges for man to take on, but making your art as pointless as you perceive the world will make us all end up in a downward spiral. If you have something to tell the rest of us, then wrap it up properly and share the experience. You can’t do that with a “perspectiveless” experiment. But that is, unfortunately, how modern and much of contemporary art has interpreted the world.

(Now, I’m no expert when it comes to modern art and I have no problem saying that all modern art is not crap. But when you’ve come to understand its overall idea, you don’t have to be an expert to dismiss it. As with jazz, the very idea behind modern art is “faulty”, which is why the probability of finding beauty among the rubbish is very modest.)

Heavy metal music chose a different path. Black Sabbath knew the world was not all beer and skittles when they recorded their first album, but they weren’t crybabies either. They didn’t, like Picasso, make an experiment based on how we have nothing to base things on. Instead, they told a mysterious and intriguing tale of what the world had become. Following in their footsteps, bands like Slayer, Deicide and Emperor put all this ugliness in musical narratives which in themselves were paradoxically beautiful. Not as direct mirrors of our world and society, but as stories with a glimmer of excitement.

This is how metal music rediscovered tradition, a tradition of storytellers who have supported our souls through the ages, from Homer to Bach to Rembrandt to old men by a fire in a small hut in a murky forest. Metal was chaotic, especially at a glance, but underneath it all was a spirit that believed in life. This way metal music created a resonant mythos for people in the postmodern era.

But finding tradition seems a happy coincidence in this case, or, more likely, something which metal music realized only through sheer necessity. Deliberately reinventing tradition in art isn’t always a good idea. It has been tried before, and in my experience the results are actually worse than a cry in the dark. If we go back to the visual modern arts and look across the spectrum from Picasso’s wild experiments to the opposite side, we find (among others) the Academics, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is from the wow-I-can-definitely-see-what-it-depicts-but-it’s-boring-me-to-tears school of art. It has no urgency. Great art is almost by necessity always inspired by personal experience in the world and time we live in. Trying to remove yourself from it will turn the art into stories about virtually nothing. And that’s what we see in Bouguereau. An artist trained in the old school, with all the craft of tradition but none of the spirit gained from experience. That experience doesn’t need to be one of terror, but giving an artwork weight demands an ability to pick up what is going on around you and inside you. And we are not talking socio-political particularities here, but an existential understanding. What does it mean to be human during this time and this place?

One may find it hard to believe that the musicians of the most extreme bands in existence ever thought about this, and perhaps many of them never did. But somehow their instincts have sniffed in the air the feelings of the time, remolded it in their heads and had their guitars resound of what it tells – even if they motivate it by, “Listen to this sound, man, it’s awesome!” The artist is told something about the world, and tells it back to us. Bouguereau in comparison sure makes fancy wallpaper, but it’s anything but awesome – it’s lifeless.

Metal music, then, builds anew in accordance with a tradition that the Academics only very superficially mimicked. It also sees much of the same things Picasso saw, but while he screamed with pathetic terror, metal screams with delight.

Outsiderness in heavy metal

The world has never forgiven metal for being an outsider. Since the dawn of its creation, metal has not gone along with the love songs, hippie values and cheerful oblivion of the rock/pop crowd.

When other bands were singing about flowers in their hair and how peace would save the world, Black Sabbath — inspired by horror films, which have similar themes and sound — took a view that could only be described as “heavy” and thus as unpopular, inevitably outsider.

Much like Galileo centuries before, Black Sabbath upended the human cosmos. Most people saw themselves as the center of the universe, and their individual desires and concerns as important.

Heavy metal smashed all that down by viewing humanity like microbes on a microscope slide. We are tiny, insignificant, and battered by the winds of history, in its view. The highest goal is not some callow happiness, but to fight with honor for glory!

This sentiment shows up throughout metal in many genres. This is music for war, death and evil. It is music that recognizes hatred and cruelty as a necessary part of the dark half of the human soul. It is natural music, as natural as a predator crushing its adorable prey.

Naturally, this is very offensive to some people.

In the 1980s and 1990s, their response was to try to ban metal, first for sex, drugs and Satan, and next for politically unacceptable speech. Starting in the 2000s they found a better way to smash it: assimilate it.

Their method is simple. They make bands that sound like metal, but are compositionally closer to mainstream rock music. That way people stop seeing a difference between the two, and metal vanishes, replaced by rock music.

This brings us to “indie rock.” In the early 1980s, people used the term to refer to any DIY rock bands, most of which emerged from the DIY punk movement of the previous decade. Because of the punk influence and outlook, most of these bands sounded similar.

Indie bands use punk riffs and power chords, tend toward minor key droning, have a little bit more country and folk music in them, and are less consumer-oriented. Where the big bands sing about politics and getting laid, indie rock sings about being alone and confused.

If big rock ‘n’ roll makes perfect consumers, indie rock does even better. It makes people who pity themselves and need a lifestyle with lots of products to buy in order to fit in. Do all indie people collect records, buy nostalgia toys, and have ironic tattoos? Maybe not all, but most.

In fact, indie rock and mainstream rock are two sides of the same coin. They are both based on the desires of the individual and a need for some kind of consumption to have identity. One appeals to the thoughtless, the other to the neurotic.

On the radio there are songs about disposable relationships, getting laid, feeling good and buying new things. In the dark hipster corners of the internet, indie rock bands pour out songs about having a cup of coffee, feeling empty and giving up on love.

When nu-black metal superground “Twilight” (composed of Nachtmystium’s Blake Judd, Atlas Moth’s Stavros Giannopoulos, Sanford Parker, Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead, and Krieg’s Neil Jameson) announced that Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore would be joining the band, it was a formal certification that black metal was being replaced by metal-flavored rock.

This sleight-of-hand is a play on outsiderness. Paradoxically, outsiderness is the easiest way to sell a product. It says “You’re different, you’re not like everyone else.” Much as birds in the jungle like to have bright plumage to stand out from the others, men and women in modern society like to be different.

However, truly being different is a big deal. It means nothing is convenient, and that you have to live a lifestyle that takes you away from the herd, and reduces your access to easy friendship, mates, business, etc. You have to be a real wildman, underground man or drop-out. Most people don’t want to do this.

As a result, there is a huge profit to be found in manufacturing outsiderness, or taking the same old stuff and re-surfacing it with something tinged with outsiderness. Hence metal-flavored rock: look outsider like a metalhead, but be normal and social like a rocker.

The world experts on having an outsider surface to cover their inner mundanity are the hipsters. They like indie rock because it, too, is a re-surfacing: it’s essentially the same stuff that’s on pop radio, but with DIY aesthetics and lyrics about being an outsider.

Hipsterism has taken over mass culture because, as AdBusters puts it, hipsters are what happens when your culture has died and there is nothing left but interpersonal drama. The hipsterification of metal picked up steam in the late 1990s.

Indie-metal superstars Mastodon are working on a new single collaboration with indie drama queen Feist. Some new horror called “vest metal” is already showing us indie trends in action.

Underneath the skin, however, modern science has officially recognized that all pop music is essentially very similar on a musical level, even if on the surface — its “flavoring” — it’s “different.” This has caused others to wonder if music now is a spectacle that’s all image, with musical quality ignored in favor of novelty and popularity.

This won’t suprise metal fans, who tend to see society as a lost colony of narcissistic sheep rocketing toward an apocalypse, but might upset the “normals.” I guess there really is something to outsider status, after all.

Why I’m a Hessian and not a metalhead

hessian_goat

There are many books, movies and CDs that float through our lives.

When we really like many of a certain type, we may identify with them. “I like Romance novels! I like disco!”

If you like the music, you’re a metalhead. You like to buy certain things and listen to them.

If you like the ideas behind the music — the lifestyle, the worldview, the imagery and most importantly, the spirit — you need to use a word that means you are more than a consumer of metal music.

You’re a Hessian. Derived from California slang from the time when Slayer were starting out, this term refers to the mercenaries who fought for both sides during the Revolutionary War — from Hesse, in Germany, they had long hair and fought like demons.

Obviously, this term belongs with the person who loves the abstract ideals of metal!

Anyone can be a metalhead. For under $100 you can get a starter collection, and if you hit the thrift stores, you can pick up some classic ironic metal tshirts for under ten bucks.

If you really want to appear extreme, you can go the ‘kvlt’ route and buy up classic releases on ebay, then refuse to like anything that has more than two chords.

Or you can be an Opeth fan and talk about how profound and progressive your music is.

Either way, you’ve bought yourself an identity with your cash and time.

But is that really a commitment? Nope, because you can whip that identity off in 30 seconds. Put the CDs back on ebay (where they seem to recycle; wonder why). Give the tshirts to Goodwill (same situation). Take the posters off your walls, buy a Miles Davis CD and a beret and you’ve got a new lifestyle.

But to be a Hessian means you identify with the ideas and have made them your own, just like when you find a philosopher who answers part of the question of life for you. You become a Schopenhauerian, or Nietzscheian, or Kantian — perhaps all at the same time.

Being a metalhead is just too easy. Being a Hessian takes commitment. I don’t begrudge those who want to pass through metal on their way somewhere else, and in fact cheer them on if they recognize this fact. But it’s the Hessians who always impress me.