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Metal as neo-Medieval Art

Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 25, 2007, 10:22:47 PM
For the last couple of months, I've been sending music (mostly metal) to a friend and former adviser of mine from my undergrad days (in exchange, she  scans all the journals she has access to that I would like to read in the comfort of my own home, but don't have the hundreds of dollars required to subscribe to them).  Yesterday, she sent me an interesting comment (apparently percolating for a while, though immediately precipitated by listening to Vikinligr Veldi):

"You know, a lot of the metal you've sent me sounds like medieval music if you pay attention just to the melody lines."

I found it pretty interesting, because it paralleled some of my own recent thoughts.  Metal is often treated as a neo-Romantic artform.  This view has been, of course, popularized within the metal community by Spinoza Ray Prozak and ANUS.com, but outside observers (notably sociologist Deena Weinstein) have also commented on the convergence of metal and Romantic art.  The equation of metal and Romanticism is, I think, fundamentally sound.  However, there's a strong case to be made that metal goes beyond the Romantic fascination with the medieval past to actually embracing ideals that are consonant with the beliefs that permeated the medieval world.


The Dance of Death (1493)


Decidedly medieval themes were central to the genre from its earliest days.  Black Sabbath's classic albums were littered with songs that read more like 14th century sermons adapted to a world of atomic arms and injection drugs than 20th century rock songs.  Songs like "Black Sabbath," "War Pigs," "Electric Funeral," "Hand of Doom," and "Children of the Grave" display a sense, not only of the inevitability of death, but also of its looming imminence.  Like the itinerate preachers of the plague years, metal is keen to remind us that death will come for us all, and it could come at any moment through songs like Hellhammer's "Triumph of Death" and Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."


Illustration from Betwyx the Body and Wormes (15th Century)


Metal's treatment of death in general is strongly medieval in its tone.  Where 'death' often appears in Romantic art as a metaphor for social ills or the sublimation of the personal will in Modern life, metal has largely adopted the medieval iconography of death.  Metal is not concerned with death as symbol or allegory, but with the fundamental realness of death.  Like the transi tombs and litanies of the tortures of the damned common in the late middle ages, depictions of death in metal are often focused on the practical mechanics of dismemberment, disease and decay, and shy away from the comfortable euphamisms of a culture in denial of death.


Satan's Tortures (12th Century)


More medieval parallels can be seen in metal's fascination with the occult.  The occult was, of course, also a common theme in Romantic art, but occultism in metal draws on typically medieval archetypes - Satanism and Germanic paganism - rather than the Masonic ritualism and Hellenistic hermeticism more typical of the Romantics (though it should be noted that the arch-Romantic Wagner also made great use of medieval occult imagery).  Despite the occasional penetration of LaVeyan Satanism, for the most part, metal's 'Satan' is the Satan of the medieval popular imagination: a horned entity of enormous power locked in struggle with the deity for domination of the universe, not the urbane gentleman of Romantics or the Rolling Stones.



Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry (late 11th century)


Metal's iconography and ideals are rooted almost entirely in the cultures of the European middle ages.  Metal - like the chivalric codes of the high middle ages and pagan epics of the early medieval period - celebrates the cult of the warrior.  Its virtues are the virtues of a warrior: honor, fearlessness in the face of death, and the heroic will to live out one's purpose in a violent world.  Its vices are the vices of those without the courage to live as warriors: weakness, misplaced mercy, falsity and dissimulation.  Its master icons are war, death and the sword.  Its goal to build temples to transcendent belief from raw materials of the crudest sort.


Interior view, Chartres Cathedral (12th-13th centuries)

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 26, 2007, 02:04:49 AM
[contribution] Very interesting post.

I think you are definitely on to something with the majority of this; that death shows its face once more through metal culturally is certainly true. The form of some metal sharing characteristics with some medieval music is a good point to start talking of the romanticist link too. Yet the last paragraph is misleading when you try to establish values onto the medieval world as is, going as far to say they even "permeate" it. While seeing a certain approach to death in metal is one, I think applicable, conclusion, it is by no means true to read heroist outlooks into the genre, let alone medieval times. As such the link is too contrived for now - there is a large somewhat ideological jump from metal-romantic into metal-medieval. Wheres the link? You say,

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Its virtues are the virtues of a warrior: honor, fearlessness in the face of death, and the heroic will to live out one's purpose in a violent world.


So I have to disagree completely in drawing any similarity between the medieval world and the heroic, Homeric, world in which you interpret metal as espousing.
After all, knights were not 'chilverous' in the least - chivalry is a myth, false and overly romanticised: far from acting to "build temples to transcendent belief from raw materials of the crudest sort." these so-called warriors acted with an overall mercenary attitude and lifestyle. A sign of the times no doubt. The bandit profession is an infinitely more realistic description than any scattered throw of heroism there may have rarely been. Honor amongst theives? Purpose in a violent world? What would that be - money? wealth?

Spiritual purpose beyond a need for God is lacking for these 'warriors'.

Such swords-for-hire act for themselves in a survivalist mentality rather than any community or people to which they do not belong, let alone acting out the transcendent belief which a people can cultivate. Medieval heroics are a nostalgic fantasy. This is why "war, death and the sword" cannot be taken in a romantic context, but a blunt factual one, as it does not mean heroism but survivalism. Nor can it be taken as providing any truth to the old world and its main triad of slavery, death and pestilance: the real master icons.

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Its vices are the vices of those without the courage to live as warriors: weakness, misplaced mercy, falsity and dissimulation.


Also, there seems to be a gross mistake here: Homeric values are not Medieval ones. You cannot map heroics onto the latter world, nor fantasise it into having qualities which is simply did not, in general, possess. The context for heroic virtue and vice is completely inappropriate to the medieval world. What can I say? Metal is romantic, but romanticism is not medieval.



NOTE:
If anyone wants to persue this connection between death and the metal genre there is a book, well, a series of lectures called 'Western Attitudes Toward Death' by Philippe Ariès. The main thing you will lift out is, of course, the transition from the medieval attitude of 'death as fact' to the modern treatment of 'death as shameful and forbidden' - currently forbidden even in spite of the yearly pornography of death as a spectacle; something which Ariès deals with when describing the overt american experiance . I've read it afew times, it is fairly cheap and well translated.

http://www.amazon.com/Western-Attitudes-toward-Death-Comparative/dp/0801817625

[/contribution]



Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 26, 2007, 10:12:59 PM
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[contribution] Very interesting post.


So I have to disagree completely in drawing any similarity between the medieval world and the heroic, Homeric, world in which you interpret metal as espousing.


How so?  The overall values are remarkably similar, which shouldn't be surprising, as 'Homeric' society itself was very similar in structure to that of feudal Europe.  Both cultures were characterized by fairly dispersed political authority, an independent and powerful priesthood, and were dominated by a socially mobile warrior aristocracy.

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After all, knights were not 'chilverous' in the least - chivalry is a myth, false and overly romanticised:


And is this any less true of the Homeric heroes?  We're talking about an idealized vision of a society 500 years gone by the time the poems that immortalized it reached their current form.  Homer was no closer temporally (or factually) to his subject  than the Victorians were to the middle ages.  Besides, the chivalry of Roland was as much an ideal as the heroism of Odysseus, and it is the nature of ideals to diverge from the reality of actual practice - that's why they're ideals in the first place.  The real difference between the medieval period and the world Homer describes is that we have genuine historical sources describing what actually happened in the medieval world.  For the Mycenean Greeks, we have only the idealized, distant vision of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and reams of tax receipts from the various palace sites in Greece and on Crete.  The closest thing we have to a 'historical record' of the Achaeans are the accounts in various Near Eastern records of the attacks of the 'Sea Peoples,' who don't seem nearly so heroic as Homer's champions, more like especially vicious pirates.

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far from acting to "build temples to transcendent belief from raw materials of the crudest sort." these so-called warriors acted with an overall mercenary attitude and lifestyle.


And how is this different from the 'heroic' world of Homer?  Go back and read the Iliad again sometime.  Don't forget that it is a story that begins with its 'hero' leaving his comrades-in-arms to suffer and die because he felt that he hadn't gotten his fair share of the plunder.  The key difference between heroic societies and non-heroic ones is that which is held up as the ideal

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A sign of the times no doubt. The bandit profession is an infinitely more realistic description than any scattered throw of heroism there may have rarely been. Honor amongst theives? Purpose in a violent world? What would that be - money? wealth?


Fame?  Glory?  Martial renown?  People certainly sought these (and wealth too, of course - don't forget that Homer's heroes made their names and their fortunes sacking and plundering coastal settlements).

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Such swords-for-hire act for themselves in a survivalist mentality rather than any community or people to which they do not belong,


What society has EVER acted for people who aren't members of the community?

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let alone acting out the transcendent belief which a people can cultivate.


Because, after all, there were no beliefs involved in taking the crusade, right?

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Medieval heroics are a nostalgic fantasy.


So were Homeric heroics - and the authors of the great sagas in all ages have always understood that, which is why the idealism is always juxtaposed against the reality of death and suffering.

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This is why "war, death and the sword" cannot be taken in a romantic context, but a blunt factual one, as it does not mean heroism but survivalism.


Heroism IS survivalism, it is the will both to live and to make a life worth living.

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Nor can it be taken as providing any truth to the old world and its main triad of slavery, death and pestilance: the real master icons.


Welcome to the human condition, glad to have you on board.



Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 26, 2007, 10:34:19 PM
Nietzsche put it well (somewhere). We're not liberals, because nothing in nature needs reform. We're not conservatives, because there's nothing of this rotten order we want to conserve. We're just realists who also want to rise above the human condition and make a great civilization like that of the ancient Greeks.


Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 27, 2007, 09:19:07 PM
Medieval, or ancient? Those musics were both symbolic melody, not much harmony as structure, and a ritualistic compositional style.

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 28, 2007, 12:41:59 AM
"ancient" music was never written so all we have to go upon when thinking of them is their instrumentation and modern folk music which would be very distinct from traditional folk, this is particularly true in eastern European music.

The only music that has survived is the African tribal music and the music of the Aborigines because there are still isolated peoples who act as they did thousands of years before leaving there music unchanged.

Also i have no idea what you mean by "a ritualistic compositional style" or musics were both symbolic melody"

Myrrdin

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 28, 2007, 11:50:13 AM
Mayhem-to-Carnage: But we know how the music would have sounded as they were written in musical modes, which have survived. Modal music is melodically thematic from its most basic structure upwards, making its sound a distinct one (like using only the black notes on a piano to make "Japanese" sounding music, because of the modes used in Asian composition). We can still use the Greek-defined modes and adhere to them. This will provide an "ancient" melody.

(This is also why there is a certain inevitability to the Metal-sounds-medieval debate. It is borne from the same school of music theory, therefore it will share similar features.)

Concerning knights v's greeks it is worth remembering that as nobility the knights attended the first learning establishments in Europe, the very places that have preserved "Classics" to this day.

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 28, 2007, 06:39:47 PM
Yes modes have survived but we don't know the actual composition techniques used to create a piece, which is the most important part. Even if you do make a "Japanese" melody the way you said you would you would not be using the correct values of notes or the correct intervals that would be prominent in there authentic folk music, and the chord sequences or key changes (if there are any) would be completely different, also the tempo markings or tempo changes you may be using may be almost unused in Japanese folk and this doesn't account for ad libitum.  Even time signatures and emphasis on beats or use of hemiola would almost always be wrong (unless you got it right by chance), the music would be nowhere near what there real folk music. Also one thing is that the piano is an equal temperament instrument and traditional Japanese music did not use any instruments that were tuned to equal temperament. Also you would have to guess the dynamic markings which impact hugely upon the sound of the piece.  

And lastly the first people to write down there music were monks during the middle ages (and the only reason we know of the Greek scale is because of the of his method of maths for finding fifths), any other form of music preceding it was passed by ear and as such is subject to change particularly in modern times with so many things to influence it.

Myrrdin

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 28, 2007, 06:45:24 PM
Ok, you're talking about recreating specific pieces of music; I was talking about creating music "in the style of". Clearly I don't think by using modes you are guaranteed to play an exact piece of music that was played millenia ago, but they will allow you a large degree of "authenticity".

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 28, 2007, 07:36:16 PM
im not talking about an exact piece, im talking about playing as they did, most modern folk music is very similar to other folk music from the same region, so all Romanian folk music follows certain conventions, only knowing a scale or a mode they used will not be enough to follow those conventions enough to make a piece that could not be told apart from a selection of their folk tunes.

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
March 30, 2007, 02:31:28 AM
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im not talking about an exact piece, im talking about playing as they did, most modern folk music is very similar to other folk music from the same region, so all Romanian folk music follows certain conventions, only knowing a scale or a mode they used will not be enough to follow those conventions enough to make a piece that could not be told apart from a selection of their folk tunes.


That's because songs tell stories through how things change in them, like how riffs spell out a journey or a mythos... when you put them together, you get an epic poem like the illiad or mahabarata.

After time, all other art refers to those basic ideas. this is how culture is born...


Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
April 23, 2007, 03:39:34 PM
Sorry, I am confused. Can you define Heroism so I don't misinterpret it completely; i.e what is the difference between it and mere scum and selfish banditary? That one raids another's home (scum) but can protect one's own (noble)? If so, doesn't that just lead us back through the process of Imperialism-Empire-Slaves-Slave Morality-Contemporary Values-Collapse-Repeat?

What has been gained there; an endless circle up to 'Kali-Yuga' and back round and round forever?


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which is why the idealism is always juxtaposed against the reality of death and suffering.


I though the 'Word of Nietzsche' meant that the Ideal - as signified by God - is dead, as in essence we just cannot have it function no more. In other words, I guess he was troubled by how we could seriously deal with reality without the Ideal: how to face the horrors of history without superficial Hegelian or Darwinian optimism, without exalting some ancient or simple experiance; without claiming meaning is obtained for the future or from the past...

Yet you introduce the Ideal here once more; how is this so? I thought it died? Your post seems to recognise it is unobtainable, so why persist with the Ideal?

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Welcome to the human condition, glad to have you on board.


The aformentioned philosopher talks of man having grown board of himself. He talks of the last man; perhaps, the last human?

Perhaps "Does the act of killing God mean we must ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?" means 'must we become more than mere human beings, a mere homosapien species?'

Perhaps then, cutting loose from all certainty and Ideal means, as Virillo put it, we are falling upwards into the sky, possibly towards apotheosis - and that is not, despite the homogenizing, dominating and harvesting character of technical modernity - necessarily an evil or purely negative thing.

Are not the possibilities hidden within technology truely transcendent?

Annihilaytorr

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
April 23, 2007, 11:41:17 PM
Great post Falconesbane. Have you posted this elsewhere?

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
April 24, 2007, 09:40:05 PM
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Great post Falconesbane. Have you posted this elsewhere?

Yep, at his blog and where the alias you have used was known. I know to track down nice writings.

Re: Metal as neo-Medieval Art
April 25, 2007, 03:19:56 AM
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That one raids another's home (scum) but can protect one's own (noble)?


In an idealized world yes, but things are rarely ideal. Say those whom raided the others home did so because they were forced out of their own by another party. Or suppose those defending their homeland heavily polluted the only water ways into the attackers home so they attacked to prevent the constant rage of disease.

It requires context, not just the event itself for an accurate view of the decision to be made. For example 9/11 may at first seem like a blatant act of terrorism and "evil" but, America bullied most 3rd world countries around, murdered democratically elected leaders to put in place dictators who the Americans have selected. Disposing of those dictators when they refuse to bow down before America and publicly supporting an ally when in fact they are also helping their "enemy" so they can kill each other. Training the person who would latter carry out the 9/11 bombings and they act all innocent when those 3rd world countries decide to stand up for themselves.  

If context is added to the event it allows a more clear opinion to be made. Just as a final note, through all of their melding in other countries almost 5 million civilians are dead. Where only a few thousand Americans are dead from 9/11. That is like punching a kid in the face to have him flick you on the nose, so you get your dads shotgun (in this case the shotgun was the war they then waged).