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
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
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.
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)