The funderground evaporates and metal goes underground

by Brett Stevens
January 16, 2014 –

the-day-the-earth-stood-still

Blue skied days make me think of aliens landing amongst us like in the old science fiction films. Except this time, the aliens are disappointed in what they find. “We have analyzed your transmissions,” the vocoded digi-translator says. “We are hoping to contact the people of Aurelius, Plato, Nietzsche and the first Morbid Angel album.”

Sadly there is no one here who can help them. The old Romans are dead, the ancient Greeks long gone, even the days when philosophers wrote about real topics are over, and Morbid Angel have ventured on to different goals and styles. If the aliens came looking for old school death metal, they’d find themselves presented with over a million options, very few of which resembled the glory of what once was.

This leads us to the interesting question: what causes some human endeavor, whether a civilization or a culture or death metal, to collapse? Nietzsche believed the answer to be nihilism; Joseph Tainter thinks it is when groups find diminishing marginal returns in self-organization; Aurelius saw a failure of spirit as the cause. When I was less experienced, I would have agreed with Nietzsche or Tainter that an internal/external source was the cause; the more I’ve seen, the closer I veer toward Aurelius’ view which is that things die when their spirit dies.

In metal, we’ve had a great spiritual death for quite a long time now. Death metal and black metal produced a huge backlog of technique, imagery, creativity and complexity between 1984 and 1994, but then pretty much faded away. In their place first came imitators, then metalcore, and now the emo/indie/gaze crowd of “post-metal” types who are making the same music that was popular back in the late 1980s. History has reversed itself as it always does when collapse comes to town.

Erik Danielsson of erstwhile black metal band and now happy melodic heavy metal band Watain offered his own vision of how this inversion occurs:

I think that throughout the course of history, there have always been very few bands that have been able to live up to my standards, at least of black metal… Then there are thousands and thousands of misrepresentations and misconceptions of it. But true and genuine black metal is always something that will always be a minority in the music scene. A small minority even.

Then there’s all these people that kind of want to… It’s just like punk, you know? You have a few real punk bands, and you have a thousand bands that try to do the same thing, but fail because they don’t have the right spirit and they don’t really believe in it. But at the same time, it fascinates a lot of people, because it is an extreme way of expression, and it is controversial, and it’s therefore also popular and people are fascinated by it.

That’s why it’s also so often, like with other forms of extreme art, whatever it may be, that’s why it’s also so often misused, and just even commercialised, just for the sake of that, horror sells. And extreme metal sells, controversy sells, and that’s why there’s so many charlatans in this kind of music.

He makes a good point but it’s not the whole story. At some point, the genre was stronger and had a higher ratio of actual black metal to imitators. What is an imitator? Someone who adopts the surface appearance of some other thing without understanding its spirit, inner structure, values or motivations. Why do imitators do it? For the social value; that’s all imitation can deliver. If you imitate something, you can sell it, achieve popularity, or even just have some rationalization for your lifestyle and a way to spend your time that you feel doesn’t make you look like a complete l00zer to your friends.

This makes the original ideals of black metal look smarter than they seemed at the same. “No more, no core, no fun and no trends” is an anti-social statement, meaning that it is designed to block the passage of metal into a social movement. As discussed in Until the Light Takes Us, the decay of meaning is inevitable once power passes from the innovators to the art shop displays, poseurs, political types and record label tyrants.

Luckily, there’s also good news. hybrid indie/metal band Twilight is calling it quits:

Black metal supergroup Twilight welcomed a new member in the middle of 2012: Thurston Moore. “We’re not coming together to make music,” Moore said then of the group. “We’re joining forces to destroy all rational thought.”

Unfortunately, the band itself has also imploded. With news of their new album—III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb, out March 18 in North American and March 17 in Europe through Century Media—comes the announcement that Twilight has broken up. The album will be their last.

I will never be happy for anything that inconveniences Imperial of Krieg in any way, as he carried the black metal flag at a time when the USBM underground had declared itself dead fetus and put up the banner of failure. I also have no enmity for Thurston Moore, who was quite a gregarious and interesting fellow when I met him, or any of the other musicians in Twilight. They’re just trying to have careers. However, they were also symbolic of the downfall of underground metal in that they symbolized its acceptance by the indie rock hierarchy.

The thing about rebels is that they either fail and are destroyed in anonymity, or they become the new Establishment. Since most people love a chance to believe that their problems are caused by oppression, not their own poor life choices, revolutions are very popular; just about everyone loves one, except the cynical and flatulent elderly. Thus as a revolutionary you have a better than average chance but, if you succeed, you live to become that against which new generations revolt. First country, blues, jazz and rock were a revolution against established music, then punk was a revolution against popular music. Then indie was a revolution against punk.

Black metal, like heavy metal before it, was a revolution against the mentality of revolution. It was “heavy” in that instead of promising flowers, love and peace — all appearances, all social things — it promised darkness, warfare, conflict and predation. Metal has always been the music that says our problems cannot be solved by appearances and must be addressed by dealing with reality itself, which is the one thing that most people never want to do.

The message of metal is never initially popular. What is popular is the perception of metalheads being “outside” the social system, and thus able to perceive a truth and enjoy a freedom that those inside cannot. This makes those inside want to emulate the outsiders, but they do so only in appearance, resulting in them making imitations that have the spirit, values, goals and internal structure of the inside. Thus, the independent truth is dragged down into a morass of conformity and the same failed thinking that it tried to escape.

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6 comments

  • tiny midget

    so in the context of metal music, the collapse comes because the imitators flood the scene or is it because the scene already collapsed that imitators come?
    =)
    i always thought that for an imitation to serve its purpose, there needs to be a buyer who is either clueless or promt to lower standards. even fenriz of darkthroned shrugged in resignation and said “what can i do” in the advent of massive flood of copycats.
    foundational acts burn out.
    then imitation occurs within real metalheads.
    then even they burn out.
    then came the emo/gaze/indie/post metal outsiders
    then even brett stevens loses his feral soul.
    then the dedicated fans are mocked upon and tagged as aspies or virgins.
    finally when u get off Levy_Spearmen’s mom and play sad wings of destiny and pure holocaust, u realize this is where you’d like to stay, where the classics are.

    1. EDS

      Imitators flood the scene.

      Humans are hard wired to follow the herd, yet in each one of us there seems to be a small section of the brain devoted to wanting to appear as different from said herd. Many factors go into whether or not someone falls off the train where the crowd resides, or if they hang on for the ride until death. My time in South Korea showed me that there is no originality amongst any S. Korean. Why? Their society is demanding of conformity to the point that they cannot think for themselves. So no metal of significance comes from there, and there is no metal scene to be found. On the other hand places such as the U.S. and our favorite Scandinavian countries are more liberal based societies with individualism counting for more. With more “influences” and “underground phenomena” out there for teenagers and young adults to grab onto, they can be made to look “cool”. But no matter how underground something is (metal), it will eventually float to the top where the masses grab pieces of it and dismantle its meaning and significance. The foundation for the end is laid out at that point, and society will continue to use the once “underground phenomena” such as metal music in this case, for its own self interest. This taints the original ethos/connotation. At this point metal is dead and it will never return to fruition. No matter how much you educate new comers to the original spirit of metal, the power of our unhealthy society will reign supreme. These young adults will gravitate up to the top where the masses dwell, manipulating metal music for its goals. I believe metal is not the only legitimate cultural and artistic phenomena that has been destroyed by mass appeal throughout history. It is a never ending cycle and we who revel in metals original ethos/spirit are currently feeling the same way many others in past history have felt as they watched society ruin their prized art form/cultural spectacle.

  • steve

    cool topic . too much talk about which bands are “truly black-metal enough”.
    this concept that all black metal needs to be homogenized is ridiculous . it reminds me of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans.
    if everyone follows all the rules you put out then we may as well just program a bunch of robots to go play black metal instead.
    or better yet we could all just play the first Mayhem album over and over again and just go sell our instruments off and call it a day.

    1. Wild

      When black metal had rules: 1989-1994
      Anything goes: 1995-Present
      Which era produced the most creatively valuable bands?

      It seems a paradox that limitations inspire freedom, yet without a structure there’s nothing holding it together.

  • steve

    and Nietzsche is misunderstood in general in society . his main point was that the meaning of life is to make art . that without God art is the justification of our existence . art that is life- embracing . and to confront the challenges in life. to confront authority . and question prevailing values.

  • 1349

    “Why do imitators do it? For the social value; that’s all imitation can deliver. If you imitate something, you can sell it, achieve popularity, or even just have some rationalization for your lifestyle and a way to spend your time that you feel doesn’t make you look like a complete l00zer to your friends.”

    I was a death metal imitator at some point, but it was for the following reasons:
    1) i wanted (still want…) to destroy christianity =);
    2) i wanted to create new songs in a good style – old school death – that seemed to be gone on the interational scale, as well as completely gone from our local scene.
    As years passed, i realized that many of the musicians around, including some of those who i worked with, while often being way more talented than me, did their imitation for reasons that were obviously social. Others had no reasons at all and played music just because they had nothing to do in their free time. I realized that i had little to zero in common with most of them and left the scene.