The spirit of metal

by Aaron Lynn
July 19, 2014 –

mayhem-live_in_leipzig

The metalcore explosion — djent, math metal, ultra-jocky tech-death, post-black metal, smooth melodeath — pushed itself to the forefront of most American scenes holding the false banner of metal.

Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels said that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Rock bands that borrow a few aesthetic metal stylings and graft them on to punk songs can proclaim themselves as metal and tell the press which repeats the Big Lie until it becomes so in the minds of most people. Songs shifted their focus from the mythological-historical narrative of metal and like all other rock, became obsessed with the individual, teenage angst, and narcissism. By this method the genetic coding and spirit of metal was wrecked and replaced with just another commercialized product.

Why? Because the spirit that metal music exemplified didn’t appeal to the self-obsessed mainstream crowd. They do not seek intellectual and spiritual challenge in the music they listen to. They want quick, easy, disposable background music that reflects and validates the one-dimensionality of the personas they have adopted. Most contemporary metal consumers consider metal to be just another form of entertainment like a football game, superhero movie or reality television. Because of the large number of people that hold that sentiment, the message (and the music as a result) suffers and gets confused.

Heavy metal represents a brave and inquisitive spirit diving into the unknown to find meaning and beauty. It challenges dogma and stasis and rejects conformity and inaction. Its very foundations are based in horror, grim Nietzschean realism, darkness, and the occult. Instead of fearing these dark forces metal admires them a necessary aspect of a full and intense life. It de-emphasizes the individual, reminds us of death, and praises the power of the natural world. The unsafe tendencies of the metal spirit forces the mainstream acts who want to assimilate it to pick-and-choose surface styles that would appeal to mainstream audiences (distorted guitars, fast drumming, etc) and incorporate those alone into their style. At its core this new music is the same as rock, pop and television: no structure, all surface appearance.

The spirit of metal gives meaning to music and forces the aspects of its surface appearance to reflect its inner organization. Without that spirit, what metal communicates to the listener is lost and the aesthetic elements that make up metal become meaningless. That meaningless was the goal of those who would assimilate it, because if they take the core out of the metal, they can turn it into a product for their own purposes. Celebrate the metal spirit and keep it alive through supporting or creating quality metal, because its wisdom and dark splendor is eternal.

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44 comments

  • Lord Mosher

    Could it be that mainstream music listeners more than fear metal, just don’t get it? They find the aesthetics of metal unbearable and unpleasant, and getting past that initial barrier is way too much work. So they dismiss it without ever understanding it. Mainstream society can’t tell the difference between first Immortal vs latest corporate Behemoth.
    .
    On the other hand, there are faithful metalheads with enormous music collections that genuinely enjoy first Immortal as much as latest corporate Behemoth.
    .
    The Spirit remains elusive to most, including apparantly, metal musicians whose work is representative of such.
    I´m curious, if musical refinement alone over the years of listening to metal will draw you to the metal albums that bear that spirit? Will you be at least intuitively, able to recognize the metal with such spirit?
    .
    Whatever spirit early black metal posessed was not exclusive to black metal but could be found in other art forms; do you need to actively seek meaning in metal to find it (and by extension recognize where it’s not to be found) or will musical enjoyment and refinement unveil meaning, truth and spirit?

    1. Richard Head

      Good question. So long as you are ready to tune into the spiritual dimensions of any art (here only meaning some method that humans use to communicate ideas) then you will find it, metal included. Some of us are more readily attuned to some spiritual dimensions than others. For instance, I can’t understand dance as an expressive art. I accept that it must be, but I cannot tune into it. Probably it is the same for some other people when they listen to metal.

      1. BB

        A lot of contemporary dance as an art form is nihilist par excellence: not wanting to communicate narratives or truths outside the movements themselves, not wanting to communicate anything verbal, a lot like good abstract painting.

        1. Richard Head

          I have more difficulty accepting abstract painting as being art insofar as it communicates something (anything) outside of or within human experience. It’s like listening to a schizophrenic yammer on about nonsense that can’t be comprehensible no matter how much you want to understand.

          1. BB

            I don’t think I understand your post. Do you mean you have difficulty accepting abstract painting when it tries to communicate something, or do you have difficulty accepting all abstract painting?

            1. Richard Head

              I have difficulty accepting the notion that abstract painting is representative of anything at all outside of the actual paint and canvas. Like post-modern fiction lacks traditional development in narrative that leads to a conclusion, so does abstract art seem to refer to nothing but its own color and shape.

              1. trystero

                Richard I have PMed you an `abstract` painting on the forums, check it out, it may change your mind.

              2. BB

                See my answer below on Van Gogh. It is not because abstract art doesn’t seem to refer to anything besides its own colors and shapes, that it can’t bring about emotions/experiences (e.g. of the Sublime) in the viewer. In that sense, it clearly achieves a form of communication, and in that sense, there is referentiality.

                Good abstract art of course also is elitist, because often it requires a trained eye and knowledgeable mind, just like most good death metal requires a trained ear. It is often sad to be discussing these topics with people who have hardly visited (contemporary) musea, nor haven’t seen a significant portion of the old and new masters up close (and not just in books). It’s as if people who only know Korn, Metallica and the likes from the radio or TV can make a valid judgement on black metal after listening a couple of times to a Waitan and a Cradle of Filth-album (since that is what the general public thinks is black metal), and decide on that basis they don’t like it.

                Anyone reading this should ask himself: what is my experience with real paintings (be them old or new) hanging on real walls? This is especially important because, again, like with lots of culture, 90% of all contemporary art is crap, just like 90% of old art was crap, just like 90% of metal is crap. So, generalizations about postmodernism or the state of art nowadays etc. on the basis of 3 or 4 visits to a museum and lots of reading on blogs have very little truth value.

                On a side note, a lot of good abstract art does refer to its own place in art history/practice via the methodologies/solutions used to achieve its colors, shapes and textures. In that sense *does refer* to something that is part of life (namely Art).

                Of course, because of this knowledge of its place in history it strives for originality (like good metal), because nobody likes a mere rehash of the past. Because of this inevitable proces, some people tend to think things degenerate objectively, whereas the only thing that happened is that these cultural pessimists lost track subjectively, more often than not based on a lack of training and experience which leads to faulty generalizations (and not so much because of taste).

        2. trystero

          So BB what is your personal opinion of contemporary dance? The way you describe it sounds horrible and I personally consider it horrible. There has to be a difference between Nihilism as a personal approach and just… meaningless. What could be worse than meaningless art? A mere aesthetic experience. Some postmodern art isnt even that, since Pollock it has evolved into the Young British Artists (basically `cool` meaningless marketed as profound art. Their approach is truly nihilistic, utterly cynical. Their works merely take up space and fill their pockets (rather handsomely).

          Your description of contemporary dance as art sounds akin to this, am I wildly misinterpreting, is this a difference in outlook or well… are you wrong?

            1. BB

              The main problem with that article is that it doesn’t see art for what it is, namely art.

              Consider this quote from it: “Modernism is art about art. Whereas all of the great art in history is art about life.” Which such a maxime it destroys any hope on achieving insight in the matter.

              All great art in history that “survived” (i.e. that we still watch with admiration and awe today), that still remains in the pantheon (Brueghel, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Van Dijck, Van Gogh,… to name a few of my favorite old masters) is in that pantheon because of the way these people painted. Because they renewed and invented techniques, methodes, solutions for the way they used paint/brushes to make representations. It is not because of “what” they painted.

              The last self-portrait of Rembrandt (painted 1669) isn’t a masterwork because it is a self-portrait (or, as the article would have it, a painting “about life”), but it is a masterwork because of the way it is painted (most notably the way the hair is painted).

              The rise of photography made merely representational painting obsolete in a lot of ways. As a result, artistic painting moved away from trying to get better and better at mere realistic representations, and in this gave birth to abstract painting, but also to stuff like photographic realism and ultra realism. These evolutions made artists realize that representation (of life) is not the holy grail of art, and led to conceptualism. These are not sad things, nor degenerative processes. It is a result of human life itself: evolutionary processes.

              The interesting thing is, that if you look at that Rembrandt portrait, Rembrandt also realized all this in a way, although he was of course stuck in the 17th century frame of mind – photograph not having been invented. Hence the fact that the hair on that portrait is, in a way, a small abstract expressionist painting inside a bigger, figurative one. The same goes for all the masters I named above. It takes a trained eye to see this, and see beyond the face of the old painter on the picture, to see beyond the face of the “life” represented.

              Of course there is lots of very bad art today, both figurative and abstract, both conceptual and merely representational, and everything in between. But people who tend to critique the state of contemporary art today, in these “degenerate” times, seem to forget the fact that there was lots of very bad art back in Rubens’ days AS WELL. The thing is, in the meantime, time has had it’s fair share, and artists from yore that didn’t make the cut artistically (that painted only about life, without considering the how), aren’t talked about anymore, and are on display in back rooms of hardly visited museums, as will happen to lots of contemporary artists as well.

              Generalizations are always easy: all abstract or modern or postmodern art is bad, and all the old stuff were good. Because it used to be about life? Sure. Dream on.

              Train your eyes. It is not about what is on the picture, it is about the way of the picture. This goes for both representational art as abstract art.

              1. BB

                I would recommend trying to seek (multiple) works of these abstract painters out, in real life. A Google-search doesn’t do the job.

                Kazimir Malevich
                Gerhard Richter (he doesn’t only paint abstract work)
                Mark Rothko
                Cy Twombly
                Sigmar Polke

                More minimalist (lets say “a bit like Burzum’s ambient songs”):

                Raoul De Keyser
                Blinky Palermo

                General contemporary art recommendations (again, most of these have to be experienced in reality, and judged on their oeuvre, not 2 or 3 works):

                Donald Judd
                Bernd & Hilla Becher
                Paul McCarthy
                Thomas Hirschhorn
                Wolfgang Laib
                Roman Signer
                Raymond Pettibon

                1. Only Real art is Real

                  I’ll keep these names in mind for a later date, but I think what the article is spot on about, and it mirrors my definition of art: that art cannot be, let’s use an example, random blots of different colored paints and say that “this painting is about painting.” That is nonsense and I don’t think I have to elaborate.

                  But I will say, briefly, that art is [i]expression[/i] through a form of media. If there is no expression, then what?

                  Painting needs to be evaluated by the evidence on the canvas and not what “theory” is behind it, which requires extra knowledge – basically authorities saying what it means, and why it’s profound, otherwise there would be no way of knowing… This sounds almost faith based to me – to believe that an “abstract” work refers to something profound rather than to nothing at all. How can we know without being told?

                  Also, I do not believe for a minute the notion that photography replaced realistic painting. Show me a Thomas Cole painting, which happens to be 20th Century, and show me a photograph that is comparable to its sense of majesty and awe. Also, consider that this early 20th century photography was black and white and very grainy.

          1. BB

            Consider Van Gogh. Although his art is figurative, his art is “meaningless” nonetheless, in the sense that his paintings don’t have a theme, they only are a representation of something random (a landscape, flowers, a room, his own face, etc.) He doesn’t want to communicate a truth, there’s no message about life, etc. Still, his paintings are profound. Why? Because they are utterly genius in THE WAY his paints, the solutions with paint/brushes he chooses to solve certain representational problems. The untrained eye doesn’t see this: they see only a wheat field or a pretty vase of sunflowers. The trained eye sees the brushstrokes: they see that every sunflower is painted in a distinct way, often in a very different manner. I have, on multiple occasions, been brought to tears because of these brushstrokes, because they show his genius and his originality in creating beauty.

            The same can apply to certain works of contemporary dance. It is not because there is no representation (abstract art/dance), or because what is represented is random (Van Gogh), that beauty (the Sublime, so you wish) can’t be achieved. As a result, the trained viewer can experience emotions while watching the art. In that sense, also abstract art (e.g. contemporary dance) does communicate feelings, yet it remains nihilistic in that it doesn’t have a (verbal) message, aside from the solutions it presents in the brushstrokes/movements itself.

            1. Only Real art is Real

              I have greatly considered Van Gogh and I agree with your assessments, but he is not “non-representational.” The website I linked supports Van Gogh as well.

  • Brian

    I think metal music and abstract art often have similar inspirations and influences. They are two of my favorite modes of artistic expression. Francis Bacon and Mimmo Paladino might be two of the best examples: http://www.amazon.com/Francis-Bacon-Matthew-Gale/dp/0847832759
    http://pinkfreudian.tripod.com/at/fbacon15.html http://www.askart.com/askart/artist.aspx?artist=9000099 http://www.daringtodo.com/lang/it/2009/07/15/orta-luniverso-poetico-di-mimmo-paladino-lungo-le-vie-del-borgo/

    1. Shambler

      I think so too. I never checked out Francis Bacon, thanks for posting these links. Reminds me of Dave McKean. Check it out if you don’t know:

      http://www.discogs.com/artist/574066-Dave-McKean?type=Credits&subtype=Visual

      Maybe it’s not abstract, but it’s not so immediate either – the cover art to Soulside Journey by Darkthrone. I remember reading an interpretation of it that seemed right on the forum, but I’m not sure if I can find it again. I would also say Dark Recollections by Carnage. Subterranean organic horror? Fits the music for me.

    2. BB

      Francis Bacon didn’t make abstract art. He clearly works in the figurative tradition. Expressionist, sure, but not abstract by a long shot.

      I’m not familiar with Paladino, but a google search indicates more or less the same about him: Human faces or figures on most, if not all, of the stuff appears in my browser. He’s no abstract artist either.

      1. Richard Head

        Thanks, I was going to make the same correction about Bacon. He has been one of my favorites since I was very young (Screaming Pope) and his work is definitely not abstract.

        1. Brian

          Correct to the “correction”: Abstract art and figurative art are not mutually exclusive. They’re best thought of as a continuum.
          A work of art can be figurative and abstract at the same time.
          Willem de Kooning’s “Woman V” would be a prime example.
          The figure in a painting could exhibit abstract art qualities; or, the background might be abtract in nature. Bacon’s images are often distorted (and derived from abstract expressionism).
          – Read the first sentence: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/francis_bacon/index.html
          – Third sentence here: http://www.egs.edu/library/francis-bacon-artist/biography/
          – Second sentence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon_%28artist%29

          1. Richard Head

            Don’t know what you’re trying to say other than that Bacon painted abstract images. If that’s what you are trying to tell me then you are wrong. Dali and Monet painted distorted images but there is nothing about the technique that suggests that they were involved in abstract painting. There is a clear distinction between that style and the style of Bacon (and the others I mentioned).

            1. Brian

              If you are more of an authority than the sources I cited, and they are wrong, there’s nothing more I can do.

              1. Richard Head

                I don’t claim to more of an authority but I reserve the right to disagree with authorative judgments. Pollock was an abstract painter, his work deserves that tag, Bacon’s doesn’t. That’s all I’m trying to say. Filing both of them under the “abstract” label would only make that label less specific and less meaningful.

              2. Richard Head

                I don’t claim to be more of an authority but I reserve the right to disagree with authorative judgments. Pollock was an abstract painter, his work deserves that tag, Bacon’s doesn’t. That’s all I’m trying to say. Filing both of them under the “abstract” label would only make that label less specific and less meaningful.

    3. trystero

      I dont know Paladino but Bacon was an utter degenerate (but a genius). Though it is possible to find beauty in his art, it isnt like say, great black metal. In Bacons case the beauty is almost accidental, a consequence of the depth of his perception.

      Also, he was not an abstract artist I believe. I love his triptych about the death of Dyer and consider it his best work. Even that is… horrific. It evokes feelings of pity and helplessness, not beauty and heroism, which even the loudest, noisiest metal tends to do.

      Once again, as with my post about dance above, a difference in perception?

      1. Richard Head

        Because black metal dudes were such thoughtful, stand-up guys, right? Seriously absurd to put someone like Bacon “below” the level of BM musicians on some (any) moral scale. He most definitely had a higher degree of discipline in order to produce the paintings that he did (I will accept the argument that painting and playing music are very different but if you’ve tried both, then you should know what I’m talking about). Not trying to rip into you or anything but that is just one of those statements that irks me to such a degree, I urge you to reconsider.

        1. trystero

          Well, I mean take a look at his personal life, he certainly was a degenerate. I do consider him a genius. Also yes, though your comment is sarcastic I do consider black metal dudes stand-up-guys compared to even church burning murderers.

          I have no objection to the fact that he was a genius though. I love Francis Bacon! That he was a stand up guy? Even a nice person? No way.

          This is a question of worldview and not perception of art though. Read my message to you above though for clarification.

          1. trystero

            Sorry that came out wrong, I consider, as people, in their personal life, church burning murderers to be better people than Bacon. The man simply lived a life of social excess and waste. A caricature of a bohemian homosexual.

            Degenerate art doesnt mean bad art by the way Once again, Bacon is great. Not only that, he knew where to SEE greatnes (in the classics).

            1. Brett Stevens

              Another point of view might be to avoid worrying about the person either way — we’ve seen how recollections and published accounts lie — and focus on the art. Is the art itself degenerate, absent what we think that we think about the artist?

              In particular, some of my greatest heroes have struggled with substance abuse and other forms of self-harm, such as WSB, Houellebecq, Hanneman, etc. This does not invalidate them in my eyes. It makes them sensitive people who see too fuckin’ much who are struggling with what they have seen. (This is entirely different than the hipster version of “Sensitive Man” which A.C. parodied so well.)

              Degenerate art to me is art that fails to show us a purpose for living. I don’t know how compatible that is with definitions others have used, but it seems the most workable definition. Under this term, most modern plastic-product pop and theory-based “abstract” art would be considered worthless.

              1. Richard Head

                The last paragraph sums up my thoughts on this subject. Makes me wonder if someone who produces real art can even be fairly called a degenerate. Or whether it even matters if someone is a degenerate if they can produce such moving works as Bacon and the aforementioned black metal dudes.

                1. BB

                  This is hardly a workable definition, since “show a purpose for living” is very much in the eye of the beholder.

                  Also, wanting art to show a purpose for living is such a non-nihilist thing to say. I read this on anus.com: “Instead of looking to the world, making conclusions and updating our maps, we update our maps based on what we wish were happening.” Wishing “a purpose for living” in art, is wishful thinking.

                  I also read this on anus.com: “Like emotions, value and purpose are human judgments which do not exist in the outside world.” So, why should art need to have purpose? Art can be a mere reflection (and/or be a part of) of this valueless, purposeless world. In that sense, as a side effect, it can of course be ‘instructive’ about the nature of reality itself. This might be a productive way for nihilists that up until now didn’t find a way to philosophically access and enjoy abstract and/or contemporary art.

                  1. BB

                    This is by the way one of the reasons why Bacon (and others, including for instance Gerhard Richter or Mark Rothko) succeeds in causing emotions. Not because his paintings show purpose in life, but because his painting reflect some of the purposelessness of reality.

                    As a spectator we are moved by these paintings because we are reminded of this nihilistic truth, and, as a side effect, we gain insight in the nature of our own lives. (This is obviously not the same as given purpose.)

                    When we encounter such great art these emotions (about the purposelessness of reality, amongst others) can be very profound. Philosophers like Kant approach this via terms as the sublime: a terrifying, immeasurable truth, colliding with chaotic, disharmonic beauty. It is in the hair of Rembrandt’s I mentioned, in Van Gogh’s blossoms of an almond three, in Botticelli’s garments, in Richter’s Wald series, in Rothko’s Seagram murals and in the way Brueghel the Elder paints birds.

                2. trystero

                  @Richard: They certainly can. As a great man said, some people like deformities. In fact many geniuses in the modern world are extremely degenerate; bad for themselves and those around them. That is a social problem, but it does exist.

                  As far as Bacon is concerned, I did say I consider his art great, but the ultimate point is how that greatness is expressed. I am not moved by its greatness per se, but by its great… wretchedness (am I making sense?). While I ascribe no good/evil value to either, Bacon the person comes out in Bacon the artist. Bacon the person was sick (diseased) and deeply sad, especially at the end of his life. Despite my words about him, I consider him perhaps the last great true painter as artist (some of this stems from my lack of knowledge of modern art).

                  Please check your PMs on the forums for a more detailed example and discussion.

                3. trystero

                  Also, of course it matters if someone is a degenerate even if they produce great art. It matters to them and the people around them. Does it matter in the scheme of abstractions? In the world of art? Yes and no. Mostly no, but some ambiguity exists. For example an artist who was a genius but deteriorated into a person making money to fuel his habits instead has failed his art with his personal degeneracy.

                  It is not as if both are disconnected. Very creative people are prone to psychoses, psychological issues, impulse control and substance abuse disorders. As with many things, the answer is in a middle path, not X or Y.

  • Shambler

    “The Spirit remains elusive to most, including apparently, metal musicians whose work is representative of such.”

    A lot of DLA bands are guilty of this, but the worst is Immolation. They’re still getting credit for playing death metal, but everything has been simplified to the point of them using nu-metal elements starting with Harnessing Ruin.

    1. trystero

      Oh come on my friend, I agree with the point of decay, but the worst? Are you forgetting Slaughter of the Soul, the album that singlehandedly killed a whole scene.

      Immolation sold out long after producing enough quality works ,though they always lacked lyrical/ideological conviction; I-hate-god-boo-hoo gets boring. You could feel it on the second album:

      In the name of the Father,
      In the name of the Son
      Where is the Holy Spirit, I feel nothing
      As I stare upon the crucifix, I feel nothing for a God I never knew
      I refuse to embrace, and live by his word

      Slowly it became repetitive and boring, and even the above lyrics are not special without the music that goes with them, but Close to a World Below was released in 2000!

      Much worse bands receive credit for much worse. Deafhaven is black metal bro.

  • Krabapple

    The spirit of metal really amounts to a unity of a set of techniques with an ongoing developmental mechanism derived likely from prog/classical etc.

    Innovation is binding the expression to a reutilization of this common pool of techniques. Owing to the temporality of music, ‘novelty’ is actually a development of these elements into furtherly specified expression.

    Spirit itself is coincidental with the development of innovation in metal. I believe that without this innovation, there is no ‘direction’ in the music- that all attempts to create will lack the impetus to figure into the ‘genre’ or the best of the scene.

    Let’s face it- most modern musical categorization is garbage. Metal has certain social repercussions as a culture- and all of this plays into the direction of the genre.

    The spirit is what we address- it is what metal truly brought to the world, and produced.

    The problem with most metal today, in my estimation, is that it starts with the desire to express some ‘concept’. No- you need something beyond a calculated intention. The sheer desire to create is what is necessary- and this only comes about when the elements for ‘necessity’ impinge on our group of metallers.

    1. IBTINL

      I’d say great metal has a foot in both worlds: one in the development and expansion of techniques, and one in conceptualization. Morbid Angel, for example, strikes me as a band that really looked inward and pulled a whole world out of its ass, rabidly adhering to its concept and contributing a lot to the technique pool as well.

  • EDS

    Great article. I realized something was amiss around 7 years ago while viewing the MySpace of Cali Broodle Deth metallers Disgorge. Half their friends were Cali based Import car models of the female variety. As for the metal heads clogging up their message box, they seemed to be going in and out of various stages in their lives. At that time, pumping iron and jamming Disgorge and other Unique Leader bands was their “thing’.

  • daearoedd

    What you call math metal, djent, etc. is so nauseating now because it was a social sound for the lesser man. The uncritical man. People are waking up though. They want something grand, not something disposable.

    I believe a new conscience is forming. There’s more to say with the open ended nature of black metal, and I don’t mean post-rock or shoegaze mixing. With the old guard dead, tired, or assimilated, new heroes will rise to right the wrongs that have been occurring for so long.

    The new Beherit, Profanatica, Ildjarn are showing a new path through a pure mindset. The new Burzum shows imagination despite arguable quality, so a way out exists. A new frontier through a pure mindset.

    People are getting tired of the Watain and Dark Funeral gimmicks. People want something real. Listening to the Sort Vokter album from start to finish, I have hope. I have hope.

    1. Richard Head

      Haven’t checked out Sort Vokter yet but will. Any other recommendations for modern BM that doesn’t suck? I have been digging the recent Aosoth album, it seems to be holding up and lacks gimmickry.

      1. trystero

        I like the Sort Vokter album more than most Ildjarn (including the best stuff), so if that counts for something, take it as you will.