Embryonic exhumations – Unearthing classic demos

Ras Algethi – Oblita Divinitas
Helheim – Walpurgisnatt
Alioth – Channeling Unclean Spirits
Graveland – Drunemeton
Tsjuder – Ved Ferdens Ende

Ras Algethi – Oblita Divinitas

If the architecture of the great Gothic cathedral, with its upward arches, towering spires and cosmic domes laden with images of the suffering divinity on this earthly realm, had been constructed as a kind of sacral road sign to the eternal paradise beyond, then the music of Ras Algethi’s demo is a fitting soundtrack of cathartic expression, a release from the pain and misery of the mortal existence. Like the immortal Oneiricon – The White Hypnotic album to follow, ‘Oblita Divinitas’ relies heavily on the sounds of the mighty organ for it’s intensity as an imposing beacon of death, magnifying the mournful, melodic patterns that guide the listener through the distinct passages of these songs. Where the organ picks up on the general idea of a riff that’s introduced first, the guitars go on to elaborate this phrase in an almost improvisational, though highly restrained, story-telling manner. The bigger picture develops more gradually – far more slowly and funereal than the full-length – and the organs and percussion eventually give way to the austere logic of the main riff, with clever variations that manipulate this momentary freedom from time and space, or blissful acoustic passages that prolong and reflect in it (anticipating ‘When Fire is Father’, one of the most memorable songs on ‘Oneiricon’), before the other instruments return in an emphatic transition, taking the music to an even deeper level of suffering. Ras Algethi show a very mature compositional style from the onset, not just giving a vague sensation of sadness, but carefully detailing the journey with a reference point of possibly going beyond the world that causes it, re-addressing this emotion as a painful longing for release. –ObscuraHessian

Helheim – Walpurgisnatt

Ghoulish, ethereal and enwrapped in a magnetic tape production reeking of ancient tombs and broken 4-trackers, Helheim’s vision of industrial black metal is far more elemental than the connotations of that description during the last decade. As with the primitivist throbbing drum machines of Mysticum and the ambient blankets of Sort Vokter, the aim is ritual-hypnotic music which does not try to spice up black metal in order to make it more comforting or exciting; instead, it challenges one’s concentration by looping, returning and rewiring little fragments and pieces of riff in powerful early Norwegian black metal language, conducted by the raging screams of the now-deceased vocalist Jon A. Bjerk. The svastika simulacrum depicted on the cover highlights the natural difference with the smoother approach of the other Helheim of the same era, famed mostly for the vagrant mythological epics of “Jormundgand” – this Helheim rather spits in the face of the observed tradition in order to bring forth the subconscious terror of life and death that has been embedded in the mythos of all ancient cultures and bring across a pertinent message to the civilization (macrocosmically) and the black metal of our time (microcosmically). –Devamitra

Alioth – Channeling Unclean Spirits

Remember how disappointed you were the last time you heard a new Varathron or Rotting Christ album? If the same lack of consistency and effort permeates other areas of Greek society, them having descended from the mythic glory of Athene into debts and poverty needs hardly the prophetic eye of Cassandra to fully explain. As in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel “American Gods” the lost European deities are found prowling the Wisconsin backwoods, Chicago based Alioth’s mystical and sensual tribute to Hellenic black metal ca. 1993 is admirably not only a continuation of the electric technoid dynamo drumbeat and an application of the palm muted speed and doom riffs in esoteric underground context; it’s also a highly logically strung sequence of moods as if the physical organization of pain and pleasure in a Dionysian ritual theatre, succumbing with the heavy held back moments of “The Channeling” and “Apocryphal Dimensions” and rising through the interludial “Invocation” and “Invocation II” to softly expire orgasmic relaxation. So much could be created out of this basic concept that it’s a pity the full-length album has remained cloaked in the depths of the primal sea, while Wargoat Obscurum iterates far less subtle (and far less interesting) metal with Cult of Daath. –Devamitra

Goreaphobia – Morbidious Pathology

Goreaphobia’s debut album wouldn’t have been quite so eagerly anticipated without a strong back catalogue of minor releases such as the ‘Morbidious Pathology’ demo, which provides an unexpected listening experience if Mortal Repulsion is the only recording you’ve heard from the band. Where the full-length communicates visions from the abyss through the blank eyes of an old mystic locked in a lucid dreaming state, this demo is full of enough youthful energy to express the paranoia of a thousand souls trapped within the claustrophobic confines of their own mortality. Variations in riffs reflect these tightly packed structures, seeming to progress with not so much a linear logic than the re-arranging of parts of the whole, like limbs being removed from a body and sewn on to somewhere else entirely until the true grotesqueness of humanity is revealed. As with Mortal Repulsion, despite the physical connections to Incantation, there is a stronger similarity to the craftsmanship of Immolation and albums that would come in later years, such as the complex and disjointed but melodically evocative Here in After. The lead guitar work, though highly restrained, possesses a sense of neoclassical refinement that bridges some short-burst riffage with eloquent but totally disturbing solos. This demo shows the beginnings of an all too rare experiment in Death Metal where you can observe the maturation of a consistant idea as it goes through the turmoil of a tortured, temporal existence. –ObscuraHessian

Graveland – Drunemeton

It’s not difficult to understand the distaste that Darken has for the recordings commited to tape during Graveland’s infancy in the light of his recent catalogue of pristine, epic and Atlantaean creations. Some distance away from the expansive scenes of battlefields and expressions of Romantic nationalism, this ancient offering from the living master of Pagan Black Metal is totally shrouded in a necrotic production, like ghostly shadows moving through oaken forests, casting a spell within more cloistered and Druidic surroundings than the output of Graveland from the past 15 years. Alongside the visions that created the force of Scandinavian Black Metal in the early 90′s, this demo represents the reclusive and misanthropic esotericism of that era, especially the primality of the lowest fidelity cults, Beherit and Ildjarn. Sounding like the work of a punk ostracised by that increasingly over-socialised group for being too idealistic and inhuman, Darken conjures a lurid interpretation of hypnotic Bathorean riffing that develops through the echoing of majestic, synthesised voices that open this recording as though a prologue to ‘The Celtic Winter’. The experimentation with primitivism in ‘Drunemeton’ is so deconstructionist that the guitar technique becomes fragmented completely and subordinated to reveal gloomy ambient moods that amplify the silence of a forest at night before the dawn of battle. There’s a similarity to the Beherit song ‘Nuclear Girl’ in how the guitar is used more like a sample, reverberating it’s texture through the keyboards to emphasise a cloistered sensation, accompanied by monastic chants at other times. Culminating in the ambient classic, ‘The Forest of Nemeton’, this demo is the successful beginnings of Graveland’s exploration into unconventional and nihilistic territory beneath the folky phrasing of guitar-led melodic work, which would shape the dynamic of his entire discography to follow. –ObscuraHessian

Tsjuder – Ved Ferdens Ende

Fifteen years ago, we were too proud and lofty to listen to it, our sensory devices soothed and inflamed by Panzerfaust, Battles in the North and Høstmørke, while the new generation of neo-progressive and mainstream black metal bands sought to enrapture even wider audiences with movie soundtrack influenced keyboards and angelic female voice conjured by fat-bottomed gothic tarts. For the atmospheric maniacs only, as it’s hard to argue for its musicality against the likes of Vikingligr Veldi; but the epic wanderlust and distorted pagan death ritual of this demo’s centerpiece, “Fimbulwinter”, unfolding like a flower at dawn or the psychedelic mandala of LSD invading brain receptors, is one of the pure innocent and mesmerizing gems of underground black metal in this sacred and forsaken era. The primal Isvind-esque melody dance like ripples of waves on a forest pond, the hissing tracker production complete with the macabre clack of a drum machine and the dampness of a Nordic bedroom cellar permeate the recording to such a thickness of adolescent black metal fury that it’s hardly palatable to generic audiences then and now. Barely a trace of the fast norsecore of the more familiar debut album Kill For Satan is noticeable here, the only similarity being the guitarist Draugluin’s technique of bricklike tremolo chord architecture where rhythm plays little importance. While primitive, this compositional method bears an intrinsic beauty which is worthy of recapitulation when the pure augustness of early Norwegian black metal has mostly become forgotten in favour of seemingly more rich and elaborate indie stylings. –Devamitra

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Pages of Pure Fucking Damnation: Zines in the Death Metal Underground

1. Introduction

2. Individual Thought Patterns: Apostles of Death Metal

3. Infestation of Evil: Chroniclers of Black Metal

4. Droid Sector: Information Networks and the Degeneration
 

Written by Devamitra with Alan (Buttface), Brian (Chainsaw Abortions), Niko (Hammer of Damnation), Timo (Fallen Pages) and Pete (Pure Fucking Hell)

Introduction

The violent, obsessive and obscurant phenomenon of death metal arose in the middle of the 1980’s from the minds of alienated and intelligent artists, writers and musicians while the powers of the world were engaged with the nuclear paranoia of the Cold War, while computer technology broke through to everyday life in Western societies, while preachers were fighting against Satanic messages in party-loving hair metal albums and while musicians in the vein of U2 were participating in massive events that attempted to bring world peace and end famine with decades old clichés of British rock music. NWOBHM and British punk were dying out, replaced by the tough street gang aesthetics of hardcore and the satanic postures of early speed and black metal. The public stances of groundbreaking bands were growing to be more and more incompatible with mainstream rock media, which since the demise of the “counterculture” had abhorred ideological consistency as a threat to the marketing forces for which it owed its livelihood.

Real metal fans tended to be smarter than the average mainstream rock fan and naturally gravitated towards more critical sources, written by fans to other fans. The success of bands such as Metallica and Slayer wasn’t founded on big corporations’ agencies of promotion. Active touring, circulation of demo tapes and word of mouth established the reputation of these non-compromising bands, along with independent heavy metal publications such as Metal Forces Magazine in the UK and Kick Ass Monthly in the USA. While these started out as photocopied zines, they soon became professional but continued championing the authentic observations of the editors, distinguished metal writers such as Dave Reynolds and Bob Muldowney (R.I.P.), for relatively small profit and a benefit to metal fans worldwide in search of ever more lethal developments of the basic ideas of heavy metal music.

Individual Thought Patterns: Apostles of Death Metal

Death metal in the 80’s was as avant-garde and extreme as metal went. In keeping with the independent spirit, death metal fans corresponded with each other and compiled newsletters that were at first minimal and crude, spreading the viral infection of an art form which was long abhorred by fans of classic metal and power metal. Thus, the crown jewels of death metal media originated perhaps from lands separate from the Anglo-American centers of youth subculture dissemination, where enthusiasm for the new style existed alongside speed metal and crossover interest: Metalion’s Slayer Magazine (Norway), Laurent Ramadier’s Decibels of Death (France), Desexult’s Blackthorn (Denmark), Headbanger Zine (Peru), Alan Moses’ Buttface (Australia), Streetcleaner (Germany), Isten (Finland) and lots of others with enormous local influence. Contemporary US zines that didn’t lag behind included, for example, Aggressive Metal/Screams from the Gutter, Ripping Headaches and Chainsaw Abortions.

Alan: I am into different extreme styles, so I did not want to limit my zine to one style – there was way too much good stuff across the board back then, and very little crap. It’s the opposite today. At first I just read zines , all of them from overseas, and the thought never came to mind to do one myself until I realized I had a lot of contacts by tape and video trading. There were no metal oriented zines in Australia in those days – and only few punk/HC zines – which really didn’t get distributed well here, and they just were not good. So I decided to combine my love for all the styles, and I had a partner who helped me get interviews etc. too – we combined our resources and became the biggest traders with the biggest and really only zine from here – Buttface. It worked exceptionally well because none of the bands we ever contacted back then had done anything with an Australian zine – so a lot of the time that worked in our favour. Barely anyone in this country ever saw my zine because nobody was really into the music as much yet, it would be years before the underground bands got a big enough following here.

Brian: For me, I think the idea for Chainsaw Abortions just came because I’ve always loved music, hearing new things and spreading the word about things after I discovered them. In those times doing a zine was the best way to do that. My only contacts when I started were the local bands here in Buffalo, then from letter writing and tape trading my connections quickly grew. Of the zines that I bought back then, I really liked Death Vomit from Virginia and Ripping Headaches from Florida, plus of course Buttface from Australia.

Alan: Haha, I noticed that Brian mentioned Buttface! I only saw Brian’s zine in 1990, which was good because it was a bit like BF, in that it had a bunch of different bands (despite the zine’s name implying more of a death metal zine it had variety). Personally my favourite zines were Blackthorn from Denmark (my friend Esben Slot Sorensen’s zine with his fellow Desexult guitarist Henrik Kjaer), Decibels of Death zine (DOD) by Laurent Ramadier who was also a trader of mine, and Ultimate Speedcore Dislocation zine (USD) which had a couple editors, one of them which was a trader of mine called Evil Ludo Lejeune – both those zines are French. In the USA without a doubt for me, Invincible Force (Bryan Daniel) and Ripping Headaches (Bruce Davis) both from Tampa FL, although there were other much older zines like Total Thrash and Uniforce which I loved getting my hands on when I could. I never purchased any zines pretty much except Blackthorn, it usually worked out that I got copies from the editors in trade or they were included in packages of tapes or shirts or records, as extra goodies you know? We always did shit like that, crammed photos or stickers or flyers into the package to make it cooler for whomever you sent it to. We all did that stuff pretty much – shit, a lot of us couldn’t stand to have blank audio tape in a trade, and we’d put filler music to highlight a band we liked to another person, or we’d send messages to each other on the cassettes to fill the space. That was always fun, to hear your trader’s voice, read their letter, check out all the cool music they sent you, then have a photo as well. You really felt special and connected to people, and you had to pay your dues.

With their down to earth, entertaining but always informative reviews and interviews the zines of the era opened for many ignorant small town kids the landscape of the underground, the indivisible fabric of ideals, images, and hard work by their intricate visual and literal presentation of the latest frontier of metal. Often black and white, cut and pasted by hand and then photocopied, the zines were constructed with care and attention to build an aura of mystery and power, laid out symmetrically with blasphemous figures and gory art, encasing the alien appearance of foreign bands in sheets of terror resembling an ancient tome. The DIY method had an invaluable asset in that it was relatively independent from monetary concerns and possible for basically any fan with the required intelligence, attention span and literary abilities. Actually many zines seemed to even manage without these.

Brian: Chainsaw Abortions was just photocopied, so my part time job paid for issue #1. For issue #2 my dad made the copies at his work for me because they had a copy machine that could handle 11 by 17 copies so it ended up not costing me anything to do, except of course postage.

Alan: I was going to college full time and had no job, but I was getting a student allowance from the government here, so 100% of that money went towards all my underground activities. In 1988 I got a very well paying job in a factory – so I busted my ass working 6 days a week, and many times 16 hour days. My parents were cool and didn’t ask for too much money from me, which left me with a lot to spare – I just boycotted Australian record stores though. They never knew what stock to get in and always overcharged (100′s of % overcharge). I went right to the labels (which were all underground mostly) or got the stuff from the bands if the released records themselves, and had things sent sea mail which took a bit longer but was so cheap, saving more money. Time management was easy, because I was a full time student back then, with no wife, no kids, not much responsibility and was well trained in making my time count that I could get the zine done with not much effort time-wise. I never paid to have my zine printed, it was photo copied, at my father’s job on weekends… but Buttface was thick, massively thick, with the best quality back then you could get by photocopying anyways. There’s no way I could have done a printed zine, you have to have a ton of money for that. Ronny Eide from Morbid Mag in Norway worked, plus later he started to distribute porn to pay for his exceptionally high quality zine. We also glued our stamps – there is a special technique to be able to reuse a postage stamp. It’s a federal crime of course, but we did it anyways saving $1000′s of dollars a year. I think I traded records with one of my many Brazilian contacts for 12 months by airmail and only purchased two sets of stamps – that’s a shit load of money saving, hehe!

Typically, when starting out, the editor of the zine was a young fan without widespread indoctrination to the scene in the sense of agendas, friendships and contacts, while of course being impressionable and receptive to new drifts and ideas. One accustomed to the 21st century neurosis which causes every black metal fan to consider himself an expert on religion and politics may note that the reviews in the old zines were sparse, usually a few sentences describing the style with a brief note on its perceived quality, while interviews tended to concern the mundane activity of the band in recording and rehearsal conditions, including aspects of everyday life. Far from boring and trivial, it was the sort of discussion the target audience could best relate to and helped the spawning of new bands, as fans realized that the masters of death metal mostly weren’t trained musicians or professionals of the business, but other fans and maniacs themselves who passed their time between school and work engaging in art, violation and a healthy distaste for conformity.

Alan: Too funny, I do not consider I was a critic, we had stupid funny questions and hell, it was fun but not a piece of journalistic work, heh!

Niko: I used to do tape trading in the late 80′s and more or less related to that I got my hands on some early issues of some Finnish fanzines, for example Isten and Axe. I found them very inspiring. At the time there was no Internet as we know it today and it was very difficult to find information about bands you were interested in, or bands you didn’t know even existed. So it all pretty much started from a personal obsession to find out information about bands and artists I was interested in myself. I didn’t have any contacts in the beginning, apart from a number of tape traders, but the flyer circulation was a very handy and effective way to learn about various activities as well as spread information about your own. It was all somewhat difficult in the beginning as I was young and obviously didn’t know anything about how to edit a magazine and have it printed, but once I managed to get the first issue of Hammer of Damnation out the ball started rolling.

Timo: Of course back then there was no Internet available, so it could take weeks to communicate the simplest things. There was also huge demand for information about bands from the audience and a need from the emerging bands in the scene to get promotion for themselves. So when in 1990, I was very young – and listening feverously to Morbid Visions by Sepultura – I felt a strong urge to be active in the underground scene. I was already friends with Sodomatic Slaughter from Beherit , so I was aware of the scene and as Black Crucifixion was only in its earliest pre-stage in the autumn of 1990, my way to act was to start a zine. I had already enjoyed reading some good quality early Finnish fanzines, my favourite was called Intestinal, so starting Fallen Pages was a natural step. The first issue was in Finnish and in A5 size under the name Damn Zine. The very first number along with bands like Beherit and Samael also featured thrash, speed, death, doom and punk bands. You have to remember that there practically was no “second wave of black metal” yet: Norwegians with the rare exception of Mayhem were mostly playing death metal with often humoristic lyrics, Swedes were all about copying the Sunlight sound, with the exception of the mighty Tiamat and even Beherit labelled their sound as “brutal death metal”.  After the first issue was received very well among the buying public and the “colleagues” in the scene, I decided to do the next issue in English. Holocausto Vengeance from Beherit suggested that I would change the name from Damn Zine to something more suitable for international market. So we came up with the name Fallen Pages of Damnation, which I then shortened to just Fallen Pages. I also got more ambitious with the layout and went for A4 size and very heavy glossy paper. The substance got heavier along with the outlook, as the second issue included mostly black and death metal bands. It was published in the 1991 and I was surprised by its reception as everybody seemed to like it. Maybe it was a bit ahead of time with its outlook and probably my pretty juvenile style of writing added something to the mix. The English language was still pretty much shambles, but by the standards of the time that didn’t matter, as some of my favourite foreign zines could hardly be recognized as being written in any language.

The limitation of resources and time applied to everyone working on a fanzine; they had no hope of creating profit from their publications without crossing over to mainstream press, as some of the early 80’s zines such as Metal Forces had done. The sheer amount of competing media also meant it was impossible for anyone to claim the status of “a death metal Bible” and retrospectively, this was valuable to the development and outreach of tangential, even opposing points of view. Xeroxed artifacts as an after school hobby guaranteed freedom of speech to an extent alien to major media prone to be manipulated by management and executives.

Alan: Almost all of the experiences in doing a zine that I had were positive. Perhaps the only negative thing was when customs would sometimes steal from me (money, t-shirts, tapes – really anything that took their fancy) or a band would rip you off and not send you whatever it was you paid for. I mean back then you had this nightmare of waiting for shit, and you had to just trust people and the most you could do to protect your ‘well hidden cash’ to wrap it in carbon paper to avoid detection by x-ray. Jesse Pintado did that to me infact, the shit, heh. I sent him $5 for a demo and never got it, imagine his surprise when I showed up in Tampa in 1990 for the whole damn ‘Harmony Corruption’ recording sessions, haha! It was OK though, on the last day there he said he was sorry, I told him it was OK. If I had stayed in Australia and never got to do all this stuff, then I would have been pissed off of course. My zine policy was that we would only review what we liked. I wasn’t going to waste space writing about what I don’t like about this band that I think sucks. So we stated that anything like that we would pay to return, you know, so the band could send it out to someone who could actually do something with it. A lot of people didn’t grasp the concept and would get mad. I mean, would you rather someone blast your band and lose you fans, or would you like them to shut the hell up and mail it back to you? That’s a damn no-brainer. There were one or two people that I met later down the road, even that I used to write to, years before, and we didn’t get along that well. I won’t name names. Most everything about it all was positive, I didn’t do phone interviews because of the expense calling from Australia then was insane. Now international calls from Australia are cheaper than calling someone on the same street I live on! But it was cool just to bullshit with my traders buddies, or Lori Bravo, Trey, David, Mitch Harris… there were a number of people I would call just to talk to and get news from.

Brian: I’m not trying to sugarcoat the past, but I can’t think of a negative experience that I had. Positive experiences were plentiful… I enjoyed doing phone interviews back then, because the bands were still small, it wasn’t a strictly business call. I interviewed Trevor Peres (Obituary) and after the interview we just kept on chatting about the scenes in Florida and Buffalo and just music in general, same when I interviewed Steve Digiorgio (Sadus) and Sharon Bascovksy (Derketa).

Niko: I guess it’s simply that if you’re enthusiastic enough you’ll find the time and money. Money was always a problem, but somehow I more or less managed to fund the printing from the sales of previous issues. As for time, the zine (Hammer of Damnation) and the band (Thergothon) were my main activities outside school, I had no interest in sports and other such hobbies. The most positive aspect was the opportunity to do everything by yourself from start to finish and finally have the printed zine in your hands. The most negative aspect was probably when something went seriously wrong in the printing process. I used to look into all kinds of mainstream, high-profile magazines, art and culture etc. and tried to use that kind of presentation in the fanzine/underground context and subject matters. Of course I still had to do everything by hand, with some help from a primitive computer, word processor and matrix printer. Luckily I knew someone who could screen the photos for me for free.

Pete: Well, the money was needed only for printing and time wasn`t an issue. There was no computers and such, I wrote the interviews for Pure Fucking Hell with typewriter and band logos & photos I got from the bands if they had any. Then I “designed” the pages, like where the text, possible photos and band logo goes and when all the pages were ready the whole thing went to print. If you knew a good printing place and used a bit of your brains doing the pages you could get a surprisingly good end result with that kind of procedure.

Timo: Time was a resource that most of the scene people back then had loads of. Although a lot of things were going on in the scene that kept growing rapidly, the pace of life was slower because there was no Internet or mobile phones. Most of us did not go around boozing and fucking. At least I did not. Not because we did not want to, but for example I lived in a very small town of Rovaniemi, in the middle of Lapland. There was not so much to do if you were a nerdy long-haired boy living away from town. And it was very cold and dark most of the year. So editing a zine and sending out tons of letters seemed like viable option. The first two issues of Damn Zine/Fallen Pages were actually funded in a surprising way: I managed to convince the city of Rovaniemi to pay for on the grounds of the zine being a cultural project. So the good tax payers of Rovaniemi are to thank. The third and final issue I paid for myself, but luckily the printing house sponsored it as well, even though their management consisted of very strict and devoted Christians! The devil works in mysterious ways…

Infestation of Evil: Chroniclers of Black Metal

The beginning of the 90’s was greeted by an explosion of death metal into mass media attention, MTV airplay and new fans. There were probably more death metal zines than ever, the likes of Balance of Terror (Canada), Biopsy (Finland), Fallen Pages (Finland), The Grimoire of Exalted Deeds (USA), Hammer of Damnation (Finland), Hellspawn (Finland), Putrefaction (Sweden) and The Requiem (USA) catering to the hordes yearning for information from the realms beyond Morbid Angel and Obituary who thrived at the peak of their fame.

Pete: There were a lot of great zines but I think Slayer (Nor) was the best. I don`t remember where the idea for making a zine came from, but there were a lot of people involved making the first issue of Grey Apple zine. We started from zero, put out the first issue and sold all the copies (100 I think) and then it was time to make the second issue and nobody else was interested except me, so I thought I`ll do it myself. I changed the crappy name to Pure Fucking Hell magazine and put out the second issue and it went from there. I don`t really recall any negative experiences, some bands didn`t answer to interviews though. All of the interviews for PFH were done by letter, so I didn`t meet the people in person. You got to remember in the early 1990`s it was all underground and the bands weren`t touring like nowadays. I think the only live interview was with Napalm Death in Lepakko on the Napalm Death/Dismember/Obituary tour in 1992, that was in the first issue.

Timo: There were many zines back then and surprisingly many of them were Finnish: Intestinal, Biopsy, The Untouchables, Hammer of Damnation and of course the mightiest: Isten. Slayer magazine from Norway was superb as well. I enjoyed many foreign zines but in 1990-1993 the Finnish ones were prime of the prime, interesting writing and good English skills combined in a fine way.

Niko: There were a number to zines that, similar to mine, attempted to think outside the box so to speak, trying to find new angles to things and featuring new, unknown, different artists. You know, trying to introduce things that the reader wouldn’t yet know he/she will find interesting! As for people, there were many great, intelligent and interesting people such as Marko (Beherit), Morbid (Necromantia), Euronymous (Mayhem), Roberto (Monumentum) etc. and naturally also a few assholes but I must say I don’t really remember any particular examples. Maybe because I pay more attention to works and ideas than persons, in general.

Timo: It was totally positive for me, I can’t truly name anything shitty about those years. I got to know great people from bands, witnessing new art being born and in my own small way helping to create a scene that will be interesting to research for anthropologists of the future. I could feature the bands I wanted and loved: Rotting Christ, Blasphemy, Beherit, Impaled Nazarene, Necromantia, Carcass, Nocturnus etc. and made great friends with some of those people. Fallen Pages was the second publication in the world to interview My Dying Bride, I thought that their demo had potential in it. I have to say that I could not see the careers that Burzum or Cradle of Filth would have judging by their early promo tapes they sent to me – I actually ignored them.

All the while, dark minds were brewing plots in their suburban chambers as the black metal militia was slowly starting to strengthen its grasp on the souls of puny mortals. The electrified web of contact across regions allowed necromantic, spiritual and evil traits of the emergent possession cover ground at vast speed. The influential Mayhem axis, gathering followers around Scandinavia, sought to spread fear amidst the normalized death metal culture, which had accepted a new generation of funny skateboarders who loved brutal music and extreme sounds. They were not alone in their dark aims, as the blasphemies of witchcraft surrounded Canadian, South American, Finnish and Greek death metal and black metal alike, but the obsessive quality and Euronymous’ media manipulation skills wrestled the attention from the faltering death metal community. Coupled with an era of artistic magnitude for Nordic black metal, the zine culture caught the bright burning fires of the churches, heralding the age of the final artistic statement of underground metal before Internet covered everything in ashes and the smoke of deceit. Fans of mid-90’s black metal often grabbed a copy of Cerberus (Finland), Descent (USA), Desecration of Virgin (Germany), Imhotep (Norway), I Return to Darkness (Finland), Kill Yourself (Finland), Nordic Vision (Norway), Petrified (USA), Pure Fucking Hell (Finland), Tales of the Macabre (Germany), Voices from the Darkside (Germany) or Wheresmyskin (USA) to accompany the nocturnal excursion, candlelit mutilation or a visit to the toilet.

Black metal coverage was also picked up by the mainstream press in the wake of the terror of those Norwegians they called the Black Circle. French bands of the Les Legions Noires community (Vlad Tepes, Belketre) and the Polish Slavic heathens around the Temple of Fullmoon sect (Graveland, Veles) added their own violent, occult and occasionally political statements to the chaotic melting pot of obscurity. Rhetoric was at a completely new level now compared to the death metal years. Defying any kind of reason and common sense, bands declared war on each other and society at large, used their anonymity and obscurity to suggest the presence of dangerous cult fanaticism and deliberately alienated every average death metal fan. While there is no denying the fact that black metal was a serious matter for these groups, and rightly so, the intensification of image eventually led to role play and narcissism.

The harsh attitude of black metal created an irreconcilable gap between death metal, now consisting mostly of the “melodic” offspring of the Gothenburg clique and the “brutal” bands who imitated Cannibal Corpse, and the romantics, nihilists and Satanists who sought things that were hardly descendants of American rock music. The traditional image of the headbanger was rapidly becoming obsolete, with black metal bands opting for a gothic or medievalist appearance, brutal death metal and groove metal assimilating items of hardcore or rap and people difficult to tell apart from the crowd invading in flocks.

Zines as the purveyors of in-depth interviews and archaic scene knowledge became more philosophical, influenced by the creativity and intelligence of black metal, ambient, neo-classicism and other weapons of the Nordic uprising against normative death metal. Issues of the kind were occasionally available at black/death metal oriented record stores and mailorders, but for those without access to them the alternatives were either the moronic mainstream press or the resurgent Internet.

Droid Sector: Information Networks and the Degeneration

A few metal obsessed hackers had spread information, news and reviews through phone lines before, but personal computers became a common household item during the 90’s and most of the mainstream users got their first networking and online discussion experiences in this era through the Internet, which grew radically during the decade, from a mostly college and university utilized serious information channel to a worldwide asylum of Babylonic proportions.

Engineers, housewives and Aspies alike accessed organized discographies, commentaries, discussions and news of old and new metal alike on webzines and portals such as American Nihilist Underground Society, BNR Metal Pages, Chronicles of Chaos webzine, Inferno webzine, Lost Souls Domain, Mega’s Metal Pages and USENET newsgroups. Never before had trading, correspondence and contact with underground metal fans all over the world been so easy. Today, in the era of Encyclopedia Metallum and similar databases it’s hard to imagine the work it had taken to find information and discographies of bands no-one at your local record store knew a thing about.

While webzines didn’t directly compete with printed zines because of their more limited readability and different approach in organizing information, the easy access to metal databases undoubtedly contributed to the contraction of zine culture, along with the reasons outlined earlier. Only entertaining, in-depth and unique zines survived in printed form, often published more infrequently than before. Jobs and families occupy the time of the old school and the new generation has many other options at their disposal beside the laborious DIY printed publication.

Niko: I grew tired of the whole metal scene in the early 90′s, partly because it all turned boring due to thousands of emerging bands sounding all very similar to me, and partly because I was discovering electronic and experimental music that seemed more & more interesting to me. I did go on with the zine for some time, featuring less metal and more other stuff that interested me, but after a while I put an end to it. I think what eventually killed it for me was that I was tired of having this “obligation” to review all the stuff I received, and to try to be analytic about music instead of simply exploring and enjoying it, etc. It was becoming an unpaid job, I didn’t find anything creative or enjoyable about it anymore. Actually I still don’t enjoy writing about music or trying to analyze or describe it, something about that process kills part of the excitement.

Pete: The bands got bigger and stopped doing interviews for smaller zines and the newer bands weren`t interesting. I think the whole zine culture somehow faded in the late 1990`s, I don`t really know why. I also had started buying recording equipment etc. so I didn`t have money to print the zine anymore.

Timo: I got very ambitious about the zine, wanted to make every issue more and more professional and at the same time my musical taste got more ambitious as well. Making just another issue of a metal magazine was not an option for me, so after some time passed other things took its place in my life. The three issues are all as good as I could make them during the time they were made. Soon my band Black Crucifixion would also transform into Promethean and I could express myself even more through music. One day I realised that there would not be a fourth issue. I didn’t have much material for it ready, maybe just one interview of Impiety that Holocausto submitted. So there is no “lost” Fallen Pages #4 waiting in my vaults.

Brian: For me it was a combination of things. I got a full time job so my time was much more limited and I didn’t want to do something that I could only put a half assed effort into. The other part of it was that the scene was changing and becoming trendy and it just got old fast, new bands would pop up and get signed when they really weren’t good enough to be signed and it just watered down the scene.

Alan: It took over a year between Buttface 1 and 2 coming out, it just kept getting bigger and bigger and we thought we’d do something odd and make this monster fat ass zine, heh! My co-editor was meant to keep getting material for it while I went to the USA and Canada for 6 months in 1990, but he didn’t gather any material and I ended up getting offered a job with Morbid Angel while I was in Florida. That killed the zine. If I had come back to Australia as planned and never went back to the US, then BF might have stayed around a few more years – but by ‘93 I might say it would have stopped because the music was overpopulated with garbage bands. And it’s got 1000 times worse by 2009.I did try to keep Buttface alive as Buttface Productions in Tampa, by financing the release of my friend Jan’s band Agathocles’ first flexi disc. But my partner in that turned out to be a cokehead and ripped me and the people who ordered the flexi off badly. Some got out, here and there, but the majority I kept with me all this time, and only sent the leftovers to Jan in 2009! Almost 20 years later!

The underground metal zine is not yet an obsolete form of media. Publications such as Baphometal (Argentina), The Convivial Hermit (USA), Cross of Black Steel (Romania), Crypts of Eternity (Peru), Dauthus (Sweden), Fall to Your Knees Pissing (USA), Funeral Maelstrom of Hate (Italy), Grievantee (Finland), Hellpike (Germany), Horrible Eyes (Germany), Kaleidoscope (Finland), Oaken Throne (USA), Psicoterror (Peru), Qvadrivium (Finland), The Serpent Bearer (Finland), The Sinister Flame (Finland), Strength Through War (France) and Womb (Finland) are equals to their legendary forebears in literacy, style and tomblike appearance. They publish in-depth interviews dealing with topics from philosophy and magic to science besides the actual recording process, whose nowadays sophistication is unmatched by the legends of the past. Even the most obscure of bands are frighteningly conscious about their image and aims. Yet, their statements remain inevitably in the shadow of their colleagues from past decades in terms of influence, not because of any fault on behalf of the writers, but in keeping with the cycle of life and death which, as we have sadly noted, death metal and black metal are not exempt from.

Timo: Fallen Pages gave me direction in life, I would not be sitting on this chair now had I not been able to see things in an international perspective from very early age. And having to handle schedules, layout, printing, writing and monetary issues. Back in 1990 Rovaniemi was very, very far even from Helsinki. And even further away from Europe. Now with Internet it is different for kids living in distant places, but looking at it now, it is weird that the small town produced people and bands like Beherit and Lordi. And Fallen Pages and Black Crucifixion.

Alan: I think the zine culture as you put it pal, it’s all about paying your dues, and showing the scene that you mean business, that you care enough about it to get up off your ass and promote the bands as best you are able. It doesn’t exist really anymore I guess, not on the level it did anyways. Instead of doing the work, today more people are concerned with ‘collecting’ Myspace official band page profile photos on their top friends list. You know? That’s gay to me.

 


 

This piece of death metal research was conducted with the help of the following generous individuals: Alan Moses of Buttface zine, Brian Pattison of Chainsaw Abortions zine, Niko Sirkiä of Hammer of Damnation zine, Timo Iivari of Fallen Pages zine and Pete Ilvespakka of Pure Fucking Hell zine. You can admire scans of some of their issues and many more of the period at the Deathmetal.Org Exhibits page. Alan and Brian have joined their forces recently to publish a recapitulation of the most important years of death metal, 1984-1991, through a collection of photographs and stories narrated by the bands and zine editors of the era. Niko pursues the wizardry of ambient and avant-garde soundscapes. Timo and Pete continue performing pure black metal with Black Crucifixion and Diaboli, respectively. Deathmetal.Org loudly hails all the participants!

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense

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Hellfires of the lands down under

Does it seem to you that the days are shorter
And does it seem to you that the nights seem so much longer
Well it does to me, and in time you will see
That the fate of the world is burning in fire

– Deströyer 666, Genesis to Genocide

In my visions of another age, Australia is a domain of rogues and devils, swept by sands and heat, a colony of fear. Aboriginals fight, mutated animals leap and grappling hooks are thrown from jeeps that speed with metallic roar across the wasteland. Humanity decays, but Australia preserves the instinct for survival, man against desert, taking pleasure in the primitive actions of hunting, fighting, lovemaking and getting drunk on bourbon. Nocturnal winds howl through the chasms, kangaroos leap over graves and tribal chants are raised amidst campfires as skull goblets are raised.

While I have never been to the country, the impressions of Australian black and death metal do nothing but strengthen the images of brutal frontier life. The sense of the wild is different, more internalized, almost Jack London -like, compared to the European romanticized walks in civilized Teutorburger woods or pure, silent Scandinavian nature. Australians are rebels who have tasted the whip of slavery and still remember it – with hate in their blood.

Every rock fan knows AC/DC and Nick Cave, the astonishing twin pillars that represent total opposites of image and style roleplay in hard rock. Both of them influenced heavy metal around the world, but a mainstream fan would be hard pressed to name any other Australian bands of note. I’m not going to dwell on the early 80′s, but mention some events that were triggered by the resurgent death and black metal ideas of Europe and the USA.

Australia is characterized by geographical distance from the Western pop culture trends and so, death metal didn’t happen early but it was marked by a serious intensity from the beginning. As a perfect example, we can take Armoured Angel, who with their late 80′s series of demos gradually developed from a heavy and grinding version of speed metal into a technical artillery of militantly precise death metal akin to Polish innovators VaderHobbs’ Angel of Death, due both to their cult reputation and connections to later more visceral bands, proved definitive with their self titled album in establishing the early death metal attitude and sound of bands like Destruction and Slayer in Down Under. Hobbs’ raw, molten hot solo bends and breaks were like burning gasoline leaking from a bullet torn hole in a fighter plane. Meanwhile, Sadistik Exekution initiated their campaign of abuse against every known musical principle, which continues up to this day.

Influenced by hardcore and speed metal, these madmen from Sydney proceeded to destroy the reputability of Australian metal with their on-stage and off-stage antics, almost becoming performance art with their macabre, sarcastic terror campaign of pure noise. Already “The Magus”, recorded in 1986, suggested that this band would dare to go where others would not, the subconscious realm of damnations and mutations, yet containing the elements within an underground death metal rhythm and riff based format. Their second and best album, “We Are Death… Fukk You!” was already something else – a noisy freakshow of an album, with the catatonic, desperate screams of Rok and nearly fusion jazz-y random blasts of violence from the strings of Rev Kriss Hades and Dave Slave. Sadly, their later albums mostly devolved into using the madness as a gimmick instead of a mode to express actual items of perception.

The next generation produced more self-contained music but it also showed the blooming of the world wide death metal presence, as we are talking about the days when death metal was at its commercial heights, ’91-’93. Many bands wanted to be like their big brethren in Florida, as a shameful but popular example let’s mention Mortification, who aped the thrashy sound of early Death with some of the complex rhythms of Obituary or Suffocation, yet infiltrating the standard gore text with reborn Christian propaganda, which had a widespread presence in Australian metal at large. Meanwhile, a band like Anatomy, whose elegant use of melody as texture, akin to Swedish bands like Grave or maybe even At the Gates, remained unknown to most death metal fans. Anatomy’s constructions weren’t altogether as brilliant, but as with many Norwegian early death metal bands, it was a breeding ground for musicians and ideas that would fully develop into a wave of satanic, intense war metal. And if you read the diSEMBOWELMENT review we published some time ago, you already know that they were able to built a transcendentally blissful temple of Zen-like tranced out death metal from the simple basis of combining British style grindcore with British style doom.

The acid, sex and Satan obsessed wave of barbaric war metal, ca. 1994, was again closer to the sardonic “fighting man’s black metal” attitude of BeheritBlasphemy and Impaled Nazarene, than Norwegian “top hat black metal”. This means that Bestial Warlust (“Vengeance War ’til Death”), Deströyer 666 (“Violence is the Prince of This World” and “Unchain the Wolves”) and Gospel of the Horns (“The Satanist’s Dream”) used Sarcofago and Destruction as templates to unleash a torrent of riffs which could have been untuned Motörhead on 45 rpm, emphasized by an artillery of ambient drumming to evoke images of blooddrenched hordes and endless streams of bombers. I remember how back in the day these bands were even widely detested in zines documenting the black metal phenomenon, but they proved crucial to bands which around the turn of the millennium clad in bullet belts and started wearing gas masks in “war metal” revival’s endless stream of clones.

All this might have you thinking that the Nordic and Romantic styles of black metal were obsolete in Australia, but this was not to be the case. Abyssic Hate (whose “Cleansing with an Ancient Race” was a perfect match for the Immortal related Det Hedenske Folk on their split album) intended to capture the harsh poetry of Burzum and Ildjarn. Later material was somewhat unsuccessful because of humanocentric (“suicidal”) terminology, despite ambient leanings in songwriting. Nazxul was the Australian counterpart to mysticist bands like Nåstrond or Osculum Infame, whose cloaked, symbolic stage presence was a source of controversy. Theatrical, esoteric and arrogant, Nazxul did not fail to clothe oblique satanism in suggestive and venomous fury, at times surprisingly cerebral – especially on the mini-album “Black Seed”. Samain‘s “Indomitus” recalled some of Enslaved‘s and Graveland‘s explorations in long songs influenced by folk and classical music, wandering through interludes and heavy, thunderous, emotional modes as if paralleling the documented trials of the ancient Indo-European tribes, whose mythological symbolism filled the lyrics.

Gradually, we can note the presence of all the international metal trends and hypes increasing in Australia, filling the continent with meaningless bands. It would be a lie to say that the random band you hear from Australia is up to anything good. But there’s some you might like to hear. Asphyxia is a young technical death metal band, influenced by Nile, Kataklysm and the rest of the champions of convoluted hyperspeed – they are bit in love with the Necrophagist digital treachery fashion but they have room to develop and the players definitely deserve applause for their instrumental excursion. Midnight Odyssey uses oceanic layers of slow melody to transform black metal to a landscape of dark clouds, using keyboards in the evocative manner familiar from Schulze and Summoning. The best of the epics on “Firmament” rediscover a youthful, hopeful beauty that hasn’t been too fashionable in the image and commodity oriented latter days of black and death metal. Nazxul, who sadly lost a vital member to a motorcycle accident, released in 2009 their possible magnum opus, the immense “Iconoclast” which has established itself as one of my top black metal choices of the year despite initial skepticism towards the more standard imagery and vocabulary employed on the surface. Suggestively classical and elegant, as Emperor and Avzhia did it, Nazxul praise the unliving and the unknown with a Bach-ian playful sonority, adding themes, keyboards and guitar leads to basically simple songs the same way an alchemist adds prime materials to his boiling tincture of salvation. It is all, and much more, than most of Funeral Mist (and their ilk) tried to achieve with their experimental norsecore.

The old horde is still going strong, of course, as I got the initial inspiration for this writeup when interviewing Deströyer 666 (now based in Netherlands and the UK) elsewhere. With their latest album “Defiance”, they continue to quote the metal history all the way back to Judas Priest and the NWOBHM and this was of course much enjoyed by this writer even though it would be false to say that they would have reinvented, or even surpassed, their old selves in any manner. The scene is still brimming with offshoots of Anatomy and Bestial Warlust, such as Ignivomous, who on “Death Transmutation” have definitely listened their Incantation and Immolation, not without streamlining them to a more generic barbaric noise approach though, and Razor of Occam, whose “Homage to Martyrs” updates the violence of Sodom and Kreator to a new generation yet again, as wolves surrounding the throne room of Absu who stumbled and diluted their ancient black thrash in favor of “progressive” stylings that mostly only pleases reviewers in Terrorizer.

I know that mortals’ ears are already bleeding, but it’s impossible to escape this topic without mentioning a few curiosities from Adelaide group of total nutcases, starting the cult old school death metal band Martire back in the early 90′s. The early demos and EP’s have been re-released multiple times. Since that, members who call themselves “The Great Righteous Destroyer” and “The Serpent Inquisitor” have continued to baffle the hapless headbangers with one after the other more indescribable and twisted songs. Stargazer‘s Lovecraftian, off-center and racing death metal is what I personally consider the flagship band, whereas Cauldron Black Ram grooves like a joint venture of Celtic Frost and Running Wild members (in concept also). Misery’s Omen paints a hyper-dramatic curtain of dreamy black metal resembling Samael and a krautrock band on an endless bad acid trip, describing “Desolate Winds of Mars”, “Antarctic Ice Chasms” and other spectacles of consciousness awaking to the immense possibilities offered by nature itself, impersonal, cold but beautiful.

Gather ’round all you fire-starters
Whirlwind reapers and comet riders
Come to our mountain hall
Come and heed the call

– Deströyer 666, The Calling

Written by Devamitra

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Assimilation

What makes metal heavy also makes the mainstream want to absorb it

In the night, one can hear many noises. Some sound scary, and others signal scary events. For example, the roar of an animal is disturbing, but to someone alone in a house a stealthy footfall or the click of a lock is scarier. Similarly in art, the context of a sound defines its significance, and what makes music frightening is the meaning it encodes.

Among all forms of art, what makes heavy metal unique is that it embraces disturbing sounds which are not ugly but which portend disturbing patterns found in reality. Heavy metal is the music of the apocalypse, and whether warning it off or cheering it on or both, achieves this heaviness through the context it conveys.

What makes heavy metal heavy?

Both fantastic and literal, heavy metal explores the ideas our society will not endorse. It is not protest music, whining “it should not be” into a secondhand microphone, but a war-like genre which describes destruction with the joy of a painter who could use it as a color in a new epic landscape. Metal is about the experience of life, but it disciplines that with a clear sense of reality and consequence, as is appropriate for “heavy” conversation. Where society hides from fear and allies itself with the threat of the consequences of fears, metal allies itself with death to dispense fear.

When metal first arrived, new fans began to understand what made Black Sabbath “heavy”: the patterns which revealed the thinking behind such noises, putting context to the fear they instilled. Thundering distorted riffs were not new; Blue Cheer had done that. Neither was aggression; Iggy Pop had done that. But Black Sabbath, inspired by horror movie soundtracks, came up with a new style of music that used melodic phrases played in power chords, and by targetting the weighty topics that social conversation did not admit, creating a terrifying form of art.

Rock music had grown through the 1960s from simple boyfriend-girlfriend pop to apocalyptic rock like the Doors or King Crimson in the same way the Beatles rejected their sugarpop roots to become morbid and political. Whenever given a chance, the music reverted to a simple, tolerant, peaceful hedonism that hid its escapism and narcissism. The future members of Black Sabbath, upon seeing a horror movie and wondering if people would ever pay to have that experience in rock music, created the antithesis to distracting escapism: a descent into the complex and violent world of reality.

Its heaviness migrated into a different style of composition: other bands wrote songs around open chords which were strummed in a repeated pattern, and then modulated, while Black Sabbath used moveable power chords to make phrases into riffs and it was the change in those phrases that communicated a difference in outlook. It was more like classical music, where harmony is so well-studied that it is used as a device toward “narrative” compositions where the change in motifs and their accompaniment conveys a string of moods that like a mythology or a fable convey the idea of a journey from one point to another.

With this development, they gave meaning to the sound. Its context of topics gave its heaviness form, but musically it was heavy as well, using thundering chords that stripped out traditional harmony and made the riff instead, like the nihilistic voice of an angry god, speak the truth that completed the poetry of contrast in each song. By throwing away form, and the form of socialization which “peace” and “love” implied, Black Sabbath brought danger back into a stagnant modern life — specifically, the danger that in all the attempts to stay away from the darkness, we as a civilization had missed an essential truth.

What does metal believe?

As an art form, metal has continuously developed visions of a human apocalypse lingering in the absence of our willingness to face reality. Reality is, as the saying goes, not entirely pleasant, and so is less popular than simple partial truths called “symbols,” which create an illusion of completeness by super-simplifying reality. Morality is not scientifically accurate but it is more comforting to our minds to have two options instead of nearly infinite ones.

During its maturation, metal wavered in and out of the public illusion, called “consensual reality,” which is the alternate reality of values most people use to navigate their lives. Consensual reality includes the symbols people want to believe in and, reinforced by preference-enabling activities like democracy and consumerism, makes itself “real” by the fact that most people believe it to be true. This public illusion takes many forms and metal has not been immune, but is strongest when it kicks aside the illusion and goes for the kind of heavy contexts that always made good ambiguous truth.

One view of metal is as a reality mediator showing the darkness underlying our pleasant illusions, and that in doing so, it is not deconstructive but attempts to make clarity of life by finding beauty in the dark and heavy as well as the light. As a holistic approach, this outlook negates both dualistic worlds (heaven, hell) and secular morality in favor of a scientific, historical and abstract design-oriented perspective on life. This then returns us to the idea of metal as orthodoxy, or a genre in which there is a clear direction and those who deviate from it are parasitizing on the popularity of the genre while weakening it with ideas that oppose it.

The terms “sell out” and “poseur” arose in the 1970s to refer to those of this intention, most specifically the bands like Def Leppard who turned their heavy metal roots into radio trash that was essentially rock music with power chords. A poseur was someone dishonest who adopted the most rigorous pose, or identity-affirming lifestyle and opinions, of a genre but was like all hipsters using it for his or her own benefit and believed none of it. These terms persist to this day.

Any ideology is necessarily orthodox, in that if it does not assert a right way and wrong way of doing things, it is not an ideology at all but an ethic of convenience much like the opinionless, directionless motions of rock music or its deferential humanistic political counterpart. Rock stands for a big party and everyone having it their way; this is a meta-orthodoxy that opposes all orthodoxy.

Metal on the other hand is orthodox and opposes meta-orthodoxy because an orthodoxy of no orthodoxy is a lack of direction. Directionless self-assertion does not address the apocalyptic or religious aspects necessary to unite human thinking toward survival in an apocalyptic time. To clarify reality, metal music embraces nihilism and worships power and beauty, because these things connect us to a reality that will forever seem flawed to us because it is full of horror, doubt, fear and death. However, the metal outlook shows us the wisdom of these things and makes living with them seem “fun,” where rock music and other anti-orthodoxies retreat into human activities and social realities, pushing reality itself far away.

As a result, metal is sandwiched between protest music of the anarchic left and the wisdom of the conservative ancients, forming itself through fantasy into a vision of a more realistic and more enjoyable vision of life. Rock music is a product of the wealth and convenience of a modern time that allows us to have inconsequential lifestyles and opinions, while metal is a revolution against that outlook, a seemingly deconstructive art form that in actuality opposes deconstruction.

We can trace these ideas through consistent beliefs found across metal generations:

  1. Beauty in darkness. It is not ugly, pounding music but music which discovers beauty in distortion, in anger and terror, in violence and foreboding dark restless relativistic power chords. The point is not to deconstruct, but to go through deconstruction and find meaning. This is evident in the works of Black Sabbath and every metal band since, and is what distinguishes “real” metal from hard rock.
  2. Worship of power. Unlike pacifying rock music and jazz and “new music” classical, metal music adores powerful, vast and broad simple strokes; it loves the majesty of nature and its crushing final word. It does not have love songs. Instead, its love is directed to forces of nature, including physical forces like storms and intense human experience like war or loss, as if trying to find meaning in these.
  3. Worship of nature. Linked to metal’s adoration of power is its appreciation for the function, including its “red in tooth and claw” aspects, of the natural world. Where most are repulsed by the idea that combat exists between animals in which one is victor, and one is prey, metal idolizes it. It finds beauty in ruins, in destruction, and in death, as if praising the cycle of life they engender again.
  4. Independent thinking. Metal does not buy into the individualism of a modern time where the only goal is material pleasure of the self (materialism) and keeping others away by granting them the same (humanism). It prefers the independent thinking that looks for higher values in life, mountains to climb and challenges to be met. Where punk music enmeshed itself in a callow “I wanna do what I wanna do,” metal saw this as part of the same gesture of rock music and discarded it.

These are expressed artistically by the following:

  1. Dark, morbid themes that clashed with the “love will save us” hippie mentality. These are explained by Black Sabbath as being derived from the horror movies of the day, a genre which features a union between technology and the occult (zombies, werewolves) producing a force humans cannot oppose. Normal technologies and methods cannot defeat it. They struggle against this force but their emotional instability causes them to sabotage one another, and often the dark force wins. Examples from this genre: Mothra, Dawn of the Dead, Alien, The Exorcist, The Shining, War of the Worlds.
  2. Songs written from short cyclic phrases called riffs, which unlike rock riffs used moveable chords of inspecific harmonic bonding, making the melody and rhythm of the phrase more important than key or voicing. Metal bands tend to use more riffs per song, and not in the traditional cycle of verse-chorus, in a way quite similar to progressive bands like King Crimson and Yes, both of whom used aggressive distortion.
  3. A focus on the holism of the human effort as determined by our moral state as individuals in a way that can only be described as “religious.” Metal, in addition to sounding eerily like angry Bach-scripted church music, has a similar focus to dogmatic transcendentalism Christianity: what is our future as human beings, and how does how we shape our personalities effect it?
  4. Bass-enhanced overdriven guitar sound, or distortion, which encloses the primary instrument used in making heavy metal. In rock, guitars and drums come together to emphasize a vocal melodic line; in metal, guitars lead a melodic line for which vocals are a complement and drums a timekeeper, enclosing it in a regularity to give listeners context. The guitar is the loudest single instrument heard and the one that invokes changes in song.

These beliefs and musical techniques reinforce each other. Using distortion and loud music, yet finding beauty in it. Using longer narrative phrases so as to tell a story, creating a holistic view in which emotion emerges, instead of citing pre-configured emotions like rock music does. A darkness and melancholy exhibited in lyrics and imagery, corresponding to aggressive music, expressing a desire to seize all of reality, good and bad together, and make something better of it.

Heavy Metal as Romanticism

We have seen ideas similar to these before in the form of a genre that, once birthed, refused to die, even as history moved on. In fact, it has re-emerged throughout the modern time because it was the step before this new type of rationalism,

Although metal borrows from both classical and Romantic periods of classical music, its most intense similarity is to the Romantic period in literature, which in its later years diverged into Gothic horror and transcendental idealism. Much as embryological theory tells us that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or that a fetus goes through the same stages of evolution as its species did to arrive at its current state, metal theory shows us that metal — as a revolt against what rock music stood for, e.g. distraction — forms an embryo which rediscovers its musical past. In this sense, metal is starting with classical and venturing through late Romanticism toward modernism.

According to the experts, Romanticism in literature and music has several tenets:

  • It is not clearly defined as a single thing, or several versions of this thing1. Most of Romanticism existed before it became a concrete movement, and heavily overlapped with classicism2.
  • A desire to explore organic culture instead of high culture, especially tales of the medieval age and its feudal society3
  • Worship of the imagination, and of creative and individual truthfulness in emotion4.
  • Reverence for nature as “an organically unified whole,”5 and intuition, instincts, and feelings were seen as necessary complements to reason in contrast to “mechanical” rationalism6.
  • Symbolism and myth were given great prominence7.
  • Rejection of the universalism in exchange for study of the individual as distinct from others8.
  • Shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation, meaning that art no longer imitated life, but expressed a truth found in it9.
  • A willingness to strive “for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted,” and a rejection of morality for situational or naturalistic interpretation10.
  • An appreciation for the melancholy, remote and ancient11.

Romanticism was a response to neo-classicism, which was the most recent form of the surge in rationalism brought about by The Age of Enlightenment. Where the Enlightenment rationale brought individual rights, focus on personal emotion, and a linear logical process by which one could dissect the world and find an absolute response to it, Romanticism both inherited that tradition and began dissolving it. It is for this reason that we can find Romanticist themes abundant, in everything from Star Wars to presidential speeches: the conflict of rationalism-versus-Romanticism has never been resolved.

Unlike modern individualism, Romanticist individualism meant using yourself as the justification for your own wants, instead of trying to find some external justification. As Nietzsche phrased it, “I prefer” and “I find beauty in” are more important than all the equations, statistical summaries, studies cited and popular votes in the world; Romanticism (of which Nietzsche was an ambiguous defender but spiritual comrade) rejects the idea of externalized truths and knowing, and instead prefers a sense of unity between the individual’s aesthetics and a “mythic imagination” which lets them see possibilities in the world using holistic logic, instead of the linear (single-factor) logic used by rationalists.13

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
The World is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth (1789)

~

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist.

And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing.

On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, Friedrich Nietzsche (1873)

Heavy metal inherits this conflict because in order to be “heavy,” it must tackle the dark issues everyone fears. What makes these issues dark is that our normal methods cannot defeat them. We then must ask what we exclude from our methods, and we see that any anti-social information — that which might offend someone, or mention death, or suggest that morality is an imposed and artificial condition — is excluded from our methods. As a result, heavy metal becomes a kind of peering behind the curtain of an externally-imposed reality, and in seeing the horrors within, finding a new desire for both warlike apocalyptic intensity and a beauty discovered in darkness.

Romanticism re-occurs because it is generally seen as the only idea which can oppose modernism, which is like neo-classicism but even more insistent upon rationalism and the hybrid between individualism and groupthink that is utilitarianism. Metal, as a genre exploring Romanticism with a masculine and warlike approach, most closely approximates the philosophies of Nietzsche and other post-Romantic writers who wanted to escape the bureaucratic approach to society and restore a sense of adventure.

Metal is fantasy that can be applied to reality, neatly briding the two categories of art as entertainment/mimesis and art as politics. It is not protest music, nor is it the kind of wallpaper-like distracting pleasant activity that we see on most television shows. Instead, it is a manifestation of the Faustian desire for forbidden knowledge. From classical literature and music, it borrows a rigid sense of structure and a desire for resurrection, Tolkien-esque, of the ancient times of honor, blood, warfare and magic. From Romantic literature and music, it takes its major themes, including the sense of an individual trapped in a moribund society reaching out and the idea that when the individual escapes society to nature, reality can be seen for the first time. The most similar Romanticists to metal lyrics are probably the following:

  • William Blake – wrote about metaphysical topics from the perspective of the universe, and mocked humans for being weak and obsessed with the trivial.
  • John Milton – wrote Paradise Lost, in which Satan is an anti-hero who rejects the rule of heaven in order to discover life for himself.
  • William Wordsworth – enshrined anti-social behavior with his classic The World is Too Much With Us, which calls for rejecting society in favor of mythic imagination.
  • Mary Shelley – wrote Frankenstein, in which technology creates a new form of life which discovers it has no place in the world, and it turns destructive.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – a realist who did not shy from horror, Goethe believed in a universe where human perception was a small and unnecessary part of its divine function.14

If we had to summarize metal as an artistic movement, it would be fair to say it has more in common with European Romantic art than the popular music and boutique art of our present era. Like the Romantics, it sought a transcendence in accepting the world’s inequality and horror and using it as a relative opposite against which to project challenges; it wants to bring back the fighting spirit of an ancient time, and give us independent thinking and goals instead of buying us off with the humanist-materialist tripe that the mainstream media proclaims — dogma which, interestingly, has failed to solve a single widespread problem of humanity.

Even more interesting is that the genre of horror movies, an intersection of proto-science fiction and occult lore, was born of the Romantic movement. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, was the wife of Percy Shelley, a Romantic poet. Bram Stoker’s Dracula came from the Gothic fringe of the Romantic movement as well. One of the greatest descriptions of Satan ever, Paradise Lost by John Milton, was also a Romantic work.

“I believe in tragedies…
I believe in desecration…”
The Sun No Longer Rises, Immortal (1993)

Like its Romantic forebears, metal music desires transcendence: finding the beauty in darkness by accepting the physical struggle that is life, and instead of trying to run away from that struggle into personal material comfort, accepting it as something that gives significance to our existences. Metal music desires to overcome our fear of death and of nature, and by accepting them, to show us a new world of meaning. In this, it is both a continuation of Romanticism and an evolution of it to a more coherent state.

How did this change for underground metal?

Appearing in the early 1980s, underground metal arose from a hybrid between crustcore/hardcore (Discharge) and the structuralist, neo-classical heavy metal of the previous generation (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath). It took the Romantic themes of earlier metal and made them more extreme. If underground metal has one unifying concept, it is the one emphasized by Hellhammer, “Only death is real.”

After heavy metal blew out by getting absorbed into its own popularity, and then speed metal copped out by softening its stance and sound to be more popular, underground metal roared away with pure nihilism: facing life as it is without a thought that anyone or thing in the universe cares if we collectively or individually survive. This was orthodoxy retaliating against anti-orthodoxy, which always takes the form of individuals preferring to avoid reality and so passive revenging themselves against those disciplined enough to want, in the time-honoured method of survival common to all creatures, to adapt to reality. In overcoming the anti-orthodoxy of individualism, underground metal became the first popular music genre ready to face ego-death.

The question, of course, could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default. – William S. Burroughs, Junky

Ego-death is a concept that psychedelics and zen monks alike discovered. In it, the person realizes they are one part of a giant system, and stop seeing the world through themselves. They see themselves in the world, but they see the bigger process first. Ego-death tends to lead to a transcendent state where one sees all of consciousness as a continuum, and becomes less afraid of d-y-i-n-g. Ego-death forces us to see life through a filter that is super-realistic, or dedicated to bringing people into a moment of realization that what they are touching and doing is real and they need to grasp command of their own minds to survive. It opposes panic and illusion, moral and social judgment (“knowing” from Nietzsche above), fear and pleasant unrealistic thoughts.

Not coincidentally, “only death is real” resembles topics from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. In both, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the protagonist is thrust into a delusional, dysfunctional, chaotic world that he alone can see is wrecked, and takes a long journey in which she or he can see that the nothingness is very real and pervades everything, and that our denial of this emptiness of life makes a greater emptiness, or a hollow illusion that cannot satisfy us. As we try to live in this illusion, we see reality peeking through, and so become neurotic.

The characters in these books overcome their situations only by throwing away the rule book, avoiding what other people tell them is the truth, and acting on their animal intuition. Conrad’s protagonist Marlowe begins the book impotent and ends it with a powerful tool, like a sword or fire, to explain why what he sees is as impotent as he once was. It’s like an adolescent story, but for humanity, growing out of its moral illusion and seeing reality as a pragmatic task. In Paradise Lost, Satan is appealing but has made an error in opposing the order of nature/God, yet still he has to make this decision, to explore the world in a Promethean sense of fearlessness and self-command. His undoing is too much self and not enough command.

Underground metal recognized this duality of human thought. Official knowing was bad news; unguided knowing was chaotic and destructive; therefore, a new type of knowledge had to be created, and this knowledge was nihilistic literalism as found in hardcore punk merged with the fantasy and epic worldview of heavy metal. The political nature of punk had made it easy for foolish people to slap anarchy stickers on their rockabilly guitars and start repeating the same old stuff, like the aged activists who whine “why can’t they just see” when life has passed them by.

Underground metal was not political or social, but philosophical: it viewed the world from outside human eyes, seeing it like a large scientific experiment in which history was the result, and based its knowledge on the abrupt interruption to human illusion created by death. When we see that wisdom, we recognize that we are tiny and inconsequential, and that adapting to life is more important than the moral, social, media and political worlds made of human agreement to have a symbol stand for something.

“Only Death is Real” conveyed ego-death: no matter how big you think you are or how important, death is more real than your visions, so you must accept nothingness. To accept nothingness is to cast aside the unhealthy parts of the ego and to give it context, so that the ego is a motivic force but only one of many on a planet. To see only death as real is to wonder what else can be real. The answer is right past the end of our noses: the world is real, and it’s a continuum that renews itself, so it’s worth working for. If you like life, you work to make it better. If you hate life, you deny the reality of the world and you go further inward into the self and its desires, which has never worked for making anyone happy no matter how stupid.

We are social creatures, and it is as mathematically logical why that is so as the collaboration between parts of a computer program. We are all of the same thing, and we want to take our part in this thing, which includes nature and our fellow humans, and if we like being alive, we want to do what’s best not just for ourselves or for humanity but for the whole thing. What a stream of interesting thoughts “Only Death is Real” can unleash, in part because our society does everything it can to deny the reality of death.

The archetypal death metal bands — Hellhammer, Bathory, Slayer — all used occult imagery much as Blake, Milton and Goethe did. With that in mind, we can re-interpret Slayer’s Satanic imagery as more than being opposition to Christianity. For one, they do not seem to oppose Christianity. If anything, lyrics like “South of Heaven” or “The Final Command” illustrate, like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” before them, a world in the grips of evil based in power based on an illusion. In Slayer’s complex theology, Christianity is Satanic because like political strength and industry it is a false outward power when inward the person is underconfident and weak. Christianity however is seen as often accurate, in that the apocalypse does come from selfishness, and Christian morality (“bastard sons beget your cunting daughters”) is the best way to live, but a way that makes no sense in a world addicted to the power of illusion.

As in Milton, Slayer’s Satan is a rebel against a singular order encroaching upon the world, a necessary force like magnetism that opposes any such centralization. In Slayer and Milton’s view, to have any single power controlling the universe is to bring the universe toward sameness, something thermodynamicists call “entropy,” or a state when any direction yields the same results as any other because of the uniformity of the universe. Milton was edging toward a transcendental view of God as being a property of the universe, and not an ego or personality such as that overbearing one against which Satan revolts, himself a victim of his own excessive egoism.

I feel there is some hideous new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting. Remoter parts of the world seem better now, because they are less touched by it. Control, bureaucracy, regimentation, these are merely symptoms of a deeper sickness that no political or economic program can touch. What is the sickness itself? – William S. Burroughs

In the Milton-Slayer worldview, “God” encompasses both bad and good, because together these create a reality in which we can strive for better things. Similarly, in Conrad, the tokens of good and profit are chased in such a way that they create an illusion sustained by greed, in which the only heroes are amoralists like Mr. Kurtz who use brutality and combat effectively, but are conflicted over the underlying reasoning for their goal, namely the need to produce income through ivory when greater challenges await. In the worldview these artists offer, profit motive and morality are a going-inward into the protective mantle of fear, and morality is something we impose on the world to avoid the heroic challenge of leaving that inward sanctum and achieving goals that are not justified by physical survival (morality) or material comfort (profit).

When we look at metal with these opened eyes, the sound and imagery and lyrics are far less random. Distortion is a finding of beauty in darkness, a clarity emerging not when one looks at individual grains of sound but when one hears the blurry whole and deducts from it both pure tone and the harmony of randomness to that clarity; distortion forces us to take a view from above, and see the whole picture in order to understand what occurs at any moment. It is also a metaphor for our inability to ever fully perceive the universe, telling us that if we look at the center of the distortion we will find what is occurring, even if we cannot see it perfectly. The gritty, chaotic sound of distortion defies our logical containers that look for purity and instead finds a reality that although hazy is as clear as it if were pure.

The “riff salad” of metal bands is a way of establishing that music is not a cyclic loop of verse-chorus, resembling our going inward to the world of our own thoughts and preferences, but a journey in which our inward struggle parallels our outward struggle (much like the jihads of Islam: the lesser Jihad is the war against ignorance/infidels, and the greater Jihad is the war for spiritual clarity in oneself). Metal is art because it does not preach a political solution, but shows us the reasons for it. When that sort of higher thinking fails, metal relapses to liking noise and hedonism but little else.

It is one thing to preach, as if politically, against the ego. It is another thing to show a path beyond the ego. “Only Death is Real,” like nihilism itself, is a way of dispensing with “belief” in order to begin the journey to discover what is real and what is supra-real. The supra-real is that dimension where heroism and creativity lie, where one has accepted the feared attributes of life (d-y-i-n-g, disease, sodomy) and has transcended them by seeing what is not material/tangible yet is also important. It is this journey that metal music, classical music, and all great art describes. It is starting from nothing, like Satan exiled from Heaven, and getting over resentment of life and fear of death to see the beauty in darkness and to return to life with a desire to make it better. It is a recognition of the inherent distortion of our perception, and tuning our ears and minds to see past that faltering.

When only death is real, the ego dies for a moment and we see the world as a whole, and can get out of the prison of our limited perspective and re-bond to the life that produced us and produces all we value. It is a hedonic state higher than hedonism, to love life and want to make it better through better design. This is where death metal broke from heavy metal, and it is where all thinking that rewards strong souls begins.

The Evolution of Black Metal

Death metal brought images of impending doom and a fascination with the macabre into a dark world. It built upon what speed metal and grindcore had already established: an apocalyptic epic where the only future was decay. Death metal incorporated the righteous integrity of speed metal and the nihilism of punk into a musical onslaught warning of destruction. It fit into Kurt Vonnegut’s famous metaphor for art: that artists are to society what canaries were to the coalminers who brought them into the depths of the mine as warnings. When the song of the canary turned weak or stopped, it meant that suffocating coal gas was flooding the mine.

Death metal is an extension of the complexity of speed metal, partially arising from the attitude of that genre that any large problem can be solved by reason. Speed metal and thrash believed in rationality, and preached insanity as a negative characteristic. Death metal became the science of understanding insanity and breakdown, not preaching against it as speed metal often did but explicating it in epic songs and vivid imagery. Black metal, as a response to the failure of death metal to avoid the crowd, was an embrace of all things destructive to human illusion: natural selection, warfare, predation, violence, cruelty and tyranny.

Black metal restored romantic side of metal as its primary vehicle; its emotion is more obvious as that is its obsession. A death metal band would never argue destruction of the world, calling it irrational, where a black metal band would call for destruction of all life on emotional grounds. Black metal’s sadness comes from its emotional entrapment in a mechanistic world, and for that reason it rebels against order, whether in Heaven, on Earth, or in Death Metal. Black metal is in many ways a return to the mission metal left when exploring the scientific mindset of the technological age (as computers revolutionized life in the eighties, quantitative rationalism experienced a resurgance of influence).

If we look at metal’s history, we can see how this conflict brewed. Black Sabbath retaliated against the hippie music of their time as unrealistic and distracting. The following generation of metal turned it into more of a party for alienated kids, which punk retaliated against by returning the focus to all the negative aspects of reality. The next generation of metal, speed metal, picked up the punk outlook but channeled it into the heroic stories of past heavy metal, creating a less lamentatory and more assertive, masculine “we can fix this” outlook. When speed metal collapsed into its own popularity, death metal returned with pure nihilism balanced by a structuralism that suggested life was understandable but denied by the individual. Grindcore rose simultaneously with death metal and restored the punk/hippie attitude of tolerance toward the individual. Black metal retaliated against this just as Black Sabbath condemned the hippies of their day by brushing aside morality for an awareness of horror and our impotence against the real threats in this world; it rejected all protest rock and literal music for a spiritual conditioning which embraced struggle, darkness, melancholy and other Romantic traits.

Black metal grew exponentially since its emergence as a distinct musical style in the early 1990s; previous “black metal,” from Venom through Hellhammer, had been a variant on the dominant style of the time and often indistinguishable from death metal. Like a new civilization, it grew from a small group of innovators who were disgusted by the “jogging suit” mentality: people who were essentially products of a modern time, who blindly bleated its ideas, figuring out how to play death metal and becoming popular in the genre by making their music more like what audiences accustomed to rock music expected. In essence, the crowd had infested death metal as it had speed metal before that, and black metal was a response to this.

Recognizing that no matter how they dressed up the music as something “new,” appearances could be cloned, black metal musicians decided to go where the crowd could not follow: they would write music that expressed a grandeur of nature and feral amorality, hearkening more to the values of Samurai or European knights than to the disposable ideals of modern time. Since such a topic requires music that infuses the listener with a sense of awe and beauty in the cycle of destruction and creation that renders our world, they could no longer rely on “three chords and the truth,” but had to actually put the truth in the music, and write more poetic and complex songs.

The small civilization within civilization that was black metal was united more by ideals than by aesthetic or musical tenets, although all of its music by aiming to express the same kind of idea had similarities, mainly in its use of poetic complexity and truth within the music (and not necessarily the lyrics; you listen to black metal, and because of its intense artistry, find truth there). Because we are surrounded by infinite voices repeating the same few ideas in many different forms, here are the basic ideas of black metal that are distinct from the mass:

  1. Nature as a supreme, rational and all-pervasive order. Natural selection and an embrace of struggle took the center stage through celebration of predation and death. Even more, black metal celebrated the nature “within,” or our inner feral nihilism that made a mockery of morality.
  2. Anti-Christianity/Crowdism. Crowdism is the idea that respecting the will of individuals is more important than finding a realistic idea. It is a form of backward logic where we see the individual as the cause, and not the effect, of all that is around us and so convince ourselves that a human social consensual reality can override nature. Crowdism is secular Christian morality.
  3. Introspection. The only meaning comes from what the individual can interpret; there are no boundaries between individuals and the world (nature) as whole, but individual perception is limited to natural abilities and learning from experience. This is the opposite of the “if it feels good, do it” rhetoric of hippie rock.
  4. Morbidity. Viewed as an essential giver of meaning. Where most view death paranoiacally, and see it as a great entropy removing all value, black metal musicians viewed it as something giving meaning to life.
  5. Organicism. Like Romantic poets, black metal musicians tended to place more faith in organic growth than imposed social order. A sense of differentiation from the herd, hatred toward the incompetent and delusional, pride in unique ethnic origins and a celebration of older culture makes this a huge part of the genre.

To any student of European history or art, these values are not new; they are traditional to all Romantic forms of art, whether literature or visual art or symphonies, and were upheld by artists as disparate as William Wordsworth, Anton Bruckner, John Keats, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Lord Byron and William Shakespeare. For all of these artists, nature was a higher form of order than the rules of civilization, and civilization had become decadent by praising its own “equal” order more than the “unequal” order of nature. Many philosophers, including the celebrated F.W. Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, explicated these sentiments in their own work. Black metal’s ideology is nothing new.

What was new was an expression of these ideas in popular music, because rock music and blues and all of the associated disposable art has always been a manifestation of the crowd revolt mentality: simple music so that everyone in a room could get it, diametrically opposed to the grand works of classical music which were too complex and emotionally involved for a crowd to appreciate (or even to have the attention span to endure). Rock music focuses on one emotion per song, bangs it out in riff and chorus, and makes it very simple by using a relatively fixed number of scales and chord progressions. Rock music is the perfect product because it’s easy to make, is appreciated by customers of all ages and not limited by intelligence, and is inoffensive on a certain level in that it has nothing to say that will disturb. The basic message of rock music is to include everyone equally, to appreciate them for being alive and not for their inherent traits, and to come together on simple human values and not higher ideals; rock is inclusivity. Black metal is not.

Much like when watching Lord of the Rings, Braveheart or Apocalypse Now one has a sense of an ancient warlike order, when listening to black metal one sensed a realistic and amoral entity underneath the Romanticized skin of the music. This eternal form of the human spirit grows from the naturalism of black metal as well through its belief in a karmic cycle based on natural selection. At the lowest level, humans are little more than animals. If they exert a form of natural selection upon themselves, and attempt to rise above that level, those who survive will be apt for it; if they do this for several levels, they eventually rise to a state of having a higher intelligence, degree of physical strength and beauty, and moral character (“nobility”: the ability to see what is correct for the natural order of society as a whole, and not to get distracted by personal or emotional issues). At the very top are those who are fit to lead by the nature of having a transcendent consciousness; it is thought that these much higher IQ than most modern people and were far less fearful, neurotic and self-obsessed. This, too, derived from Romanticism.

Underground metal goes mainstream

Underground metal reigned in part through its mystique. Hated by almost everyone, in and out of jail, preaching ideas which were anathema to both heads of state and hippies in the gutter, underground metal seemed a fragile and rare thing. This mystique faded as the economy shifted again, as it had done in the early 1980s allowing a rush of “indie” bands, and distribution contracts loosened up in the late 1990s.

Where once there had been “import” racks for CDs from abroad, and it was hard to find music, starting in 1997, underground metal became available in mall stores and through Amazon.com. Its identity as a separate entity became difficult to maintain, and the process of assimilation began. In response, metalheads attempted to rally around an identity as “different,” but in doing so, they focused on external aspects (distortion, imagery, indie status) instead of what did make the music distinct: it saw hope for the future in ideas outside of the same accepted dogma all the mainstream newspapers, television and radio sell to us because it is a popular product. If the truth is difficult and therefore unpopular, metal rebelled against popularity as a selection matrix, and from that developed a range of thought which made it a genre distinct from all others.

Far from being alone in this, underground metal has fallen into a general trend of independent art producers seceding from reality. “Literature” has collapsed into a few thousand tiny magazines read by no one but MFA candidates in creative writing, and “visual art” has become a network of small galleries selling cute expensive paintings to uninformed patrons. Even classical music has gotten in on the decline, with “new music” — micro-symphonies of human voices, squeaking dissonant noise, and other trendy types of sound — appreciated by a diehard cult following who need a raison d’etre outside of their civil service jobs.

These genres used to speak an independent voice, but now they repeat lockstep the strange formulation of modern liberal democracy — a “neo-conservative” viewpoint which both champions civil rights and “social issues,” but also affirms the need for a strong economy and constant warfare against evil enemies. Political theorists might try to make sense of it, but it is more direct to understand it this way: popularity sells.

“One could argue that American fiction has ghettoized itself by insisting on a self-reifying view (humanist/materialist?) in which all answers are known, the political binary is carved in stoned, we all have swallowed whole certain orthodoxies, and the purpose of the fiction is just to reinforce these. At the heart of this lies a selfish agenda, that has (one could arge) really ceased seeing the world as a unity, and has begun aggressively internalizing certain capitalist dogmas that say: Of course you are the most important thing, of course you exist separate from the rest of the world.” – George Saunders, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

In this situation we find a repeated structure from metal itself, and even, larger society. Metal music goes through cycles where a new idea comes about, is looked down upon by others, and then fully expresses itself, at which point it is cloned to death by the same people who were speaking badly about it earlier (by this I mean new subgenres, not recombinations of existing genres like – eh – “nu-metal”). If you look at it as a conflict between people of able character, and those who are by nature followers, what you see is that the able create; the followers imitate, and in so doing, drown it and condemn what was created to being of the same mediocrity it helped to escape.

Indeed, the death metal of today more musically resembles rock than that of ten years ago; same with black metal. They have been assimilated, but from within the metal genre, by people whose character is so low that their highest values are to esteem what is valued by the larger society, and thus to reproduce it in the appearance of something which is not larger society, assuming that by controlling appearance, they control content. They are wrong, and they drag down everything they touch. It is this way with the creation of music, the promotion of music, and the choice of who runs hubs; most run them for the popularity, and don’t mind if there’s a whole bunch of support for moronic rock music thrown into the mix. In fact, they encourage it, as by appealing to everyone, they feel like Christ on the cross, being both a victim and a conqueror by the sheer fact of being needed.

This conflict repeats itself in all human endeavors: one group starts a process that creates benefit, and then others surge in and, not understanding the struggle of creation, parasitize it and destroy it. We can see this in the tendency of sequels to intelligent movies being junk; in the revolutions of the masses against the elites that leave nations with lower average IQs and third world levels of dysfunction; in the killing of Socrates by democratic Athens; in the denial of reality that lets Americans run up record debt, or our species to deplete fish stocks, pollute the ocean with floating plastics, and poison our open waterways with enough chemicals to turn amphibians hermaphroditic. The eternal human struggle for clarity of reality, versus withdrawing into our own perspectives and becoming oblivious, is repeated in metal and its struggle to resist assimilation.

The ‘heat-death’ of the universe is when the universe has reached a state of maximum entropy. This happens when all available energy (such as from a hot source) has moved to places of less energy (such as a colder source). Once this has happened, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Since heat ceases to flow, no more work can be acquired from heat transfer. This same kind of equilibrium state will also happen with all other forms of energy (mechanical, electrical, etc.). Since no more work can be extracted from the universe at that point, it is effectively dead, especially for the purposes of humankind.
— Andreas Birkedal-Hansen, M.A., Physics Grad Student, UC Berkeley12

With human beings, our tendency to act for ourselves alone — individualism, or selfishness — divides up our civilization and encourages entropy. Metal, as a perspective beyond the individual and the ego-drama that rock bands promote through love songs and peace dogma, encourages us instead to get over ourselves, transcend our egos, and look at reality for the potential beauty within it. In this, we enact a familiar drama to any post-agrarian-civilization art, which is that of the lone individual versus the crowd. The individual wants to do what is right, but the crowd wants him to be selfish like them, so that together they do not challenge each other and no one can ever be wrong, or face conflict, or be lonely. But in the end, the crowd always makes itself miserable because its vice is essentially cowardice. Metal reintroduces some clarity through a simple formulation: either one goes inward, and tries to know reality through oneself, or one looks outward and tries to know oneself through external opinions, and as a result, loses oneself in the crowd and its lowest common denominator inclinations, namely fear, selfishness and narcissism.

Assimilation of metal

Whether this larger conflict will be resolved is not yet certain – definitely, however, metal is a reaction against it. When people sang hippie songs, Black Sabbath brought in dark reality, and woke many out of the stupor that assumed extending democratic liberties to all humans would solve far deeper-rooted problems. As rock music headed toward an effete protest against Reagan in the 1980s, metal retaliated by condemning left and right for their ignorance of basic human dissatisfaction and the threat of nuclear warfare. Finally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal and black metal arose to remind us that we are mortal, and that there are greater values than that which society can bestow, such as nature, the upholding of tradition, and pride in our national origins.

The clones have closed in fast on those, since they are indirectly the greatest threat to clone culture to ever arise in metal. For this reason among others, it’s worth upholding in them what gave people hope: the belief that someday the war of clones versus leaders, masses versus elites, would come to an end. Some keep trying to dumb it down into a political trend that gives us a partial truth and tries to make it represent all of reality, effectively blinding us to the big picture so we can focus on a vicarious struggle:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

“Metal is expanding and evolving and becoming more diverse,” said Canadian anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn, who directed “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” released on DVD this summer. “It’s at a much more vibrant state than it was even five or 10 years ago.”

“It’s becoming global and it’s becoming a tool for social and political commentary,” Dunn said. “It takes on a greater meaning in countries where people have had to struggle to survive. It takes on a much stronger political tone.”

Metal music in the 1980s was often homophobic and “very white,” she said, but current bands tend to be socially conscious and suspicious of political power. There’s also more women in the audience — and fronting the bands.

The lyrics on Lamb of God’s two most recent albums have been expressly political, and the politics lean heavily to the left.

Napalm Death’s Greenway is considering work as a political activist when his metal days are over, but he doesn’t think metal will ever completely stray from hedonistic and supernatural themes.

MSN

It is not surprising that mainstream media misunderstands underground metal. After all, they virtually forced its creation, since any band darker or heavier than Metallica received no recognition; the media wanted to sell us metal as party-lovin’, loud and crazy rock music. And so while the underground bloomed in 1985 to 1996, they praised stadium heavy metal and hard rock bands. During the current time, they embrace as “metal” music that is mostly emo hardcore: metalcore and nu-metal.

To an observer of the recent black metal scene, it’s tempting to get bitter. The newest style and trend appears to be “black hardcore,” or bands putting together two three-note riffs in a standard song format in recombinant order, and even the most ambitious bands are succumbing to this influence. Reminiscent of when hardcore punk music bloated itself into entropy and collapsed because no one could tell any two bands apart, this is like gangrene creeping up the legs and finally into the bloodstream of the genre.

When the genre is healthiest, the winds of coming winter oppose all new bands with brutal hardship, so only the most determined make it to the stage of releasing an album. This encourages others who have talent and brains to take a stab. If a lone artist looks at a genre, and sees a thousand albums of which two are good, the conclusion will be that the genre is fattened and the fans thus unable to tell the difference between good music and bad.

If the genre seen has a handful of albums, most of which are excellent, it is instead a compelling argument for further exploration. This is how genres rise and fall, and is why hardcore punk and death metal both eventually fattened themselves into insignificance to the point that now, once you’ve heard one band, you’ve heard them all. So for the health of the genre, it’s better that fewer albums of a higher quality are released.

Ideals of assimilated metal:

  1. Everyone must get it. It must be simple, not challenging, and most of all not have any poetic essence to its soul, as most fans can’t get that and thus will not buy it.
  2. Appearance over structure. It must have a unique appearance, but say the same old things philosophically and use familiar musical ideas so that even the dumbest fans can understand it and buy it. Even more, it must be upheld as dogma truth that adding a flute or screeching spotted owl to the same old music somehow makes it “unique” and worth owning.
  3. Form doesn’t apply to content. In other words, appearance is more important than structure, which is the form that moulds itself to the content, in the same way a story about a rescue at sea has a different flow and arrangement than a story about contemplating death in the bathtub.
  4. Simplistic emotions are important. Forget the depth of “Inno A Satana”; blindly praise Satan with roaring, consistent anger, because that way every fan, even the ones with Down’s Syndrome, can get what it’s about and get into it. Start a big singular emotion party, and make it simple so everyone can buy the CD and come along.
  5. Everyone can participate. Black metal clones are not specific to a certain land or belief system, as they are essentially musically the same and are designed so that even a retarded outer space alien could “get it” and start tapping its feet and wearing Darkthrone-brand jogging suits immediately. Nationalism, even elitism, eugenics or belief in anything at all is out; what’s in is having some music that sounds angry, is written like punk rock, and can be appreciated by everyone so they can buy the CDs or praise the “underground” scene queens who created it.

The average black metal fan today has not heard the formative works of the genre: Immortal, Emperor, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, Darkthrone, Beherit and Varathron when they were making essential, complex, beautiful music. All they’ve heard are the newcomers, both of the blatantly commercial Cradle of Filth variety, and the scene whore “loud, fast and antisocial” type of band. The newcomers are uniformly worthless, as they express nothing that rock music does not, and by giving it an extreme aesthetic, allow their fans to convince themselves that they are “part of” some movement against the dominant trend of society, even though much like Democrats and Republicans in America agree on the same core values, newcomer “black metal” repeats the same empty rhetoric that rock music has been feeding us for fifty years. Newcomer black metal is black metal only in the world of appearance; in terms of musical and artistic structure, it’s closer to punk rock or even Dave Matthews Band. It’s rock music.

Agents of Assimilation: The Hipster

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization — a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” — a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Ad Busters — Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization

Adbusters doesn’t mention this, but there’s a simple pattern:

Normal, healthy people pick music they want to listen to.

Hipsters pick music to make themselves look good.

A hipster is defined by this reversed cause/effect, and this is why they parallel our society: like people looking for political handouts, they are justifying themselves to others instead of acting as they know is right.

In metal, the hipster is the person always trying to be different, to pick music that is brainy or “authentic” (simple), the person spreading trends and fads. Instead of being an authentic fan who picks the music he or she thinks is best, the hipster is using the music as adornment to conceal their ordinariness.

What’s the damage, you ask? Hipsters bloat genres with people who don’t understand them and, in the ensuing confusion, pick the lowest common denominator. So heavy metal returns to rock, death metal returns to heavy metal, folk becomes punk, and so on.

Healthy societies work from cause to effect. We need an empire, so we build it (cause) and then it appears (effect). Dying societies work from effect to cause. We want an empire, so we create the appearance of an empire (effect) and hope it will show up (cause). This is why old black metallers fear trends, hipsters, fads and mass media like the plague: they promote this unhealthy psychology.

In the postmortem over humanity’s failure, our new reptilian overlords will discuss this issue, and conclude that humans had two modes of thought: a healthy forward-thinking one, and a negative and sick backward-thinking one. The hipster, like every other form of decay in our society, is backward thinking.

Metal is currently awash in hipsters because hipsters use something called irony to disguise their low self-esteem. If they’re listening to IRON MAIDEN, it’s because they find it amusing — not because they believe in it. In fact, they believe in nothing except what others believe in within their social group, which makes them always right. If someone makes fun of them for liking IRON MAIDEN, they can always claim their enjoyment is ironic. It’s a race to the bottom with the hipster, because believing in anything but illusion and evasion makes you a target, so they believe in nothing except “ironically,” and that’s how they infiltrated metal.

In the same way hipsters find trailer parks quaint and amusing, they found death metal and black metal intriguing. It was untamed, unsocialized material, and a threat to everything the hipster stood for. So they assimilated it, and moved in by taking positions in the community. Start buying metal, or selling metal, and others depend on you. From that they branched out by using the hipster tactic of focusing on the external. “Well, this could be more unique if we added a flute…”

When you focus on the external, and don’t pay attention to the fundamental quality of music that distinguishes it, which is how well it communicates, you end up norming the music. Structurally, it becomes all the same, but externally, it’s all tricked out in motley so it appears “different” and “new.” But the real name of the game is not being different, but being the same so you are universally accepted, while having enough adornments that you stand out in a crowd… just like the hipster.

We’ve seen this steadily increasing in metal since 1994 or so, and it was helped by some in metal who would rather leave a bad legacy with a full wallet than the inverse, such as Death and Cannibal Corpse. It will reverse, but only as soon as metal bands and fans start communing on the idea of forward-logic instead of backward, negative logic.

The end result of complete cellular representation is cancer. Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.) Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action, to the complete parasitism of a virus.

(It is thought that the virus is a degeneration from more complex life form. It may at one time have been capable of independent life. Now has fallen to the borderline between living and dead matter. It can exhibit living qualities only in a host, by using the life of another — the renunciation of life itself, a falling towards inorganic, inflexible machine, towards dead matter.)

Bureaus die when the structure of the state collapses. They are as helpless and unfit for independent existences as a displaced tapeworm, or a virus that has killed the host. – William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Hipsterism is reality-avoidance, in the same way Crowdism or any other mass movement is: the assimilation of the individual by the crowd in order to destroy reality, which in turn destroys the collective. Societies, genres of music, groups of friends and businesses all fit this pattern, which is fundamental to human psychology. Either the individual stands up for what is true in reality, not what the individual prefers, or the crowd declares its own reality and then the collective veers off course because it has lost touch with reality. Assimilation is a byproduct of individualism without reality, just like bad music is the product of people pandering to each other and not finding a beauty in reality, including its darkness and horror, as heavy metal has throughout its four decades.

Resisting Assimilation

The problem with combatting assimilation is that assimilation is less an act than a passive lack of acting. When good metal is not made, and people do not assert what makes metal unique, assimilation surges in like water filling the space where it was swept out of the way. Like all things in humanity, the default state is one of disorganization and failure, and it is only when wise minds step in and re-direct the chaos that prosperity of any kind happens.

We have learned what does not stop assimilation. Trying to keep the music rare means hipsters buy it on eBay. Trying to keep it indie and obscure means that hipsters only prize it more. Trying to make it more offensive or extreme just makes it more novel. These methods do not work. What also does not work is trusting a “scene” or “underground” to keep away the mainstream, because underground scenes are an advanced form of maintaining rarity through social networks.

A “scene” means music that is consistent enough for people not to care what band is playing, so they can socialize in the same environment time and time again. A “scene” is clubs that play music that sounds very similar time and time again so they know they can draw an audience each time. A “scene” are sellers of music who find bands that sound like each other so they can compare past successes to the next generation, getting a crop of already-proven fans to come buy it all again. The variation is dead – the conformity is absolute. And worst of all, it’s voluntary and in a moral facilitative society there are few arguments accepted against it.

That kind of consistency kills music by raising the level of expectation to an entry requirement. The hardcore “scene” murdered hardcore by making it consistent – acceptable – “fun” and extremely similar. Bands who used to fight for a living could suddenly find central places to play, sell and broadcast their music – but in order to do so, they had to make it fit within expectations. Metal will die with a scene or without some form of one.

The problem with this flood isn’t its quality in itself. The problem is that when there is a flood of undistinctive material, (a) anything that does not conform to the pattern is not recognized and (b) the information overload is so great than any excellent band that does rise will be ignored. In essence, the underground has replicated the errors made by gigantic record labels in the 1980s.

Interestingly, the same thing happened in hardcore music in the 1980s when it became cheap and easy to release seven-inch records. Suddenly, there were no “fans”: everyone had a band, zine, label or distro. Consequently, quality went down, because no leaders were picked, and a great averaging occurred. Everyone could participate, but because there was no specialized fanbase, the farthest they got was participation, getting their share. No one great rose above and therefore, the great people stopped trying. There was no direction.

Analogous to the effects of democracy and consumerism on the quality of people in society as a whole? You bet it was. Analogy to egocentricism of the west, and its own cultural failings? You bet: the same mechanism was in effect: a lack of appreciation for quality because popularity/social pressures dictated participation, an external factor, not hierarchy, which requires a measurement of amorphous qualities such as “artistic worth” which are unrecognizable to most people in the crowd. Consequently, hardcore declined to the point where, in 1985, all the bands sounded exactly the same and there were no leaders.

Another concept, that perhaps will embitter some because of its practicality, is that of your personal landfill. What you produce on compact disc or vinyl or tape doesn’t magically disappear. It ends up in the landfills, with all the other waste you produce, to rot in insignificance, slowly leeching poisons into the earth. You like being alive, right, or you’d be dead — why create more personal landfill if it won’t achieve something you desire? For every CD you buy, there’s one more CD in that landfill. Buy the best, ignore the rest, and your personal landfill will not only be small, but will possibly not exist as others enjoy those CDs, since good CDs can be enjoyed in any age while trends are temporal.

My suggestion to all those who love metal is simple: stop supporting bands that are OK instead of great.

Few genres demand as much long-term allegiance as metal, and get it. Of styles likely found in a record store, only metal, industrial, country, jazz and classical have enduring audiences. Other genres are bigger, but people stay with them for fewer years. As history has shown us, metal is too easily absorbed by the mainstream. Black metal selling out and the rise of nu-metal occurred at the same time – is anything in the universe “coincidental”? It’s interesting to note that a similar absorption afflicted death metal, heavy metal and hardcore punk, all of whom relied on popular-music-style short song formats.

The Case for Metal to Follow Classical

However, there is one guaranteed way to take metal out of the mainstream: leave behind the mainstream song format. Most songs are three minutes of a verse-chorus nature, and they use devices such as rhythmic predictability on the offbeat (“expectation”) and melodic hooks. If metal were to expand on its riff salad nature, it would join genres like jazz and classical in a musically distinct form, and become inaccessible to those who want to make or consume bite-sized music. Every other metal band aspires to classical guitar anyway; why not liberate our impulses toward something that is clearly enjoyed and valued?

For example, consider these micro-symphonies:

When people tell you what they want, they usually tell you what appearance or experience they want — the effect — and do not understand the device for achieving that effect — the cause. They think in terms of the appearance of what they want and not the underlying structure.

For example, when people say they want simplicity, what they really want is organization. It’s why “My Journey to the Stars” works even though it’s “complex” in theory — complex means having a central idea that is simple and clear, and then manifesting it in different forms so people can compare them like metaphors and see the abstraction. People will tell you they want raw, fast, brutal, simple but they’re talking about the one riff they remember, kind of how most people can identify the opening riff to Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 — it’s the simplest, most memorable part of a complex music experience.

The role of art is to be a silent philosopher, meaning that it does not make explicit commands and references to everyday objects, but gives us a clear spiritual commandment and its corresponding aesthetic from which to work. Art organizes our spirits and approach to reality. It is important that art does this because most people know the end result they’d like to see, but are completely unaware of the context in which it exists. They see a riff, and figure that if they just heard that riff, they’d have the whole experience, or they think of one moment when they were happy and assume that correlations which occurred simultaneously to that moment — a cigarette, a postcard, a summer day — are the cause when the real cause was the sequence of events that led up to that one moment having great significance, or that one cigarette being the break that really helped them find mental clarity. It wasn’t the cigarette — it was the context.

In human life, once civilization is established, we face a causal breakdown. Person A does something, and Person B sees the results, and tries to work backward toward the cause. Metal bands see how others have succeeded, and try to imitate the outward aspects — faster drums, harsher vocals, floaty keyboards — without understanding that it’s the songwriting and beneath that, the ability to reference “meaning” in experience shared between artist and listener, that makes the song great and not just average with above-average execution.

At this point, the genre doesn’t understand its own spirit or aesthetics, so bands make salads where they throw together unrelated stuff and figure that since it has everything, it must be good. This “carnival style” metal is a salad of distractions from which each piece returns to a few exactly repeated themes. As a result, there’s a lot going on, like riding a merry-go-round and seeing the world outside flash by in disorienting random order, but there’s no development of theme; it’s just a more complex version of verse/chorus pop music.

People can’t put into words what they want. When shown what they want, they will initially resist it because it doesn’t “look like” or “sound like” what they want — people in 1990 “wanted” simpler, catchier, groovier speed metal, and that movement went nowhere. While sub-sub-genres like metalcore, deathcore, or “black punk” (hybrid of pop-punk, shoegaze, emo and black metal) have momentary peaks of popularity, these seem to fade quickly, unlike the lasting appeal of the best of death and black metal. They’re popular, but no one seems to love them like true classics.

However, there is still great room in this genre for those who can translate the spirit, aesthetics and organization of classical music — narrative motives — into death/black metal. That’s the real ground to conquer. Whoever does that will be initially unpopular, like death metal and later black metal were, but later acknowledged as a hero. Like the songs listed above, such music will be passionate but leave the repetitive, formulaic, simplistic structure of pop music behind.

Metal music will never fit into the framework of other genres. Where other music might sound scary, metal communicates the meaning of scary, and this means that it will always oppose the anti-orthodoxy of mainstream logic. For those who understand its message and the power of its sound, assimilation of a distinct genre into the indistinct mass will always remain a threat.


  • 1

    Romanticism, on the other hand, is what the writers of the Romantic Period practiced: there is not much agreement about what that is exactly, and there is in fact a longstanding debate about whether there is such a thing or only Romanticisms. See A. O. Lovejoy, “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms,” PMLA, 1924; Ren� Wellek, “The Concept of `Romanticism’ in Literary History,” Comparative Literature, 1949; and finally, Jerome McGann’s Introduction to The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (revised edition). – http://www.users.muohio.edu/mandellc/eng441/urllist.htm

  • 2

    A movement in art and literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in revolt against the Neoclassicism of the previous centuries…The German poet Friedrich Schlegel, who is given credit for first using the term romantic to describe literature, defined it as “literature depicting emotional matter in an imaginative form.” This is as accurate a general definition as can be accomplished, although Victor Hugo’s phrase “liberalism in literature” is also apt. Imagination, emotion, and freedom are certainly the focal points of romanticism. Any list of particular characteristics of the literature of romanticism includes subjectivity and an emphasis on individualism; spontaneity; freedom from rules; solitary life rather than life in society; the beliefs that imagination is superior to reason and devotion to beauty; love of and worship of nature; and fascination with the past, especially the myths and mysticism of the middle ages. – http://www.uh.edu/engines/romanticism/introduction.html

  • 3

    Some of the earliest stirrings of the Romantic movement are conventionally traced back to the mid-18th-century interest in folklore which arose in Germany–with Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collecting popular fairy tales and other scholars like Johann Gottfried von Herder studying folk songs–and in England with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele treating old ballads as if they were high poetry. These activities set the tone for one aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs.

    Whereas during much of the 17th and 18th centuries learned allusions, complexity and grandiosity were prized, the new romantic taste favored simplicity and naturalness; and these were thought to flow most clearly and abundantly from the “spontaneous” outpourings of the untutored common people. In Germany in particular, the idea of a collective Volk (people) dominated a good deal of thinking about the arts. Rather than paying attention to the individual authors of popular works, these scholars celebrated the anonymous masses who invented and transmuted these works as if from their very souls. – http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html

  • 4

    Emphasis on the activity of the imagination was accompanied by greater emphasis on the importance of intuition, instincts, and feelings, and Romantics generally called for greater attention to the emotions as a necessary supplement to purely logical reason. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 5

    While particular perspectives with regard to nature varied considerably–nature as a healing power, nature as a source of subject and image, nature as a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, including artificial language–the prevailing views accorded nature the status of an organically unified whole. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 6

    It was viewed as “organic,” rather than, as in the scientific or rationalist view, as a system of “mechanical” laws, for Romanticism displaced the rationalist view of the universe as a machine (e.g., the deistic image of a clock) with the analogue of an “organic” image, a living tree or mankind itself. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 7

    Symbolism and myth were given great prominence in the Romantic conception of art. In the Romantic view, symbols were the human aesthetic correlatives of nature’s emblematic language. They were valued too because they could simultaneously suggest many things, and were thus thought superior to the one-to-one communications of allegory. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 8

    In addition, neoclassicism had prescribed for art the idea that the general or universal characteristics of human behavior were more suitable subject matter than the peculiarly individual manifestations of human activity. From at least the opening statement of Rousseau’s Confessions, first published in 1781–“I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe that I am not made like anyone in existence. If I am not superior, at least I am different.”–this view was challenged. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 9

    Certain special features of Romanticism may still be highlighted by this contrast. We have already noted two major differences: the replacement of reason by the imagination for primary place among the human faculties and the shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation for poetry, and indeed all literature. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 10

    The hero-artist has already been mentioned; there were also heaven-storming types from Prometheus to Captain Ahab, outcasts from Cain to the Ancient Mariner and even Hester Prynne, and there was Faust, who wins salvation in Goethe’s great drama for the very reasons–his characteristic striving for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted and his insatiable thirst for activity–that earlier had been viewed as the components of his tragic sin. (It was in fact Shelley’s opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.) – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

  • 11

    a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, characterized chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and an emphasis on the imagination and emotions, and marked especially in English literature by sensibility and the use of autobiographical material, an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a predilection for melancholy, and the use in poetry of older verse forms. – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/romanticism

  • 12

    The ‘heat-death’ of the universe is when the universe has reached a state of maximum entropy. This happens when all available energy (such as from a hot source) has moved to places of less energy (such as a colder source). Once this has happened, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Since heat ceases to flow, no more work can be acquired from heat transfer. This same kind of equilibrium state will also happen with all other forms of energy (mechanical, electrical, etc.). Since no more work can be extracted from the universe at that point, it is effectively dead, especially for the purposes of humankind. – http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae181.cfm

  • 13

    But the rising materialism and focus on business at the cost of the mind and the spirit was spawning reform movements all over America…Many felt a psychic dislocation, that the bottom had dropped out of their world since traditional values and conventional reality were just not enough for them. They tried to impose meaning individually, for institutions and dogmas seemed to possess little truth. Philosophically, they reacted against the materialistic educational theories of Locke and rationalism. They found Truth more a matter of intuition and imagination than logic and reason. They rejected the mechanistic view of the universe so dear to Franklin and Deists and opted for a more organic view, seeing the world more as dynamic and living. – http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/intro.htm

  • 14

    “He was recognized as a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang, which celebrated the energetic Promethean restlessness of spirit as opposed to the ideal of calm rationalism of the Enlightenment. Goethe’s poem ‘Prometheus’, with its insistence that man must believe not in gods but in himself, might be seen as a motto for the whole movement.” – http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/goethe.htm

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What is heavy metal?

In the night, one can hear many noises. Some sound scary, and others signal scary events. For example, the roar of an animal is disturbing, but to someone alone in a house a stealthy footfall or the click of a lock is scarier. Similarly in art, the context of a sound defines its significance, and what makes music frightening is the meaning it encodes.

Among all forms of art, what makes heavy metal unique is that it embraces disturbing sounds which are not ugly but which portend disturbing patterns found in reality. Heavy metal is the music of the apocalypse, and whether warning it off or cheering it on or both, achieves this heaviness through the context it conveys.

What makes heavy metal heavy?

Both fantastic and literal, heavy metal explores the ideas our society will not endorse. It is not protest music, whining “it should not be” into a secondhand microphone, but a war-like genre which describes destruction with the joy of a painter who could use it as a color in a new epic landscape. Metal is about the experience of life, but it disciplines that with a clear sense of reality and consequence, as is appropriate for “heavy” conversation. Where society hides from fear and allies itself with the threat of the consequences of fears, metal allies itself with death to dispense fear.

When metal first arrived, new fans began to understand what made Black Sabbath “heavy”: the patterns which revealed the thinking behind such noises, putting context to the fear they instilled. Thundering distorted riffs were not new; Blue Cheer had done that. Neither was aggression; Iggy Pop had done that. But Black Sabbath, inspired by horror movie soundtracks, came up with a new style of music that used melodic phrases played in power chords, and by targetting the weighty topics that social conversation did not admit, creating a terrifying form of art.

Rock music had grown through the 1960s from simple boyfriend-girlfriend pop to apocalyptic rock like the Doors or King Crimson in the same way the Beatles rejected their sugarpop roots to become morbid and political. Whenever given a chance, the music reverted to a simple, tolerant, peaceful hedonism that hid its escapism and narcissism. The future members of Black Sabbath, upon seeing a horror movie and wondering if people would ever pay to have that experience in rock music, created the antithesis to distracting escapism: a descent into the complex and violent world of reality.

Its heaviness migrated into a different style of composition: other bands wrote songs around open chords which were strummed in a repeated pattern, and then modulated, while Black Sabbath used moveable power chords to make phrases into riffs and it was the change in those phrases that communicated a difference in outlook. It was more like classical music, where harmony is so well-studied that it is used as a device toward “narrative,” through-composed pieces where the change in motifs and their accompaniment conveys a string of moods that like a mythology or a fable convey the idea of a journey from one point to another.

With this development, they gave meaning to the sound. Its context of topics gave its heaviness form, but musically it was heavy as well, using thundering chords that stripped out traditional harmony and made the riff instead, like the nihilistic voice of an angry god, speak the truth that completed the poetry of contrast in each song. By throwing away form, and the form of socialization which “peace” and “love” implied, Black Sabbath brought danger back into a stagnant modern life — specifically, the danger that in all the attempts to stay away from the darkness, we as a civilization had missed an essential truth.

What does metal believe?

As an art form, metal has continuously developed visions of a human apocalypse lingering in the absence of our willingness to face reality. Reality is, as the saying goes, not entirely pleasant, and so is less popular than simple partial truths called “symbols,” which create an illusion of completeness by super-simplifying reality. Morality is not scientifically accurate but it is more comforting to our minds to have two options instead of nearly infinite ones.

During its maturation, metal wavered in and out of the public illusion, called “consensual reality,” which is the alternate reality of values most people use to navigate their lives. Consensual reality includes the symbols people want to believe in and, reinforced by preference-enabling activities like democracy and consumerism, makes itself “real” by the fact that most people believe it to be true. This public illusion takes many forms and metal has not been immune, but is strongest when it kicks aside the illusion and goes for the kind of heavy contexts that always made good ambiguous truth.

One view of metal is as a reality mediator showing the darkness underlying our pleasant illusions, and that in doing so, it is not deconstructive but attempts to make clarity of life by finding beauty in the dark and heavy as well as the light. As a holistic approach, this outlook negates both dualistic worlds (heaven, hell) and secular morality in favor of a scientific, historical and abstract design-oriented perspective on life. This then returns us to the idea of metal as orthodoxy, or a genre in which there is a clear direction and those who deviate from it are parasitizing on the popularity of the genre while weakening it with ideas that oppose it.

The terms “sell out” and “poseur” arose in the 1970s to refer to those of this intention, most specifically the bands like Def Leppard who turned their heavy metal roots into radio trash that was essentially rock music with power chords. A poseur was someone dishonest who adopted the most rigorous pose, or identity-affirming lifestyle and opinions, of a genre but was like all hipsters using it for his or her own benefit and believed none of it. These terms persist to this day.

Any ideology is necessarily orthodox, in that if it does not assert a right way and wrong way of doing things, it is not an ideology at all but an ethic of convenience much like the opinionless, directionless motions of rock music or its deferential humanistic political counterpart. Rock stands for a big party and everyone having it their way; this is a meta-orthodoxy that opposes all orthodoxy.

Metal on the other hand is orthodox and opposes meta-orthodoxy because an orthodoxy of no orthodoxy is a lack of direction. Directionless self-assertion does not address the apocalyptic or religious aspects necessary to unite human thinking toward survival in an apocalyptic time. To clarify reality, metal music embraces nihilism and worships power and beauty, because these things connect us to a reality that will forever seem flawed to us because it is full of horror, doubt, fear and death. However, the metal outlook shows us the wisdom of these things and makes living with them seem “fun,” where rock music and other anti-orthodoxies retreat into human activities and social realities, pushing reality itself far away.

As a result, metal is sandwiched between protest music of the anarchic left and the wisdom of the conservative ancients, forming itself through fantasy into a vision of a more realistic and more enjoyable vision of life. Rock music is a product of the wealth and convenience of a modern time that allows us to have inconsequential lifestyles and opinions, while metal is a revolution against that outlook, a seemingly deconstructive art form that in actuality opposes deconstruction.

We can trace these ideas through consistent beliefs found across metal generations:

  1. Beauty in darkness. It is not ugly, pounding music but music which discovers beauty in distortion, in anger and terror, in violence and foreboding dark restless relativistic power chords. The point is not to deconstruct, but to go through deconstruction and find meaning. This is evident in the works of Black Sabbath and every metal band since, and is what distinguishes “real” metal from hard rock.
  2. Worship of power. Unlike pacifying rock music and jazz and “new music” classical, metal music adores powerful, vast and broad simple strokes; it loves the majesty of nature and its crushing final word. It does not have love songs. Instead, its love is directed to forces of nature, including physical forces like storms and intense human experience like war or loss, as if trying to find meaning in these.
  3. Worship of nature. Linked to metal’s adoration of power is its appreciation for the function, including its “red in tooth and claw” aspects, of the natural world. Where most are repulsed by the idea that combat exists between animals in which one is victor, and one is prey, metal idolizes it. It finds beauty in ruins, in destruction, and in death, as if praising the cycle of life they engender again.
  4. Independent thinking. Metal does not buy into the individualism of a modern time where the only goal is material pleasure of the self (materialism) and keeping others away by granting them the same (humanism). It prefers the independent thinking that looks for higher values in life, mountains to climb and challenges to be met. Where punk music enmeshed itself in a callow “I wanna do what I wanna do,” metal saw this as part of the same gesture of rock music and discarded it.

These are expressed artistically by the following:

  1. Dark, morbid themes that clashed with the “love will save us” hippie mentality. These are explained by Black Sabbath as being derived from the horror movies of the day, a genre which features a union between technology and the occult (zombies, werewolves) producing a force humans cannot oppose. Normal technologies and methods cannot defeat it. They struggle against this force but their emotional instability causes them to sabotage one another, and often the dark force wins. Examples from this genre: Mothra, Dawn of the Dead, Alien, The Exorcist, The Shining, War of the Worlds.
  2. Songs written from short cyclic phrases called riffs, which unlike rock riffs used moveable chords of inspecific harmonic bonding, making the melody and rhythm of the phrase more important than key or voicing. Metal bands tend to use more riffs per song, and not in the traditional cycle of verse-chorus, in a way quite similar to progressive bands like King Crimson and Yes, both of whom used aggressive distortion.
  3. A focus on the holism of the human effort as determined by our moral state as individuals in a way that can only be described as “religious.” Metal, in addition to sounding eerily like angry Bach-scripted church music, has a similar focus to dogmatic transcendentalism Christianity: what is our future as human beings, and how does how we shape our personalities effect it?
  4. Bass-enhanced overdriven guitar sound, or distortion, which encloses the primary instrument used in making heavy metal. In rock, guitars and drums come together to emphasize a vocal melodic line; in metal, guitars lead a melodic line for which vocals are a complement and drums a timekeeper, enclosing it in a regularity to give listeners context. The guitar is the loudest single instrument heard and the one that invokes changes in song.

These beliefs and musical techniques reinforce each other. Using distortion and loud music, yet finding beauty in it. Using longer narrative phrases so as to tell a story, creating a holistic view in which emotion emerges, instead of citing pre-configured emotions like rock music does. A darkness and melancholy exhibited in lyrics and imagery, corresponding to aggressive music, expressing a desire to seize all of reality, good and bad together, and make something better of it.

Heavy Metal as Romanticism

We have seen ideas similar to these before in the form of a genre that, once birthed, refused to die, even as history moved on. In fact, it has re-emerged throughout the modern time because it was the step before this new type of rationalism,

Although metal borrows from both classical and Romantic periods of classical music, its most intense similarity is to the Romantic period in literature, which in its later years diverged into Gothic horror and transcendental idealism. Much as embryological theory tells us that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or that a fetus goes through the same stages of evolution as its species did to arrive at its current state, metal theory shows us that metal — as a revolt against what rock music stood for, e.g. distraction — forms an embryo which rediscovers its musical past. In this sense, metal is starting with classical and venturing through late Romanticism toward modernism.

According to the experts, Romanticism in literature and music has several tenets:

  • It is not clearly defined as a single thing, or several versions of this thing.1 Most of Romanticism existed before it became a concrete movement, and heavily overlapped with classicism.2
  • A desire to explore organic culture instead of high culture, especially tales of the medieval age and its feudal society.3
  • Worship of the imagination, and of creative and individual truthfulness in emotion.4
  • Reverence for nature as “an organically unified whole,”5 and intuition, instincts, and feelings were seen as necessary complements to reason in contrast to “mechanical” rationalism.6
  • Symbolism and myth were given great prominence.7
  • Rejection of the universalism in exchange for study of the individual as distinct from others.8
  • Shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation, meaning that art no longer imitated life, but expressed a truth found in it.9
  • A willingness to strive “for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted,” and a rejection of morality for situational or naturalistic interpretation.10
  • An appreciation for the melancholy, remote and ancient.11

Romanticism was a response to neo-classicism, which was the most recent form of the surge in rationalism brought about by The Age of Enlightenment. Where the Enlightenment rationale brought individual rights, focus on personal emotion, and a linear logical process by which one could dissect the world and find an absolute response to it, Romanticism both inherited that tradition and began dissolving it. It is for this reason that we can find Romanticist themes abundant, in everything from Star Wars to presidential speeches: the conflict of rationalism-versus-Romanticism has never been resolved.

Unlike modern individualism, Romanticist individualism meant using yourself as the justification for your own wants, instead of trying to find some external justification. As Nietzsche phrased it, “I prefer” and “I find beauty in” are more important than all the equations, statistical summaries, studies cited and popular votes in the world; Romanticism (of which Nietzsche was an ambiguous defender but spiritual comrade) rejects the idea of externalized truths and knowing, and instead prefers a sense of unity between the individual’s aesthetics and a “mythic imagination” which lets them see possibilities in the world using holistic logic, instead of the linear (single-factor) logic used by rationalists.13

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

The World is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth (1789)

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist.

And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing.

On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, Friedrich Nietzsche (1873)

Heavy metal inherits this conflict because in order to be “heavy,” it must tackle the dark issues everyone fears. What makes these issues dark is that our normal methods cannot defeat them. We then must ask what we exclude from our methods, and we see that any anti-social information — that which might offend someone, or mention death, or suggest that morality is an imposed and artificial condition — is excluded from our methods. As a result, heavy metal becomes a kind of peering behind the curtain of an externally-imposed reality, and in seeing the horrors within, finding a new desire for both warlike apocalyptic intensity and a beauty discovered in darkness.

Romanticism re-occurs because it is generally seen as the only idea which can oppose modernism, which is like neo-classicism but even more insistent upon rationalism and the hybrid between individualism and groupthink that is utilitarianism. Metal, as a genre exploring Romanticism with a masculine and warlike approach, most closely approximates the philosophies of Nietzsche and other post-Romantic writers who wanted to escape the bureaucratic approach to society and restore a sense of adventure.

Metal is fantasy that can be applied to reality, neatly briding the two categories of art as entertainment/mimesis and art as politics. It is not protest music, nor is it the kind of wallpaper-like distracting pleasant activity that we see on most television shows. Instead, it is a manifestation of the Faustian desire for forbidden knowledge. From classical literature and music, it borrows a rigid sense of structure and a desire for resurrection, Tolkien-esque, of the ancient times of honor, blood, warfare and magic. From Romantic literature and music, it takes its major themes, including the sense of an individual trapped in a moribund society reaching out and the idea that when the individual escapes society to nature, reality can be seen for the first time. The most similar Romanticists to metal lyrics are probably the following:

  • William Blake – wrote about metaphysical topics from the perspective of the universe, and mocked humans for being weak and obsessed with the trivial.
  • John Milton – wrote Paradise Lost, in which Satan is an anti-hero who rejects the rule of heaven in order to discover life for himself.
  • William Wordsworth – enshrined anti-social behavior with his classic The World is Too Much With Us, which calls for rejecting society in favor of mythic imagination.
  • Mary Shelley – wrote Frankenstein, in which technology creates a new form of life which discovers it has no place in the world, and it turns destructive.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – a realist who did not shy from horror, Goethe believed in a universe where human perception was a small and unnecessary part of its divine function.14

If we had to summarize metal as an artistic movement, it would be fair to say it has more in common with European Romantic art than the popular music and boutique art of our present era. Like the Romantics, it sought a transcendence in accepting the world’s inequality and horror and using it as a relative opposite against which to project challenges; it wants to bring back the fighting spirit of an ancient time, and give us independent thinking and goals instead of buying us off with the humanist-materialist tripe that the mainstream media proclaims — dogma which, interestingly, has failed to solve a single widespread problem of humanity.

Even more interesting is that the genre of horror movies, an intersection of proto-science fiction and occult lore, was born of the Romantic movement. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, was the wife of Percy Shelley, a Romantic poet. Bram Stoker’s Dracula came from the Gothic fringe of the Romantic movement as well. One of the greatest descriptions of Satan ever, Paradise Lost by John Milton, was also a Romantic work.

“I believe in tragedies…
I believe in desecration…”

The Sun No Longer Rises, Immortal (1993)

Like its Romantic forebears, metal music desires transcendence: finding the beauty in darkness by accepting the physical struggle that is life, and instead of trying to run away from that struggle into personal material comfort, accepting it as something that gives significance to our existences. Metal music desires to overcome our fear of death and of nature, and by accepting them, to show us a new world of meaning. In this, it is both a continuation of Romanticism and an evolution of it to a more coherent state.

How did this change for underground metal?

Appearing in the early 1980s, underground metal arose from a hybrid between crustcore/hardcore (Discharge) and the structuralist, neo-classical heavy metal of the previous generation (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath). It took the Romantic themes of earlier metal and made them more extreme. If underground metal has one unifying concept, it is the one emphasized by Hellhammer, “Only death is real.”

After heavy metal blew out by getting absorbed into its own popularity, and then speed metal copped out by softening its stance and sound to be more popular, underground metal roared away with pure nihilism: facing life as it is without a thought that anyone or thing in the universe cares if we collectively or individually survive. This was orthodoxy retaliating against anti-orthodoxy, which always takes the form of individuals preferring to avoid reality and so passive revenging themselves against those disciplined enough to want, in the time-honoured method of survival common to all creatures, to adapt to reality. In overcoming the anti-orthodoxy of individualism, underground metal became the first popular music genre ready to face ego-death.

The question, of course, could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.

– William S. Burroughs, Junky

Ego-death is a concept that psychedelics and zen monks alike discovered. In it, the person realizes they are one part of a giant system, and stop seeing the world through themselves. They see themselves in the world, but they see the bigger process first. Ego-death tends to lead to a transcendent state where one sees all of consciousness as a continuum, and becomes less afraid of d-y-i-n-g. Ego-death forces us to see life through a filter that is super-realistic, or dedicated to bringing people into a moment of realization that what they are touching and doing is real and they need to grasp command of their own minds to survive. It opposes panic and illusion, moral and social judgment (“knowing” from Nietzsche above), fear and pleasant unrealistic thoughts.

Not coincidentally, “only death is real” resembles topics from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. In both, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the protagonist is thrust into a delusional, dysfunctional, chaotic world that he alone can see is wrecked, and takes a long journey in which she or he can see that the nothingness is very real and pervades everything, and that our denial of this emptiness of life makes a greater emptiness, or a hollow illusion that cannot satisfy us. As we try to live in this illusion, we see reality peeking through, and so become neurotic.

The characters in these books overcome their situations only by throwing away the rule book, avoiding what other people tell them is the truth, and acting on their animal intuition. Conrad’s protagonist Marlowe begins the book impotent and ends it with a powerful tool, like a sword or fire, to explain why what he sees is as impotent as he once was. It’s like an adolescent story, but for humanity, growing out of its moral illusion and seeing reality as a pragmatic task. In Paradise Lost, Satan is appealing but has made an error in opposing the order of nature/God, yet still he has to make this decision, to explore the world in a Promethean sense of fearlessness and self-command. His undoing is too much self and not enough command.

Underground metal recognized this duality of human thought. Official knowing was bad news; unguided knowing was chaotic and destructive; therefore, a new type of knowledge had to be created, and this knowledge was nihilistic literalism as found in hardcore punk merged with the fantasy and epic worldview of heavy metal. The political nature of punk had made it easy for foolish people to slap anarchy stickers on their rockabilly guitars and start repeating the same old stuff, like the aged activists who whine “why can’t they just see” when life has passed them by.

Underground metal was not political or social, but philosophical: it viewed the world from outside human eyes, seeing it like a large scientific experiment in which history was the result, and based its knowledge on the abrupt interruption to human illusion created by death. When we see that wisdom, we recognize that we are tiny and inconsequential, and that adapting to life is more important than the moral, social, media and political worlds made of human agreement to have a symbol stand for something.

“Only Death is Real” conveyed ego-death: no matter how big you think you are or how important, death is more real than your visions, so you must accept nothingness. To accept nothingness is to cast aside the unhealthy parts of the ego and to give it context, so that the ego is a motivic force but only one of many on a planet. To see only death as real is to wonder what else can be real. The answer is right past the end of our noses: the world is real, and it’s a continuum that renews itself, so it’s worth working for. If you like life, you work to make it better. If you hate life, you deny the reality of the world and you go further inward into the self and its desires, which has never worked for making anyone happy no matter how stupid.

We are social creatures, and it is as mathematically logical why that is so as the collaboration between parts of a computer program. We are all of the same thing, and we want to take our part in this thing, which includes nature and our fellow humans, and if we like being alive, we want to do what’s best not just for ourselves or for humanity but for the whole thing. What a stream of interesting thoughts “Only Death is Real” can unleash, in part because our society does everything it can to deny the reality of death.

The archetypal death metal bands — Hellhammer, Bathory, Slayer — all used occult imagery much as Blake, Milton and Goethe did. With that in mind, we can re-interpret Slayer’s Satanic imagery as more than being opposition to Christianity. For one, they do not seem to oppose Christianity. If anything, lyrics like “South of Heaven” or “The Final Command” illustrate, like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” before them, a world in the grips of evil based in power based on an illusion. In Slayer’s complex theology, Christianity is Satanic because like political strength and industry it is a false outward power when inward the person is underconfident and weak. Christianity however is seen as often accurate, in that the apocalypse does come from selfishness, and Christian morality (“bastard sons beget your cunting daughters”) is the best way to live, but a way that makes no sense in a world addicted to the power of illusion.

As in Milton, Slayer’s Satan is a rebel against a singular order encroaching upon the world, a necessary force like magnetism that opposes any such centralization. In Slayer and Milton’s view, to have any single power controlling the universe is to bring the universe toward sameness, something thermodynamicists call “entropy,” or a state when any direction yields the same results as any other because of the uniformity of the universe. Milton was edging toward a transcendental view of God as being a property of the universe, and not an ego or personality such as that overbearing one against which Satan revolts, himself a victim of his own excessive egoism.

I feel there is some hideous new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting. Remoter parts of the world seem better now, because they are less touched by it. Control, bureaucracy, regimentation, these are merely symptoms of a deeper sickness that no political or economic program can touch. What is the sickness itself?

– William S. Burroughs

In the Milton-Slayer worldview, “God” encompasses both bad and good, because together these create a reality in which we can strive for better things. Similarly, in Conrad, the tokens of good and profit are chased in such a way that they create an illusion sustained by greed, in which the only heroes are amoralists like Mr. Kurtz who use brutality and combat effectively, but are conflicted over the underlying reasoning for their goal, namely the need to produce income through ivory when greater challenges await. In the worldview these artists offer, profit motive and morality are a going-inward into the protective mantle of fear, and morality is something we impose on the world to avoid the heroic challenge of leaving that inward sanctum and achieving goals that are not justified by physical survival (morality) or material comfort (profit).

When we look at metal with these opened eyes, the sound and imagery and lyrics are far less random. Distortion is a finding of beauty in darkness, a clarity emerging not when one looks at individual grains of sound but when one hears the blurry whole and deducts from it both pure tone and the harmony of randomness to that clarity; distortion forces us to take a view from above, and see the whole picture in order to understand what occurs at any moment. It is also a metaphor for our inability to ever fully perceive the universe, telling us that if we look at the center of the distortion we will find what is occurring, even if we cannot see it perfectly. The gritty, chaotic sound of distortion defies our logical containers that look for purity and instead finds a reality that although hazy is as clear as it if were pure.

The “riff salad” of metal bands is a way of establishing that music is not a cyclic loop of verse-chorus, resembling our going inward to the world of our own thoughts and preferences, but a journey in which our inward struggle parallels our outward struggle (much like the jihads of Islam: the lesser Jihad is the war against ignorance/infidels, and the greater Jihad is the war for spiritual clarity in oneself). Metal is art because it does not preach a political solution, but shows us the reasons for it. When that sort of higher thinking fails, metal relapses to liking noise and hedonism but little else.

It is one thing to preach, as if politically, against the ego. It is another thing to show a path beyond the ego. “Only Death is Real,” like nihilism itself, is a way of dispensing with “belief” in order to begin the journey to discover what is real and what is supra-real. The supra-real is that dimension where heroism and creativity lie, where one has accepted the feared attributes of life (d-y-i-n-g, disease, sodomy) and has transcended them by seeing what is not material/tangible yet is also important. It is this journey that metal music, classical music, and all great art describes. It is starting from nothing, like Satan exiled from Heaven, and getting over resentment of life and fear of death to see the beauty in darkness and to return to life with a desire to make it better. It is a recognition of the inherent distortion of our perception, and tuning our ears and minds to see past that faltering.

When only death is real, the ego dies for a moment and we see the world as a whole, and can get out of the prison of our limited perspective and re-bond to the life that produced us and produces all we value. It is a hedonic state higher than hedonism, to love life and want to make it better through better design. This is where death metal broke from heavy metal, and it is where all thinking that rewards strong souls begins.

The Evolution of Black Metal

Death metal brought images of impending doom and a fascination with the macabre into a dark world. It built upon what speed metal and grindcore had already established: an apocalyptic epic where the only future was decay. Death metal incorporated the righteous integrity of speed metal and the nihilism of punk into a musical onslaught warning of destruction. It fit into Kurt Vonnegut’s famous metaphor for art: that artists are to society what canaries were to the coalminers who brought them into the depths of the mine as warnings. When the song of the canary turned weak or stopped, it meant that suffocating coal gas was flooding the mine.

Death metal is an extension of the complexity of speed metal, partially arising from the attitude of that genre that any large problem can be solved by reason. Speed metal and thrash believed in rationality, and preached insanity as a negative characteristic. Death metal became the science of understanding insanity and breakdown, not preaching against it as speed metal often did but explicating it in epic songs and vivid imagery. Black metal, as a response to the failure of death metal to avoid the crowd, was an embrace of all things destructive to human illusion: natural selection, warfare, predation, violence, cruelty and tyranny.

Black metal restored romantic side of metal as its primary vehicle; its emotion is more obvious as that is its obsession. A death metal band would never argue destruction of the world, calling it irrational, where a black metal band would call for destruction of all life on emotional grounds. Black metal’s sadness comes from its emotional entrapment in a mechanistic world, and for that reason it rebels against order, whether in Heaven, on Earth, or in Death Metal. Black metal is in many ways a return to the mission metal left when exploring the scientific mindset of the technological age (as computers revolutionized life in the eighties, quantitative rationalism experienced a resurgance of influence).

If we look at metal’s history, we can see how this conflict brewed. Black Sabbath retaliated against the hippie music of their time as unrealistic and distracting. The following generation of metal turned it into more of a party for alienated kids, which punk retaliated against by returning the focus to all the negative aspects of reality. The next generation of metal, speed metal, picked up the punk outlook but channeled it into the heroic stories of past heavy metal, creating a less lamentatory and more assertive, masculine “we can fix this” outlook. When speed metal collapsed into its own popularity, death metal returned with pure nihilism balanced by a structuralism that suggested life was understandable but denied by the individual. Grindcore rose simultaneously with death metal and restored the punk/hippie attitude of tolerance toward the individual. Black metal retaliated against this just as Black Sabbath condemned the hippies of their day by brushing aside morality for an awareness of horror and our impotence against the real threats in this world; it rejected all protest rock and literal music for a spiritual conditioning which embraced struggle, darkness, melancholy and other Romantic traits.

Black metal grew exponentially since its emergence as a distinct musical style in the early 1990s; previous “black metal,” from Venom through Hellhammer, had been a variant on the dominant style of the time and often indistinguishable from death metal. Like a new civilization, it grew from a small group of innovators who were disgusted by the “jogging suit” mentality: people who were essentially products of a modern time, who blindly bleated its ideas, figuring out how to play death metal and becoming popular in the genre by making their music more like what audiences accustomed to rock music expected. In essence, the crowd had infested death metal as it had speed metal before that, and black metal was a response to this.

Recognizing that no matter how they dressed up the music as something “new,” appearances could be cloned, black metal musicians decided to go where the crowd could not follow: they would write music that expressed a grandeur of nature and feral amorality, hearkening more to the values of Samurai or European knights than to the disposable ideals of modern time. Since such a topic requires music that infuses the listener with a sense of awe and beauty in the cycle of destruction and creation that renders our world, they could no longer rely on “three chords and the truth,” but had to actually put the truth in the music, and write more poetic and complex songs.

The small civilization within civilization that was black metal was united more by ideals than by aesthetic or musical tenets, although all of its music by aiming to express the same kind of idea had similarities, mainly in its use of poetic complexity and truth within the music (and not necessarily the lyrics; you listen to black metal, and because of its intense artistry, find truth there). Because we are surrounded by infinite voices repeating the same few ideas in many different forms, here are the basic ideas of black metal that are distinct from the mass:

  1. Nature as a supreme, rational and all-pervasive order. Natural selection and an embrace of struggle took the center stage through celebration of predation and death. Even more, black metal celebrated the nature “within,” or our inner feral nihilism that made a mockery of morality.
  2. Anti-Christianity/Crowdism. Crowdism is the idea that respecting the will of individuals is more important than finding a realistic idea. It is a form of backward logic where we see the individual as the cause, and not the effect, of all that is around us and so convince ourselves that a human social consensual reality can override nature. Crowdism is secular Christian morality.
  3. Introspection. The only meaning comes from what the individual can interpret; there are no boundaries between individuals and the world (nature) as whole, but individual perception is limited to natural abilities and learning from experience. This is the opposite of the “if it feels good, do it” rhetoric of hippie rock.
  4. Morbidity. Viewed as an essential giver of meaning. Where most view death paranoiacally, and see it as a great entropy removing all value, black metal musicians viewed it as something giving meaning to life.
  5. Organicism. Like Romantic poets, black metal musicians tended to place more faith in organic growth than imposed social order. A sense of differentiation from the herd, hatred toward the incompetent and delusional, pride in unique ethnic origins and a celebration of older culture makes this a huge part of the genre.

To any student of European history or art, these values are not new; they are traditional to all Romantic forms of art, whether literature or visual art or symphonies, and were upheld by artists as disparate as William Wordsworth, Anton Bruckner, John Keats, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Lord Byron and William Shakespeare. For all of these artists, nature was a higher form of order than the rules of civilization, and civilization had become decadent by praising its own “equal” order more than the “unequal” order of nature. Many philosophers, including the celebrated F.W. Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, explicated these sentiments in their own work. Black metal’s ideology is nothing new.

What was new was an expression of these ideas in popular music, because rock music and blues and all of the associated disposable art has always been a manifestation of the crowd revolt mentality: simple music so that everyone in a room could get it, diametrically opposed to the grand works of classical music which were too complex and emotionally involved for a crowd to appreciate (or even to have the attention span to endure). Rock music focuses on one emotion per song, bangs it out in riff and chorus, and makes it very simple by using a relatively fixed number of scales and chord progressions. Rock music is the perfect product because it’s easy to make, is appreciated by customers of all ages and not limited by intelligence, and is inoffensive on a certain level in that it has nothing to say that will disturb. The basic message of rock music is to include everyone equally, to appreciate them for being alive and not for their inherent traits, and to come together on simple human values and not higher ideals; rock is inclusivity. Black metal is not.

Much like when watching Lord of the Rings, Braveheart or Apocalypse Now one has a sense of an ancient warlike order, when listening to black metal one sensed a realistic and amoral entity underneath the Romanticized skin of the music. This eternal form of the human spirit grows from the naturalism of black metal as well through its belief in a karmic cycle based on natural selection. At the lowest level, humans are little more than animals. If they exert a form of natural selection upon themselves, and attempt to rise above that level, those who survive will be apt for it; if they do this for several levels, they eventually rise to a state of having a higher intelligence, degree of physical strength and beauty, and moral character (“nobility”: the ability to see what is correct for the natural order of society as a whole, and not to get distracted by personal or emotional issues). At the very top are those who are fit to lead by the nature of having a transcendent consciousness; it is thought that these much higher IQ than most modern people and were far less fearful, neurotic and self-obsessed. This, too, derived from Romanticism.

Underground metal goes mainstream

Underground metal reigned in part through its mystique. Hated by almost everyone, in and out of jail, preaching ideas which were anathema to both heads of state and hippies in the gutter, underground metal seemed a fragile and rare thing. This mystique faded as the economy shifted again, as it had done in the early 1980s allowing a rush of “indie” bands, and distribution contracts loosened up in the late 1990s.

Where once there had been “import” racks for CDs from abroad, and it was hard to find music, starting in 1997, underground metal became available in mall stores and through Amazon.com. Its identity as a separate entity became difficult to maintain, and the process of assimilation began. In response, metalheads attempted to rally around an identity as “different,” but in doing so, they focused on external aspects (distortion, imagery, indie status) instead of what did make the music distinct: it saw hope for the future in ideas outside of the same accepted dogma all the mainstream newspapers, television and radio sell to us because it is a popular product. If the truth is difficult and therefore unpopular, metal rebelled against popularity as a selection matrix, and from that developed a range of thought which made it a genre distinct from all others.

Far from being alone in this, underground metal has fallen into a general trend of independent art producers seceding from reality. “Literature” has collapsed into a few thousand tiny magazines read by no one but MFA candidates in creative writing, and “visual art” has become a network of small galleries selling cute expensive paintings to uninformed patrons. Even classical music has gotten in on the decline, with “new music” — micro-symphonies of human voices, squeaking dissonant noise, and other trendy types of sound — appreciated by a diehard cult following who need a raison d’etre outside of their civil service jobs.

These genres used to speak an independent voice, but now they repeat lockstep the strange formulation of modern liberal democracy — a “neo-conservative” viewpoint which both champions civil rights and “social issues,” but also affirms the need for a strong economy and constant warfare against evil enemies. Political theorists might try to make sense of it, but it is more direct to understand it this way: popularity sells.

“One could argue that American fiction has ghettoized itself by insisting on a self-reifying view (humanist/materialist?) in which all answers are known, the political binary is carved in stone, we all have swallowed whole certain orthodoxies, and the purpose of the fiction is just to reinforce these. At the heart of this lies a selfish agenda, that has (one could arge) really ceased seeing the world as a unity, and has begun aggressively internalizing certain capitalist dogmas that say: Of course you are the most important thing, of course you exist separate from the rest of the world.”

– George Saunders, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

In this situation we find a repeated structure from metal itself, and even, larger society. Metal music goes through cycles where a new idea comes about, is looked down upon by others, and then fully expresses itself, at which point it is cloned to death by the same people who were speaking badly about it earlier (by this I mean new subgenres, not recombinations of existing genres like – eh – “nu-metal”). If you look at it as a conflict between people of able character, and those who are by nature followers, what you see is that the able create; the followers imitate, and in so doing, drown it and condemn what was created to being of the same mediocrity it helped to escape.

Indeed, the death metal of today more musically resembles rock than that of ten years ago; same with black metal. They have been assimilated, but from within the metal genre, by people whose character is so low that their highest values are to esteem what is valued by the larger society, and thus to reproduce it in the appearance of something which is not larger society, assuming that by controlling appearance, they control content. They are wrong, and they drag down everything they touch. It is this way with the creation of music, the promotion of music, and the choice of who runs hubs; most run them for the popularity, and don’t mind if there’s a whole bunch of support for moronic rock music thrown into the mix. In fact, they encourage it, as by appealing to everyone, they feel like Christ on the cross, being both a victim and a conqueror by the sheer fact of being needed.

This conflict repeats itself in all human endeavors: one group starts a process that creates benefit, and then others surge in and, not understanding the struggle of creation, parasitize it and destroy it. We can see this in the tendency of sequels to intelligent movies being junk; in the revolutions of the masses against the elites that leave nations with lower average IQs and third world levels of dysfunction; in the killing of Socrates by democratic Athens; in the denial of reality that lets Americans run up record debt, or our species to deplete fish stocks, pollute the ocean with floating plastics, and poison our open waterways with enough chemicals to turn amphibians hermaphroditic. The eternal human struggle for clarity of reality, versus withdrawing into our own perspectives and becoming oblivious, is repeated in metal and its struggle to resist assimilation.

The ‘heat-death’ of the universe is when the universe has reached a state of maximum entropy. This happens when all available energy (such as from a hot source) has moved to places of less energy (such as a colder source). Once this has happened, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Since heat ceases to flow, no more work can be acquired from heat transfer. This same kind of equilibrium state will also happen with all other forms of energy (mechanical, electrical, etc.). Since no more work can be extracted from the universe at that point, it is effectively dead, especially for the purposes of humankind.

— Andreas Birkedal-Hansen, M.A., Physics Grad Student, UC Berkeley12

With human beings, our tendency to act for ourselves alone — individualism, or selfishness — divides up our civilization and encourages entropy. Metal, as a perspective beyond the individual and the ego-drama that rock bands promote through love songs and peace dogma, encourages us instead to get over ourselves, transcend our egos, and look at reality for the potential beauty within it. In this, we enact a familiar drama to any post-agrarian-civilization art, which is that of the lone individual versus the crowd. The individual wants to do what is right, but the crowd wants him to be selfish like them, so that together they do not challenge each other and no one can ever be wrong, or face conflict, or be lonely. But in the end, the crowd always makes itself miserable because its vice is essentially cowardice. Metal reintroduces some clarity through a simple formulation: either one goes inward, and tries to know reality through oneself, or one looks outward and tries to know oneself through external opinions, and as a result, loses oneself in the crowd and its lowest common denominator inclinations, namely fear, selfishness and narcissism.

Assimilation of metal

Whether this larger conflict will be resolved is not yet certain – definitely, however, metal is a reaction against it. When people sang hippie songs, Black Sabbath brought in dark reality, and woke many out of the stupor that assumed extending democratic liberties to all humans would solve far deeper-rooted problems. As rock music headed toward an effete protest against Reagan in the 1980s, metal retaliated by condemning left and right for their ignorance of basic human dissatisfaction and the threat of nuclear warfare. Finally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal and black metal arose to remind us that we are mortal, and that there are greater values than that which society can bestow, such as nature, the upholding of tradition, and pride in our national origins.

The clones have closed in fast on those, since they are indirectly the greatest threat to clone culture to ever arise in metal. For this reason among others, it’s worth upholding in them what gave people hope: the belief that someday the war of clones versus leaders, masses versus elites, would come to an end. Some keep trying to dumb it down into a political trend that gives us a partial truth and tries to make it represent all of reality, effectively blinding us to the big picture so we can focus on a vicarious struggle:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

“Metal is expanding and evolving and becoming more diverse,” said Canadian anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn, who directed “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” released on DVD this summer. “It’s at a much more vibrant state than it was even five or 10 years ago.”

“It’s becoming global and it’s becoming a tool for social and political commentary,” Dunn said. “It takes on a greater meaning in countries where people have had to struggle to survive. It takes on a much stronger political tone.”

Metal music in the 1980s was often homophobic and “very white,” she said, but current bands tend to be socially conscious and suspicious of political power. There’s also more women in the audience — and fronting the bands.

The lyrics on Lamb of God’s two most recent albums have been expressly political, and the politics lean heavily to the left.

Napalm Death’s Greenway is considering work as a political activist when his metal days are over, but he doesn’t think metal will ever completely stray from hedonistic and supernatural themes.

MSN

It is not surprising that mainstream media misunderstands underground metal. After all, they virtually forced its creation, since any band darker or heavier than Metallica received no recognition; the media wanted to sell us metal as party-lovin’, loud and crazy rock music. And so while the underground bloomed in 1985 to 1996, they praised stadium heavy metal and hard rock bands. During the current time, they embrace as “metal” music that is mostly emo hardcore: metalcore and nu-metal.

To an observer of the recent black metal scene, it’s tempting to get bitter. The newest style and trend appears to be “black hardcore,” or bands putting together two three-note riffs in a standard song format in recombinant order, and even the most ambitious bands are succumbing to this influence. Reminiscent of when hardcore punk music bloated itself into entropy and collapsed because no one could tell any two bands apart, this is like gangrene creeping up the legs and finally into the bloodstream of the genre.

When the genre is healthiest, the winds of coming winter oppose all new bands with brutal hardship, so only the most determined make it to the stage of releasing an album. This encourages others who have talent and brains to take a stab. If a lone artist looks at a genre, and sees a thousand albums of which two are good, the conclusion will be that the genre is fattened and the fans thus unable to tell the difference between good music and bad.

If the genre seen has a handful of albums, most of which are excellent, it is instead a compelling argument for further exploration. This is how genres rise and fall, and is why hardcore punk and death metal both eventually fattened themselves into insignificance to the point that now, once you’ve heard one band, you’ve heard them all. So for the health of the genre, it’s better that fewer albums of a higher quality are released.

Ideals of assimilated metal:

  1. Everyone must get it. It must be simple, not challenging, and most of all not have any poetic essence to its soul, as most fans can’t get that and thus will not buy it.
  2. Appearance over structure. It must have a unique appearance, but say the same old things philosophically and use familiar musical ideas so that even the dumbest fans can understand it and buy it. Even more, it must be upheld as dogma truth that adding a flute or screeching spotted owl to the same old music somehow makes it “unique” and worth owning.
  3. Form doesn’t apply to content. In other words, appearance is more important than structure, which is the form that moulds itself to the content, in the same way a story about a rescue at sea has a different flow and arrangement than a story about contemplating death in the bathtub.
  4. Simplistic emotions are important. Forget the depth of “Inno A Satana”; blindly praise Satan with roaring, consistent anger, because that way every fan, even the ones with Down’s Syndrome, can get what it’s about and get into it. Start a big singular emotion party, and make it simple so everyone can buy the CD and come along.
  5. Everyone can participate. Black metal clones are not specific to a certain land or belief system, as they are essentially musically the same and are designed so that even a retarded outer space alien could “get it” and start tapping its feet and wearing Darkthrone-brand jogging suits immediately. Nationalism, even elitism, eugenics or belief in anything at all is out; what’s in is having some music that sounds angry, is written like punk rock, and can be appreciated by everyone so they can buy the CDs or praise the “underground” scene queens who created it.

The average black metal fan today has not heard the formative works of the genre: Immortal, Emperor, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, Darkthrone, Beherit and Varathron when they were making essential, complex, beautiful music. All they’ve heard are the newcomers, both of the blatantly commercial Cradle of Filth variety, and the scene whore “loud, fast and antisocial” type of band. The newcomers are uniformly worthless, as they express nothing that rock music does not, and by giving it an extreme aesthetic, allow their fans to convince themselves that they are “part of” some movement against the dominant trend of society, even though much like Democrats and Republicans in America agree on the same core values, newcomer “black metal” repeats the same empty rhetoric that rock music has been feeding us for fifty years. Newcomer black metal is black metal only in the world of appearance; in terms of musical and artistic structure, it’s closer to punk rock or even Dave Matthews Band. It’s rock music.

Agents of Assimilation: The Hipster

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization — a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” — a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Ad Busters — Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization

Adbusters doesn’t mention this, but there’s a simple pattern:

Normal, healthy people pick music they want to listen to.

Hipsters pick music to make themselves look good.

A hipster is defined by this reversed cause/effect, and this is why they parallel our society: like people looking for political handouts, they are justifying themselves to others instead of acting as they know is right.

In metal, the hipster is the person always trying to be different, to pick music that is brainy or “authentic” (simple), the person spreading trends and fads. Instead of being an authentic fan who picks the music he or she thinks is best, the hipster is using the music as adornment to conceal their ordinariness.

What’s the damage, you ask? Hipsters bloat genres with people who don’t understand them and, in the ensuing confusion, pick the lowest common denominator. So heavy metal returns to rock, death metal returns to heavy metal, folk becomes punk, and so on.

Healthy societies work from cause to effect. We need an empire, so we build it (cause) and then it appears (effect). Dying societies work from effect to cause. We want an empire, so we create the appearance of an empire (effect) and hope it will show up (cause). This is why old black metallers fear trends, hipsters, fads and mass media like the plague: they promote this unhealthy psychology.

In the postmortem over humanity’s failure, our new reptilian overlords will discuss this issue, and conclude that humans had two modes of thought: a healthy forward-thinking one, and a negative and sick backward-thinking one. The hipster, like every other form of decay in our society, is backward thinking.

Metal is currently awash in hipsters because hipsters use something called irony to disguise their low self-esteem. If they’re listening to IRON MAIDEN, it’s because they find it amusing — not because they believe in it. In fact, they believe in nothing except what others believe in within their social group, which makes them always right. If someone makes fun of them for liking IRON MAIDEN, they can always claim their enjoyment is ironic. It’s a race to the bottom with the hipster, because believing in anything but illusion and evasion makes you a target, so they believe in nothing except “ironically,” and that’s how they infiltrated metal.

In the same way hipsters find trailer parks quaint and amusing, they found death metal and black metal intriguing. It was untamed, unsocialized material, and a threat to everything the hipster stood for. So they assimilated it, and moved in by taking positions in the community. Start buying metal, or selling metal, and others depend on you. From that they branched out by using the hipster tactic of focusing on the external. “Well, this could be more unique if we added a flute…”

When you focus on the external, and don’t pay attention to the fundamental quality of music that distinguishes it, which is how well it communicates, you end up norming the music. Structurally, it becomes all the same, but externally, it’s all tricked out in motley so it appears “different” and “new.” But the real name of the game is not being different, but being the same so you are universally accepted, while having enough adornments that you stand out in a crowd… just like the hipster.

We’ve seen this steadily increasing in metal since 1994 or so, and it was helped by some in metal who would rather leave a bad legacy with a full wallet than the inverse, such as Death and Cannibal Corpse. It will reverse, but only as soon as metal bands and fans start communing on the idea of forward-logic instead of backward, negative logic.

The end result of complete cellular representation is cancer. Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.) Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action, to the complete parasitism of a virus.

(It is thought that the virus is a degeneration from more complex life form. It may at one time have been capable of independent life. Now has fallen to the borderline between living and dead matter. It can exhibit living qualities only in a host, by using the life of another — the renunciation of life itself, a falling towards inorganic, inflexible machine, towards dead matter.)

Bureaus die when the structure of the state collapses. They are as helpless and unfit for independent existences as a displaced tapeworm, or a virus that has killed the host.

– William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Hipsterism is reality-avoidance, in the same way Crowdism or any other mass movement is: the assimilation of the individual by the crowd in order to destroy reality, which in turn destroys the collective. Societies, genres of music, groups of friends and businesses all fit this pattern, which is fundamental to human psychology. Either the individual stands up for what is true in reality, not what the individual prefers, or the crowd declares its own reality and then the collective veers off course because it has lost touch with reality. Assimilation is a byproduct of individualism without reality, just like bad music is the product of people pandering to each other and not finding a beauty in reality, including its darkness and horror, as heavy metal has throughout its four decades.

Resisting Assimilation

The problem with combatting assimilation is that assimilation is less an act than a passive lack of acting. When good metal is not made, and people do not assert what makes metal unique, assimilation surges in like water filling the space where it was swept out of the way. Like all things in humanity, the default state is one of disorganization and failure, and it is only when wise minds step in and re-direct the chaos that prosperity of any kind happens.

We have learned what does not stop assimilation. Trying to keep the music rare means hipsters buy it on eBay. Trying to keep it indie and obscure means that hipsters only prize it more. Trying to make it more offensive or extreme just makes it more novel. These methods do not work. What also does not work is trusting a “scene” or “underground” to keep away the mainstream, because underground scenes are an advanced form of maintaining rarity through social networks.

A “scene” means music that is consistent enough for people not to care what band is playing, so they can socialize in the same environment time and time again. A “scene” is clubs that play music that sounds very similar time and time again so they know they can draw an audience each time. A “scene” are sellers of music who find bands that sound like each other so they can compare past successes to the next generation, getting a crop of already-proven fans to come buy it all again. The variation is dead – the conformity is absolute. And worst of all, it’s voluntary and in a moral facilitative society there are few arguments accepted against it.

That kind of consistency kills music by raising the level of expectation to an entry requirement. The hardcore “scene” murdered hardcore by making it consistent – acceptable – “fun” and extremely similar. Bands who used to fight for a living could suddenly find central places to play, sell and broadcast their music – but in order to do so, they had to make it fit within expectations. Metal will die with a scene or without some form of one.

The problem with this flood isn’t its quality in itself. The problem is that when there is a flood of undistinctive material, (a) anything that does not conform to the pattern is not recognized and (b) the information overload is so great than any excellent band that does rise will be ignored. In essence, the underground has replicated the errors made by gigantic record labels in the 1980s.

Interestingly, the same thing happened in hardcore music in the 1980s when it became cheap and easy to release seven-inch records. Suddenly, there were no “fans”: everyone had a band, zine, label or distro. Consequently, quality went down, because no leaders were picked, and a great averaging occurred. Everyone could participate, but because there was no specialized fanbase, the farthest they got was participation, getting their share. No one great rose above and therefore, the great people stopped trying. There was no direction.

Analogous to the effects of democracy and consumerism on the quality of people in society as a whole? You bet it was. Analogy to egocentricism of the west, and its own cultural failings? You bet: the same mechanism was in effect: a lack of appreciation for quality because popularity/social pressures dictated participation, an external factor, not hierarchy, which requires a measurement of amorphous qualities such as “artistic worth” which are unrecognizable to most people in the crowd. Consequently, hardcore declined to the point where, in 1985, all the bands sounded exactly the same and there were no leaders.

Another concept, that perhaps will embitter some because of its practicality, is that of your personal landfill. What you produce on compact disc or vinyl or tape doesn’t magically disappear. It ends up in the landfills, with all the other waste you produce, to rot in insignificance, slowly leeching poisons into the earth. You like being alive, right, or you’d be dead — why create more personal landfill if it won’t achieve something you desire? For every CD you buy, there’s one more CD in that landfill. Buy the best, ignore the rest, and your personal landfill will not only be small, but will possibly not exist as others enjoy those CDs, since good CDs can be enjoyed in any age while trends are temporal.

My suggestion to all those who love metal is simple: stop supporting bands that are OK instead of great.

Few genres demand as much long-term allegiance as metal, and get it. Of styles likely found in a record store, only metal, industrial, country, jazz and classical have enduring audiences. Other genres are bigger, but people stay with them for fewer years. As history has shown us, metal is too easily absorbed by the mainstream. Black metal selling out and the rise of nu-metal occurred at the same time – is anything in the universe “coincidental”? It’s interesting to note that a similar absorption afflicted death metal, heavy metal and hardcore punk, all of whom relied on popular-music-style short song formats.

The Case for Metal to Follow Classical

However, there is one guaranteed way to take metal out of the mainstream: leave behind the mainstream song format. Most songs are three minutes of a verse-chorus nature, and they use devices such as rhythmic predictability on the offbeat (“expectation”) and melodic hooks. If metal were to expand on its riff salad nature, it would join genres like jazz and classical in a musically distinct form, and become inaccessible to those who want to make or consume bite-sized music. Every other metal band aspires to classical guitar anyway; why not liberate our impulses toward something that is clearly enjoyed and valued?

For example, consider these micro-symphonies:

When people tell you what they want, they usually tell you what appearance or experience they want — the effect — and do not understand the device for achieving that effect — the cause. They think in terms of the appearance of what they want and not the underlying structure.

For example, when people say they want simplicity, what they really want is organization. It’s why “My Journey to the Stars” works even though it’s “complex” in theory — complex means having a central idea that is simple and clear, and then manifesting it in different forms so people can compare them like metaphors and see the abstraction. People will tell you they want raw, fast, brutal, simple but they’re talking about the one riff they remember, kind of how most people can identify the opening riff to Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 — it’s the simplest, most memorable part of a complex music experience.

The role of art is to be a silent philosopher, meaning that it does not make explicit commands and references to everyday objects, but gives us a clear spiritual commandment and its corresponding aesthetic from which to work. Art organizes our spirits and approach to reality. It is important that art does this because most people know the end result they’d like to see, but are completely unaware of the context in which it exists. They see a riff, and figure that if they just heard that riff, they’d have the whole experience, or they think of one moment when they were happy and assume that correlations which occurred simultaneously to that moment — a cigarette, a postcard, a summer day — are the cause when the real cause was the sequence of events that led up to that one moment having great significance, or that one cigarette being the break that really helped them find mental clarity. It wasn’t the cigarette — it was the context.

In human life, once civilization is established, we face a causal breakdown. Person A does something, and Person B sees the results, and tries to work backward toward the cause. Metal bands see how others have succeeded, and try to imitate the outward aspects — faster drums, harsher vocals, floaty keyboards — without understanding that it’s the songwriting and beneath that, the ability to reference “meaning” in experience shared between artist and listener, that makes the song great and not just average with above-average execution.

At this point, the genre doesn’t understand its own spirit or aesthetics, so bands make salads where they throw together unrelated stuff and figure that since it has everything, it must be good. This “carnival style” metal is a salad of distractions from which each piece returns to a few exactly repeated themes. As a result, there’s a lot going on, like riding a merry-go-round and seeing the world outside flash by in disorienting random order, but there’s no development of theme; it’s just a more complex version of verse/chorus pop music.

People can’t put into words what they want. When shown what they want, they will initially resist it because it doesn’t “look like” or “sound like” what they want — people in 1990 “wanted” simpler, catchier, groovier speed metal, and that movement went nowhere. While sub-sub-genres like metalcore, deathcore, or “black punk” (hybrid of pop-punk, shoegaze, emo and black metal) have momentary peaks of popularity, these seem to fade quickly, unlike the lasting appeal of the best of death and black metal. They’re popular, but no one seems to love them like true classics.

However, there is still great room in this genre for those who can translate the spirit, aesthetics and organization of classical music — narrative motives — into death/black metal. That’s the real ground to conquer. Whoever does that will be initially unpopular, like death metal and later black metal were, but later acknowledged as a hero. Like the songs listed above, such music will be passionate but leave the repetitive, formulaic, simplistic structure of pop music behind.

Metal music will never fit into the framework of other genres. Where other music might sound scary, metal communicates the meaning of scary, and this means that it will always oppose the anti-orthodoxy of mainstream logic. For those who understand its message and the power of its sound, assimilation of a distinct genre into the indistinct mass will always remain a threat.


  1. Romanticism, on the other hand, is what the writers of the Romantic Period practiced: there is not much agreement about what that is exactly, and there is in fact a longstanding debate about whether there is such a thing or only Romanticisms. See A. O. Lovejoy, “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms,” PMLA, 1924; René Wellek, “The Concept of `Romanticism’ in Literary History,” Comparative Literature, 1949; and finally, Jerome McGann’s Introduction to The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (revised edition). – http://www.users.muohio.edu/mandellc/eng441/urllist.htm
  2. A movement in art and literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in revolt against the Neoclassicism of the previous centuries…The German poet Friedrich Schlegel, who is given credit for first using the term romantic to describe literature, defined it as “literature depicting emotional matter in an imaginative form.” This is as accurate a general definition as can be accomplished, although Victor Hugo’s phrase “liberalism in literature” is also apt. Imagination, emotion, and freedom are certainly the focal points of romanticism. Any list of particular characteristics of the literature of romanticism includes subjectivity and an emphasis on individualism; spontaneity; freedom from rules; solitary life rather than life in society; the beliefs that imagination is superior to reason and devotion to beauty; love of and worship of nature; and fascination with the past, especially the myths and mysticism of the middle ages. – http://www.uh.edu/engines/romanticism/introduction.html
  3. Some of the earliest stirrings of the Romantic movement are conventionally traced back to the mid-18th-century interest in folklore which arose in Germany–with Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collecting popular fairy tales and other scholars like Johann Gottfried von Herder studying folk songs–and in England with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele treating old ballads as if they were high poetry. These activities set the tone for one aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs.

    Whereas during much of the 17th and 18th centuries learned allusions, complexity and grandiosity were prized, the new romantic taste favored simplicity and naturalness; and these were thought to flow most clearly and abundantly from the “spontaneous” outpourings of the untutored common people. In Germany in particular, the idea of a collective Volk (people) dominated a good deal of thinking about the arts. Rather than paying attention to the individual authors of popular works, these scholars celebrated the anonymous masses who invented and transmuted these works as if from their very souls.
    http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html

  4. Emphasis on the activity of the imagination was accompanied by greater emphasis on the importance of intuition, instincts, and feelings, and Romantics generally called for greater attention to the emotions as a necessary supplement to purely logical reason. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  5. While particular perspectives with regard to nature varied considerably–nature as a healing power, nature as a source of subject and image, nature as a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, including artificial language–the prevailing views accorded nature the status of an organically unified whole.
    http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  6. It was viewed as “organic,” rather than, as in the scientific or rationalist view, as a system of “mechanical” laws, for Romanticism displaced the rationalist view of the universe as a machine (e.g., the deistic image of a clock) with the analogue of an “organic” image, a living tree or mankind itself. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  7. Symbolism and myth were given great prominence in the Romantic conception of art. In the Romantic view, symbols were the human aesthetic correlatives of nature’s emblematic language. They were valued too because they could simultaneously suggest many things, and were thus thought superior to the one-to-one communications of allegory.
    http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  8. In addition, neoclassicism had prescribed for art the idea that the general or universal characteristics of human behavior were more suitable subject matter than the peculiarly individual manifestations of human activity. From at least the opening statement of Rousseau’s Confessions, first published in 1781–“I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe that I am not made like anyone in existence. If I am not superior, at least I am different.”–this view was challenged.
    http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  9. Certain special features of Romanticism may still be highlighted by this contrast. We have already noted two major differences: the replacement of reason by the imagination for primary place among the human faculties and the shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation for poetry, and indeed all literature. – http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  10. The hero-artist has already been mentioned; there were also heaven-storming types from Prometheus to Captain Ahab, outcasts from Cain to the Ancient Mariner and even Hester Prynne, and there was Faust, who wins salvation in Goethe’s great drama for the very reasons–his characteristic striving for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted and his insatiable thirst for activity–that earlier had been viewed as the components of his tragic sin. (It was in fact Shelley’s opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.)
    http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  11. A literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, characterized chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and an emphasis on the imagination and emotions, and marked especially in English literature by sensibility and the use of autobiographical material, an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a predilection for melancholy, and the use in poetry of older verse forms. – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/romanticism
  12. The ‘heat-death’ of the universe is when the universe has reached a state of maximum entropy. This happens when all available energy (such as from a hot source) has moved to places of less energy (such as a colder source). Once this has happened, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Since heat ceases to flow, no more work can be acquired from heat transfer. This same kind of equilibrium state will also happen with all other forms of energy (mechanical, electrical, etc.). Since no more work can be extracted from the universe at that point, it is effectively dead, especially for the purposes of humankind.
    http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae181.cfm
  13. But the rising materialism and focus on business at the cost of the mind and the spirit was spawning reform movements all over America…Many felt a psychic dislocation, that the bottom had dropped out of their world since traditional values and conventional reality were just not enough for them. They tried to impose meaning individually, for institutions and dogmas seemed to possess little truth. Philosophically, they reacted against the materialistic educational theories of Locke and rationalism. They found Truth more a matter of intuition and imagination than logic and reason. They rejected the mechanistic view of the universe so dear to Franklin and Deists and opted for a more organic view, seeing the world more as dynamic and living. – http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/intro.htm
  14. “He was recognized as a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang, which celebrated the energetic Promethean restlessness of spirit as opposed to the ideal of calm rationalism of the Enlightenment. Goethe’s poem ‘Prometheus’, with its insistence that man must believe not in gods but in himself, might be seen as a motto for the whole movement.”
    http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/goethe.htm
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diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral

diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral
Review by Alexis

While the doom metal genre during the early ’90s in general followed the melodic style of bands like Candlemass, Australian Disembowelment pushed the genre forward by concentrating its topics into esoteric territory, in an attempt to re-discover the abstract language behind metal. Traditionally seen as one of the main innovators of the death/doom crossover, this band fused grindcore influences with the technical patterns of death metal, distilled in epic-long compositions.

Transcendence into the Peripheral from 1993 is their only full-length album and marks the height of the band’s career. The first compositions roughly follow a sonata form, with melodic introductions accentuating the main theme, long passages of structural improvisation, and ending with a repetition of the introductory theme, sometimes fading into technical percussive patterns, hailing its death metal language roots.

Often pending between fast paced moments and longer, intricate passages where the symphonic and droning riffs melt in with the cathedral-like sound production, this band adopts the staggering, epic phrases of Black Sabbath, discarding melody in favour of a rhythmic-harmonic aesthetic. This gives the music its spiritual, ritualistic aesthetic, setting this band apart from most other doom metal bands at the time. The droning sound of the bass and guitars, melting with the drums that pound like gigantic timbales for a funeral ceremony, invokes a sound picture of huge reverb, letting each sound slowly die away like space dust in the universe.

The second half of the album somewhat loses the sonata intention and instead builds up 9+ minute improvisational compositions, where the structural changes in the music require full attention from the listener. Not dissimilar from a mental ritual, the language of Disembowelment is both hopelessly beautiful and heroically assertive, expressing in both content and form the Sumerian concept of the tree of life and death, stretching from the ocean of eternal truth (Abzu) to the divine heaven (Anu).

Although lacking in the department of melodic development, and despite a compositional coherence that could have tied the intricate riff salads together into more central harmony from the lead guitarist, Transcendence into the Peripheral stands apart from the rest of the metal clones to date through its direction into the abstract foundation of metal language. Macabre, stylistic, technical and emotionally heavy, this is a musical manual into personal development–and during its heights, transcendence beyond the mundane world of humans.

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Obscurity, Tyrant and At the Gates in Malmö Sweden

Obscurity, Tyrant and At the Gates
September 3, 2008
Kulturbolaget
Malmö, Sweden

After a round of alcohol to suppress the academic background noise from that same day, we took the bus to the shit hole of the south of Sweden, Malmö. Once a great cultural market city, today a polarized ghetto, famous for its sky rocketing crime rates and ethnic segregation. Despite the social decay, Malmö has got a fascinating city life and impresses with its architecture, public events, and first class symphony orchestra. Likewise it’s the center of many metal and electronic acts, and tonight it was none other than At the Gates who would enter the stage at Kulturbolaget. A small, compact club greeted us once we stepped in, while the black/thrash metal band Obscurity was playing uninspiring satanic hymns in the old Bathory vein. The monotonous noise melted in with the screams and laughter from the nearby bar, setting me in a state of mind where the outside world seemed to be just another peripherical dream.

Observing the surroundings, one thing struck me immediately: a small portion of the audience seemed to be old veterans who’d obviously come only for listening to At the Gates, but the rest consisted of the typical Gothenburg crowd, which you’d expect for an In Flames show. Even fat kids with hip hop pants and Slipknot shirts showed up and were more concerned of acting hip and talking in their cell phones, than to pay attention to the music. It gave an unserious impression and made it clear that metal today has become more of a social thing for confused teenagers than being about art, ideals and principles. The next thrash band took the stage one hour late and crossed an abundance of pointless bridges with speed metal riffs and beer drinking. It was hard to take the music seriously, but the nature of these sloppy Bathory-clones made it seem like it was some form of tribute to the early Swedish metal scene, although the quality of the music said otherwise. When the concert was over, I chatted up with some of the people by the bar, most of whom were post-black metal fans, meaning they understood death metal as the aesthetic template found in “Slaughter of the Soul,” but didn’t understand the older material and couldn’t grasp the architectural differences in song writing between death and speed metal.

The people who came for the music were easy to spot, because they spent less time socializing and more time contemplating the musical experience. When At the Gates finally took the stage, the atmosphere in the club changed. The band began playing songs from later albums, and it was clear that Tomas Lindberg was in top shape. Although missing their old guitarist Alf Svensson, Tomas’ desperate screams from the red album, and the fact that the acoustics in the club compressed the sound of the riffs, this was At the Gates with full energy and expression. The feral, creative spirit of the band impressed me, and technically the performance was flawless. Tomas got almost nostalgic over the fact that they’d played in Malmö back in ’96, and now they were here again for the last time. The tour was obviously a dedication to the fans and to the music, revealed by the fact that they’d chosen to play songs from every album released. Songs that made a special impression on me were “Windows” from the red album and several classics from “With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness” and their first EP. It was a fresh experience, like a brutal realist nightmare, containing mental states of insanity:

Windows, sharp, cold
Wrap your psyche in blankets of pain
No more light of day
We’re the windows to your insanity

And the mandatory blasphemy of religious dogmatism:

The beauty in twisted darkness
Raped by the light of Christ
We were not born to follow
We don’t need your guiding light

This is the essence of death metal: a rejection of a morally principal approach to life, and the celebration of the raw, physical nature of mankind. The wild, dissonant power chords perfectly layered like a mental journey, backed by the typical death metal percussive rhythms and bridges, launched a macabre symphony together with the painful vocals, and stirred the crowd into unisonal head banging. Few things offer you the experience of feral freedom, like banging your head in rhythm to the sound of death metal, and feeling that the rest of the social world suddenly is reduced to noise. At the Gates provoked us into such a mood through its atonal riff patterns and ascending harmony, proving that they were still masters of the genre. The band was right in avoiding a sell-out by only playing later songs, but naturally, the crowd liked performances like “Under a Serpent Sun” best.

The reason to why people will always praise “Slaughter of the Soul” as the best ATG album is for the same reason that black metal bands like Dark Funeral, Xasthur, Drudkh and Blut aus Nord today obscure the great classics: it’s a musically shallow template that distils 3-5 years of death metal aesthetics into a neat package, kind of like how The Abyss created the musical template for 98% of all third wave black metal bands to come. We think it’s death metal, until we pay attention to the song writing, which is basically speed metal impregnated with the harmonic riffing and technical percussion that mark the band’s musical legacy. The mainstream appeal of the album makes it easy to understand and grasp, but doesn’t contribute anything outside of its technical concept. “Slaughter of the Soul” is a merchandise product, and the audience clearly enjoyed it. Although my best moments of the concert were performances from the two first albums, possibly something from “Terminal Spirit Disease” as well, the band was energetic and keen on playing later material for the new generation of death metal fans, and in a sense you could feel that what At the Gates was doing with this tour was to prove that the spirit of Swedish death metal was still alive and causing havoc.

The whole performance gave a very respectable, professional and worthy impression, and the band received admirable appreciation from the audience after the finale. When the concert was over, the Gothenburg crowd slowly descended out on the streets, among traffic lights, illegal taxis, and the enormous, clear night sky. The rush of energy, passion and alcohol still boiled in my blood, as I contemplated a new perspective on a band, whose music I’d otherwise reserved to lonely nights when the world had seemed more insane than usual. Death metal, not only as music, but also as an existential passion, was pointing my life in a new direction. Through this concert, At the Gates had proved that Swedish death metal is not a legacy, but an ongoing strife to deal with life intimately and choosing endurance as value in a world reduced to hollow social values. Despite the downfall of the genre and much of its audience, the music continues to emphasize the heavy in life, and the presence of death in our immediate everyday life. “Kingdom Gone” is the scream of mankind out into black space, without response, yet with the certainty that life needs to go on.

– Written by Alexis of SNUS

Bands:
Obscurity
Tyrant
At the Gates

Promoters:
Kulturbolaget

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