Metal as Anti-Modernism

metal as anti-modernism

Article by David Rosales.

I. A Romantic Art

In the past, we have likened the spirit of metal that culminates in death and black metal to that of the literary, romantic movement in Europe. Romanticism was meant to embody ideals of naturalism and individualism in a return to primeval spirituality connecting us with our origins, our surroundings, and a more conscious future. The romantic character of the 19th century stands in glaring opposition to the heavy industrialist upsurge and man-centered utilitarianism of that time. Epitomized metal contrasts with this idea in one important aspect: while artists two centuries ago strived to bring attention to the importance of human subjectivity, underground metal stressed irrelevance of the human vantage point.

In describing metal as a neo-romantic artform we may well be undermining the aspects that define it in its historical and psychological contexts. Historical as each movement is encased in a flow of events linked by causality and psychological, on the other hand because of the relative independence and unpredictability with which leading individuals affront these inevitable developments. Together, these two factors account for freedom of choice within predestination. Even though romanticism and metal were both reactions to the same decadence at different points in time, the latter rejects the former’s inclination towards universal human rights and other products of higher civilization in exchange for a nihilistic realism arising from the laws of nature. Underground metal is a detached representation of a Dark Age; one where power and violence are the rule in which all forms of humanism are hopelessly deluded or simply hypocritical.

The uncontrolled and contrarian character of metal stands at odds with the more self-aware and progressive bent of romanticism. Metal, at least in its purest incarnations, can never be assimilated – something that cannot be said of the older art movement. Pathetic attempts at dragging metal under the mainstream umbrella that abides by status quo ideals often fail catastrophically. When forcefully drawn out before dawn’s break it will inevitably miserably perish upon contact with the sun’s rays like a creature of catacombs and dark night-forests.

Attempting to define metal is as elusive as trying to pinpoint ‘magic’. Outsiders cannot even begin to recognize its boundaries. The mystical, ungraspable, and intuitive nature it possesses attests to this and sets it apart from romanticism in that not even those belonging to it are able to crystallize a proper description. The very substance of the genre is felt everywhere but the innermost sanctum always dissipates under the gaze of the mind’s eye.

II. Romantic Anti-Modernism

Even though it cannot be said that the one defines or encompasses the other, the connection between romanticism and metal nevertheless exists. Aside from the concrete musical link between them which helps us describe metal as a minimalist and electronic romantic art, the abstract connection is more tenuous and related to cyclic recurrence1. Metal is not a revival of romanticism nor its evolution, but perhaps something more akin to its rebellious disciple: a romantic anti-modernism.

The foundation of this anti-modernism is a Nietzschean nihilism standing in stark contrast with hypocritical modernist dogma; it spits in the face of the semantic stupidity of post-modernism. This is a sensible and ever-searching nihilism2 that does not attach itself to a particular point of view but parts from a point of disbelief in any authority. It is a scientific and mystic nihilism for those who can understand this juxtaposition of terms. It does not specialize in what is known as critical thinking but in the empirical openness to possibilities taken with a grain of salt. The first dismisses anything that does not conform to its rigid schemata; the second one allows relativism as a tool with the intention of having subjective views float around while transcending all of them and moving towards unattainable objectivity.

Such transcendentalism connects metal with Plato and Theodoric the Great rather than with Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. Metal looks beyond modern illusions of so-called freedom and the pleasure-based seeking of happiness. It recognizes that without struggle there can be no treasure and that today’s perennial slack will only lead to complacent self-annihilation. This is why, instead of representing the blossoming of nature in man through the sentimentalisms of romanticism in its attitude above time, to use the words of a wise woman, metal stands stoutly as a form of art against time.

III. Essential Reading for the Metal Nihilist

As an attempt to communicate our understanding of the essence and spirit of underground metal, below are some books through which to start the abstract journey through metal and the metaphysics that moves it.

Industrial Society and Its Future
Theodore John Kaczynski – Industrial Society and Its Future

Choosing Death
Albert MudrianChoosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore

the illiad
Homer – The Illiad

bhagavad gita
The Bhagavad Gita

Tolkein Children of Hurin
J.R.R. TolkeinThe Children of Húrin

critique of pure reason
Immanuel Kant – Critique of Pure Reason

IV. Some Music Recommendations for the Metal Nihilist

We have traditionally presented a certain pantheon of underground death and black metal to which most readers can be redirected at any moment. A different set is presented below that is nonetheless consistent with the writer’s interpretation of Death Metal Underground’s vision.

bruckner salone romantic
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major “Romantic

sammath-godless_arrogance-cover_photo
SammathGodless Arrogance

condor-nadia
CóndorNadia

bulgarian state choir
Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir – Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares

julian bream portada
Julian Bream – La Guitarra Barroca

timeghoul
Timeghoul1992-1994 Discography

iron maiden somewhere in time
Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time

bathory-twilight_of_the_gods
BathoryTwilight of the Gods

V. Films

Not being a connoisseur of cinema in general, the following is but a friendly gesture. This is a loose collection for the transmission of a basic underground metal pathos.

tout les matins du monde
Tous les Matins du Monde

the witch
The Witch: A New-England Folktale

martyrs-movie-poster12
Martyrs

until_the_light_takes_us.jpg

untilbox
Until the Light Takes Us
A 2008 documentary film by Aaron Aites
and Audrey Ewellabout the early 90s
black metal scene in Norway.

tarkovsky stalker
Andrei Tarkovsky – Stalker

Notes

1This is not the re-happening of the exact same universe that Nietzsche is supposed to have been talking about, but a transcendental recurrence of sorts. What I am trying to express here is the cyclic reappearance of abstract and collective concepts among humans, because they are also part of this universe and as such are subject to such underlying pendulum swings in the forces that move it. Perhaps a better descriptor could have been abstract collective concept reincarnation, but that seemed to convoluted, and cyclic recurrence captures the wider phenomenon, irrespective of what definition academia wants to adhere to.

2This somewhat liberal use of the term nihilism deserves to be explained a little further in order to avoid confusion. By this it is not meant that metal’s outlook consists of nihilism in the ultra-pessimistic sense, in the sense of total defeat, which seems to be the expectancy of most people from nihilism. The idea here is that as an art movement born in the post-modern era, in a civilization that has already been ravaged by nihilism, stripped from relevant cults, metal begins from a posture of extreme skepticism that is extended to everything and everyone. This skepticism is nihilistic because no intrinsic value is placed on anything, yet it is scientific because it is curious and will experiment. Metal’s development dances between nihilism and individualistic transcendentalism.

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Elitism is Darwinism for heavy metal

cicada

If you are a false, do not entry. – Sarcofago

Elitism gets a bad rap because it has been appropriated by hipsters to justify their interest in low-quality but obscure bands. The obscurity of those bands makes them rare, which makes them valuable in a social situation, as you can always one up someone else by suggesting something more obscure, connoting greater knowledge, experience and “being in the know” on your part. This is the inverse of elitism however which is a simple formula of quality > quantity, which hipsters confuse with simply measuring by quantity alone in order to find the least popular and equate it with the highest quality.

Inferior substitutes replacing quality originals is after all a trope if not the defining feature of what happens over time in our society. A good idea becomes edgy, then hip, and so a dumbed-down version is made for the masses to democratically share in the hipness, at which point declining quality (dumbing down) destroys whatever made the idea important in the first place. One needs look no further than the progression of Metallica from their second album to their fourth to see this in action. Over time, the complexity and intensity erodes and is replaced by a friendly, vapid and appearance-based substitute. The story arc of black metal shows this most clearly, moving from an outlaw genre that upended all rock and pop conventions to a pale imitation in the form of indie rock with incomprehensible screaming.

It is no wonder the hipsters want elitism misunderstood. It would eliminate the entirety of hipster bands by pointing out that, instead of being quality because of their rare quantity, they are impostors and pretenders. Poseurs, if you will. Then again, what defines hipsters is the formula appearance > reality, so that entire genre of people are by nature poseurs, scenesters, day-trippers, tourists, pretenders and the like. Elitism offers cynicism with hope: that by raising our standards, we can raise quality. World-weary observers may note that this has something in common with the theories of Charles Darwin, which held that better adapted creatures reproduce more and thus over the years their traits predominate; on the other hand, traits which are not used die out. Cynicism by itself leads to a dark place where nothing has value, but cynicism with hope leads out of the confusing harangue of nonsense that most people rationalize themselves into liking, and shows instead a chance to clear the clutter, value the good, and spend life on more meaningful pursuits than what is new or obscure.

Darwin gave us a warning, however. Humans now control the index of selection, and so if we value the wrong things, those will predominate over other traits and exclude those traits. For example, in black metal it became fashionable to like the novelty of hybrids with indie-rock, and those sold more as a result, and this displaced most of the original material. In turn, the originalists attempted to preserve their music through exaggerating its external characteristics, which led to self-parody and low quality. Elitism is recognition of what our ancestors could have told us: most people, most of the time, are engaged in useless or stupid activity in order to appear important. The self-importance of the individual is the death of humanity, perhaps, but it certainly forms the death of music. One needs look no further than a thread of favorite bands where each user busily types in the most obscure bands he can think of in order to appear wise.

Misanthropy has long been a trait of metal. Compassionate misanthropy would be much like cynicism with hope, or a recognition that most people are busy with the useless, but that some are not, and if we value those good, we get more of the good; on the other hand, if we ignore them, they die out. Darwin would nod and smile at this implementation of his theory. Unfortunately for humans, only some — those with the intelligence, experience and honesty/aggression to pursue the truth — can articulate the difference between gunk and glory. These are opposed by the rest because these tastemakers will point out the the Emperor has no clothes on at all, which invalidates the posing and posturing of the majority. This in turn renders the hipster, scenester and try-hard irrelevant, and they fear this and as a result fight hard against any quality > quantity assessment, which leads them to try doubly hard to find the obscure but mediocre and champion it as the apex of the genre.

Majorities however determine the order of the day. They have more money and in democratic societies, political power; their misery is that by “winning,” they self-destruct by replacing quality with inferior substitutes. The last twenty years of heavy metal reflect this anti-Darwinian approach and quality has declined proportionately. Even record labels find that following the most recent trends — the way to success in a mass society — has stopped working for them as consistently as it used to. This intensifies the desire to replace quality with quantity, especially by claiming that a small quantity or being ironic, different, unique or contrarian signals quality. On this point, hipsters join with the bourgeois mass consumer marketers in the same theory, and through two different pathways, produce the same inferior result.

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Metal as Transcendental Art

john_constable_the_hay_wain

I. Music for the sake of…

In Book I of Plato’s The Republic, Socrates is engaged in an exchange of ideas with Thrasymachus regarding the nature of justice. In this debate, Thrasymachus is noticeably anxious to drive a point that justifies his views rather than finding out the truth. In between the sarcastic remarks and false humility that characterize Socrates, the older philosopher puts forward questions and comparisons that shed light on the topic in interesting angles.

One of the most interesting arguments came after Socrates’ opponent declared that justice could be defined as “the interest of the stronger”. Socrates’ response came to a point where he postulated that all art (which he uses as an equivalent to “talent” or “occupation”) acts rather in the interest of the receiver of his work. So the true art of the physician is neither in the receiving of money nor in a perfection of medicine in itself, but in the curing of maladies and keeping the body healthy.

Socrates then extrapolated this to illustrate how justice was what a ruler imparted in the interest of the people. A ruler is given power to lead and impart justice to the best interest of the people they govern. That rulers may often become corrupt is a different matter.

This got me thinking, what about music? What is the purpose of music? What is music for? From history, we know music has served different roles, from religious expression, conducive to a form of indoctrination, to aristocratic caprice, to romantic ideology, nationalist propaganda and every other conceivable use of music as ambiance or a vehicle for anything else.

We should make it clear that not only were these approaches different, but not all were equally close to the truth about music. Most do not understand that it can only evoke sentiments, even if detailed and vivid, but not particular scenes. It can speak to the human subconscious through the filter of the conscious (which is why you cannot “get” a music that is completely new in style to you — for example, the “learning process” one goes through when getting into death and black metal). More importantly, it cannot speak of individual ideas without the aid of words because it belongs to the instinctive understanding of humans as a species. Human nature and education mold these perceptions.

The most empty of all the interpretations was that art should be done for its own sake. A laughable oxymoron, if ever there was one. As Socrates correctly argued, art is done for the sake of the less powerful that receives it, the object of its mercy. For music, that is the human spirit, the subconscious and the conscious as a whole, your state of mind, whatever you wish to call it.

II. The options that metal has at its disposal

In his Fifth Heretical Essay, “Is Technological Civilization Decadent, and Why?”, Jan Patočka briefly goes over the topic of pre-history (which he clarifies does not mean non-history), its transition into history and humanity’s ascending from an animalistic lifestyle to one where one’s considerations extend beyond personal immediate necessities.

Pre-history for humans was characterized by having survival itself as a main preoccupation. Life for life’s sake. Setting the conditions for historical life, humans moved into settlements and gradually were able to afford independence from the every-day fight for one’s life. The price of this was work. This work became a responsibility in exchange for safety and space to indulge in pleasurable activities. Patočka refers to the second one of these as the the orgiastic, a release and exchange from the toil of responsibility that provides an escape from a life of pure survival.

This sort of life could still be considered as life for its own sake. The clever reader may observe that in the previous description a full circle is described. Each activity on the stack is concerned with an individual trying to escape the previous state in order to keep going, to ensure survival.

It is then that the transcendental, the sacred, the divine, the ulterior, makes an entrance into human awareness. This is not to be confused with religion, which is only a systematic arranging of rituals and beliefs which may or may not be a way to the divine. Independently of the system chosen or the disavowal of all systems, keeping something larger than ourselves in perspective can make us redefine the way we see our individual lives. Our lives are no longer lived in redundancy, just in order to keep living, but are charged with energy and will power to build or attain something without the intention of receiving personal reward. (Remark: It is common for people to have kids in order escape their mundane lives, but their intentions are equally mundane and selfish, mostly bringing children they cannot properly raise to an overpopulated world in order to satisfy their empty lives. The transcendent  ideal goes beyond such gimmicks of self-deception .)

Thus we can descry three possible avenues for music:

  1. For mere function in context (responsibility)
  2. For pleasure itself (the orgiastic)
  3. As a medium to perceive and keep in sight something larger than our individual human lives (the transcendental)

The nature and goals of different music, perhaps to different degrees rather than in straight-up black-and-white distinctions, can be classified using these three elements. Music that is deemed superficial is that which lacks in transcendence. Mainstream (a term that only makes any sense from the 20th century on) music, specially, can be said to work in the primitive paradigm of responsibility on the side of the artist and pure orgiastic pleasure on the side of the listener. In most music, this activity is usually a combination of both on the side of the musician, responsibility to norms in order to get his pay and an attention to how much pleasure the music provides him. A reflection of life for life’s sake in an empty music devoid of any transcendent meaning.

Transcendental music and art in general would imply musicians being invested in the music for something larger than their own personal profit (monetary or otherwise) and an audience similarly invested and discerning of music that gives them that sense of going-beyond their individual lives. All the songs about common love, friendship and equality notwithstanding as they only serve to comfort weak individuals in their self-pity, not propel them forward to greater heights were the self is at least partially dissolved.

An example of a middle-of-the-road agreement would be Johan Sebastian Bach, who, like any man living off of music has to fill certain requirements. At the same time, he is renowned to have constantly searched for an ideal in music that would reflect the divine through proportions and relations, guided as well through a crystallization of rules in smoothness and logic that results from a fastidious attention to natural human perception of intervals (artists two hundred years later did the opposite…). In practice, he often got into trouble and wasn’t the best “worker” in the sense that what he produced was seldom exactly what was expected of someone in his post. But he survived, was honored by the clergy and royalty alike and his music outlasted him because the society in which he lived (Germany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) valued the transcendent, the divine, above anything else. Cynics can stop laughing, of course Germans at the time also fought wars and had to take care of business, and so did Bach. Following a transcendental path does not mean you are exempt from the toil and eventualities of life.

That metal’s nature is that of a transcendental art can be proven by pointing out the way in which it developed. As we have previously described before, each metal stylistic development had to do with a shedding of aesthetics in which it lurched forward away from the mainstream and into more distinct characteristics that would set it apart from rock music and in a rebellious statement of intention that stated its anti-establishment position. But in contrast to punk and other protest music, metal was not anti-authoritarian out of a social revolutionary sentiment, but from a nihilist-realist point of view. It was a reducing of humans to ants in an uncaring universe by using Satanic, pagan or occult imagery to depict concepts that stay true from antiquity to this day. This is the same reason why metal is so prone to using fantasy fiction themes. Metal is not an escape, it is reducing of this pseudo-reality to what it actually is: one of many possible constructs.

Individually, this or that artist may believe or use the imagery and language they adopt, but as a whole, metal is none but that transcendent essence that refuses to bow to the arbitrariness of present human status quo. In its place it does not propose anarchy or freedom, but calls for an awareness of reality as existing outside human expectation, want, need or hope. It is a confronting of reality instead of a twisting of truths for the shielding of and maintaining of mundane activities for the sake of staying alive peacefully and pleasurably. More importantly, this confronting of reality does not imply a fatalism, but a way to emerge triumphantly, seeing through individual situations and times, recognizing our place in nature and our dependence on it.

III. Implications in Practice

How does this translate into music? Is art more than just its intention or its random interpretation by an audience?

In his discussion, Patočka made three important distinctions in order to better attack the problem of the decadent. The separation between meaningsignificance and purpose was stated functionally different. Meaning is the most difficult of these to grasp. It is not a value, nor is it the same as purpose although they could fill a same role in certain circumstances. Meaning is said to make something open to reading, to a sense, to understanding of something that is as it is. Purpose itself is the reason or intention why something is carried out or why it is brought into being. Significance is concerned with its relative role or function in relation to a particular context.

Purpose and significance are subject to times and context. Meaning is not. The meaning of something can be interpreted to have different significance in different places, or it can be used for different purposesBut what it is does not change, and so its meaning does not. The distinction between purpose and significance is of the utmost importance when it comes to understanding and judging music. The purpose of musical devices is often confused by individualists and relativists to be one of the other two. The purpose of music matters little to the music critic who is charged with judging its quality and not its good intentions. The music critic cares only about significance.

But I propose a slightly different mapping in which the human mind, not the rest of the universe, is the world of action for music. After all, music is artificial, it is made by us, for us and it is its effect over us that matters. Therefore, meaning can be redefined in the context of universally perceivable effects in patterns, textures and intervals. Universally as in across the human species. It is to be expected that there is a variance in the effect, but that does not detract from the existence and relevance of a mean.

The definition of purpose need not change, it still lies in the reason why a certain music would be made. Now, significance would shift to being the acquired role of structures and relations in different music paradigms, different genres, different traditions. That means that just as different spoken languages, music can have its own rules arising from conventions between human perception and arbitrary organization. But the more arbitrary it is and the less it conforms to natural human perception, the less capable of transcendence a music is. This does not mean that education cannot be involved. But education can reinforce and deepen what comes naturally and follows the path of human potential (Common Practice Period), or it can be capricious arbitrariness arising from the fallacy of the human mindas a blank slate (see Serialism).

Two things need to happen for a transcendental music tradition to be sustainable. The first is artists that are devoted to the transcendental aspects of music. The second is a discerning audience. Part of this discernment is a certain trust in musicians, their own vision and values as well as their abilities. This is the same sort of trust we have for leaders of any kind, be them rulers or scientists.

The reason why we do not have this trust in musicians in modern times is because as a result of historical processes, they have come to disgrace themselves. The sort of respect for artistry and trust in their distinction above ours survives today only in very dark corners of human action like specific classical music niches and extremely underground metal and ambient circles. In metal, these are the sort of circles that remain willingly untouched by labels in order to keep their art at away from vulgar and unworthy reception.  These remain the last bastion of metal against the taint of the mainstream.

It is in understanding there is something more to human nature and human experience that is both innate to us and that we share with other human beings, that we can also come to respect the power of transcendental music: music that taps into these aspects. Music that has the power of directing human conscience in a particular direction, as well. Today, underground metal is one of the few musics that go beyond the merely functional or the pleasurable. This is music that has the power of cultivation, of expanding the mind, of looking beyond your own fear of the unknown, of inevitable death and into the future of humans as a species and not just you as an individual, but as an individual channeling the species into a more aware future.

IV. The Transcendental: Art for the Sake of Human Evolution

It is no surprise that we can trace a very clear line from the 18th century to the 21st at the beginning of which art is universally sponsored by the ruling classes and institutions of power that through gradual changes becomes increasingly independent (19th century) and later on less connected to human nature (20th century). This culminates in a complete stagnation in the 21st century, our times…

The question of true transcendental art being underground or not depends on the current values of society. In the case of our modern society, its purely materialist and ultra-democratic outlook that dictates that personal caprices matter more than reality is the antithesis of the environment where a transcendental — one that reflects enduring meaning — art can be fostered.

By definition, a materialist civilization that attributes no meaning to anything except the massing of perceived riches or power, cannot produce such an art. That is to say, such a civilization does not even believe there is such a thing as the trascendental. Furthermore, this materialist outlook is based on an absurd pushing of boundaries through a rational point of view taken to an extreme. But anything taken to any extreme loses contact with reality, which is itself an amalgam of degrees of many different qualities — compromises between opposites.

A rejection of reality in favor of an artificial extreme such as materialism is then enabled to brush aside and subvert anything that does not conform to itself. This includes human nature itself. In fact, the materialist position claims there is no such thing as human nature. This enables the power-hungry, the greedy and anyone else to try and clean their conscience through a pandering of the idea that we are only the result of the cultures into which we are born and values are only social constructs. The dogma then becomes: power is the only objective measure of success. A side effect of materialism is the idea that everything we perceive is subjective and therefore not subject to judgement or control.  All that matters is if I think this or I like that. The weakling’s alternative to the dogma becomes: happiness is the only subjective measure of success.

Both of these emphasize an enlarged “living in the moment” that favors egoism that, as proven by history, results in an almost complete disregard for others’ living in this same present and those yet to be born — unless an immediate reward/punishment is offered to the materialist individual. The transcendental provides precisely the opposite: a view into the characteristics that make you human, that dictate our nature, that both unite us and make us different. As Steven Pinker summarizes in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, this flies in the face of research that has in turn been suppressed and vilified by an establishment eager to maintain the status quo in a similar gesture to a superficial Church censoring scientific discoveries centuries ago.

Also contrary to a short-sighted reading, this should not result in us embracing the understanding of one’s own nature as licence to indulge in it, but rather a precise knowledge of how to control it and channel it in order to become better.  A transcendental view of time and values applied to our species may pave the way for not only a widespread search for individual enlightenment but a species-wide one. One in which humanity works together for its own good, which at this point would translate into a caring for the planet it is destroying in the vulgar self-interest dictated by materialism.

The importance of metal as this transcendental art is its power to maintain this knowledge and to promote universal values and even more importantly, their understanding. The reaction of materialism and the religion of scientism against the notions of transcendental value are emotional to their very core but also based on observations of how values defined arbitrarily in the past lead to social disasters. This, combined with their own superficial and strictly functional misunderstanding of the values prevented them from fully becoming aware of the underlying human need and impulse to reach for something beyond the material and the every-day.

This is why those who understand such transcendentalism treat the mainstream with opprobrium and an extreme disgust. As with anything else, the attitude of those who understand can be confused with those who follow and do not understand, those who adopt attitudes — even pseudo transcendental ones — with the ulterior motivation of immediate reward to themselves. And thus elitism and the upholding of all that is truly excellent is marred and disgraced by a civilization of insecure and selfish individuals who cannot see past their own self-interest, a selfishness that is then projected onto those who they judge because they cannot conceive of anyone actually believing and acting for the sake of something larger than themselves.

Nietzsche is reviled by the religious (who, in general, have never read him, let alone understand him) and by the materialists (or at least those have read him, those who haven’t or do not understand seem to think him some sort of atheist hero). The main reason why materialists despise him is because he is a realist. Realism flies in the face of extreme and delusional reality-deforming conceptions of life such as materialism. As a realist, Nietzsche recognizes the inherent human need to believe in something outside himself. For those who have been paying attention, it is obvious this does not necessarily imply some sort of superstition or dogma.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch (the “superman”, the “overman”, the superior human) as described in Thus Spake Zarathustra, is one that sees and goes beyond his own times. One that is not trapped by the paradigm of his contemporary society and that furthermore excels himself above his peers in a work. This sort of talking can be taken metaphorically, but it is not meant to be. Going beyond one’s own times has to do with recognizing history as a set of changing variables within a timeline on an unchanging or slowly-changing human nature where a set of set meanings remain constant for us but are, perhaps,   difficult to see.

It is in the of going over and overcoming of common man who is little more than a tamed beast, that we humankind can continue on their learning and growing path as a species. This is the nature of the transcendental. The individual transcends in his perception of his people and time and contributes to a flow of which he is only a part. Only then can the species attain a transcendental vision in which it is not only looking at its immediate problems but at its long-term development ten or twenty generations in the future. Would that we could see such a civilization arise, it would be a beautiful sight to behold.

V. The Transcendental in Action through Metal

Arising from the context of popular rock music in the late 1960s with a different musical method and a realist mentality, metal veiled its message behind mystic frontispieces that became whole with the dark romantic aura behind its motif-driven music. The classical romantic tradition that so influences it has as one of its focal points the return to an intelligibility and “naturalness” that was most readily searched for in taking hints from folk music melodies and rhythms from different rural landscapes around the world (primarily from Europe, unsurprisingly). This did not mean a ridiculous simplification of music to banal catchy lines, but a simplicity of which Plato’s Socrates spoke.

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity,–I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly.

— The Republic, Book III

Musically, what is transcendental must necessarily be atemporal, it must have the capacity to communicate with human beings from any historical (or pre-historical, for that matter) period, age or walk of life. This does not mean that the connection has to be instant or that the listener does not need to go through a “learning process”. In fact, in the particular case of metal as a veiled teaching, it is only through maturity in understanding it in a holistic manner that one comes to understand the truths that several great musicians with piercing views about what it is to be human reflected through it.

Despite the influence, there is a very sharp contrast between classical romantic music and metal. The difference is a consequence of the historical context, particular social class and sentiment out of which they each arose. Romantic art came from both the need of the individual to find a place and expression of his own, not in the modern selfishness of the individualist, but a place in nature and in reverence to it. A connection to what it is to be human. As classical music, its prestige and the station of those making it allowed it to pursue such things in broad daylight. To this, we should add the nontrivial matter of the nonexistence of recorded music or other conveniences that flood and distract listeners. The expression of the romantic artist could be full and undisclosed.

Metal, on the other hand, comes in a time where popular culture reigns in saturation of kitsch: superficiality and banality for the immediate pleasure of the distracted and manipulated masses. Less important but worth mentioning is that it originated in strong and independent-thinking middle-class individuals who saw through the deception of their times. Several choices in its underground character come from this. As an art form that subverts the ruling falsehood, it is not allowed to be displayed directly. The fact that being an intellectual resistance also means that not all can understand it and that its concerns go beyond the present manifestation of human society and its dogmas require that it is not fully out in the open. It must assume a mask that reflects an outer and simple intent that keeps most at bay to guard what it contains. Its identity must be more distinct and defined than its predecessor and so, willingly, metal takes on a much more limited range of expression than classical romantic music from the 19th century.

Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by some other evil, and at every such crisis meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure; and another to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition, or on the other hand, when he is expressing his willingness to yield to persuasion or entreaty or admonition, and which represents him when by prudent conduct he has attained his end, not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely under the circumstances, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.

– The Republic, Book III

It is also important to understand the outer and the inner manifestations of the spirit of music. There is a learning process to each kind of music, because outside is manifested the tropes of a region, culture, group, perhaps a particular “language” or set of conventions. By basing itself on patterns and harmonies the human ear feels naturally drawn to, the music is aligning itself to what is permanent to human perception, at least in this point of our evolution. But all these are developed, “discussed” in a music that speaks a very particular mind. Just as Plato might have spoken in ancient Greek about similar things we would speak of today in modern English, so it is that transcendental music from music separated by centuries might be speaking the same message under different grammatical guises — tropes and conventions of times and style. The act of the  Dionysian manifesting itself through the Apollonian as the young Nietzsche described to us in The Birth of Tragedy.

Someone might ask if it isn’t better to disavow all conventions and try to speak in  “plainspoken transcendental”. The innocence of such a suggestion comes from the incorrect belief that what is felt, what is understood and experienced wholly as a human being can be put purely, clearly and unambiguously into words. Necessity dictates that emotion and experience be transmitted to the innermost core of the individual– a penetrating of various layers of prejudice and consciousness in order to move the primal and ripple back through to the higher, if possible. Neither mere words in their plain meaning nor musical structures on their own, in the beauty of orderly symmetry and mathematical correctness can achieve this. These only speak to the higher intellect, which may or may not translate this to the deeper self.

Reaching the innermost sanctum of metal, though, requires much more than being touched by it. For that to happen, metal cannot just be a passing entertainment or the object of devoted fanhood alone. It needs to be taken seriously and read correctly in its contradictions and flagrant imagery that bespeak a connection to the transcendental beyond mere unambiguous pattern codification. It is not a science in the modern sense and is more akin to occultism and its voluntary hiding-away. Following from that, we may infer that it is far more esoteric than exoteric, this latter being ridiculous or incomprehensible when taken at face value. Only treading the serpentine and treacherous paths through cycles of internalization and externalization does the metal fan become the metal initiate.

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Further thoughts on Obscura

gorgutsband

Many of us are fans of last.fm and other services which keep track of listening statistics. These allow me to link up various devices that I use and see what my actual listening patterns are instead of what I think they are. For example, if you asked me for a list of top death metal releases, I can easily name something like this list of the best in each genre. But that is an analytical opinion related to the art and music themselves, not a personal habit, which reflects more the day-to-day utility I find in different albums. Such is the split with Gorguts Obscura, an album I listened to extensively when it came out in accidental defiance of conventional wisdom, but then have not picked up since. Part of the reason is the unreasonably loud production, which makes it — like Sinister Hate and other albums of the “early ProTools era” — difficult to listen to alongside classic albums, and abrasively loud with lost texture of distortion. Another reason is that having heard it three times a day for five years, I may have simply absorbed it entirely. A third might be that while it is admirable as a piece of art, it may not be applicable to much of my life or thought process at this point.

I read Old Disgruntled Bastard‘s article “The postmodern Gorguts” with great interest not just because I enjoy ODB’s writing, but because he has cut into a vital topic: does Obscura belong to the old school death metal legions, or is it of a newer style that we call “modern metal”? Modern metal — comprised of nu-metal, metalcore, tech-death, post-metal and indie-rock — distinguishes itself from the old because it is composed like rock but with metal riffs mixed in among the jazz and prog affectations. The analysis of it as postmodern seems to make sense if one considers later postmodernism. Early postmodernism distrusted meta-narratives and so attempted to create its own based on the subtext, or invisible reality, as an alternative to the public text or consensual token-based narrative of our reality and civilization.

Later postmodernism simplified that to an idea of showing many different angles or perspectives of a topic, like a Pablo Picasso painting, which created a surface level of complexity of ingredients so intense that it reduced the organizing principle or internal complexity of the work to near nothingness. Compare Don Delillo’s White Noise to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (itself highly derivative of Pynchon, that highly derivative of Nabokov and Burroughs) for an example of this in literature.

The public school safe answer when asked about the origins of postmodernism is that it sprang up with Foucault, but someone who traces the history of ideas — and actually writes postmodern fiction — like myself may see the origins instead in an early writing by Fred “Mad Dog” Nietzsche entitled “On Truth and Lies in a Post-Moral Sense,” in which he points out the nihilism of language: tokens work only when people mean the same thing, but people project their own desires into the meaning through the imprecise device of memory, which means that narratives rapidly become deconstructed into manipulation and the only excuse is to discard the old values and definitions, and rebuild from common sense observation of reality.

There are, after all, very few ideas in history, and much as Plato was a watershed, Nietzsche defined the different perspectives in the modern time, but this analysis is too far-reaching to be made in public, least of all on the government dime. I remember talking with Audrey Ewell (Until the Light Takes Us) over this very split and finding myself dismissed as perhaps not knowing the background material, which is very un-postmodern as it affirms an official narrative in defiance of the introspection that leads to analysis of externality by structure and not appearance, a trait shared between Nietzsche and the Romantics that lives on in postmodernism albeit faintly, and only in the important works, excluding the forgettable Mitchell for example. Postmodernism appears in movies by David Lynch and Lars von Trier, specifically the death metal-friendly Melancholia, and even in the theories we tell ourselves about daily life. Discontent with The NarrativeTM abounds, but very few agree on what that narrative is or what is the truth that it conceals, which shows a difficulty of postmodernism: it deconstructs and points vaguely in a new direction, but never finalizes the task, which relegates it to the academic realm of sipping Merlot and watching the world build up tinder for the final carnage.

Having boiled out all of that context to postmodernism as idea, let us look at William Pilgrim’s excellent article. Death Metal Underground tries to provide multiple perspectives — in the postmodern sense — on any topic, but diverges from the postmodern narrative by affirming that reality itself is truth, and we can approximate that truth, so we must undertake the almost never undertaken second part of the process which is through reasoned debate to then find answers. People love the idea of multiple perspectives, because it means that since nothing is true, they can do whatever they want and that “feels” good to the forlorn or under-confident soul. They are less enthusiastic about boiling down the data found and constructing from it an assessment of truthfulness. The article contains two essential nodal points, the first of which is the definition of postmodernism:

…a school of thought that attempts to reject overarching structural meaning and belief in greater narratives. To the post-modern mind, existence and experience consist of pluralities, splintered into fiercely individualistic cells prone to subjective rule, and inimical to any attempt at establishing a universal system of knowledge. Under this philosophy, adherence to a common-law guidebook serving as a framework for value judgments would amount to giving tacit approval to an authoritarian scheme of things.

This sounds surprisingly like one of my favorite definitions, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of “nihilism”:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated…By the late 20th century, “nihilism” had assumed two different castes. In one form, “nihilist” is used to characterize the postmodern person, a dehumanized conformist, alienated, indifferent, and baffled, directing psychological energy into hedonistic narcissism or into a deep ressentiment that often explodes in violence…In contrast to the efforts to overcome nihilism noted above is the uniquely postmodern response associated with the current antifoundationalists….French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” those all-embracing foundations that we have relied on to make sense of the world. This extreme skepticism has undermined intellectual and moral hierarchies and made “truth” claims, transcendental or transcultural, problematic. Postmodern antifoundationalists, paradoxically grounded in relativism, dismiss knowledge as relational and “truth” as transitory, genuine only until something more palatable replaces it (reminiscent of William James’ notion of “cash value”). The critic Jacques Derrida, for example, asserts that one can never be sure that what one knows corresponds with what is.

Much of interest stands out here starting with caste. Alan Pratt seems to see the two interpretations of nihilism as reflecting degrees of abstraction. On one level, people say that life has no inherent meaning — that is the correct short form translation of what he says above — and translate that into dissipation; on the other, they see this as an opportunity to escape the dead definitions of a dying civilization and re-evaluate all that is known and how it is seen as important; in other words, to go back to Nietzsche and his Romantic-tinged apocalyptic renewal.

This also introduces the fundamental problem of modern philosophy, which it tries to handle through grammars of different fields of study, consisting of the coherence/correspondence split. A sentence can be completely grammatical and parse-able but contain no meaning because it imitates outward form but refers to nothing and resembles nothing found in reality. “A = x; if A > x, then the world ends” is entirely sensible as an expression, yet gives no information and relates to nothing. Like Nietzsche, most postmodern philosophers attack language, but unlike Nietzsche, they seek to find ways around language where Nietzsche’s point was the more flexible idea that language, logic and other forms of communication and truth-assessment are dependent on those who wield them, their intelligence, honest and intent; in other words, as he said, “There are no truths, only interpretations.”

This nihilism — which sounds a lot like postmodernism itself — distrusts not just a narrative, but the idea that there can be a narrative, or in other words one explanation of reality and how to deal with it that applies to all people. This translates to a distrust of the inherent or innate, such as the idea of “writing on the wall” or any other kind of definitive sign that communicates to all people. In other words, reality is out there, and all of our access to it comes through interpretations; these vary in value, and communication between them occurs through reality, so is subject to the same weakness. This means that there is no single symbolic or token communication which can be said to be innately true, and since the world itself issues forth no data in symbolic form, “truth” is a property of human minds and dependent on the quality, discipline and application of those minds, and is not shared among humanity collectively.

This applies less to the idea of a narrative within, say, a death metal album, that to the idea of a narrative describing our world and universal values to address it. However, individual interpretations can more closely approximate an understanding of reality, even if they cannot be communicated because communication depends on symbolic parity between all parties, which in turn depends on the ability to understand those symbols in roughly the same way. In ancient times, that viewpoint was called “esotericism” because it suggested that reality revealed its truths to those who were ready for them, with both a sense of knowledge being cumulative and not open to all people. A genius or highly talented person sees a different truth than others, thus this truth is localized to that person, and cannot be shared by the act of encoding it in symbols and speaking or writing them to others.

Taking this path through postmodern reveals that while postmodernism “flouts conventions”, as the article states, flouting conventions is not the total of postmodernism; it is one attribute, and it occurs not in and of itself but for the sake of undermining the narrative. This brings us to the core of Pilgrim’s analysis of Obscura:

In its abundant jagged outcroppings and in its constant search for the next unorthodox detour, Obscura shortchanges the simple truth that holds up metal and indeed all ‘essential’ music, that of relating an idea through sound.

I will simplify this in a grotesque but accurate way: tail wags dog. Instead of technique being used as a means of expressing an idea, the technique becomes the goal and the idea is filled in afterwards to unite the different technical parts. This common criticism of metal rings true in almost all disorganized works because the band wrote a bunch of riffs, adjusted rhythm like a big paper bag to fit them all together, and then called it a “song” despite having nothing in common between its parts, and thus no emergent atmosphere or communication which makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. This leaves us with the criticism of Obscura as failing to maintain a narrative, and whether this is related to the postmodern distrust of narratives, which itself could constitute a narrative. We could create a thesis of history describing humanity as a successive series of escapes from previously limiting narratives to new ones, but that then portrays postmodernism entirely as a form of deconstruction, which while compatible with the notion of extreme skepticism fails to capture the Nietzschean notion of “re-evaluation of all values” which is the second half of the postmodern process: (1) deconstruct and (2) reconstruct, from reality (correspondence) and not internal grammars (coherence).

The only remaining question is to analyze the music itself and see if its parts in fact associate in some way as to make a meaningful whole, which is the question here; postmodernism has served as a useful filter for introduction but not really a guide to how to do this. We are back to using the same compositional analysis that would apply to any death metal release, or any through-composed music.

Specifically, Pilgrim identifies the lack of a melodic or structural center:

Conventional melody is used not as the driving force behind the songs heard on this album, but as ballast to the band’s almost painful need to expand the template of extreme metal prevalent till then.

At this point my own narrative must switch to the incredibly general in lieu of analyzing each song. My take on this album is that Gorguts wrote an album in the style of The Erosion of Sanity and then, possibly through the work of Steve Hurdle, added strong melodic continuity. Then, they chopped it and re-arranged it so that riffs introduced themselves both in “backward” order of distilling from more texturally complex to most melodically clear, and arranged them so that the melody was introduced in a pattern which broke up its normal flow in order to introduce pieces in a sequence that created another emotional impression, then assembling it from its conclusion for the final part of the song. This seems to me both not the tail wags dog approach, but also a use of technique over composition, but in this case it was effective because the music was already composed and was modified with an additional layer of complexity and perhaps, some anticipatory contrarianism, in order to make its labyrinthine journey of fragmentary melodies into more of a puzzle assembled in the mind of the listener, not unlike how postmodern novels like Naked Lunch separated a story into vignettes and multiple character/setting groups in order to disguise it and force the reader to assemble it in the abstract, before repeating it in a finale in more concrete form.

However, it seems to me that the core of Pilgrim’s essay is his listing of seven attributes of metal, and that perhaps his intent is to use Gorguts and postmodernism as a point to speak about metal as both having postmodern attributes, and opposing postmodernism by asserting a narrative construction of its own. In this, metal may be a nihilistic exception to the norm of postmodernism, in that while it distrusts the contemporary narrative, and negates the idea of inherent truth/knowledge/communication, it asserts that it can portray reality in a fragment in such a way that others can appreciate it. Regarding the charges of amateurism, Pilgrim makes some solid points. The fixation on iconoclasm and paradigm-inversion, which itself strengthens a narrative by the fact that exceptions tend to prove the rule, and deliberately “whacky” permutations of arrangement draw skepticism, and deservedly so. The third possibility offered by this author is that like most works of art, parts of Obscura are sincere and insightful, and other parts are bullshit designed “outward in,” or from appearance to core, meaning that they communicate little or were modified to express something convenient after the fact. If taken as a whole however, the album minimizes these parts by fitting them within other songs that attract less trivial attention. Where Pilgrim seems proven right to me is through recent Gorguts output which emphasizes mysticism of the trivial as a means of enhancing the self-estimation of its listeners, much as Opeth and Meshuggah built a cottage industry around making simple music seem complex to attract low self-esteem fans who want bragging and pretense rights over their friends; where he falls short is that From Wisdom To Hate, while a more rushed and uneven album, further develops the techniques on Obscura.

 

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the Doors (1991)

the_doors-movie-oliver_stone

Idealizing the darkest edge of the first wave of 1960s rock that carried the true stamp of the counter-culture revolution that was forming, the Doors hit in 1991 just as the first Generation X kids — the children of the 1960s generation — were graduating from high school. At the time, it was perceived as glorifying the culture of the 1960s and the legend of Jim Morrison, but on seeing it many years later, it seems more a revelation of the emptiness of that time.

To understand the 1960s, one must first understand why the counter-culture was so influential. Rock music gripped the American mind because it had both messianic and commercial possibilities. As Sam Huntington observed in his epic American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, the lack of unity in American thinking arising from its democratization causes periodic mass movements with the ecstatic character of a tent revival — like witch hunts, civil wars, moral panics — called “creedal passions” in which Americans buzz like a hive to clarify their own values. The 1960s were one such time, a generation removed from the Second World War when it became apparent that not only did society lack direction, but it seemed to be sinking further into the 1950s commercial morass at the same time its social and cultural aspects deteriorated.

As part of a youth movement that re-interpreted the American vision to be far more universal through lowering standards for entry, rock music created a democratic mass hysteria in addition to making many people very rich. Into this fertile environment that The Doors dropped their first musical salvos, adapting the fantasy, hobo, dropout, hippie and beatnik themes of early 1960s rock into music with a darker edge. This was three years before Black Sabbath and other bands dropped the common viewpoint of “peace, love, (drugs) and acceptance” to issue forth Nietzschean warnings of doom.

In the Doors, Oliver Stone approaches a figure who remains influential in rock music and through it, the counterculture and American politics, which are now still in the hands of the Baby Boomers and will soon pass to millennials (Generation X having all but dropped out). Rock music idealizes its heroes with the kind of reverence that only a circus covered in rhinestones and dreamcatchers can create, and Jim Morrison represents one of this millionaire trailer park’s attempt at legitimacy. He was a poet. He read, you know, Nietzsche and stuff. He went to college and could have graduated. He was deep, therefore we are deep, because we are part of the same activity that he was in. And in that thought we see the essence of mass movements: people want to believe that participation conveys upon them the attributes they desire, when really they are just cosplaying as people of significance. It is a revolt of the nobodies. Naturally this has its dark side for performers, and the Doors is the story of that negative side to the feedback loop.

Stone captured the transition from 1980s to 1990s cinema with fast cuts, lots of background detail, and longer shots which move through complex sets. A good deal of attention to detail went into the Doors and it shows not through the kind of detail a viewer might revisit to notice new aspects, but a kind of gestalt of each scene where it appears both perfectly realistic and as cartoonishly articulate as writers need their subjects to be. The movie follows a linear path after introducing the so-called pivotal event in Morrison’s life, which although disputed by his family he found meaningful, in which he saw a group of Navajo laborers dying after experiencing a brutal automobile accident. At first, the movie follows a biographical path. We see Jim going to UCLA film school only to drop out, meeting up with Pamela Courson in a method that in our current society would be identified as “stalkery” and “rapey,” then singing his songs to the one person who believed in his films and forming a band with him. From that point on, the movie becomes a rockumentary showing events of significance from a brief biography of the doors, including controversial performances in New Haven and Miami Beach that later led to arrests and prosecutions. During this process, it works in the American Indian theme — Baby Boomers love nothing more than new groups to universalize, and Indians (Free Leonard Peltier!) were high on their list — to show Morrison gradually colliding with his inevitable fate, just to show that this rock god was made of legend and mysticism not drug and alcohol addiction.

While Stone takes a gentle view of his subject, he also keeps a fair and balanced outlook which requires removing the pink-tinted sunglasses and seeing the 1960s for what it was: a hairy, sweaty, flabby and filthy mob united only on wanting to be part of something really big, man, behaving with the decorum of those at a carnival not a cultural revival. The concert shots and interactions between Morrison and those “closest” to him increasingly show the selfishness and self-importance of the people attracted to this scene, which remains consistent to this day as anyone in the funderground can demonstrate. On the surface, we see the tragedy of Morrison the misunderstood poet; beneath the surface, we see how the whole thing was a farce from the beginning and the audience came not for enlightenment, and cared not a whit about his Dionysiac rantings, but was there for the spectacle and the hopes that it might convey the strength of the ritual onto its individual members, like some primitive superstitious mystic rite conducted by people wearing grass skirts and holding spears. Morrison was an egotist confined to what he allowed himself to notice, and aided by drugs/alcohol in that regard, and his audience were narcissists locked into him through a BDSM reaction where they wanted to see him self-destruct and feel important for having “been there.”

Like many before and after him, Morrison became trapped by the paradox of mass culture: in order for something to be popular, it must confirm what the crowd already wants so they can project themselves onto it, and by that process it becomes unrecognizably adulterated. The public then approves of this neutered version, turns it into a herd trope, and then wonders why its magic is gone. Like carnival-goers, they then shrug and rush on to the next “new” delight, finding no importance there either because through the process of popularity, anything important in it got filtered out beforehand. This leaves guys like Morrison and Kurt Cobain in a bad light. They lack the greatness of their influences, whether the brew of William Blake, Aldous Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche that Morrison cooked up or the cloning of hardore greats in a grunge setting that put Cobain on the map, and that leaves them as merely cheerleaders for an audience that exercises its ultimate power in not wanting to hear or understand the cheer. This drives the anti-hero leader to self-destruction as they he has become irrelevant, but delights the audience, who have a sadomasochistic relationship to celebrities where they both want to be them and want to see them fall for being the chosen ones. When Morrison ultimately self-destructs, it is as anticlimax and late arrival to the party, like a misdirected package arriving sufficiently after the holiday that no one remembers at first what it is for.

Stone wisely does not explore the various mysteries of Doors lore, such as whether Morrison died of a heroin overdose in a nearby nightclub during a flirtation with the drug in retaliation for Courson’s extensive use of it, or the various mythologies that contribute to the idyllic picture of the band’s founding and culture. He covers all the bases needed to make a big-budget high-grossing profile of Morrison, but introduces a hearty amount of artistic skepticism as well. He portrays rock as “entertainment” in the oldest sense, or people using other people to amuse themselves with no concern for the end result. He shows self-destruction and the cult of the anti-hero as a kind of egomania, where the anti-hero cannot conceive of anything beyond himself and so concocts the ultimate narcissistic act of shutting out the world permanently. Finally, he reveals the loneliness of someone who — having made his way to the top of the rock crowd — realizes that no one understands or cares who he is, or what he thinks, because their only concern is their own participation in the mass phenomenon. Probably a movie best watched twice in life, once as a teenager to pick up on the mythos, and once as an adult to see how cheap, tawdry and pointless all of it was.

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