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

SammathGodless Arrogance


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

julian bream portada
Julian Bream – La Guitarra Barroca

Timeghoul1992-1994 Discography

iron maiden somewhere in time
Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time

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



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


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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Classical and Pop Metal – Part 3 (The Natural and the Artificial)


Article by David Rosales, 3rd installment of a 7 part series

The word “artificial” denotes anything that is made by man, and which would not otherwise occur in the natural world. Likewise, anything that is “natural” is something that belongs to nature, not a conscious product of human design. Art itself is artificial, as its name suggests, and this very definition has lead modernist artists to trip catastrophically into the pitfall of abstract thought: confusing reality with its verbal definition.

The premise of modernist art is that since all art is artificial, then it should not matter how far away from natural human perception we take the art. The idea appears to be logical, at least on the surface, but it has mislead generations of artists who ending producing worthless (but “interesting”) garbage. Alas, logic is not enough to make an idea compatible with reality, and incorrect or incomplete premises and assumptions will invariably lead to flawed conclusions. The mistake here lies in ignoring the premise that while everything that is produced by humans is artificial, the consumer is only a natural organism, which only has natural means of achieving this consumption or utilization. This can be said of anything that our species makes use of: chairs are made so that our bodies are comfortable, food is prepared in all sorts of way but it must have a degree of compatibility with our body lest it be inedible, etc. Everything that an organism will consume, utilize or interact with must have a certain degree of natural compatibility with the organism in question.

This can be said about more things than the most obviously physical. The mind itself must arise from the same “physical” universe, albeit at a different level of differentiation which science only partially understands. The human mind itself has its own tendencies and limitations that are independent of nurture, and in turn the input faculties also lie within a particular range. Furthermore, not only is there a limited degree in which they are useful at all, there are degrees to which each of these is beneficial or detrimental to the healthy growth of mind and body, which are two sides of the same coin.

Now, if sensory limitations were the only obstacles, then the second line of modernist arguments would be triumphant; they argue that one needs only be repeatedly exposed to the experience of modernist art so that the ear gets used to it and accepts it. This is admittedly true, since the human body can accept all sorts of torture. It can even take pleasure in things which are unwholesome or detrimental to it when they are designed to interact with natural receptors. Modernist art goes the other way and avoids these natural receptors, thereby coming up with an altogether incompatible interface.

The mind, the subconscious, however, has its own nature (by which is meant that it is made for a very specific range of activities and consists of a very specific range of abilities: pattern recognition, narrative, etc), and brain plasticity is not infinite. We are products of this world, and as such our mind naturally reacts to certain input in a certain way. Hence, art that attempts to be unnatural is not truly appreciable or perceivable as spiritual, as traditional art would. It can only be interpreted in a cerebral manner and perceived in waves of shock.

Western classical art has traditionally been about the connection of the human being with the divine: his own higher nature as an extension of the natural order of the universe in which it becomes an individual for a single cosmological moment only to return to the whole. Modernism, then, is not a classical art. Modernist music is not classical music. It is not because it rejects natural avenues and instead argues for an ultra-natural, ultra-sensory experience that produces rationalizations.

To close this topic, we can liken this distinction between classical and modernist art to the difference between the traditional esoterism of the ancients in which multiple meanings were layered in symbols and rituals aimed at revealing actual information to the thelemic magick of Aleister Crowley, which placed value on the experience rather than the actual content. The classical is holistic and self-contained, the modernist takes needs arguments and justifications to appear to have any value at all.


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Good Taste, not Gimmick

Many different artists have sought to bring instrumentation that is unconventional to the genres they work in, be it metal, the folk music of a certain region, rap or   European classical music of a certain period. Oftentimes, these unusual choices in instrumentation are made with the intention of bringing in an element of novelty to the music. In other cases, it has been done because the picture, concept or sound in the artist’s mind can only, to him, be portrayed by making use of an imported medium.

When playing any instrument, though, it is paramount that the sonic qualities of its output, its strengths and weaknesses, are inventoried.  This permits us to wield instruments of different kinds with not only efficacy but efficiency. Unusual instrumentation and unusual usage of conventional instrumentation (e.g. the prepared piano) became a trend, almost a hallmark, of post-modernist 20th century music. This way of treating the way each instrument is played and how we focus on using its power rather than forcing it on its weak side, is referred to as playing an instrument idiomatically.
20th Century Minimalism arose as a peaceful revolution against the saturated and purposefully inaccessible music that classical music had become. Now, a lot of very different things are dubbed minimalism so that this term is more of a descriptor than a genre name. The idea is that minimalism reduces instrumentation, technique and expression to the most indispensable by stripping down willingly, rather than by building in its sense of belonging, as Beethoven would have done. This is why minimalism-oriented works can provide us with a most clear visage of how to make use of a musical instrument’s power appropriately.

Although not an official or strictly minimalist work, Olivier Messiaen‘s Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus takes us through a strange spirit-journey attempting to bridge the gap between our everyday selves and our inner souls. Influences on this work range from the evident Debussy, to Machaut and even to Greek metrics.

Contemplation of the child-God of the manger and (others) contemplating Him: from the inexpressible contemplation of God the Father to the manifold contemplations of the Church of Love, passing through the unbelievable contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, through the tender contemplation of the Virgin, then the Angels, the Wise Men, and of the incorporeal or symbolic creatures (time, heights, silence, the star, the cross).

The star and the cross have the same theme because one opens Jesus’ life on earth and the other closes it. The Theme of God clearly returns in the Contemplation of the Father, the Contemplation of the Son Upon the Son, and the Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, in By Him All Has Been Made, in The Kiss of the Infant Jesus; it is present in The First Communion of the Virgin (she carried Jesus in her body), it is rendered glorious in The Contemplation of the Church of Love, which is the body of Christ. This is aside from the songs of birds, carillons, spirals, stalactites, galaxies, photons, and texts by Dom Columba Marmion, Saint Thomas, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and the Gospels and Missal that influenced me. A Theme of Chords circles from one piece to another, fragmented or concentrated into a rainbow; one also sees rhythmic canons, polymodalities, non-retrogradable rhythms amplified in both senses, rhythms progressively accelerated or slowed, asymmetrical enlargements, shifts of register, etc. The writing for piano is quite eclectic: inverted arpeggios, resonances, contrasting features. Dom Columba Marmion (The Christ in His Mysteries) and, after him, Maurice Toesca (The Twelve Contemplations) spoke of the contemplation of the shepherds, the angels, the Virgin, and of the Heavenly Father; I brought back the same idea in a slightly different manner, adding sixteen new contemplations. More than in any of my previous works, I sought a language of mystical love, at once varied, powerful, and tender, sometimes brutal, in multicolored arrangements.

(December 10, 1908 – April 28, 1992)

Erik Satie‘s piano works are also not strictly considered part of minimalism as a movement, but they are a recognized precursor to it, probably in the same way that Debussy’s are. From Gymnopédies and Gnossienne to Satie’s Nocturne and his Sarabande, these piano works are as familiar as they are eerie. Just as the most disturbing images to the human mind involve figures that are almost human but not quite human. There is just enough for you to recognize them, but also just enough for you to find them possibly threatening, but not entirely so. The power of his music lies in the use of emotional uncertainty at focal points. So it is that Satie shows us a world both familiar and alien.

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