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Black Sabbath – God is Dead?

April 19, 2013 –

black_sabbath-nihilismLost in the darkness
I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Savior
Help me make it through the night
Blood on my conscience
And murder in mind
Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom
Now my body is my shrine

The blood runs free
The rain turns red
Give me the wine
You keep the bread
The voices echo in my head
Is God alive or is God dead?
Is God dead?

Rivers of evil
Run through dying land
Swimming in sorrow, they kill, steal, and borrow. There is no tomorrow
For the sinners will be damned
Ashes to ashes
You cannot exhume a soul
Who do you trust when corruption and lust, creed of all the unjust,
Leaves you empty and unwhole?

When will this nightmare be over? Tell me!
When can I empty my head?
Will somebody tell me the answer?
Is God really dead?
Is God really dead?

To safeguard my philosophy
Until my dying breath
I transfer from reality
Into a mental death
I empathize with enemy
Until the timing’s right
With God and Satan at my side
From darkness will come light

I watch the rain
And it turns red
Give me more wine
I don’t need bread
These riddles that live in my head
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is dead

Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
Wondering if we will meet again
On the other side
Do you believe a word
what the Good Book said?
Or is it just a holy fairytale
And God is dead?
God is Dead x4

Right!

But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down
The rain turns red
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is Dead x4

Lyrically, it reminds me of “After Forever” but a bit more world-weary. Musically, it contains several allusions to past Sabbath and solo work by its members.

Thematically, it seems to me a response to black metal. Was Nietzsche’s target God, or our tendency to say nice things to each other and conceal the essential truth of the challenges before us? There are often many problems, but one root cause. If you don’t strike at that root cause, you get lost. If the problem is man, and not God, and society (collection of humans) instead of some external scapegoat, then we have a greater struggle than can be fixed by burning churches.

Black metal was purely Nietzschean in that it rejected the idea of a moral society and replaced it with the notion that the natural order of Darwinism produced better results. All of the Nietzschean tropes come out: praise of winter, of hardness, of privation, of wolves and of combat and struggle.

Black metal faltered in the mid-1990s when the bands realized that they might have missed their real target, which is something more like people socializing with each other and thus concealing unpleasant truths. While there are other intermediate and proximate causes of the problems we find it this world, the root cause often gets overlooked. That isn’t to say those other causes are good, or shouldn’t be fought in some form or another, just that they’re not the cause.

Black Sabbath is asking “Is God Dead?” and responding in the negative, pointing out that perhaps that last fifteen years of metal have been barking up the wrong tree. The first half of the song is questioning and self-centered, a personal drama. The second half, after the question is posed, is a thunderous rejoinder. The song splits on themes: the wine, the voices that fill the head (he cannot “empty his head”), the lack of any holiness outside the body that is the shrine, and the sense of a “mental death.” On the other hand, there is belief, a pervasive sense of something not fitting together with the narrative of the voices in his head.

Much is left ambiguous by this. “With God and Satan at my side” suggests a type of esotericism that mainstream Christianity will not embrace, and although there are references to the “Good Book,” a particular denominator has not been mentioned. However, the conflict between logic and intuition rises strongly in this song. On one side, there are empirical forces at work; on the other, instinct and a gut feeling. The song ultimately concludes with the idea that God is not dead.

And all of this happens under a banner formed of (a) a dour Friedrich Nietzsche and (b) a nuclear blast. This reminds me of not only black metal’s Nietzscheanism, but its apocalyptic viewpoint. In bad times, people start to get serious again about what they’re doing. Part of getting serious was, at least for black metal and probably for old Black Sabbath, rejecting what is popular and social.

Black metal is uncompromisingly against what makes people comfortable. In Until the Light Takes Us, musicians from Burzum and Darkthrone describe how they tried to get “bad” production for their music, to make it sound old and rotted. How they embraced evil imagery and acted out the most extreme things possible. This wasn’t a rejection of Christianity; it was a rejection of the social impulse behind civilization that prizes what looks/feels good to a group, to what is true — something that generally can be known by only a few, in the Nietzschean sense of the “apex predators” who have through natural selection risen above the rest and can see through a noble light how aggression is central to life.

Black metal may be anti-Christian, but more, it’s about the potentially mind-warping effects of socializing with others. Black Sabbath seems to be suggesting a new direction, which is less toward atheism and Nietzsche, and more toward sacrality, to which black metal might then respond that sacredness itself is what gets destroyed by socializing with others and obscuring the truth. This mirrors where a lot of the black metal guys went after the movement — Beherit to Buddhism, Darkthrone to cosmic space music, Varg to esoteric nationalism, the Graveland guys to folk music, and many others moving on to esoteric sounds like Jaaportit or Vinterriket.

Although they’d probably kill me for saying this, black metal people are generally the most religious people in the room. They believe that life is sacred, that forests are sacred, and that if nature is “red in tooth and claw” and life is “nasty, brutish and short,” that these are manifestations of the divine as well. Far from being “god is dead” people, black metal musicians strike me as being “we are worshipping the wrong god” people.

Hegel would argue that history moves through new ideas, their opposites, and compromises (synthesis). I would argue that history moves by the ideas created through a type of play acted out by characters representing extremes. In this, black metal shows us the antisocial, and Black Sabbath comes out for the sacred; the two will find common ground, because metal is ultimately sacred music. It worships power, death, nature and violence while others prefer pretty flowers and prancing kittens, but only one of those two perspectives embraces all of reality, while the other requires a social filter to merely exist. Black Sabbath and black metal are united in their dislike of that social filter.

Academics a-hunting for links between metal and religion

December 29, 2012 –

devil-kissedStudies of the relationship between popular music and religion have increased rapidly in the last twenty years, and the scholarly interest in metal music has “increased markedly during the past decade”, states researcher Marcus Moberg in an article published in Popular Music and Society earlier this year, where he evaluates the current scholarly writings on religion in metal music and culture.

The issue at hand is, apparently, problematic. Concerning metal music and culture as religion, researchers have used “top-down” methods to justify their assumptions, with little (if any) empirical evidence to support them. Case in point is Moberg’s own suggestion that “more thought-out views on religion in general would be relatively common among wider metal audiences” (considering metal’s individualist outlook combined with its fascination for religion), but there’s simply no (or not enough) data to support this claim. Another problem connected to the lack of ethnographic information concerns a prejudiced downplaying of the ideas within metal as little else than a rebellion against adult society. “[T]he issue of rebellion has always constituted a central theme in the scholarship on metal”, writes Moberg, but a clear specification of what ‘rebellion’ consists of has been lacking.

Metal music and culture can also be seen as “offering its followers a wide range of resources for religious/spiritual inspiration”. According to Moberg, scholars studying this area have been more careful in their interpretations, but have downplayed as well as exaggerated the seriousness with which metal bands explore these spiritual themes.

Moberg’s recommendation, then, is for future studies to be based more in fieldwork and ethnography, and less in speculation:

[I]n order to be able to provide more persuasive arguments about what followers of metal culture themselves actually get out of their participation in metal culture in ways that relate to religion/spirituality, studies would clearly […] benefit from striving to ground their arguments on the expressed views of musicians and fans themselves (and this concerns the issue of “rebellion” as well).

Supposedly, we shouldn’t be surprised if curious PhD students start asking us questions in between songs at the next Asphyx show…

A Legend Out of Control

December 4, 2012 –

Bathory’s relation to the band’s fanbase is an infected story of contradictory interests concerning very human desires for truth and meaning. Oftentimes fans and creator pulled in opposite directions, fighting over whether to leave the Bathory mask on or reveal Bathory’s inner workings.

Debuting in 1984, Bathory’s cult status was rapidly acknowledged in the musical underground. But during a long time a certain air of mystery surrounded the band. It seemed beyond time, beyond space, and even out of national context (to a Swedish person this Stockholm wonder didn’t seem as typically Swedish as many of the later Death Metal bands). In general, main man Quorthon kept to himself, few pictures of the band existed, and there were hardly any live gigs at all, in particular once the music got closer to Wagner than to Motörhead. Bathory took one heavy metal tradition to extremes: it created a mythos out of nothing more than a few cover images and an interview or two. This obscure and ambiguous myth bound people together. They wanted to live out this vision as they found it more appealing than their world. When the fanbase went looking for answers, and found little else but songs of evil, darkness, destruction and conspiracies with Satan, imaginations ran wild and filled in the gaps with what they wanted to see, not what they saw.

People have a desire for continuity in an individual’s past. In this case, that desire was expressed among metal fans by trying to explain Bathory’s music through references to a heavy influence from a band which prior to Bathory was seen as the most extreme: Venom. In several interviews Quorthon himself has denied any Venom influence, but in many biographies the memory of early Bathory as a Venom clone is nevertheless quite persistent. (According to Quorthon, his main influences were Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Exploited, and GBH, and later on Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn among others.)

The will to interpret Bathory’s music as a logical continuation of Venom, and accordingly seek out a sense of “eternity” in the genre which these two bands (among others) officially created in the earliest of times, is hardly surprising. A consistent pattern which suggests some sort of intention is simply more attractive than a chaotic mess of a genesis produced by two groups entirely unknown to each other.

It is, however, easy to recognize among the authors of reviews of early Bathory albums an aspiration towards and an acknowledgement of a distinct identity of the band and its founder. Regarding Bathory’s self-titled debut album and its follow-up, a mantra is repeated: these records are the starting point for a whole genre and Quorthon is its first hero. This is, so to speak, the creation myth associated with Bathory.

Repetition of this myth is presumably what makes it go beyond historicity and is what makes it timeless. It’s a way for a metal fan to not only “create” Bathory, but also be a part of the phenomenon. Even repeated listens to Blood Fire Death is a repetition of a mythical Now, which gives us a sort of “vertical anchoring.” If myth is a celebration of life, a summary of the Past in the Now, then this is certainly what Bathory is to the band’s followers.

Quorthon himself seems to have had an enormous respect for the mythical power of Bathory. Referring to his fanbase as “The Bathory Hordes”, he tried to reach out to it in order to receive answers on how to deal with this beast:

[…] send me a letter of what you think, what you would want us to do in the future […] Remember, it is you the fans out there on whom we depend on. […] Stay united and may the northstar shine on you all, keep metal at heart!!

This kind of democratization most likely rendered him unable to control the myth of the band. As Quorthon “grew out” of Satanism, and myths surrounding his persona still insisted on his being a demonic devil worshipper, he wanted to set the record straight. And this is where things get interesting.

In 1996, Bathory released Blood On Ice, a retro album with liner notes containing a lengthy exposition on the band’s early history. Presumably, Quorthon had wished to update his biography and rid it of the misconceptions that according to him were abundant in the metal world, but it was probably also a way to pay tribute to the legend by contributing to it with a few “behind the scenes” stories.

This, however, proved to be a serious miscalculation of what the fans wanted. The unmasking threatened the consistent cultural memory of Bathory. And reactions weren’t long in coming: fans spoke of sacrilege and treachery in the many letters that were sent to Quorthon as a direct reaction to the liner notes. The memory of Bathory was now to a great extent a social concern and no longer only the creation of one man. Quorthon writes:

I realized then more than ever before that BATHORY was surrounded by the same sort of stuff only legends are made from. The element of mystery and suspense was still very important to a lot of die-hard BATHORY fans. [The truth] didn’t suit the image that a lot people had of BATHORY or myself.

Quorthon died in June 2004, but shortly before his death he founded an official Bathory website in which he denies the old image of himself as someone who eats children, drinks blood, and lives in a cage, an image that apparently still needed to be denied. Quorthon tells of an interview many years after he abandoned his satanic image: despite the time that had passed, he was still expected to pose for a photo session with pentagrams, skulls and cobweb.

Ironically, many fans have as of recently noted that Quorthon himself tampered with the truth quite deliberately. The iconic Bathory goat – which has become a sort of identity marker among fans – is, according to Quorthon, a collage created out of bits and pieces “from several horror comic magazines”. In fact, the goat is taken from a finished illustration in a book on witches from 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the originator, Joseph A. Smith, got to know that his drawings had been used as subject matter for tattoos and the like all around the world for decades. It also turns out that the lyrics and title to Bathory’s “For All Those Who Died” is more or less stolen from a feminist poem by Erica Jong.

The legacy of Bathory will nevertheless die hard. Quorthon created a legend so powerful neither he nor its fans could control it, an art that hovers above independently of its creator and its receivers. Yet we shouldn’t forget the core quality of its longevity: Quorthon’s compositions. These are what will always create very much alive “elements of mystery and suspense” in the mind of the listener. That’s where the magic happens. Hence the art of Bathory is stronger than both the fans’ myth-making and Quorthon’s myth-busting.

Going through Bathory’s albums again, experiencing the passionate evil melody of “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” or the haunting existential angst of “Twilight of the Gods,” they contain the same everlasting power they ever did and is what makes Bathory eternal. The mask is put back on. Continuity reappears and everything returns.

Pestilence – Malleus Maleficarum

June 9, 2010 –

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the seven living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on Conquest. – Revelation 6: 1-2

Summoned forth to rage fury upon the unsuspecting but no less innocent, Pestilence, on each of their first three albums ushered in a predestined Apocalypse of the mind and struck at the heart of the dark forces of the Kali Yuga thus completing their microcosmic responsibility as “Kalki”, and providing the foundation upon which a new golden age and conciousness would hopefully arise. On their uncompromising and frenetic debut album, Malleus Maleficarum, Pestilence as corporeal manifestation of death and conqueror, harnessed the power of becoming to destroy the destroyer that is illusion and ignorance, and defiantly placed themselves within the torrential stream of becoming in a quest for truth. We as listeners are thus treated with no less than a passionate and structurally free form album that through its fluid, intelligent and precise use of riff craft probes and attacks on multiple fronts the lyrical themes tactfully explored by Van Drunen and Co.

Although one may be quick to argue that that the addition of socially conscious lyrical subject matter such as genetic manipulation and religious strife defines Malleus Maleficarum as a strict Speed Metal album, it is nonetheless better characterized as a highly refined and progressive speed metal album that straddles the death metal fence. Indeed, indicative of their speed metal roots is the common use of hysterical and staccato driven guitar technique reminiscent of bands such as Exodus, Destruction and Slayer that, coupled with an emerging yet competent sense of dynamics, melody, development and recapitulation of themes, successfully places “Malleus Maleficarum” outside the realm of pure Speed Metal and onto a pedestal of its own thereby providing the impetus for not a few debates regarding the essential nature of this album. Not to be missed of course is the embryonic vocal performance of Van Drunen, who while courageously exploring the memes that have driven modern society into calling forth the forces of plague and death to precipitate the end of this current cycle of humanity, opts for a hoarse rasp like yell in contrast to the later visceral death metal growl he is better known for.

Considering the less than inspiring output Pestilence has recently spawned, it is worth recalling and meditating on the legendary albums birthed by the youthful genius of this legendary band if only to provide inspiration and the soundtrack for a new generation of Hessians who will march forth triumphantly into the dreary haze of an uncertain but exciting future. With that said “Malleus Maleficarum” remains essential listening 20 years after its initial release. Standing out as a thought provoking album of much symbolic depth it also remains an uncompromising and virile album that successfully bridges the gap between speed metal and death metal and reveals the genetic ancestor of the latter genre. Not only a dramatic album in its own right Malleus Maleficarum stands as an interesting historical document that should not be overlooked by any serious Hessian.

-TheWaters-

Dantesco – Pagano

March 14, 2010 –

The challenge of creating relevant but still traditional Heavy Metal in this current age where even the most commercial face of Metal has been changed by the extremity of the underground seems to be an almost insurmountable task. The most recent efforts of mainstream veterans like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in continuing the genre provides little in and of themselves to enthrall the masses as they did with their once advanced, Romanticist art. There are also the countless Power and Doom Metal bands that have hijacked the older forms and do so with little to none of the magic that possessed the music of the seventies and eighties. Though the secrets of the grand, old tradition have been apparently condemned to obscurity, they can never be lost and befitting the nature of lost wisdom, have turned up in the least likely of places.

Dantesco hail from the small Latin American island of Puerto Rico and through their music, divulge a rich tradition of Spanish music and highly exoteric and vibrant Catholicism. Although chronicling the triumphant Heathen soul at war with Christendom, ‘Pagano’ conjures the sounds of the immanent culture and possesses it with a bestial inflection, as the vocals of Erico that dominate this album resemble a Latin black mass arranged with the magestic sensibilities of an European opera. Infact, the vocal style is as properly operatic as imagineable in Heavy Metal music, putting the high-pitched aspirations of a Rob Halford or Messiah Marcolin in their places, though still conveying a sense of extreme primality and visceral power rivalled only by the demonic throats of Black Metal vocalists. These sermons are conducted exclusively in the native Spanish tongue, which suits the guitars incredibly well, as the melodicism of the riffs is only supplemented by the Doomy heaviness of Candlemass influence, but really crafted with Spanish classical guitars in mind. This is where the music really comes alive, before there’s any chance of hearing the vocals as just a unique ethnic gimmick to fill space with. The compositions are constantly engaging, commanding narratives the scale of the epic title-track to Iron Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son‘ with attention to mood dynamics often passed over in favour of an intentionally one-dimensional wallowing by other bands who play this melodic, traditional and Doomy kind of Metal. All the techniques on show have been long perfected, and more recently, have even found their way into the mallcore slang of pre-teen alternative/hard rock bands (via. Gothenburg), but fortunately, it’s all found an orderly, emotive and inspiring expression in ‘Pagano’. The tight but hyperbolic interplay of vocals and guitar is a feast for those that love to follow several strands of ancient melody at once, as if transforming the old Hispanic anthems of Mexico’s Luzbel into rousing, harmonised hymns, tempered and then unleashed to invoke the spirits of pre-Christian warriors. True Heavy Metal, fit for contemporary ears, giving the current crop of extreme-influenced Pagan and Black Metal bands a serious run for their money.

-ObscuraHessian-

Impaled Nazarene – Ugra Karma

November 27, 2009 –

Ugra-Karma_49005aa435680Following up the band’s debut album Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz, Impaled Nazarene opened the silo once again to release their deadliest missile of truly Brahmastric proportions with 1993′s Ugra Karma. Roughly translating from the original Sanskrit into ‘bad actions’, the album’s title indicates the nature of this distinctive blend of Punk, Black Metal and other styles and sounds, as a dance of destruction atop the accumulated filth of the modern world. The updated artwork of a hooved, nuclear Nataraja performing this world-ending ritual over desecrated damsels and making occult gestures in front of an inverted pentagram takes this idea further in a profound hybrid of apocalyptic Hindu and Satanic imagery which also heavily underlies the musical approach of Ugra Karma. The deep, muscular bass-work in these anthems of armageddon give power to aggressive and militarised Punk-like guitar riffs imbued with a majestic, Black Metal sense of melodicism and pace. Their target is in sights, the riffs transform imminently like the complexion of a scene changing upon the arrival of Harrier squadrons from over the horizon, to rain hell on harmless victims! It’s these simple and incredibly conclusive narratives that give each song such a depth of expression, with the finality of a Vedic chant. Drums are overbearing and industrious in their sound, maintaining a constant beat that drills the blasphemous, mystical revelations of doom into the listener with a Nazistic authority, leading a new SS to purge the world of its undesirables. Impaled Nazarene present with all of their hatred not only the downfall of the world they despise, but the primal law which will bring that land of light and love to its knees, sodomise it and replace it with evil.

- ObscuraHessian-

The Sacred and the Profane

April 17, 2009 –

Mircea Eliade from Romania is one of the most publically revered figures on history of religion and the philosophy of religion, even though at one point he had an interest in Garda de Fier, the Romanian fascist movement contemporary with Mussolini. Among his vast corpus of work, this treatise concerning primarily what it is that men perceive as sacred, is one of the most read and debated ones.

The point of talking about this book is that it’s the most succinct and lucid introduction to the concepts of sanctity and ritual from a neutral perspective. Theology is obsessed with the Christian material and the occultists are obsessed with whatever it is they are obsessed with at the time. Eliade, on the other hand, is remarking on the intention of ritual and temples, cosmogonical myths and how civilization deals with the problem of adjusting to time, the great destroyer, and nature/environment, the great nurturing force. It is not surprising that one finds a lot in common with the ideals of Nietzsche and Evola, such as the concept of cyclical time and eternal return. In stressing the otherness of that which is perceived as sacred, he has interesting parallels to Jungian psychology and seems to foreshadow Foucault.

I believe this book is most helpful to understanding the character of mystical and religious experience and ritual, which has a definite part in metal culture whether in the hippie-tinged early psychedelia, the archaic revivalism of black metal or death metal’s explorations of the religious-psychotic mind. Eliade’s book does have its problems such as putting forward of very generalized statements, some unclear arguments and stylistically the writing is rather bouncing. Yet it is very descriptive, luscious and inspiring. Besides being a scientist, it’s obvious that he is also fulfilling some artistic, visionary and personal aims with this study.

-Devamitra-