Heavy metal as an extension of the Romantic movement

November 24, 2014 –

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Yesterday’s post on Romanticism reminded me of how long the Death Metal Underground has been making the comparison between Romanticism and heavy metal. The Heavy Metal FAQ has mentioned this association since its formulation in the early 1990s, but before that, it was written on the early versions of this website.

We continue to write about it because the linkage is and always has been inevitable, although it is clearest from literature — such as Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake and John Milton — that the metaphorical comparison can be made. On a subtler level, one can find connections between Romantic imagery in every generation of classical music, including the “Romantic era” which produced Franz Berwald, Niccolo Paganini and Franz Schubert in addition to the oft-mentioned Beethoven.

Our writers have highlighted the relationship between Romanticism and Satan, and the meaning of black metal, the linkage between Romanticism and mythic imagination, early black metal and Romanticism, and the relationship between Blake, Goethe and black metal. The connection has been clear from the get-go, when the Miltonic language of Slayer such as “to reign in Hell” made it clear that this genre had origins in the Romantic canon, as if the Gothic-cum-psychedelia of the self-titled Black Sabbath album did not:

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While it has taken them over two decades to catch up, others have started to wake up to the heavy metal-Romanticism connection:

But “beneath all the grim vibes of Black Metal,” Hunt-Hendrix insists, “there’s this kind of spiritual ecstasy.” The tremolo picking creates the effect of “a string orchestra.” The great “unacknowledged influence” of the genre? Nineteenth century Romanticism.

…Byron, as did many other Romantics, courted what scholars have since come to refer to as “Satanic aesthetics,” a rebellious and sinister dandyism that manifested not only in their artistic creations but also in their personalities. Romantic violinist Niccolo Paganini–whose successor Franz Lizst maintained an “unbelievable” yet strictly heterosexual “passion” for fellow-heartthrob Byron—was rumored to have perfected his musical technique while imprisoned for the murder of his mistress, a skein of whose intestine had been repurposed as his G-string. The bejeweled and frequently open-shirted Bryon was the pointed inspiration for Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), whose “Byronic look” was marked by “the curl of the upper lip, and the scowl of the brow.”

Black Metal, of course, has a penchant for Satanic aesthetics as well. In the hooded, sword-wielding visage of Rob Darken of Poland’s National-Socialist-leaning Graveland we see a medieval specter worthy of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), or one that might have been conceived during the famous 1816 idyll of Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys on Lake Geneva, which ultimately yielded Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Much of the resistance to this idea comes from metalheads who wish to believe that their genre is sui generis, a term popular among hipsters used to mean “unique” in the sense of a style of yarn-bombing that no one else in Williamsburg thought of, and having the genre related to Romanticism diminishes its uniqueness. Others fear entryism if metal is associated with any other movement, hence the high hostility of metal to politics and organized religion entering its ranks (in addition to generalized hostility to feel-good illusions, of which organized religion is often considered one). Still others rage at the thought of heavy metal having anything “artistic” to it, and yet another group opposes this idea because it wants to find sociological (i.e. unconscious to the participants) motivations behind metal, not artistic ones which show some degree of alertness by the participants.

Among those who do investigate the link between Romanticism and metal, many look into the German writers. After all, DRI named an album after a Herman Hesse novel, and the term “heavy metal” was partially popularized by a band who took their name from another one of his works. Alistair McCartney, in The End of the World Book, writes about the connection between death metal and Romanticism:

Back in the late 20th century, specifically in the decades that have come to be known as the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed that every other day, teenage boys, tired of the sturm und drang of adolescence and inspired by the death-positive lyrics of so-called death-metal bands, were taking their own lives in very violent ways, which, according to sociologists, was typical of young men: a gun in the mouth and a car over a cliff were the preferred modes of suicide.

We can see these young North American men who were infatuated with death as direct descendants of the young European men, who, in the late eighteenth century, read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which ends with the lovesick hero with the supremely heavy heart taking his own life. Upon its publication in 1774, the book inspired two crazes on the continent: one for wearing blue coats, just like the coat the moody Werther wears; and one for suicide.

In this sense, although the first death-metal album did not technically appear on the horizon until 1985, with the release of Seven Churches by the band Possessed, this genre or subdivision of heavy metal was already getting slowly underway in 1772 when the then twenty-three-year-old Goethe, in residency at the Court at Wetzlar and fresh from a failed love affair, began writing the book to ease his own heavy heart.

…Historians argue that death metal’s popularity peaked in 1994. Similarly, not quite as many fans of death metal are taking their own lives — historians argue that this trend also peaked in 1994.

However, it seems the connection between Romanticism and metal is gaining momentum in the mainstream discourse. The bigger question is where we go from this point of realization. Romanticism was itself a reaction to the Enlightenment, and German Idealism a reaction to the reaction. History seems to be dancing around some idea it cannot quite get a handle on, and balances this with eternal sentiments like those of the Romantics: ideas that appear wherever society is “too much with us” and the individual is squeezed out by judgment of the herd.

Metal as Romanticism

November 23, 2014 –

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Romanticism defined resistance to social pressures in the post-Enlightenment world, but also caved to the pressure to accept the fundamental ideals of that earlier era.

Where the Enlightenment placed emphasis on individual choice and emotion, so did the Romantics, although they tempered this with a strong attachment to ancient values and the ruined forms of a prior world. It had a number of salient attributes:

  1. A revolt against accepted form: democratization of subject and language, a less formal poetic voice, and a new range of subjects such as the supernatural and “the far away and the long ago” adopted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and others; the visionary mode of poetry adopted by William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake; and the use of metaphysical symbolism.
  2. Focus on the poet’s or writer’s own feelings instead of a universal emotion shared among all humanity. This emphasized spontaneity, meditative stillness, and a sense of discovery through intuition. Imagination was seen as more important than fact.
  3. External nature (landscape, plants, animals) became a persistent subject.
  4. Often written with the poet or writer as protagonist.
  5. A sense of progress, or of limitless good achievable by use of the imagination, instead of reliance upon past methods. — (M.H. Abrams, “Neoclassic and Romantic” in A Glossary of Literary Terms, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Orlando, FL 1993, pp. 125-129.)

While it was an affirmation of the individualism of the Enlightenment, it also rebelled against the group-think thus created, and emphasized the thoughts of the exceptional individual — personified in the writer — over the “universal emotion shared among all humanity.” This template provided the basis for any number of tropes among pop culture including the “rock star” himself, who is assumed to have messianic powers of insight which he conveys through the ritual of the concert.

Metal began with a mixed heritage arising from rock and soundtrack music. Among the rock influences were The Doors, Jethro Tull and King Crimson, all of whom emphasized apocalyptic themes beginning in a crisis of direction in the human individual. These dystopian rockers showed us that under the progress of technology and advancement of society lurked a dark undercurrent, which was our lack of faith in our own future. Since the future is determined by the present, they looked to sources of doubt and fear in humanity. Metal carried this onward in a mythological H.P. Lovecraft inspired form.

This caused a clash with Enlightenment values. What are those? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a handy summation of the values of the Enlightenment:

In his famous definition of “enlightenment” in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), which is his contribution to this debate, Immanuel Kant expresses many of the tendencies shared among Enlightenment philosophies of divergent doctrines. Kant defines “enlightenment” as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of reason.

Metal brought a counter-Enlightenment mythos, as did much of the Romantics including writers like Mary Shelley and William Wordsworth: people are delusional and tend to prefer happy realities, and so they are not “guiding themselves” so much as choosing illusions that deny the fundamental nature of life as conflict. In the metal universe, conflict is a good thing as it leads to the rise of the stronger above the rest, and thus improves the quality of what is there. From Black Sabbath to Slayer and beyond, metal has criticized the happy hippie “love” mythos and replaced it with one where, in contrast to the Enlightenment, individual judgment does not reign supreme but instead misleads.

Death Metal Underground has advocated the belief that metal is a Romantic art form for over two decades now. In our prior incarnation as other web sites, FTP sites and even g-files during the bulletin board days, we emphasized the Romantic nature of this music as an explanation for its occultism, warlike outlook and amoral or nihilistic worldview. Now it seems that metal journalism has caught up with this idea somewhat, as an article on urban metal site Invisible Oranges mentions it:

Beethoven’s music was less a road map through musical theory and more a guide to the very center of the human psyche. And history has rewarded his efforts; the name Beethoven is now known to a significant portion of the world’s population. His music was still recognizably Classical, but it introduced a host of new compositional techniques that shook the entire creative world.

And you know what? The same thing is happening to metal. Right now. And it’s not just a single band or album that’s leading the charge, either; Deafheaven, and Ihsahn, as well as less prominent artists like Aquilus, have also become what I’ll affectionately call “musically uninhibited.”

Other than the premise of this article being badly flawed, which is that anything “new” equals Romantic, and that recycling burned-out 1990s rock tropes through black metal and death metal is somehow “new,” it leads us to question the nature of the Romantic in metal. Metal displays many attributes of Romantic thinking but, like Mary Shelley or later Romantic Gothic writers including those in the Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft traditions, also displays skepticism about the “Enlightened” future. Specifically, it knows most people are purposeless and weak, that most “truths” are lies, and that society covers up its inner core of decay and desire for conflict. That’s perhaps the most useful way to frame this question, instead of “does nu-indie constitute a Romantic revolution in metal?”

The roots of metal: dark and occult Romanticism

September 28, 2012 –
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You’re on the one metal site that has identified the roots of metal imagery, content and outlook: Romanticism, or the artistic movement which swept the West in response to the Enlightenment and consequent industrial revolution.

Some 240 works from more than 70 artists comprise the show, encompassing some 150 years of fascination with mysticism and the supernatural. The paintings, sculptures, photographs and films were created by prominent artists such as Francisco de Goya, William Blake, Caspar David Friedrich, Johann Heinrich Fuseli, Edvard Munch, René Magritte, Hans Bellmer, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst. While some come from the Städel’s own halls, others are on loan from internationally recognized collections like the Musée d’Orsay and Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the Art Institute of Chicago.

'Abtei im Eichwald' (1809-1810) by Caspar David Friedrich

The exhibition categorizes the works both chronologically and geographically with an aim toward linking various interpretations of Romanticism, the post-Enlightenment movement that began sweeping across Europe by the end of the 18th century and continued its influence long after.- Der Spiegel

In literature, Romanticism includes Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft and E.A. Poe, from the later years of Romanticism.

In its earlier years, it includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, John Milton and William Blake.

All of these feature prominently in metal lyrics, as do horror movies derived from those Gothic Romantic works.

Re-engaging vital elements – combustions in underground demonolatry

December 16, 2010 –

Desecration Rites – Hallowed Depravity
Wiht – Wiht
Into Oblivion – Creation of a Monolith
Bloodfiend – Revolting Death
Exylum – Blood for the Ancients
Logistic Slaughter – Biophage

Desecration Rites – Hallowed Depravity

As if poisonous arachnoids had woven a sticky web around a hermit of the desolate Pampas, the multitude of savage Angelcorpsean riffs blasts from Desecration Rites’ rehearsal room with hardly any control or structure for the confounded listener to immerse in. The Argentinian blackened death duo did not have the time to execute all matters properly here because of unfortunate circumstances, and it shows in the deprecated, spastic rhythm of machine, the hysterical frequency and bouts of unclean guitar work all over the place. If something is keeping these dogs of sequences under leash, it is the deep, rumbling voice of Wolf intoning Faustian misery from the bottomless depths of darkness, occasionally unwinding power lines of similar effect to Craig Pillard’s majestic demon voice in the eternally classic Onward to Golgotha. For the modern death metal fan expecting a digitized, synthetic robot surgery there is probably no more horrific sight than this deluge of an album, but internally it is far more hypnotic, intricate and deadly than one could hope for. Just listen to the freezing pseudo-Nordic moments of “Death Sentence to an Agonizing World” or the ethereal, solar and jarring interlude of “Carnal Dictum” and you might just get a slight moment of hope in the future generations after all.

Wiht – Wiht

This British debutant lets loose the heathen wolves of war with a triumphant fanfare akin to Vlad Tepes’ famous Wladimir’s March before leading us to a journey of mountainous black metal landscapes, Graveland-esque meditations, ancient English fire-lit caves and Zoroastrian philosophy. The same sort of extended pagan tremolo epics (18 minutes of length at worst) that made countrymen Forefather and Wodensthrone veritable trials to sit through are pretty close at hand here, but the sparkling energy of youth helps a lot; there is a wildness and intrigue that contributes variation in sense even when there is none in content. Much of the logic of the songs seems to be emotionally stringing disparate sequences into a journey or a fictional narrative, which is essentially never a bad choice but some of the material here could be cut off to be brutally honest. Sound quality is the pseudo-spatial vacuum of too much reverb common for demo-level bands, but the instruments are clearly audible and the mid-rangeness is efficaceous. Unmoving and halfhearted chants and throwaway happy riffs are the blight of heathen metal, but Lord Revenant possesses sufficient pathos to allude to traces of occult evil and memories of ancient war at the same time; while this effort is not enough to coin him as a master of British metal, it would be a disappointment to hear these same songs performed by a more professional, disinterested voice in the future, or see him disappear without a trace after such a promising start.

Into Oblivion – Creation of a Monolith

More than one and a half hours of harsh, pummelling death metal is neither a mean feat to compose nor to listen. As if Wagner, Brahms or even Stravinskij decided in the otherworld that these wimpy rock/metal kids have had it too easy and possessed various souls to spend hundreds of nights writing progressive Romantic/Faustian death metal partitures, 20+ minute pieces such as the title track or “On the Throne’s Heavenward” lumber and crush with such interminable weight that it is hard to not feel like attacked by a divine hammer from above as designed by Gustave Doré. You can forget about them mosh parts, since this is material about as brainy as anything by Atheist, with slow-moving adagios and creeping crescendos more familiar from Brian Eno’s ambient music or Esoteric’s hypno-doom than anything in satanic metal realm. Vocals are sparse and it feels like about a half of the album is purely instrumental and this creates a strange calm suspension which might even feel uncomfortable; but compared to The Chasm’s mastery of technique, it still does feel like an essential emotional counterpoint or rhythmic pulse bestowing element is missing, and when the cruel vocals suddenly rip the air, it might even be perceived as a disturbance to the solemn atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is probable that they are going for exactly this synthesis of the intellectual and the primal; the emotional and the physical. So fortress-like, rational, calm and measured that it is hard to connect its spirituality with its death metal origins (even the previous Into Oblivion release), it is certainly an important statement while the cumbersome nature and certain academicism in construction (perhaps “filler” in metal language, the problem of the previous album as well) makes it a bit of an unlikely candidate for casual listening. Anyone interested in the future of Death Metal cannot afford to miss it, though.

Bloodfiend – Revolting Death

Heirs to the bludgeoning power of Escabios and other ancient compatriots, this recent Argentinian sect wastes no time with progressive anthems, intros nor filler in this concise EP of Autopsy influenced memoirs of early 90’s scathing death metal savagery. If the band has capacity for a challenging composition or a range of emotion, it’s all but hidden in this conflict of vulgar and intense demo taped riffs that could originate on any scummy cassette dug up from your older brother’s cardboard box vaults. Even most crustcore bands could hardly resist the temptation to fill the gaps out with something more liberal, but I am glad Bloodfiend do not resort to any loose pauses in their old school attack. The band is not yet quite there in the top ranks of death metal resurgence, but possess more than their share of contagious energy that will make for a good live experience and raise hopes for a more dynamic album.

Exylum – Blood for the Ancients

Brutal death metal cliches abound but also tasteful dashes of improvisational riff integration as California youth Exylum strike from the bottomless depths with a manifest of fragmented ideas like old Cannibal Corpse, Finnish death metal and newer black metal in a blender. Weird effected voices cackle, pinch harmonics abound, chugging is all but industrial metal, drumming provides a solid backbone and the ululation of the lead guitar harmonic reaches a hysterical plane of existence when the band lets go of identity expectations and go ballistic as in the end of “Worshiping the Flesh Eating Flies”. The worst thing on this demo is the tendency to fill space with something simple and stupid like the endless low tuned one note rhythmic hammering towards the end of the title track. When the band is in a more chaotic mode, as in the older recording “Ritual Crucifixion”, the confusion serves to imbue the composition with more blood and action.

Logistic Slaughter – Biophage

As persistence is the key to cosmic victory, it’s gratifying to see that this recent Californian cluster is not giving up in their quest to build a maiming death metal experience which was approached with streamlined Bolt Thrower and Cannibal Corpse tendencies in their last year’s EP. First threatening edges noted by the listener here are their improved musicianship with plenty of rhythmically aware palm-muting and tremolo NY style rhythm guitar riffs interlocking like the paths of ferocious large insects on flight while in the new drummer Kendric DiStefano they have a redeemer from the abhorrent pit of drum machine grind, even though his style tends to approach the robotic at times. The moments where this EP shines is when the brutal backbone operates at the behest of melody conjured by the leads of Mike Flory and Daniel Austi, such as the gripping mid-section of “Exit Wounds” and the Nile-ish mad arab string conjuration in “Litany of Blood”. I’m still reluctant to call this a total winner because there’s a lot of random chugging around as in generic bands from Six Feet Under to Hypocrisy, but there are also subtle technical flourishes such as the lightly arpeggiated bridge in “War Machine” that still keeps me liking this band and following its movements.

Written by Devamitra


 

Blake, Goethe, Romanticism and Black Metal

September 10, 2008 –
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From the book Blake and Goethe: Psychology, Ontology, Imagination by Martin Bidney:

For Goethe as well as for Blake, fruitful competition between opposing forces is the law of life in both mind and world. The contraries are mutual opposition, but their creative tension is the life-giving power that paradoxically unites them. As Goethe says in one of the “Talismans” from the “Singer’s Book” of the West-East Divan:

“Im Atemholen sind zerierlei Gnaden:
Die Luft einziehn, sich ihrer entladen.
Jenes bedrängt, dieses erfrischt;
So wunderbar ist das Leben gemischt.
Du danke Gott, wenn er dich preßt,
Und dank’ ihm, wenn er dich wieder entläßt.”
(“Talismane” II. 17-22)

[In the act of breathing there are two gifts of grace: taking in the air and being relieved of it. The former oppresses, the latter refreshes; life is so wonderfully mixed. Thank God when he burdens you, and thank him when he sets you free again.]

Or, as Blake puts it: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Pl. 3). Contraries are crucial to human existence, and evidently to cosmic existence as well: the concepts of attraction and repulsion had been given prominence in the intellectual world of Blake’s day through the influence of Cartesian and Newtonian science. “Without Contraries is no progression,” no life in mind or world, is what Blake means when he says, “Opposition is true Friendship” (MHH Pl. 20).

We find in both Blake’s and Goethe’s visions of creativity in mind and cosmos a kind of breathing motion, what Erich Trunz calls “Emanatio and Regressus,” emanation and return. In a passage from Conversations with Eckermann (11 April 1827) Goethe develops this image into a powerful reverie:

“I like to think of the earth with its circle of vapors metaphorically as a great living being, which is engaged in an eternal inhaling and exhaling. When the earth inhales, it draws to it the circle of vapors that approaches its surface and thickens into clouds and rain. I call this condition the water-affirmation [die Wasserbejahung]; if it lasted inordinately long, it would drown the earth. But the earth does not permit that; it exhales again and sends back up the water vapors which spread into all the spaces of the high atmosphere and thin out to such an extent that not only does the brilliance of the sun cross through them, but the eternal night of endless space is seen through them as a fresh blueness. This condition of the atmosphere I call the water-negation [die Wasserverneinung].”

What Goethe calls the earth’s affirmation and negation of water is an instance of what Blake would call “Attraction and Repulsion.” In the nonhuman universe, Goethe sees no need to distinguish between destructive negations and creative contraries… All contrasts in nature are part of her breathing; one feels that life and death themselves are, by implication, another manifestation of an eternal cosmic inhaling and exhaling.

Commentary:

When distilled philosophically, moral absolutes are simplistic visions of the world in that they fail to grasp the natural mechanism of the whole that relies on the interactions between opposing forces. Good and Evil, Life and Death, War and Peace — these are dualisms in which we’ve taken the superficially pleasing force and converted it into an absolute without realising that the opposite is required for the maintenance of a higher force. Although life is pleasant and we would hate to see those that we love die, death is necessary to allow new life. The dualism of Life/Death is transcended for a higher purpose: growth.

Black metal hails the realisations of such thinkers as Blake and Goethe by bringing into focus the denied aspects of these dualisms and praising their functions. Black metal was responding to an age where this rhetorical absolutism as derived from Judeo-Christianity saturates all sociopolitical discussion, aiming to bring a sense of holism echoing the thoughts of the Romantics and of an even older pre-Christian Europe where what was natural was more important than what was pleasant (good) or unpleasant (evil). Darkthrone emphasised the dark, cold, and evil forces that create impulsive, Dionysian passion within us. Immortal constructed a fantastical world of Winter storms and epic battlefields. Emperor created works which brought struggle and chaos into a sense of a majestic order. Most of Burzum’s work used fantasy to force us to dream of realms where the presence of exciting aspects that have been utterly denied in life leave us feeling that this concrete, absolutist world is boring and mundane — perhaps even dead — and forces us to question whether we live in an age of progress or whether the holistic ancients really lived in a greater, natural, more Human age:

Between the bushes we stared
At those who reminded us of another age
And told that hope was away
Forever
We heard elvensong and
Water that trickled
What once was is now
Away
All the blood
All the longing and pain that ruled
Are away
Forever
We are not dead
We have never lived
— Burzum “Det Som En Gang Var”

by Kalle