Metal as religion

The quest for the origins of heavy metal and understanding it continues. To the mainstream, heavy metal is just edgy rebellion; to the academics, heavy metal is kids acting out as part of a maturation process; to industry, heavy metal is a brand that can be used to sell other products. What does it mean?

Lyrically, early black metal fused virulent anti-christian politics with Nietzschean-inspired satanism and ecological mysticism. As the scene grew into the 1990s, however, satanism became a problematic notion and several figures tried to find new ideological backing to their music. One solution, adopted by figures like Ihsahn, the vocalist for Emperor, was to treat satanism as merely a metaphor for Nietzschean individual freedom. Another far more problematic move was that taken by Varg Vikernes of Burzum, who dropped satanism in favor of nazism, and emphasized themes of mystical ecologism in opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The third path was to reject satanism for a return to traditional Scandinavian paganism, a move made in the early years by Enslaved and one which has since spawned a new sub-genre: pagan metal.

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

What if metal is drawn to the religious because it aspires towards a similar goal? What if it is not in opposition to religion, but in competition with it? In the 2005 documentary Metal: A head-banger’s journey, a fan is quoted as saying: ”Is heavy metal a sacrament? For some people it is. If it keeps kids alive, if it gives them hope, if it gives them a place to belong, if it gives them a sense of transcendence, then its a spiritual force and I believe it is a pipeline to God.”

Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit. The goal of metal is extremity—to push music to the boundaries of noise without concern for the comprehensibility of the final product. Black and death metal groups in particular manipulate time structure, tonality, tempo and production quality to ensure that anything resembling a traditional rock, jazz or classical sound is deformed beyond recognition. Of central importance to this manipulation is the need to be heavier, faster, more technical, more “brutal” or more “true” than the past generation. – James Robertson, “Death Metal: A Pipeline to God?” Social Sciences Research Council blog “The Immanent Frame”

While I agree with much of this, I think the conceptual origin of heavy metal centers on the word “heavy,” the idea of horror movies, and a rebellion against the counterculture which metal saw correctly as — like the relationship between postmodernism as modernism — not rebellion against the mainstream, but edgy affirmation of it.

Metal sprung from the counterculture… but in opposition to the peace and light, it was the dark and heavy (or existentially weighty, a counterpart to the cosmic search for light and love). It wasn’t music for taking life non-seriously or coming up with with trivial answers like “love will save the world” which almost all of us recognize now as control mechanisms: marketing, narcissism, manipulation.

Any message to be found in heavy metal can be read in the song “War Pigs”:

Now in darkness world stops turning,
ashes where the bodies burning.
No more War Pigs have the power,
Hand of God has struck the hour.
Day of judgement, God is calling,
on their knees the war pigs crawling.
Begging mercies for their sins,
Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.
Oh lord, yeah!

While humans distract themselves with deflections, including the hippie con about love and light, the cruel manipulators are profiting behind the scenes and laying the seed of mythological levels of destruction.

While every popular music act except metal is espousing the “it’s all about you, have some fun, we’re all important, it’s about humans being individuals” karmic snake oil, metal was telling you to look at history, look at bigger patterns, realize that technology and “good intentions” were not going to save the day. We are insignificant, it said. What matters is not that we’re alive, but what we do with the time.

In other words, metal is an entirely different existential coping strategy than Christianity (an inherent God judges you based on your deeds) or hippies (if you just make happy socially, you’ll be OK and part of the group). Metal’s idea is this: the world is out there and it’s very real, which makes life very intense, so make sure you have an intense life, in part by not doing the stupid self-defeating shit that has dogged humanity like an expert parasite through the modern time.

It was only when black metal came around that this got fully Nietzschean, and people started talking about how equality was bunk, how most people are too oblivious/distracted to have any competence in making political or social decisions, and how we’d be better off if we slashed down the weaker/stupider and handed glorious victory to the strong, rising above the herd and exterminating them so humanity would evolve to a new level. Eugenics, Social Darwinism and natural selection as a purification of the artificial, sterile, “everyone wins” equality-based world of both the Church and the liberals (1789: “liberty, equality, fraternity”).

But this is an extension of the horror movie theme, which in turn derives itself entirely from the work of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Here’s the basic plot: something from a foreign culture or undiscovered part of our world emerges and starts wreaking havoc. People panic and the dumb sheep screw it all up by not only failing to respond to it with any intelligence, but also by shouting down anyone who tries to deal with it as a real, functional question instead of an emotional/technological one. Finally, the loners re-invent technologies to defeat it — or not — and the few beat the threat, so that the many live. But it’s not democratic. The point of horror movies is mainly to make you hate your own species as you see that all but a few cannot discipline their minds to respond to new stimulus. They panic, they make excuses, they steal now-worthless cash, they get drunk, they run away, they flake out. What they don’t do is achieve any effective action at all.

If you want the origins of metal, I think that’s it — modern society grips our civilization like a plague, and as years go by and the decay gets more advanced, people are still unable to do anything about it because they’re caught up in their own emotions and drama. But that point is far too realistic for any academic.

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0 thoughts on “Metal as religion”

  1. Gus says:

    I like when songs talk about boobies.

  2. Herzl says:

    Jesus, laughing, spreads his legss.
    Oh lord, yeah!
    It’s my religion.

  3. Adrian McCoy says:

    I like songs about dismembering women because they fail to recognize the glory of Adrian McCoy.

    Tied tight to the bed
    Legs spread open
    Bruised flesh, lacerations
    Skin stained with blood
    I’m the only one you love
    I feel her heart beating
    my knife deep inside
    Her crotch is bleeding

    So much better then that gay Christian band Black Sabbath.

  4. internatio says:

    their own emotions and drama, that’s it ? what about layers and layers of pseudo-saviors (fascists and radicals alike) ? what about really difficult times to find a job, really horrible diseases, etc ?

    There might be only a few ones able to recognise threats and solve them, but without the rest of mankind, (not as robots executing orders but as real people comming to grip at their own pace with reality with the help of these few ones) nothing big can be done. And this requires a bit of understanding and empathy which might not be in the horror movie message but is in the metal I like, from Purple to Maiden to Atheist to…, well, ok, there lacks a big name after that, but still.

  5. Mike Gainer says:

    The author has a highly delusional viewpoint of life. Nothing but mere fantasy of the ego to believe that the evolution of the human race is the purpose of existence. The so call “elite” you spew out have this same ego and even if society and the world are better as a whole, they are still ignorance to their existence and live only like drones; to better a species that has no idea why they are even on this planet and believe they have the right answers so they can maintain their sanity.

  6. Mike Gainer says:

    Disregard that blatant fatalism, I suck cocks.

  7. T.G. says:

    I’m sorry Mike, all I got from that was “I disagree!”

  8. Mike Gainer says:

    Continue to live your mediocre lives listening to metal that’s past due and trying to figure out a way to improve mankind. Even the highest of IQ’s find bliss in ignorance.

  9. Adrian McCoy says:

    Way to go Mike Gainer!!!

    Oh yeah, fuck wigger metal!!!!

    Long live Slayer!!!

  10. Mike Gainer says:

    You didn’t even read what I wrote, you faggot.

    Please die of cocks.

  11. T.G. says:

    u mad, Mike.

  12. Constance McCoy says:

    Not now dear, the grown ups are talking.

  13. Mike Gainer Reigns Here says:

    I rule this board.

  14. Kali Yuga says:

    Every organism worth a damn tries to improve its species. Living in ignorance is a weak, cowardly and neurotic way to live and will only bring you transient, shallow confort. Even Christians seem to realise this. Your attempts at being the cool hipster fatalist just reveal you to be the fool that you are. I think nature invented hard drugs to kill people like you. But whatever, party on, man!

  15. Jake says:

    As far as I’ve seen, black metal DOES NOT call for eugenics or social darwinism or anything like that. Why should we care about improving our species? I myself just want to have a happy life and do all sorts of fun shit. I don’t want to waste all of my years trying to extend our average life-span because it probably won’t really help until decades after my own death. Why not just have fun? Be remembered as a fun person who some people liked, some people hated, but most importantly, who spent every second improving his own life rather than trying to solve the unsolvable?

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