The Mystic Tradition in Metal

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As a movement arising from in the post-modernist era but against this establishment, metal has often taken connotations of mysticism. To further clarify this position we must stress that contrary to what seems to be the popular understanding, mysticism is anything but superstitious. Mysticism was the response of lone wolves, singled-out intellectuals and contra-status-quo savants  to established and unquestioned dogma for hundreds of years. Come the age of post-Enlightment scientific-mechanistic materialism, it was the mystics who opposed its arrogance as well: the pretension of the mechanistic paradigm of the sciences that attempted to define reality only by what they could account for within the limitations of their formulae. Mysticism cannot be defined as a philosophical current per se, because its tradition is one of scattered individuals barely connected in a network that spans through cultures and time as well as transcending gender and race as the privilege of those who rise above the self-centered and limited vision of the societies into which they were born.

When referring to metal in this elevated manner, we are referring to the best of the best, and to those who upheld a deeper view of the genre while crystallizing the view with great musical prowess. Both need to be present, the power of a dialectical mind and the divine rapture that lights the unconscious and undefinable. As was explained, mysticism as a tradition is more of a method and a mindset that parts from the notion that experience cannot be shared and that the best attempts to communicating deeper and holistic experiences come from the use of objects and language as opaque symbols that indicate relations and motions rather than refer back to the physical object or original “logical” concept they were referring to. What Cusanus refers to as the “coincidence of opposites” and others as the all in all, the all in one and the one in all — the universe in a drop of water.

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These elite metal artists that do not follow directly after each other but appear consciously independent of one another (Iommi, Quorthon, Hanneman, Warrior, Azagthoth, Vikernes, Ledney, among others) illustrate in ways that seek to evoke and communicate first, and consider artistry as an after thought, if at all. A latent danger of aesthetic lawlessness may be perceived here that has been adopted by lesser minds in their confusion about how to go about implementing this. The mystic artist does not do away with language or convention altogether, he bends it so that words and expressions create impressions. The original meaning of the figure of speech/music or term has to be known by the audience for them to understand the solidification and transposition that the artist puts the symbol through.

As a way of illustration we can take repetition, which in classical tradition is used minimally for the audience to get acquainted with an idea, is used in metal for mood-setting and an entrancing — a setting-out in a grand adventure or a passing-through the gates of perception into another plane. The proportion of repetition in relation to the length and weight of other sections as well as a consideration of their individual properties and relations between the sections, structures and riffs all weigh on the mind of the gifted and mindful artist.

The chaos of bands like late Deathspell Omega that seek to shock and produce a random feeling of overwhelming disorientation can never communicate anything more than a blatant sense of disorder. That is the limitation of such experimental or avant-garde bands: their revolution is only skin deep and being concerned with appearances and the effect of how changing these directly affect the experience. Metal in its highest mystic expression will use the existing language as it is, allowing the significance of symbols (cadences, ascending or descending melodies, percussion, etc) retain a semblance of their original function while their actual usage is shifted to point to the indescribable and unrepresentable meaning, becoming the vehicle for new relations directed by the mind of the composer — a method illustrated but little comprehended in Ludwig van Beethoven’s process.

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But understanding of this Platonic acknowledgement is not given to most and so interpretation of metal’s nature gets diluted and bastardized to terms such as “playing with feeling” or  “being heavy” that barely scratch the surface. We understand these and their superficial descriptions, but when in the hands of the uninitiated, such simplification becomes the total understanding and decadence of a movement becomes imminent as ideas are perverted by inferior comprehension. Metal was started and carried forward at each meaningful juncture by one of these luminaries, and while a few lost underground gems wrought by excellent minds can be found in caves, in between, there was only uncountable fodder.

As a mystic understanding and reaching for the Dionysian through differing Apollonian guises metal seeks to discretely transmit glimpses of phenomena that recur in and around us. A reality that flows and changes state producing what we know as time, but that remains one and the same through and through from beginning to end.

“True, authentic being consists in our ability to let all that is be as and how it is, not distorting it, not denying its own being and its own nature to it.”

— Jan Patočka

 

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Conditions for the Proper Gestation of Metal, A Discussion

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I was listening to Antaeus’ Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan the other day and found myself thinking “This is pretty awesome metal coming from France!”. After all, France is not a very metal country, so the surprise is not, itself, surprising. At best, that country has produced a few flukes like giants Massacra and obscure Mutiilation, a product of Les Légions Noires’ elite circle. It is my contention that true metal art loci arise in such elite circles in very particular conditions and in reaction (metal is, to a certain point, what detractors of realism in a deluded society call “contrarian”) to different but at some level similar kinds of environments in which strong and perceptive minds fight an intellectual battle against a modern, peaceful yet poisonous complacency. Therefore, we may also clarify that metal proper is not a protest music. Protest belongs to a class warfare, while metal abstracts itself from both the futility of human rejection of reality and the petty strife caused by ignorance and incomprehension of our relative place in an uncaring universe. Not an evil universe as some fairy tales say, but an indifferent universe that could only care about humans as much as we care about a microbe that dies on the surface of our skin without ever even registering in our conscience in any way.

What does it take to be infused with the primordial essence of metal? Individual paths to a certain illumination over which we do not have total control? Metal is, after all, not made of the same matter as intellectually and experimentally-driven traditions such as classical music. We may learn certain methodologies that will better focus inspiration and drive, but the metal way is the way of the mystic, the way of spiritual transcendence. As with any opposition to esoteric affairs, there will be outcries against the allusions to an ultra-physical dimension in the wording, perhaps pointing out that metal has traditionally been strictly realist to the point of nihilism. But for those who understand what it means, mystic references will carry the point home without there being any suspicion of a contradiction. The mystic way is the use of images as passageways to vantage points that are unreachable through common language and from which we can see behind the frontispiece of human constructions.

Simple statistical scans of data from bands in different countries and at different times that it is also not a the healthy “scene” that brings about excellence. Scenes bring about scenesters and poseurs, not better music. For the better part of this last week, I had been on a mission to try and discover lost gems from among Central American bands (that means Guatemala down to Panama, for the geographically impaired). The task is not so easy, but I thought I might cover a lot of ground by first heading to Metal Archives (a very useful resource worked tirelessly by the plebeian masses of metal underlings that think any third-rate metal band around the corner is worth documenting)  and looking at the entries of lists by country. Although the number of entries per country varied wildly in relation to their sizes (from 30+ in Nicaragua to almost 200 in Costa Rica), after scanning the lists and listening to songs from each of the bands in the lists, one finds out that only a similar number of bands from each country would pass the high-level standards of metal we espouse here. That our “judgement” is suitable or not is not the point and is irrelevant to this point. The point is that a comparatively huge scene like Costa Rica’s did not yield more quality music in terms of composition than the meager offerings of Nicaragua or Honduras. Costa Rica’s larger scene, in great part fomented by a larger population and improved economic conditions, boasts of many albums with European-level metal production, abundant professional musicianship and and more gifted performers. All that is for nothing, at the end of the day.

This is also true for classical music, but it will not be discussed here for it requires a little more research about its particular condition to assert anything further. Metal flourishes not from fully-formed scenes, but rather from individuals in intellectually-challenging or adverse landscapes that choose not to fight social convention or status quo as such from within, but seek to escape it altogether after recognizing how nonsensical it is to submit to human imagination is if it were reality. Our minds are innately equipped with the machinery to see things in terms of illusions, essences and constructions. In the end, it is unavoidable. But it is in the individual to decide whether the illusion will dominate him or he will use it as a tool to carve his path through the uncertainty of chaos. Scenes, as human social circles that promote tolerance for the mediocre, are completely unfit to give birth or nurture creators — only perhaps shadows of them that bring more of the same or complete nonsense that does not amount to music.

Does this mean that we should stop trying to make metal as individual artists if we do not consider ourselves to be chosen? Not at all. Those we could consider somehow chosen (the patriarch Iommi, Hanneman, Quorthon, Warrior, Vikernes — frankly, I do not think death metal produced any such luminaries) were not self-referential assholes who believed themselves to be some sort of Messiah. Rather, they worked single-mindedly at their craft. While they were immersed in that and that goal remained the sole focus of their efforts, their music grew and expanded, building ever higher towers whose tops penetrated and seared the stratosphere in spite of scorching winds and burning ice. Experimentalists, retro-acts and self-professed proggers with no direction, on the other hand, kept running around in circles chasing their tails in a puddle of filth. Besting the destructive cyclones of hail that make short work of feeble-minded, the true leaders crossed boundaries and opened doors that were locked.  But these accomplishments are built on two equally important pillars. The first is the struggle in the midst of intellectual adversity. The second is tradition.

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