Monday, May 23, 2016

Buried by Dust and Time: The Controversial and Cultural Legacy of Black Metal

My relationship with black metal can best be described as "complicated".

I remember four years ago, I was just dipping my toes into the world of extreme metal. I had been in a major thrash bender, smashing my brains out to Sodom, Exodus, and Megadeth; the most played album in my roster was Testament's The Gathering. Death metal was next to worm its way into my mind, via Benediction, Cannibal Corpse, and the Black Dahlia Murder. All other sub-genres followed suit relatively quickly. However, black metal was the last genre to find a home. I was unable to get into bands like Mayhem or Darkthrone. Somehow they didn't click; I don't know if the production quality initially turned me off or what. I just didn't like it...

...that was until I was hanging out with my cousin at a family function. He found out I was into metal and we got to talking. He's a musician who has dabbled in various genres and had his own one-man black metal project (called Odz Manouk and affiliated with California's Black Twilight Circle if you're interested). He pulled it up online and let me listen. Though it still had that "recorded on a turnip" quality to it, something about it reached me. I got finally got it.

At least, I got it sonically. The rough recordings, the haunting screams... it creates this atmosphere that's just fucking chilling! Of course the really complicated part comes along once you get into the nitty gritty of the subculture. Anyone Googling black metal for their first time might drop their jaw upon learning just how brutal the history is: murders, suicides, arson, neo-Nazi...

However, this got me to thinking: black metal seems to be the most "serious" of the genres (well, as serious as you can take people covering themselves in black and white paint--and in some cases, blood and shit). It's always taken at face value while thrash and death metal are more likely to have their lyrics taken as metaphor. While it is true that many members of the black metal genre legitimately do hold xenophobic tendencies, I've wondered just how much of these sentiments are strictly for show. Could it be possible some bands-- such as Inquisition, to name a band that's caught scandal in recently years-- could be using the Nazi symbolism to show its negativity. Take Big Four thrash band Slayer for example; "Angel of Death" is not a celebration of Mengele's atrocities but acts like a horror flick. I'm sure the use of swastikas and fascistic lyrics is used by more bands convey the brutality and cruelty of such thought rather than to say "ya know who's a pretty sweet guy? Hitler".

 The target matters, as it seems more acceptable in metal to rag on Christianity than other religions. Why is Glen Benton taken with a grain of salt when he sings "Kill the Christian" but Taake causes an uproar when his lyrics offer the same inflammatory sentiment towards Muslims? I suppose that Christianity in the West is more of an authoritative presence and gives a little more credence to rebel against it. Norway might not exactly be swimming in Muslims, but if bands want to rage against a creed that has been historically used to oppress-- whether it's Islam or Christianity-- it should not be prohibited.

To understand the nationalist ideologies of some black metal artists, you need to look at its origins. In the late Eighties and Nineties, you get two schools of thought out of Norway: the classic metalheads who gravitated towards Satanic and Occult themes and those who sought to return to the old ways of the Norse. With these latter musicians, the thought was that adherence to Satan was still adherence to the Judeo-Christian ways that had ravaged the old Scandinavian way of life a thousand years prior. By taking up the old gods, these black metal artists were effectively reclaiming their heritage. Some of these artists went a step further using their songs as propaganda.

Oddly enough, the theme of tradition rears its ugly head in various internet chat rooms as fans of the genre bicker over what constitutes as "trve" black metal. For many, any deviancy from the unholy aggression of Gorgoroth, lo-fi brutality of Emperor, or even the classic aesthetic of Immortal is in itself blasphemy; people have even gone so far as to call Myrkur disingenuous on the sole fact the creative mastermind behind the art is a woman.

Personally, I find these sentiments hilariously ironic as black metal is the most tinkered with of all the sub-genres. Of course many bands still go the "tried and trve" route  their progenitors (often dubbed nowadays as "war metal"), but there is tremendous creativity that has been going on since the mid Nineties. Take baby steps and you'll find it coupled up with its predecessors, thrash and death metal, through the likes of bands like Deströyer 666 and Belphegor. Folk bands of all heritages, like Primordial, Chthonic, and Finntroll, have taken on a char blackened sound, as well as doom bands like Inter Arma. Symphonic black metal gave added bombast via bands like Dimmu Borgir. Progressive (or technical) black metal was popularized by Enslaved and continues to be popular today. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in bands pushing the envelope by combining the grim sound with ambient music and shoegaze, creating more contemplative styles; Wolves in the Throne Room and Deafheaven have garnered considerable popularity over the years. Then of course there's Kvelertak with their black 'n' roll. I myself am quite fond of blackened crust bands Iskra and Fukpig.

Black metal continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Since Mayhem, hundreds if not thousands of bands have crawled out of the woodwork. Each one has taken a different path musically and acquired grand infamy along the way, both through their musicality and through controversy. Though the time of church arsons has long passed, artists have found other ways to stir the shit, whether it's Sweden's Shining spouting lyrics promoting suicide or Gorgoroth's infamous Black Mass of Krakow performance.

I love the fact that black metal is still "dangerous", backing its bark with a bite on occasion. While I don't condone certain messages, it's refreshing to see men and women scream with such conviction. I can appreciate the artistry of projects like Burzum, but won't financially support the artists I am at odds with. But that still leaves plenty of amazing bands out there for me to indulge in: Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult, Anaal Nathrakh, 1349, Summoning, Negură Bunget, Mortals, Apostasy, Tsjuder, Krieg, Cobalt... the list goes on of bands that wrap their icy clutches around my heart. Black metal might never come out of the underground, but some of the best treasures are found in the deepest and darkest crevices of the Earth.

Stay heavy, my friends

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