"... black metal could be described as a negative form of environmental writing; the least Apollonian of genres, it is terrestrial – indeed subterranean and infernal – inhabiting a dead forest that is at once both mythic and real unfolding along an atheological horizon that marks the limit of absolute evil where there are no goods or resources to distribute and therefore no means of power and domination, a mastery of nothing."
- Niall Scott & Scott Wilson
I'm finally getting around to reading Hideous Gnosis which was originally a symposium organized by Nicola Masciandaro and sponsored by Glossator and Show No Mercy. Brandon Stosuy gives us - for those unfamiliar with the Black Metal movement - an informal history of the movement in the US in his article for The Believer magazine A Blaze in the North American Sky. He recounts the gruesome murder of Norwegian born Aarseth at the hands Vikernes (a.k.a. Count Grishnackh) which gained the movement its most notorious publicity.
Beyond this dance of death the original inspiration for Black Metal came from the group Venom and its Thrash Metal sounds in which "the main early defining differences between it and its father-genre being tremelo picking and 'blast-beats'; drum beats played about twice the speed as the traditional trash metal base beats (32nds as opposed to 16ths). Taking major influence from Bathory and Venom, the ganre became largely associated with Norway through the work of Mayhem, Burzum and Dark Throne, many of the later bands categorised into the black metal genre being influenced by these three bands, and many of these bands being from Norway themselves.
Characteristics of black metal include typically high-pitched screaming vocals, tremolo picked guitars lacking bass and emphasising treble, and blastbeats (quadruple time drum beats). Unlike its sibling, the more thrash-based death metal, black metal concentrates more on mood and melodies (primal as they may be) instead of riffs and heaviness.
So why would a group of cultural theorists and philosophers want to discuss the dark contours of such a nihilistic subgenre of the Heavy Metal scene as Black Metal? Aspasia Stephanou asks us "Who is the lonely being that utters discordant, pre-linguistic cries amidst a chaotic symphony of sounds?" Varg Vikernes, that most notorious scion of the Black Metal world tells us that early on he was involved in the RPG games of Dungeon and Dragons, but that it was Tolkien's world of Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves that struck the deepest cord:
"I felt a natural attraction to Sauron, who was the person who gave the world adventure, adversity and challenges in the first place. His One Eye, the One Ring and the tower of Barad-Dur are all attributes similar to those of Óðinn. The One Eye was like Óðinn's eye, the One Ring was like Óðinn's ring, Draupnir ("Dripper"), and Barad-Dur was like the tower or throne of Óðinn, called Hliðskjálf ("Secret Ritual-Site"). His Uruk-Hai and Olog-Hai ("Troll-Race") were like Viking berserkers, the Warges were like Óðinnic werewolves, and so forth. I could easily identify with the fury of the "dark forces", and enjoyed their existence very much because they were making a boring and peaceful world dangerous and exciting."
He has been associated with all forms of the modern pagan movement in its extreme modes of post-nazi philosophical and religious foundations. In the late 90s, "to avoid confusion" and "to find a term more suitable and accurate", Vikernes coined the term "odalism". "In it lies Paganism, traditional nationalism, racialism and environmentalism." Vikernes contrasts it with "modern 'civilization'" which he equates with "capitalism, materialism, Judeo-Christianity, pollution, urbanization, race mixing, Americanization, socialism, globalization, et cetera". He places importance on the fact that Odalism "is not a term tainted by history"; in contrast with Nazism:
The 'nazi ghost' has scared millions of Europeans from caring about their blood and homeland for sixty years now, and it is about time we banish this ghost and again start to think and care about the things that (whether we like it or not) are important to us.
Now the question is: Why have so many people been influenced by such a strange amalgam of religious bigotry and nihilistic ramblings? Or, is it that most Black Metal practitioners have formed another philosophy less racist? In the essay by Benjamin Noys, ‘REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH!’: REMARKS ON THE POLITICS OF BLACK METAL, tells us:
"If we were to define a degree zero of Black Metal politics then it would be an unstable amalgam of Stirnerite egoism and Nietzschean aristocratism: a radical anti-humanist individualism implacably hostile to all the ideological ‘spooks’ of the present social order, committed to creating an ‘aristocracy of the future’ (Nietzsche 464), and auto-engendering a ‘creative nothing’ (Stirner 6)."[ibid. Hideous Gnosis: p. 105]
Noys sees this music as underpinning a return to the 'grand politics' of a Nietzschean "racial-national metaphysics".[ibid. p. 106] Sale Famine of the French Black Metal group Peste Noire becomes the spokesman, or 'organic intellectual' "refuses any notion of the contingency of the link between Black Metal and the extreme right, instead insisting on the necessity of such a link."[ibid. p. 108] He goes on to say, quoting Famine, that Black Metal is, in essence, of the extreme right:
"To my mind, without being necessarily N[ational] S[ocialist], real Black Metal is always extreme right-wing music — be it from Asia or Latin America as extremeright politics are not the appanage of the white race — and it is always Satanic. (Famine, Zero Tolerance)" (ibid. p. 108)
I have to admit, my own left-wing heritage, makes me wonder just what all these cultural theorists and philosophers are up too by forming such a symposium, one that helps promote this music so devoted to the right-wing fascistic ideals of Nazism and Paganistic returns to, what Varg Vigernes, in his own form of it terms 'Odalism' ( sort of amalgam of ancient Norse Odanism and modern fascist ideals)? Noys tells us it seems to be a return to the Chtonian and telluric world view to establish its aesthetic identity:
"Black Metal is the musical memory of our bloodthirsty ancestors of blood, it is the marriage of Tradition, of old racial patrimony with fanaticism, with the rage and the rashness of a youth now lost. It is a CHTONIAN religion: a cult of the EARTH and a return to it, therefore a nationalism; a cult of what is BELOW the earth: Hell — the adjective “chthonian” applies to the Infernal gods as well. Black Metal is a fundamentalism, a music with integrity (from Latin integer, complete) which helps me to remain complete in a dying world, amidst a people in decay, unworthy of its blood. It is the apology of the dark European past. It is a psychosis which helps us to flee a reality we cannot tolerate anymore. (Famine, Zero Tolerance)" (ibid. p. 110-111)
Is this a return to the pre-weimer Germany, of an age of anarchy when the brown shirts ran amok among the population killing and luting, of a world of death portending some grand Götterdämmerung or apocalyptic Ragnarök. Is this the music of the Voluspa,
rýðr ragna siǫt
Svǫrt verða sólskin
of sumor eptir,
veðr ǫll válynd
Vitoð ér enn, eða hvat?
It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men,
paints red the powers' homes
with crimson gore.
Black become the sun's beams
in the summers that follow,
weathers all treacherous.
Do you still seek to know? And what?
Is this the music of our age, of a time when "greed will cause brothers to kill brothers, and fathers and sons will suffer from the collapse of kinship bonds. ... when the wolf will first swallow the sun, and then his brother the moon, and mankind will consider the occurrence as a great disaster resulting in much ruin. The stars will disappear. The earth and mountains will shake so violently that the trees will come loose from the soil, the mountains will topple, and all restraints will break, causing Fenrir to break free from his bonds."
Noys comments: "The irony is that the aesthetic elements of Black Metal most likely to appeal to the left, or left-leaning, cultural critic – its use of ‘forms which are less conventional’, its evocation of terror or madness – are simply contingent elements that result from the mimetic parsing of the fallen world of modernity which Famine despises." (ibid. p. 113) He goes on to question the writings of Carl Schmitt and his idea of the 'enemy' - ‘The enemy is who defines me. That means in concreto: only my brother can challenge me and only my brother can be my enemy.’ In comment on this statement by Schmitt, Noys says, "the figure of the enemy also has a pacifying function: the construction politics around the friend-enemy distinction is to define ourselves and also to regard our enemy as an enemy, rather than as someone to be exterminated." (ibid. p. 117)
Noys sees this return to a pagan conception of life destructive and that in "the manner of the sorcerer’s apprentice Black Metal unleashes forces it cannot control and which return to destroy itself in an acephalic auto-consumption." (ibid. p. 119) He tells us instead that this cult of the black is a return to what Marx once called 'world-historical necromancy'. (ibid. p. 120) Noys affirms Walter Benjamin's critique of Nazism as ‘habitués of the chthonic forces of terror’ who peddle ‘sinister runic humbug’ ..., correlates with Black Metal’s similar fetishisation of war, radicalised nihilism, and an extreme rightwing politics that articulates itself in modes similar to that of the extreme left (pace Jünger’s ‘national Bolshevism’). (ibid. p. 124) In his summation Noys says,
"The aestheticisation and abstraction of social existence by capitalism in the time of real subsumption is what gives the aesthetic politics of Black Metal its mixture of pathos and bathos. The struggle to pose ‘form-giving power’ against the power of real abstractions creates particular forms of aesthetic politics that cannot simply
be identified with ‘classical’ fascism and Nazism, although, as I have noted, they have new malignant resonances in our global political and economic space that still falls back onto tellurian and nativist re-territorialisations. My point is not a falsely inflationary one, with Black Metal as the viral carrier of a ‘new Fascism’, but neither is it one that stresses dismissive complacency or the ease of extracting from Black Metal a new ‘purified’ and acceptable aesthetic radicalism. Instead, it is to stress the functional coherent incoherence of Black Metal, its constitutive impurity, as its mechanism." (ibid. p. 125)
I decide to focus on the political aesthetics of Black Metal in this first essay to steer the wary reader into the basic foundations upon which this music seems to base its strange dissonance and abject terror. There is another aspect of this music, its mythologies which harp back to the dark forest of ancient Europe, with the tribal howls, screeches, and yells of the Berserkers, those warrior-wolves and assassins full of baying songs of bloodlust and murder. In Aspasia Stephanou's essay PLAYING WOLVES AND RED RIDING HOODS IN BLACK METAL he describes this, quoting Angela Carter, as the "congregation of nightmare", "gothic monsters multiplying and infecting with their contagious proliferations the dark of night." (ibid. p. 159) He goes on to say:
"Black metal glorifies the becoming-werewolf and werewolf nomadism characterised by aggression, speed and violence. The lycanthropic entities that are conjured up in black metal’s lyrics along with the becoming-animal of the voice, demand from the listener a certain kind of response. Between a state of orgasmic pleasure and jouissance emanating from the performative space of radical otherness, and the horrors of hollowing up the body and transgressing its boundaries through the speed of sound, black metal is a monstrous desiring machine. ... It enjoins a bestial annihilation of being and loss of humanity in order to expand the self into a creative multiplicity of wolves. Black metal is becoming wolf, embracing carnal desires, animal transformations and violent instincts." (ibid. p. 159 - 160)
Stephanou even quotes from the "Furturist Manifesto" of Marinetti where he once stated "Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.” In this Black metal misogynistic world he questions the role of female Black metal bands, saying,
"If female black metal bands manipulate the qualities that patriarchy has endowed them with through the use of sexuality in their performances, the language of nihilism or the repetition of black metal’s masculine discourses, then the perpetuation of the similar will persist and their presence will forever be silenced. Black metal is a strange place to be. In a genre in which misanthropy is related to misogyny and in which male authority mostly ignores the feminine presence, black metal’s red riding hoods whether they choose, as the fairy tale says, the path of needles or the path of pins, they must still fight both the father and the wolves to survive in the woods." (ibid. p. 167)
Whatever we might say of Black metal with its proclivities toward a dark paganism and a right-wing aesthetic it seems to be filling some void within the sub world of this dark musical community, and as Scott tells us on the sin-eating mission of these troubadours of blackness, "The Black Metal event is a stranger returning from the void to collect and consume the misery of mankind." (ibid. p. 231) Let us hope that stranger god is not the dark sorcerer of a more terrible abyss of the unreal from which even our own blackest nightmares seem nothing more than the paradisaical glimpse onto a forlorn universe bereft of all things human.
1. Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium 1, Edited by Nicola Masciandaro (p. 168)
2. Barzum.org A Burzum Story: Part I - The Origin And Meaning
3. Wikipedia article: Varg Vikernes
4. Byock, Jesse (Trans.) (2005). The Prose Edda. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0140447555