Tuesday, October 12, 2010

True metal, false metal and no metal at all.

Reader Lumines brings up an interesting issue in the comments of the previous post.

It is often remarked by purists that there is 'trve' 'kvlt' Black Metal and that anything that doesn't fall under these classifications is poseur metal garbage. This is not exclusive to the Black Metal culture, it can also be observed in many others subgenres. Death Metal, for instance, can be rejected on the basis of lack of acceptable brutality or technicality. Progressive Metal can be derided for regressing into less complex song structures, and so on and so forth. Essentially, when the subgenre fails to meet perceived intersubjective expectations, say due to experimentation of sound, genre hopping or hybridization, or drastic change of thematic direction, those that have invested temporal, emotional, and financial capital into the genre can feel betrayed, hurt, and deceived by something that they had concluded was static, consistent, unchanging, predictable, or something along those lines. It would seem that this ties into the psychological hypothesis of Heavy Metal as a father figure. Any thoughts?


I generally do not feel very hurt or upset when a metal band I like produces something I don't. There is some disappointment, but it doesn't devalue what of their past contributions I still enjoy. You'll notice in my master list, very rarely is a band featured for more than once. This isn't because I listen to only one record by each of these bands, but because generally, "it only takes one" to go to the pantheon. They can record twenty albums' worth of absolute tripe after that for all I care. Essentialism is a valid concern in a cultural climate where consumerism seems to be the raison d'etre of most. However, my current feelings weren't always so.

As a teen growing up with Heavy Metal as father, I had thoughts on the 'future of the genre', the viability of it, the social ramification of it and the place of myself in its sub-culture, and the place of the sub-culture within larger counterculture -- metal music was largely ignored by the mainstream in the mid-90's where I jumped on board, so thoughts of metal's relevance for society at large were never a priority. I found Omen's '80s singing "We are tomorrow's warriors / Marching in the streets" with complete earnestness, very baffling. But I recognized metal music as being a smaller stream amongst many in loud musics that competed for the attention of the youth around me.

It was within that mindset that I was most concerned with what 'the next step for Heavy Metal' would be. I remember listening to Pelican's album 'Australasia' when it came out, specially the riff-salad instrumental composition 'Drought' and thinking - with complete seriousness and if I recall, some elation - 'so that is the next step for metal!'. A step out of the dark ages of the late 90's. As if there was a problem waiting to be solved. There were many that felt the same way then.

I think the issue is one of transience. Proponents of transient (that is, pop, current, vital, relevant, all these awful buzzwords) culture self-identify as such as long as the type of art they follow is also such. Yet the very definition of vitality, of life, is that it is fleeting. Swallowed by death and oblivion. The concern of scenesters is that they do not become yesterday's news because that would bring to the rise their own inherent doubts about the merit of what they're engaged in. If it can just be forgotten tomorrow, then how strong is it, really? This pushes the scenester to two very disparate directions.

On one hand the conservationist path seeks to shield the art by defining it and tying that definition with something enduringly true in one's own psyche (Heavy Metal as romantic art that speaks in ancient language, has these merits). This path eventually leads out of transience and in a historical appreciation of the genre. This is how I personally found my way out of the self-doubt that would make me look for 'the next step in metal'.

On the other, how to evolve the form so it remains relevant not only to the inner primordial core, but the surface modernist facade as well. Heavy Metal is not music very suited to such conceit, though at one time or another almost every listener of this music felt otherwise. Can't move at two directions at once unless you rip apart. And metal, and metal listeners, did. They only kept being part of the same 'metal' in name only.

These movements I believe echo internal and external existential concerns of the growing teen. It is very easy to mock the primordial human life concerns, where passion and angst lays. You will notice that almost any art that taps into that sort of atavism is ridiculed by many eager commentators for being juvenile and base. Therefore a veil of modernist seriousness, of communal and social function is sought for and tied to the form. You can see this with the rise of the very popular thrash metal movement in the mid-80's. The sociopolitical modernist thematics of that era - borrowed as it where from hardcore punk - is Heavy Metal noticing that the outside world is looking in on it and scrambling to come up with something 'grownup' to say.

On the matter of truth then, and the cries of falseness. Teenage metalheads enjoy being victimized and victimizing, it's a violent dynamic that suits the psychological, individualist unrest that fuels such art, and fuels back into the common teen neuroses that most people are familiar with. Indeed Heavy Metal self-defines in the early '80s during the NWOBHM movement by a direct contrast. Holocaust sing "Rock n' Roll... much too slow" and give birth to Heavy Metal Mania. Posers, wimps, disco-listeners and such were comfortable targets well through onto the '90s. But as that generation grew it realized that this humble dialectic didn't cut it. It became curious about the self-victimization that is in the core of metal culture's social conceit, and it experimented around it. It drew in influences from all these 'poser' and 'false' sources and the result was the widening of the genre tree that occurred from 1990 to 1995. Many metal musicians felt liberated through this because - adults now - empty antithesis no longer resonated. What they thought was Heavy Metal, wasn't anymore. Progressive metal attempted to marry metal sonics to complicated social and modern concern. Atmospheric metal blurred the distinction between popular and extreme music and rediscovered hedonism. All these strange concoctions of sound, even 'funk metal' was attempted. People were modding the machinery of metal.

But the next generation, - very teenaged and burning with antithesis - decided, as it wants to do, all this was wrong. Enraged by the 'trendy metal' of their elders, they devised a return to Romance, and there you have black metal. That this sort of music took off so furiously is no wonder given what the rest of the old metal guard were doing. The notion of 'true versus false' returned with a vengeance and it fuelled metal like never before. A new generation of teenagers found a reason to exist.

The volatile dynamics of this lead to murders and arsons. These teenagers overstated their decree of 'truth' and their hatred of 'falseness' to compete in their social circles. Where water runs once same water cannot run again, and this wasn't the naive '80s any longer. What people unconcerned with 'trueness' were achieving could be seen directly in parallel to their efforts. When faced with this schizophrenia, one can either relent and reassess, or push until logic breaks into complete non-sense. Some black metal people relented and infused their 'true' black metal with various shades of falseness and gave birth to even more subgenres and cultural artifacts of variable interest. The rest unfortunately increasingly in the public eye, demented in their quest for senseless closure upped the ante and played their killing hand.

The events concerning those particular Norwegian black metal kids had a startling existential effect. Finally, every listener of Heavy Metal could see results of where being true to the inner romance would lead: to death. There is no escaping this finality. All those that morbidly group around Norway's scene still are looking for something real in their lives, and nothing is more real than death to them.

Naturally however biology kicked in and after those events, nobody else of note martyred themselves for that cause, but the ripples of what had happened could, they realized, be their ticket to relevance and existential teliosis for a long time to come. You don't have to die for your cause if someone else dies for it instead. Just like Jesus validates those that follow him, the Norwegian events of the mid-90's validate the cause of metal music for many. As long as these events are remembered - and they are indeed, endlessly eulogized by almost anyone that has sat down to write a word on black metal - the issue of 'true versus false' in metal music will burn incandescent.

'True death metal' is a hilarious concept in this light. As death metal gave rise to the objections of the Norwegian kids that resurrected the 'true versus false' metal ghost in the first place. But that is the point of my long-winded argument: after the death of Euronymous, every metal genre became retroactively concerned with 'true'ness again. We have 'true doom metal' now, and doom metal is a bastardized genre if there ever was one, true death, an intellectually bankrupt notion. And the crowning achievement: National Socialist black metal is the Truest true black metal, for when teenage satanism no longer cuts it, what brings the dreaded stench of death about more aptly then gaping crematoriums? "We like the holocaust. It is grimm." Anti-human, anti-life, anti-sense, anti-self: death.

(There is a useful note to make at this juncture. Which subcultures of metal are most concerned with true-ness? I posit that in the future, the more extreme the type of metal, the more concerned it will be with its perceived 'trueness' in lieu of actual emotional and ontological content to be judged on relative merit. Progressive metal, unlike what you remark above, is very rarely seen as 'false' for not being complex enough. It simply stops being progressive, metal, or both. There never was a more eager to jump ship type of metal than this.)

What is at the core of it? The realization that Romanticism is an unworkable belief system and that the only way one can traverse it with pride and honor is to die and kill for it. But metalheads are weak and the siren call of romance, for all its awe and inspiration, will not suffice for them to reach their final destination. Living is too much... biologically ingrained in the organism. This results to self-loathing. Self-loathing creatures project their feelings on others, because they are not 'true' to their romantic desire for self-destruction, they berate externalities (proponents of their scene, band members, organizers, writers, whatever) for not being true either. At least this way they divert attention from their own failings. It can become so time-consuming to spot & stamp out corruption in the midst that - hopefully - they won't have to look inside any time soon.

I think there is a way to navigate through this minefield between intent and failure, and it's a broader concern on the merit of ideology. Taking philosophical concepts and thinking them binding, internalizing them and making them part of ones belief system. Any ideology is unbearable in this respect, people become neurotic in their inability to traject according to their moral vector. Heavy Metal is no better or worse an ideology than most in this respect, that is to say, they're all a pathway to failure-induced neurosis. What I try to do with romance is neither to deny its call nor to embrace it as an ideology. Ideas are something small, but human beings are infinitely profound. Those that seek to become ideas seek to become something smaller than they are, something that will confine them to their breaking point.

So I do not take romance as my master. I come to conversation with it (this blog, and my own art) and I open myself to be inspired by it. I explore ambiguous spaces and entertain many notions, but I do not take them for truth. I find hope in Heavy Metal, not certainty. There is no room in life's complexity for certainty. It is too blunt and simple a tool to unravel anything but the basest of mysteries.

It is in that way that the matter of 'truth versus falseness' in metal has become irrelevant to me. Those that cry over this hate their own inability to be true to their convictions, and I do not have any binding convictions, I instead entertain thoughts and follow inspirations. I am open to the possibility that tomorrow I will feel compelled to never listen to Heavy Metal again and this doesn't upset me. So as far as the capacity of music to be Heavy Metal instead of merely 'metal', it is always a quantum state of uncertainty. Until I peek in and assess, it is and it isn't. And if I change my mind, I changed my mind!

All that said, I do find the common arena over truth and falseness to be interesting and try to keep up with the cultural climate that explains why a band seemingly stops being what it used to be, or when an outsider band decides 'we're metal now' and enters the paradigm. I do this not out of any 'metal watchdog, sound the alarm!' impulse, but mostly because I am well-versed in metal culture and since I have this knowledge, I use it to abstract broader social information from it.

It is in that mode (the dispassionate, sociological one) that I see a different shade of 'true versus false' worth differentiating from the self-loathing symptom described above. When people tell me to listen to this or that band for it is good metal, it is a shock not so much if it is good or bad, but often that it is so far removed from the expected forms of metal I am used to. The good-willing person would entertain the surface notion, Helm is out of touch with modern metal. That may be the case, but I think there's a socio-lingual issue there as well. People are discussing music that isn't metal as if it is metal because they feel more comfortable with that tag than any other. That's fascinating and worth examining. Why are so many hardcore punk bands masquerading as metal now? What are they getting from it and what are the listeners getting from it as well? Why are so many affectated indie rock/britpop/shoegaze -inspired bands content to be some sort of metal, where a scarce half a decade ago they broke out in hives at the mere mention of it?

I am interested in the phenomenology of this and I have theories. I am not upset over it nor do I want to defend Heavy Metal from the barbarians. Heavy Metal has nothing to fear, it is forever. And if I'm wrong and it will be forgotten, then so much the better that it is! But why are people trying to slum it metal-style now? In the '80s, the manufactured idea of the 'poser' was hilarious in its simplemindedness. You could tell it was a poser by how they dressed. If it wasn't long hairs and denim and leather, it was an outsider. The 'posers' reportedly detested metal all the same and all was tidy in the mind-space of the teenager metalhead. However now, punks and indies are complementing metal, they're stroking it, they're playing metal sounds and those upset over it cannot tell them apart from themselves. They wear the same clothes, have the same hairstyles and play the same distorted power chords and double-bass. They are them. It's fascinating!

Though it's worth a post of its own, I think the reason outsiders are now honestly and actually co-opting metal music tropes is an increasing fear of post-modern senselessness. People are feeling less and less like themselves and information overload leads to an even more wounded personality. Social networks are becoming so paramount that the young person is starting to feel as if they're not a singular entity anymore, and don't like it. Life stops having a story in it and instead it's all about how many people are following you on twitter and how many friends you have on facebook. Yet they cannot be something else than what they are, so they can only return to forms of art that have a romantic conceit, simpler semiotics and basic ontologies, by approximation and simulation. Metal music fits the bill and if it's too hard to be properly metal, you can always go half-way. We may be living in the first decade where metal music is actually looked upon from the outside with a degree of reverence, simply for being a thing. A basic, primal thing. Yet at the same time these reverent masses fail at actually becoming Heavy Metal exactly because the underestimate it in their simulation, because they cannot stop being products of an overcosumerist world bent on an information overload that threatens to make everything meaningless by this constant near-approximation-is-good-enough.


  1. "Progressive metal, unlike what you remark above, is very rarely seen as 'false' for not being complex enough. It simply stops being progressive, metal, or both. There never was a more eager to jump ship type of metal than this."

    That's what I should have made more clear. When a band has been established in their genre of choice, even if it was only after one album, those that have invested in that album, or set of albums, would ostensibly feel disappointed that the band had jumped ship to a new genre. This would lead close-minded individuals to conclude that the band had failed them and is no longer true to the genre, or whatever conclusions they happen to reach. Since I am not such an individual, I cannot say for certain what exactly they feel, so take what I have said as informed speculation. What I have observed, both online and offline, tends to support this hypothesis.

    When I was in Secondary School, I had an acquaintance who listened to Black Metal exclusively. Whenever I would talk about any music outside of Black Metal, such as Jazz or Classical, he would instantly launch fiery diatribes about the superiority of Black Metal above all other musics. I ignored him and continued to discuss John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and other Jazz luminaries. He was so thoroughly involved with this ideology that he had threatened me with violence on any occasion that I dared to bring up any music other than his beloved Black Metal. This sort of intolerance has always struck me as incredibly fascinating. When I did happen to discuss Black Metal his disposition had transformed to that of a young teenage school girl discussing shopping. For the most part, I have forgotten a large part of our conversations of Black Metal since most of it consisted of immature reverential gushing of emotion. On one occasion I had brought up Ulver to see what he would say--admittedly one of my favorite ways to kill time during lunch hour was to ask this individual's opinion of various bands, such as pop and so on--and not too surprisingly he said that he had enjoyed their albums at one point but would no longer listen to them again because they were 'blood traitors to the scene'. I think this illustrates my point on how genre shifting relates the perceived truthfulness or falsity of the band in context of it's genre.

    When I have some more free time there are few other things I would like to address in this post.

  2. I can only guess that this is a symptom of aligning one's personality with a 'scene' too much, especially when such a scene has a conceit of stone-faced seriousness and honor to some ideological cause. I have not ran across any person that would threaten me with violence until I indulged his musical tastes however. Closest I've gotten was being threatened over not being Christian in school, and of course, football team fanatics that habitually bully what they perceive as 'opposition'.

    Hooliganism I guess could fit something like black metal, but most of the individuals involved with that music I've met were introverts, so expressions of violence were not part of their vocabulary. Loathing and hate were, but I know what these mean. An otherwise sensitive and soft-spoken person I once met who listened mostly to black metal would be inoffensive as company until the point where he brought up 'the jewish problem'. You can imagine how that goes.

    See, about progressive metal, very few bands in the 90's *started out* as progressive metal bands, they were power, speed or thrash metal bands first going through techno-thrash to what became progressive metal. So it was when they hit that plateau in their fourth or fifth album that people considered them traitors to Heavy Metal.

    As such, nowadays when a band plays progressive metal there's always the stigma of that exodus, of not having any balls, so on. The people that listen to progressive metal now then, flock to it in full knowledge of its quasi-metallic nature at best. They pride themselves on being open-minded and outside the scene mentality, though they often are not, and are not.

    Most ponytail metal (other term for progressive metal) guys I know got out of the genre of metal per se via the scapegoat of bands like Tool, Pain of Salvation, Dream Theater and Radiohead. They can discuss with you for hours over bands like Lord Bane and Payne's Grey and they might go to metal shows, but they do not consider themselves metalheads proper. It's really a - tiny - separate thing, progressive metal. And it has mostly disappeared. Its biggest contribution was to create this outlet for those that wanted to escape metal subculture, and an inlet for outsiders to start playing distorted power chords and double-bass drumming.

  3. Interesting, engaging as always.

    The "true" quality I've always measured minus any psychological subtext (which you've extrapolated on above). Any subgenre form participating in the "true" works from a severely limited pool of aesthetic criteria. That's why you have "true" Black Metal bands aping (early)Darkthrone/ (Dead era) Mayhem/ (Hvis Lystet... era) Burzum. Ditto for "true" Death Metal, where the pool consists of Morbid Angel, Autopsy, Abscess...

    What's interesting about these inauthentic authentic bands is their music is "thingified," dead, unknowable. It's constructed of lifeless matter, tropes excerised before they were even born.

  4. If it is so, it's worth wondering on why bands would go to such significant trouble and put in so much effort (because even in the age of the Hobby Digital Sound Workstation it is a great amount of pure work to make a metal record) to craft what amounts to an obfuscatory cloak of antiquity to hide behind. What is it they're hiding and what are they getting from their ultra-conservative historical reenactments?

  5. "It was within that mindset that I was most concerned with what 'the next step for Heavy Metal' would be. I remember listening to Pelican's album 'Australasia' when it came out, specially the riff-salad instrumental composition 'Drought' and thinking - with complete seriousness and if I recall, some elation - 'so that is the next step for metal!'. A step out of the dark ages of the late 90's. As if there was a problem waiting to be solved. There were many that felt the same way then."

    It's quite natural for a musical form to evolve over time. The multiplicity of sub-genres in heavy metal attest to that. It's also quite natural for a musical form to evolve to the degree that it blurs the lines of the genre. Genre hybridization can blur the lines even further. Pelican is an example of this since their music is a hybridization of post-rock, a sub-genre which in itself lies upon the outermost fringes of rock music, and a couple sub-genres of heavy metal such as doom metal and sludge metal. Their sound shouldn't be representative of where heavy metal is evolving to since heavy metal has branched into many sub-genres, some of which are evolving into what I imagine to be separate entities from heavy metal. Just as heavy metal is no longer strictly rock, these newer forms that are emerging seem to be evolving into genres that are no longer strictly heavy metal.

  6. That very well may be. What my personal anecdote was describing was more the concern of the younger listener about his special subculture and its evolution, as a means of remaining personally relevant to the culture at large.

    The way I see it now is that Heavy Metal exists, I have a personal interaction with it and it doesn't matter what it will become next if anything, because I have what I need right here, the tools to arrive at my destination. The records exist, I do not need more. I don't need to keep consuming new music, the body of work is here, its heart is beating and the head is severed and bleeding in its arms. I'm tracing concepts and theories in the gore, you see.

    I no longer care about what the new form for metal will be or if it'll be relevant to my interests. It might be regardless of whether I care about it or not, but it is besides the point. I have what I need right now, in my hands. I've been given back what I always possessed.

    To the degree that it fascinates me, the pertinent question is 'why are these new forms of music that no longer are metal, want to be called, and respond to the call, of metal? What do they gain by the association?'

    I have theorized briefly on that on the end of the original text.

  7. "I think there is a way to navigate through this minefield between intent and failure, and it's a broader concern on the merit of ideology. Taking philosophical concepts and thinking them binding, internalizing them and making them part of ones belief system. Any ideology is unbearable in this respect, people become neurotic in their inability to traject according to their moral vector. Heavy Metal is no better or worse an ideology than most in this respect, that is to say, they're all a pathway to failure-induced neurosis. What I try to do with romance is neither to deny its call nor to embrace it as an ideology. Ideas are something small, but human beings are infinitely profound. Those that seek to become ideas seek to become something smaller than they are, something that will confine them to their breaking point."

    Interesting, although I have always considered metal at it's core or 'essence' a genuine anti-doctrine, or like 'evil' impossible to define in a classical sense, Slayer's 'God Hates Us All' being the purest expression of this. Btw is this a reprise against sites like anus.com, who try to co-opt metal into an ideology? If not, what are your thoughts on them?

  8. I really do not think Heavy Metal is as 'evil' as it pretends to be, nor do I think its evil is undefinable at all. I find that such a position makes Heavy Metal even less useful as a method of natural explanation than those of bankrupt metal-philosophers. Also 'it's just evil, man, you wouldn't understand. Either listen to it and love it or fear it and stay away' is a perfect description of a capitalist product, which should always be suspect.

    My thoughts on the anus.com *guy* are that he is very smart and that he has contributed to Heavy Metal culture. His anus drones which repeat what he's saying in variable ways with decreasing returns... not so much.

  9. Certainly metal is not 'evil' in the sense of something which is universally unnecessary and/or malevolent/harmful, any number of metal bands which express any degree of positivity in their music are proof of that. I just meant that to me metal and ideology are diametrically opposed, although metal has values and indeed, culture, at the very least I would consider it inherently apolitical, therefor attempts to 'merge' or associate it with any form of ideology seems like a 'corruption' to me. I don't mean metal is mere reactionary contraryanism, in fact I am finding it impossible to articulate what I mean.

    And in regards to Vijay Prozak/anus.com, it seems either his IQ has dropped substantially given the degrading quality of his posts and resorting to censorship to avoid debate, or there was a change in site management, or he has adopted malicious intentions. Certainly he has contributed to metal culture (I discovered the site years ago upon typing 'philosophy of heavy metal' into google), but I think the site operated much better when it had a philosophical agenda and not a political one. Personally I agree with 90% of what he says philosophically, politically it seems blaming all the worlds problems on one ideology ('liberalism', which is defined as an assumption of false/mechanical equality which defies all scientific knowledge) simply does not equate with the inherent complexity of reality. Plus the whole contradiction of 'we reject christian black/white morality/neurosis because it is too simple' only to unconsciously replace it with the 'left/right' dichotomy/neurosis, as well as loving black metal yet desiring a totalitarian/fascist society is absurdly amusing to me, if a little disturbing. Very kafkaesque. Polarised partisan politics leaves little room for critical analysis of complex socio-political stuff.

  10. Ideology != politics, in a dry sense. Ideology can be and often is 'a way of conduct'. Ethical positions, when defended and when they're put in a consistent framework become ideology. What Heavy Metal often lacks in what it preaches is consistency, yes, but the listeners try to bring in this consistency themselves.

    As to Prozak, I wouldn't say he's gotten 'stupider'. A lot on the site is written by other people, and what he's writing himself has always been political. It's impossible to agree with him 90% on matters of aesthetics and philosophy of art and to not agree with his political agenda to a similar degree, as one flows from the other, one services the other. I find some of what he has to say fascinating, but I do not agree with him often. I can understand his language but following his system of thought brings me against the 'elephant in the room', which is how profoundly socially disfunctional and unhappy thre man seems to me. It permiates his writing.

    I do not claim to be Mr. Happy nor do I always function in society but against internal sorrow I have a very different language that has nothing to do with politics and the shaping of the outside world. It's too late to consider his.

    With Prozak I - unfortunately ? - have to take the stance of 'I am reading the words of a brilliant yet broken person, adjust expectations accordingly - which doesn't put him in bad company necessarily, but I haven't taken what he has to say literally for many years. He says 'half of the world population must be destroyed for the benefit of an elite' I read 'today has been a difficult day'.

  11. Actually what I think you mean when you say he's been getting stupider is that I think he's been getting happier. The contradictions you spot are related with that he's functioning better, getting older, having a more stable life (I theorize, of course), so his anti-human, anti-modernist concerns, products of a disfunctional teenage life not not jive as well with that he's increasingly becoming : a middle aged conservative.

    1. You are probably right about his getting happier, beneath the deliberately inciteful language there seems to be an undercurrent of twisted humor I can admire. I can definitely say that I don't agree with his political agenda at all, at least the bulk of it. Certainly his political observations are astute, at least before he began merely demonizing the left, praising some mainstream conservatives/institutions and dictators (the kim jong il thing was probably just trolling, but I believe he reveres such figures to some degree). Certainly his brilliance and 'damage' shows through immediately in his writing, I can assume that is why I identify with him so much. It is just such a loss to me because before adopting a partisan political agenda (and thus abandoning it's detached, nihilistic outlook) the site acted as a sort of apolitical, amoral window on a two-party dominated system, or every democracy as far as I can tell. Thus, a relatively unique/neutral perspective where dichotomous division (us/them or black/white morality) reigns supreme. I suspect he began adopting ideology as his frustration with the impotence of the observer and the need to act/connect grew. At any rate I suspect like you I do not look to changing the outside world to reconcile internal reality, at least not beyond the outside world I immediately inhabit.