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.