Sunday, January 23, 2011


How can you climb a mountain to kill a God?
Why do you cross unknown lands, to kill our Gods?
Why do you build walls to starve our Gods?
Is it for the same reason you blind us?
Is this way you punish our children?
And rape our sisters?
When will we drown?
When will we burn?
Will you die with us? I think so
You are slicing your own wrists
You are tearing your own hearts
And you are drowning your own children
So you can end it... or we will
We are telling them the truth
And revealing all your lies
We do not need to climb a mountain
Or to cross unknown lands
Because we are Gods
And we will drown you
We will burn your homes
We the people, we the spirits, we the Gods

There's this complaint leveled against some Heavy Metal music that it is pretentious. Against actual human beings, it is a very winning strategy because we are all internally unsure of ourselves to various degrees. We assume roles we hope will win us various social benefits and it's a tell that we won't be getting what we need when we are exposed for 'trying too hard'. That's what pretension means, on the inter-personal level: you're trying too hard to act like a grown-up and I can tell, little boy. It's a very cutting critique because everyone is trying too hard. It's like the loser with no life that always jumps at the chance to berate others for being losers with no life. If we focus on the other guy, we're safe for the time being, right? Everybody's playing a game of hide and seek with each other, exposing as little of themselves as they can while still pursuing their social agenda, and always on the lookout to point at and laugh with the next-door emperor with no clothes.

I have problems with the term when used interpersonally not only because it presupposes generally unfair expectations, but because more importantly, it fails in describing the psychodynamics involved in social transactions. Nobody that talks to you is telling you anything real, even if they think it's real anyway. In the space where what they want and what you want interject, there's nothing real there, there's just pleasing congruity. Cries of pretension are a cheap description of something complex and they're used as weapon. However in the context of art it's worse, it becomes a really baffling critique that shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the listener as to the inherent qualities of art.

All art is pretension. The very essence of art-making involves reaching outside the mundane and the expected. If there's a piece of music that has ever touched the reader and inspired them, chances are it wasn't made with any humility. With romantic art (the most naive type of art, perhaps) and Heavy Metal foremost (the naivest of the naive), this centered desire for teliosis, this death fascination, goes well beyond reason and 'realism'. Humility is for the living. It's really baffling that anyone would buy a record with a memento mori skull gazing back at them on the cover and expect anything mundane and humble.

What I get from this critique of metal music is that some listeners go to it thinking that it isn't romantic at all. It's a band, let's say, Mercyful Fate, who perhaps play some cool-ass riffs and have nice singalong songs, they're primarily a bunch of guys making entertainment. So if these guys are pretending to be something else than base level entertainers, then the entity of Mercyful Fate is pretentious, it's trying too hard, it's embarrassing. This is perhaps the mindset of the scene socialite; the social gamer that is trying to play angles to make friends and win status. They will side with the more honest artists whose art they think more realistically depicts their lives because that's who they want to make friends with, these people are the most useful (this is also the reason punk and hardcore scenes are still, and will always remain, the more active). I never wanted to make friends with Mercyful Fate -- as drawn as I am to that entity, I also fear it, I am surprised at what it can do. I feel reverence towards it. I may come to be entertained by their riffs and melodies, but I stay for something else entirely.

That may sound very basic to some of you, you might be baffled by what these people are trying to do to themselves with Heavy Metal. How can today's metal listeners be now leveling critique of pretension towards this type of music? It's because they think they're metalheads but they're really punkers.

Punk rock scenes often operate under the assumption that the musicians are true to a credo of beliefs and that these beliefs will factor into their every action, both artistic and mundane. Using this system, the scene will gage how 'down to earth' and 'real' the musicians are at any time. However, Heavy Metal music is very solipsist, it is impossible to judge the artist's ideology through the movement of the band itself... romantic art doesn't care about you and your friends. The only way for punker to gage Heavy Metal music is for how entertaining it is. Though metal musicians operate inside a society (the low level economics behind putting out records are certainly social) they're doing their hardest on the higher level to disregard those inherent modernist charges. The end result is that although punkers and metalheads, their scenes and their methods are (now, or perhaps always were?) very alike, their artistic product is variable in its resistance to social critique and scrutiny. Punk music (especially hardcore punk of the American variety) goes out of its way to be a transparent conduit to the belief sets of the individuals that make up the band, to be a reflection of 'real life' (whether it achieves that or if this is achievable anyway is a different discussion) whereas metal music goes out of its way to obscure the faulty individuals behind the music, instead to summon an entity as ancient as it is inscrutable with our modern tools of logic and dialectics. To look into a Heavy Metal record and comment on how pretentious is it is akin to looking inside a natural chasm or fountain spring and doing the same. That level of critique does nothing to the art - and it gives no tools for the critic to understand it either. Only disappointment can be found there for the listener. And then the natural question is, what are punk rockers doing in Heavy Metal scenes? Do they need it so much, to be disappointed? Is some existential belief in them hinged on finding pretenders and outing them? "Everyone is a liar", that sort of thing?

I believe the answer may be that after metal music's stab at the mainstream circa 1988-90 and the resulting commercial disaster, it went underground by necessity, to survive. There it met other debris of the same process like punk rock and gothic rock and whatnot, and these scenes cross-polinated with metal-curious punks leaving their ideological mark on (most of all) the then-nascent extreme types of metal. But that's a different post for a different time.

To offer a counterpoint to my position above, however, let's say that calling a piece of romantic art pretentious can also mean that the art is failing in its romantic intent even for the romantically-inclined critic. Though such theoretical entities should know better than to use that language, let's go with it. It is very embarrassing to be exposed to failing romantic art because it's an acute and unflattering reflection on us and how we spend our time to be caught up with such bullshit. So, effectively, when someone positively inclined toward romance, critiques a Heavy Metal record on grounds of pretension, what they might be really saying is "it doesn't capture me, it's transparent and I can see through it, to the people behind it and they're just people after all". Whereas calling something pretentious is a communication shutdown if there ever was one (and tellingly, the best invitation for flames), the above breakdown of the same accusation is perhaps braver and promotes further discussion.

Why do we feel let down when we can see that people are people after all? Is it that the stronger the spell may be, the worse it is when we realize what imperfect beings can temporarily summon such power over us? Is it the inevitable fallout of any masochism to be disenchanted when the one-who-hurts is demystified? Is this why some of us move towards auto-gratification (making our own Heavy Metal) instead?


  1. You should write a pretentious book about metal someday :P

  2. Great article with a lot of important points and the bit about Fate resonates a lot; Fate was one of those bands that fueled hours of late nite talk, struggling to understand "essence" and "intention." In a way, those conversations fortified their mythos instead of "debunking" it. That's such a popular avenue now; when I was a teenager it was all about grappling with a band on "their terms." Fate, early Ozzy, etc. ---these were dangerous people making dangerous music. Its "evil," while wholly unknowable, was strong enough in mere presence, and we never thought to consider it as a put-on. Art wasn't meant to be unpacked. We wanted it inchoate and unbound. We needed it that way. Without pretention, there was no point, no power to the music!

    Do we have bands like Fate now? I don't know. At least I haven't heard them or am aware of them. I don't think a band like Fate could exist in this age. Bands either present their art as self-caused thing-in-itself (DsO, the lot of the orthodox BM crowd) or cynical kitsch (Ghost, The Devil's Blood, etc.) or ape some sorta blue collar "Just-Jammin'-With-The-Bros" vibe to appeal to specific audiences. Unpacking the orthodox crew's intention is good sport for the bloggers, while the latter two are "only music, bro."

  3. But then you say Negative Plane are something like Mercyful Fate for the now. Or have I misunderstood your review?

    Regardless of Negative Plane, I think there are bands like Mercyful Fate right now, you're just too old and too knowing to be drawn to their intangible evil on their terms as you say, you're not innocent anymore. Too much 'exposing' of people behind the art have made us too hardened to go through the whole thing like a twelve year old listening to Mercyful Fate for the first time.

    I'm still incapable of completely externalizing what it does to me, listening to Melissa. I feel awe and love and terror and I wonder if it'll ever go away, if all I'll see eventually is a couple of guitarists and a dude with paint on his face singing songs and playing little rock n' roll melodies.

    Ghost are obviously calculated to me and you, but perhaps they're not for the twelve year old?

  4. Lot of pretention used to go on in the us punk scene as well (and still does in many cases), but perhaps on a different level and with a different meaning than the one in heavy metal.

    Punk pretention is there mostly to upset individuals. There are bands that did this from a lyricist point of view such as the Angry Samoans which were mainly reactonairies lacking the romantic approach and the ideals of contemporary punks (and when i say romantic approach i mean basically bringing rock'n roll back to it's original strength and meaning which is a pretty romantic goal for teenagers who considered theirselves realists), and some other who did this on a performance level such as The Damned (though not Americans- with proto-goth rock and theatrical elements to their live performances).Also, my god Flipper. That's a band to study closely since everything they did was pretty much a reaction to what was going on. It's also a band that covers both the in-studio and outdoors aspects of what i'm saying.

    It's funny since punk rock's roots (i'm referring to it's direct roots not the 60s garage punk movement) were always pretentious in a way that early glam rock bands always gave focus on their image plus one of the seminal protopunk bands such as the stooges had an entertainment value in their extremity. On the other hand, the ramones were always sort of an awkward situation. I'm pretty sure their haircuts and their whole approach to music evolution was pretentious in a way that they didn't want things to change even when it felt natural. The Phil Spector produced album ''End of the Century'' was a clear step forward but this really made Johnny Ramone (the guitarist, head of the band on business matters, and a conservative outside music) upset, since the singer Joey was finally gaining all the attention. Again i wasn't there and i don't have all the facts but you've got to admit that by creating ΄΄Τoo tough to die'' 4 years later where they did everything faster and louder (and even having a hardcore song in the album for christs sakes) might be considered a pretentious move. But then again it's the Ramones i'm talking about and the whole arguement i just brought up might be at stake.

    Conclusively i thing that punk and hardcore lose their ''realist'' values when they turn political. Politics are avoided by romanticists on an academical level, but with the lack of academia inside the punk scene (bad religion, descendents and some others excluded), intellectualism is mostly referred when a band makes a political or a humanitarian claim. So mainly, punk stops being pretentious when it stops wanting to bring back rock'n roll. It stops when it begins to organize and divides itself into its own subgenres. It also stops being pretentious when it gets mixed with corporations (and that's a big claim which i had to put a lot of thought before putting it here).

    That's about it, though i'm sure i there's a lot more to be said but on a heavy metal blog i think that's enough of worthless contribution :-p

  5. also i wanna correct something if that's possible. when i said ''Conclusively i thing that punk and hardcore lose their ''realist'' values when they turn political. ''

    i meant to GAIN their realist

  6. Negative Plane is certainly moving quickly in the direction of becoming as powerful and important as a band like Mercyful Fate, mostly because the let the music speak for itself, won't (totally) unpack it in interviews, won't talk about Satanism (much), and record with a quality/quantity ratio in mind.

    Isn't the presence of "evil" something completely other in say Mercyful Fate and Watain? Fate may have been prone to gimmick, but their music remained consistent and never degenerated into some sort of silly satan-rah-rah-rah where the gimmick(s) far outweigh the music. Fate was more subtle, right? I still can't really articulate it. It's one of those, "Fuck, dude," experiences. I hope it stays that way.

    As far as Ghost goes, they're calculated for people who want to like Metal but don't. You can play both sides with Ghost. And that's useful for people for many different ways. Ghost does all the work for folks who want to make the elitist/troo argument, which isn't really an argument at all. If you don't like Ghost, you dislike them for cynical/contrarian reasons, which means you're elitist or affecting a "troo" stance. You can't simply dislike Ghost because they are disingenious and kitschy.

  7. Your comment is anything but worthless.

    I do agree that teenagers wanting to bring back the 'force of rock n' roll' is a romantic thing, but perhaps in a simpler meaning than I apply the word in this blog. Read this, perhaps

    I agree that punk rock started out as shock rock and gimmick rock (a statement backed by writers more significant in the field than myself) and it got its political and social edge little by little, and american hardcore punk was the outmost apex of this movement. I do not mean to say all punk rock music is the same (I see little connection between Rudimentary Peni and Black Flag, for example) but it seems to me the subculture for punk has now very political realist and social-based critique for almost all punk. Even if new punkers like The Damned, I do not think they would judge new bands with the allowances they make for The Damned being kinda art-gothy. Punk music has become a cultural thing, much like Heavy Metal has, and the audiences know what they're looking for.

    I remember a friend of mine reading metalheads talking about Brocas Helm and then listening to them with virgin ears. He was shocked at how multi-faceted the music was, he was expecting instead PURE US STEEL ALL DAY ALL THE TIME. Instead he got psychedelic hippie folk and semi-progressive rock mixed with some of the US metal staples. For me, Brocas Helm are weirdos and outsiders, not US metal lords that fly the banner high. But in Greece, Brocas Helm are treated as royalty of a line that *doesn't really include them*. It's really weird.

    Likewise, punk-influenced audiences might like The Damned and Rudimentary Peni, but they *will* criticize new music for being un-punk in scope when it does the same things The Damned and Rudimentary Peni did.

  8. WebInFront I wanted to say also that yes, as all art, punk is pretentious. It just so happens that certain strands of punk have in their core the pretension of being real, the pretension of not being pretentious. This leads to ultra-massive self-loathing for bands and audiences that buy into it alike.


    I do not feel 'evil', in Watain. I feel malice, discontentment and totalitarian desire, but these aren't evil for me. Evil is WEIRD, for me, unexplainable. There's an element of humour in evil, certainly Mercyful Fate's evil that most new bands, as you say 'unpacked easily' as they are, consider a weakness. It's anything but. Mercyful Fate make me feel at awe in the chaotic danger in their core, because it's a reflection of these qualities in myself as well. Watain just make me feel like I'm back in highschool, misunderstood and unloved. They have no higher strata regardless of all their occult lyrics. I imagine a corpsepainted and decked out black metal kid in the school cafeteria, shouting these occult lyrics to anyone that walks around them, driving them away, empowered through self-vilification. It's a pityful imagining, a shame for the band and their otherwise masterful composing and playing.

    Mercyful Fate were wiser, generally. King Diamond did try to publically wrestle with 'what if *I* am King Diamond for real?' problem, but even the fallout of that (seen in some tv shows and whatnot) is infinitely more gracious than what Watain are doing. King Diamond could always say 'I'm not sure about what I am doing' and 'I make it up as I go along. It's art, it's not ideology!

  9. Watch those early interviews w/ King Diamond and he comes off like William F. Buckley: elegant, cogent, authentic. He's not a snake oil salesman, he's King Diamond.

    You know, the main thrust of a band's "effectiveness" is subject specific. The Blair Witch effect. If you WANT IT TO WORK, it WILL WORK. A lot of people want DsO TO WORK, thus... It's like you say here w/ this piece, "pretension" is inherent in all authentic forms of Heavy Metal, but it's deemed an insufficent quality by people who want to devalue x band's music/image/fanbase, etc.

  10. I agree that it's easy to devalue anything if you break it down (unpack it) and look at the parts as something shallow. And it's easy to find something of value in pretty shallow art if you don't look close enough and fill in the gaps with your own inspiration as well.

    I am not sure King Diamond was/is 'elegant, cogent, authentic' exactly. Authenticity is a dubious thing with artistic personae given how often they mutate and morph and surprise even their caretakers. The neurosis of continuity/authenticity is what makes Watain's attempt so base - if Watain is exactly as that guy explains it to be in all his interviews all the fucking time, then Watain can't surprise me, it's boring, it's a highschool project gone far too long.

    I think King Diamond, though not better read than the Watain guy or anything like that, was more innocent when he came against the problems of the Heavy Metal ghost and artistic personae in generally. His solutions are more human, less cynical, less calculated, though more faulty too! I remember the backlash when real occultists asked King Diamond some real questions and he came up empty, how he was semi-outed in these circles as a poseur. I wouldn't call King Diamond's Lavey-lite rational egotism elegant or especially cogent most of the time, actually. I appreciate his struggle with that stuff though, I appreciate that it was a work in progress, coming to terms with what KING DIAMOND means. I'd be much more disappointed if he has spent ten years underground fashioning the 'perfect metal persona' and then presented it to the world all stern-faced and rigid, like Watain.

  11. I'm not saying Watain is evil; they're the other side of the coin with the Mercyful Fate/King Diamond paradigm. If you look at early interviews with Erik Danielsson, his "persona" is much more understated; he doesn't come off like some kid ranting second-hand dogma cribbed from Internet messageboards. He just sounds like a guy into Black Metal and Bathory and affecting that sorta tableau in a live seeting---the way Mortuary Drape or Dead era Mayhem did. But now he's been interviewed so many times his talking points aren't coherent and they especially don't make sense in the context of their current music.

    This is correct here where you say King Diamond's naivete made him more human, less cynical, etc. This is important. You have to have and sustain that naivete to make Heavy Metal. Otherwise its no different than the millionaire faith healer smacking toothless uneducated beleivers in the foreheads and ridding them of demons.

    King Diamond is a persona and King Diamond knows that. Shit, Kim Bendix Peterson, at least in the early years was just as ominious to me in his leather jacket and quiet manner. The facepaint and bone mic stand were ways for him to access something "other." Useful means. It doesn't matter to me that he was outed by legit Satanists. I don't worship the devil, but I beleive Mercyful Fate's music goes hand-in-hand with that practice. As long as I believe, it persists.

  12. When someone on msn first sent me a link with King Diamond sans makeup at some nascar race or whatever, I resisted clicking that link for a long time. When I saw it and I found out his real name I thought, that's a useless bit of information for me. I still can't call King Diamond (a weird God if there ever was one -- I didn't understand the King of Diamonds connection until much later in life as I am not a card player) "Kim" "Bendix" "Peterson". It's like showing me a picture of the Pope in civilian clothing and saying "here's your god for you!". It's... not.

    It serves some psychological need to see Gods demistified. I suspect it has to do with father complexes. That's why I used the "King Diamond lied to me" tag. As in "you lied to me, dad!" cue tears and bedroom doors slamming.

    But I can call 'the Watain guy' "Erik Danielsson". Because that's the unfortunate thing he has achieved, he's made himself less than human, he's made himself into an idea, in the eyes of the public. He might think that's a job well-done but *sigh*, there's nothing innocent in that, there's nothing naive, there's just calculated public relations and star-system manipulation.

  13. Didn't see those Danish TV interviews until the dawn of YouTube, and there he's young and quietly convincing. The NASCAR hat and wraparound shades thing came much later... And see, there's the problem. When I was a teenager, I knew Mercyful Fate from Metal Forces and their records. I coudln't google them. I couldn't read 100 interviews with King Diamond. My understanding of them was shaped from a few magazine articles and my interaction with their records. That's it! That's why it worked.

    The name King Diamond I don't know where the hell that came from. I always thought he took it from the Greek (adamas) and took it to mean "inpenetrable." I think my Liddell & Scott defines it both as that and "diamond." But it's been a long time since I've been in that dictionary.

  14. Yes, that's why it worked and that's how it might work, still. Bands should take more care with their mythology.

    Adamas-Diamond, that is improbable that he had this in mind, but it's a pleasing idea. King of Diamonds, the face card connection seems elementary now... I think comes from the earlier punkish days of The Brats. It's a cool name in any case.