Thursday, February 17, 2011

Metal Consumerism

Some art is here to remind the audience of positive past memories and to provide a comfortable space in which to re-approach them from slightly different vantages. The interest in that type of art rests on those reconfigurations being inventive enough for the familiarized audience to want to follow them for a duration, but not so derivative as to make the effort seem not worth it. At the end, this type of art is at best supplementary to the original material: it might be conducive to an enjoyable time, but the exact tool it uses to be approachable (its reference of past art forms) serves also as the main reason for it being inessential.

How essential art may be could be judged by how the audience is drawn to repeated experiencing of it and/or of how enduring the internal representation of the art is, how it connects with various strands of one's psychic web. Most people do not rush to re-experience art that is strongly referential to past glories. They go instead, directly to those past glories. What identity is left for this strongly referential modern art artifact, is that of yet-another product. Inoffensive, taking up bitspace and perhaps hoarded by collectors of artifacts.

When compulsive consumers-cum-critics praise this or that modern piece of referential art, they're pretending that they're spending a lot of time with it and that this is a testament to the quality of the material (they're making a claim then, of the art being essential, as explained above). Do not trust them, divide their claims of how much they've experienced the object of art by ten or more. If they say they've been listening to a record for two months straight, this means they've given it a half-dozen incomplete listens while surfing the internet, perhaps. The reason they're lying is because they know nobody will pay any attention to their recommendations if they were truthful about how they're using the product. Art is still sold on the basis of essentialism even when both critic and consumer do not consume the product with mind to its essential quality. The merit of art has been sidestepped, it has become at best a selling point on a marketing sheet. What is sold and bought instead, is a brief feeling of elation, belonging, an experience of something one already is prepared to experience.

Art that builds strongly on past foundation often becomes blurred together in the minds of the audience; in this way often Heavy Metal bands are no longer interpreted as if they're making confident strides forward with their musical offerings to the form, instead their - often decades long - contributions are slight and non-cumulative. This band introduced more orchestral elements, perhaps that one plays faster than most. This one has some kickass graphic design to go with their extreme metal. These aren't innovations, they're safe variations. There is no 'one album' that cuts through the mists as a definitive statement. Ergo, listeners do not come to these bands to be immersed in a singular world, to feel as if the only thing that exists at that moment is themselves and the Entity summoned by this mythical piece of art. They listen to this music instead on shuffle, a record's as good as any other, all from a distance. They can appreciate what the band may be bringing to the table on some intellectual level, but they're not enchanted by the music to the degree that they suspend the language through which they categorize and codify their experience. This art is just not startling enough to achieve that. It is in this way that say, a black metal band in 2011 becomes just a black metal band in 2011. The riffs might be nice, the songs might flow well, the black mountains and treetop frost cover is pleasant to look at but... all these aesthetic signifiers are gazed upon from a distance. With distance comes irony. The feeling of being outside and afar from what one feels is a defining aspect of modern life. Art, romantic art in particular, was intended as a remedy of exactly that. If it fails at eradicating the distance between host and emotion, it has failed completely as romance. What is left is mostly a comfortable, safe product.

There's also a different type of art. Strongly iconoclastic, it channels most of its strength through violence, an eventual destruction of all past reason, 'artistic norm' and audience expectation. Often this music is abrasive and extreme, it likens in its assault the psychosexual charges of sado-masochism. It aims to destroy boundaries. Appreciators of this type of art endlessly try to negotiate what this music means to them and its seeming resistance to pacification. This type of art means the audience harm. It means to strike at their core and watch how the organism mutates to cope with the reminder of mortality. The purpose of the subculture around this type of art is one of understanding, applying of meaning and eventual pacification. When someone says "oh yeah, I love listening to noise music" what they're saying is "I am fascinated by how this music startles and shocks me, and I'm trying to wrestle some meaning out of this by owning these feelings and fashioning an identity out of my weakness".

This type of art is more difficult to commercialize because its benefits are less obvious to the distanced consumer. It's very difficult to keep one's distance when they're being raped, though modern culture is trying its best to achieve this.

Art that doesn't rest well in the mold of commerce struggles to find a place in a capitalist society. Some is branded 'outsider art' (whatever that means), or often it is forgotten as some curious evolutionary dead-end buried in some niche of extremity.

Both tendencies described above exist in Heavy Metal music. I'd go as far as to say that the most successful examples of Heavy Metal music are found in bands that straddle the space between these two impulses: to build and to destroy. They make music to be enjoyed, but not to be enjoyed too much. They make music that suggests, but doesn't make itself a slave to suggestion. Heavy Metal failure is often the inability to keep this balance. Some of it is strongly classicist in its self-considered place in musical history. It draws directly from past sources with reverence and docility. There is nothing extreme in an Iron Maiden clone band in 2011, nothing startling, nothing to crush the distance of the disaffected consumer. Those that appreciate it do so because it reminds them of something that once was startling and strong. That's as much as they need from this music anymore. Other is so bent on extremity and destruction that it forgets that to ensnare a listener there needs to be a promise of enjoyment on the surface. In either case, there seems to be a market for the debris of this friction between extremes.

Heavy Metal is intensely commodified and this is easy to see by how its treated by the internet world: blogs upload product, reviewers talk about 'value for money' and aesthetic considerations are bypassed as so much as homework: "we're here to tell you this might be worth listening to once, the work of what it means is best left to the consumer". Pretender taste-makers rush to exclaim how much they care about lyrics and cover art and meanings only to so clearly show how little they actually do. Their reflex is to shift through product, catalogue any reaction slightly above complete apathy, and (through detestable hyperbole of said slight emotions) shift the public's gaze towards anything that isn't bare nothing. You should totally listen to this, dude. It's your new favourite band, trust me. I've been blasting it while working out for like, two months now.

In this climate, even Heavy Metal music bent to startle, to rape, to destroy, is promptly de-fanged. When the listener has no stake in what they're perusing, when there's so much distance to be thwarted, even the most savage voices in Heavy Metal will be muted. In this climate, what has become the outmost savagery, is a return to the human, a return to ambiguity and a challenge to the consumer to stop consuming and start reinterpreting.

So much extreme metal, in this sense, is anything but. It's safe, it's comfortable. The consumer that buys a goregrind or a national socialist black metal cd knows what they're getting. There's nothing to interpet. If there's anything scary, anything startling in this process is how willingly they indulge their consumer vices. The music itself is just a reference to a time where blood and guts and crematoriums were briefly shocking for their teenage psyche. The consumer is building an identity as an eater of woes. Gulping down the worst psychic wounds of humanity in prepackaged, easy-to-swallow artistic representations. They're pretending to grow up by eating harm and shitting distance. Sideways glances into a wound that would be insufferable to gaze directly inside of.

But romantic art is made to push you beyond your limits.

As I've explained, the artists themselves feel these things and they try to negotiate a path through it all, and there's much valid critique to be made of what they come up with. But also, at some point, the art itself is blameless. Even if an artist is doing their best to transcend the debris of commercialization (though most are not even trying), the eaters will eat them all the same and feel a slight heartburn perhaps, something that classifies as barely above the nothing. And then they'll burp their transient opinions on some blog. The only remedy to this for someone who wishes to use art to better themselves, is an aesthetic diet: to stop eating so much horror so as to remember what horror means. To stop eating so much comfortable referential-exultant reprise of the past so as to remember what the original emotion felt like. As one rids extraneous fat and toxin, they will lose the taste for most extravagant perversions. Then, when they return to listen to the few great records and they will be again shocked by them. They will fear them. They will be touched by them. And they will have again to live with them, not just consume and pass them as they're trained to.

So, my suggestion is to consume less art. Download less of it. Have less to say on every new thing that comes out. Hone taste until taste doesn't matter. Spend more time with less to focus on, get to the bottom of what it means inside. I know this is not a fashionable opinion and that it potentially robs a lot of bloggers of a hobby, but perhaps that's for the best in the long run. Perhaps if one feels so burning a desire to share something new with the world every day, they should look into sharing cooking recipes instead, there can never be enough of those.


  1. Downloading music is easy. Actually, it is too easy. All these blogs, offering an endless array of links to download every possible genre of Heavy Metal music. No release is too obscure! "You want the demo that this band from Pittsburgh recorded in '85? Coming right up,sir!"

    This can lead to an obsessive attitude, where the metalhead (especially if he or she is interested in the underground) feels the need to became familiar with every possible recording that crosses his or her path. A futile attempt, because there will always be far more recordings available than the time needed to appreciate them. Probably, the need to acquire the information, is more important than becoming emotionally attached to what it has to offer.

    I admit that I have been guilty of such behavior, and I have already seen the error of my ways. Repentantly, I try my best not to indulge myself. I don not want music to became just another piece of information. I actually have some releases on my hard drive, that I had downloaded 4 years, and I still have not taken the time to listen to some of them, while I have a passing familiarity with some others, however, I am unable to formulate a solid opinion about them. I never will, probably.

    Finally, I am not into snap judgments. The only way to know if I truly like an album, is by my need to revisit it, after a couple of years have passed, since I first heard it. Sadly, the time available is limited, however, if the desire persists, I know I have a winner.

    George Chatzikostis

  2. Interesting piece. The bit about bloggers needing to slow down and actually absorb the music before they posit opinions is funny. The medium they are using works contra to the idea of "slowing down." It's all about who can get a review written and posted on the Internet first and then who can generate the most discussion or credibility from said review. It's not about the music; it's about the one that writes about the music.

    Of course the music suffers b/c of this. The music always suffers. Heavy Metal, at least in my mind, was always meant to be received in a sort of "terrific" way --- in the true sense of the word. A "mysterium tremendum," where the listener recoils in awe, maybe even terror. I know it sounds silly, but that's the way it should be, and that's the way it continues to be for me at least.

  3. It might sound silly, but that's how I listen to HM most of the time too. There's some records I appreciate from a distance as well, though, but it's an exception to the rule for me. The problem with record reviewers is that they want to be record reviewers: they don't want to communicate something real to them and affirm a worldview on the nature of art, they want to get the social benefits of being taste makers with as little actual risk and personal exposure as possible.

  4. We all have a high view of the terrible quantity of man’s creative output these days. And it creates conflict, because we feel pride and empowerment in the collective might of our expression, and helplessness in the knowledge that we will never be able to parse it all; there will always be more profound interpretation that we’re missing out on. This is the anxiety that drives the consumerism that you’re talking about – how does one take an infinite data set of art and sort by value, descending? Perusing even the most reputable metal blogs and magazines is like watching a shopping spree – they take their shopping cart and their 30 minutes and dash down the aisles, grabbing all the steak, lobster, Nutella, and Sudafed that they can pack in. And I think you’re right, just as claims of essentialism are rendered meaningless by “Twenty-Five November releases I’m pumped about” posts, so are the constitutional elements that justify metal’s continued existence undermined by such methodology.

    Really though, I’m uneasy with most every definition of essentialism (relating to metal) I’ve heard, so what do I know. I’m not entirely sure it exists in metal (yet?). Seems today it’s often attributed to the ability to distill the Zeitgeist, or the related: to bring a genre or movement “to its conclusion.” I don’t have time for art that at its core is the artist’s social commentary, or as a nostalgic reconciliation with the time and place of his birth. Moreover, when we define the Essential by the thoroughness of its hold on our own psyche and its critical role in formative memory, we’re really becoming just such relativists, aren’t we? Innovation, skillfulness, earnestness, ambition – they qualify music for the club but certainly don’t guarantee membership. Your thoughts on the relationship between building and destroying, and the removal of the abstraction between participant and the work, ring true to me. In the end, we fall back on ineffability, but when we do I think we’re in good company.

    Also wanted to let you know that for the last few months, a new post by Helm is often one of the highlights of my week, and I mean that very sincerely.

  5. Karl, thank you for your comment. There's much in it I'm eager to learn more on, but I won't bombard you with questions. Poetry of Subculture will be around for 4-5 years more (at the rate I'm writing on the 100 records) so there'll be ample opportunity for your point of view to be expanded upon - that is if you stick around, which I sincerely hope you do.

    On your first point on the empowerment/dread dynamic of how much creative output there is about, also add the emotional stress over the constant reminder that "other people are the ones making this deluge of art, you are just a receptor". As I make Heavy Metal myself I do not fall in this category, but I can feel sympathy for it. On some level, these critics and bloggers that post about their weekly hauls are attempting to appropriate the creative power of the art they're commenting on. If you have a lot to say on art, it's allllmost as if you're an artist yourself, yes? It's a very curious state, that of the fan & commentator. Endlessly drawn to an art, but afraid to create it themselves, to engage it with ambiguity, not outward certainty.

    Many people that go on to make metal music and do a terrible job of it do it to assuage those emotional strains over being an overconsumer. It's amost as if their shitty metal is an afterthought, the desire they're trying to fulfill is that of overcoming the burden of primary consumption.

    Essentialism is a struggle of self-definition, primarily. Your reflexes are correct in that human beings cannot define themselves (because they do not understand themselves and also because language is a problematic toolset), it will always lead to some pathology. When I go on about how "Heavy Metal is One Hundred Records", I am saying "My psyche is One Hundred Records". I've listened to a hell of a more than a hundred records in my life and they've all probably had smaller or larger effects on me, yet there is something I am drawn to when I try to decimate the data set in this way. It gives me a starting point and an end point. I must do within these restrictions.

    Most creative endeavours are inspired by the desire to live forever. One wants to start writing a book and hopefully never finish writing it, always be there to do it. The book itself is not important, that they're staving off death with their Great Work is important to those writers. Poetry of Subculture is instead a monument to completion, death. It is a project I am certain I will finish and that then I will be done. I won't have another word to say about Heavy Metal.

    Beyond being factual and correct in this way, what you should focus on is the matter of survival: if I don't do this, I will die. Isn't it a curious contradiction? Working towards (a) death so that I do not die right now? If I don't try to self-define, no matter how faultily and erroneously, I'll stand motionless on the spot, I'll cease to exist, and although I can envision a time when I'll be done, I am not done yet.

    Essentialism isn't my faith, I can see it from the outside with humour as well. But look at it this way: on the faulty premise of essentialism, I've started this blog project and it has already given me so much inspiration, food for thought and communication with other people. This is why I often say my taste is unimportant, the actual records I'm talking about could be any records, and my philosophical musings are not technology, they are an inspiration. From a faulty premise, to this activity.

  6. I rarely feel that I have much to contribute to discussions here; my level of engagement in art and music I’m sure is much lower than your average reader. I lack an artistic sensibility and background (and thus spend much of my time finding other ways not to starve) to the extent that much of what I read about the pull of metal and art here and elsewhere is way over my head. I’ve felt that need to somehow scratch my name into the stone, but direct attempts to create or criticize provided no real enrichment. It was the opposite, it made the art I love dirty and personal – when its true worth was antipersonal-ness, its ability to strip me of cultural baggage and accumulated experience, to a thing more base than the child of some era and circumstance. I stay very close to Heavy Metal, but I also stay the hell out of its way. (I’m fine following you along and watching you poke and prod the beast, thanks!)

  7. My first response is "fair enough"... but then I realize, you're going to have to engage HM eventually, it won't work like you say it will. I'm curious about your future!

  8. When I'm asked to review a recording, I tend to take longer than most to get the review finished as my idea of the purpose served by a review seems to differ to that of most other reviewers. I spend as much time as possible with the recording, and listen to it on headphones wherever possible, in order to fully absorb as much of what I'm hearing as I can.
    I'm given to understand that this is not the norm, as you have pointed out, with regard to the listening habits of most. Consequently I may wear out the appeal of a recording at a greater rate than the casual listener. I'll use the new Earth album as an example - repeated listening - and I DO mean LISTENING - has shown me that it simply is NOT a very enjoyable listening experience, it functions solely as background music and is a lazy, lesser, retread of their last few my opinion. Despite the amount of people currently praising Earth to the heavens, I truly believe that several months down the line, these casual listeners will no longer have any interest in the recording, and I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the very idea and ACT of casual listening. Unless one has actually sat with the express intent of LISTENING to a recording without other distractions on a number of occasions, one has not truly HEARD the music contained therein, and therefore cannot have truly formed a genuine working opinion.

    It seems to me that the 'mainstream' music industry is almost entirely populated by 'fans' of bands and performers who have never really HEARD the music that they profess to enjoy, as if they HAD, they would realise the astonsihing lack of content and utterly anodyne and generic nature of said music. We live amidst a casual, lazy and unfocussed culture, which is full of opinions that are not based on sound experience, but rather a form of sensory hearsay.