Tuesday, December 11, 2012

They Say Rage is a Brief Madness

Alternatively: "On the topic of death metal, black metal and why death/black is (mostly) a sham."

For those of you that haven't managed to penetrate into the aesthetic of the more extreme genres of Heavy Metal, this piece might serve as a key. For those that are well versed in and enjoy these genres, it might help to further illuminate why there's such a sizable disparity between them though they appear on the surface to be easily interchangeable.

To get anywhere with this I will provide a semi-historical definition of genres that are, on the whole, more nebulous that I make them appear. I say this to preempt notions that there is black and death metal quite outside the modern paradigm. I know. But in that there exists a paradigm to begin with should provide enough basis to examine it. This world is the best world there is by the virtue that it is the only world that exists and so forth.

Death metal, as examined here is of the American mold (though not necessarily from the US). Muscular, very compressed and given to violent swifts in tempo. Dense composition, usually very chromatic and emphasizing chaos more than velocity. There is no respite. Melodic sections are easily throwaway if the band feels like it. There is no center or showpiece. The vocals are usually deep and growled as with Suffocation and Immolation, or in middle, menacing drawn-out and unintelligible grunt as with Obituary or Autopsy.

Black metal, as examined here is of the early '90s Scandinavian type, as typified by Dark Throne, Burzum and Mayhem. It grows in reaction to the death metal described above. It appropriates some of its technique (indeed, the teenagers that pioneered black metal's second wave mostly played in 'trendy' death metal bands before that - when they were twelve). Its characteristic remains a return to the romantic core of Heavy Metal of old, or a further romanticized understanding of it by Norwegian teenagers, as it were. Long tremolo phrases in minor keys, with a restrained and normative use of disharmony (malformation versus beauty). Repetition and drone, a floating atmosphere. The vocals are predominantly raspy or screamed.

Let's also peruse two audio examples before we move forward.

In popular perception, this is what 'Death Metal' summons:

 In popular perception, this is what 'Black metal' summons:

Death metal has ill intent towards you, dear listener. Were it a psychic force capable of manifesting physically as in some '80s b-movie, it would gut you and devour your entrails. It would symbolically make you into a womb to enter once again, and eat back out of from the inside. Its malice is that of the sociopath. It doesn't understand you and it has no interest to. If it has a fascination with you, it is to make your 'inside' come to the outside so that you, the hypocrite that you are, that is so taken with the idea of any metaphysic quality or spirit residing inside you, will finally concede the point that 'only meat is real' with your passing. No, not death. Death is not real, it is no more real than life is. There are no metaphysics when the worms eat your flesh. What there is is nonsense and pain.

Death metal is for the socially impaired. Manchildren, neckbeards and other nerds that do not know how to talk to a girl. Their gateway into understanding comes through shock treatment. They imagine a vicarious violence not because they desire to inflict it but because it is at least quantifiable. Why? Because it's funny. How? Painfully. They empathize with the victim-as-victim, not the victim-as-human. The bitch was asking for it. These people are mostly harmless for what they do best is write otherwise. Those you should fear are those that haven't written a word and are just smiling at you, ever-smiling, fitting in. There is a sociopath in your workplace. Someone in your family has tortured small animals for fun.

The cookie monster vocals that the genre favors bring into stark relief the truth of the genre. It is a man trying to appear inhuman by lowering the pitch of their growl. When was the last time you've heard a person, consumed by a murdering rage, growl like a demon in a film that they will kill someone? That's right, never. That voice is not normative, it is how a social introvert imagines rage to manifest. They will never test their growly voice in the highschool cafe-- excuse me, while they "gut that prostitute". This is how the social critique against the questionable subject matter of death metal is explained away by its audience: never tested. Pure fantasy. Leave us alone. Boys only in this tree-house.

The monster in death metal is a monster of sociopathy, of loneliness and stress, of delusions of grandeur. It is very life-affirming to play with the symbol of death and alienation. To make it as clear as possible, Death metal is the imagination a serial killer, as perceived by a mostly-normal introverted teenager.

Black metal has ill intent towards your world, dear listener. Were it a psychic force capable of manifesting physically it would be your ruthless philosopher autocrat, cruelly sentencing you to darkness and imprisonment while all the while explaining to you why it must be done. And you would agree. It would strip you of your humanly characteristics because you do not deserve them. In that it can imagine these characteristics it follows that they exist and they are of value. It, then, understands you, or at least has tried enough to exist besides you. It knows of no other way to contribute to this world, it has never felt the transcendental value of offering something to the world with no wish to see returns, besides perhaps its new black metal CD (in hand-numbered copies, to be sure).

The piercing scream of black metal is that moment when that entity gives up on your world, and the resulting triumph in its minor-key dirge is that of autonomy, of being unchained from your conventions. Metaphysics are all that exist. The flesh is a nuisance, in fact it might be there expressly to not be touched. To be resisted, as all temptations besides the call of death. Many of these teenagers wrote their peans to dark gods and spirits before having felt a man or woman's sexual touch. Most that listen to it certainly can attest to what thrill came first, that of the Awe of Death or the Cry of Passion.

Black metal is for the socially impaired. Pale-faced peter pans and outcasts, the 'weirdos'. Their gateway into self-actualization (or fantasy thereof) is through the triumph of will, through the blood-red flowing romance inherent in Heavy Metal. Any violence they imagine has no real external object, it is not about you; It is self-inflicted. The 'depressive black metal' trend was the final, crass (and of course American) realization of what all black metal ever was. The mistress has a high price, she demands holocaust. The voice of black metal, the piercing shriek or grating rasp are the manifestations of hysteria. A hysterical person might end up killing you, but only because they didn't manage to destroy themselves first.

The monster in black metal is the ultimate representation of social alienation. It is the capitalist Atom-person, outside social context, its burning romance without avenue to offer to the world. It is not a careless automation, all blades and pincers, mangling all flesh, living and otherwise in its path like death metal is. It is a painted scowl on rosy cheeks, a constant dialectic between life, the value of life and the tragedy of mortality. Black metal doesn't want to die, but it will if it has to in order to live forever.

From the above point of view it can be easily extrapolated why it is almost impossible to have effective and convincing black/death metal. Furthermore, it is very clear why black metal had to come out of death metal, and why black metal bands that in later age return to death metal were, and are, mostly laughable for it. Choose a side, lonely man.

Or at least, so I posit. I welcome contradiction, discussion and examples.

The gardens of this Subculture will be watered with some regularity again.


  1. You say that black/death is *mostly* a sham, and that it is *almost* impossible to have effective and convincing black/death metal. Is your use of "mostly" and "almost" intended to avoid asserting this as an absolute sweeping law of the universe? Or is it more simply because there exist some bands that you consider effective and convincing that fit the mold (and if so, then which bands)? Or perhaps, as you point out, it's because death metal and black metal on the whole are more nebulous than this piece makes them out to be? There can obviously be no intersection between two distinct points in space, but there can be an intersection between two regions. But if those regions are not precisely defined, then who can be sure whether such an intersection exists, where its borders lie, and whether anything of value found there isn't actually just fringe death metal or fringe black metal?

    If death metal is a chaotic bloodthirsty sociopathic materialist monist, and black metal is a reasoned condemnation dispensing idealist monist, then what sort of intersection can there possibly be? Well, there's Multiple Personality Disorder, I guess.

    I want to discuss the concept of genre for a bit, if you don't mind, though I think my ideas might be a little half-baked at the moment. I write heavy metal sometimes, but I don't usually identify as a heavy metal artist any more than Bela Bartok might have identified as a folk musician. Instead, I think that heavy metal has simply become one of the predominant influences upon my music, so that when I am writing something that is not metal you can clearly hear the effects of the metal genes upon it. So if I adopt some black metal ideas and some death metal ideas for use in a piece, this is not black/death metal. It exists within a paradigm that isn't constrained by the ideas tied to those genres. The influences from each genre become more like characters in a play who communicate their individual ideas and perform their individual actions as mere fragments of the whole narrative. It would be a mistake to call this black/death metal.

    So then, the black metal people did not completely purge the death metal genes from their music, but it would be a mistake to call it death metal. If the rejection of death metal was an intrinsic component of what it meant to be a black metaler, then to what extent can black/death actually be considered intrinsically black metal? It is logically relegated to a non-black-metal place with black metal decor. I suppose this is what I understand when you say that it is mostly a sham. Am I misunderstanding you?

    Did any of that make sense at all?

  2. P.S. RE: "The gardens of this Subculture will be watered with some regularity again." Yes, please! I do so enjoy the writing you do here.

  3. There do exist some bands, especially death metal bands that have a hysterical. Listen to Magnus here http://youtu.be/ZZzZTQoznq8

    'I was watching my death' is an apt name for their record.
    I am sure there are more.

    My notion is that the further out death and black metal venture from their 'points in space' and into the 'nebulous regions' that might intersect, the less of an impression they make! This doesn't necessarily mean that music is not good, it just means it doesn't register as strongly symbolic like Immolation or Mayhem do. This might have to do more with metal music history and its interpretation thereof than it has to do with strict musicological standards though.

    "Well, there's Multiple Personality Disorder, I guess."

    Exactly, don't Magnus above sound positively schizophrenic?

    No you did not misunderstand me in your last paragraph. The 'sham' aspect is not a value judgment on the music (which might be evocative as something) it is a condemnation of how the music represents intself as belonging to a metal paradigm (or an intersection of two in the moment as it were). In philosophy for example, it could be said that the post-structuralists were born out of a critique of modernists, but that doesn't mean there can exist now a philosophical position that is structuralist/post-structuralist in self-identification. We as listeners might judge a thing to me schizophrenic in such a way, but the thing itself cannot pretend to not be schizophrenic and just be another regular thing inbetween points in a linear evolution.

    If black/death exists, it's a mutation without sentience, it just happened to be. Do not trust any band that self-identifies as 'black/death' is what I mean.

  4. I'm asking out of curiosity, where does bands like Beherit, Sarcofago, Blasphemy etc. stand in the light of this post?

  5. Most of these bands straddle lines. Sarcofago between thrash and death, Beherit between black and doom and Blasphemy between black and... noise? Messy grindcore? I wouldn't know, I can't listen to them.

  6. Definitely straddling the lines.

    I was thinking about this statement "From the above point of view it can be easily extrapolated why it is almost impossible to have effective and convincing black/death metal." and how much the mentioned bands are loved (I've even heard people calling Fallen Angel of Doom their favourite black metal record) and that they must do something right then? Furthermore would you agree that there exist some degree of love for first wave black metal bands and especially the south american ones in metal underground? Perhaps it has more to do with how we/they are fascinated of the history and the gene pool of heavy metal or how unpredictable early bm can be when you are so accustomed to what it came to be. I know I've never felt so *shocked* with any "extreme metal" as I did when I was listening Sarcofago's INRI the first time..

    Me, I like Sarcofago and Beherit, Blasphemy not so much, and early Samael (black/doom metal? celtic frost metal?) are gods. It would be great to have some proper intel on the people who worship something like Mystifier over Burzum but that might be too much of a strawman already. :D

  7. Very Glad to have you back!
    I believe that the reason that so many bands (at least here in sweden) get called Black/Death is because of the animosity between the two scenes in the 90's.
    Because Dissection once played Death Metal on their demos they are forever a Swedish Death Metal (there is some pride associated with it) band, uncorrupted by those Norwegians who seem to destroy everything they touch.
    So in some sort of compromise they adnd their ilk get called Black/Death, even if what they're trying to accomplish lies pretty far outside of Death Metal.

    I'm pretty curious about how iconoclasm plays into the whole thing. Of course a defining characteristic in BM. Isn't it something that instead goes well with the Death Metal Modus operandi of superficially destroying us? Or is the Mayhems of the world laughing at our Dead gods?

  8. I've heard Blashpemy called 'war metal', not sure what it is, but if it's similar to what Angelcorpse are doing I guess I get it.

    Black metal and doom metal go along just fine, however!

    Mechabarbarian, I do not think anyone sensible around the world calls Dissection a death metal band. I could understand people calling them black metal or heavy metal or whatever, but nothing they're about post-demo has anything to do with death metal. In the same way we could then call Darkthrone death/black because their debut was an Autopsy-type thing?

  9. I read the Swedish Death Metal book by Daniel Ekeroth at my friends house. And I seem to recall him writing that he definitely condsidered Dissection a DM band and not black metal at all. I think that statement is probably shared by some that weren't a fan of what was going on in Norway at the time.
    They don't want something they love (Death Metal) associated with it, or for it to take credit for what Dissection brought to the table. It's just a missplaced sense of pride.

  10. I have not read that book so I reserve judgment. But if that's as much as he goes into it, it's safe to say the world at large does not agree with him; Dissection were a black metal band in the eyes of the public. It'd be interesting to see if the band itself self-identified as either black or death metal, actually. I would half-expect them to deny both.

    1. I feel I must make amends! Having recently crossed paths with the book again (it was years since I first read it) I revisited the section I was thinking about and the qoute I was talking about actually belongs to Dan Swanö where he says that as far as he's concerned ''The Somberlain'' is a pure death metal album with nothing black metal about it (Swanö was of course the producer on the album). Daniel Ekeroth himself lays no judgement on Dissections Black Metalness. And Dissection, when challenged with what genre they identified with, said they played ''metal of death'' so I'd say your expectations were pretty correct. Now I can rest in peace.

  11. If death sort of grew out of thrash, then to what extent would black metal's rejection of death metal imply a rejection of thrash metal as well? Why does it seem more plausible to have convincing and effective black/thrash hybrids (like, say Absu)?

  12. Yes, a rejection of the more punk-influenced thrash for certain. I do not think norwegian black metallers liked Anthrax a lot. But perhaps they now have a bigger soft spot on thrash because they grew up with it as opposed to death metal which was what was happening when they picked up their instruments to begin with.

    As to black/thrash hybrids, I think they work because 'evil thrash' has been a thing since the beginning of thrash (slayer, infernal majesty, that sort of thing) and the sloppier, so-called 'speed metal' or the in-between time is vague enough to be reinterpreted in any way one lines. Thrash when it became a sentient genre and realized its scope and limitations has nothing else left to offer to romantic art besides certain musicological techniques. That one is playing a 'thrash riff' in a black metal song doesn't mean they're playing thrash, if you follow my thinking. All of contemporary metal adopted thrash metal technique. US Power metal is basically thrash playing without thrash content, for example. Death metal initially was thrash even faster and less sensical. But for a band to be playing thrash/black I think it would entail the symbology of thrash also being represented. Either sociopolitical commentary of some sort (probably retarded 'fuck the world' sentiments) or beer drinking and partying (which is what 'retrothrash' was back in the '90s with Bewitched, Cranium and those bands nobody cares about now and rightly so). Yeah, thrash has had two different comebacks so far. Retrothrash in the mid '90s and neothrash now.

  13. Haha, one of these days I'm going to form a retarded "fuck the world" passive-nihilist black/thrash one-man band with poorly programmed drums and down-pitched vocals just for my own amusement.

  14. Can we dissuade you, somehow?

  15. I promise not to spread it anywhere if it's not up to the level of say Thrash Queen!