Monday, April 29, 2013

In art, nothing is as stupid as intelligence

So how stupid is Heavy Metal, really?

I've found that a key to understanding the perception of this genre of music rests on the public preconception of it as dumb or 'low' art. And to a degree the appropriation of Heavy Metal tropes by outsiders via 'post-metal' was an attempt to smarten up Heavy Metal so it can finally be appreciated by those who feel a magnetic pull to it but would rather not be seen in public with it.

(Oh, such malignant enjoyment I take from seeing them fumble about with instrumental post-shoegaze ambient black metal/indiecore to somehow reconcile their fascination with, say, Manowar.)

It took me this long to talk about this because, honestly, as an issue it has been invisible for me for the longest time. I grew up with Heavy Metal first and foremost, so aside from a few works of philosophy, I am exactly as smart/dumb as it is.

I've been confronted, over the years with variations of a piece of back-handed flattery I find especially tickling. I've been told that I am a metalhead 'unlike the others'. That though I do not try to distance myself from the perceptually lowest core of Heavy Metal (I proudly listen to Carnivore, say) I do not seem to fit the cliche of the vinyl-gatherer in arrested development they understand metalheads to be. I am kind and a good conversationalist (on other topics, even!) and seem centered. From the complement we can draw two conclusions.

1. Were a metalhead to be able to distance themselves from the idiocy in the core of Heavy Metal, they absolutely would. In effect they would stop being metalheads and become one of those ironic widowers who now listen to one of the various permutations of post-metal. Certainly, Heavy Metal has died, one has not to just remarry but also hastily bury the decomposing corpse.

2. That they do not do this is due to incapacity. Probably because of stupidity or some other sort of fundamental character flaw. It is impossible to take this music seriously without some defect fueling the interest.

I am not going to attempt to combat these assumptions as fervently as the reader might expect. I do believe - as I've written in the past - that Heavy Metal has died and we're just dressing up the corpse in cute ways, a little bit of neo-thrash, now an occult robe, oh how nice. Perhaps the corpse appears animated to a sixteen year old that just bought their first Municipal Waste album just yesterday. And I do think mine - or anyone else's - continued interest over decades betray a morbid fascination to say the least. You can do two things with a dead thing. One would be to cradle it nostalgically and mourn forever the crystallized past. The other is nekromantia - divination of the future in the innards of a gutted rat.

But the aspect of the above assumption I will challenge is that the defect that drives the metalhead is a lack of intelligence of some sort.

Heavy Metal is difficult to parse for many because it seems preoccupied with low drives. Death and butchery, hedonistic lust and driving motorcycles and/or dragons. Difficult topics to make a defense for. But then, why are people whose trajectory passed close to Heavy Metal still so compelled to even talk about it, even if it is in the most damning terms? There is something dark and strong in there and a surface read of dragons and motorcycles doesn't seem to diminish the allure.

The profundity in Heavy Metal lies in that it is dumb and smart at the same time. This happens in a startlingly simple way (and why it's difficult for us to come outside and look in to see it): take inherently sensitive and intelligent people and do not give them socially positive ways to express that intelligence. Supress them. Give them fifty pages from ten different philosophers, give them horror movies and dungeons and dragons and tell them that's their lot. The sort of intelligence they will develop will be somewhat dysfunctional and unrecognizable if held against the paradigm of intelligence as means of social success and upwards mobility. Heavy Metal is smart in the dumbest way possible, in the most useless way possible.

So the best Heavy Metal artifacts are monuments to that savant brilliance. Those that feel drawn to this but yet are disgusted by its low level are victims of an illusion that Heavy Metal willfully creates. They see before them an entity that burns darkly from inside, it has no outside activator. It did not go to college, it doesn't have many friends, it is mis-educated at best. Yet, somehow it can divine a future in the guts of a rat. It knows allll about you. The illusion is that Heavy Metal (and its people) seem to have been born this way, or if not, to have carved themselves in this image with pure willpower.

This is the great defense of Heavy Metal. How can a stupid record from the Czech Republic capture the ethos of Nietzschian thought without the people that made it having read any Nietzsche? And why does it still have a sacrificed goat on the cover? How can a stupid seven inch NWOBHM extrude an air of otherworldly dignity and strength when the title of the track is even misspelled? How can this black-clad longhair smile to me with such kindness? How can these people be everything I was told not to be and still function?

The illusion is that they function. Nobody functions, it is impossible to function in our modern world. But that's the spell that Heavy Metal casts, that's what metalheads gave their souls to buy, that disarming semblance of inner strength, conviction and drive.

Heavy Metal is dumb and yet ambitious. Never before have there been less equipped artists attempting more lofty artistic goals. Heavy Metal is uneducated and socially inept but with the very little that it knows it creates a world in itself. It is a self-sustaining system.

That is where it is dangerous. What Heavy Metal asks of you to give you this self-sustaining system is an impossible task: Destruction of the self, so that the self may live. The 'other' metalheads you know whom you find so easily dismissable and abhorrent, married to their leather jacket, who have a thousand words for riff but not one for pathos, they are the mutants of this chaos process. The 'almost got there's, they are the Renfields to Heavy Metal Dracula, eating vinyl insects to survive, wondering when their master will come to imbue in them eternal life.

And so Heavy Metal is dead. The Dying Bride has finally perished. The wedding dress is damp with old decay and red with rust. Why haven't these people (mutants all, successful or not) given up? Why do they still listen to a record from 1986 as if it's important? A corpse is a corpse and a corpse will not rise. The horrible craft left to us, those 'metalheads unlike the others' is just that of divination.


  1. I am not sure I completely understand what you mean by divination. I figure this is a metaphor, as I doubt you literally mean that poking at Heavy Metal's corpse is the key to successfully predicting earthquakes and thereby saving inordinate numbers of innocent lives (I'll get to writing up that research proposal later), but I don't think I quite comprehend it yet. Maybe you don't need to explain it. I'll think upon it more.

    However, what I really wanted to say was that surely forensic investigation would constitute a third thing that you can do with a dead thing, and this is actually a very useful thing to do in many cases. We can analyze and prod and poke and learn what made the thing's heart beat in the first place, what made its moving parts move, dissect its brain to find the source of its dysfunctions, the source of the occasional fleeting brilliance. I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't know. From what I can see, you've been doing this for a long time. So is this simply a different metaphor for what you mean by divination? Seems a little backwards though, so I'm inclined to say it's not.

    There is surely some nontrivial impact that metal has had upon society in general and upon the greater story arc of the broader flow of music and art. It's possible to take what one has learned from the experience of indulging and being immersed in a "fringe genre," so to speak, and apply this knowledge to more generalized pursuits, so that heavy metal, black, death, prog, thrash, whatever, all become colors in your palette, or entries in your Chess opening book, or techniques in your book of karate chops, or whatever metaphor you want to use. I'm not saying you can then write a bunch of Symphonic Blackened Neo-Techno-Thrash or that this would even be a good idea (probably not, but who knows?). I'm simply saying that there are ideas, however base, symbolic, or primal, that can be gleaned and utilized for other things, and hopefully expanded upon in new and interesting ways.

    Sorry, but I think I've used your comment section as a scratch pad for my thoughts. I hope they are not just a load of horse shit. I'm not going to reread them and edit.

  2. That's a good use of the comment section as any. Yes I do mean the same thing you explain as 'forensic investigation' with the necromancy but I gravitate towards the non-scientific analogy because I am not a scientist.

  3. To speak of heavy metal is to speak of the base drives of man, that is the reason for the eternal fascination with it. If no other music genre succeeds in approximating as directly strength, glory, adolescent phantasy then why should heavy metal die? The attempt to rationalize/modernize/progress heavy metal is in parallel to our attempt to harmonize our dreams and instincts with the reality of adult society. It is usually full of resignation (as your interpretation of post metal) but there can be a path of honour, in which dreams address reality with enough conviction and honestly as to reshape it, or at least reshape us. Carry on to the next level of individuation, or die a happy, fighting death (if that ever happens, I don't know). Will heavy metal become less-heavy metal with more social intelligence, tolerance and the wisdom-of-ages though? It bugs me I have to say. I was never that much of a fan of progressive metal, after all. Sounds like something to definitely explore, though! Anyway, pop culture doesn't matter much, there can be a heavy metal with 2 great bands out of 2000 sounding like the latest US trend/genre mash-up/band tribute. All it really takes is 4-5 blogs like yours to keep up with the good stuff ;)

    chris-the-ambient-blackmetaller (more of enough indication to show who I am, hopefully!)

  4. Heavy Metal is dead because it's not trying to stay alive. We didn't kill it, it commited suicide. That you or I or anyone else still need it doesn't mean it's going to do us a service. As a cultural movement it is exhausted and spent. We can keep on talking about it forever (and I for one probably will) but it's not going to revive it.

    Other music - and other art - touches on base drives, in fact I'd say pop music is much better at it than Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal is concerned with methaphysics much more than the flesh. And again, there's other music for all of this (mostly classical) as you well know.

    It's not just what Heavy Metal does, it's that its fascinations are disparate and their marriage volatile. Put a person screaming over Sostakovitch and I'm immediately more interested in classical composotion, you see. Put A solo pianist over chuck berry and I'm more interested in rock n' roll. Just, for god's sake, don't put any distance between these disparate things. No irony, no forethought, no academia. The corpse is death enough.

    "Will heavy metal become less-heavy metal with more social intelligence, tolerance and the wisdom-of-ages though? It bugs me I have to say. I was never that much of a fan of progressive metal, after all. Sounds like something to definitely explore, though!"

    What's funny is that which you've put in the future tense here has already transpired. Circa 1990-1995. You've just not caught up with it yet. When you do, when you understand how Maudlin of the Well put the tombstone on the magic of Heavy Metal with their two latter records, and you look from the 2000ish vantage towards the present day and see the wasteland of new thought that Heavy Metal has been, you might see my point.

  5. Yes, indeed.. perhaps I've never felt it as much as a cultural movement as you, or perhaps I have forgotten the very last time I did, to care much about this kind of death. Death for the masses, if I might be allowed, does not constitute total death! It's very funny though, what I personally understand as a base drive is totally expressed by heavy metal, not pop music. I cannot even remember if I was ever not interested in metaphysics! Likewise, I cannot ever imagine the day that I will not need a heavy metal record to renew my strength and fuel my dreams. Perhaps death will come quicker. I especially liked the comment about Shostakovitch, similarly I once uttered that putting a drop of black metal puts a drop of magic in everything, heh.

    Indeed, I've never been interested to explore modernity in metal, at all. For fuck's sake, I'm still searching to find bands with medieval fantasy lyrics! I'm not sure this is the kind of arrested development that you mention, though. I want to dig a hole from where I am, by myself, to reach one day to where Maudlin of the Well have been, if that makes sense. Don't want to go there directly. I guess being slower with things has its merits!

  6. I think it would be very interesting to see what would happen if humankind forgot about Heavy Metal completely for a few hundred years and then rediscovered it suddenly.

    I suppose I wouldn't be able to see it, though. :(

    P.S. Absu played in my town this Wednesday, but I didn't realize it until tonight. :( :(

  7. Never before have there been less equipped artists attempting more lofty artistic goals.

    love, love, love this expression. thanks for say'n it.

    yesterday was a tough day for me. the bridal metaphors written of here and in my thought streams cut too close to my unfun bone. Swan, my fiance, my mental bride in the flesh, my desire, a big chunk of my hope and stability is fly'n to a several year contract job in singapore. AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHH! for the best. but so fuck'n hope ripp'n. life risks...death drives...but the grave will be seen as half full.

    i'm fortunate to hear birds outside my window every mourning(Lotus Leaves, Promise)

    if i can't see it in my own perspective, i surrender (Unholy 2nd RoP)

    let my thoughts become things.

    yes, HM is dead.

    Her mystic power calls to me
    The lady wore black
    Her love can set me free

    The words she spoke were of forgotten lives
    And of all knowledge gained
    Mem'ries I had and didn't know why
    With a smile she explained
    I should have listened to the wind's cold warning
    And walked the other way
    I touched her soul and now I bear her sentence
    But for her love I'll gladly pay

    perhaps i'm successful at spaz'n out in pantheon. hello, dionysis. forgive me not. you put it out there(here). your Heavy Metal exits. i exist, or not. thought streams sometimes cross each other.

    re: art, don't know what it is. probably just a word. a communal idea. i like not knowing it. want it ghostly, mostly. want it at a distance so i build a bridge one twig, one note, one line at a time. to the east.

    best wishes to all.