Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Awe and the Grand Narrative

Heavy Metal has a romanticist conceit and a modernist tension inside it. The romance is ancient, or at least it pretends to be. It has a manufactured fantasy of an long-lost age of wisdom which post-temporally inspires and is inspired by it. In that ancient past, the Gods were all around us (and indeed, within us), nature was Beauty and Beauty was Truth. The horror, the awe of death is as beautiful as the bliss of birth. Not events to interpret, but symbols of inalienable Platonic ideals. That ancient, imagined script holds resonance for the listener of Heavy Metal. In a world without gods, the point of religion is access to Awe itself.

Heavy Metal is a modern type of music, it came to exist in the tail-end of the modern era and held, at least half-heartedly a conceit inside it that what it had to say was applicable to the modern world, even if in antagonism to it. It said 'this is the right way to live, or at least to imagine life, in this decrepit world'. And, of course, it faced the effects of deconstruction along with other forms of modern art (pop or not) in the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

With the end of the Cold War and the victory of capitalism, western society entered into the era of endlessness, the death of history. Art, like everything else was shaped by commerce, the prime tool of capitalism.

According to where you live in the western world and your educational level, this process might have come early or later, be more transparent or opaque. For many readers it is quite possible you weren't even born before the change was complete and do not remember a world which still held Grand Narrative ideals at heart. To offer a brief description, this is to say we now live in a world where truth is relative, there is no universal goal for humanity to agree upon, there is no clear distinctive direction for progress of the world and everything that means something can only mean that in relation to something else and also in relation to whom it is supposed to mean that and other orbiting forces and pressures. 

The line drawn between modern and post-modern art is important for us that discuss Heavy Metal. It is important because it's very different from art that is self-defining as modernist and post-modernist. Just as we live in a post-modern world regardless of whether we ascribe to postmodernist philosophical points of view willingly. The post-modern state is non-negotiable. And art that retains a modernist (or even worse, romanticist) mindset in this context faces challenges that would be alien to same art in 1970 or 1980.

To understand why post-metal rings hollow in the ears of old-school metalheads, you have to look to post-metal as willingly post-modernist music. It uses the sonic tools of metal (distortion, double bass, screams, etc) to ends clearly not modernist and not romanticist. It has no truths to offer and no ancient paths to long for. It is instead highly personal, cryptic, avoidant of any solid stance or ideal. It is music which references no Grand Narrative, it has no secret inside of it, it doesn't promise a hidden glimpse towards something bigger, whole, all-encompassing, Beautiful.

This doesn't mean that it can't be beautiful, for it often is. But the beauty is in its form and not its message. It's like architecture of a space in which no humans are meant to live. Beauty in itself, but no wonder the fascination with such curiosities does not last.
And before we boo and hiss at post-metal, let's look at modern resurgences of old types of metal, like neo-thrash, new old-school epic metal and so on. That music is not post-modernist willingly. It is however, not like the old music. It's a copy of the old music, in a post-modern era. It rings hollow not because of false ideals but because the concept of 'true ideals' in a post-modern world is suspect in itself. As odd as Heavy Metal could look and sound in the '80s, it was taken at face value by listeners because that was the way to treat art at the time. Today, when a band puts on the denim and leather and patches, all these signifiers are very clearly a surface reconstruction of elements of a deconstructed past. Truth is not at stake here, instead aesthetics.

All of modern Heavy Metal, be it post-metal or the staunchest manowar-like epic metal, is concerned with aesthetics. It knows exactly what it's trying to reference and judges itself with how closely it can achieve that predefined aesthetic vision. 

For every one of your favorite '70s and '80s Heavy Metal records, there's today, and I guarantee it, a clone band's clone album that is twice as well-played and produced as that, but without any of the spirit.

And this spirit is not a metaphysical demand from me that's strictly relevant to Heavy Metal or whatever, it is the spirit of the whole of the twentieth century that has perished.  

This is the clearest way to explain why Heavy Metal is dead and we are simply toying with the corpse.

Does this mean there can no longer be any Heavy Metal with spirit, vitality and importance in 2013? I think there can be, but not for us. Perhaps for young people who somehow inexplicably emerge with a belief in a new Grand Narrative, however dumb. For us that have survived the death of the old Ideals, Heavy Metal can only function as a time-machine. 

And the young people for whom x New Wave of New Wave of British Heavy Metal is like, so awesome, give them ten years in capitalist society, that'll fix their view on truth, beauty and progress. They will realize their heroes lied.

Now, of course, the jack in the deck is capitalism itself. It's not doing too well, lately. If it could be said that the last 20-30 years in Europe were the promised capitalist dream where enlightened individuals (never groups) rise above their peers and achieve wealth and freedom while their lessers toil at the lower classes, then we are entering an age of the capitalist nightmare, where the most the enlightened individual can hope for is to have food and a place to stay, while nine out of then of their peers simply die in the streets, deemed permanently unemployable by conglomerate banks and other overarching systems.

Could there be a resurgence of the concept of history itself? Will 'progress' again mean something and if so, what would that be? 

There are many left-field activists and politically aware people who will say to what I write that for them history never died and that their Grand humanist Narrative was always an enduring truth. To those quasi-theoretical people I can only say "yes, perhaps... but when did you last go to the cinema? When did you last watch those downloaded tv-shows from America you so love? When did you last read a good book describing the valiant ascent of an enlightened individual to the top of society? How much did you enjoy these products of capitalism whose main function is to deconstruct your social identity?" I am, myself quite on the left end of the political spectrum, but I have a sense of humor about this because I am truly a product of capitalism first and foremost. I recognize my memories of the glorious past are fantasies, and my belief in Humanity at best schizophrenic. Fervent to endorse and fight for the rights of the downtrodden, of women, of homosexuals, of immigrants, and at once mad with rage against the majority of humans that obstruct this path of ideals. The Grand Narrative is in shambles inside of me, both alive and dead at the same time. I am toying with the corpse.

These tensions might or might not be resolved (or made clearer) in my lifetime. Greece (my home country) is in complete disarray right now. The crisis is pan-European. America's not doing too hot either. Will capitalism be salvaged, the banking systems reconfigured? If so, at what cost to the system and what to the populace? Or will the reign be pulled even tighter and throw parts of the western world into outright chaos and war? Will we, to the march of the war drum remember old, manufactured Gods and nature and worship self-evident symbols of truth because we need them, again like good old fascists, or will be regain our social identity and fight for worker rights and a humanist future like good old communists? And what of that sneaking, crawling suspicion inside me that both of these paths we can take at the same time because we can not fully believe in anything anymore and we will mix and match as it suits us with the post-modernist tool-set that we have been given by inheritance?


  1. Telemachus, here's a big hug. (HUG)

    i disagree with more than a few of your expressions here. I also share some of the perspectives here. my mind prefers the term paradox to schizophrenia. kinder illusion.

    when you identify yourself as I am...it doesn't harmonize with I AM that Heavy Metal echos for me. perhaps, here, you're thinking in rhythm guitar mode versus lead?

  2. I appreciate your kindness.

    What do you disagree with exactly, though?

    1. disagreement is not the expression i wish to convey. that would focus on the lack unity i have with your text.

      the terms post modern, modern, willingly post modern are absent in my conversation circles. it's taking my mind a while to contextualize them.

    2. i disagree with the thought of toying with a corpse. the attitude, the humor, the expression is not we. i recognise this is because i am a different person, with a different mind, nation, life experiences etc...

      metal is alive for some creators and believers. the spirit of a perished century is natural.

      i don't toy with a corpse, as far as i know.

      can't an individual create their own grand narrative?

      the duo dynamic may be grander than an individual effort. i like this expression of awe:

      when you stare a flower or a bird let it be
      without imposing a word or label to it
      a sense of awe and wonder arises within
      a sense of the miraculous returns to your life
      that was lost long ago
      the quicker you attach words to things people or situations
      the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes
      and the more deadened you become to the miracle
      of life that continuously unfolds within and around you
      all we can perceive and experience is the surface
      layer of reality less than the tip of the iceberg

      listen to silence

      words reduce reality to something the
      human mind can grasp which isn't very much
      (Grasping the Awe, Dark Castle)

    3. "can't an individual create their own grand narrative? "

      Νοt really, because that's why they were called grand.

  3. Helm,

    Your last three or four posts have been spot on and completely bad ass. You rüül.

  4. Thanks. I feel as I'm I'm inching towards something, still, with this blog. The recent posts sound final, but are not. There's something more.

  5. I have always been interested in how Heavy Metal preoccupies itself with the apocalypse. For a while I was convinced that the only true Heavy Metal was the kind which formulated itself AS an apocalyptic text. It's easy to imagine Dio as a prophetic figure warning young listeners about the evils of the modern world. LOOK OUT! What troubles me is that I don't know if Heavy Metal can deliver a compelling message of warning or hope any longer. If every age has its apocalyptic art where is ours? Have we reached the eschaton?

    Perhaps this is why we've seen some bands take their particular fantasy to such extreme limits, enacting real instead of musical chaos on earth. Now we have bands like Watain posing as a post-modern wolf pack, roaming the ruins of the modern world armed with magic. It is not enough to sound evil, you must try to be evil. Any metal head with the internet is now familiar with the long video of Gaahl sipping wine like a vampire as he discusses his bizarre Nietzsche + D&D ideology. You have to be a warrior. Are these the Renfields you discussed earlier?

    At times I am amazed at how linear the story of heavy metal is. What else could you expect? You've entreated death, the answer will come.

  6. I have to say I chuckled when I read "LOOK OUT!" in Dio-voice.

    re Renfields: no. Actually I have respect for those people because it takes energy and willpower to enact a play, at least. The Renfields are more the vinyl collectors and other faithfuls who are primarily in the receiving end of illumination. Watain are actually the false-Dracula. They'll drink your blood, but you won't be becoming immortal, all you'll get is a stupid t-shirt.

    As to 'have we reached the eschaton?' that is exactly the premise of the death of history, triumph of commerce, everyone work and be happy with our products, no more war (on our soil) no more problems, strive to be comfortably middle class and wait for our theosophical scientists to find a cure for ennui.

    You are correct in realizing that the Watain phenomenon (and other orthodoxies in metal) are an attempt by the metal population to avoid the castration of post-modernity. The problem is that even those that are super into them, are super into the spectacle. Nobody really believes them anymore, nobody's scared for real, they're scared as in watching a horror film. The only actual way for Watain to achieve what they're trying to achieve (if you take them at face value at least and do not consider them just clever marketers) is if they'd travel to each fan's house and beat him up to an inch of his life and had a little ritual in his living room. And then perhaps, only barely.

    I do not think the story of HM is linear, though. There was a significant branch at the early '90s where one side went to romance via black metal and the other to humanism via progressive metal (and doom/death straddles an uncomfortable line between the two, sometimes).

  7. Beautiful analysis. No progression here, just wanted to de-lurk momentarily, and thank you for your best camp-fire story to date. Please keep posting (also loved the more recent Tile reviews!).

  8. Thank you! I'm writing less but I'm getting to something. I don't know if I'll ever do another 'record review' type of post, even.