Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Heavy Metal Means a Long Memory, part 2

In the first instalment of these series we began to establish the actual extent of fascism's creep in the heavy metal subculture and we connected out and proud neo-nazi black metal with lesser over but still sympathetic reactionary proponents of the scene that hide underneath less objectionable language like that of 'heritage' or 'national pride'. I wholeheartedly recommend reading the first part before continuing onward.

My grander aim with this series concerns the issue of memory. The first order of business is getting a grasp over the actual nitty-gritty of it all. We have to remember what we are as metalheads and how we came to be (on the face of it) a reactionary force in social politics. There is, however, a second order of business, a gambit in which I am invested in. I think if we take care of the first order of memory, the nitty-gritty as I said above, then the solution to our problem with right-wing extremism in our midst will appear, whole and incongruous as if it always blatantly existed, screaming at us though we would not listen.

Metalheads have long but very selective, fragmented memories. That makes their memory a vice. If we can get metalheads to have longer and comprehensive and more structured memory (and therefore a sense of history and ultimately a sense of community structured around said history), then memory can become a virtue. On virtuous ground you can found a community. To vice there's no community, there's only a market that caters to it. That's what's happened to metal music: no community, only market. No long and arduous memory, only trivia.

My hope is that we can sublimate that desire to collect metal trivia into a knowledge of a deeper and more interconnected metal-mental map, one which includes the shaping influence of the outside world and one which understands and tempers its own romance, myth and poetry with modernist structure. One where if one has an question like, say, "hold on, why did metal become filled with neo-nazis and other right wing reactionaries?" their understanding of metal history can actually hope to provide an answer, instead of a cynical shrug and a "who knows?".

We are at such a low point in terms of how we understand ourselves as metalheads that such a question would be considered by most in our midst an impossible one to tackle. They wouldn't even know where to start and many of them would be hostile to whether such a question even deserves an answer from an insider point of view. We'd get lost in the mists of mythos and poetry before we even can pinpoint a single political agent that set this trend in motion. Murder and church burnings, something something. Teenage, twisted hearts igniting. The past is alive. Death product for you to buy, market market market. That's all we can do.

For such a long time we've left the scrutiny of metalhead culture to people on the outside of it: academics, pop-culture writers and social critics. It's easy to hate the outside world and how its critical of us when we have relinquished the tools to understand ourselves in our own community.

Why is memory usually a vice to the metalhead? It's a memory of metal trivia that they insufferably inflict on each other and outsiders alike, it's often a contest of envy and confused masculinity and in other times it's a neurotic compulsion to excitedly share functional minutia and other catalogued data as if by sharing them we are substantiating our own identity. Do you know who the first drummer for Motörhead was? If not, you are a false, do not entry. Or, oh my god oh my god let me tell you all about how Rebellion in Dreamland's guitars were recorded it's so cool.

If we can have a clearer command of the historical narrative that brought us to this point then by the force of history itself, playtime is over and we cannot hide behind convenient lies anymore: everyone will have to shoulder the weight of their choices and untenable positions such as 'I like music, bro, I don't care about politics, if you don't like it don't buy and if you like it and it's made by nazis then just listen to it on youtube and don't send them money' will be seen for what they are. But first, once again, all together and with feeling: for us to remember first we have to understand.

Q. But metal is supposed to deal with ugly subject matter! Are you saying that every band that spins a gory tale of a middle ages pagan taking the knife to the Christian invader are nazis? Where does this terrible political correctness stop?

Our core understanding of what heavy metal stands for (and therefore, what is allowed to happen within it, lyrically, aesthetically, politically, metaphysically) is a complex one and in order to answer the above query honestly we'd have to go a very long way around. Much of the Poetry of Subculture corpus is attempting to tackle this from various vantages, not always successful, which conveys the frustration with the difficulty of the original question.

Yes, heavy metal deals with 'heavy' themes, but that doesn't mean it should do so in exclusively in an exploitative manner. However, it often does. Don't forget, Black Sabbath took their name from a horror movie, not some occult ritual. Indeed, I posit that the greatest heavy metal music is borne through a distillation of exploitative 'shock rock' tropes into a quintessential, deeper embodiment and acceptance of horror and awe. This is why metal music isn't just another type of rock n' roll, it achieved a singular thing. The way metal music usually does this is not with words, it is with morphology, instrumentation and composition choices. It is usually so overwhelming and dense and hyperbolic it elevates schlocky ideas to some divergent level. Heavy metal does this in its special way, but heavy metal can do this in the first place not because it's a special sort of art unlike all others. It can do this because it carries within it, consciously or unconsciously, Romantic ideas. Granted, these ideas were not direct transplants: they were and are the product of regurgitation through the meat-grinder of culture-at-large and as such they're often found in metal music in a confused or contradictory state.

I think for every hundred metal bands that have made music that others then described as 'Nietzschean', there probably is one or two metal musicians that has actually read Nietzsche and probably near none that understood him as he would want to be understood. This is not a bug, this is a feature! It is, in fact, the life-saving feature of 'low' culture, that it is vague and ambiguous and confused about its own dramatic onset. Heavy metal came to be through sympathetic alchemy. That's fine.

But that shit happened in 1980 and we now have tools to understand ourselves.

So, the first tool that will help us answer the question above is exactly being able to discern between a deeper and profound use of 'heavy' themes versus their surface exploitation; The latter use doesn't necessarily make for bad music (a lot of exploitation cinema is very enjoyable, just like how riffs and solos and double-bass is enjoyable, animated music to listen to) but it places upon us, the listeners the weight of a necessary moral choice: It is we that have to shift through and decide what has a deeper level and what is pure exploitation. It's not copping out. It's actually the most heavy metal thing to do: take responsibility for one's own choices. We have to discern on a case-by-case basis and then make a grander assessment of the culture field. Is heavy metal music dealing with the horror of reality in a predominantly surface way?

I posit that it is not. I think heavy metal is dramatically suited to a deeper simulation and scrutiny of fringe experience, predominantly of a dark variety as suits its morphology. Death (always death), nihilism, violence and destruction are valuable simulated spaces to explore through metal music. However, when it comes to dealing with historical reference or even quasi-historical metaphor as the vessel for these explorations, metal music at large becomes quickly extremely exploitative. Much like a horror film about Dracula might hand-wave historical accuracy and just go "one night, in deep Carpathian forests..." so does heavy metal, but for a different reason. Some of this is due to ignorance of the subject matter (not many metal musicians are also amateur or professional historians or academics, though some are) but most of it is intentional in its malignancy.

The motivator for, say, Marduk writing music about the Second World War is not a healthy interest in understanding world history and spreading salient critique so as to hopefully avoid such atrocity again. The motivator is hateful glee. They get off on imagining gas chambers and panzer tanks crushing humans under their threads. Marduk (or any such other band) will try to hide behind false pretenses and tell you that one cannot judge them for their hateful glee without judging metal on the whole for dealing with dark subject matter but you shouldn't buy it. Death, nihilism, violence and destruction are indeed core themes of metal music.

But is hatred one of them?

To answer that we must look at Romanticism closely. The core of a Romantic understanding of the world is the imagination. Not logic or reason or science, but mad, daring and dark imagination. Through a history of human terror and atrocity that would bend and warp any mind that truly aims to comprehend it, its revolt is existentially life-affirming: it occurs and recurs periodically when our rational tools of discourse and science fail to paint the whole picture. Romanticism is not a prison of thought, it is not meant to replace reason and science and all our analytical tools, it is instead a deeper memory of further reaches of cognizance, ancient and from-the-future, all at once. Terror and awe and the impossibly profound qualia of experience that we simply cannot talk about and pin down on a map but must instead express in sideways means and lust and long for. This sideways, kerning quality of myth and fantasy describes heavy metal as well.

Anyone can slip in a romantic mindset even if they don't live there all the time. Try it. Look outside your window and hopefully there will be a tree. Look at that tree not as a codified species of natural organism as described by the science you either know or half-know. Look at it instead as a fissure of alien consciousness, some eldritch impossibility that lives eternally in its connection to its brothers, deep, under the ground. Think of where its roots reach, unknown and unsearchable to us on the surface. Imagine what tree-being is like, how it must differ from our human temporal existence. Did you know there's still trees around from the last Ice Age, 9,000 years ago? That puts some perspective to our empires as they come and go, doesn't it? Strain your imagination to the point where your body feels a thing. Not your mind, but instead somewhere in your heart, that is the ache of that old stone, Romance.

Can you feel, further in your heart, that ambiguous twilight, in which there can exist All Forms? Can you connect to your anger that isn't borne of the evil of this material world at large but just of the trauma of sentience? Can you spook your own self out by imagining meeting a withered old woman in a dark forest? What is she doing out here? Can you push yourself to imagine a world where the sun will no longer rise and all communication is done in hushed song under the light of the moon?

And what of hate? Of course we must acknowledge it. It is there. We all hate. But do we really hate the Other? Social sciences say that we do, we absolutely do. But, remain in that Romantic mindset, instead. Be truthful and virtuous: For the Romantic, is there really any lasting hate for other humans, as caste and religion and historical origin? There is certainly hate for the self. And there is hatred for God. And other people disappoint, sure, but it's only in their projections of the self and God that we hate them. Can you really find it in you to hate other humans for who they are, as if they're all the same? What a failure of imagination is it to take other humans, beings of pure imagination as well, in Romantic terms, and say 'they are all the same'. Is this failure a solution, and to what? How will it assuage the terror of sentience? how will it help? Can you feel how, in the romantic context, the solution of 'oh, yes, we are beings of pure imagination but we are white and they have brown skin so they're not beings of pure imagination' is purely bankrupt exactly in terms of imagination first?

Yet, obviously there's a lot of deeply hateful and bigoted romantic art (not just metal). It would take the further tide of history to shape that from just an undercurrent to a full force. As Romanticism is a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, it is in the interconnection with national identity through an invented mythical past that we finally find the key for this sort of bigoted hatred.

The Romantic longs for some long-lost time of purity and natural beauty, before the modern world became so corrupt and decrepit. From invention of that long-lost antique perfection to the insistence that it was a real, historical era, and one to which we should return to we can finally come to a useful conclusion: This pretense that an invented past that's better than the modern world was a historical reality is a tragic failure of imagination and the racial detritus that necessarily follows such a failure is inherent. If you imagine a glorious past where white men can think and feel on a higher plane than whichever invented other you hate, then you have trapped yourself in an imaginative dead end.

Romanticism is all about imagination being the utmost human quality. And by historicizing our imaginative inventions of a 'better past', by crystallizing our nostalgia into hatred, we fail Romance, and we fail ourselves.

This is the answer to this question and it has nothing to do with self-censorship and the right-wing rhetorical invention of 'political correctness'. If you listen to heavy metal that is filled with hate (and national pride is certainly the other side of a hateful coin) then you are listening to Romantic music that has failed itself and it has failed you as well. Your imagination stands to gain nothing from regurgitation of white nationalist bullet-points, again and again and again. From all the things the we can imagine, what a disgusting state of affairs is it that we're imagining what our racist grandpa out in the country thought was true.

I don't posit that it just is a nice thing to do to avoid easy hatred and easy targets and invented national histories in our metal music. I posit that it is a very heavy metal thing to do to be distrustful of any one failure of imagination. 

I don't care if you're nice. I want you to take responsibility.

The further question is, hold on, Helm, are you calling all that old pre-World Wars romantic art a failure as well? Because there's a loada hatred in there, too!

Yes, but then the World Wars did happen. And we saw what hatred made manifest. And we can never again be blind to what we already know to be true. That wouldn't be very heavy metal of us, would it? What does it say for a human that acknowledges the power of the imagination, and in 2017 turns theirs to imagining more ovens and more millions dead? This is exactly the reason why white nationalists behave in such an inconsistent way on the subject of Holocaust denial: Some neo-nazis say it happened and are gleeful about it, others say it didn't at all but it should have and yet more say that it did but the actual death count is blown out of proportion, but that doesn't mean they don't condone it. They say that even if it's true that millions of Jews were exterminated systematically, then they deserved it. But it wasn't really that bad. But they would deserve it, if it were. Perhaps in the future . . .
That's the trick to get around a very real historical and ideological problem for the furthering of their neo-nazi cause. They see the Holocaust at once as a crowning achievement of the Third Reich, but they also wish to downplay the number of dead so as to not shoulder the actual burden of what the Holocaust signifies: the death knell of their bankrupt ideology. They're putting it as an exciting eventuality of the future that perhaps then, when the Final Solution 2.0 is actually implemented, then we can see what this world truly would be like without the demonic Other we are predestined to hate. And as such, until 2.0 comes into effect, their imagination hasn't yet failed.

But it has. And we must remember.

Q. So if metal music that's hateful is historicizing an invented past, where did it pick up this propensity and who brought it to metal? Furthermore, what is the actual cultural source of this mode of thinking in the grander sense and how does it connect to modern neo-nazism?

Join me next time when we inevitably come to connect a certain kind of 80s post-punk/industrial fascination with nazi exploitation to the types of Julius Evola and Oswald Spengler and all that to Varg Vikernes and ultimately the birth of the internet, and other such failures of imagination.


  1. New commentor here. I'll skip the small-talk.

    Should we follow the imperative to only listen to or "appreciate" music by artists whose views conforms with our own?

  2. Hello, Spinal.

    There's no way to tell, first of all, if the views of an artist conform with your own, because that's not how ideology works. We pick up signs from a piece of art and we interpret them in such a complex way that it's hard to talk about the how of the thing but we can still talk about the end result: art makes us feel things.

    We are responsible for our feelings. If a piece of art moves us, we are tasked with the responsibility of both being a human being in that sensitive state of mind and also in parallel of understanding WHY this has happened to us and what we are to do with it.

    (Return to Fates Warning - The Apparition if you'd like to know why the 'I want to know' credo is in the core of heavy metal music. Never give up, do the work, find out why.)

    So, once we are touched by a piece of art, we have to scrutinize what about it touched us. If you find yourself touched by music that glorifies hatred so intense that it can only be symbolized with the Holocaust, then you have to work with yourself to find out why you need that.

    It's not a matter of stopping yourself from listening to that stuff because it's impolite and people won't like it. It's a matter of being real and making a commitment of truth to yourself, it's a matter of understanding WHY you listen to it and why you feel it deeply when you do. No, it's not just the riffs. No, it's not just the vague atmosphere. It's the Holocaust. If you listen to music that plays with it, you have a dark attraction. And you have to realize why.

    It's not my place to tell you why and I have done the work for myself (and you can read the rest of the Poetry of Subculture if you want to know about that) but I can definitely tell you that if you don't, then you're avoiding understanding yourself. If you don't want to understand yourself, you can never remember. And that's the least heavy metal quality of all.