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The Vortex Void of Inhumanity

By Cameron Bain, 8 February 2005

Dark, fast and heroically anti-social, Black Metal is perhaps more renowned for its practioners’ acts of violence and murder than its musical form. But is there more to it than burning churches and diabolical pseudonyms? Cameron Bain looks into the abyss

Earlier this year the Horse Hospital in London hosted an exhibition of portraits of Norwegian Black Metal musicians by the photographer Peter Beste. One of the most striking photos is of Kvitrafn, then drummer for the band Gorgoroth, alongside an older passer-by. It’s a beautiful photo. The contrast between the elderly representative of ‘straight society’, with her curiously resigned, vaguely disapproving expression, and the grim, freakish figure in Black Metal’s characteristic ‘corpsepaint’ make-up glaring out at the viewer, runs the risk of perhaps seeming slightly obvious or clichéd, but there is a poignancy to the photo that transcends this. This poignancy arises from the setting: the clean, narrow street, with its small, tidy, clean-lined homes; it is this very homeliness that imbues the image with its subtle, affecting pathos. Kvitrafn is patently not the denizen of some festering, Babylonian megalopolis. There’s the sense of a smalltown kid trying to shock his way out of the clean, airtight Christian quotidian. It’s this pathos, arising from the conflict between the abrasive, alienating aesthetics of Black Metal, and the obscure existential impulses that perhaps shape these aesthetics, that is the subject of this article.

Rather than going over in detail the field-day-for-the-Sundays arsons and murders linked to the Black Metal scene (although these no doubt contribute to its fascination), or addressing the squalid – often plain loopy – ‘political views’ espoused by a few of its leading proponents (for this, see Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book, Lords of Chaos: the Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground) I want to talk about the music itself and its aesthetic appeal.1

Black Metal is essentially hermetic; it is wilfully alienating musically and the musicians present themselves in a highly ambiguous light, somewhere between comic book supervillainy (the band Immortal) and literally deadly earnest (Varg Vikernes of Burzum, serving time for murder). It also subverts the broader metal genre in several interesting ways. Immediately striking is the sheer primitivism of a number of the genre’s touchstone albums, like Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger, or Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (‘If The Light Takes Us’). Bass presence is virtually non-existent, drums a fast, staccato, monomaniacal clatter, the guitars extremely distorted and trebly, and often played in a kinda buzzsaw thrash style that really has more in common with ‘80s hardcore or surf guitar than with traditional metal guitar techniques and timbres. Unlike more technically obsessed metal genres (Thrash and Death, for example), with their complex time changes and riff variation, Black Metal song structures tend towards minimalism and hypnotic repetition. In fact, although there are certainly exceptions, Black Metal tends to eschew altogether the displays of virtuosity which are an abiding formal feature in other forms of metal. Solos are relatively rare. Such solos as there are are often quite atypical. The end of Immortal’s ‘Frozen by Icewinds’, for example, features an amazing reverbed whammy bar feedback howl that seems to tear a cavernous hole in the very fabric of the song, which then stops abruptly. It is both disorienting and beautiful.

Black Metal vocals generally consist of unintelligible, excoriating screams, the voice in a blasted state, reduced to particles, as opposed to the wavelike ebb and swell of ‘proper’ melodic singing. Actually, the music as a whole could be characterised by this ‘particle state’; one of distortion, breaking up, atomisation, dissolution. At its most immediate, physical level, it’s a sonic blizzard of negation. This rejection of the norms of intelligibility, this fierce urge to defy comprehension as manifested in Black Metal could be seen as a way of denying the loathed, stultifying, Christian host society; as a literal, visceral denial of the Logos, and even of humanity itself.

There is a disjunction though, between this surface of wilful, alienating unintelligibility and the simple fact that all the albums have lyric sheets. While occult sounding nommes de guerre are de rigeur in Black Metal: (Demonaz Doom Occulta, Nocturno Culto, Samoth, Fenriz) the demon warriors, it seems, are all too human after all in their wish to be understood. It is a basic, paradoxical human frailty to need to be recognised as a sovereign individual by others. In addition to the Forest, Battle, and Death, the recurring themes in the lyrics of these soi-disant cosmic criminals are grandiose proclamations of immortality and pompous, megalomaniacal claims to be in possession of some privileged arcane knowledge: ‘For I have read the signs / And I have solved the riddle / Of eternal life…’, from ‘I Am Thy Labyrinth’, by Mayhem.2

It’s all so much adolescent hubris of course, but I think it stems from a real, passionate desire to engage with the brute fact of mortality, self-aggrandising Tolkienesque escapism notwithstanding. Here we come to the (inverted) crux of the matter. I see Black Metal (and, in fact, the crimes associated with the scene) as representing an eruption of suppressed fury at the general societal lack of engagement with this central issue of death. I find something weirdly life-affirming and perversely noble (I reiterate, purely in aesthetic terms; not with regard to arson and murder) in its vicious insistence on forcing a confrontation, however melodramatic, with the enormity of mortality in a society – not just Norway – which often seems predisposed to gloss over death as if it were something that can be ‘managed’ and contained by platitudes. Pål Mathiesen, a Norwegian writer on theological issues who is interviewed in Lords of Chaos, makes a similar point: ‘If you look at Satanism as a reflection of the spiritual life and spiritual tradition that we are standing in, I feel it makes the Satanists more human. It makes them moral people who actually have a cause, and who are trying to say something to us. If you see some of the leaders, they are bright and reflective people, they are people with integrity. I would look upon them as moral people, and we have to take seriously what they are saying.’3

The music is the fun, darkly ecstatic manifestation of this moral fury. Naïve attempts to actually be ‘evil’ are doomed (morbidity by its very nature is unsustainable) and herein lies the pathos. While the music offers a salutary blast of negation, the depressing, macabre sideshow of the actual, brutal crimes seems like a tawdry betrayal of the ‘ideals’ which may have inspired them – would-be Lucifers reduced to petty vicious hoods. The crimes come to seem like the tragic, pathetic flailings of young men trying to orientate themselves in the face of a void brought into all too stark relief by the intensity of their own hatred; it is, perhaps, the very abyss which Nietzsche warned against staring into for too long.

INFO

The title of this article is filched from the opening instrumental track of Mayhem’s Wolf’s Lair Abyss mini-album

FOOTNOTES

1 Michael Mognihan & Didrik Søderlin Lords of Chaos Feral House, 2003

2 The Forest features heavily in both Black Metal lyrics and album cover art as a kind of malevolent Arcadia. It is idealised as the dread site where the numinous occurs, where this world opens up and intersects with other worlds. Light plays diffusely among the trees’ dark, solemn columns which are layed out in an ungraspable order which can seem a semblance of chaos, that is, the Forest is a place where the misty border between the order mandated by the Creator’s divine plan and primal chaos can appear to be in a constant state of flux. The cosmic abyss is not a chasm or an infinite heavenly vault, but this weird, shifting grid of gaping, listening, whispering interstices of branches, undergrowth and leaves

3 Lords of Chaos, p.238

Cameron Bain <c.bain AT ssees.ac.uk>, despite his myriad flaws, is generally a sympathetic character. Discuss…