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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Heavy Metal Means a Long Memory, part 1

The title of this series of articles is an answer to a question.

The question is "what do we do with all the neo-nazis in our heavy metal subculture?"

Usually the way I write is kind of capricious and strange. I'm going to try to keep this as simple and direct as possible because I want this many-part planned article to be a useful resource for the future.

We're starting with the assumption that the swelling tide of the fascist creep is a terrible and terrifying thing and we all must do what we can to fight back. The rise of fascism is predicated on this asymmetry of attack. It's not always going to be black-and-red and easy to discern who the nazis are, but they're all, together, some consciously some less so, contributing to the return to power of the worst elements of western political history. We must do all we can to stop this.

If you're of the opposite persuasion, if you yourself identify as a metalhead of any sort of nationalist bent, if you're for "racial purity" for any reason, if you're against immigrants for any reason then you should know you are my enemy and I want you out of the heavy metal scene for good.

If you're heavy metal enough to read and understand the argumentation of your opposition, you can prove it to yourself by sticking around, mulling on the consequences of these arguments and following through in the way that to you seems virtuous. The only way you'll have anything but my contempt and pure desire to push you out is if you can change. Change is metal. And I will remember, and anyone who's heavy metal at heart will remember that you had the capacity for change. But if you're a shit that sticks to their shitty guns, I'll remember that, instead. Heavy metal means a long memory.

A long memory means I remember when Dimmu Borgir said this about whether metal music is for whites only, for example, yet now they're in the covers of every metal mainstream publication.

A long memory means I remember when George Fischer of Cannibal Corpse went on a bigoted, homophobic rant vis a vis his World of Warcraft addiction. Yet Cannibal Corpse are just goofy horror movie gore, right?

We must know what we are. Ignorance is no excuse. But first,

1. For us to remember first we have to understand

The issues we have to understand and come to a social agreement on are many, and so I will frame them as questions and answers. Some of the concerns we'll touch upon I have commented on in past articles, years ago, and although my condemnations were always strong, my historical understanding of this problem was weaker than it should be. I didn't foresee what was to come in the last 5 years and that's a big reason why I must do this now. To change, to mutate, is a very heavy metal quality. And to remember what you've done and take responsibility for it, is, as you will hear again and again in this series of articles, the most heavy metal quality of all.

Q. There's only very few actual nazis in the metal world, right? It can't be such a big problem?

If we use metal-archives and their ever-handy database searching tool we will find 524 bands whose lyrical and aesthetic themes hinge on National Socialism. Of them, 232 are listed as active. That's just the out and proud neo-nazis, though. The ones with pictures of Holocaust executions and samples of Hitler giving speeches on their terrible black metal cd-rs. And that's, also what Metal Archives has so far included, it's not an exhaustive, factual list. Many bands are smarter about hiding their ideology, and many bands aren't on Metal Archives at the moment at all.

Keep in mind that sites like the Metal Archives are not an academic institution in the least, they are supported by fans for their content and as such they're always positively biased towards the artists that are included. The person that takes time out of their life to update on whether Mr. Archon Grimdork of NSBM outfit "It's Only A Sunwheel" is still alive or dead probably likes Mr. Archon Grimdork, is their friend or would like to be their friend in their fantasies. As such, the coverage of the lyrical themes of these bands is always a little bit couched in this positive bias.

So, 500 or so artistic entities, half of them active. Neo-nazis. A band is 2-3 people in the black metal idiom on average. That's a few thousand people, their peers and friend circle, sympathetic labels that organize and put out their material and most importantly the unknown thousands of listeners that consume their media and endorse, to smaller or larger degrees, their worldview.

Would that be a problem? Is it a problem for you to know that there's thousands of active entities in the global metal world imagining and longing for total war, racial segregation and a holocaust for Jews, people of color, LGBTQI+ folks, communists, activists and so on?

The answer to that question probably tells you a lot about yourself. Also, that we usually come to the quick conclusion that there's probably not that many actual nazis in metal without actually doing the (turns out, very simple) research that disproves that notion tells us something about ourselves. It speaks of our desire to pretend this problem doesn't exist because its implications are uncomfortable. And it gets worse.

Inside the language of identification on metal archives we will find 'terms of affinity' that also warrant investigation. It's not just outright tags of 'National Socialism' that matter for this argument. Let's see what other tags feature right next to that in the archives.

New World Order
War Propaganda
Roman Tradition
Native Land
White Pride
World War II
Third Reich Mythology
European Unity
Conspiracy Theories

I could go on and on, it's really exhausting to read this list. The point here is that all these terms coexist, again and again, with our 'National Socialism' as the UR-source of this disease and as such are not easy to divorce from them. So you may have a smarter band that doesn't have swastikas on their cover but goes on and on about their 'proud ancestors fighting the Christians back when they were invaded'. Because Metal Archives, as we established before, is run by sympathetic fans, they will dutifully list them as 'Heritage', or at the very worst 'Nationalism' but not as 'National Socialism'. This is correct by the letter of the law but by spirit it's obviously sketchy.

Quasi-nazis hiding their identity under the broader category of 'sketchy dudes' is the prime tool of how they got to have this much reach and influence. Half improvised, but also half organized under the auspice of meta-political, Third-Way fascist ideologues, as we will examine later.

So, the fans of folk metal and rowdy viking beer-drinking metal are listening to music that has historical ties to the neo-nazi subculture in metal music, even if they don't want to believe it or are ignorant to it. This is established, again and again, by the degree of separation game. If a band just appears to be 'about mythology and heritage, bro', then why were they, once, on a record label that also puts out National Socialist Black Metal? Why have they played in more outright NS bands in the past? Why have they given interviews where they're sandwiched by other NS bands, even if they themselves do not outright endorse genocide, for the moment?

Let's return to the concept of the 'fascist creep' that I linked to above. We have to understand this: Fascism is not a mono-bloc political entity, all dressed in Waffen SS uniforms, marching in formation in the streets, trying to topple governments and install their genocidal regime. That sort of neo-nazi exists and is a real concern in the modern world as well, but we also have to account for the superficially milder breeds of the fascist creep and their diversionary methods. They use their ambiguous "are they or aren't they? Let's hear them out, at least" state to infiltrate further into the culture than out-and-proud neo-nazis can. And they have been remarkably successful in our subculture.

It is a really demoralizing thought to go through Metal-Archives and search for how many bands are tagged for lyric themes of not National Socialism, but just 'Heritage', or 'Elitism'. I will leave this adventure to you, suffice to say that the broader spectrum of ultra right-wing, conservative beliefs in metal includes thousands and thousands of active bands and tens of thousands of fans and sympathizers.

To your theoretical statement, then: there's a lot of actual neo-nazis in metal, but there's even more potential ones in the periphery of those beliefs and they are softening the ground for gradual radicalization. You yourself, probably have met them, conversed with them online and offline if you go to shows and participate in the scene, you've had to hear 'soft' positions about 'The New World Order' (which is just a cipher for 'The Jews') just as much as you've probably had to deal with the same people saying that women or people of color just... don't seem to feature in metal circles as much as you'd expect. I wonder why.

So, there are a LOT of nazis and a lot of friends-to-nazis in metal. Not just the panda-faced black metal specters in overexposed xerox copies of photos in the woods. In our community. Drinking beer at a Amon Amarth show with their friends. With your friends. Now that we understand this, we must remember it. Forgetting such a thing wouldn't be very heavy metal of us, would it?

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?

You're right, theoretical reader, here's where things get more complicated and here's where we need to develop new political reflexes and analytical tools, because our old ones have certainly failed us. But let's do this on the next installment of this series.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Secret Devotional

Heavy Metal, my father
Sophia, my mother
In an ocean of terror and sadness
I bent my knee only for you


In boundless distances I searched for
The black star in the sky
Eternal beauty
Your Godly Will the sign of Power

Ήβη on my sill of frost
Mistress, I know of your demand
I never once forgot
And so again I jump into your fire

And if I forget my promise - I'll repent
And if I thought to die - I'll return
As spectral spirt
No power or sadness can stop me

Friday, November 17, 2017

I'm not done yet.

In the couple of years that I've left our Poetry to lie languid and dormant I've put my efforts not in the business of telling but in the business of doing. My very own heavy metal band, of which I never speak on this blog and also kind of inwardly-narcissistically very seldom speak of in general put out a debut album after a long period of gestation. Long as in 15 years long.

You can find your way to that record if you really want to, it doesn't matter to me, or to be frank it only matters to me if you really want to. I have become no less cruel or arrogant with the passage of time (I am now 33, Jesus Christ did his best work at 33) and most importantly I've only become more and more tired.

I was tired of this project when I stopped it 2 years ago and it wasn't just because I had said what I thought I needed to say (such a thing is inconclusive after all - did I need to say anything at all to begin with? And if so, how do I know the need is done?) . It was - as I think I explained in some post or another - the gravity of this artificial Archive that I had built about the history and meaning of heavy metal that was weighing on me. Not because it is false, I am very proud of my false archive, to be sure. We are here right now, communicating again because I googled something I thought Castaneda had said and Unholy used as a lyric, but it turns out if you google it you come here. I completed my own circle, and so Old Helm read some of what Young Helm had to say and the Helms agreed and it was good. Jesus probably reads the bible in heaven some times too and he's like "... I'm pretty cool".

I think an archive has no erotic weight to it unless it is false in that particular, subtle, personal way that any such existentialist history project has to be. I am not a real historian, I am, you should recognize this as well, not a real anything, honestly. And that's not just an ok state of affairs, it is, as I said, a passionate, erotic state of being, for arrogance and ignorance to be such fuel to build an awkward, lopsided edifice, a glorification of something or another, such as the Poetry of Subculture, right?

I wasn't tired because this archive is false, too personal, finished or unnecessary. I was tired because this thing has weight. You write it and then you have to live with it. Even when I forgot what I had written, I still lived with it because I agreed with it. It became a subconscious truth. That's how magic works, and this is a ritual if nothing else. Who knew that writing about heavy metal would be heavy, huh? You, you in particular, dear reader, you could have warned me but I wouldn't have listened. For the sorcerer exhaustion is ecstasy. Google it.

I think it's time to talk about heavy metal again, friends. The world has taken an ugly turn in the in-between time and although I try with my own music to bring a subtler kind of light to this darkness, we will need all our tools and all our dirty tricks to turn the tide, this time. My dirty tricks are bad epistemology, bad history, half-spoken truths and a smile in the darkness. A surreptitious heaven will answer our call. Tell your friends.

Once a reader of some repute, a musician himself of some capability and renown, told me in e-mail correspondence on subject of my older, more private music that I should give up: he thought my music amateurish and my guitar playing a joke and he insisted that I should stick to writing about metal instead of making metal because that's what, he thought, I was good at.

The funny thing is that I never thought of myself as much of a writer, I am wrestling with every fucking sentence in a second language and it's not necessarily fun, but it might be necessary anyway. So, amateurish guitar playing and music, and amateurish writing. I'll use all my tools and dirty tricks, friends. I'll convince you of something you already always suspected.

Why? Because of the neo-nazis, to be honest.

In the interim of our silence here we have had a right-wing turn of global discourse. We have Trump in power and his alt-right internet meme magicians cackling like the toads they are. Internet heavy metal culture played a special role in this turn of events, one I didn't in all my quasi-wisdom predict. It seems an opposing and older Archive of What Heavy Metal Is, that of, as designed by Spinoza Ray Prozak at the dawn of the internet has won the day: though what's left of that site now, under different name and management,  is in complete decline, the actual ideological framework of heavy metal as proposed and reiterated by a million anus drones over the last two decades have left their mark and they propagated through the broader 'internet culture' as designed by 4chan and other such 'edgy' subcultures online: heavy metal has been almost totally usurped by 'alt-right' third-way apolitaeic neo-nazis, occult fascists and other Julius Evola spawn. Especially the field of black metal (and a lot of the more dark and cavernous death metal) is well beyond the realm of 'sketchy'. New memes abound to describe this new historical circumstance, for example "It's only a sunwheel". This meme describes the diversionary tactics of our new breed of heavy metal fascists, whom when confronted with, uh, that there's swastikas or black suns or SS runes on their record covers, they reply with how no no you've got it all wrong, these ancient symbols pre-date the Third Reich and are used in a more esoteric and traditional way.

We don't hate other cultures. We just love Europa and want to see it return to its prior glory.


This isn't a new narrative, but it has had a new function in the current political climate. Where once the political climate in the metal subculture was such that these clowns were powerless and easy to ignore (as unwise as that was) now, where all of the western world is bent on a rightwards trajectory, every single idiot with a palingenetic ultra-nationalist agenda is actually helping along a very tangible 'fascist creep' with these Third-Way diversionary tactics. So, when near-fascists are in power we have to re-examine our own burden in our own subculture. We should do this now, before fascists-fascists are in power.

Fascists infiltrated black metal and heavy metal at large over a long period of time, right under our noses and we are ill-equipped to spot them, exclude them from our subculture and mend the damage they have done because we're still thinking in 1999 terms, where Capitalism 'won' and history 'was finished' and grand narratives 'were dead' and it was just a consumerist paradise for atomized people going on with their atomized lives. Heavy metal has always been a conservative cultural force, and people fall for 'it's only a sunwheel!' every day. Even people that don't fall for it and can spot the dark humour of such memetic propagation find it hard to divorce themselves from the problematic elements of our subculture, because the problematic has overtaken the non-problematic. Anywhere you turn and go 'I like THIS band in particular, they seem nice!' it will turn out later that they're neo-nazis, or nationalists, or their best mates are neo-nazis, or they've worked with a neo-nazi label or they're just simpler and they just hate the gays or whatnot. It's a disaster, and 'the other side' as it where is politically not equipped to make its voice heard. Because metalheads are either -consciously or unconsciously - on the right or apolitical. And this has to change, because in this political climate, being apolitical is being on the right.

So, at the face of this new Trump reality that emboldens cretins worldwide to be more vocal with their hatred, we have to fight back in any way possible. Does this mean that Poetry of Subculture will now be the equivalent of  Who Makes The Nazis but not for neo-folk, industrial and post-punk but for Heavy Metal? As much as I wish I had the mental fortitude to attempt that, sadly not, but perhaps that void will be filled by other nodes on the internet soon. I'm not enough of a historian, not enough of a Marxist and probably not enough of a human to tackle something like that on my own.

No, we will fight back against the forces of darkness by strengthening our own Archive, our own lopsided edifice to something or another. That's all I can do and I'll do it pretty much the same way I started. I'll talk about the records, I'll talk about the historical circumstances that brought us here, I'll talk about pathos, eternal beauty and the will of the gods (that has great, great power) and I will listen to you. So, make yourselves heard.

In this way we will imagine a different use for heavy metal than that of a foil for nationalistic identity politics at best and outright propaganda for Evolean fascism at worst. Because heavy metal is Chaos, like mother Tiamat writhing in the bottom of the deepest ocean fault. But Chaos is not evil. It can be - and has been - used for evil, but Chaos is just Chaos, it means anything and everything. Even idiots, even amateur, tired musicians with no achievements to recommend them can touch that chaos core, and they can be mutated into some imaginary shape or another.

Of all the shapes we can imagine,  we can do better than the shape of a racist, homophobic neo-nazi. Not only can we, but we must.

For all these words, you know what's up and you know what we're going to do. We're going to listen to the muuuusic, think about for a long time and then write some words about it. That's what humans do, they use culture to understand themselves. And we must understand what Heavy Metal has done to us. Let's strike the black old stone a second time with childlike hope and irreverent intent: let the blood of romance flow from the stone, forever.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Understanding Atmospheric Metal

This genre is obsolete now, but as with all pieces of history, by going back and taking a closer look we will understand ourselves in the now better. Atmospheric metal, we all concur, is a ridiculous term. The internal question in it has been answered to the point of cliche: We don't call music atmospheric because all music has the goal to create an atmosphere or another, duh.

That's all well and good and we can feel smart for regurgitating this truism, but only for so long: when it becomes cliche, it behooves us to start investigating the opposite path, as it were. Be contrarian, metalheads!

What was atmospheric metal? It was a term used mostly (if not only, hard to tell) by european metal press to describe a variety of weird extreme metal in the early-to-mid '90s. It is tied with the rise of Norwegian black metal and also of british doom/death. Often thought of as dirge-like, slow death metal with a heavy keyboard presence and female vocals on top as encapsulated by Theatre of Tragedy, it also brought in a host of other outsider influences such as electronic music, gothic rock, neo-folk, martial ambient and industrial.

This definition is meaningless, and it has become more meaningless as time has passed and these formalist innovations have been diffused into the heavy metal corpus completely. There's dirty black n' roll bands with female vocals now, and there's keyboards in grind bands, sludgy industrial metal is now considered a mainstream category and whatnot. No wonder nobody talks about 'atmospheric metal' now.

However, a more useful definition of this genre is to look at how it uses the formalist material of metal music differently than in the subgenres before it. I propose that the innovation of atmospheric metal music was to create heavier juxtaposition of the metal riff and metal rhythm section by posing it against non-metal elements like subdued electronic music, ambient sections, orchestral bits, quiet acoustic music.

Most metal bands of the '80s were very concerned with perfecting their metal sound. This was a commercial issue as metal was popular and finding and keeping a niche was paramount to the career aspirations of many. Their songs were a series of riffs, choruses, solos. Faster than the next band, higher vocals or better solos, but the form was all metal, all the time. There was the keyboard intro here and there, but it was exactly that, a calm before a storm.

Metal in the '90s started deviating from this formula en masse. One reason was purely technological, as more and more it was affordable and viable to experiment in the studio, to have varied instrumentation on multiple tracks, to have a hand at fancy keyboards that once would cost a small fortune. Another reason was Nirvana and their popularization of quiet-loud pop song dynamics. Hidden underneath that base reason there was also the significance of what Nirvana stood for for aggressive music: more abstract, often more or personal thematics called for a wider range of dynamic and texture in the music. Metalheads would have you believe that they detested 'grunge' and would do the absolute opposite of whatever it was about in their metal in the '90s but the opposite is true. We can look at a half-decade of metalhead wandering all over the atmospheric, black metal, romantic doom and progressive metal map as a constant conversation with what Nirvana et al. brought to the table.

What's worth keeping in mind for our purposes is that metal bands started playing less metal (in a New Wave of British Heavy metal sense) in their songs and there was less metal on a long-playing record on the whole. Atmospheric metal in that sense is deliciously false. Atmospheric metal bands used one or two riffs in contrast to a quiet part, or a non-metal orchestral element (synth pads and pianos and violins and what-have-you). They extended intros into their own songs that didn't have any metal orchestration to them at all. They put interludes between songs, sometimes there was a 20 minute ambient piece at the end of an otherwise rough black metal record.

This, above any discussion of extremity is the dividing line a lot of 'true metalheads' will not cross when it comes to their selection of heavy metal. Not whether it's too extreme, if the vocals are screamed or shouted as opposed to clean and sonorous. But whether the band plays metal or if they put some metal in music that would otherwise easily play in an elevator.

In this sense, we can look at 'Atmospheric Metal' as a volatile synergy. Metal != Atmosphere.

But this is a rationalization after the fact. At the time, atmospheric metal contrast contributed in that where the metal was playing, it sounded more effective and forceful. For many then (now, not so much, perhaps) a My Dying Bride record is more savage and effective when they're playing full-on death metal than an Autopsy record, because Autopsy have a narrower palette to work with. All the blood and gore gets samey after a while.

It is useful at this point to listen to Wildhoney by Tiamat, as it was the record that broke atmospheric metal and paved the way for a million variations of this form. A metal riff and a gruff vocal here and there, as a sharp point of definition in a much softer sea of mood and color. It was and still remains a gem of a record. It's worth to keep in mind that Wildhoney came out in 1994, in the midst of the black metal explosion.

Much of what we see as black metal now is in this sense atmospheric metal. Darkthrone never were, as they were preoccupied with serving their one, two, three riffs to their ultimate logical conclusion. In the Woods... (then called 'pagan metal') absolutely were never a black metal band but instead epitomized what I describe, with every record after their debut even more, encapsulating fully the 'metal parts for contrast to something softer' definition in their third record 'Strange in Stereo'. Burzum at their best were an atmospheric metal band more preoccupied with a dream-like trance as also summoned by Dead Can Dance than with blastbeats and tremolo picking.

Food for further thought:

1. The opposite end of 'atmospheric metal' is the most brutal, technical, full-on death metal. Music that never cares to breathe and has no use for silly contrasts. It still serves to create a different, abstract, unfeeling atmosphere, similar to ambient music of certain stripes and some modern composition, so although it has an atmosphere to it, it doesn't have volatile contrasts between atmosphere and metal.

2. Atmospheric metal paved the ways for post-metal in the sense that post-metal also deconstructed the metal form to non-metal ends, but there are differences of both scope and intent. Atmospheric metal, when it actually cared to be heavy metal would be strictly 'correct' about it. Tiamat above were once a sloppy death/black metal band, and they can still write a convincing death metal riff even in Wildhoney and put double bass and brutal vocals over it. Post-metal bands deconstructed the metal form further, using sonic signifiers like distortion, double bass, screams and palm muting, but they didn't actually play - or try to play - metal riffs and metal structures with these tools. Post-metal can be seen as the vestigial evolution of atmospheric metal (a '90s phenomenon) for the '00s. It's no wonder that bands have regressed from that point to self-define as 'metal' again, now that metal music is enjoying a posthumous respect for apparently having rigidly stuck to its guns for 30 years. But the point of this article is to show that metal music has done anything but this, for the last 20 of its history.

3. As we said, full on death-metal is the opposite of atmospheric metal, but then a recent trend of -unlistenable, for this writer- 'cavern-core', as typified by bands like Teitanblood and Portal is all about subverting death metal technique again to create exactly what I describe as atmospheric metal, but without actually introducing flowery instrumentation and vocals. Instead - again an issue of arriving, accessible technology - they manipulate the sound design of otherwise pretty standard death metal form to make it appear distant, alien and indistinct. The use of heavy reverb and unusual equalization makes their death metal a soup of sound, from which once in a while a discernible death metal riff emerges, or a stop-start rhythm or distant clattering of blastbeats. Presumably the appeal is exactly this moment where a half-imagined riff actually peers through the thick fog and the listener achieves clarity. They didn't dream it, it was always in there.

Atmospheric metal returned and nobody noticed. I don't predict a massive interest in cavern-core, in a long historical view of the medium, but it's interesting how even in 2015, straight-up metal musicians are trying to find a way to use metal contrasts to evoke difference and otherness instead of the usual meat and potatoes metal battery.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Riffs are not Enough: Understanding Riff Ambiguity

I like a great riff. Here's one:

Pretty ripping, right?

More than any one riff in Heavy Metal, I like instead a wonderful riff that is followed by another wonderful riff. Here's an example of that:

Two minutes in. The malignant majesty of the two parts that would seem to never need end.

I never studied composition formally, but I know what I like, right? We can all be idiots with a cliche. We all know what we all like. But do we know what we love?

Once I started appreciating small sequences in riffs, I could never be satisfied with a band that just finds one good riff and hammers on it per song (or sometimes per record). It felt dumb, to me, one-sided. This is the process of one's taste being refined.

The one-two sequence that Cirith Ungol milk on the song above is not multi-sided in a conventional sense, it's not soft/loud like a post-grunge pop song, it's not minor/major like a Simon & Garfunkel tune and it sure as hell is not switching it up emotionally, opening up with some contrast in lyrics, singing style or orchestration like a proper composer would.

So it's marginally less dumb that one riff, but yet effective. Effective in a way that I haven't yet described, and I couldn't know how to describe for many years.

I like a riff, but I prefer a small sequence of riffs, oscillating back and forth. What I found I loved even more is a larger sequence of riffs and passages that created a larger structure that seemed to support itself and reach for something higher. The one song that explains this best, for me, as a huge Fates Warning appreciator, is The Apparition. Have a listen if you're not that familiar with the song:

Much can - and should - be written about the beauty of this song, but I don't want to wax poetic about Fates Warning right now. Just pay attention to the structure of this song. It has its verse-chorus structure, although with an extended intro, but it does settle in a 'rock song' format for some time. Then it has an adventurous middle section where the music, spurred by the culmination of the lyrical theme, takes over in a series of less riff-based and more movement-based sequences. Then, once the point is made, the original form of verse/chorus is reprised for the ending.

This is a very common rock songwriting formula, but no rock subgenre loved it more than Heavy Metal. Though I first took notice of it with Fates Warning, it is by much more well-known and celebrated bands that it was established. Case in point:

(though here, without a reprise of the main themes at the end)

(here completely - and perfectly - reprised)

God, I have such a hard-on right now. I am expending sizable effort not to veer this article right off of the Judas-Priest-Are-Better-Than-You cliff. I'm trying to make a point. Let me just calm down a little bit.

Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are what Fates Warning are made out of, nobody would disagree.

Most of Heavy Metal is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

This is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest too:

Led Zeppelin also did this shtick all the time. Rip off an old blues song, stick a weird part in the middle.

I like a riff. I like a couple of riffs. But I love a weird middle part. But why? What is it about a weird middle part that strengthens the whole?

I have my theories, and by following their natural conclusions to their logical endpoints, I came full-circle in re-understanding the dumb building block of all of this, the singular riff as well.

This is where this gets a bit complicated.

Heavy Metal is misunderstood, by outsiders but by its proponents as well. It wants to present itself as if it has figured itself out. It wants to be masculine, linear, to just pummel listeners with riff after riff. And it has achieved its desire to be viewed in this simple-minded fashion. This is, now, the popular conception of extreme metal. Just an endless circle of blast beats, ripping solos, machine-gun riffs and growly manbears.

But Heavy Metal is confused and in its confusion lies its power. I've written a lot on this blog about how Heavy Metal is weird and how the weirdness shows more in the 70s to 90s than in does in the last two decades, be it because of inexperience, lack of funds, silly recording techniques, but also sometimes due to clarity of vision.

Mercyful Fate didn't have a lot of money and their first record does sound underproduced. But nobody held a gun to King Diamond's head to get out like this.

The weirdness in Heavy Metal is close to its soul. Don't trust Heavy Metal that isn't weird. Though its pretending to be tough, masculine, old, hell, beyond old, eternal. It's also a weird lonely teenager trying to figure shit out.

When you pick up a guitar and you're a weird kid, you're going to play some weird shit. You're going to play some nice shit as well (hopefully), but you're bound to come up with off-the-wall noises that other people, pretending to be normal, wanting to fit in normal society, would quickly discard and hone on the material that does sound good in any context.

The Heavy Metal music I like thrived on collecting the weird material and juxtaposing it with more normal riffs and sequences, because although it didn't have a direct, academic language for it, what it was really trying to do was to create ambiguous moral spaces where ugly and beauty could meet, a dim-lit mindspace where such a dialogue could happen and there is no light, no god and no parent that can step in and say it's wrong.

That 'symphonic' quality of middle sections of Heavy Metal music that I extolled above with the Priest and Helloween and other examples is not symphonic in a classical music sense and it's such a tragedy to let whatever half-baked neoclassical aspirations the Heavy Metal mutants might have had obfuscate a much more useful reading of what was going on. Instead what's attempted - I not only theorize but practice myself in my own music - is a creation of compositional ambiguity and in turn a space for internal, ontological and moral exploration.

Great Heavy Metal takes off in the sense that it 'goes inside'. The journey appears to take lift, but instead ingresses. Voivod would play weird shit not just because it sounded weird, but because it created a space were their own weirdness could be considered alright, not even just that, but good. Needed. Wanted.

In the same sense, the weird middle part in Heavy Metal I feel upsets the concise masculine roleplay of the rock song, it creates a discussion between its phallogocentric rigidity and much less clear-cut concepts. The balance of these elements ends up not just describing the long structure of a song (verse, chorus, weird shit in the middle, verse, chorus) but also - and here's the kicker - the relationship of the inner parts of a good riff with themselves.

Go back and listen to the very first riff on display, here, Death's Crystal Mountain. Have you ever wondered why the composer of that riff doesn't just repeat the first bars of it over and over, but instead provides a second coda to the very same riff, bouncing them off of each other, A-B-A-B? That riff has its own 'weird middle part' written inside of it. And it's quite fruity, if you don't mind me saying. Surely the first bars of the riff are more punishing on their own..... aaaaand endlessly they've been reproduced, on their own, by other bands that are trying to fool you by saying that's what metal is.

So look at it from micro to macro, as a fractalized desire to set and then upset an expectation. This is what I find the most beautiful in Heavy Metal, and it accurately describes which albums and songs I enjoy and the reason I usually do not enjoy the other albums and songs out there that are still categorized as some sort of Heavy Metal music. I either haven't come to find and appreciate how they upset their own set-up, from every micro-riff element up to the overall construct of the song, or they simply do not do this at all and there's nothing there for me to find.

If a song is making a single statement (let's go with "THIS IS EXTREME"), then this is a declaration. A declaration is short and violent, and if it's drawn out it just becomes normalized, it fights itself, a loud continuous noise eventually fades into the background.

If, instead, a song is having a conversation with itself and the composer is on that sweet spot where they don't really know what they're doing in a traditional sense but they've fashioned their own makeshift musical language in order to have this conversation, what you're left is with a mainstream statement, and various points of compositional derivation, dissension and discourse all encapsulated from building block (riff) to structure (song).

This is difficult to do and exactly because it's not done perfectly, it's vague. The vagueness is a feature. Much like listening to the neighbours having a spirited quarrel through an apartment wall that may or may not end up with reconciliation sex, you can't make up every single statement and how it follows the others, you can only get tone of voice, a few words here and there, silences. It's so alluring that we end up filling the blanks, and creating a narrative to make it all make sense.

As an exercise, link me to metal music that has this internal ambiguity, especially if it's created by set-upset not only of riffs in themselves but by larger compositional choices.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Demon with a Frowny Face

I believe in tragedies / I believe in desecration

This is black metal's contribution to pop culture. The emphasis is not on the existence of events that could be deemed tragic and the horror that comes with them is not meant to be scrutinized, understood or analysed. The emphasis is on imagining tragedy and desecration, on calling it out with willpower, on doing the opposite of understanding it - instead worshiping it as unknowable and illogical. Natura fabricatus.

To the point where the tragic entity overrides the contour of the worshiper, it conceals them completely, it swallows them (think again to certain events of the early '90s). The 'why' in all of this demands attention. Young adult white males would choose to fantasize about tragedy and call it upon themselves, different discussion. In the preamble of that discussion, ponder on the difference between power and tragedy.

Brief point: think of any black metal band that talks about anything real, anything that occurred in this world and was put on the record of history, and you're probably thinking of a black metal band that has misunderstood the construct that it is appropriating. It's not the end of the world, but it certainly is humorous to think about, in a certain dim light.