He knew better than to admire a chair and say
What does it mean?
He loved everything that accepted the unfailing hospitality of his
five senses. He would say Hello, caterpillar or So long, Loch Fewin.
He wanted to know how they came to be what they are: But he
never insulted them by saying Caterpillar, Loch Fewin, what do
In this respect he was like God, though he was godless – He knew the difference between What does it mean to me? and What does it mean?
That’s why he said, half smiling, Of course, God, like me, is an atheist.
He knew better than to admire a chair and say
The doctor was thinking: All this fantastic effort, giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belt, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar coal-burning power plant; ten thousand miles of high-tension towers and high-voltage power lines; the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian homes and Indian grazing lands, Indian shrines and Indian burial grounds; the poisoning of the last clean-air reservoir in the forty-eight contiguous United States, the exhaustion of precious water supplies - all that ball-breaking labour and all that backbreaking expense and all that heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? All that for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles, to illuminate shopping-center parking lots at two in the morning, to power aluminium plants, magnesium plants, vinyl-chloride factories and copper smelters, to charge the neon tubing that makes the meaning (all the meaning there is) of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of Southern California, to keep alive the phosphorescent putrefying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderville, U.S.A.
Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang
Title: Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness
Editor: Tom Howells
Publisher: Black Dog
This also appeared at The Liminal.
It was interesting how on first delving into Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness, the new Tom Howells-edited book from Black Dog Publishing, I thought it was something of a mess: a mess of styles and architecture, a jumble of academic long-thinking and the more upfront responses of fanzine writers and scene-riders, people who had been there from the beginning. But having put it down for a few days now, I realise the fault was mine, a symptom of the way black metal (I’m going to resist the urge to follow suit and make it proper noun) has become enshrined and, aesthetically at least, entombed in some cold coffee-table hell. Looking back into my own experience as a listener, what I wanted from black metal was something Other, something remaindered, escaping the neat confines of canonisation and explication. So while there is a case for suggesting the book is a bit on the slight side, what it does achieve in its melding of styles and wide-ranging use of sources is to sidestep the twin curses of pure aestheticisation and legitimation. And, thanks to some fantastic imagery, it restores some of that cold glee – inspired by the power of the iconography, the raw pleasure of the music, and for me anyway, divorced from the horrors of the ‘founding myths’, black metal’s soft camp underbelly.
What any book of this nature has to confront, of course, is precisely the power of those ‘founding myths’: the suicide of Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin, one of the originators of the classic corpsepaint style in 1991; Euronymous opening Helvete, the record shop in Oslo that became a gathering place for the so-called ‘Black Circle’ and the base for the music label Deathlike Silence Productions; the huge number of church arsons (more than 50 over a 4 year period) perpetrated throughout Norway; and the vortex at the centre of everything, Euronymous’s murder at the hands of Varg Vikernes in August 1993. It’s not difficult to see why the events have had such a strong hold on the imagination, but essentially, these events have come to stand for black metal, trapping the genre in a time capsule; they’ve also allowed for propagation of the tired cliches of purity, the yawn-inducing eugenics of genre.
Gorgoroth by P. Beste
What Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness seeks to do then, is acknowledge but undercut these ‘founding myths’ (what Brandon Stosuy rightly calls a ‘convenient fiction’) by tracing the history beyond this spurious ground zero to Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and beyond to show how numerous bands from different countries contributed to the shape and form of black metal as we know it today. Nathan T. Birk’s piece ‘South of Helvete (And East of Eden)’ is exemplary in referencing Helvete but goes on to show how the Greek, Romanian and Polish death and black metal scenes were equally as fecund and influential in forging the black metal sound. Capsule pieces on the likes of Russian band Skyforger contribute to this gradual widening of the scope of the scene. The book also does a good job of focusing on the current scene – particularly the burgeoning US black metal scene (USBM) which has exploded in the last few years, and contains some of the most experimental and downright exciting music being produced at the moment. Brandon Stosuy’s pieces ‘A Blaze in the North American Sky’ (formerly printed in Believer magazine) and the excerpts from his forthcoming oral history of black metal, both trace the scene’s history. In essence, the rise of USBM is part of an old American story – the allure of the frontier, and the primal power of the landscape. It could also be said to have something to do with a continuing need to identify with and sever ties with the older histories of Europe – part of the reason why the USBM ‘sound’ is at once recognisably black metal and yet something other and hugely powerful in its own right.
Liturgy guitarist and vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essay, ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’ (also a re-print), a piece which has received an astounding amount of interest and downright hatred (I’ll come back to why), makes this link between the old and the new explicit. It’s both a eulogy and a manifesto, an acknowledgement that the old style – with all its attendant encumbrances – is a sonic and aesthetic dead end that needed updating or else forever remain a historical curio. Hunt-Hendrix characterises the old style, epitomised by the Dark Throne album Transylvanian Hunger, as ‘Pure Black Metal’ which for him means “continuous open strumming and a continuous blast beat… no articulated fugues, no beginning, no end, no pauses, no dynamic range.” He focuses on the juddering upthrust of the blast beat, part of black metal’s DNA, and gave it a new focus and technique, calling it the burst beat – the fount of the new transcendental black metal, “the re-animation of the form of Black with a new soul, a soul full of chaos, frenzy and ecstasy. A specifically American joyful clamour which also a tremor.” Cod-Nietzschean aphorisms aside, Hunt-Hendrix was essentially right – the form did need a new injection of life; and what’s been happening in the US since, roughly, the release of Weakling’s Dead as Dreams in 2000, has been a revelation. Bands such Xasthur, Botanist, Wolves in the Throne Room, Ash Borer, Leviathan and Panopticon are doing pretty remarkable things with the form, pushing it and stretching it out to its limits to see what might be possible. There’s also a genuine connection to the land with several of these acts, and not in any dumb nationalistic sense; instead, particularly with WITTR and to a lesser extent, Botanist and Panopticon, the focus is on ecology and the wasting effect modernity has had on the landscape.
Wolves in the Throne Room by Alison Scarpulla
Hunt-Hendrix’s piece was originally part of a 2009 symposium on black metal called Hideous Gnosis (which also became a book with the same title), the first gathering of academics with an interest in the genre. It’s since become an annual event and there are various other symposiums and publications that examine black metal from a theoretical standpoint. I guess understandably it’s a relationship that doesn’t sit well with regular fans (particularly the hardline kvlt-ists) who see it as an appropriation, not to mention a cerebralising of something that is, at root, visceral and primal. The inclusion of the Hunt-Hendrix piece here (and, to a lesser extent, those of Nicola Masciandaro and Diarmuid Hester), alongside the grungier efforts of scene stalwarts such as Jon Kristiansen, do have a strange juxtaposing quality, but I don’t think its alienating. It just shows the breadth of interest; and, just as importantly, the breadth of possible responses.
That last point may be the life and death of black metal – as long as it maintains the sheer amount of imaginative real estate it currently occupies then you have to foresee a healthy future. And black metal is oddly empowering in its way, mirrored in the ersatz warlike stances of the musicians and fans, plus that odd convulsive clenching it engenders, the pulses of emotion and energy. Nick Richardson’s essay, probably the best in the book, suggests the the genre’s longevity might be down its mask-like qualities, its ability to be both hiding place and a kind of literal makeup, affective warpaint with which to face the world. So it is with this mask-like doubling quality that black metal is simultaneously a nakedly aggressive attitude and a primal, sylvan refuge; a place for the dark arts of self-discovery and the simple pleasures of the most grotesque of pantomimes.
Black metal and Spotify seem like odd bed partners, but so it goes. Below is a selection of some of black metal's finest, in a roughly chronological order. Enjoy.
I wrote this for the excellent Caught by the River Nature Book Reader. It's on page 79.
One phrase that comes to mind when thinking of Kathleen Jamie’s Findings is John Muir’s dictum that ‘when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he [sic] finds it attached to the rest of the world’. These 11 essays then, whether they are investigating storm beaches in the Orkneys, hunting elusive corncrakes in Coll or examining the nature of attention via a meditation on a family illness, very much explore the sense of our being immanent, embedded within the natural world. The world isn’t other, a theatre we wander into on special days, but instead the very ground of our being. And Jamie’s great power is the way in which she uses language to convey this fundamental connection: she has the alchemical poetic eye and ear, but her metaphors and descriptors always tend towards the pared down, the domestic. There is no disconnect between writer, reader and that which falls between. Her other great strength is a kind of heroic stillness: amid the hurtle of the world she so beautiful apprehends, is a plea to pay heed, to pay heed with what she calls a ‘simple plain tenderness’.
Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system. It is the closest I can come to God. If there is a secular equivalent of standing in a great spired cathedral with marble pillars and streams of mystical light slanting through two tier Gothic windows, it would be watching children in their little bedrooms, fast asleep.
Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
(via @Letters of Note)
A great piece by Gay Talese on the Paris set in the '50s and the formation of the Paris Review. Impossibly Romantic, but there we are.
Early in the fifties another young generation of American expatriates in Paris became twenty-six years old, but they were not Sad Young Men, nor were they Lost; they were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation and, though they came mostly from wealthy parents and had been graduated from Harvard or Yale, they seemed endlessly delighted in posing as paupers and dodging the bill collectors, possibly because it seemed challenging and distinguished them from American tourists, whom they despised, and also because it was another way of having fun with the French, who despised them. Nevertheless, they lived in happy squalor on the Left Bank for two or three years amid the whores, jazz musicians, and pederast poets, and became involved with people both tragic and mad, including a passionate Spanish painter who one day cut open a vein in his leg and finished his final portrait with his own blood. Read on...