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.
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
Entries tagged as panopticon
These first appeared at the Liminal.
Artist: High Aura'd
Title: Sanguine Futures
It’s becomingly increasingly difficult to write in any meaningful way about ambient releases, such is both the proliferation of music and by extension, the sheer amount of expended digital text. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some releases have as many purple reviews as there are physical copies available. All of which means, when a record of exceptional quality does arrive you find yourself reaching for higher superlatives or more abstruse adjectives to ecstatically describe the sonic phenomena as they unfold. What this situation does do is force you back to essentials: what, precisely, makes for a good ambient recording? And the answers are fairly simple: appreciation of atmosphere, tone, duration and architecture. And safe to say, High Aura’d (the recording alias of John Kolodij) has absolute mastery of all of these facets. Broadly put Sanguine Futures is elemental ambient music. Yet there is something more than just pretty evocation at work here: Kolodij has a granular approach to his compositions meaning each strata, each seam is carefully crafted, to the point where you can almost feel the bedrock and grasp at the clouds of vapour – these are compositions that invite a kind of habitation. On a track such as ‘Sleep Like the Dead’ there is a geological heft to the outer layers of the drone, and the heartbeat, when it comes, is bulbous and warm. ‘La Chasse-galerie’, is suitably wild, like its subject matter: a wild hunt, roaring high above the trees, peaking in a glorious crescendo, redolent of Yellow Swans at their most ecstatic. Thinking of other antecdents, I keep coming back to the Eno of On Land especially on the long eerie swamp-song of ‘Mercy Brown’ which has, at its heart, the story of an exhumation of a 2-month old corpse, a corpse whose heart still contained blood… Sanguine Futures is full of these kinds of layered readings, readings that double and intensify the already dense sonic material. Stunning stuff.
Artist: Isnaj Dui
Title: Abstracts on Solitude
Isnaj Dui is the latest recording project of Kate English who has been releasing music under one guise or another since 1995. Abstracts on Solitude is her first release for Hibernate. It’s an eerie, sensual album, full of the blooming low cadences of the bass flute, a seldom-recorded member of the flute family, often overlooked for the fact that in an orchestral situation it is easily drowned out. English uses the flute to create a kind of tremulous biosphere, inside which the subtly-effected electronics, treated dulcimers and thumb pianos creak and flit. The cover of the record acts as a kind of map for the overall sound of the album. At first glance, I saw both a landscape and an abstracted view of a female chest – the fact that it is neither of these, but a blurred close-up of a circuit board is instructive. For these are intimate creations that act like body maps: the breath of the flute, the strange synaptic clicks and whirs of the electronics, the drum-hollows of the dulcimer, the percussive thumb piano. That said, the composer always maintains a sense of that which lies beyond, particularly on the beautiful closing track ‘The Last Will Become A Darker Grey’ which has an almost Delius-like pastoral melancholy.
Artist: Padang Food Tigers
Title: Ready Country Nimbus
Another strong release from Bathetic in what is proving to be quite a year for the North Carolina based label. Padang Food Tigers are Stephen Lewis and Spencer Grady, two members of Rameses III, who have released several gently beautiful long-form drone albums since their inception in the early ’00s. With Padang Food Tigers, the duo have boiled down their explorations to a spare essence, creating humid fragile miniatures from acoustic instruments and field recordings. The tracks, most no more than 2 or 2.30 mins long, are like captured moments or brief sketches of nature: a simple guitar pattern or lambent piano figure laid over distant church bells or stuttering chaffinch song. It brings to mind Bruce Langhorne’s mournful score for The Hired Hand and Scott Tuma’s rusty, elegiac folk explorations, and at times it does feel like a study in smuggled American primitivism. Should one care about spurious ‘authenticity’ when something sounds this natural and right?
Label: Handmade Birds
This isn’t nearly enough space to do justice to a record with such scope and heart, but there we are. Kentucky is ostensibly a black metal album, but it takes what are becoming tired tropes and gives them life, utilising the bursting drive of the blast beat and the icy nihilistic barrage for humanistic purposes, to give voice to the long dead. Austin Lunn (the sole member of Panopticon) has always dealt with difficult subjects (the last album, Social Disservices was about the appalling state of the youth care system in the States) but with Kentucky it’s like he’s found his perfect platform. It tells, via 3 long, more metal-based tracks and 5 shorter Appalachian folk and bluegrass workouts, the story of a state and its people’s relationship with the coal mining industry: the effect on the landscape, the horror of the daily work, the vile treatment of workers by the industry, the pitch battles between unions and the big corporations. It features, alongside the naked roar and violence of Lunn’s at times all out war approach to black metal, spoken word passages, field recordings (one particular heart-stopping moment has a 91 year old woman on a picket line declaring “I’m prepared to die, are you?”) and the simple uncanny presence of the volk in songs such as ‘Which Side Are You On’ written by Kentuckian Florence Reece in the wake of harrassment of her union founding husband by police and mining companies. If that sounds like the record might be a mess, then that’s not an unfair assessment – it’s a new juxtaposition of sounds and one that often jars. But it’s so strong on power and emotion that it builds its own deliberate structure around itself. By the 4th or 5th listen it makes perfect sense. A colossal achievement.