by Jose-Luis Moctezuma
Published by ZerO Books ; Factory 25, 2009; 2008 | 93 minutes ; 96 pages pages
Long dismissed in critic circles as a more populist, and hence, gross imitation of the loud refusal that punk represents, metal has, in the past ten years or so, come into its own as a genre worthy of critical reflection. Chuck Klosterman has pretty much built a career out of being the dude who stands up for headbanging in print and documentaries. There’s Hideous Gnosis, an academic symposium on metal that’s happened over the past two years (and which was written up by the New York Times). Carl Wilson, music critic for the Canadian Globe and Mail, talks about these sorts of critical shifts in, of all places, his book about Celine Dion–Let’s Talk about Love: Journey to the End of Taste:
…one way a critic can get noticed is by arguing that some music everyone has trashed is in fact genius, and over the years that process has “reclaimed” genres from metal to disco to lounge exotica and prog rock, and artists from ABBA to Motorhead.
It’s a situation familiar to criticism: find a form that has been previously neglected, call it amazing, bring it the forefront in one’s own output, get recognized. One also sees this arc in most histories of the avant-garde. Sometimes, of course, the new subject deserves the attention it is getting, for good reasons, or for bad. In the early 90s, in Norway, a few teenagers found inspiration in an earlier, darker form of metal that had previously fallen by the wayside, and performed just such a resurrection. They all hung out in a record shop called Hellvete (Norwegian for Hell) and created the second wave of black metal.
The narrative of the origin of the genre of metal (formerly known as heavy metal) goes something like this: mostly white adopters of electric blues co-opt black machismo so that it’s less about deserving a voice as a citizen and more about deserving a voice as a teenager. Muddy Waters singing “I’m a man” frustrated and free means something different than Iggy Pop singing “Another year with nothing to do” frustrated and free. Sonically, proto-heavy metallers also foregrounded and perfected the riff—the main guitar melody and tonal center of a blues song—and upped the volume and distortion. In America this translated into, mostly, aggressive boredom from the Stooges and Blue Cheer, while in England it became, mostly, wizards and Satan from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. In the early years, roughly the late 60s to the early 70s, there was a lot of this going on anyways—people look at the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream as other sonic antecedents to metal, although their lyrical content, being of a slightly more liberal humanist strain, is decidedly un-metal.
In 1974 Judas Priest—the first band to wear leather and chains—put out Rocka Rolla and – with two guitars playing riffs in harmony with each other, riffs that spread out over the guitar neck, riffs that sound cleaner, more like pre-written solos, more like Bach – bridged the gap between proto-metal and what was, eventually, to be called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Iron Maiden and Motorhead are the most recognizable of those groups. They play faster. They’re waaay more theatric—Iron Maiden’s skeleton mascot Eddie is on every album cover and shows up as a different set piece in every one of their tours. Headbanging! Iron Maiden pretty much perfect the two guitars playing in harmony thing. Iron Maiden’s singer Bruce Dickinson sings like he’s an elf on the run from God. Lemmy from Motorhead growls into a microphone he places a good two feet above his head. These ideas become the template for the two most popular and distinct strains of metal in the 80s: 1) thrash metal, in which Metallica, Megadeth, etc. upped the music’s speed and technicality; and 2) glam or pop metal, in which Montley Crue, Def Leppard, etc. upped the theatrics and the pop.
But something native to earlier metal, something nascent in Black Sabbath’s earlier works remained untapped: evil, darkness, and grimness. The first wave of black metal still sounded like thrash metal, but thematic concerns turned to further develop the dark explorations that Black Sabbath had begun. Band members gave themselves new, more evil names. Venom’s singer Conrad “Cronos” Lant began singing about Satan in a deep growl. The lyrics to Bathory’s The Golden Walls of Heaven are an acrostic that spells Satan. With this sort of imagery running rampant in the formation of the genre, it shouldn’t be surprising that those bands that became involved in the second wave of black metal—based in Norway—would have a strongly anti-Christian component. In some ways, the second wave of black metal was (or is, depending on your time-line) the most attentively philosophical sub-genre of metal. Its also the scene that made national, and international, news, through a series of church burnings and murder.
Until the Light Takes Us, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s new documentary on the Norwegian black metal scene of the 90s, is as much an introduction to the genre as a requiem. The movie’s subjects seem worn out, out-talked, bored—your Dad telling a story for the fifteenth time, a story already memorized. Perhaps this is not surprising. Their apology comes late to the party; the genre has already been canonized, the sound and themes have been internalized and revamped many times over by followers, and whatever darker, more progressive aesthetics they may have had have by now been heavily satirized by the media.
The second wave of black metal became, in many respects, the mirror child of thrash and glam metal. Theatrics were a big part; band members dressed in corpse paint or carried (literal) axes and took new names like Blackthorn or Euronymous. The guitar playing concentrated on technicality, but with a focus on sounding evil rather than bitchin’. Rapid, discordant guitar arpeggios were picked sloppily to create a sound like a big wash of fog. Think Dick Dale only at 2x speed with a bunch of tape hiss and distortion. Drumming is oddly foregrounded and is fast and myopic. Recordings were made on the worst equipment possible in order for the music to be as anti-commercial and vile as possible.
The most well known Norwegian black metal artist is probably Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikarnes (from Mayhem and, later, Burzum). Varg Vikarnes is somewhat representative of the scene as a whole and has taken on the role of the scene’s main theoretician. This is partly due to the fact that he has admitted to burning churches. If that wasn’t enough, when Until the Light Takes Us was shot, Varg was serving jail time for murdering his buddy and bandmate Euronymous. In the movie, Varg tells the story of how this happened, a re-telling which does not make him seem any less unhinged than one would expect. He looks off camera, glossy eyed. He doubles back on himself to insert details that seem unforgettable (like the fact that there was another person at the scene). He describes chasing Euronymous around a house, though Varg maintains that he killed in self defense. The details aren’t as disturbing as the telling.
Varg also tells about how and why he and others burned churches: the Christians put the churches over sacred pagan grounds hundreds of years ago and so the black metal movement, for ostensibly nationalistic, back-to-the-Roots ideals, decided to burn the churches down. Varg is a smart dude and has clearly thought a lot about youth culture—there’s an amazing moment when he talks about losing the “girls on horseback” of his childhood when he realized a McDonald’s was moving into his town—but one notes immediately when his eyes flare up as he talks about Christianity being a Jewish sect, and how the Jews made them cast out their gentile, pagan names. Anyone who knows about Varg knows he crossed over into proto-fascist land a long time ago. And this is true of large swaths of the scene as a whole—something Until the Light Takes Us hints at but, uncomfortably, doesn’t really acknowledge. Instead, we get a soundbite about how annoyed Varg is that the media painted him and black metalheads as Satanists—“It wasn’t about Satan,” he says, petulantly.
Thankfully, the film also contains history lessons of the scene with day-in-the-life footage of Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell (known for his band Darkthrone). We see him walking through Oslo, showing us the black market (no pun intended) where he bought his first Dictaphone to record on. He goes to a metal bar and makes out with a girl. He goes back home and puts on a record. He gets fined on a train for carrying tear gas (?!). He gets interviewed by a German magazine. He goes to a gallery to look at art about black metal. Throughout he talks about his sense of what black metal was (teenagers being progressively cool, in the most serious way possible) and what it has become (something that doesn’t exist anymore).
Varg and Gylve’s annoyance with the scene’s depiction in the media, “after things got out of hand,” is really what comes out on repeated viewings. To deal with this, Varg, Gylve, and to a certain extent, the movie itself, dismiss everyone who imitates the black metal idea as either posers or blackguards trying to cash in (magnificently represented by three hilariously pretentious gallery shows, one by Harmony Korine). In response, the two make an effort to put those aspects of the past they find embarrassing behind them. It’s a plot familiar to anyone with VH1; take out the murders and church burnings, and the movie plays exactly like a Tom Petty documentary—dudes who don’t really talk anymore attempt to explain the past and talk about how important each other are from different locations. We’ve seen this played out countless times in every documentary about any seemingly avant-garde group. Why is it still worthy of critical reflection? Why is it still fascinating? Why is it still depressing? Even this reactionary genre—forged by its founders to be radically unlistenable, filled with anti-humanist sentiments, filled with unhinged murder and violence—is unable to escape the slow, frustrating crawl towards canonization. What began as rebellion ends up as forced, jaded, insecure, and static.
Dominic Fox discusses different types of rebellion in his scholarly Cold World: The Aesthetics of Rejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria (out from the fantastic Zer0 Books). Fox’s definition of the cold world is “the world made strange, a world that has ceased to be the ‘life-world’ in which we are usually immersed and instead stands before us in a kind of lop-sided objectivity.” In this image, Fox finds a nihilism that he is able to trace from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Coleridge to the late-black metal of Xasthur and finally through to the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, a German militant leftist group of the mid-70s known for its violent and uncompromising tactics as “urban guerillas.” In Ulrike Meinhof, a liberal newspaper critic who left middle class security to become a revolutionary, the group also had a fierce theoretical output). For Fox, and the artists and militants he writes about, the cold world amounts to another means of stripping away the ideas of unending life and optimism that the twentieth century has repeatedly tried to undermine. Where Until the Light Takes Us depicts rebellion as one adolescent and immature human endeavor vs. another ad infinitum, Fox takes the more interesting line of seeing how legitimate rebellion can stand for humanity against itself through a militant aesthetics of refusal. More descriptive than didactic, Fox’s chapters show the existence of a cold world enraptured by the “transcendent power of death” without a “messianic hope.”
In his discussion of black metal, Fox finds the “spiritualization of the malcontent.” “The cold world of black metal,” he says, “is a deliberate freezing of the world, fixing it within a terminal image, in order that its frost-bitten surface may be shattered by anonymous, inhuman forces rising from the depth of the self…The vertiginous dysphoria of Xasthur’s sound-world…embodies a will that that which is should not be, but not a will that which is should be otherwise.” Black metal—as one can clearly see in Until the Light Takes Us’ portrayal of the genre’s reaction against Christianity and commercialization—occupies a step towards real rebellion—it, at least, finds fault in the world it occupies. Fox suggests, though, that black metal’s romantic actualization of the self as creator-of-an-aesthetic-world ultimately ends up restating the world it rebels against through canonization and hero worship. By creating music, by murdering his friend Euronymous, by burning churches, “Count Grishnackh…became precisely the figure of supernatural evil his creator had always wanted him to be.” Count Grishnakh became another towering representation of power, he became another church to burn down.
Out of this, Fox looks to the militancy of Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF to find a more legitimate form of rebellion, to find knowledge “inaccessible through the exchange of ready opinions, a knowledge of how things really stood as opposed to how they were positioned within the space of representation.” The RAF claim to find this knowledge through violent disruption—by a “refusal to be symbolically integrated, to be part of a common conversation in which what ‘everybody says’ and what ‘everybody knows’ are effectively co-extensive.” The black metal singer, for all his supposed rebellion, hedges and wants to communicate—the revolutionary, in violence, refuses all communication and understanding.
I described Fox’s book as more “more descriptive than didactic,” evident in his refusal to grant any of his subjects, and any of their modes of investigation into the cold world, privilege:
The secret of the cold world is that there is something moving in its icy wastes, something astir in its gloomy forests. The statues blink and change positions in the night…This hidden agency is most often conceived as supernatural, since it lies outside of the normal realm of human action and symbolization; but in fact it is nature itself, nature as the unconscious of human reality: the ‘it’ traversing the dejected ‘I.’ Late black metal, in its vertiginous mortal despair, is more sensitive to the secret ministries of this unconscious than the unreflective activism of the self-styled urban guerilla. But these cannot be the only choices.
The final image Fox offers up is that of Linke, an elderly librarian who was shot and killed during the RAF’s freeing of Adreas Baader from police custody. “What was it,” Fox asks in the closing sentences of the book, “that moved poor Linke into the path of the guerilla’’ gunfire? Let us close with this conjecture: it was neither bravery nor blind panic, but desire to be in on the act; to die if needs be, but in any event to touch on the real.”
Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, CLOPS, is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago. He blogs at: http://dancingyoungmen.wordpress.com/