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Black Metal and the Refusal of Aesthetic Modernity

Black Metal and the Refusal of Aesthetic Modernity
© Photograph by Larissa Grace

Black metal history throughout the past four decades has been one of significant commercial success, but it has also constituted a primary target for many different forms of attacks and criticisms, stemming from a variety of sources, including journalists and critics, parental associations, religious groups or even political figures. As passionately supported as fiercely condemned, heavy metal for instance, has hardly been able to generate indifference; on the contrary, reactions to it have been quite as extreme as the music itself, hinting that there is probably more to it than many would wish to acknowledge.

It was during the 1980s, at the height of its inaugural commercial success, that the harshest attacks against heavy metal took place. In the United States of America, the influence of the Parents Music Resource Centre was convincing enough to lead to several Senate hearings where heavy metal artists were summoned to discuss their music and, eventually, the process resulted in the Recording Industry Association of America being pressured to label selected albums — most of them, at the time, within the heavy metal genre — with the famous black and white sticker “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content”.

Soon after, and following a similar case which had taken place just a few years earlier involving John Michael Osbourne (lead figure behind Black Sabbath, by many considered the true fathers of heavy metal), the band Judas Priest was accused of actively contributing to the suicide of two teenagers due to the content of their lyrics and to the allegedly hidden, subliminal underlying messages in their records, which were said to spell out the order “do it” and other similar commands. The case was soon dismissed and no real evidence was ever provided regarding the existence of any such messages (although there were repeated attempts to prove that messages of the same kind were hidden in other heavy metal albums), but the controversy did not abandon the genre.

Throughout the 1990s, a series of other criminal cases were judged in American courts with some degree of involvement being called upon heavy metal bands. In April 1994, four teenagers in Eugene, Oregon, robbed a convenience store and violently attacked two employees, stabbing one of them to death. The families of both the survivor and deceased employees filed civil lawsuits levelled at the record companies of the bands Deicide and Cannibal Corpse (prominent leaders among the death metal scene at the time), alleging the influence of their music had played a decisive role in the violent acts committed by the teenagers. The case was settled out of court. In 1996, in California, another group of youths brutally murdered a teenager, supposedly as a sacrifice to Satan, in whom they claimed to be firm believers. They have also devoted fans of the band Slayer, who was then at the centre of another similar controversy regarding the effects of their music and imagery, although, once more, no direct connection was ever established between the crimes and the music. More recently, in 1999, metal music was once again targeted after the Columbine massacre, where thirteen people were killed by two teenagers — who committed suicide afterwards — who were also metal fans. Marilyn Manson was, at the time, at the centre of the debate, and many accusations were directed towards his music and overall performance by religious and political forces, along with the media. Although all the controversies generated around heavy metal have not deprived it of its fans and popularity, they have very frequently tried to rob it of any possibility of holding some kind of serious cultural prestige, but, by the same token, those debates around heavy metal and all the issues it involves “over meaning, character, behavior, values, censorship, violence, alienation and community — mark metal as an important site of cultural contestation” (Robert Walser, 1993: X).

From the very beginning, heavy metal was never quiet. The sounds that would come to define the genre were very early on crystallized around loudness and distortion, both enabled by technological advances in amplification and recording processes, with long virtuosic solo guitars and intricate riffs supported by heavy pounding beats of drums and bass, and, on top of that, strong vocals exerting their power through different forms of screaming, shouting and growling. But it was not just the sounds that set heavy metal apart as a very specific musical form; it was also the themes it dealt with, its focus on the dark side of human existence, its interest in the occult and the supernatural, its approach to Satanism1 and gothic horror, its fascination with death, violence, mysticism, ancient legends, hatred, alienation and chaos. If, for some, this was all the more reason to engage with it, for others it was an immediate cause for concern and fear. Assuredly, heavy metal did not per se create any of these subjects, nor has it been the only cultural form to engage with them, but, nevertheless, it has constantly proved to be an issue the way they are articulated within it. Public moral panics around heavy metal, I would claim, have for the most part been completely unfounded. However, in the case of black metal — one of extreme metal’s subgenres — the scenario was, at least for a time, somewhat different.

Throughout the mid-1980s, metal’s underground scenario slowly dispersed into a set of subgenres, which never really made it into mainstream visibility as previous phenomena had. Growing out mainly of the influences of thrash metal, a series of more extreme sounds were developed and paved the way for the emergence of death metal, black metal, doom metal and power metal. It was in Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia, that black metal found its primary birthplace2. Bathory, from Sweden; Celtic Frost, from Switzerland, and especially Venom, from the United Kingdom, have all been acknowledged as the leading acts of black metal’s first wave, but it was the second wave that developed in Norway with bands like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone and Emperor that really established the conventions of the genre.

With highly distorted guitars, tremolo picking, double bass and blast beat drumming, high-pitch shrieks, unconventional song structures, sombrely dark atmospheres and even some experimentation with elements of electronic, folk and classical music, black metal exhibited a set of common themes that were adopted by virtually every single band in the genre, with one of its main focus consisting in a harsh opposition to Christianity and its form of organized religion and values, promoting instead a strong sense of individualism and pagan pride. In fact, from the onset, lyrics very often seemed to advocate a return to ancient paganism or the promotion of atheism and Satanism, also exploring mythological/folklore narratives and death-related feelings, such as depression, misanthropy and nihilism. Seeking to affirm itself as a much darker form of metal music, pushing its extremes to the limits of what had been done so far, black metal favoured a rawer and cruder sound, along with unpredictable melodies and the absence of rigid structures, with demonic-like voices screaming unintelligibly about misanthropic hatred, pre-Christian mythology, bloody battles and esoteric occultism.

Aesthetically, black metal privileged black above any other colour, but also in a much more extreme sense than heavy metal had done so far. Black metallers, both musicians and fans, would soon develop an imagery of their own, with the traditional long black hair concealing part of their faces, often covered with sinister black and white corpse-like face paint. Album covers would frequently display musicians wearing black leather and medieval battle ornaments, portrayed against natural settings, mostly nocturnal woods, mystic mountainous landscapes and harsh winter scenarios. Most artists would also resort to mythological stage names; band logos were so intricate and laboured that most of them verged on the unreadable with their “black lettering” (gothic letters); and the usage of symbols related to the occult was also a common feature, with the practices of subversion versus inversion of religious iconography (such as inverted crosses, pentagrams, runic inscriptions or pagan pendants or amulets) becoming a commonplace among the scene. Shock tactics had always been a part of heavy metal’s symbolical provocation as it sought to establish its own forms of cultural capital and distinguish itself not just from the “Others,” but very frequently against those same “Others,” not merely in the music scene, but mainly reaching out to the wider social context. However, these shock tactics would soon be taken into a whole new level with black metal3.

1.
Throughout the past four decades, heavy metal has had a complex and often controversial relationship with the theme of Satanism, which is, in itself, plural and diverse as it can refer to several different approaches and perspectives on the nature of evil, Satan and religion. The most common association of Satanism is that of it being merely an inversion of Christianity, and therefore, still dependent on that which it seeks to oppose, namely Christian rituals, symbols and values. Another recognizable form of Satanism is that created by the Church of Satan, founded by Anton Szandor LaVey in 1966. In this case, Satanism is no longer religious but mainly secular, as it does not relate anymore to other religious traditions. In fact, in his ‘The Satanic Bible’, Anton Szandor LaVey contends that his modern Satanism does not assume the reality of supernatural phenomena, but suggests instead the figure of the man himself as a deity, in the sense that there should be no other authority but that of the self. The issue of the devil, evil and demons has also been addressed by Eugene Thacker, in his ‘Three Questions on Demonology’, where he claims that in black metal, in particular, the figure of the demon might occasionally be associated with Satan or pagan deities, but it is mostly a symbol of those forces that can act upon humans without ever really being understood by them, allowing the individual to go beyond the borders of rational knowledge.
2.
Several attempts have been made at relating the black metal scene with the specific scenario where it originally developed, namely describing the relation in terms of the natural environment: “The North, rigidly controlled by the natural elements, its seasons dominated by darkness and cold, ironically provided the desolate environment which would spark Black Metal to marshal its forces and gather up weapons in a coming unholy war” (Moynihan & Soderlind, 1998).
3.
Although, at the time, heavy metal music had already established a reputation of its own, which was, regardless the criterion, far removed from the most acceptable standards of cultural production and still a cause of concern in varying degrees for a series of social entities, the fact is that, until then, real proven criminal activity had never actually been a part of the scene. As noted by Keith Kahn-Harris, “The black metal scene produced dramatic musical and discursive innovations. Criminality, racism and associations with the far right were new phenomena in metal” (Kahn-Harris, 2007: 132).
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