Death plays a fundamental and defining role in human life, and there have been many theories about how this inevitability affects human thought, and social life. According to anthropological studies (Bloch & Parry 1982), death and death-related phenomena, including rituals, music, the meaning of death are shaped by the cultural context in question.
From this perspective, the cultures of black and doom metal music represent interesting case studies, due to their inherent involvement with death and grief concepts. So-called “depressive suicidal black metal” (DSBM) takes this further, as a subculture primarily focused around death, with its own particular set of symbols, meanings, and music relating to death.
The article will focus on three music genres: doom metal, black metal, and especially depressive suicidal black metal. Examples from the repertory of this subgenre will be used to investigate and provide a view on the meanings of death among musicians of depressive suicidal black metal music.
Black and doom metal music, as well as depressive suicidal black metal music, are usually categorized under the “extreme metal” umbrella, which also includes genres like death metal, and grindcore among others (Kahn-Harris 2007). Thus, the genres within the extreme metal category need to be considered carefully in order to select the appropriate subset of extreme metal for querying the meaning of death in such music subcultures.
While at first glance, death metal may seem to be the obvious choice for this research — due to the genre name —, lyrical themes in this genre, with their focus on blood, gore, anatomy, and bodily functions and fluids, make death metal an unfit choice for intended research purposes.
These focal points, according to Butler (2010), causes death metal to have a “worldly orientation” and for it to exist “in a continuum with the impermanent matter, monstrous growth, and decay”.
However, this dissertation aims to focus on death as an idea, thus death metal’s “worldly orientation” does not yield as much for this goal. For the case of black metal music, Wilson argues that “the mourning and melancholy of black metal is essentially […] [a] mourning of death — not the death of someone, or something or some lost past, but for death itself” (2014), in other words black metal concentrates on death through the concept itself rather than the grieving side of death.
This means death in black metal is on an ideological level, hence it rarely implies a feeling of grief; as consequences of death, even a physical one, does not exist in these representations. Because death is usually a relief, an escape, but most importantly it is mostly individual in DSBM.
Furthermore, the voice in black metal strongly suggests that the only meaning that is to be found in life is the meaning of death (Wilson 2010). These different types of death are clearly observed in DSBM songs.
There is relatively little scholarly writing on black metal, doom metal, and depressive suicidal black metal, so this article provides new research in these styles of music and in part aims to initiate discussion of genre boundaries between black metal, doom metal, and depressive suicidal black metal as well as examining how DSBM relates to or re-signifies the concepts of death and suicide.
Because death is no longer a taboo subject in academia (Mellor 1993: 11), a variety of writing help frame the ideas present in the songs to be analysed.
‘Ontological security’, developed by Anthony Giddens, emerges as a crucial theory to explore DSBM songs from a taboo-breaking perspective. Mellor (1993: 12) defines ‘ontological security’ as “persons having a sense of order and continuity in relation to events in which they participate”. Moreover, he states that “the feelings of ontological security find their emotional and cognitive anchors in a practical consciousness of meaningfulness of our daily lives. This meaningfulness, however, is always shadowed by the threat of disorder and chaos. This chaos signals the irreality of everyday conventions” (1993: 12).
The “irreality” may be understood here as the artificiality of everyday acts. In connection to this, Mellor argues that “the existential confrontation with death […] has the potential to open individuals up to [Kierkegaardian] dread, shattering [their] ontological security” (Mellor 1993: 13).
This ontological security is discussed further in the light of DSBM repertoire, and lyrical analyses of these songs will show different ideas of death while the dissertation will employ ethnographic data related to the musicians involved in the scene, if such a scene can be argued to exist. Furthermore, the article interprets the “meanings of death in DSBM resulting from these discussions.