Dark Aesthetics in Christian Metal, and Religious Discourses

Dark Aesthetics in Christian Metal, and Religious Discourses
© Photograph by Powerwolf

Metal, famously, has had always a particular relation to religious discourse, and bands often employ religious symbolism in their lyrics and aesthetic materials. In his texts on the re-enchantment of Western society, Partridge (2005, 2006) argues that processes that he calls re-enchantment challenge conventional understandings of secularisation.

He argues that heavy metal is a part of this current prevalence by what he terms “dark occulture” within metal lyrics and aesthetics, which is the fascination with demonology and occult themes.

According to Partridge, metal music signifies one particular example that our thinking is not necessarily, and purely, secular. While one can speculate about the significance of these examples for the state of cultural religiosity, “this phenomena shows that people are still drawn to the unknown in an era of science” (Partridge 2006, 332).

If we look at how metal evokes religion, however, we would not find that its use is religious or enchanted but, rather, evocative, in order to develop a dark aesthetic or atmosphere, or for transgressive reasons.

While extreme metal is home to marginal ideologies, belief systems, and transgressive thematic portrayals, it often relies upon the symbols that the genre itself is reacting against, such as evangelical Christianity and secular humanism (Clark 2003; Kahn- Harris 2007, 40).

Yet, the manner in which secular extreme metal evokes the religious, mythical, epic, and violent is not religious in itself but rather comes predominantly out of a particular kind of “aestheticising” of these same themes.

The allying of aesthetics and different religious discourses and symbols can speak precisely to a certain “profanation” which could only occur through the disenchantment or transformation of the conditions of the symbols’ usage.

This profanation of religious symbols relies on the removal, or flattening, of the etiological value of symbols. Rather, as we have been exploring throughout this book, something has happened to the meaning frameworks that house these symbols such that people can use symbols in this particular manner.

A productive way that we can analyse the relationship between Christian extreme metal and secular extreme metal, and the relative distinctiveness of Christian extreme metal, is the fundamental difference that separates the music itself that forum members assert is lyrical.

While lyrical themes and band art often follow the aesthetic and generic requirements of the subdivisions of extreme metal, Christian extreme metal follows the subgenres of its secular counterpart.

Most bands write according to the aesthetic signature of extreme metal — with themes such as war, apocalypse, epic verses in the bible, gore, and contemporary issues. Where secular extreme metal explores discourses of transgression and the abject, Christian musicians may explore similar themes but often approach social issues from a Christian perspective or find an equivalently themed discourse within the bible.

Many Christian extreme metal bands employ the bible for writing lyrics that range from passages that reflect metal’s penchant for obscure mythological themes and aesthetics, too didactic biblical quotes that help reinforce particular moral viewpoints.

A CD by Swedish extreme metal band, Pantokrator, called ‘Songs of Solomon’ (later released as a split CD with Christian black-death band Sanctifica in 2001) exemplifies the transformation of the experience of extreme metal through the symbolic abstraction of different aesthetic experiences.

Pantokrator performs a mixture of black, death, thrash, and doom metal. The musicians employ thick sounding, profoundly distorted guitars, vocals that range from the high, thin, and raspy black metal style, to low, death metal style growls, and a range of tempos from fast double-time and triple-time to slow, down-tempo, doom-like passages.

On this particular album, they also use female melodic vocal elements, acoustic guitars, and violins. The song, ‘Come Let Us Flee’, is an interesting example of Christian extreme metal lyrics and themes that shows the counterbalance of themes and imagery to secular extreme metal (“Pantokrator”).

In the first place, Christian extreme metal, like CCM, employs the use of biblical passages, themes, and imagery, and this song is a lyrical interpretation of a particular passage within its namesake book in the Old Testament, ‘Song of Solomon.’

In this song, we see a few themes that act as a particular counterparty to secular extreme metal not only with the expression of love and hope but also with ideas of purity and authenticity. This song expresses colour and hopes to erupt out of a bleak landscape of horror, destitution, and destruction — a scene that secular extreme metal would often depict in lyrics.

For instance, the line “the winter is over and gone, and the rains has [sic] passed away/the gentle flowers appear in the blackened earth” expresses hope in regeneration, providing a stark contrast with extreme metal’s predominant themes of destruction, gore, and apocalypse.

The metaphor of a flower appearing in the midst of a scorched landscape suggests an allegorical interpretation of the place of the Christian in the world, which may represent how Christian musicians often place themselves and their bands within the extreme metal scene.

Frequently, Christian extreme metal bands see themselves as a light in the darkness — a strong ideological motivation for many Christian black metal bands. As with the interpretative ambiguity of the book of the ‘Song of Solomon’ in the Bible, Pantokrator’s song can be both a poetic call to a lover, but one can also interpret it allegorically, referencing the biblical commandment to be in the world but not of it.

For instance, this ambiguity is signified by the lines, “I am bound by thee, my crown I lay down/My royal masquerade/To you I am just a simple man/naked is my soul, my heart is yours,” suggesting the submission of one’s worldly self to that of a higher calling.

One final point, and no less significant, is the first two lines that read “How fair you are/how undefiled” that reference predominant themes within secular extreme metal yet stands in stark contrast to them.

Secular extreme metal employs defilement as a fundamental node around which the genre hinges its aesthetic means of transgressing social norms and values, as well as the transgression of bodies (in brutal death metal and goregrind) and ideas (for instance the idea of science gone mad). In this particular song, however, bodies have a negative relationship to defilement; they are beautiful and to be edified, yet the metaphor still hinges on defilement and purity.