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Extreme Narratives in Extreme Metal Music

Extreme Narratives in Extreme Metal Music
© Photograph by Angélica Vargas

Metal music experienced an important breakthrough into mainstream media at the apex of its popularity in the 1980s, while at the same time being considered a subject of “media- and state-sponsored ‘moral panics’” in the United States of America. The first decade of the new millennium witnessed a sort of focus shift in the mainstream music media, which signified a specific media lull regarding metal. A highly-developed, independent system of production and distribution created by those within the metal community also had a considerable influence on the withdrawal of the metal music scene away from the general public. Officially, the era of moral panic caused by metal was over. However, a new wave of controversy in the United States of America came at the beginning of 2016, when one of the most influential metal musicians, Philip Hansen Anselmo, gave a Nazi salute and shouted “white power” during an annual memorial concert, Dimebash. Members of the community, musicians and fans, condemned this act, prompting Philip Hansen Anselmo’s further statements and public apology. It was not the first time for Philip Hansen Anselmo to insinuate or openly preach white power discourse, which was always followed by apologies and excuses. Accordingly, questions were raised: is this type of discourse characteristic of the metal community, and what are the possible roots and impacts of racism in metal music?

The majority of the metal community rejects accusations of being racially intolerant. However, some of the ideologies of extreme subgenres are in fact formed around the ideas of self-conscious elitism expressed through the interest in, on the one hand, the pre-Christian aura of pagan mythology, and, on the other, racism, Nazism and fascism. The aim of this article is to examine various appearances of these extreme narratives in subgenres of metal (such as black metal), bearing in mind variations dependent on geographical, political, and other factors. Instead of focusing on the sound of metal music, I will discuss its discursive production of meaning, which although (musically) silenced, screams for media attention, thus causing moral panics and public concern.

Guided by the adjective extreme while examining this subject, I first tend to pose questions of possible extremeness in music as well as in its (political) narratives and ideologies. In an attempt to define the group of extreme narratives (racism, Nazism, fascism, etc.), I relied upon Carol Tator’s interpretation of John Fiske’s and Paul-Michel Foucault’s understanding of racist discourse. Namely, Carol Tator’s interpretations state that these “[…] discourses repress, marginalize, and invalidate differences/’others’” through an identifiable repertoire of practices. Thus, extreme narratives are perceived as the narratives that contribute to creating discourses of repression, marginalization and invalidation of differences. As previously stated, these narratives are deeply embedded in the ideology of the extreme metal subgenre, black metal, as we will see further in the text. Through analyzing extreme metal discourse and its transgressions, extreme narratives are indicated as a consequential element worthy of further discussions.

The term extreme metal is used as a collective name for the group of several metal subgenres. Keith Kahn-Harris perceived “musical radicalism” as the common feature that distinguishes them from other subgenres of metal. Simultaneously, extreme metal represents sort of a cluster of forms with various historical backgrounds and contexts. This group of subgenres (death metal, black metal, doom metal, grindcore, and their variants) shows the highest level of diversity, artistic vibrancy and dynamics, while at the same time being the most problematic area of metal culture in general. Unlike the subgenres that experienced mainstream popularity (classic, heavy, glam, and thrash metal), and, even paradoxically, were the object of attacks and public disapproval, extreme metal was situated on the periphery of the music industry, thus forming its own institutional network for creating, distributing, popularizing, and consuming music.

Finding it necessary to complement and strengthen Franco Fabbri’s definition of genre as “a set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules”, in which we can also define a subset, that is, a subgenre that functions within that kind of system, I will add concepts of scene and transgression, which were in more detail elaborated by sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris.

In an attempt to define their environment, members of the extreme metal community most commonly use the mentioned spatial concept of the scene (also, the underground). This term is used for various modes of describing “the context within which extreme metal music, practices and discourses are produced”. In global terms, the extreme metal scene is viewed as an assemblage of all local scenes based on the production and consumption of a particular extreme metal subgenre.

The second term that I stated as relevant is the concept of transgression, referring to the diversity of phenomena proven to test and exceed boundaries. The concepts considered as forms of transgression in extreme metal tend to be the exact reason to classify those subgenres in the “extreme” category. Certainly, sonic/sound transgressions are the most expected (use of certain scales and modes, playing and vocal techniques, rhythm and tempo, songwriting, etc.). On the other hand, extreme metal practices particularly important forms of discursive transgressions, and, to a lesser extent, bodily transgressions. Given that this scene produces an enormous amount of non-musical texts through a variety of media (band names, song titles and lyrics, everyday behaviour, magazines, fanzines, blogs, record labels, etc.), subgenres of extreme metal are distinguished from e.g. heavy and thrash metal by sharpening and intensifying the discourse.

Taking into account all musical, and, in particular, non-musical discursive parameters, it can be stated that black metal is the most radically transgressive subgenre of extreme metal. As I stated in the beginning, black metal discourse is built on an idea of self-conscious elitism and misanthropy, at the same time exploiting thematic fields of Satanism, occultism and paganism. Discursive transgressions fashioned in such a manner are often aimed to discursive domains of Nazism, racism, and fascism, ideologies that are, to a greater or lesser extent, transparent in the musical product itself. Depending on the geopolitical position, narratives of black metal vary slightly, adapting to the environment, political discourses, and audience and industry requirements. Further, I will examine the formation of black metal ideology in Norway and its echoes and transpositions in Serbian metal scene.

Also published on Medium.


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