Once more, into the crypt. If the commencement of today’s event with talk of putrefaction skips past death to its aftermath and thus feels more Mors than Mystica, such a movement forwards is also a return to origins.
Joseph Russo’s remarks on putrefaction and decay as collected in ‘Hideous Gnosis’ have already identified the unretrievable non-experience of a body in decay as central to the harmful ambitions of any black metal theory worthy of that name, pressing up to moments of extinction and annihilation and testing the capacity of thought to follow or occupy those border areas.
Precisely because Dominic Fox has already identified the historical belatedness implicit in black metal’s musical genealogy and Russo has further activated the sonic immanence of decay within Xasthur’s work and others with such precision at the first New York convocation of black metal theory, I will be examining putrefaction in terms of different artists, different keywords, and, most of all, along a separate perceptual pathway: the nose.
To theorise with and on the nose is to court certain dangers, principally a synaesthetic belle-lettrism that would risk collapse into putrid purple prose in search of metaphors pungent enough to transmit the olfactory oomph of actual experiences of rotten presence.
My close calls with both the journalistic and the autobiographical registers may well sound all too “on the nose”: glib, obvious, a given. However, if theory’s root in the Greek word “theōría” and “theorein” indexes an important connection to observation and the scopic regime of the visual, then to think in darkness we may need to follow our nose.
Specifically, I am interested in thinking through the olfactory dimension of the Swedish black metal horde Watain, both at the level of a lyrical thematics of rot-mysticism articulated in particular songs and in the immanence of performances in which the presence of rotten animal flesh creates a perceptual community between audience and performer that manifests a collectively endured, enjoyed and celebratory material proximity to death.
Smelling together as a religious practice is of course hardly new, and the burning of offerings and the presentation of aromas within sacred spaces is found across spiritual traditions, from incense burning in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism to Indian nard in Hindu contexts to Greek magical papyri on the burning of malabathron and cinnamon to the swinging of Roman Catholic thuribles during Mass. These practices create a tangible vertical link between the sacrificial object and its imagined ascent into the nostrils of the divinity being propitiated.
Against this normative backdrop of upward mobility, Watain’s downward flinging of blood and rotten animal bio-matter onto themselves, the stage, and the audience below preserves the vertical orientation but satanically inverts the directionality: the goal is not to rise like smoke to celestial nasal passages, but to soak the telluric ground with the proof and evidence of death as an ongoing, smell-creating material process, and to mark and involve the audience in a sacrament of rot and blood.
In a parody of the Eucharist, participants in the communion of Watain’s black metal are marked and bonded by blood, and with each gasp for breath grow more deeply inspired with a forcefully malodorous stench of putrefaction.
As marketing, it is genius. As the oil and wineskins of Crash Worship were to mid-90s industrial music and G.W.A.R.’s copious stage blood cannons were to whatever genre you want to call G.W.A.R., Watain’s practice garners attention and notoriety through the deliberate creation of innumerable soiled items of audience clothing, which become battle-scarred souvenirs of a transgressive night out, reliquary part-objects that attest to close calls with morbidity.
However, the difference is in the smells and stains themselves: Watain’s keynote is not blood so much as the stench of rot itself, something that exceeds and surpasses the material specificity of a particular stain or splash. The notoriety of Watain’s onstage odour has been a calling card for quite some time, prompting reactions held in common across numerous concert reviews, from the dumbstruck “all I can tell you is, I will never forget that fucking smell,” to a question succinctly expressed by Carly Onofrio’s live review essay, titled ‘What the Fuck is that Smell?’
A fan describing the slow dispersal of this odour as it ruined a post-show meal, asked, “How does one eat without gagging when every time you take a bite, you smell old putrid blood instead of your warm late-night comfort food?”
Superseding the purely intellectual acknowledgement of mortality familiar from the memento mori tradition, smelling death in this inescapably immanent manner hits us in the centre of our skulls — in the olfactory bulb, a small localised area within the brain that processes and locally excite as it detects and sorts distinct odours.
Summarising in layman’s terms (from a lesson-plan that is literally titled ‘Neuroscience for Kids’), University of Washington neurosurgeon Dr Eric Chudler notes that: “The olfactory system is often described as the most ‘primitive’ sensory system because of its early phylogenetic development and its connections to older, subconscious portions of the brain. From the olfactory bulbs, odour messages go to several brain structures that make up the ‘olfactory cortex,’ an area that evolved before the cortical areas that give us consciousness. This part of the cortex is on the bottom surface of the brain, with some of the olfactory areas folded under the visible parts. These areas have connections to the limbic system (including the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus), which is important in emotional states and in memory formation. Thus, a smell frequently activates intense feelings and memories before a person even identifies the odour.”
By gatecrashing the nostrils of the audience, Watain are exploiting a kind of perceptual “back door” into the body/mind interface that sidesteps the cluttered workspace of consciousness and its attendant language-orientation, egoic regimes of identification, and theatres of volition.
In transposing a lyrical orientation towards death onto a manifestly physical threshold experience of nasal intimacy with its keynote signature, Watain transcendentalists an underrated and under-theorised orifice, flooding the limbic system with unstoppable sensations.