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History of Religion: Outlines of Heavy and Extreme Metal

History of Religion: Outlines of Heavy and Extreme Metal
© Photograph by Angélica Vargas

“Heavy metal, genre of rock music that includes a group of related styles that are intense, virtuosic, and powerful. Driven by the aggressive sounds of the distorted electric guitar, heavy metal is arguably the most commercially successful genre of rock music.” — states Robert Walser (1999), a renowned scholar of the heavy metal scene.

As a great percentage of popular music all around the world, heavy metal is also originating from the Afro-American blues tradition of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Robert Johnson or James Brown.

The direct prequel to the emergence of heavy metal are the beat and rock ‘n’ roll movements of the British Isles during the 1950s and 1960s. The two main branches of contemporary popular music, beat (represented by The Beatles) and rock ‘n’ roll (represented by The Rolling Stones) built a road for the beginning of the 1970s altogether for hard rock and heavy metal: the “bad boy” image of The Rolling Stones is the prototype of the rebellious rock and metal musicians. It is also important not to forget that with the song “Sympathy for the Devil” the Stones also opened up the mainstream for mystic and occult topics.

Some examples of psychedelic rock along with Coven and Black Widow showed this stress on the themes of occultism and witchcraft (with their albums ‘Witchcraft Destroys Mind and Reaps Souls’ and ‘Sacrifice’ respectively).

During the English “Blues Boom”, the end of the 60s called for the children of the working class to build their own subculture. Using the rebellious attributes of the counterculture and the hippie New Wave groups together with traditional patriarchal values, heavy metal was created in the now deindustrialised areas of England, first of all in Birmingham.

Blues and rock ‘n’ roll-oriented bands such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Kinks, Cream, and even some songs of Queen influenced mostly the heavy sound of heavy metal. The harsh sound described above by Walser can be found in its most pure form in the first album of Black Sabbath (1970) called ‘Black Sabbath’.

The classical metal line-up consisting of a guitarist, bass player, drummer, and singer originates from this era as well. Since the birth of heavy metal altogether with the music, the line-up, the audience, etc. altered adjusting to the geographical and chronological features of a certain regional scene. In the beginning, heavy metal was the music of white, male, blue-collar British youngsters; nowadays, it is a global phenomenon, with fans from all social classes and countries.

The core element, namely the usage of the power chord, remained since the birth of the genre a representation of power and authority. Besides heavy metal, the new movement of extreme metal developed during the early 1980s. N.W.O.B.H.M correlating with punk music showed heavy metal the chance to find new directions.

The new subgenres of thrash, black, death, etc. metal arose from this new, fragmented way searching of N.W.O.B.H.M. (In)famous bands like Celtic Frost (CH), Venom (GB), King Diamond (DK), or Bathory (SE) offered a lower quality in terms of production, in many cases less talented but more raw and extreme ways for representing metal music. Although it can be said that the lyrics are not the main power of work in extreme metal, with the advent of extreme metal, many bands came into focus with lyrics pointing towards certain ideologies and topics to be examined through music. The development of subgenres is not a closed case until recent days.

Deena Weinstein in her study (2002: 31–43) divides metal lyrics into two main groups: Dionysian and Chaotic. Dionysian topics include earthly delights, e.g. drug consumption or free love. Chaotic represents everything else. It may be useful to offer a segmented categorisation for Chaotic topics.

The questions of political-social issues, the problems of emotional life, history, or spiritual themes could be named different categories as well. For us now only spiritual themes are interesting, as mythologies and religions take the largest part in these.

The term of “mythological metal” refers to all the bands using mythologies as the main inspiration for their lyrics. Although it may not be a usual direction to name a subgenre after its lyrical content, as most of the metal subgenres names are derived from its musical expressions (like thrash, death or, doom metal), it does not lack examples. In the case of “ritual black metal”, it can be seen that a branch of bands are gathered under a genre related to their behaviour towards lyrics and performance considering occultism.

Both traditional black metal bands (e.g. Watain) and retro-psychedelic rock bands (e.g. The Devil’s Blood) are considered to be part of the same ritual black metal scene. A two-level classification of metal music may be proposed: first of all, the musical categories are given, these have the priority but the lyrical categories form a living tradition as well. The members of the subcategory “mythological metal” are coming from black, death, gothic, symphonic, folk, and other metal genres, and just because they are mythological they do not lose their black, death, etc. label. As many lyrics may be associated with certain New Religious Movements, the terms neopagan metal and mythological metal are likely to be equivalent (or synonymic).

As now we have a basic view of heavy and especially extreme metal music, it is now time to take a closer look at the inspiration of mythological metal music: the so-called Neo-Pagan revival.

Neo-Pagan revival is originating from the many times cited counterculture of the 1960s. The “New Religious Movements”, such as Krishna Consciousness, and the New Age phenomena, such as Wicca witchcraft, are rooted both in ancient religious practices and theories as well as in the secularization of everyday life after the Second World War.

Secularization and a sort of decline in Western Christian worldview built a foundation for forgotten and exotic religions and occult traditions to land in Western thought. To understand the working method of these contemporary societies and cults, some basic introduction is needed to the history of occultism, as many forms of Neo-Pagan revival and the New Age share the concept of forgotten and secret lore.

The word “occult” means hidden in Latin, in a wider concept: “hidden wisdom”. In this regard, the first occultist movements could be traced back to ancient Hellenistic times (around the start of C.E. and the 2nd and 3rd centuries), when Hermeticism and Gnosticism first appeared.

Both religious and philosophical movements offered an alternative worldview compared to the existing Roman-Hellenistic-Middle Eastern syncretism of the ancient world. Nevertheless, it must be noted that both mentioned “schools” are typical products of syncretism. Hermeticism gathers around the works of Hermes Trismegistus (Three Times Great Hermes), who shares secret lore for the readers about the work of God and the cosmos. Perhaps being a merely literary school, Hermeticism is the basic element for modern occultism. Gnosticism, on the other hand, was a religious movement offering a dualistic worldview, where the Light and the Dark fights its eternal war, lurking for the souls of humanity. The followers of Gnostic religions (such as Manichaeism) are facing a spiritual war, in which if they choose the proper side their prize may be salvation.

Hermetic cosmology and Gnostic dualism together were almost forgotten until the times of early Renaissance, when Neo-Platonism was once again discovered by Italian philosophers (most notably Marsilio Ficino of Florence). Combined with the Jewish Kabbalah, developed during the Middle Ages of Spain, a new form of philosophy emerged in Renaissance.

This new philosophy created the alchemy and laid the foundations for secret societies under Christian influence, such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. The archetypical renaissance men, scholars with skills in almost all known sciences and disciplines of their age, created the highly appreciated renaissance culture and ignited the so-called “Western esoteric” tradition.

Western esoteric tradition is the umbrella term for all the above-mentioned occult studies, sciences, and movements that reached their first modern peak around the times of the French Revolution and rationalism at the end of the 18th century, even becoming a form of rebellion against rationalism.

Later, during the 19th century, as a resistance against Christianity and the Church, many occult societies emerged; the most famous one is the Order of the Golden Dawn, later reformed as Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) by Aleister Crowley. The influence of East Asian religions and philosophy together with Neo-Paganism and ancient Middle-Eastern symbolism can be traced in the works of Crowley and the OTO, serving as one of the sources for the New Age of the 1970s.

Globalization following the Second World War along with the above-mentioned secularisation created a religious gap in the life of the Western society. Alternative lifestyles, new philosophies, and religious forms filled these gaps. The most notable cults interesting for our topic may be divided into the following sub-categories:

Occult societies: OTO and its public branches: Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, Church of Satan, Temple of Set, Typhonian Order. The most important attribute of these societies are their initiatory system and strong influences from Western esoteric tradition.

Neo-Pagan cults: Wicca, Asatrú, Roman revivalism, etc. These cults are characterised by that according to their worldview the cult is not a new invention but a revival of once forgotten ancient, pure lore of European antiquity.

Both categories offer the Truth for their followers in theory and in practice, in many cases a higher level of consciousness together with a more pure form of human existence. Neo-Pagan groups also aim to restore the romanticised ways of life before the age of Christianity. This resistance against and disappointment in Christian worldview and romantic nostalgia towards the past is the key point where we may connect contemporary mythological metal music with religious and other (pop)cultural tendencies.

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