Today I was planning on giving a lecture about a vision for a new kind of total work of art, called the Ark Work, whose functioning, called the Perichoresis, maps, music, art and philosophy onto three moments of dialectical becoming.
Synthesizing practices and concepts from different domains and traditions, the Perichoresis is an art/life process — a vehicle for living in and transmitting faith, hope and love during an era when it is difficult to believe in structures that have historically been activated this type of transcendence. For reasons which I will explain, I have elected not to give that lecture today. Instead, I want to talk about a text I wrote six years ago called “Transcendental Black Metal.”
At the first Black Metal Theory symposium, which took place at Public Assembly in Brooklyn during the winter of 2009, I presented this text as a lecture to a small audience of academics, artists and a few friends.
I was twenty-four and my band, Liturgy, had just released our debut LP. Since that time, we have had an extremely unusual career: though our audience is broader than that of most metal bands, we are famous, in part, for being uniquely hated in the black metal scene; there is virtually no account of our band written anywhere that does not begin by noting the controversy surrounding the lecture I gave in 2009.
Thousands of comments threads and message boards overflow with text criticizing me in the most hateful terms. My lecture has become a legend, or at least a meme, a media phenomenon that can in some ways be usefully compared to that surrounding Varg Vikernes and the burning of Fantoft Stave Church in 1992.
Perhaps it goes without saying that this shaming and ridicule has been very painful to me, and that I feel profoundly misunderstood. I am tethered to an imaginary personality, with whom I cannot identify, an obnoxious, mean-spirited controversy baiter who lives in the minds of many music fans and journalists, and whose mission is to annoy them.
The irony is that both my musical vision and my broader ideas and actions are completely sincere: I see this project as an instance of what Alain Badiou calls a “truth procedure” — an inspired, courageous process of suffering and faith in the name of universal love, tied to a local becoming. I have wanted nothing more than to communicate and activate love, and yet, for the most part, I seem to have only brought scorn and hatred into the world.
This disconnect between my intentions and the reaction I have received has led to me to doubt myself. And so I would like to take this opportunity to give some background on the 2009 lecture, and to sincerely ask whether the act of delivering it was a legitimate or whether it was a mistake.
The vision of Transcendental Black Metal appeared to me several years before the symposium, in around 2005. At the time, I was a philosophy student playing in a few rock bands that rehearsed in Brooklyn and, almost in secret, recording depressive black metal cassettes for myself in my dorm room.
Though I was shy, I had a very wide and eclectic range of interests: various types of art rock, hardcore, metal, electronic music and so on, Christianity, psychoanalysis and continental philosophy — especially the work of Nietzsche, Lacan, and Deleuze — and various eras of classical music—Wagnerian post-romanticism, French avant-garde spectralism, and especially American minimalism.
I also had a budding interest in conceptual art, especially the work of Joseph Beuys. I felt myself to be on the verge of weaving all these threads into a performance/music/art/religion practice that would have redemptive power and epic scope.
It is worth noting that at the time I was in constant pain, suffering huge levels of anxiety and paranoia, struggling against suicide. This pain in part had to do with a multigenerational tragedy unique to my family and personal life. But surely it also had to do with something more universal: the primordial wound, the out-of-joint character of human life — and in particular the contemporary horror vacui experienced by those of us who are unable to integrate into a community with a collective spiritual practice — the bondage of isolation, self-obsession and disconnection.
The severity of this pain and confusion must be underscored because it was in the name of transcending it that Liturgy was born. I yearned to create, as a dynamic work of art, a structure for overcoming the self-destructive forces that afflicted me — to synthesize a soul for myself, an aesthetic, symbolic system that I could use to overcome my state of bitterness, and transmit, manifest, and live in faith: unable to accept the religions that would provide the spiritual practice I so desperately needed, living in a society for which profound truth is disqualified and relativized by the leveling gaze of multiculturalism and political correctness, I would create my own structure, dangerous, subjectively invested, uplifting.
Around the age of twenty, something clicked — in an epiphany, I realized that a reinterpretation of black metal could be the bedrock of this effort: using the principle that what appears as the greatest source of affliction is precisely the best springboard into grace, I thought that I could re-appropriate the music and mythologies of black metal, the soundtrack to my despair, to be a source of transcendence, by using a particular element in a way its authors never intended, so as to create a short circuit.
Out of the cauldron of my pain, and my obsessions with philosophy, music, and art, a vision emerged. It did not happen all at once: first appeared the idea of a new kind of drum beat called the “burst beat” — an ecstatic mutant variation of the blast beat. Soon after came the term “Pure Transcendental Black Metal,” which was a variation on Darkthrone’s famous slogan, “True Norwegian Black Metal.” I hardly knew what it meant, but I knew it referred to an ethics of creation, resounding with American Transcendentalism or perhaps Deleuze’s “Transcendental Empiricism.” I typed the slogan on top of an image of clouds from the Internet, and it became the back cover of my first EP, called ‘Immortal Life’.
In the next few years I began playing shows, the first solo and then with a band; I yearned to complement the music with a symbolic declaration, something in the vein of Bataille’s “‘The Pineal Eye,’ or Artaud’s ‘The Theater of Cruelty’ — a cryptic, ecstatic vision of an eschatological limit. When I met Nicola Masciandaro at a Liturgy show, he told me about the symposium he was organizing, and I saw that I had a chance to do this. I composed the text itself mostly during November of 2009 — it was the most inspired and excruciating process I have engaged in my life to date; I felt possessed.
The presentation of the lecture was a fairly low-key moment; the symposium itself was a groundbreaking event, but credit for that goes to the person who organized it; though I was the only participant who was in a band and had not gone to grad school, I think I more or less blended in. But soon enough news of the lecture and the corresponding text spread on the internet and became a phenomenon: a bona fide scandal in the black metal community, which was, in turn, a source of fascination for journalists from the wider world. I did not expect the reaction to be so large nor for it to be so negative.
The easiest way to explain the phenomenon is as a miscommunication, in part due to the existence of the internet. The music was never directed at a particular audience. I did not have any real connection to a metal scene.
I lived my life as a “hipster in Brooklyn,” but the audience that picked up on Liturgy’s music was, for the most part, the actual black metal underground itself. I was not really explaining myself, and much of the implicit subtleties of my act and music were not communicated. I became a target for a more or less indiscriminate hatred. An idiot from New York talking about making good, happy black metal instead of bad, sad black metal, a symbol of the style being coopted and going “mainstream.”
But that answer is not adequate, and it ignores an important and well-known fact about human culture: the classic, even archetypal story of the reformer, the prophet who shines his light into the depths of truth and whose surrounding community reacts violently, attempting to destroy him.
The hero’s journey, the rose cross — whatever name you want to give to the pursuit of embodied subjectivity: the suspension of both morality and pleasure in the name of a cultural unfolding of some kind, suffering in the name of truth.
According to the story, a new idea or form appears, is at first misunderstood and creates scandal, but ultimately marks the birth of a new movement.