Recollecting the Black Metal Aesthetics, Origins and Myths

Ian Reyes

Ian Reyes

Standard accounts of black metal’s origin typically centre on the legend of the “Black Circle” of Norwegian fans and bands responsible for committing a string of crimes, including murder and arson, in the early 1990s.

Coverage of these events emphasised the criminals’ “Satanic” worldviews as well as their opinions about the state of heavy metal music.

Regardless of the criminals’ well-documented retractions, denouncements, and revisions of the Satanic aspects of their crimes, the alleged connection between heavy metal, Satanism, and criminality continues to be the focal point of much popular and academic attention to black metal.

The problem with emphasising black metal as a Satanic phenomenon or a Norwegian phenomenon rather than as a more global metal phenomenon is that this approach unjustifiably weds the success of a genre of music with the success of an ideology or events independent of material history, and stresses the dynamic between the dominant culture and the subculture while downplaying the aesthetic dynamics internal to the subculture.

While the spectacle of purportedly Satanic crime undoubtedly propelled black metal into public consciousness, those events were overdetermined by material and cultural circumstances specific to the extreme metal subculture of the time. This moment of crisis and its solution will be referred to here as the “black turn.”

The crisis of this moment may be difficult to retrieve given the ubiquity of black metal in contemporary popular culture. Today, black metal has become de rigueur, extending beyond the subculture, resulting in Grammy-winning albums and spreading into other media, including black metal-themed advertisements, films, and television shows.

In this context, music from or in the style of the older, original recordings addressed in this study is called “true” or “raw” black metal, distinct from the slicker imitations riding its wake.

Less true, derivative, and hybrid styles like symphonic black metal, folk metal, or Cascadian metal developed with and against this lineage.

True black metal bodied forth the sonic signifiers of blackness shared by these later styles; it forms the keystone that establishes audible connections between black metal and other genres.

True black was and is a distinct aesthetic due to its style of recording, which has been one of its least portable aesthetic features (unlike, for example, raspy vocals or repetitive, tremolo-picked guitar melodies). Given this, the dimension of black metal at issue here is its recollection and construction of a certain “raw” sound identified through an immanent critique of extreme metal aesthetics.

The original promise of black metal, in its truest or most raw form, can be summarized as a fundamentalist solution to a crisis of metal heaviness. Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s book ‘Lords of Chaos’ bears witness to this fundamentalism in discussions with Oystein Aarseth, singer for Mayhem (Norway), owner of Helvete, an Oslo record shop, proprietor of the Deathlike Silence Productions, and trendsetter within the Norwegian scene.

Describing the lamentable state of extreme heavy metal in the 1990s, Aarseth declares: “We must take this scene to what it was in the past” (Moynihan and Soderlind 60). Exactly what that past might be, however, is left unstated. Yet such calls to remember the past and its unfulfilled possibilities were the rallying cries of black metal reformists. But where, exactly, was this critical reaction aimed?

In the 1990s, the problem was the hegemony of death metal emerging from the United States. The sound of death metal was, and largely still is, agreed to be the heaviest of all metals, even according to those who are not fans (Berger and Fales 187). Nevertheless, the idea that black metal was conceived and succeeded as a pointed challenge to death metal is widely supported by historians and theorists of heavy metal.

Although metal had once been defined primarily by British and American music, the global network of extreme metal fans had grown significantly by the dawn of the 1990s, at which time there were many more people participating in the subculture as well as many more ways to be heard, thanks to a proliferation of fan magazines and tape trading networks.

The spark of the crisis came from the expansion of the subculture, which changed the dynamics of the global dialogue on metal — especially that part concerned with what makes metal extreme, transgressive, or heavy.

In sum, the subcultural charges against death metal amounted to two points. First, the lyrics: death metal had become more political, focusing on current events rather than on traditional metal matters like fantasy, the occult, or the supernatural. This charge makes sense, considering that a more international audience might care less about American politics and might connect more with fantasy, occult, and supernatural themes.

The second charge, which lies at the heart of the present argument, was against the sound. Death metal had become too baroque, as evidenced by overproduced recordings of music that was unduly complex. The logic behind this latter charge will be addressed in more detail below. But in short, it speaks to Harris Berger’s observation that the history of metal has been one endless search for ever-heavier sounds.

The consensus of the globalising metal subculture of the 1990s was that death metal had exhausted the possibilities for heaviness, reaching the heaviest point imaginable within the current paradigm, a point from which the only response seemed to be to retreat to less heavy terrain. Essentially, the black turn was the alternative to retreat.

Although black metal is ostensibly a music-based movement, most academic studies have concentrated on its politics, imagery, lyrics, and personalities at the expense of focused analyses of the sound of the music itself.

Ross Hagen found that “Provocative as these [academic] works may be, they tend to avoid engaging the music beyond broadly descriptive terms such as ‘heavy’ or ‘brutal’.”

Hagen’s work significantly contributed to understanding the music, primarily through its analysis of black metal composition and guitar techniques, which noted that, “‘heaviness’ in black metal has been divorced somewhat from its associations with low frequencies and has instead become associated with harshness and timbral density.”

He went on to characterise the “true” black sound as “lo-fi” and “low-budget,” the antithesis of what American death metal had become.

The present study supports the notion of black metal as a rejection of dominant production values by examining discourses concerning the recollection and use of recordings as raw materials for the subcultural memory-work entailed in warranting this sound. Recollection is a particular modality of memory-work, which “concerns our present efforts to evoke the past.

It is the moment of memory with which we consciously reconstruct images of the past in the selective way that suits the needs of our present situation” (Hutton xxi). Moreover, because memory can become remarkably pliable under the strain of crisis, the crisis and controversy of metal heaviness in the 1990s makes for an ideal point from which to observe recollection at work.

Further, as will be shown, when analysing recordings, this memory-work should primarily be seen as a recollection, a gathering again of historical materials motivated by a present need to recall the past.

This harmonises with Dick Hebdige’s theory, postulating that the “raw materials” of subcultures are both material and ideological, and that “[e]ach subcultural ‘instance’ represents a ‘solution’ to a specific set of circumstances, to particular problems and contradictions”. However, whereas Hebdige’s work emphasised the ways subcultures offer localised solutions to broader social problems, the black turn focused on the life of a subcultural aesthetic vis-`a-vis its own internal problems and contradictions.

To observe the ways in which recollection shapes subculture, one has to contend with the ways in which recordings operate as intertexts upon which intragroup memory works. Drawing from Julia Kristeva, Jeannette Marie Mageo explained that, “[i]ntertexts comprise the resources of intragroup memory”.

From the recollection of these intertexts, something like a language forms and is used to constitute intragroup identity as such (Mageo 13–14). But to the extent that there is an extreme metal language, it is a very unstable one.

Keith Kahn-Harris defined “extreme” metal as that which pursues all manner of transgression. In light of this, he found that the problem with pursuing a program of transgression is a resulting tendency toward instability. For the most part, this is not a bad thing. It is the aesthetic engine of all music genres. However, this also means that subcultures are perpetually in crisis.

Likewise, Deena Weinstein identified this problem, and found that the process of strategically constructing a shared subcultural past resembles the Protestant Reformation: “Both movements [thrash metal and Protestantism] charged that the established form had become corrupt through extravagance and both supported a return to the essential message, stripped bare of all adornment”.

Though Weinstein was analysing an earlier era of 1980s thrash reformism, which would lead to 1990s death metal, the black turn exhibits the same counter-hegemonic motion and demands the same solution: a rehabilitation of the present through a revival of past values. The black turn was a fundamentalist movement appealing to and drawing from the raw materials of history to imagine and create a metal blacker than death.

In most accounts of the black turn, two key matters are often muddled: the origin of the name “black metal” and the origin of the genre of music associated with the name. They are related, but not necessarily so.

To suppose that there is a history of black metal as a genre prior to the 1990s is already to share in the recollection created by the black turn. That is, the (pre)history of black metal was constituted retroactively. This is why Baddeley refers to it as the “genre that never was”. Note, however, that the claim is that it never was, but that there is no doubt that it now is.

Solving present problems with past materials, material and ideological, affects collective memory, thereby creating a new past.

For the black turn, recordings served as polyvalent intertexts, doing more than preserving the past; they also provided the material with and through which the intragroup’s past was (re)constructed via new vectors of power.

While the aim of this article is to address the recollection of recordings deployed in the black turn, it is first necessary to understand how the black metal moniker and its attending ideology became articulated by a signature sound, since it was under this banner that new interpretations of the extreme metal canon were validated.

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