Like many oxygen breathing bipeds, if asked I would be ready and willing to offer a list of words that best describe my defining characteristics. For myself these words would generally pivot around analysis, hesitation, overthinking, over-boiling thoughts, and an all out failure to adopt anything with conviction through fear that I’ve got it wrong, that I’ve missed something, and that I’ll come a cropper under the scrutiny of others when going public with my commitment to anything. When you have adopted an identity, whatever it may be, you are exposed to the scrutiny of others on the exterior of that identity, and the fear of having missed some glaringly obvious flaw in your chosen philosophy is often enough to deter complete commitment to anything, big or small. If you’ll grant me license to speak like a superior tit for all of the moments to come, I would say that this often makes me envious of those that can commit to something with feeling, without fear of how it looks to others, and without doubts that there is any degree of failure, irony, or self-awareness raising its ugly yet hesitant head.
Therein lies but one element of heavy metal’s appeal for one such as myself. To put it another way, you get a lot of Iron Maiden for every minute of your time that you spend listening to an Iron Maiden track. But the door to unmitigated and comedic failure is just left of the door leading to the rarefied atmosphere of profound artistic experience. Everything has its price, the risk of failure is high when you play with the fire of heavy metal, but the rewards for those who get it right are far more bountiful than less risky, more middle of the road pursuits. The line is blurry of course; one person’s abject failure is another person’s communion with eternity. I’m not going to write about my take on where the line should be, but I am going to write under the assumption that there is a line
Whether it’s black metal artists lavishing their guitar tones with too much reverb, expressing themselves at the very highest end of the distorted vocal range, and donning corpse paint, spikes and leather. Or if its progressive metal artists trying to navigate the very limits of what musicians can achieve in technicality, whilst delivering falsetto vocals designed to sit appropriately somewhere in the music’s midst. Or whether it’s death metal artists aiming at the most shocking lyrics possible, delivered in the most otherworldly guttural vocals possible, over a complex plethora of power chords and time signatures. Or whether it’s more classic metal acts, exaggerating all the virtuosity and pomposity of their heavy rock cousins, but adding spikes, leather, neoclassical leanings, and childish enthusiasm. The common thread running through all this is a complete commitment to something many outsiders would deem as funny at best, frankly ridiculous at worst. Metal’s distrust of mainstream media is in part due to the relentless mockery it has received over the years, because on these terms it is in an easy target. When it is not a danger to young and impressionable minds, it is simply a joke, lacking appeal beyond the young male demographic who are in urgent need of maturity.
I once played Impaled Nazarene’s Goat Perversion to a close friend of mine, one whose opinion in such matters I respect, a sympathetic outsider if you will. He described it as the campest thing he had ever heard. The level of extremity, coupled with presentation and lyrics that say what they do without once winking in ironic reassurance to its audience, seamlessly walking the line between genuine ritualistic extremity and full throttle camp self-parody. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics:
Sodomize thru the night – who has killed the fucking light
What the fuck do you expect to see
When Jesus lying naked in front of me
Goat in pain – the satanic reign
Who has killed the fucking light,
Who has killed the fucking light, huh?
You are all doomed to misery, So fuck some goat corpses in praise of me
Does the vocalist really believe that fucking goat corpses in praise of him will alleviate the anxiety caused by being doomed to misery? It’ certainly declared with conviction, but we are given few clues to ascertain the truth. More importantly, how could anyone listen to this with a straight face? The answer, of course, is state of mind. I have had many moments of quickly snuffed self-awareness when engaging with metal, but at worst they only serve to vaguely blunt my enthusiasm for this music. In moments of true conviction, the sonic traveler is rewarded with experiences that negate experience, in which self is forgotten in a cosmic moment, of solitude, of aggression, of unity with fellow travelers, of intensity, of cavernous transcendence.
The stakes are even higher when artists call upon metal’s sister genres for influence. Progressive rock and various forms of folk music are often cited as important sources of inspiration for many metal musicians. As any fan of folk and progressive rock – when these styles are consumed neat – will know, they are no strangers to the no man’s land between art and ridicule. When a black metal band, or a metal band of any stripe, looks to these musics for inspiration to blend with metal stylings, the opportunities for ridicule increase exponentially.
Some artists embrace this comedic element, the thinking being that if you can’t beat them, join them. They are also rewarded along the way with a pretty penny for their efforts. Bands like Alestorm, Tuerisas, and Finntroll all being examples of this. There are also those that have taken their style and image to such an extreme that they do the parodying so lesser minds don’t have to. Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Abbath, and Behemoth would be high profile examples of this. Rather than become totally embroiled in a sonic landscape completely alien and barely credible to even the most vigilant observer, they give more than a sideways out of character nod to the alter of self-awareness. For myself, therein lies the limits in the appeal of such acts. The carnival of elaborate costumes, dramatic music, flamboyant stage personas, big budget music videos…for all the musicianship and composition they can try to mash together in this melting pot of a cabaret, it does not feel intuitive, it does not feel creative. Rather it feels like a colour by numbers business born in a board room.
So what of those that do not pay lip service to self-awareness, those that do not give us a sideways nod and grin to remind us that it’s all a show? What of acts that would have you believe they mean what they say, and that they want you to take part in the experience? I will immediately block any attempt to argue that these distinctions I am trying to drawamount to no more than having fun or not. The famous ‘no mosh, no core, no fun’ mantra of Deathlike Silence records springs to mind. But fun is not the linchpin of this argument. One can certainly have fun listening to metal. Much as I try, this simply can’t be stopped on occasion. But fun is a happy by-product of more noble pursuits. Iron Maiden are certainly a fun experience, but if fun is all they were their appeal would not have endured for so long and for so many. Even for acts one may wish to argue are fun by metal standards, fans and musicians alike are ultimately seeking something much more profound. Some spiritual connection with those around them, some unity with the cosmos, some sense of primal aggression, if one has fun along the way then all the better.
So when the stars align, either for an individual listening at home, or at a gig where audience and artist find themselves unified in a collective experience of something not of this world, what is it in our present line of discussion that contributes to this experience? Is it simply the fact that with great risk comes great reward? That despite everything, despite every fibre in your being telling you that this should fail on some level, every filter that managing the day to day requires of you, your ability to judge born from the practical need to interact with modern reality, has somehow switched off periodically, and the artist doesn’t fail, and this time, music of colour, light, and magic has been brought forth into the world by the sweat of mental labour on the part of all involved, and its more beautiful than the world of the day to day ever promised you it would be.
It is in these moments that I lose my sense of humour. Outside of these moments I am under no illusion as to how this looks to the person on the exterior looking in. The noise, the costume, the reaction from the audience, and the excess, when not in the moment of bacchanalian revelry I know full well the potential for ridicule, I’d even go so far as to participate in it.
It is at this point that I cannot help but mention a word that I have thus far tried to ignore; I say this in the hope that if I put enough words in front of revealing what this word is you will forgive me for mentioning it at all, the word is hipster. For as long as I have been listening to and reading about metal, some 15 years now, this word has been thrown around as a smear. Its modern usage started in the US, in Brooklyn New York to be precise. It was used to describe a particular stripe of trendy kid who lavished every endeavour they undertook with something called irony. There is plenty of writing online about the phrase itself for you to peruse from google at your leisure however, and almost as much about its relationship to metal, so I won’t delve too heavily into its modern history and definition. At this point the meaning of this word is even harder to define, which may well be a sign that it is finally losing relevance. Everyone has been called a hipster; everyone has called someone a hipster, making it a very pervasive and thus fluid term, hard to pin down, other than this aforementioned vague notion of irony.
I mention this because in the context of metal, the difference between a hipster and other fans is the veil of irony that cloaks them from true dedication to the art form. Much like humour, it is a shield from ridicule. Not through fear of feeling something, but through fear that others might notice that you felt something, and mock as a result. Hipsters – what I more recently have referred to as‘outsiders’ to avoid awkward questions regarding the definition of the term hipster – find a particular pull towards black metal. Indeed, music fans at large well outside the boundaries of extreme metal often find a particular pull to black metal over her sister genres. There are many reasons for this. Thrash metal and death metal have always seemed closer to traditional heavy metal in style and appeal, an appeal which stretches far, but not often beyond the boundaries of readymade metal fans proper. Black metal, with its emphasis on low fi production, the diminished technical ability of the musicians, the punk-like ethos of many of its most prominent acts, and its links with other indie genres, such as ambient, noise, post rock, and folk, does have widespread appeal amongst alternative music aficionados at large. These simple facts do remind me that metalheads are part of a community of music lovers beyond the mainstream, and we have much common ground. However, I have had many conversations with such people, only to find that for them, the harder to swallow elements of black metal pertaining to the theatrical are exactly the things that they could do without; the elements that link it closely on a more general aesthetic level with its sister genres within metal. A disposition for the theatrical, a tendency towards stage personas, lyrics that speak of heroism, the majesty of nature, and war, the very things that put the music in danger of falling into the very comedic artistic failure that has been the subject of this discussion.
It’s not that appreciation for this art is an all or nothing experience, it’s more that if you ignore the more risky elements, the ones that require more commitment, a letting go of the usual barriers of social norms, then the reward is diminished as well. The donning of costume, the ritualistic nature of live events, the onstage personas, the grand pseudo philosophies; these all form part of the makeup of the experience.
At this point it would be interesting to note an example where I find myself on the other side of the fence in terms of pointing out the comedic elements, without affection for the artist diluting the desire to ridicule. During the 00s and 10s there was and still is an influx of bands and artists from the USA who claim influence or close kinship with various forms of extreme metal, or more specifically black metal, but with a more indie music approach. There’s no easier way to say it, but they were labelled hipster black metal. Public enemy number 1 became Liturgy, after an infamous interview for Scion Rock Fest 2010 went viral on youtube. In this video, vocalist and guitarist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix talks of his manifesto called ‘Transcendental Black Metal’. This manifesto is easily found after a quick google search so if you’re interested I suggest you go and read it. Short of colouring your opinion of the poor man by reviewing his essay piece by piece, I would simply say that many people took him to claim that his own music was a declaration of a grand new direction for black metal, as the ultimate direction for extreme metal as a whole, and embracing positivity as a metaphysical force was the way to achieve this. The interview itself goes into these ideas to some extent as well, and it angered a lot of people after this interview was uploaded to youtube. If you picture the scene of a young liberal New Yorker ruminating on pseudo philosophy, and how it relates to the music he loves and the music he wants to make, when all the while his band mates are looking awkwardly into their laps and wait for the ordeal to end, it really is quite amusing.
But again, the problem with this is not necessarily that they do not understand extreme metal, or would have the hubris to claim some grand new declaration of where metal should be heading artistically and philosophically, it’s more that they had the hubris to associate this music with black metal proper at all. If you actually listen to the music of Liturgy, there is certainly black metal technique there, tremolo strumming, blast beats, and harsh vocals. But Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (even the name is its own unique flavour of stage persona) goes so far as to admit that the music is largely improvised, which goes against one of the main tenants of the strictly composed and structured way of constructing black metal, and romanticism that he also cites as an influence. In fact he goes on to say that each time they play a piece live they become more comfortable with it, and then it ‘becomes something really enjoyable to play live’ in the words of drummer Greg Fox. Another word for this is practicing. But let’s allow that this may well be some form of experimental jazz, with a manifesto to justify its existence? This is where we quickly fall into self parody. In fact, if you listen to Liturgy’s latest offering, 2015’s ‘The Art Work’, which is one step further removed from its black metal influences, it could be deemed experimental music proper.
As an aside I would question the meaning of the term experimental music as a label at all simply because all music is experimental to a greater or lesser degree, but at least it saves me from the indignity of calling something avant-garde. But to watch Hunter Hunt-Hendrix speak, to read his manifesto, to listen to the music, he really does the mockery for you. And in this sense, it really does have much in common with extreme metal at large. This potentiality for mockery found therein, this is where I find the kinship with Liturgy, rather than his incomprehensible notion of black metal; the fact that there is a pseudo philosophy behind the music only serves to bring it much closer to the originators of black metal, closer than many fans would be comfortable with.
Of course the more legitimate face of so called ‘hipster black metal’ (can a qualification and scare quotes distance me enough from the usage?) is currently Deafheaven. No strangers to outrage themselves, they attracted a fair bit of it when ‘Sunbather’ was released in 2013. Not only did it have the cheek to be called Sunbather, but the album cover was shocking pink. Once again black metal fans took to the internet and began spitting forth their outrage at the arrogance and pretention of these self proclaimed innovators, daring to fondle the sacred cow’s genitals. And once again the predictable response was how immature and backward looking black metal fans are, afraid of outside influence, afraid of experimenting, afraid of change. Deafheaven themselves, in an intellectual tour-de-force of an interview with metalinjection at the Revolver GoldenGods awards 2014, claimed that they weren’t bothered by the outrage, they were doing their own thing, if people like it great, if not then that’s fine too, oh and pink album covers are striking.
The frustrating thing about such a response is not that it was predictable or unimaginative; more that this really is all that is required to win the high ground in the relentless hysteria black metal fans are prone to. Whereas the simple and obvious truth is that the association of Deafheaven with black metal comes once again from the appropriation of blast beats, harsh vocals, and tremolo strumming. Beyond that, taking composition and music architecture for instance, it is indie music, post rock, or avant-g…experimental, and not a very original brand at that. But in one sense Deafheavn’s happy go lucky attitude makes the hysteria surrounding this act, on both sides, all the more dangerous to the credibility of black metal and music at large, because it is so much harder to mock than Liturgy, so much easier to pass off as genuine.
Does the risk factor of mockery involved in a Liturgy experience mean that ultimately it could be more rewarding than Deafheaven? For some quite possibly; failure is a matter of perspective as mentioned previoulsy. For myself however, the affectionless comedy I approach a Liturgy with is too pervasive to make the experience enjoyable, beyond all the internal politics of hipsters and black metal. What makes art not only fail, but fail in an amusing way? Why does some art succeed when by all the standards we’ve set in answering the first question it should fail? How does metal keep reinventing itself not only as an art form, but one that is forever on the precipice of comedy? Why can some acts get away with an element of comedy and still succeed where others fail? Ultimately, and unfortunately, I must end with a cliché and say that when it comes to comedy, metal’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength.