The insistent ignobility of fun finds nobility through the lens of black metal?

Conventionally conceived, fun is a life affirming disposition that takes hold of people when partaking in certain activities, it is associated with smiling, laughing, socialising, colour, activity, and sharing. Black metal is a subset of extreme metal music, dark, fast, depressive, atmospheric, preoccupied with the occult, sometimes satanic, sometimes pagan, unlike its cousin death metal it seeks a meaning beyond the certainty of death. If it were a conscious entity, black metal would remain convinced that all the conveniences and benefits of modern life do not address deeper questions posed by the restless human spirit, conveniences that smother our urge to seek a more profound connection with the universe in which we find ourselves, beyond the plastic landscapes and disposable pastimes offered by modernity as compensation for the removal of this connection with all the nourishments of life. We find ourselves unable to criticise this system at a fundamental level because that same system has cured disease, extended human life, created boundless leisure time, supplied food in abundance untold, and granted all the necessities of life at our fingertips. The hidden contract of modernity requires that we accept the failures of a system that to some provides prosperity unknown in history, while others are left destitute. It asks that we ignore the cost that the normalisation of such high living standards places on the planet and half its population. It asks that we ignore the guilt felt by the individual when they know deep down the discontentment they still experience with their lot, but remain unsure of the reason, given they are part of the chosen few throughout history that have known such unprecedented ease.

Black metal, at its best, is a search for an answer to some of these questions, a search for solace and meaning beyond the disquiet of the prosperous. So it seems throughout its history, that its relationship to fun would be at best adversarial, at worst downright hostile. The Norwegian scene made a point of taking their music more seriously than than the average contemporary musical endeavour, viewing the international death metal scene of the late 1980s as a fashionable trend, plagued by tracksuit wearing ‘dudes next door’. The famous ‘No Mosh, No Core, No Trends, No Fun’ mantra of Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence record label speaks for itself. Varg, in attempting to disparage the work of Euronymous and Mayhem in a later interview described their infamous ‘Deathcrush’ EP as ‘Funcore’, implying that fun in black metal is a detriment, without need of further qualification. But it should not be forgotten that while many of the originators of the art-form were committing acts of torture, self-harm and suicide, homicide and arson, Immortal were running around in the woods making the video for ‘Call of the Wintermoon’ . Indeed, any study of fun in black would be forced to start with Immortal based on video footage and photo shoots alone, quite aside from the many comedic interviews Abbath has given over the years.

Immortal have been walking the line between self-parody and fun metal band since their inception. They remain an enigma simply because there is a consensus among fans that their early output is required listening for any black metal fan worth her salt, ‘Pure Holocaust’ and ‘Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism’ regularly making best-of lists, and while their later output may be closer to beer swilling thrash, ‘Sons of Northern Darkness’ remains a fan favourite, with ‘Tyrants’ and the title track being fixed points in any Immortal set. This line between humour and musical credibility has served Abbath well over the years, who has now gone solo after a legal dispute with former bandmates. His stage banter, iconic ‘demon war-paint’, lyrics and choice of artwork all portray a good humoured barbarian, ready for battle, celebrating mortality and war, all with the comedy-as-defence stoicism of the warrior.

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Abbath

So much for Abbath, but what of more subtle notions of fun? At this point it wouldn’t be untoward to briefly explain my complex relationship with the thing, because it was an experience akin to fun that possessed me while listening to Verneror, an Italian black metal outfit on the black side of blackened death metal. A good friend of mine once told me that ‘fun hates people that don’t have it’. In a mere seven words, this perfect distillation of language manages to couch within it the apprehension many people feel when forced into situations and activities traditionally considered fun, and the anxiety felt when this apprehension is discovered by the fun-havers. It also perfectly encapsulates the vigilance shown by the fun-havers when they patrol the borders of the experience, ensuring that everyone involved is doing so with apparent enthusiasm. Woe betide those standing on the side of the dance floor, not participating in the game, or declining the invitation to go ice-skating. I guess the point I’m driving at is that my preference for certain activities over apparently life affirming ways to spend leisure time is taken by many to be anti-fun. But I am firmly of the opinion that fun is a bi-product of all the activities I would favour over others that claim fun as their end. It’s not that I wish to dictate approved forms of fun over others; it’s more that certain people, with certain habits, when faced with certain activities…they just change, and become religiously wedded to the activity and the fruits of fun it is sure to bear, and insistent that others do the same with never wavering enthusiasm. This is something dreaded by those not possessed by the same all-encompassing revelry. Without wanting to go into a full blown philosophical discussion on such an intangible concept, I would simply say that my caution towards activities widely held to be fun stems from the oft forgotten mantra that ‘fun sort for is fun never gained’.

But it was while listening to Venorer that another thought occurred to me. What of fun as a gateway to other mental habitations? Venorer are not particularly original, they’re not particularly imaginative, sitting somewhere between the Swedish school of melodic blackened death metal exemplified by Dissection, Sacramentum and Dawn, and the urgent riff-salad style exemplified by Holland’s Cirith Gorgor. So with all this derivation in mind I was trying to work out why I was enjoying their music beyond its warrant. The answer was fun. This is energetic black metal. The riffs are injected with breaths of colour and life; they bounce along on top of varied drum fills and tempos. In short, the musicians sound like they are having fun in the process of making black metal, and in turn it is possible, if caught at the right time and mood, for the listener to have fun as well. This is a feat even Immortal did not achieve until their fifth album ‘At the Heart of Winter’. This got me to thinking what other artists within black metal have achieved this, and more interestingly, why?

Here I find it necessary to cut an even thinner slice of the conceptual pie and draw a distinction between fun and a sense of humour. Although these two slices are in the same segment of the pie, they are neighbours not kin. Early Immortal had a sense of humour, but ‘Pure Holocuast’ and ‘Battles in the North’ are not fun albums. We all know with painful familiarity the pitfalls that abound when a black metal band embraces the notion of humour full in the face, often at the cost of any hint of artistic quality as the circus comes to town. No, fun is a slipperier element to pin down, but one certainly knows when it’s being experienced, and when it is not.

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Veneror

Beyond the extreme aggression shown by many black metal fans online, and their reputation for taking things more seriously than bemused outsiders would ever have believed possible for what is pretty much just music(?!), beyond all this there is actually a massively under talked about disposition for fun within the scene. Vreid would be an obvious candidate, but along with later Satyricon and other black ‘n’ roll outfits many would argue that the music just isn’t very compelling, and the reason for this is the sacrifice of artistic creativity at the altar of fun. Black ‘n’ roll is music that attempts to posit the idea of fun in the mind of the listener first and foremost, the fun of the musicians themselves is left to the imagination. This is the reason for the fixation on Immortal, which manages to walk that subtle line between intellectually compelling music in its own right whilst also being fun, take it too far the other way and it slips into banal entertainment.

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Banal entertainment

The reason why I’m being so pedantic about the perils of OD-ing on fun to the point of detracting from something called art, is simply because if black metal is to fulfil its earlier stated purpose of addressing the restless human spirit in its intractable dissatisfaction with all the conveniences of modern life, then fun has an important role to play. To find something fun is to find something stimulating enough that one wishes to persist in the activity, if the sensation is stimulating enough it will occupy the mind for a prolonged period of time. The mind will find pleasure in the mere anticipation of experiencing it again in the future, and take gratification from the memory of its occurrence in the past. For this reason it is the first step to a more profound experience, something that in the past one would liken to a religious or spiritual awakening but which modern humanity is trying to confront head on without the use of imaginary friends, and is thus propping up art in all its various forms as the worthy successor. If one experiences art as fun initially the way into this intangible spiritual level will be smoother and easier, but not impossible if fun is lacking. Lively black metal, with stimulating riffs, cues taken from baroque countermelodies, medieval folk rhythms, imbued with colour and life, is an easier world to enter than discordant noise. Art alone does not plug all the gaps of discontent where religion often proved capable however; one reason for this is the communal nature of many religious journeys. The knowledge that others are sharing in the voyage into eternity, in a community, enhances the experience. The social nature of humanity serves many purposes, but it also demands much reaffirmation, shared experience of the Aether is one of the ways this is achieved.

While that last paragraph may have drifted into the realm of shambolic verbal masturbation for just a fraction longer than I am comfortable with, let’s try and bring it back down to the tangible by way of examples. While I was writing the above I was thinking of the Tolkein inspired black metal of Summoning, with its childlike deification of the hero, the tale, the epic. What fun can be found in the music of Summoning is subtler, more embedded within the listening experience than that of black ‘n’ roll, but ultimately more rewarding. While I was writing the above I was thinking of the medievalist black metal of Obsequiae, with its melody, counter melody, its almost danceable rhythms, and frequent yet tasteful major keys, all of which amounts to nothing short of life affirming black metal. While I was writing the above I was thinking of the colour and life of Nokturnal Mortum’s ‘The Voice of Steel’, with its layered use of guitars, keyboards, folk instruments, and chants, its homages to Pink Floyd worked subtly into melodic black metal riffcraft and energetic yet not overbearing drums. I was thinking of Sacramentum’s ‘Far Away From the Sun’, with its breathtakingly fast tempos under a myriad of sweeping riffs exemplifying the tradition of romanticism in music. I was thinking of Winterfyllth’s galloping blastbeats beneath songs of heritage and nature. I was thinking of Abigor’s symphonic yet chaotic take on the form, ever churning riffcraft, tempo and mood, stimulating yet not overbearing. And I was thinking of primitive aggressive black metal so over the top yet difficult to resist when caught in the right context such as Impaled Nazarene, Blasphemy, and Antaeus.

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These are examples of the degree and kind of fun that was called to mind when I first directed my attention to the question of fun in this most anti-fun of musics. There will be many more one could mention, but no doubt any discussion with others would seep into ultra-subjective notions of quality and experience, the definition of fun, and the influence of external factors in one’s life unrelated to the music itself.

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