It was interesting how on first delving into Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness, the new Tom Howells-edited book from Black Dog Publishing, I thought it was something of a mess: a mess of styles and architecture, a jumble of academic long-thinking and the more upfront responses of fanzine writers and scene-riders, people who had been there from the beginning. But having put it down for a few days now, I realise the fault was mine, a symptom of the way black metal (I’m going to resist the urge to follow suit and make it proper noun) has become enshrined and, aesthetically at least, entombed in some cold coffee-table hell. Looking back into my own experience as a listener, what I wanted from black metal was something Other, something remaindered, escaping the neat confines of canonisation and explication. So while there is a case for suggesting the book is a bit on the slight side, what it does achieve in its melding of styles and wide-ranging use of sources is to sidestep the twin curses of pure aestheticisation and legitimation. And, thanks to some fantastic imagery, it restores some of that cold glee – inspired by the power of the iconography, the raw pleasure of the music, and for me anyway, divorced from the horrors of the ‘founding myths’, black metal’s soft camp underbelly.
What any book of this nature has to confront, of course, is precisely the power of those ‘founding myths’: the suicide of Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin, one of the originators of the classic corpsepaint style in 1991; Euronymous opening Helvete, the record shop in Oslo that became a gathering place for the so-called ‘Black Circle’ and the base for the music label Deathlike Silence Productions; the huge number of church arsons (more than 50 over a 4 year period) perpetrated throughout Norway; and the vortex at the centre of everything, Euronymous’s murder at the hands of Varg Vikernes in August 1993. It’s not difficult to see why the events have had such a strong hold on the imagination, but essentially, these events have come to stand for black metal, trapping the genre in a time capsule; they’ve also allowed for propagation of the tired cliches of purity, the yawn-inducing eugenics of genre.
What Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness seeks to do then, is acknowledge but undercut these ‘founding myths’ (what Brandon Stosuy rightly calls a ‘convenient fiction’) by tracing the history beyond this spurious ground zero to Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and beyond to show how numerous bands from different countries contributed to the shape and form of black metal as we know it today. Nathan T. Birk’s piece ‘South of Helvete (And East of Eden)’ is exemplary in referencing Helvete but goes on to show how the Greek, Romanian and Polish death and black metal scenes were equally as fecund and influential in forging the black metal sound. Capsule pieces on the likes of Russian band Skyforger contribute to this gradual widening of the scope of the scene.
The book also does a good job of focusing on the current scene – particularly the burgeoning US black metal scene (USBM) which has exploded in the last few years, and contains some of the most experimental and downright exciting music being produced at the moment. Brandon Stosuy’s pieces ‘A Blaze in the North American Sky’ (formerly printed in Believer magazine) and the excerpts from his forthcoming oral history of black metal, both trace the scene’s history. In essence, the rise of USBM is part of an old American story – the allure of the frontier, and the primal power of the landscape. It could also be said to have something to do with a continuing need to identify with and sever ties with the older histories of Europe – part of the reason why the USBM ‘sound’ is at once recognisably black metal and yet something other and hugely powerful in its own right.
Liturgy guitarist and vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essay, ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’ (also a re-print), a piece which has received an astounding amount of interest and downright hatred (I’ll come back to why), makes this link between the old and the new explicit. It’s both a eulogy and a manifesto, an acknowledgement that the old style – with all its attendant encumbrances – is a sonic and aesthetic dead end that needed updating or else forever remain a historical curio. Hunt-Hendrix characterises the old style, epitomised by the Dark Throne album Transylvanian Hunger, as ‘Pure Black Metal’ which for him means “continuous open strumming and a continuous blast beat… no articulated fugues, no beginning, no end, no pauses, no dynamic range.” He focuses on the juddering upthrust of the blast beat, part of black metal’s DNA, and gave it a new focus and technique, calling it the burst beat – the fount of the new transcendental black metal, “the re-animation of the form of Black with a new soul, a soul full of chaos, frenzy and ecstasy. A specifically American joyful clamour which also a tremor.” Cod-Nietzschean aphorisms aside, Hunt-Hendrix was essentially right – the form did need a new injection of life; and what’s been happening in the US since, roughly, the release of Weakling’s Dead as Dreams in 2000, has been a revelation. Bands such Xasthur, Botanist, Wolves in the Throne Room, Ash Borer, Leviathan and Panopticon are doing pretty remarkable things with the form, pushing it and stretching it out to its limits to see what might be possible. There’s also a genuine connection to the land with several of these acts, and not in any dumb nationalistic sense; instead, particularly with WITTR and to a lesser extent, Botanist and Panopticon, the focus is on ecology and the wasting effect modernity has had on the landscape.
Hunt-Hendrix’s piece was originally part of a 2009 symposium on black metal called Hideous Gnosis (which also became a book with the same title), the first gathering of academics with an interest in the genre. It’s since become an annual event and there are various other symposiums and publications that examine black metal from a theoretical standpoint. I guess understandably it’s a relationship that doesn’t sit well with regular fans (particularly the hardline kvlt-ists) who see it as an appropriation, not to mention a cerebralising of something that is, at root, visceral and primal. The inclusion of the Hunt-Hendrix piece here (and, to a lesser extent, those of Nicola Masciandaro and Diarmuid Hester), alongside the grungier efforts of scene stalwarts such as Jon Kristiansen, do have a strange juxtaposing quality, but I don’t think its alienating. It just shows the breadth of interest; and, just as importantly, the breadth of possible responses.
That last point may be the life and death of black metal – as long as it maintains the sheer amount of imaginative real estate it currently occupies then you have to foresee a healthy future. And black metal is oddly empowering in its way, mirrored in the ersatz warlike stances of the musicians and fans, plus that odd convulsive clenching it engenders, the pulses of emotion and energy. Nick Richardson’s essay, probably the best in the book, suggests the the genre’s longevity might be down its mask-like qualities, its ability to be both hiding place and a kind of literal makeup, affective warpaint with which to face the world. So it is with this mask-like doubling quality that black metal is simultaneously a nakedly aggressive attitude and a primal, sylvan refuge; a place for the dark arts of self-discovery and the simple pleasures of the most grotesque of pantomimes.
Black metal and Spotify seem like odd bed partners, but so it goes. Below is a selection of some of black metal’s finest, in a roughly chronological order. Enjoy.