Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Riding the Black Wave: Black Metal as Dystopia

Okay, so this thing is huge. I explored the links between dystopic narrative and black metal, and in the process examine cyberpunk literature, Dadaist art, and the history/origins of black metal. Again: its fucking huge, so be warned. It got an A. Also - forgive the formatting. Blogger sucks at doing tabs.

During the early 1990’s, a series of musicians would emerge from Norway bearing a new breed of heavy metal that represented a direct antithesis to Christian morality, and would create a thematic rhetoric that would simultaneously isolate them from and unite them with other underground, music-based social spheres that were attempting to fight against the various social power structures that they found themselves in. Although they were musically, thematically, and presentationally substantially different from other underground, music-based movements, early Norwegian black metal nonetheless shared a series of important connections to the early punk-rock, industrial and literary movements in America during the 20th century - specifically, that they were all forms of extra-literal dystopic narrative.

Although dystopic narrative is generally reserved to the world of literature, this form of narrative is not necessarily the exclusive domain of literature. In order to establish black metal as a form of dystopic narrative, a series of definitions and examples must first be examined, as the connection between dystopic narrative and black metal is anything but readily apparent. First, dystopic narrative must be defined; as this is a more complicated concept than a paragraph, or indeed several pages could encapsulate, several pieces of literature will be examined so that specific attributes of dystopic narratives can be culled for application outside of the literary world. Second, it must be established that dystopic narrative is not exclusive to film or literature; this will be done, chiefly, by examining the work of Karen Collins in Dead Channel Surfing, who draws a series of connections from dystopic literature to the Dada art movement, and then to early, and even modern, industrial music as being a form of extra-literal dystopic narrative.

Towards a Definition of Dystopic Narrative

One of the key components in dystopic narrative is the othering of either the individual, either through the rejection of an individual by society, or the rejection of a community of people by society at large. Generally, this rejection is rooted in lifestyle choice and personal preference and not the result of forces outside of control of the individual; that is to say, in dystopic narrative, mode of dress and philosophy are more likely to be an ostracizing element than genetic predispositions such as ethnicity. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, for example, the protagonist becomes involved with a group of Zionist rastafarians inhabiting a derelict space station, built and maintained by the group alone, and exists, for the most part, outside of society. Although they are a racial minority - Africans - in the future world of Neuromancer, they have not been rejected specifically as such - rather, they have chosen to live outside of the confines of normal society where they may practice their chosen lifestyle without interference from the world at large.

The Zionist Rastafarians of Neuromancer also speak to a secondary, but still important, aspect of dystopic narrative. As a collective group, the Rastafarians either eschew or are barred from (financially or politically) the highest levels of modern technology, instead using equipment that is at least a generation older than what is considered to be modern. Their only experience with cutting-edge technology takes place as Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, becomes involved with them in his attempts to free the AI-construct Wintermute - which requires of them a relative integration with a high level of technology. A meeting of the two levels of technology occur when Case and a Rastafarian, Malcolm, enter the location of the novel’s final confrontation; a gigantic, corporate complex situated at the pinnacle of a massive, orbital space station. Case, a hacker, comes armed with his well-trained mind and his deck - his portable computer console/hacking device - and Malcolm, true to Rastafarian form, comes armed with a sawn-off shotgun. This meeting of wildly differing levels of technology is common in dystopic narrative, particularly in that of the cyberpunk sub-genre.

Although their actual reasons for remaining low-tech are unstated in the novel, it runs an interesting parallel to another work of fiction inspired by William Gibson. In the film Johnny Mnemonic, the protagonist, Johnny, finds himself in league with a group of social and political outcasts called the Lo-teks, whom share with the Rastafarians a rejection of modern technology, although for what are clearly-stated political reasons. They adamantly refuse to embrace modern technology, and use it only when it can be employed to attack the dominant power structure. For example, the group, instead of using the wide selection of firearms that were presumably available, has chosen instead to arm themselves with crossbows and the remixing of media; in describing their method of militant action, J-Bone, leader of the Lo-teks, says “This is where we fight back. We strip the little pretty pictures from their five-hundred channel universe, recontextualise it, then we spit that shit back out.”(Johnny Mnemonic) This came in the form of making political messages via a mass-broadcast anti-power structure messages, created from a hodge-podge of media that has been fed to the citizens, and serves the film and short story’s version of a theme found in much dystopic literature, as defined by Collins in Dead Channel Surfing; that there often is a resistance.
“...the socio-economic system of the West will lead to an apocalypse. The apocalypse will lead to, or be caused by, a tolatarian elite controlling the masses through technology, which brings about the need for resistance, usually led by an ousider-hero.” (Collins p. 171)
These themes, including the rejection of modern technology/the embracing of cast-off technology and the alienation/othering of groups and individuals - are, according to Collins, “inherent in nearly all dystopias.” (Collins p.171) There is yet another theme that another writer suggests is critical in dystopic narrative; that in order for a dystopic narrative to be plausible, it must take place outside, either physically or temporally, from the location of the author (Phillips p.190). This aspect, although not picked up by Collins, is present in most, if not all, dystopic narrative; those that do not take place in the future take place in a location outside of the here and now. Further, that these settings are, if possible, to fled from; “Dystopias are negative utopias, images of a future so terribly imperfect that, given a chance, people would prefer to flee as far as their wherewithal can possibly take them.” (Williams p.384)

While dystopic narratives often carry the above collection of themes, they are not necessarily always present, or can be present instead in metaphoric terms, and often the level of emphasis given to each theme varies from work to work. In order to examine how each of these themes functions outside of the confines of the literary world, the remainder of them - the outsider hero/anti-hero, the totalitarian social/political control group, and the ‘extraordinary journey’ required to enter into a dystopic setting - must be examined in further detail.

The anti-hero has become all-but tradition in dystopic narrative. Instead of the gun-toting, self-righteous hero found often in storytelling, the anti-hero is rather a protagonist because he has to be, not because he wants to be. To return to Neuromancer, the protagonist, Case, is working for Armitage - and through Armitage, the artificial intelligence construct Wintermute - not because he wants to, but because he has to. Due to a botched thieving operation several years before the novel begins, Case was surgically barred from being able to access cyberspace (a term coined in Neuromancer that means more or less the Internet) - no small punishment for a hacker that relied on cyberspace access to earn his way. For payment for a hacking operation that was financed and run by Armitage - the novel’s sort-of antagonist - has Case’s hacking capacity surgically restored, which establishes a debt to Armitage and, through Armitage, Wintermute. He also has a series of toxin sacs sewn into Case’s body, and warns the hacker that if he fails in the operation, or evades the completion of it, then the toxin sacs will dissolve and kill Case. Armitage, having the chemical compound that will safely break down the toxin sacs and dissolve them harmlessly, has sufficient leverage over Case to compel him to complete the mission.

In a way, this also touches on another element of dystopic narrative; that there isn’t necessarily a protagonist or a hero, despite what Collins may suggest. Although Neuromancer follows Case in exclusivity, one only begins to sympathize with him due to time spent with his thoughts and actions - not necessarily because one agrees with them. His motives are never defined or driven by or through altruism, and indeed the most elated the reader ever sees Case is when he manages to find a particularly intense form of narcotic stimulant and is high for the first time in many weeks. One cannot sympathize with Wintermute, whom is orchestrating the vast majority of the novel - although his motives never seem to quite be hostile towards anyone in particular, they are never defined as being benign, or even as anything at all - they simply are, and tend to exist outside of sympathy. This will later be mirrored by black metal artists; although it is easy to understand the plight of their situation, being at the whim of a society that does not and cannot accept them, it is difficult, at least for most people, to sympathize with their goals.
Case finds himself compelled to achieve the goals of those with power over him, further alienating and othering what is seen as the protagonist due to the inherent imbalance of power. This is meant, often, as an indictment of the power structure at large; the methods used to compel characters in dystopic novels range from the relatively benign, like removing one’s capacity to profit in a capitalistic system, to cruel and barbaric, like the Big Brother-branded fascism that forces the hand of 1984’s Winston Smith - but they are never desirable, especially from characters that want merely to be left alone.

Were these characters let alone, however, then the conflict of a dystopic narrative - and thereby the actual story of the narrative - would not be present. These conflicts most often arise as a result of actions by some fashion of large, omnipresent, and often fascist state or corporate entity that has a great deal of control over the people and characters of a dystopic narrative. In Neuromancer, this occurs in layers; firstly, with Armitage, whom has a direct mechanism for controlling Case - his life. Secondly, with Wintermute, whom controls Case both indirectly, through Armitage, whom Wintermute has been manipulating for years preceding the novel, and directly, by speaking to Case and appearing to him in cyberspace. Thirdly, through the Tessier-Ashpool Coroporation, the massive corporate entity that initially engineered Wintermute and whom the plot ultimately revolves around, and to a lesser extent, the various governmental entities that work against Case as he attempts to free Wintermute.

Although dystopian narratives are often extrapolated nightmares of various technological and social aspects of the present day in the real world, they are, as Williams said, never a place one would choose to visit willingly. Thankfully, aside from extra-literal representations of dystopic narratives like Dadaist art and industrial/black metal music, these dystopias cannot be accessed by we people of the real world. Or can they?

A dystopic world, almost by definition, cannot be found in reality (although this will be explored further later), and indeed is only accessible through something of an extraordinary journey. Often, these take place in the realm of science fiction, requiring a mental journey through time to a relatively technologically advanced age, or to an extra-terrestrial location not readily, or easily, accessible by the people of the real world. Although the government behind 1984’s Big Brother would be seen as somewhat dated by the standards of modern technology, it nonetheless exists in a world much further entrenched with telescreens and mass-communication methods - and therefore control methods - than our own. The technological hellscape of Neuromancer can only be accessed through similar means. Sometimes, however, reality serves as an ideal setting for a dystopic nightmare.

In Richard Phillips’ Dystopian Space in Colonial Representations and Interventions: Sierra Leone as ‘The White Man’s Grave,’ he lays the groundwork for the west African nation as being a real-world dystopia. Initially regarded in the colonialized world as an utopic vision of the future of inter-racial communities, Sierra Leone was among the primary locations of English colonials and freed slaves after 1808. However, the true nature of the colony-cum-nation soon emerged: the bi-racial and black community was almost immediately shunned to the back sections of local culture and barred from any sort of public office, the fragile state of Anglo-Saxon health was ravaged by malaria and poor sanitary conditions, and the colony was reachable only via a long and difficult sea voyage. (Phillips 190-191)

“Like other dystopias, Sierra Leone was constructed as a fallen, failed or inverted utopia. Early writers, in particular, recalled the colony’s utopian ideals (as a home for poor blacks and emancipated slaves, and a place for the advancement of black and mixed-race peoples), and explicitly or implicitly claimed that these ideals failed to deliver. ... [Equiano ((how do I cite this?))] concluded that the utopian project, ‘humane and politic in its design,’ had proved ‘unfortunate in the event’ “ (Phillips p. 193)

Although eventually receiving independence, Sierra Leone initially received it’s directives from England - removing power from the local community, both white and black, and enforcing a sense of alienation from the homeland. That it was so far away almost ensured that it would be quite late in receiving technological advances found throughout much of the “civilized” world, speaking to the technocolonialisation of the region. Finally, the absolute alienation of ethnic minorities in the region ensured that at least one group - the ethnic minority of the ‘civilized’ world, typically - would forever be outside of the prevailing power structure, othering and alienating them permanently.

Mention of this real-world dystopia - the Sierra Leone of the 19th century - is important because it establishes that fiction is not required for dystopia. It asserts that not only do real-world events and situations generate ideas and concepts concerning dystopian narratives, but they themselves can be dystopian narratives. With this in mind, the establishment of other forms of dystopian narratives - chiefly, those of music and art - can be examined.
Extra-Fictional Dystopias: Music and Art as Dystopic Narratives
Can a theme be conveyed in a piece of art without a narrator, or even without characters? Is the intentional hand of an author critical to the establishment of dystopic narratives? Similar to how a fictional element, like dystopia, can be found in the real world, it can also be found outside of the printed, screened, and acted media. Certain elements of dystopian themes have arisen in a variety of mediums over the last century, like the rabidly anti-consumerist artform of dada, or the techno-futurist form of music known as industrial.

According to Collins, “The dadas were keen to expose the dangers of the growing technologisation of society. ... [They] sought to confound the Futurists’ metronomical sense of rational order with chance, ‘unreason,’ illogical nonsense, and a mimicry of automatism which allowed the subconscious (the irrational) to take over.” (Collins p.167) Dadaism, and indeed much of the art of the 20th century, was fixated on broken and distorted imagery, using collages and blatantly anti-consumerist imagery to relay their message. In a study for the New York Graphic Society, Katherine Kuh observed that much of the art over the last century “has been characterized by shattered surfaces, broken color, segmented compositions, dissolving forms, and shredded images.” (Kuh p.11))

These descriptions of the art of the 20th century, that they are fragmented and distorted visions of reality, are dystopic even in their capacity to alienate themselves and their benefactors, share much in common with the relatively new form of electronic music called industrial. Industrial music is typically accredited with originating as a form of dadaist performance art, in which the droning of machines and the use of other industrial objects were used as set pieces;
“Industrial artists such as Einsturzende Neubauten have used instruments that include air ducts, glass, passing trains, ventilation shafts, a shopping cart, jet turbines, pneumatic pistons and various mechanical tools, among many other unconventional sound-making devices. Similarly, other industrial artists create music by using instruments that were recycled, stolen or discarded. At the time of the birth of the industrial genre in the late 1970s, these instruments were sometimes held by artists and fans to represent anti-consumerist technology ... These artists used whatever material was available to them in order to create the music, using found sound and were therefore maintaining what was widely perceived by fans as a highly experimental and anti-consumerist style.” (Collins p.172)
By establishing themselves as anti-consumerist and therefore anti-mainstream culture, through both lyrical themes and by what Collins’ refers to as ‘found sound,’ the industrial and Dadaist artists have willingly ostracized themselves, pushing their message, music and even selves to the fringes of modern culture. This, combined with an obsession with both high-tech and low-tech sounds and a heavy use of the “robotic” voice, and lyrical themes that will be examined briefly, pushed industrial music well into dystopic narrative territory.

Industrial music often uses heavily-distorted vocal tracks to deliver lyrics, preferring a mechanized, “robotic” voice, which helps to further symbolize the artists’ alienation from society. They also speak to the homogenization of man and machine, something widely feared and spoken of in both dystopic literature and artwork. Skinny Puppy, an early industrial band from Canada, has become widely known for their heavy use of the Vocoder (a voice synthesization device) in attempt to sound less human. The robot voice was chosen, according to Brian Aldiss, because:
“The robot is (generally) to be pitied. The robot is in many ways a shadow of ourselves ... Robots are generally solitary since they represent outsiders or antiheroes in human society ... Robots are lonely people because they exemplify current isolations from our industrial society. (Aldiss, p. 3ff)
Lyrically, industrial music often involves themes of empiricism, capitalism, and technocolonialization. The relatively modern industrial band VNV Nation, for example, utilizes synthesized versions of industrial machines, slightly distorted vocal tracks, and a strongly anti-empirical/anti-war message. With their album Praise the Fallen, the band establishes a discourse that revolves around betrayed honor, abused loyalty, a hopeless military conflict, and a celebration of those that came before. It also often carries a rebellious and almost revolutionary tone;
“Stand your ground this is what we are fighting for,
For our spirit and laws and ways.
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,
for heaven or Hell, we shall not wait.
Shall I think of honor as lies,
or lament it’s slow demise? (VNV Nation)
Clearly, something is occurring in this song that requires the narrator to, at the least, prepare himself for war. This does not appear to be a war instigated by the people of the narrator, but rather by a foreign force, thus not only establishing the narrator as an “other,” but forcing him to take up arms to defend his nation - establishing him as something of an anti-hero. The line concerning “honor as lies” is particularly interesting, and works with the dystopic discourse on multiple levels. It can be read as a nod to Orwellian Newspeak (how can honor be a lie when it’s the pinnacle of social service?), or of the disillusionment of the narrator from the prevailing political and social hierarchy (if honor is a lie, then why bother with anything else?).

This sense of alienation that arises, through the “robot voice,” lyrical thematics, found sounds and entirely unreal, synthesized sounds, further place industrial music firmly in the camp of dystopic narrative and can be overwhelming. That so many of the sounds are almost futuristic, and at the least, unreal and impossible in the natural world, are suggestive of the extraordinary journey required in order to engage in industrial music. Finally, the broken planes, sounds, images and rejection of consumerist culture - both literal and figurative - that bind the Dadaist movement, 20th century art in general and the industrial music scene together are entirely dystopic elements on their own. These elements, however, like not being constrained merely to literature or film, are also not constrained by the grasp of the continental United States, and would manifest themselves on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Norway.

The Black Wave: Norwegian Black Metal as a Dystopic Narrative

Today, black metal is fairly well known and fairly widely despised. This is for a variety of reasons, although primarily because it is an intentionally difficult form of music to listen to. Although industrial music, as a result of the mimicry of machines, had a tendency to have a steady, danceable beat, and later even developed into music that was quite easy to pick up and enjoy, black metal - at least, in it’s pure form - never quite managed to find a universal element that most sorts of people enjoy. It combines elements of thrash metal, death metal, grindcore, heavy metal and even some thematic components of folk music to create a sound that is genuinely alien - and dystopic.

In order to examine the dystopic themes of black metal - specifically, Norwegian black metal - the influences that went into developing those dystopic aspects of the form must be examined.

First, there was Black Sabbath. With their album Paranoid, the English band developed an entirely new, and substantially more aggressive sound than had been heard before. Although by many standards today the band isn’t as “extreme” or “hard” as other forms of music, it nonetheless laid the groundwork for several major music movements to come, both musically and thematically. Even their name, Black Sabbath, helped to pave the way for what was to come - being one of the first groups to ever use such blatantly anti-Christian name and themes, they developed a form of almost playfully rebellious rhetoric that would be both embraced and taken further by the bands that would follow them.

Around the same time, another English band, Black Widow, was experimenting with Satanic and anti-Christian themes, both on stage and in the recording studio. Although not a metal band by any measure - their sound approaches much closer to that of traditional folk music - they also helped to pioneer themes that would become dominant during the closing of the 20th century in Norwegian black metal. Their live shows were something akin to that of Throbbing Gristle1 in that they were more about spectacle, social statements and entertainment than raw musical aptitude. Although the band never approached the quantity of records sold that Black Sabbath did, it wasn’t about sales or fame for Kay Garrett, the vocalist and leader of Black Widow; he was simply content that “we were the black magic band.” (Murder Music)

The next major progression in the development of black metal came with yet another English band, Venom. Their debut album, Welcome to Hell, was performed in the same vein as that of the American thrash bands Slayer and Metallica, but thematically they were darker than the violence-based themes of the American bands. Instead of using their real names, or even real-sounding pseudonyms like the American bands, Venom instead opted for names based in fantasy and mythology. Where the thrash bands were singing, primarily, about violence, aggression, and occasionally social justice issues, Venom chose initially to follow suit, adding Satanism and anti-Christian messages to their music in addition to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that were dominant in the genre. This was further emphasized with the recording of their second album, however - Black Metal, the album that would come to further seed the birth of genre, capitalized on the bands folklorish and Satanic themes and was primarily concerned with the “darker elements of life.”(Murder Music)

Defining their brand of music as black metal, as opposed to other, more popular forms of the day, like thrash metal, heavy metal and death metal, was primarily due to the press. In an interview for the documentary Murder Music, Conrad “Cronos” Lant, Venom’s vocalist, said that
“...if this is what people are calling heavy metal today, Journey and Foreigner and people like that, all lumped into this category: ‘long hair, guitar: heavy metal band.’ We turn around and say, ‘If that’s the case, we’ve got absolutely nothin’ to do with that. So, media being media and press being press, turned around and asked: ‘So what are you? ... Bang! There it is. Black metal, hat’s what we are.” (Murder Music)
Venom quickly became more than just another metal band, both for its fans and for the band itself. Their brand of hate-filled, angry, anti-Christian vocals, and their loud, disharmonic and often chaotic music alienated them even from other metal bands. This wasn’t quite the intentionally-offensive rhetoric of modern groups like Marilyn Manson, but rather that “I think it was more about alienation and individuality than anything else. [There were a lot of good bands], but we were the outcasts. Everybody fuckin’ hated Venom, because we made this unholy fuckin’ racket. ... The black metal thing just alienated us from the mainstream.” (Murder Music)

It is at this point that the connection between black metal and dystopic narrative begins to become apparent, as if dystopic narrative is the story of anything, it is that of the alienation of the individual, and their devaluing in the world at large by the powers that control the media. Venom’s outright rejection of the social and moral standards of the time are a direct testament to this, and their ejection from popular culture only emphasizes this. Just the same, Venom wasn’t quite yet a black metal band - but they paved the way for the coming wave. The final details that would solidify black metal as a genre and a statement would come from Norway, and were centered around the record store Helvete - Norwegian for hell - in Oslo, Norway.

Helvete was owned by the frontman and vocalist of the black metal band Mayhem, Oysten “Euronymous” Aarseth. Note that this is a pseudonym, one of the many concepts that later black metal bands would adopt from this proto-black metal and is derived from the name of the demon Eurynomos (Wikipedia). Here, the various black metal bands that had arisen in Norway would receive their earliest of exposure, and it was also centered around Hell that the myths surrounding black metal would arise - Satanism, misanthropy, and the church burnings. Three of the largest black metal bands - all whom would initially publish works under Deathlike Silence Productions, the label Euronymous created - were Mayhem, Enslaved and Burzum.

They, and other bands from Deathlike Silence Productions, took the groundwork laid by bands like Black Sabbath and Venom and brought them to an entirely new level, using themes and theatrical concepts developed over decades. On the genre, Asbjorn Slettenmark, a music journalist, would say that “Black metal is all about creating the most hateful, gruesome, and almost cheap sound there is, and it’s very much meant to be cult music.”(Murder Music) Not only cult music, but almost exclusive music - similar to the late 1970’s American punk bands, black metal musicians weren’t writing and performing music to attract new fans, or even to ‘make it big.’ Rather, they developed a sound that was intentionally grating, alienating, and difficult to listen to, ensuring that they would have a form of art entirely their own.

This ‘difficulty of listenability’ was intentional - the more distorted, garbled and disharmonic sounds that characterize black metal are intended to alienate the non-fan, and force him into an outsider mentality. This changed the typical hierarchy of the black metal social outcast and the ‘normal’ Christian - instead of the black metal fan being outcast from society, it was the normal person being rejected from the black metal community. Embracing this “unholy fuckin’ racket” as a form of art symbolized the alienation of the fan from normal culture, allowed him to find inclusion in a group of peers, and empowered him in a culture where he previously had none.

However, inclusion in the black metal community was, or was at least perceived as, more difficult than simply listening to and appreciating the form. It was often seen by fans that actual direct and physical action was required for acceptance and inclusion, and this manifested itself, at least originally, in the form of a string of more than fifty church burnings between 1992 and 1996.(Wikipedia) This was done to demonstrate to the church, and indeed the world at large the anger and frustration that was felt by Christianity’s social death-grip on the world they found themselves in. It is difficult to determine whether or not the burnings were meant to achieve any greater purpose than the initial arson, or if they were merely statements of dedication and devotion to the ideology of black metal, and even the community remains split regarding the efficacy and purpose of these burnings. Some black metal artists, like Infernus and Graahl of the band Gorgoroth, praised the burnings in an interview, stating that “there should have been more of them, there will be more of them.”(Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey) Necrobutcher and Kjetil Manheim of Mayhem, however, disagreed; "It was just people trying to gain acceptance within a strict group ... they wanted some sort of approval and status."(Once Upon a Time in Norway)

That even fans of black metal struggled for acceptance in the community is interesting - simply being a fan of the form of music wasn’t enough for social acceptance and approval in the community, and it was perceived by some members of that community that the only way to gain acceptance was to lash out against both other members of the community, and against the Christian church. In most social spheres that center around a form of music, simply enjoying that form of music may not be enough for acceptance - this is a common enough theme. For example, it would have been tremendously difficult to find friends in the American punk-rock community during the late 1970’s had one been an active supporter of Ronald Reagan, but actually taking direct, physical action against the politician was not required, or even perceived as being required, to be a member of the community. The quantity layers of isolation, alienation and struggle for community that run throughout the art form are striking.

Dystopic narrative, however, concerns more than alienation and individuality. Typically, works of dystopia are set in a time and place somehow removed from the present. They also tend to involve higher levels of technology than the present world can produce, and indeed are often based on extrapolations of modern-day technology and social trends. Although black metal rarely concerns things like future technology, social trends and the future, they are still elements of a dystopic narrative, although extra-literal approaches must be taken to further link the two art forms.

Norwegian black metal’s use of Satanic, anti-Christian imagery and themes has a purpose deeper than the mere shock value and symbols of alienation conveyed by these messages; rather, it is a reaction against the prevailing norms of Norwegian and Christian values. In the Scandinavian world, the Christian church - at least, as perceived by black metal artists - reigns supreme as governmental entity, arbiter of social values and norms, and purveyor of acceptable and popular culture. To these artists, the church represents the fascist, capitalist-corporate nightmare that is often the antagonist of dystopic narratives, and the church burnings have literary parallels - like Case’s resistance against the Tessier-Ashpool Corporation found in Neuromancer, and Winston Smith’s resistance against Big Brother and Oceania in 1984, and to this end it is important to, at least in some capacity, lash out against the church.

Characters found in dystopic narratives are generally able to achieve some sort of action against the capitalist-corporate nightmares, and through this achieve, theoretically, freedom, equality and respect. In the black metal world, this can be achieved too, although it isn’t through the channels of resistance typically associated with these sorts of narratives. Rather, this resistance comes about most often through channels of self-expression, like with their fiery anti-Christian rhetoric and stage performances, and the attempted conversion of Christians to their cause.

Even the stage of black metal concerts is dominated by these same modes of self-expression and rejection of Christian values. Black metal bands, at least originally, almost always presented themselves decorated with corpsepaint, which is intended to make the wearer appear dead (Murder Music). Corpsepaint is a cosmetic worn covering the entire face, and consists mostly of a bright-white base with black details, such as circles around the eyes and lines around the mouth, although red - to represent blood - has also been used.

By appearing dead on stage, black metal artists manage to encapsulate several elements of dystopic narratives simultaneously. The easiest of these to see returns again to alienation and othering - by appearing to be dead, and occasionally acting as if dead, they place themselves outside of not merely the culture and community of the living world, but outside of the living world itself. They also approach the concept of a great journey through this, although this is also due to lyrical themes that appear in their work. By appearing, performing, and speaking as if they were dead, they force the listener into an ancient and mythological world in which the dead could rise and the old gods reigned over the land. Although dystopic narratives generally develop this journey as being over great tracts of land, space, or a forwarding through time, conceptually - at least, as far as the general concept of locational shifting and a ‘great journey’ is concerned - they are the same.
Speaking on lyrical themes and stage presence perhaps skirts around the final, and perhaps most symbolically significant, aspect of a black metal performance: the shrieked vocals. In the thrash metal of the 80’s, vocals were sometimes growled, but more often than not shouted and/or sung, albeit loudly (see: Slayer, early Metallica). When death metal and grindcore emerged, vocal stylings shifted into deep, guttural growls that were bestial in nature (see: Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth). Almost bizarrely, black metal shifted to a higher vocal range - the only way to effectively describe this sound is the howl and wail of a banshee - which is interesting particularly because the banshee is, as far as modern science is concerned, not a real creature. This further emphasizes the otherness and alienation of the black metal band - aspects of it cannot even be described using conventional, reality-based concepts. Further, the sound produced was almost demonic; twisted and tortured, it was a further statement against the church, and an admission of misery and torment on behalf of the vocalist. The correlation here between the “robotic,” alienated voice of industrial music should be apparent.
This lyrical and theatrical reversal through time, and even reality, performs well in tandem with another aspect of black metal - the typically DIY and low-fidelity sound that, at least initially, always accompanied black metal performances and recording. The use of this low-quality production accomplishes several things: it further emphasizes the ‘difficulty of listenability’ aesthetic so embraced by black metal; it rejects modern and popular conceptions that recorded music ought to be as high-quality and enjoyable as possible - a concept similar to that of Johnny Mnemonic’s Lo-tek’s; it forces the listener into an earlier era of recording and even art, pointing again to the time-shifting properties of black metal; it allows for genuinely amateur and grass-roots artists to emerge as important, regardless of their capacity to record in high-quality; and, finally, it allows for the emergence of the despondent theme and atmosphere that is prevalent in black metal to become even more pronounced. It’s almost like listening to what the vikings would have played if they had electric guitars.2

The rejection of high-quality recording speaks again to dystopic narratives; about technology found in these narratives, Collins says that “it is representative of power [and] used as a symbol of alienation. ... technology becomes a symbol for the loss of individual sovereignty. Typically, a kind of ‘friendly fascism’ is maintained through media manipulation.” (Collins p. 172) By using somewhat dated technology for both recording and performing, artists are enabled to make a brand of sound that is entirely alien to that which is proliferated by what is seen as the Christian world and media, and also entirely their own. As in dystopic narratives, “the technology used by the resistance is often cast-off older technology rather than the latest high-tech products,” (Collins p.172) Although difficult to determine whether this use of low-technology was based on a conscious decision to differentiate themselves from the ‘friendly fascism’ of the Christian-controlled media of that region of the world or because they have no choice, due either to economic or social reasons, it again runs in tandem with Collins’ view of dystopic narrative; “it is significant that the resistance does not choose (or cannot choose) the latest technology.” (Collins p.172) It is significant, in the case of black metal, because it’s practitioners and support base wish, again, to make it clear that they are entirely alien to the power/media base in a strikingly similar fashion to Johnny Mnemonic’s Lo-tek organization, at least in their application of technology.

The atmosphere of despondence found in black metal is, at least initially, surprising. It would be easy to assume that black metal was more easily characterized as being angry and in a constant state of rage, particularly considering the shriek of the typical black metal vocalist and the aggressive, rapid pace of the guitar work and percussion. However, when taken as a whole - particularly with synthesizer elements that arose early after the establishment of black metal as a legitimate genre - most black metal comes off as disturbing, disorienting, and depressing, enraged not to the state of exploding in violence but rather with the knowledge that despite all efforts, everything is futile. That said, this is a view that is held by the author and may not be readily apparent to the casual listener.

An example of all of these elements can be found in Emperor’s Towards the Pantheon. The song exemplifies the dark, deep, and depressing mood found in much of black metal, and the shriek and wail of Isahn is soul-destroying in the most profound of ways. Lyrically, Towards the Pantheon revolves around concepts typical to black metal, as can be seen here:
May the wolves start to howl again
May the age of darkness arise
We will travel for eternities
into the unknown reaches what we seek.
Fight the ways through the barriers of light, through the wastelands
where nothing but grief have become the eternal memory.
We will grant him their pain.
He will grant us his flame.
In flesh and blood, he will arise
to deliver the key.
As the armour’s black robe slides across the landscape
we see the land of wisdom, strength, and pure evil ...
Darkness, frost, hate ...
The throne will be ours.(Emperor)
This celebration of almost pagan imagery, such as this god of blood, fire, and the wolves, is fairly representative of black metal lyrical styles. Although not directly antagonistic to Christianity, these lines little room for interpretation that the speaker is actually celebrating Christianity in any way - indeed, his hope for the land of “wisdom, strength, and pure evil” are a tacit reaching for concepts expressly forbidden in Christianity. Even “Darkness, frost, hate” is metaphorically anti-Christian, and represent an antithesis of Christian hopes and values.

All which speaks yet further to the alienation and othering nature of black metal; it isn’t a form of music that can either be played or appreciated by the casual listener. It requires a genuine desire to want to do either to be able to approach any sort of level of appreciation of the form, and initially it’s more likely to induce headaches and irritation in people than enjoyment and rapture. Indeed, black metal wasn’t originally centered around particular musical conventions; bands like Venom, considered to be one of the founding groups of the black metal genre, had a radically different sound than other founding groups like Mayhem and Burzum. It revolved, rather, on thematic concepts like the rejection of Christianity and old-world mythology, and as such initial approaches to the form were wildly differentiated from one another. It wasn’t until Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse - form which the above song, Towards the Pantheon, was taken - that these elements became fused together in a coherent sound that would be repeated for decades.

As the genre has become more and more well-defined, the dystopic elements found within it have slowly left the form. Although the Satanic/anti-Christian conventions are still maintained by most of the artists, it no longer seems to be about directly speaking out against the dominant power structure - rather, it has become about conforming to an internationally-known and, in a sense, accepted art form. By placing the anti-Christian spin as a sales mechanism instead of a statement, the art form almost tacitly acknowledges that it’s no longer about rebellion - rather, it’s about making money and attaining recognition. Each aspect that made black metal what it was - the shrieked vocals, the corpse paint, the anti-Christian themes - has become more of a method of developing a public persona than necessarily as a method to rebel against conformity. Much like the American punk-rock movement of the late 1970’s, the form eventually became too large to retain it’s dystopic roots, which is particularly depressing as the actual music made by the artists has grown in quality since the 1990’s.

For a brief period of time in the history of Europe, the terrible, disturbing, and almost-necessary face of extra-literal dystopia was alive and well, and could be referred to only as black metal. With ghost-white faces, massively-spiked gauntlets, and armed with electronic axes and banshee wails, the black metal artists spoke out with a fervor and fury that is only rarely matched in the extra-literal world. They pioneered a form of music that would endure for, at the time of writing, nearly three decades, and would allow both it’s fans and others aware of it’s message to embrace a side of life that was darker than what they had ever seen before - and, perhaps, anything they would see again.

Journal and Literary Sources:
1.Aldiss, B.W. “Robots: low-voltage ontological currents.” The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. ed. T.P. Dunn and R.D. Elrich. Greenwood Press, 1982: 3-9.
2.Collins, Karen. “Dead Channel Surfing: the commonalities between cyberpunk literature and industrial music.” Popular Music Volume 24/2 (2005): 165-178.
3.Kuh, Catherine. “Break-Up.” Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1965.
4.Gibson, William. “Neuromancer.” New York: Ace Books, 1984.
5.Phillips, Richard. “Dystopian Space in Colonial Representations and Interventions: Sierra Leone as ‘The White Man’s Grave’.” Geografiska Annaler Series B: Human Geography Volume 84 Number 3/4, Special Issue: The Dialects of Utopia and Dystopia (2002): 189-200.
6.Williams, Douglas E. “Ideology as Dystopia: An Interpretation of “Blade Runner.” International Political Science Review. Volume 9 Number 4 (1988): 381-394

Music, Film, and Web Sources:
1.Emperor. “Towards the Pantheon.” In the Nightside Eclipse. Candlelight Records, 1994.
2.“Johnny Mnemonic”. Dir. Robert Longo. Perfs. Keanu Reeves, Ice-T. DVD. Tristar Pictures, 1995.
3.“Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Dir. Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, Jessica Joy Wise. Writers: Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, Jessica Joy Wise. DVD. Banger Productions, 2006.
4.“Murder Music: A History of Black Metal.” Dir. David Kenny. Perfs. Abbath, Dani Filth, Asbjorn Slettenmark. Accessed online at . Rockworld TV, 2007.
5.“Once Upon a Time in Norway.” Dir. Pal Aasdal, Martin Ledang. Perfs. Necrobutcher, Billy Nordheim, Kjetil Manheim. Accessed via Youtube. Grenzelos Productions, 2008.
6.VNV Nation. “Honour.” Praise the Fallen. Off Beat, 1998.

Other Sources Referenced:
1. Entries for: black metal, Helvete, Emperor.
2. Entries for: Murder Music, Once Upon a Time in Norway, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Johnny Mnemonic.

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