Saturday, May 15, 2010

Aesthetics and Evolution in Metal

Demonstration: an evolutionary decline in the traditional forms of songwriting within the metal genres has been brought into being because of a fundamental shift in expressive priorities.

I. Metal carries with it an entire lexicon of signs within its performance, and almost every single stylistic nuance within the various subgenres is in itself a sign pointing to a political affiliation within the scene - political in this case meaning a symbol of status, a position within the creative hierarchy, an approach towards interpreting, attacking, or defending traditionalism. Metal is not unique in that its adherents and proponents seek to undermine its traditions with one hand while upholding them with the other…that appears in many different musical styles. One can argue that this approach is necessary, even, as the act of undermining is valueless without something being posited at the same time as an authority, and so the real political "value" of the music exists in the flux or dialogue between the authority and the icon that seeks to replace it, the conflict and contrasts between two interdependent approaches that only seem mutually exclusive on the surface. This dialectic produces, at certain points, new reference works which then become part of the dialogue…aesthetic orientation loci for the continued "conflict" [it is never a real conflict so much as it is a celebration of the possibility of autonomy, an actual autonomy is almost never reached]. As the evolution of metal has been so well documented and its evidence so readily available for examination there are rarely arguments against the debt that present bands owe the musicians that came before them. Metal has a tangible evolutionary history to it, a sort of internal dialogue of stylistic influences that becomes the birthright of every new artist in the field. New musicians must come to terms with what has come before, and their new creations are, at all times, both personal expressions and a series of contrasts and compliments to what they have inherited. Every musician communes both with his muse and the entire history of the musical style. By being conscious not only of his individual desire for expression, but the problem of fitting that expression in an artistic tradition and in a relation to other artists sharing the same general aesthetic background, the musician is faced with an often bewildering variety of choices when it comes to every single note he plays. It can be overwhelming, all of these "influences". At this late date, when several genres and subgenres of metal music have been well defined, the artists finds himself at the very beginning of his creative career being forced to choose political/stylistic affiliations which his urge for expression [or artistic definition, growth, identification] may not find beneficial. Genre categories and characteristics are useful guides, but they are also creative boundaries. They can be played off of, to be sure, in order to create even more layers of meaning within an artwork, but the deeper an artist delves into his own creativity the more often he finds himself coming into conflict with all of the predetermined stylistic laws and traditions. This is another example of how artistic subjectivity leads to isolation: the deeper an artist pierces into his own capacity for and instinct for expression, the more he disregards the views of his contemporaries, the more confining seem all the ideas of those who surround him. If, in his bid for an escape from these external pressures, he responds with animosity in turn, as others seek to pressure him to conform based on their own lack of parallel development and their inability to understand his subjectivity, can he be "blamed"? Subjectivity leads to isolation, which leads to misanthropy. "Blame" or "fault" is often just superfluous.

II. It is ironic that these political functions of the music, within itself, the wars between different factions and stylistic convictions, push groups to the forefront of audience attention and then, soon after, eradicate their methodology and drive to create. The black metal genre, for example, was vital and interesting [constantly producing new aesthetic approaches, new personal stylistic goals, new methods of creating symbolism and sound] so long as it aligned itself as a general movement against death metal, and the traditionalism that death metal that at the time of the former's beginning represented. In seeking to undermine death metal's position and create new standards for expression, new subject matter for exploration, new methods of articulation, black metal was given the blessing of a "will to power" [also a will to determine itself, a will to create itself, to define its own essence] that carried it to world attention. Of course, having gained an ascendant status and having fought its way out of the dark into the light, the entire movement collapsed because of a lack of further motivation. This is constantly happening within the metal scene on the whole: conflict [whether real or imagined] produces encouraging energy, and that borrowed vigor creates a certain level of inspiration for the artists involved.

The internal economics of conflict within the movement as a whole reads:

AA. The musician struggling to create [the "struggle within", the tension of the personality and creative drive], the battle for individual artistic identity and satisfaction.

BB. The musician in conflicts for creative control and the message/direction of the band with his/her other bandmates

CC. The band collectively struggling against other bands for ascendancy and aesthetic determination within their local music scene

DD. The local scenes around the world in conflict for the stylistic domination of genre [almost all "local" scenes, whether determined by region or nation, have a loose stylistic affiliation and are conscious of it even if they act against it], through a historical process of "becoming".

EE. The different genres fighting against each other to determine both the future voice of the music and the "correct" way to interpret the entire tradition's past. There are some who see the struggle between black and death metal as a dialectic to be synthesized in something "higher", but the end result is often just a turning backwards to "regain" the roots of the movement as a whole before everything was supposedly subjected to the schism of genres.

This is the engine that drives the movement forward, and leads to new, vital, interesting, energetic [in the sense of having something to say, being significant] works of art. Ironically, again, the same motivation that influences, informs, and energizes the creative work also leads a genre to a place of stagnation "on top" of the audience's attention where, having followed a certain set of aesthetic guidelines in its rise, it can no longer maneuver outside of that methodology in order to continually produce novel, essential works of art. This happens in general, collective movements, but it is also reflected in the individual paths of groups themselves and is why many bands often produce their best work in the beginning of their histories when they are fighting for a place at the table, when they are "hungry" for attention, approval, acclaim. Musical groups begin to confuse their stylistic "identity" with their aesthetic convictions, and so rigorously bind their own limbs as they float, for a time, at the apex of their careers. Once they find their niche and become enamored of their own history, their own identity, their creativity enters into a self-referential stagnation and they fall prey to worshipping their own images in a mirror. They can not see past the place they have been given.

III. So, the progression is:

A. Bands being competitive to rise to top of movement

To assert their own aesthetic claims, which - because they are often based on expressive priorities, learned methods of satisfying internal drives - reflect the deepest convictions of the group on how they can externalize their inner conflicts and create art that satisfies their need for meaning on different levels. That is: aesthetic priorities and prescriptions reflect internal convictions, which in turn express very basic drives in the creator's personality. The struggle to rise to the top of the movement and set aesthetic standards is also thus the battle to place one's ego, one's own world view and the view of music in the highest place of attention. It is rooted in sheer selfishness, solipsism, the drive to assert one's will and dominate others.

B. Competitive because they are conscious that is what makes "good" art

Some are aware of this, the fact that the entire process of aesthetic competition and resolution can be "healthy" artistically for all involved because it offers a number of new views to all the artists involved, it attempts to force the artists to drive themselves to develop creatively, it inspires those who may be losing energy or will with "extra-artistic" motivations, ideas and pressures their personality might respond to if their creativity doesn't. It has been shown many, many times in the past that artistic movements are temporary, ephemeral creations, they rise to the forefront of notice and usage as their ability to express the zeitgeist crystallizes, and then they fall away as conditions of society outside their sphere change.

Aside I. Why did Norwegian black metal bands change so rapidly? They were started by young men who were developing emotionally, artistically, and socially as they played their first forms of music. The same style and repository of signs that allowed them to express themselves at the age of 16-18 no longer applied to them just a few years later, and they couldn't manage any sort of creative flexibility and potential of expression [the lifeblood of an artist] within the aesthetic structures they had earlier diagrammed. The way they viewed the world outside themselves as well as the way they viewed the metal tradition had changed. They needed something with a greater range. The bands who refused to evolve have switched their music from being an outlet of expression towards a comment on the music scene itself, they are self-referential, ironic entities.

Aside II. There are some music enthusiasts and critics who can subsist on a diet of irony and tongue-in-cheek posturing, who stand outside of themselves and wink at their own involvement in collective movements. I am not one of them, as I find that pattern of expression even more limiting than the strict aesthetics within the movement these people avoid. There is something miserably craven about a soul who can not lose himself in his own passions for fear of appearing bound by time, instead of being "timeless". To them I leave their anemic diet of irony, as it suits their bloodless existence. How many fools define themselves by what they do or do not listen to? How many shallow musicians define themselves by what style of music they play? Surely this is an inversion of the natural order of art where a style is a reflection of what is inside the artist, instead of being something that is imposed upon the internal world from without.

C. Stand out from each other

How do bands compete? They either stand out from each other in terms of their sound, style, appearance, aesthetics, lyrics and stated convictions, imagery, or broadcast ideology, or they differ in their use and manipulation of the secondary characteristics of their style: the guitar sound, the vocal sound, the use of production/recording differences, etc. They also use these same forms as methods of aligning themselves politically, and as signs to express extra-musical convictions. Notice that the stress between trying to stand out and conform at the same time to certain unalienable principles of metal style often is unbearable for certain artists. They find it easier to conform completely.

D. Define, determine, and advance characteristics of the genre

In a genre-based movement, where holistic styles or aesthetic convictions and expressions are being changed rapidly, developed, explored, manipulated, etc. the genre artists abstract the qualities/qualifications/characteristics that determine their genre and then seek to develop those characteristics outside of and beyond the regard of the music that will be clothed/cloaked in them. To put it simply: death metal bands abstract what is "death metal" about their sound, the varied characteristics of the genre in itself, and then seek also to compete using those characteristics as signs of aesthetic qualification, as much as they use their music-in-itself to express the same. This is commonly articulated in the way death metal bands try to be more "brutal" than each other, while always playing very similar material. It's not exactly the music-in-itself that makes them more "brutal", it's the way the music is played, their attitude, approach, the way the instruments are manipulated, the way it is recorded, the way the music-in-itself in filtered through these external qualifications to end up as a recorded or performed "product". They posit the means of getting their message across, their "sound" [not the same as style], as their true area of artistic creation, abstract it in totality from the music itself, and then advance it as a concept-in-itself, separate and completely outside the ends of the songs themselves, the supposed messages of the lyrics and the lyric-music interaction. It is not only the "sound" of the band that becomes a sign, the nature of the lyrics themselves follow suit, pressed towards an apogee of "extremity for it's own sake" that often renders the message [if there is a literal one] of the lines completely incomprehensible and ultimately futile. The lyrics do not exist as a narrative or message of expression, a connection between the writer and reader, they are just one more symbol of extremity. This limits the levels of meaning available in a song terribly and there doesn't seem to be any avenue of communication open between musician and audience. The only thing communicated, over and over, is the idea that the band is "extreme". Thus the performance of the music is not a shared experience where the audience and the band are brought closer together in order to celebrate their mutual morality: it is an expression of extremity lost inside itself, a nihilistic outpouring of futile energy that creates nothing but a low level, unsatisfying catharsis.

E. Push these characteristic to an extreme, "more" is better

In a competitive arena, the "more is better" ethos quickly asserts itself and seeks to dominate. Faster, louder, harder, darker, lower, slower. More traditional, more progressive, more technical, more primitive. These are qualifications outside of the music-in-itself, stylistic determinations, political affiliations, genre boundaries, lines drawn in the sand.

F. Competition between characteristics, not music itself

Self-explanatory. The medium becomes the battleground. Bands clash in a war to supercede each other in the extremity of their genre characteristics. People lose interest in writing "better" music [that phrase is another whole article in itself, but let it rest for now] and instead concentrate on making the symbolic package the music arrives in at the ear as close as possible to the standards for extremity set for the genre, as abstracted from the genre's rules. In fact the concept of "extremity" is itself just an abstraction pressed into play wherever a genre needs a cipher to clothe in its own self-imposed standards of morality.

G. The medium is the message

That is, the "meaning" of the songs, the most densely concentrated locus of signs, clusters around the medium instead of the messages of the music-in-itself or the lyrics. The band attempts to win converts to its personal morality by appearing as a dominator by displaying the signs of a dominator, usually with nothing beneath them in the music to hold them in the attention of the listener. The same stale song structures appear again and again, only a loose framework over which to drape a fabric of extremity-for-extremity's sake. The external qualities of music appear, at last, without music itself. The songs become, in themselves, just symbols of a political stance, they are placards, advertisements, t-shirts. This is reflected in the imagery and extroverted "ideology" of a musical group, which appear as manipulated signs of supposed moral or personal convictions. They are often illusions, intended either to place a group within a certain category or to reach a state of dominance that can not be reached by musical means. It is an adaptation: a group that can not succeed or dominate based on musical or songwriting skills [and unlike many other artistic skills, songwriting can be taught and advanced through diligence and study] must find some other way to gain attention, precedence, ascendancy, some other means of participating in the general conflict and satisfying their drives. Groups in the metal scene also often posit imagery and ideology that they would like to subsume over a length of time: they dictate to themselves a "hero" image or status of a dominant instinct and then strive to "become" this image through a process of learned behaviors and external display. In this way their music is in itself not only a sign of their need to combat older, internalized perceptions of their character but as a display of their feelings of inadequacy in the face of life itself, if not the entire metal tradition. The will-to-extremity is also a will to disguise a lack of musical talent or songwriting skill behind surface appearances, in this case the appearance of pertinence, ability, knowledge, and message. People often mistake volume and emphasis for conviction. There is a decline in the concentration on making songs themselves be the vehicles of a band's message. Through manipulating external characteristics, as already detailed, groups find that they can create a symbolism which is more potent than the traditional relegation of meaning to lyrics and the interplay between words and song structure. By "more potent" I of course mean "more potent for this audience", for the audience that exists now, that has come to expect certain things from their musicians. If the audience is mortified at the lack of songwriting skill in the scene at this point they only have themselves to blame. Evolution, like simple forms of capitalism, applies and balances resources where they are needed. If the first wave of bands that neglected songwriting for the extremity ethos were ignored, few others would have followed in their wake. It is because, at a certain point, the bands that left songwriting and lyrical message behind for displays of extremity separated from musical underpinnings were successful and attracted so much admiration/attention that the entire focus of the metal movement changed.

Rule I. Within a limited field, musicians often stylistically travel where they will be the most admired. If their ego can not compensate them for the effort required to develop as musicians, their music will follow the path of least resistance.

Aside I. How many bands strive to appear as "warrior" spirits not only to change their own perception of themselves but because they know they will be fighting 30 years [loosely, measuring from Black Sabbath's first album] of preconceptions and conservative tradition within the movement as a whole? Each new group within the metal scene, if it does not create itself as a testament or "re-capturing" of what has come before, faces a direct battle from the first day of existence in order to be heard, in order to be understood and appreciated, in order to express itself. Is there little wonder so much warrior imagery, "ideology", and posturing exists in the metal scene? It is a two-faced symbol: it expresses metal's "fight against the world" [often just kitschy commercial rebellion and manufactured angst] as well as the struggle for ascendancy within the metal movement itself.

H. Push to "succeed" = decline in skills, evolution towards a decline

It is a simple proposition to see, then, how metal music has evolved towards its own decline, that is: sought, through evolution, its own self-destruction based not only on the expectations of its audience but the inability of its members to put musical skill and legitimate artistic expression before catharsis, true songwriting concentration and craftsmanship before immediacy and the cult of improvisation, the ends before the means. There can only be so much immediacy, one learns, before the moment implodes beneath the weight of the gazes trained on it. There can only be so much self-referential posturing before the initial impetus of creation gives way to a complete exhaustion: without new material to reflect, that artist loses himself inside the mirrors of self-absorption, the ironic cascade of surface-for-surface's sake, though initially an effective method of throwing the values of a scorned world back in its own face [it refuses to recognize them, oh well] end by corrupting the artist as he seeks to taste the forbidden fruits of those he fights against. Christ pose: know thy enemy. Shallowness and immediacy can not be fought by subjecting oneself, as a sacrifice, in an ironic posture, to promulgating their own values taken to the nth degree. Shallowness can not learn the lesson, and immediacy is too self-absorbed to even care. Metal has concentrated on the means of expression for far too long, the language is too far developed, so flexible it can not hold any weight. What is needed instead is an end put forth, a purpose [real, profound, sincere instead of manufactured "ideology"], a decision made, a goal courageously reached for, the internal world exposed, if just for moments at a time, to the view of eyes half-blinded by sterility. The language has been thoroughly explored…metal musicians just need to find something to say again.

U. Amtey
15 July 2003
14:33 EST