Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Aesthetics of Monochrome in Black Metal

Why the black and white imagery?

What does the monochrome means to you? What does it represent? What does it make you feel?

Ironic in that the former colors of lucidity, sobriety, and determination (without exaggeration through the added colors of the spectrum - without the distraction that such colors would mean for the eye) are now used to deliberately obscure the transmission of information. What did black and white formerly mean for the eye of the audience? A lucid indoctrination perhaps, an official message from the centers of authority, the colors in the working day world of typescript, of faxes, xeroxed reports, newsprint, charts, diagrams, maps, i.e. of the unfettered communication of essential information, without distractions or dismal 'artistic' tangents spelling out confusion. Black and white was (or is still) the color of doctrine, of official notices, of contracts, of realistic information escaping from the myriad colors of reality (the chaos of the rainbow) into distinct clarity - a flight, perhaps, into a self-constructed world of repression, of a sober (again) construction of essential reality from the inside out, coating the terrifying dizziness of the world around a subject with the deadening forces of the primal colors - above all with the insistence on words - words to protect one against reality. Words stamped in the color of death, against a background of limitless possibility, words that would weave a protective web of meaning against the far-reaching boundaries of infinity.

Once again in black metal it is seen how a primal force re-introduces itself into our sphere of experience to reclaim the power it once had over our understanding. Black, in the aesthetics of monochrome, represents only a few things: a limit, a boundary, a wall beyond which no traveler can pass, the obscuring force of shadow, of night, darkness, death. What can be seen as existing for a time on top of this wall of darkness is only transient, temporary, and already swarming with worms at the core. In black metal imagery the faces of the participants or artists swim upwards into the light only to cast their features for a second upon your eyes before spilling darkness over themselves once more. And in even in that second of lucidity you see that their faces are already coveted by death: they wear masks, their eyes are filled with blackness. What the forces of darkness and night (the primal dark) once represented for us (and still do, in our secret hearts) black metal imagery seeks to recast as a modern message of rebellion: eternally against the light of the modern world, the instincts of sober rationalization, the face of the modern animal that no longer knows death first hand. 'Here it is, in front of you,' says the aesthetic of the black and white, 'and you know you have seen it before.'

The imagery of the monochrome aethetic reflects, also, the main intent of sonic rebellion evident in the black metal bands: the deliberate obscuring of information and the creation of an atmosphere of 'deathlike silence' by a production standard that emphasized instrument sounds that fled from the 'clarity' of modern sound into the night of poor reproductions, deliberately bungled recordings, harsh atonalism, and the dissonant feedback or reverberation that cast a shadow over the transmission of musical information. Why the deliberate sabotage of poor sound reproduction? A desire to escape into the past of earlier recordings - the bombastic obscurity of Bathory, the harsh mysteries of Hellhammer, and the nihilistic apathy towards an audience that these older bands now represent for the present day listener: the aesthetics of obscurity as a statement of rebellion. In tune with the deliberate re-evaluation of the monochrome as a symbol of reality or clarity (as the mode of authority), black metal uses the aesthetics of a monochrome SOUND - one devoid of accents, frills, highlights, or 'modern' sonic technology to present a distinctly conservative (in the political sense) agenda - indeed one that is so conservative and backwards-looking as to be almost reactionary. In this sense, is it surprising that black metal bands later aligned themselves with fascists politically? Burzum comes to mind here, as Vikernes is the poster boy for reactionary intent in music and politics - there have been many attempts to trace the entire aesthetic of the obscure back to this one man or to Dead of Mayhem. Indeed both black metal bands and the fascists looked to times of glory existing in the past as models of the 'right', the 'true' - this also explains the insistence on 'fantasy' imagery in black metal lyrics (culled from Tolkien or other fantasists) or the revelation of secrets from ancient cultures. And both parties looked to the future as an opportunity to better their fathers at their own game - for black metal, to succinctly distill the aesthetics of obscurity into a potent formula for further exploration, and for the fascists...the times to come are a second chance to reclaim what their progenitors lost through error or a lack of resolve.

But outside of the political arena, the aesthetics of the monochrome also represent a position of strength for black metal bands: black and white imagery as a statement of rebellion from the technicolor extremity of death metal's insistence on examining and removing all mystery from life or death. Monochrome brings back the mystery of the night while placing the bands who first used it (let's use Darkthrone's 'Under A Funeral Moon' as an example here for the next few paragraphs) as the leaders of a new scene - the covers of Darkthrone's albums were uniquely low-fi when they first appeared, uniquely important in gathering attention towards the cause of black metal, and of course uniquely misunderstood. They stand out in the nauseating sea of graphic death metal album covers because they are suggestive in their obscurity - they cloak more than they reveal, and reveal an image that is, again, only a further means to obscurity. Black metal draws the veil over death once again, but not to disguise it or to lessen its power. The Eternal Mysteries of life (and this fact is revealed, of course, in Gnosticism as well as the 'Mystery' cults or religions) gain power when they are glanced at reverently out of the corner of one's eye. To gaze fully upon the shrouded icons or images (that are in themselves only metaphysical symbols in plastic form) of their representations is to miss the point entirely. The examiner's stare, the coroner's raptured glare - these are symptoms of the modern age in that they are seen as the only sure methodology, the proven way to 'truth'. What culture in history supposedly looked more fully upon the face of reality than ours but understood so little? Our electric lights chase shadows away from the face of the globe, our television cameras peer into every refuge of privacy - and is anything 'understood' in a more comprehensive capacity than before? As I asked in an earlier essay, what is more terrifying to a human being than the inability to understand or pierce through his surroundings? This is the true nature of the night, the fear of darkness, the phobias centering on shadows, fogs, eclipses, the primeval forests, the forces of nature, the eternal night of the northern climes, the walls of sleep and dream, the impenetrable barriers of death.

When the Sun has Died
When the Angels are Blind
When the Fog Lies Thick
Over the Palace of god

- from Darkthrone's 'Unholy Black Metal'

If extreme metal was first based on the emotions of terror, the fear of existence, the utter absurdity of life or man's condition on this planet, where the death metal bands erred was in taking the examination of those fears to ludicrious limits - where the fear of evil that was so powerful, for example, in the sound of earlier bands was put under the microscope in an obsessive dissection and summarily disappeared like gossamer, the tissue of fantasy or nightmares.

Monochrome is also eternally suggestive in our culture because of its links to underground publications - idealist bulletins, fascist programs, handbills, cult newsprint, police records (and the monochrome horror of noir-era crime photography), the hardcore pornography of the last two decades, the colors of fading newspapers and their death-wish of times now obsolete, etc. Black and white is the representative color of grassroots organizations, counter-culture struggles - anything, almost, outside of the 'mainstream' where ideas lose flesh and importance and become imprisoned in the technicolor death dance of the 'economically viable'. The monochrome suggests the sinister, the contaminated, the overlooked, the death of our forward-looking culture in the mire of its own past - a past it can never escape but can also never understand, but most of all it STILL represents, even in black metal's re-evaluation, the birth of new ideas, the epicenter of creation, the foundation of reality. Black metal bands printed, in their monochrome imagery and black-washed sound, the formula for a new genre and the doctrines that are still possessing extreme musicians today.

U. Amtey
26 August 1999