Saturday, May 15, 2010

The American Black Metal Scene

This magazine first began as a starling, with its eyes full of glitter, and no tradition of music was so impressive to me as that of the underground, buried, long-in-sepulchre, silence of the American black metal scene. Here, I thought, were the pure souls of obscurity, those who were committed to the music itself. Long toiling without recognition, surely these artists has inured themselves to the privation of the unsung and had at last found only one true source of satisfaction in their music: that of writing and performing it for themselves, and for those who really understood their language. Isn't this the world that most artists find only after years upon years of suffering? I may be writing with a tint of irony here, as a Sardonicus, only in order to further accentuate my later points in this article, but I want you, the inquisitive reader, to grasp my position one year ago: there I was, mostly convinced that the American black metal scene was on the verge of exploding, and I was poised to support it.

And although I have been thoroughly disabused of these notions, and my former burning enthusiasm for the black metal scene here has been reduced to dead coal and cold ashes, I will not attack the bands from these shores based purely on spite, and I will not make them bear the brunt of my disillusionment or dissatisfaction. For after all, it could be that my expectations were set too high - too high, in fact, for anyone to answer them.

Was I foolish in thinking that American bands actually had something original to say through the mouth of black metal? That there were certain circumstances, scenarios, and conditions here in this country that were ripe for exploitation, ripe to be pressed under the feet of willing artists? That there was an untapped reserve of frustration and anger here that, if pierced correctly, could give rise to a whole new foundation of creativity? That the zeitgeist of this land was...ready for a new holocaust?

My answer remains: no, and I still don't believe that I was mistaken in feeling this rising current of creativity bubbling up through the cracks in this 'mainstream' society. To be honest, however, I no longer feel it in the same way - perhaps I am the one who has changed, not the black metal scene in this nation. And perhaps what I expected to happen did transpire, if on some plane or in a place that I haven't tapped yet, or in a small select group of musicians who remain mysterious to me. For as many people that I am in contact with in the underground, new voices, faces, and languages of expression appear every day - just in the last month I was made forcibly aware of a few bands that impressed me, and I was aware of them only on the most shadowy of terms.

One thing that I do know for certain, though, is that the 'established' bands in the scene - those that receive the most notice or press or which have the largest reputations - do not touch me at all. In fact, it is quite the opposite, and I reserve a great deal of scorn for them which I am not hesitant in broadcasting. It has always been something of a cliche - or at least a small truism, an article of faith - with me that the ones who shout the loudest have the least to say. So far I have not found my feelings on this count to have been in error. The ways in which these bands fail to impress me, however, are gravely serious, and at their most powerful (or stubborn), utterly comical in effect. Some laugh out of cruelty, others out of pity, but I laugh at the 'leaders' of the USBM scene because they are, on the whole, such a ridiculous collection of hypocrites and talentless, visionless blackguards that they can not remain seriously on anyone's mind for very long, and I laugh at them in order to clear their gadfly presence from my mind. Or - to put it another way - I laugh at them so that I don't start crying in frustration. In laughing at the pretensions of the US scene, you remove its only hope of grasping your interest, I have noticed...you take these 'musicians' and pull their weak, pale pretensions (even their lies are anemic) aside and there is nothing left to examine. If black metal has been, since the very beginning, about 'attitude' or 'image', then I say: welcome to America, the refuge of the pure. But if I were to proffer the stunning notion to you that music - music that one is expected to support and enjoy - must be of some intrinsic value outside of the sheer force of posturing and pretension - that is, it must offer something to the ear other than the flatulation of the apathetic and disgruntled - what would you say? How would you react? Dare we expect talent, musicianship, passion, originality, true emotion, integrity, vital messages...at the very least diversion or entertainment? I hope I am not alone in thinking so, and I look towards the unknown of the future, the x factor, to inspire myself.

I hope I don't offend you with my obvious language in this article, gentle reader. I believe that, for the most part, the US scene still looks across the sea to Europe for inspiration. This is perfectly natural, it is something of a delirious habit now, a vice of long residence...where were all the American bands when Darkthrone unleashed 'A Blaze In The Northern Sky', or when Euronymous made the fatal mistake of answering the door in his underwear? Talk to me about Demoncy, about Blasphemy (who were from Canada, by the way), Lycanthropy, Profanatica, all of your other bands. I truly don't see it. In return I would have to say: Bathory, Venom, Hellhammer. The fact that Euronymous considered Venom's 'Black Metal' to be 'evil' enough to occupy a place on the bare shelves of Helvete (or nailed to the wall, I believe) is a touching instance of naivete that probably ended up being enormously influential - a joke on history, like everything else Venom has touched. And when Darkthrone's music was being sold in malls all across this country courtesy of a Caroline distribution, where were the nascent black metal bands of these shores? Grunting and grinding...you know what I'm talking about. For those of us who lived through the entire thing, who actually remember what happened, the picture is not so clear, and the matrix or spiderweb of influences trickling across the Atlantic becomes as gossamer, as mist...those of you tracking the scene might remember Wild Rags records sending you an advertisement for the first Nuclear Death album, for example, with a catalog that listed Burzum's 'Aske' EP, complete with a lighter for burning down your local church...at that time no one would touch such a thing. 'Norwegian black metal,' went the chorus of shocked replies, ' what the hell is that?' I think the latest Hexx or Gammacide was considered more appealing - but where are those bands now? Planning reunion tours? Dealing with the day-to-day complexities of drywall? I'm sure the Emperor demo that Richard of Wild Rags distributed fell only into the hottest of hands, as did the 'Fallen Angel of Doom' vinyl with the strange people on the back with their shirts off, trying to burn grave monuments. In a letter that I probably still have somewhere, Richard told me 'not to say anything about Blasphemy, because they're really nice guys, and all the 'Satanic' stuff (I am quoting from memory here - but my memory is pretty good on points like this) is just for the band.' At the time I used to write Richard and Wild Rags letters calling them hypocrites for supporting both death metal and hardcore bands...you have to remember I was about fourteen years old at the time. In return he wrote me long epistles justifying his position as an exploiter of young musicians, asserting 'that as you still live at home with your parents, you don't know shit.' Of course, he was right, and I felt so humbled by the eloquence of such rebuttals/rejoinders that I watched in horror as my own convictions crumbled away beneath the heat ray of his real world expertise. My biggest musical conflict at that time was whether or not I should support the hardcore scene because the punk bands actually (I thought) had a moral consciousness, or the metal scene because the music was much better. In the end, metal won - I just couldn't seem to have my cake and eat it too...at a later date I took a trip out to Los Angeles and visited the Wild Rags store one day when I had nothing better to do. As I watched Richard, in all his grizzled glory, reverently folding and putting away row upon row of black band t-shirts, I contemplated introducing my teenage self as his arch-nemesis, the conflicted Texan with too much time on his hands. But standing there, pretending to examine Celtic Frost albums while surreptitiously sneaking sidelong glances at my would-be mentor, I felt an enormous wave of pity come over me. 'Here,' I thought, 'is a crusader without a crusade.' Of course, though, his crusade caught up with him ten years later...I should be so lucky...

But all of this is beside the point. Nobody had a clue at the time what was going to happen, and even when the big British metal mags began publishing photos of Varg standing in the snow with his hair in his face - hopefully holding a knife - I think people here didn't even care. 'Where is Norway?' they asked in bewilderment. 'Norway is north' was (and still is) the inevitable reply. Of course there are always a select few record hounds germinating somewhere, planning the next musical wave of terror - the next cliche, in other words - but when Darkthrone's second album didn't sound like their first, I was actually surprised. Can you honestly say that you weren't? And for all of you who claim genuine precedence - those who say 'well, I knew' - I point to you, and then I point to the other obscurists across the globe, in all the different subgenres of music, who are hoarding their hand-numbereds and waiting for the day when Japanese Elvis impersonators (or whatever their specialty is) go platinum. On that glorious day they will be Kings, you can be sure. I also think sheer blind chance has a large part in the proceedings in a game like this. If you were lucky enough to be one of the twenty people who bought Beherit's domestic version of 'The Oath of Black Blood' back in '92 (and didn't throw it away because it sounded nothing like Entombed) you can now claim, by the rules of black metal, that you were there first, and thus must be respected. I bought Blasphemy's first album completely at random - I don't remember why - and when I listened to it I had absolutely no idea then that their style of music was going to replace that of, say...Nocturnus. As I listened to it, read the lyrics (which admittedly are classic), and stared at the photographs on the back with a feeling somewhere between giddiness and mortification, I didn't feel like forming a band. I didn't exactly feel a 'call to the dark' - well, maybe a small one. If I remember correctly, the only thing that I coherently thought about was why the production was so terrible. The word 'necro' didn't make it to Texas until much later.

There are always people 'in the know', when it comes to any one thing in the world...there are people right now who know all about the next wave of the metal scene, what's going to be hot and what's not (and by the way, if you are one of these people, get in touch!), but that's not my point. What I'm saying is this: black metal didn't enter the 'general consciousness' of the underground metal scene here until much later than elsewhere, and by that time it was too late for American bands to claim precedence. Because of this, the 'first sound' of this wave of black metal (meaning the Norwegian Burzum/Darkthrone/Mayhem/Thorns 'cold' sound) became the archetype. Of course it is meaningless (as well as impossible) to try to go back and reconstruct influences based on minute segments of inspiration in individual minds. I'll just say this: at the time I was fairly knowledgeable about the underground scene, much better than the 'average' record buyer or enthusiast, and by the time I heard 'A Blaze in the Northern Sky' (that is, when it was first released domestically here in the States - I bought it about two days after it came out) everything was already over with, as far as I'm concerned. I didn't start to hear echoes of that album in the American scene until much later, and by that time every single Norwegian release that is still influential to American black metal bands who know what they are talking about (or who have any taste in music at all) was already out and being listened to. The US scene can not claim precedence, and this is what still troubles them. They can not forgive themselves for not being first...

But why does this even matter anymore?

I wonder if there are other forms of music out there that are as obsessed with 'influences' in the way the metal scene is. Why is this so? Is it just because metal is so limited, and each movement in a direction towards any kind of experimentation or originality is regarded jealously by the other bands in the genre? Is it because in the metal scene each band has to constantly reference earlier bands in order to be understood by the tradition-obsessed audience? You've no doubt noticed this, how everything in the metal scene is always compared to something that has come before, or something contemporary...as if there isn't any legitimate way to describe or explain metal music other than handing a listener a couple of albums and saying 'like this, only different'. Metal critics or reviewers don't walk forward, they trudge backwards and sideways - or in a circle - looking for ways to stretch red threads across or through genres and styles. If you are lucky, and last a long time in the metal arena, eventually you'll end up being compared to an earlier version of your own band (the Iron Maiden syndrome)...that is, your own history will compete with you. Am I the only one who considers this to be a nightmarish ritual?

So while we have dozens of black metal revisionists scouring their demo collections for even a hint of a frosty riff circa '90 or '91 from some unheard-of American band, I am trying desperately (right this second) to formulate on my own a 'natural' or 'nationalistic' style for American black metal. Of course, for Americans to try to inject American culture into their black metal aesthetics is ludicrous: there isn't an American culture, and no self-respecting black metaller would be caught dead trying to write epic tales about Plymouth Rock or the Roanoke colony. Scandinavia has 'dark evil forests', we have 'amber waves of grain'. Who are our mythic heroes? Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, John Henry, Babe Ruth? Bill Gates? As much as I would like to see a native black metal band come up with a 'concept' based solely on, say, the Texas Rangers in the 19th century, or the Battle of the Alamo, something tells me I wouldn't take them that seriously. No, we Americans just don't have the history to directly base any kind of 'pagan' or 'epic' tradition on, and nothing we can offer even comes close, for example, to the 'thousand year' battle the Scandinavians fought against Christian colonization and exploitation. How do you top that? We might as well admit it: if black metal is going to be about 'ancient days', nationalism, or an epic history of rebellion, we're not going to be able to add our voices to the tumult. You have probably noticed how American bands wisely choose to gloss over the issue of 'history' and proceed directly to the catch-all theme of 'darkness'. This is American ingenuity at its finest. Of course, putting all of these shadowy ideas into plain language really highlights the absurdity of our inherited cross-scene principles of composition. If we were to only write about our 'past' or the deeds of our ancestors, what's to stop us tracing our heritage back to whatever village or hamlet our ancestors originally came from? There are Americans here who have descended from Scandinavian immigrants (a lot of them are in Texas, actually) - why shouldn't they write about their 'glorious viking past'? What are the unspoken rules about themes here, in other words? A band like Forest of Impaled, for example, bring this point home admirably, as they are usually sure to give notice that although they are in the United States now, they are originally from Poland, and that means (wink, wink) they have something legitimate to contribute to the black metal scene. Are you confused? Let me see if I can use some simple equations to illustrate the beautiful logic of these preconceptions and border-abstractions: I am part-Indian, and the Indian culture is at least twenty times as ancient as the 'American', so I should be able to claim that my music is twenty times as 'legitimate' as anything a brash 'American' could come up with. It's my forefathers speaking through my fretting hand - can't you hear them? But wait: since I am only half-Indian, I guess I have to cut that figure in half, which means my music is only 10 ten times as legitimate, powerful, and profound. Still, ten times is pretty damn good. Isn't it amazing how a little math clarifies things?

For those of you must see things on the scale of 'grand movements', I offer these considerations, as I wouldn't want to disappoint:

So where does the US scene go from here? What do they have to offer at present? What goals do they have - as individual bands and as a united force? What will history say of their efforts?

1. There is nowhere to go, because there isn't a unified sense of progression or a unified goal, the musician's 'manifest destiny', and thus nothing to measure individual progress against. America is simply too large for a unified scene. American bands haven't been as widely distributed - they are probably more popular overseas than here. Amen. In the absence of influences, a vacuum is opened up for genuine creation. This allows for individual/solipsistic expression.

I believe that the best way to compose new and original black metal music - if such is your determined goal - is to forget everything you know about the genre and its history: where it came from, who its 'leading' bands are, what they have released so far, what this means to you, and, ultimately, why you love the music and are moved by it. Extreme? You must free your mind from external prejudices and compose directly from the soul, or it will be meaningless. If you want to write another forty minutes of mid-period Darkthrone, do me a favor: don't bother. It's already been done a hundred times, by people just like you who have felt exactly the same things you are feeling now. You are not original or worth listening to when you deliberately set yourself to mimic the efforts of others - does this come as a surprise? What makes bands like this worth copying anyway? Right.

2. They have nothing to offer at present - I am excepting Demoncy here - because, for the most part, they have not had the space and time necessary to prompt or sponsor individual thought/action and its resulting impact on their music. This makes one tremble for the future, when all these latest tendencies and suppressed lodes of misanthropy will (hopefully) burst forth, if they are not strangled by commercialism or the creeping death of ennui. Of course, if American is going to base its present reputation on the principle of future 'potential', as some point this reserve of strength is going to have to start producing. What are you waiting for?

3. There are no scene-wide goals of any sort, except on the most shallow or presumptuous of levels, by the 'would-be leaders' that I began this essay by talking about: i.e., the worst bands. In the absence of 'true leadership' by strong wills or capable minds, the US scene is open to freedom of expression and the cultivation of individual thought...the fascism of ineptitude on the part of the 'hordes' leads to further creativity through their inability to enforce a set of aesthetic principles. This happens to be best gift they could have ever given the scene, and their own mediocrity is an effective spur to further experimentation. Those who fail can also lead.

4. And lastly, I am guessing that time will have its due. When someone comes to write the history of black metal, trace its origin, its flowering, its 'most important' sects and cults, I am convinced American bands will appear prominently in the pages. Why? Because the spirit of the age has left Europe, my friends, and has now taken residence in this, the most corrupt of countries. Can't you feel it?

U. Amtey
28 October 2000