Saturday, May 15, 2010

Death Metal as a Life Ritual

Demonstration: death metal as a proliferation of forms, of structures ceaselessly created, of energy spontaneously produced or summoned and radiated, as the sardonic play of spirits over dead matter. Death metal as a symbol and celebration of life.

I. Death metal as a proliferation of forms. The riff being the easiest to perceive as a basic form, or going even further, down to a molecular level, the phrase, the note, the tone of the note itself, the guitar sound and the symbolism of that tonality. Reading the guitar sound as a sign leads one to intuitively grasp moral perceptions and/or convictions of the musicians. The guitar sound is both an expression of individual will and a link in a chain, a deference or homage paid to what has come before and a nod to what must come after: a chain of life, a cycle of reproduction. The signs within the guitar sound point to specific references, they orient both the sound and the material it drapes itself over in a legacy of other artists. The sign can also correspondingly point to a declaration of independence. To reach a new sound is in itself a breaking-through or piercing of the will, a cry of self-determination, if not self-realization. The guitar seeks its own voice, and this journey towards realization reflects the moral resolution of its manipulator. The moral resilience of the manipulator is also realized in the length of his deference towards his artistic ancestors or influences and the nature of his attempts at seeking an original voice. The sound of the instrument becomes a sign of the manipulator's voice, and is linked in that archaic tradition of regarding the voice as the symbol of the spirit, the will, or the soul. Through instrumental manipulation different minds sing together, match voices, sing in unison and play off that unison [commenting, musical asides, themselves signs of "independence" or individual life under the aegis of a group will], and reach towards a common musical expression through a division of voices - that is: different voices singing different forms yet being harmoniously combined into a group will that expresses a collective moral resolution. Independence is expressed through cooperation and vice versa. The proliferation of forms enacts itself through a constant reiteration of basic motivic ideas and musical themes: micro-themes are expressed, offered, given birth to, combined, torn apart, devoured, issued again in a different forms that carry the mark of their former selves, micro-themes are combined into melodies which are changed continuously, melodies are woven into individual songs. In death metal, however, the songs themselves are only signs of a method. As individual entities their existence is precarious, and their expressive capability or solvent identity is often subsumed under a different sign: the sound itself, the method of the music, the ideas that are expressed through the medium of the song, as the song is not an end in itself but rather a messenger, a point between the will of the creators and the ability of the listener to read the signs being put forth. Individual expression is carried up from the will through the tone, the guitar sound, the note played, the chords, the melodies, themes, or riffs, the structure of the rhythms beneath the melodies, the song segments that are derived from the melodies, and the song itself. The song segments comment on the construction of the song as a whole, and are signs in themselves. Depending on the way in which they are placed different signs of intent are created, and a musical group places itself once again at a specific point in the chain of influences, creators, and references that makes up the tradition of songwriting.

II. Of structures ceaselessly created. Nature itself, which we seek to reproduce and mimic as creators, in the abstract: an energy and "life" source creating endlessly through an infinity of forms. Among the hierarchy of artists, their self-imposed pantheon, there are differences of degree between creators, the qualities or distinguishing characteristics being, among others, not only the amount of works created, but the forms of those works, their individual characteristics and perfections. The "highest" artist, in this tradition, is not only the creator who has reached aesthetic "perfection" [a completely relative qualification which ceaselessly changes as well] in his/her work, but who shows that perfection in different forms, through different mediums, different traditions, and often different areas of artistic endeavor. The range, flexibility, suppleness, and intrinsic energy of the artist is as important as the drive, direction, and capacity of the talent and will. Death metal rejects this. The highest artist in death metal is the one who can create ceaselessly within a tightly controlled paradigm of aesthetic strictures, and still communicate emotion effectively. As such, death metal musicians paradoxically often seem to cripple themselves in the beginning of this contest as a sign of their own potency. Often the music approximates the superfluity of nature in its rapid concatenation of motivic forms. However, by limiting their creativity to strictly defined and rigidly traditional or hierarchical channels they reach aesthetic perfection of form much more quickly than other musicians. The obstacle is this: the forms of death metal itself are always changing. Once "perfection" is reached in an individual's expression though artistic creation, he/she must immediately begin over again. In this way the artist is motivated towards constant creation, through a multiplicity of new forms. Death metal endlessly evolves…in fact over the last ten years of its existence it has replaced its aesthetic rules of preferment and ascendancy almost every year, if not even faster. Change and evolution is key, in each musician's approach to his/her own creativity and ability to express, in the direction, statements, intent, style, and sound of each group, and in the wider stream of the entire movement. Within the framework of the individual song, evolution is constantly taking place. Witness the "brutal death" or "technical death" metal style of bands like Deeds of Flesh, whose songs seem like a swarm of profligate, super-fecund forms, melodies and rhythmic riffs constantly climbing over each other, reversing, changing direction, swerving, standing tall. These riffs not only evolve over the course of their use in a song, but seem to struggle with each other in a sort of internecine battle to determine their own direction. The riff that evolves quickest, which reaches a sort of expressive supremacy and carries the song forward at any given moment [forward movement is paramount, even as the song seems to careen wildly in one place, referencing itself like a tornado reflected in a gallery of mirrors] is the one that is picked out of the self-replicating, mutating brood to become the motif of that song segment. Segments multiply, their number forming individual, conscious cells within the greater organism of the song. In fact bands of this sort seem so fertile, so inventive, their riffing and referencing so adroit and continual, that at time melodic fragments decorate song sections as afterthoughts, like fragments of a composition left on the cutting room floor. All is swept up again to be fed upon and absorbed back into the energy of the song. All life cast out is drawn back again into the center and made the material of new creations. A death metal song of this type is not only a composition in itself, but also a sign of the composing process, and a miniature/microcosm/symbol of the methodology of inserting and rejecting melodies in order to satisfy the aesthetic judgment. The concept of evolution, in itself, comes into constant contact with the genre and its artists, and presses down its influence until the ideas surrounding it infect not only the methods of songwriting, but every other aspect of the art including the ways in which the artists manipulate their instruments. Under the press of experimentation [which must take place in order to evolve and reach new ground] nothing is sacred even as the basic stylistic determinations of the genre remain untouched. This paradox is at the heart of the genre. Ceaseless creation, continuous trialing and novel articulation, and yet a core set of principles which can not be altered. Nature, at the center of its own creation, ever changing, and through a multiplicity of forms always the same.

III. Of energy spontaneously produced or summoned and radiated. Death metal in performance is an interchange of energy between the musical group and its audience. The musicians are moved spontaneously by their own creations, and symbolically demonstrate the potency and excitation of their convictions coming into conflict with life itself, symbolized by the audience. Reproducing their original forms again and again, in a seemingly ceaseless struggle of creation, the group broadcasts wholesale a tremendous amount of motivating energy. This is absorbed by the audience as a force for change, and given back to the group enhanced and amplified by the understanding of every member of the audience. The performance is in itself a ritual by which the essential ideas of which their music are symbols or abstract forms are displayed, examined, filled with energy, given life, consumed and reduced to their essence by the audience, and then returned to the musicians. The ritual itself is a constant striving towards a climax of mental excitation whereby the barriers between the creators and the audience are blurred and the expressive capability of the musicians reach a state of transcendent harmony with the receptive capacity of the audience, a climax that seeks to reduce both the space between the desire of the musician to express him/herself and the desire of the audience to understand as well as the time between the initial drive towards expression and the fulfillment of this aim in creation. The performance is seductive in that it is both a display of essential convictions on the part of the musicians and an attempt to convince the audience of the integrity/applicability of those convictions, that is: the ritual is both a symbol of potency and a demonstration of that potency coming into conflict with life. It is a combination of unconscious desires and the conscious will, an amalgamation of essential drives towards dominance and the pleasure of creation for its own sake. While seeking to impose their will on the audience the musicians also ask for approbation and approval, a returning display that their convictions are applicable after all. In more than one way a performance in this sense is a trial, from both sides. Out of nothing is created form, energy, a path for the will, an expression of the theater of existence.

IV. As the sardonic play of spirits over dead matter. The uninitiated might point to the seemingly irresolvable paradox of a musical style that is obsessed with death, in the abstract, as being one of the highest expressions of life. This paradox comes about because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition and concentration of the genre. Death metal is not obsessed with death-in-itself. Why? This is impossible. Death is a void, a meaningless ending of signs and an endless producer of signs, a nothingness, a thing not to be approached, embraced, understood, qualified, categorized, or manipulated in any way. The concept of "death" is in itself just a sign that points to a barrier which our minds can not [quite naturally] travel across, and by that concept we mean not only the nature of that barrier, but the "mystery" that our ignorance creates in response to it. The only meanings that can be derived from the concept of death are created by the living. The dead are voiceless, soulless, inert, without form, substance, or will. The meanings that we derive from death are reflections of our understanding of life. It is of course a paradox then that death metal posits, as a source of endless radiation of energy and meaning [influence, inspiration] the center of death in itself, but that paradox is not an ending to meaning. The creative urge is both the reflection of the living upon the concept of death and the natural human drive to overcome it. Death metal, more than being about the concept of death in itself, is about the social constructs that define, limit, and place the concept within familiar understanding, as well as all the related fears that are created when this concept is come into contact with. The empty concept of death, defined not so much by what it contains as by what it can not possibly touch, and what limits it materially, on its borders, is placed as a focus of energies that are constantly approaching the concept but which can never penetrate it. Instead they rebound, reacting with each other, reflecting back upon themselves. The paradox is of course conscious of itself. Seen in this way, it is easy to understand the obsession that death metal expresses with the ending of life as an item of will: murder, accidental homicide, genocide, serial killings. What is being expressed is not so much a fascination with the appearance of death in society as it is the way in which our society reacts to this manifestation. An enthrallment is also expressed with the ways in which death can be "created" by the common protagonists of death metal aesthetics: the individual who places his/her will above all other laws of society, the individual who reflects, in a sort of Christ Passion, the sicknesses of his society in himself [serial killers], and the individual who can not distinguish between life and death, and who creates death out of life and life out of death interchangeably, the necrophiliac fervor of trying to resurrect the formless and give meaning to the inert. A holistically destroying artist is a contradiction in terms, no artist can destroy without creating in turn - although his new creation may not be recognized at first. The death metal artist is obsessed with the methods of the destroyer as that paradigm is also the traditional epigone of willful change, the control of will over matter. Dionysian destruction is but the prelude to new creation. It is not "lawlessness" or "rebellion" that these aesthetics endlessly return to [although that would place it firmly in the tradition that is derived from, rock music, and those ideas do play a part] but the concept of transcendence and transfiguration through transgression, a self-becoming and imposition of the will over death itself. In this sense, and also in the constant references to the social fables of the murderer, death metal seeks to express a willingness to allow its unbridled force for creation completely surpass the laws of life. Who has more distaste for death than the murderer, who constantly strives to express his lust for life by killing? It is not the death-obsessed who kill, but rather the life-obsessed, who destroy in order to feel their own ascendancy. Through a celebration of death, in turn, the artist discovers his own powers for life.

U. Amtey
5 July 2003
11:19 AM EST


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. The Noonday Press, New York, 1993.