Sunday, May 16, 2010

The New Norwegian Black Metal

I wonder...when exactly did these new currents or trends (it is not in any way derogatory to call the new direction in Norwegian black metal a trend, despite the assumptions of the principles involved) with the bands on the Moonfog roster first become a priority for the interest of journalists in the metal scene? When exactly was it decided that the main force of journalistic power (the power to give notice, advertise, promote, increase record sales - to make a musical movement seem legitimate) would be aligned behind these bands? Who made the decision? When was this complimentary trend in the echoing halls of journalism given a legitimacy of its own? Why listen to its voice? Give it credence? How does this reflect on the prior obsession on the part of journalists to cover the happenings in Norway surrounding the Vikernes/Euronymous debacle? Is it connected? Most importantly - what are the Norwegian bands attempting to say with their new music? What does it say about them? What are they trying to foster, or escape? What paradigms are they leaving in exchange for electronica - and why? Why the concentration on a 'modernization' of sound? I shall attempt here to answer, as best as I can, some of these questions...if not all. I think that an article of this sort is in some ways a bit premature - I am commenting on items, situations, events, and ideas that are still being formed, propogated, or expressed by the principles. I have to admit, however, that the subject moves me to the point where I feel I have to add my small voice to the debate that is supposedly raging ('whimpering' would be a better adjective), and to justify my own interest in the end. Most of all, I think I have to explain just why any of this is at all relevant.

I was first decided as to the legitimacy of my inquiries based on the musical/recorded aesthetics of the new Mayhem album, 'A Grand Declaration of War'. Why? Because Mayhem, first and foremost, has seen the possibilities that electronica offers, and have committed themselves to it wholesale. They are also the 'frontrunners' in the scene, as their record company assures me, and I know that a lot of people look to them not only as trendsetters but as a sort of 'scene-barometer', where trends in the Norwegian scene at larger are filtered, purified, and make themselves manifest as a kind of 'example' of what is transpiring all around them. Fine. I am not privy to the decision making that goes on in this camp, so I can not say who started the new directions in their sound: whether they were offered up by Hellhammer, springing from his involvement with The Kovenant, from other members, whether these new aesthetics are a direct progression from the sounds offered on their last release, that long-awaited EP 'Wolf's Lair Abyss', or whether Mayhem is following a musical path that they consider to be completely original. They are historically very reticent when it comes to divulging information about their compositional practices - something that I have noticed is sort of a 'legacy' left over from the days when Euronymous had the band gripped tightly in his hand: whether he considered the best way to increase the sense of 'mystery' surrounding the band and its music was to intentionally cloak the compositional ideas he had in mind, casting a shadow over the technical aspects behind the emerging aesthetics of black metal, or whether he was just naturally taciturn and not disposed to talking about his own musical work, I can not tell. You can easily discern, however, that talking about the creation of their music is something that the black metal bands (especially the Norwegians) do not easily take to. With that information left in the dark, we can only approach the formulations behind their aesthetics from the outside - as an affected one, a witness, an outsider looking in, whose senses and reason are being systematically challenged or subverted by the music he is trying to study.

What you can tell from the new Mayhem and a string of other contemporary releases is that the Norwegians have formed a new aesthetic/ethic of purifying their sound: this means stripping the black metal formula to its different essences or building-blocks, and then using those simple elements to construct what they consider to be a new approach to metal music. This is not a new idea. Similar musical movements have gone through this re-orientation and oversimplification in the past, and actually, I see this approach as something of a cliche, really...when metal music, which is basically oriented in a guitar-drum interaction, a simple set of rhythms and melodic ideas (passed down from Sabbath and Zeppelin, of course), become overly complex it tends to drown itself in its own elaborate arabesques and pretentiousness - there is a law of diminishing returns seemingly built into the very fabric and tissue of metal aesthetics. The more complex the music is, the less range in offered for experimentation and further elaboration/evolution. In a sense a large amount of complexity means travelling far down a path that requires certain convictions and commitments that cut away the avenues for later originality - it means committing yourself to a stylistic mode whose potentials for expansion and growth are limited from the outset. Why? Because there are always the simple elements of metal music to be kept in mind, and these elements can not be transcended without pushing the music into a new genre. Bands try to circumvent this by adding in elements from other styles almost haphazardly over a metal base, or the elements of metal in their sound are twisted, over a period of time, into new combinations that escape the boundaries of metal. Have you noticed how metal bands are almost always trying to 'evolve'? Isn't it true that this musical genre, most of all, is comprised of a series of snapshots (musical still life, sound photographs of a point and time) of bands that are somewhere in a process of evolution? You can almost say that metal music can be defined as the middle point of evolution between two other stylistic genres - the starting point and their aesthetic terminus, their endtime. This is very exciting for people who demand a certain sense of stylistic originality or 'period relevance' in their music: what could be better than a musical genre that is alive and breathing, that responds to changes in its environment, that is being constantly pushed to evolve-or-extinguish (and in the process of evolution almost certainly extinguish itself - an irony that seems to escape most metal musicians...what are they being pressed to do if not constantly transcend themselves, sacrifice their past art, commit themselves to a self-immolation, a series of little deaths (true petit morts you could say) in the name of constant advancement?), a musical movement where the bands above all are defined not by what they are but what they have left behind, what they have sacrificed from their potential in order to remain a viable organism?

By focusing on the basic elements of the black metal style, and in narrowing their focus to what they could then build out of those elements, I think these bands have released a statement of intent which is undeniable. One, they are loathe to fly too far too fast (no Icarus here, Ihsahn) - they feel comfortable in staying somewhat close to their roots (Ulver is an exception) at this point, but they have announced that they are prepared to leave their heritage if it is required. This is something of a paradox, and reflects both their lust for something new in their sound and their fear of flying, their unease with musical genres that do not lend themselves very easily to a combination with metal aesthetics. And in any case, how original is combining electronica or 'industrial' music with metal music anyway? Fear Factory, anyone? Godflesh, for heaven's sake? Two, they believe they can escape the self-imposed boundaries of black metal by melting their former aesthetics in the crucible of a 'modern' compositional technique, recombining the dross and gold found there, and coming up with a new architecture of essential sound elements. This is something of a compositional instinct it seems, as I said above, but does it really work? If you have a style that is based on a list or combination of certain essentials, and you find that your present music is escaping your need for expression, will re-combining these elements really lead you to something else? Or will it just be a newly colored puzzle - or rather, the puzzle seen from a different angle? A different perspective of the same old tired black box?

By taking the essential elements of black metal (the harsh screaming vocals, the simple repetitive riffs, the 'cold' treble/reverb guitar sound, blast beats/blur tempos - I am tempted to add 'a Scandinavian heritage', etc.) and stripping the additions to this sound (some bands never progress past these simple ideas, but I'm not talking about them) the Moonfog bands have created now added room for components or ingredients that they feel will show their new direction in the best light. For example, you have Satryicon abandoning their medieval atmospherics for the 'industrial edge' they now flaunt - but underneath those additions, their 'new sound', they still have the traditional machinery of black metal at work, even though it has been re-combined in a fashion that seems to stress its 'extremity'. This is also something of a aesthetic guiding light for the new Norwegian black metal: the black metal formula, having been concentrated down to its elements, is now pressed to the extreme - not so much as a statement of intent as an attempt to link the new music with the past, as if to say 'the extremity is still there, underneath it all'. What does that really mean? Because the black metal elements are beneath the new sound does that mean that they are somehow 'more natural'? Almost 'instinctive', 'unconscious', 'undeniable'? As something that can not be avoided - that must be felt and heard? Or are the Norwegians committing a flagrant act of nihilism here by saying that all black metal ever really stood for was a certain pattern of beats, a drumming style, a guitar sound? That they are still linked to their heritage and former convictions because these musical elements, reflecting archetypes of their idealizations and beliefs in the realm of spirituality as well as musical aesthetics, can still be found in their music - even though they are now derided by the simple act of pushing them to their limit under the sardonic ethic of extremity-for-extremity's sake? The implications of these new aesthetics are very disturbing to me.

Speaking personally, from my own perspective, black metal was never really about the combinations of different sound elements, and its ethics or aesthetics were never based completely in the realm of musical composition. The style of music that most black metal bands play, as extreme as it is, can be easily linked to other movements: the punk bands, for example, or hardcore, and death metal. It is not what the black metal bands were playing, exactly, or how they were playing it (even though that does have a priority of second importance) as much as it was why they were playing this style of music, and what they were trying to say. The aesthetics of the Scandinavian (or to be more specific, the Norwegian) black metal movement were quickly crystallized through the influence of Euronymous: through the legendary 'Live in Leipzig' album, the epic and all-important 'De Mysteriis' opus, and (the most 'sacred' of all) the second Darkthrone record, 'A Blaze In The Northern Sky', which is dedicated to the impression he and his 'circle' made on these former-death metal musicians. What these albums say to me, even now, is that a new focus or concentration of aesthetics had been formed, and a new awareness of a musician's national heritage, his environment, and his political power had been realized. Black metal became a sounding board for a few musician's obsessions (this can not be over-emphasized), and a new language of melodic/musical elements was invented in order to adequately bring attention to the evolution of this small group's aesthetic priorities. The most pressing innovation: a concentration on creating novel atmospheric effects through traditional instrumentation, an intent to make music that was more psychologically disturbing that what death metal bands had come up with in the past, and an intense interest in the manipulation of emotions through sound - tied in with an undeniable need for personal expression. Are the earliest black metal recordings of the 'second wave' not primarily about the transmission of emotion through created atmospheres, the effect and process of human emotions being extrapolated, concentrated, and taking on a life of their own by forming psychologically-altering soundscapes? This obsession the earliest black metal bands had with the themes of darkness, decay, sterility, 'coldness', misanthropy, hatred, nihilism, depression, death, violence, suicide, etc. and creating an environment where those themes or emotions could be most effectively impressed upon the listener - is it not something new in the history of metal? Something increasingly intense, personal, and original in expression? Much like the new movement of 'death industrial', these black metal bands were interested in transforming, through the practice of music, emotional archetypes, images, themes, or obsessions into realms of sound where the transmission of an idea or emotion from the musician to the listener was virtually uninterrupted, and the aesthetics of the music itself took on a coloring (or lack of coloring) bled straight from the hearts of the musicians themselves. Art as life, or rather...the process of art taking on the characteristics of the musician's obsessions themselves.

Why is there now a new concentration on the very mechanics of the black metal style, a new impetus for purifying the black metal movement off all seemingly 'superfluous' elements, taking the music back to its 'roots' again - only in order to create something new (in the black metal scene at least) on top of these basic building blocks, these primary characteristics? Is this 'mechanistic' view allied, in a fundamental fashion, with the new concentration on 'futuristic' or 'contemporary' music - i.e., techno influences being added, 'industrial' textures thrown into the mix, a new lyrical stance that focuses on 'reality' and the 'urban myth' rather than traditional 'medieval' fantasy? There is also the increasing use of imagery that ties the bands to a 'postmodern' take on the music scene, society, or the world at large: an approach that combines styles from several different genres, and an image that seeks to reflect the isolation and oppression of urban decay, etc. Why the attempts to 'modernize' black metal? Does this make the music more relevant - or does it now reflect the contemporary interests of the musicians involved? Are the Norwegians tired of fantasy imagery and lyrics? Starved for meat after a decade of feeding off the chameleon's dish? Are fantasy lyrics not substantial enough to whet the appetites of these jaded mavens? Or are the 'contemporary' leanings an effort to move into the mainstream? Isn't this all about commercialism?

Commercialism vs. Personal Communication

Commercialism, I think, is the exact opposite of (and a negating influence on) black metal's earliest ethics. How so? While commercialism strives to expand an artist's reach, to build a larger audience, to 'reach' more people, the corresponding loss of meaning, effort, intensity, integrity, and the ability to effectively communicate in the art is so detrimental as to make the entire process utterly self-destructive. One of the most tragic parts of this entire paradigm is the fact that this not a new idea - the pattern of obsolescence, rising from the underground to the mainstream and the resulting consequences, is well known. So well known and documented, in fact (especially within the metal underground), that any band that purposely takes this route can almost immediately be seen as insidiously suicidal. The most sublime pieces of black metal are the most effective in an isolated, individual, solipsistic environment - why? Because communication is not the broadcasting of trite, shallow, powerless 'messages' to a large audience, who are correspondingly lackluster or ineffective in interpreting the impact of the message being transmitted. Rather, true communication is about the correspondence between two individuals, on a private basis, on a personal level, without distractions. The world is changed one person at a time - a cliche, but also a truism when it comes to trying to effect reform or revolution through art. Really effective black metal art (Burzum's first few releases, for example) has always followed this pattern: it isolates the listener, making him withdraw into himself, and it opens up new vistas for emotional/idealogical exploration based on its power to convince through an unprocessed transference of emotion. At heart it is an amazingly personal, emotional form of music...

The Marketing of Satyricon

Reading the lyrics from Satyricon's latest opus (a vastly overrated work, in my opinion), and giving consideration for the fact that English is not Satyr's native tongue, I can not be dissuaded from the impression that these texts are nothing but frail pastiches cobbled together at a moment's notice - they are rambling, share little sense of internal cohesiveness or direction, and are almost useless as narratives. Instead they seem to just combine several sections of phrases together - phrases that do not communicate an ethic, motive, or philosophy directly, but rather indirectly in that they are mute witnesses to the pretensions of the writer. Instead of telling a story (something that postmoderns consider near-impossible on 'philosophical' or semantic grounds) they just run through words meant to evoke a certain class of imagery: you could term it 'neo-gothic', or perhaps 'black cyberpunk' - it doesn't really matter. What does matter is the fact that these lyrics are nothing more than a counterpart of Satyricon's new image - they are meant to back up the pictures in the CD booklet, the photos released to the press, the imagery that Satyr frantically scrambles to control. As such they are meaningless outside of their 'atmosphere-building' effect, and they convey no meaning or message. Disappointing? Compare them to the lyrics from 'Nemesis Divina', or Emperor, for that matter. They are also very disappointing in that they convince me of nothing so much as Satyr's decline into illiteracy. In the postmodern world the image is king, the image sets the tone of reality, it controls reality, it stretches across all language/ethnic/political barriers, and the image in this case is nothing but an advertisement. Is this in any way more 'substantial' than lyrics about knights, maidens, and burning crosses?

The problem here, I think, is not that black metal has been converted into a commercial venture by the 'leading' bands in the scene (this almost always happens within every genre of metal, study your history of the thrash and death movements), but that the most influential circles in Norway, that once fertile field for all manners of defiance and legitimate art, has rebuilt itself as a commercial factory for no other reason than sheer nihilism. It is a matter of priorities being analyzed, rejected, abandoned, or subverted, and new priorities taking their place. The most frightening aspect of this metamorphosis, again, is not the general ethic of these new priorities but rather the motives that lead to their adoption. Is Moonfog's new image, approach, philosophy, and sense of purpose not the best evidence we could ever have of the Norwegian's wholesale abandonment of the black metal ethic? Again I assert here, as I have done elsewhere, that the only thing that separates a vital artist from the cyphers that he frowns upon are the convictions the he holds, the strength of those ethics, and the way he communicates those beliefs through his art. Norway has forgotten its destiny. The music that is coming out of that label now is only a reflection of this change in direction. It is the play of surfaces, the scintillations of ephemeral existence, around the core of inner truth. An artistic movement as powerful, energetic, and strong in conviction as the black metal scene used to be can only be based, I am thinking, on a nexus of strong-willed individuals who share similar beliefs and who act in order to watch their ideology take root and blossom. What happens when the flowers die, Satyr? What direction will an artist follow when his strongest beliefs and/or convictions come to absolutely nothing in the greater scheme of things - when the passion, anger, and enthusiasm of youth and ignorance is replaced by a knowledge of the constraints of reality? Black nihilism is the result...a correspondent of the despair of the 'failed' artist. Is there any more nihilistic act in the underground than turning your back on your former convictions and striding directly into the path of commercialism? A more Mephistophelean bargain? Norway has lost its soul in a pact with higher powers - powers it can not hope to control.

(I had hoped to conclude this article by attempting an analysis of the effect the journalistic world has had on the black metal movement: its birth, fostering, the growth it has seen over the years, the ways in which these two symbiotic dimensions of the music scene have prospered or failed over the last ten years, and the minutiae of their intertwining. I see now that this is not the place for such an investigation - perhaps in another monograph, we'll see...)

U. Amtey
May 20, 2000