Perfect Sound Forever

Loving Indolence, Hating Peace


Varg Vikernes geared for battle

The Strange State of Black Metal Upon Varg Vikernes' Emancipation
by Thomas Bey Wiliam Bailey
(October 2009)


"His smile was coquettish, nauseated, and ironically egoistic; he could not look the reporter in the face. As in a dream, he spoke past the camera for those who will understand him, the little, beautiful punk devil who causes the world to rattle with unspeakable words. [...] They, the beautiful self-mutilators, know enough to scream out against the conspiracy of silence of the respectable... there is still something of one's own in willed self destruction, a symbolic shock."1
-Peter Sloterdijk

Although the words above were written by the German cultural critic Sloterdijk after witnessing a TV interview with The Stranglers, they could just as easily apply to the enigmatic character of Varg Vikernes a.k.a. 'Count Grishnackh', the man who almost single-handedly catapulted his parent musical genre (Black Metal) into the blinding glare of media scrutiny. Sarcastically speaking to TV cameras that "everybody believes a journalist," famously grinning as his 'guilty' verdict was read in court –for the 1993 murder of Mayhem guitarist and leading Black Metal proselytizer - Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth- and using every opportunity during his captivity to lambaste Judeo-Christianity and technocratic society, Vikernes did nothing if not "scream out against the conspiracy of silence of the respectable." And now, after 16 years of imprisonment (plus a well-publicized period of leave that resulted in Vikernes' being arrested with a carload of explosives), the man operating under the musical moniker of Burzum walks free.

While Vikernes has all but promised a quiet retirement to the Norwegian countryside, the flames that were lit by his negative charisma have now fanned out across the globe. Fed-up, dissatisfied youth from Helsinki to Santiago still call upon 'Cliff's Notes' readings of Nietzsche and heavy doses of paganism/anti-monotheism while girding themselves with the stock Black Metal uniform of cumbersome spiked gauntlets, macabre face paint and silver talismans. This is then followed by deadly serious promo photos in the torch-lit or snow-blanketed forests where wolves lurk freely. Throw in an illegible band logo that looks like exploding medieval armory, plus a stark denial of RGB color, and you have the visual backdrop for roughly 90% of the bands to have appeared since the seismic events of the early '90's. Note the plural form of 'event': the spate of Norwegian church burnings that took place over the same time (some of them attributable to V.V.), plus other grim and random incidents of murder and intimidation, made Vikernes' knife assault on his ex-bandmate only the most notable and tabloid-worthy of Black Metal transgressions. So, thanks in part to Vikernes, the murderous reputation of this music now frustrates any attempt at giving it an unbiased listen, although there are rewards in store for those who can ignore the personal foibles of these musicians: with some trial and error, one can find bands that deliver downright rapturous goblets full of musical mead.

The massed tremolo guitars of modern B.M., grinding out their poignant chromatic riffs, can rival vintage Glenn Branca for nurturing an overwhelming sense of the spiritual. The persistent battering of the double kick drums– akin to faultlessly whirring helicopter blades- also encourages total submission to a trance-like state, and the overall iciness of the reverb-soaked recordings gives them a much closer kinship to prime shoegazer music, or even Brian Eno, than to the sudden stop-start time changes and atonal acrobatics of Death Metal (one of many movements adversarial to B.M., as we shall see). Even though the vast majority of Black Metal bands follow this simple musical template with no deviations (rivaling even 1980s hardcore punk for the amount of adherence to 'scene' orthodoxy), the over-arching philosophy of un-compromise has also given a handful of more adventurous souls a blank check to foment some truly radical ideas. You say you want a Czech band that has based its career on concept albums about sewers? Check- look for Stíny Plamenù on iTunes. Maybe you're partial to bands whose drum sound is built from samples of pounding hammers? Double check- seek ye out Rehtaf Ruo.

A word to the wise, though: if you do go asking after these bands in popular online forums (like the highly informative Encyclopedia Metallum), expect to be greeted with suspicion by gatekeepers with grandiloquent titles (Lord, Tyrant, Imperator, etc.), Perhaps more than any other musical subculture, metal has always prided itself on its inability to be recuperated into a mainstream defined by utilitarianism, political correctness, pragmatism, and the rule of any law other than that dictated by nature itself- a world where civilization itself is seen as a kind of enslavement. From the neo-pagan intellectuals paraphrasing Julius Evola's Against The Modern World to the rank-and-file suburban high school outcasts, the metal fan's outsider status in a world of perceived low standards is something to be treasured and rubbed in the face of the unenlightened. It could be argued that this voluntary segregation from popular taste, along with the precedent for action set by Vikernes' audacious actions, have combined to shape Black Metal, from the mid-'90s onward, into the definitive 'underground' movement.

Black metal fans' wariness of misrepresentation by a materialistic pop culture is not totally unfounded: isolated elements of the extreme metal aesthetic have already been swiped for use in the postmodern pastiche that constitutes the 'cool' cultures. The recently published art book Fraktur Mon Amour celebrates the chic appeal of the old German typefaces which were once the uncontested property of extreme metal acts, seemingly making a clean break with and 'liberating' these thorny fonts for use in the ironic boutique fashions of today. In another example of re-appropriating Black Metal, Drew Daniels of the critically lauded electronic duo Matmos poses for his Facebook profile picture in a Burzum t-shirt (and giving a 'thumbs up' in front of the remnants of a burnt church, no less). For many, these occasional crossovers would be seen as a subversive victory, but for the guardians of "kvlt"*, they are patronizing and predictable gestures from a mainstream seeking to wet its toes in the pool of dark esotericism, but too timid to really dive into its 'deep end,' with all the support of pure nihilism that would entail. The Black Metal underground of the 21st century has sought out ever-darker caverns of refuge by refusing to play live gigs, to have official MySpace pages or even to grant interviews in sympathetic 'zines- making such legendary recluses as Jandek and Scott Walker look positively genial in comparison. More interestingly than this though is the considerable number of bands in this teeming underground who have earned their fame through actively resisting it- like an inversion of the Paris Hilton formula ("famous for being famous"), some of the most talked-about acts in the wake of the Vikernes scandal have gained their renown by interacting with the outside world as little as possible.

For one, it is almost inconceivable that a curiosity like Les Legiones Noires [The Black Legions] could have existed in any other cultural milieu: this intoxicatingly weird clique of French black metallists was notable for recording hopelessly limited cassettes and vinyls with astonishingly (and intentionally) poor sound quality, possibly meant to sound like what an alien civilization might find on an archaelogical dig once the Legions' much-prophesied "Black Holocaust" had consumed the Earth. With its secret language, and its baffling, unpronounceable project names like Brenoritvrezorkre and Trörkrvsätänsrörkrëh [!], L.L.N. also inadvertently conjured the spirit of their countryman Christian Zander's invented tongue (Kobaïan) which was used in his compositions for prog-rock titans Magma. Any comparison to Zander's work has to end there, though, as his labyrinthine strains of sci-fi by way of Stravinsky couldn't be further removed from the tortured and monochromatic murk of the Legions.

For the record, a good half of the projects conducted under the L.L.N. sign were ill-fated stabs at dark ambience, an immersive genre for which sonic 'texture' is everything and lo-fi recording practices rarely translate into compelling listening. The metal side of the project, though, overseen by self-appointed 'imperial vampires' like Lord Mey'nach and (wait for it...) Vordb Drésgvor Uèzréèvb, is easily some of the most demented, barbaric music to have been wrung out of conventional rock instrumentation. What Barry White or Isaac Hayes were to the satiny love ballad, these bona fide freaks are to the careening, psychopathic miasma of distorted shrieks and roars. Again, their total inaccessibility has made them into decorated heroes of their scene– observe the 3-figure sums commanded by questionably authentic L.L.N. releases on eBay- but one wonders if the whole mess wasn't just cooked up by some Parisian art students for a cynical laugh.

If the 'will to obscurity' isn't enough to place a huge dividing wall between the underground Black Metal scene and the rest of the music world, then there's always the eagerness with which certain musicians burn bridges and slander their fellow travelers (the term "kinderground" has been coined to attack those who, for whatever reason, fail to acquire proper "kvlt" credentials). For a beginner's course in these internecine conflicts within the Black Metal underground, you need look no further than a page on the Ukrainian 'Propaganda666' label's website: appearing under the slogan "dedicated... intolerant... destructive" and mockingly titled "humans," label boss and Lucifugum composer/poet Igor 'Khlyst' Naumchuk lays out an exhaustive litany of complaints against nearly every individual who has ever wronged his label or its distribution service. As a sampling, here he uses this public forum to call for the head of a Serbian business partner:

"does exist [sic] anyone in Serbia who [is] ready to crush the skull of this parasite? With great pleasure we'll place the photos of the action…and give you any 66 cd's [from] our catalogue."2
The complaints themselves may be justified when they concern issues of non-payment to Naumchuk, or various other CD trades gone bad, but his tirades veer into the realm of unintentional humor when he castigates National Socialist metal acts (another Vikernes-influenced contingent, and not an insignificant force in the underground) for being too humanistic in their sighing reveries for lost purity, either that of their genetic makeup or of their respective homelands' untrammeled nature. Of the Pagan Front, a rival metal network that irresponsibly binds paganism to N.S. ideology, he says "any sheep which is able to bleat 'sieg heil'... can join this sheep fold. [...] In today's life-styled 'white' scene, demagogy continues to remain the main way of rinse of [sic] brains."3 While I wholeheartedly welcome Naumchuk's negative assessment of the Pagan Front, his thoroughly anti-life stance grows tiring after the initial mild shock, steering perhaps too close to the L.L.N.'s brand of "anti-promotion as promotion" for his own comfort. A shame, since Naumchuk's wife Elena 'Stabaath' is one of the few genuinely frightening musicians within the underground: as the sole instrumentalist for Lucifugum, her reptilian-voiced incantations and skewed guitar/bass runs conjure up a suffocating, vertiginous atmosphere beyond the capabilities of most of her peers.

As the attentive reader can probably gather by now, underground black metal does not come completely without uncomfortable paradoxes. Just one of the most glaring ones is this: while nearly everyone involved in the scene espouses extreme anti-collectivism, bands continually refer to themselves as "hordes" and, as seen above, "legions." For a worldwide scene which boasts of its commitment to anti-egalitarian natural hierarchy, the institutions which put out a demonstrably better product (like the Southern Lord label, with its highly professional layout and design aesthetic) are the first to be spoken out against for their imagined betrayal and dilution of the scene. And, in the end, the types of collectivism on tap in modern societies are just traded off by the scene for their historical precedent, tribalism. Black Metal's tribal rivalries continue to ferment and multiply as its reach extends: Norway vs. Sweden, literalist Satanists vs. LaVeyan Satanists, bands utilizing keyboards vs. guitar-only outfits, and of course, the life-worshipping pagans vs. the 'mystics of the void' exemplified by Igor Naumchuk.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the more convincingly aristocratic and intellectual personae who were once the scene's leaders, such as Emperor's Ihsahn or Ulver's Trickster G., have long since decided to tread other less limiting pathways and to leave the recreational conflicts to the "hordes": the former musician now vacillates between neo-classical compositions and old-school symphonic metal redolent of King Diamond, while the latter utilizes electronica of varying hues to trace the evolution of the Luciferian spirit in the digital age. Others, like vocalist Gaahl (ex of the scandal-plagued Norwegian powerhouse Gorgoroth), have tested the faith of the manly "kvlt" with more personal lifestyle choices: Gaahl confirmed his homosexuality in November 2008 after rumors swirling around his 'close relationship' with Norwegian modeling agent Dan de Vero, a move that did not go down well with the corpse-painted and spike-encrusted hordes. Ignoring Gaahl's cultivated self-image as a vengeful spirit, and a prior conviction for assault, some 'individuals' within the metal underground saw fit to deliver death threats to de Vero.

Such pedestrian behavior only reminds that mysterious and romantic 'underground' movements attract much more than the self-actualized superheroes of the soul. By having to resort to such tactics to display its combative nature, certain 'hordes' are setting the bar even lower than Vikernes. It's tempting to suggest a direct relationship between the attention paid to mailed-in death threats and Internet flame wars, and the lack of innovative musicality coming from the same ghoulish bunch of Black Metal also-rans. It might help to turn to Cornelius Tacitus, the famous scribe from Roman antiquity, who wrote a damning description of the 2nd-century Germanic war bands which could easily be applied to the Black Metal hordes of today:

"When not engaged in warfare, they spend a certain amount of time in hunting, but much more in idleness- thinking of nothing else but sleeping and eating. […] In thus dawdling away their time, they show a strange inconsistency- at one and the same time loving indolence and hating peace."4


FOOTNOTES:

1 Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, p. 127. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987.

2 Posted at http://www.propaganda666.com/666.htm

3 Igor 'Khlyst' Naumchuk quoted at http://www.propaganda666.com/WysiwygPro/L/LUCIFUGUM_int_SMAGP666_eng.htm

4 Cornelius Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania, trans. Harold Mattingly, p. 114. Penguin Classics, Middlesex, 1983.

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