Monday, January 02, 2012

Frayed Ends Of Sanity

The only gift I asked for Christmas is Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind. Ever since I read this review several years ago, I thought it would be a worthy volume for the small but important musical section of my library. Well written, thoroughly researched, with an attention to the extra-musical milieu and activities that makes clear this was as much social/political movement as music scene, I would recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of music, social issues, politics, and culture. All the same, my reaction to the book is very different than Mark Ames.

He writes:
The rise of the Black Metal movement in Norway is a case of humorless dirtheads taking a joke way too seriously. The joke was Satanic rock, which Lords of Chaos skillfully traces from its early origins in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Coven (who transformed from performing black masses on stage to perpetrating the weepy hippie hit "One Tin Soldier") to metal’s second big wave in the early 80s and the rise of kitsch Satan-rockers Venom. To our modern eyes, Venom looks the spitting image of Spinal Tap during their Smell the Glove phase, but to dirtheads who didn’t know any better, Venom was the long-sought embodiment of evil. It was from the Venom branch of evil-metal that all of metal’s more violent, "evil" forms descended, including Black Metal.
The point of Satanic rock was to scare the Normals while fucking with the minds of its pimple-faced, predominantly male (nerdoid) audience, who needed to create a counter-world, with counter-morals and counter-aesthetics, to empower the nerdoids against the cooler, more successful jocks. But metal had its rivals for the hopelessly angry nerdoid: punk, hardcore and metal’s own competing mutations. The competition forced metal’s leading edge to metamorphose into harder, faster and more violent forms, reaching its apex with the rise of Death Metal in the mid-80s. Death Metal was as violent, Satanic and musically inaccessible as metal could go, or so it seemed.
And here is where Norway, the comic straight-man character in this dumb, bloody saga, comes in. Norway is not only a completely humorless society (it banned Monty Python’s The Life of Brian for being too offensive, leading to ads in rival Sweden boasting that the movie was "so funny it was banned in Norway!"), but worse, a deeply oppressive society, in a recognizably bland, caring, pious, Social Democratic way. Which raises an interesting question: Do boredom and blandness "count" as real suffering, and if so, do they justify murder the way other forms of oppression make murder seem a likely, even understandable response? The Black Metalists of Norway think so.
The humor and empty boasts inherent in Death Metal were lost on Norway’s youth. They took Death Metal literally, and quickly discovered that it wasn’t "evil" or "authentic" enough. There were too many "poseurs." And more important, too few genuine corpses for a scene that claimed to be so obsessed with death and violence.
To be honest, I, too, considered the "Satanic Metal" of bands like Venom and Slayer to be a ridiculous pose, a marketing scheme designed to ensure press and sales among the target market, teenage boys who are unsure of all sorts of things, and find both reassurance of a certain understanding of "maleness" as well as the catharsis that comes from listening to very loud, aggressive music. I used to think that the Black Metalers were too stupid to get the joke. I used to think the fans who started reading Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible or dabbling in fascist politics might be better off in a community theater troupe.

I don't think that way anymore. On the contrary. While it is true enough that Venom were, indeed, Spinal Tap in the flesh - the authors provide a snippet of lyrics from a Venom track that includes the line "We eat the vomit of the priests"; excuse me if I do not take this seriously - and that Slayer's toying with dark imagery was just that, and careful attention to some of their lyrics betrays a defiance against violence, against war, against senseless, meaningless death. While the death metal genre certainly toyed with certain aspects of dark imagery, and their songs are hard, fast, and obsessed with, as the genre's name implies, death, that in and of itself isn't "evil". While there are comic elements, and self-conscious seriousness and a desire for authenticity that drove some over the edge in to criminal behavior, it is difficult to come away from this work without understanding that there is, at its heart, something evil not only about the music itself, but the whole scene.

In an interview included in the book, the lead singer of the Black Metal band Emperor, Ihsahn (for some reason, members of black metal bands, at least in Europe, adopt stage names, a way of faking it to prove authenticity; or something) said this about life in Norway, on page 219:
Black Metal wanted to be in opposition to society, a confrontation to all the normal stuff. Everybody needs some excitement, and if you look at youth today, they're all very boring.

In my town all they do is have their cars and they drive up and down the one main street. They have nothing else to do - it's a kind of competition for who the finest car and the loudest stereo. They basically live in their cars. Those who are younger, who don't have a car - they sit at the side d the road and look at the cars. Their lives are extremely boring, and I can see that some people want more out of existence, they want to have theor own personality and expression which makes it impossible to be associated with all those meaningless humans who walk around everywhere.
In essence, Black Metal was Norway's Punk, it's Grunge, a musical expression of youth frustration with a stifling status quo. Like some branches of punk, and unlike the far more apolitical American grunge, Black Metal had a political component that veered far to the right. Some Black Metalers moved away from the anti-Christianity of vulgar Satanism, through the more sophisticated Satanism expressed by LaVey and embodied by someone like Ihsahn, to the anti-Christianity of a kind of heathenism dedicated to a revival of ancient Nordic religion that includes, most definitely, more than a flirtation with National Socialism in its Norwegian varieties (the book includes a sketch of Norway's wartime leader Vidkun Quisling who espoused an ideology he called Universism, a pantheism that befits most well-read mental patients).

At the beginning, Black Metal was a tiny movement, if the word fits, of a few bands that could attract, at best a few hundred fans to rare shows. The shows were rare because the fan base wasn't there to sustain performance. The early bands like Mayhem and Burzum - the latter wasn't really a band, but a one-man project by the above-mentioned Varg Vilkernes - released self-recorded and produced records that have managed to survive, somehow. The original lead singer of Mayhem, a Swedish youth given to extreme lapses in to depression and self-mutilation, ended up blowing his brains out with a shotgun; the authors helpfully provide a photo. Mayhem's leader, and the leader of the scene in general, was a pampered youth whose real name Oystein Aarseth wasn't boss enough. He adopted the stage name Euronymous. Along with leading a band and starting a record label - it included the two aforementioned bands as well as Emperor, Dark Throne, and Immortal - he also opened a Black Metal record shop in a rundown section of Oslo. Called Helvete - Hell in Norwegian - the shop was atmospheric, although from the outside the authors point out it was little different from the massage parlors that were its neighbors. The walls were painted black, there were skulls liberally placed about, it was lit by candles, and it soon became the focal point of the Black Metal scene. Ames is quite right that there was a certain humorlessness about it all, with the corpse-painted band members and fans walking around in black.

It would be easier to laugh, as Ames did, if it weren't for the dead bodies associated with the musicians, the burnt churches in Norway first, then Sweden, Germany, and France, and the generally depressive haze that hangs over both the musicians and the fans. The book is as much a true-crime book as a chronicle of a musical form and its social milieu, due not least to the prevalence of criminal activity, from burning churches in Norway to the murder of an anonymous gay man in Lillehammer in the summer of 1992 by the drummer of the band Emperor to a band of confused teenagers in Fort Myers, FL who called themselves "Lords of Chaos", going on a crime spree that included arson, robbery, assault, and finally murder. Led by a charismatic young sociopath, their ultimate goal was to sneak weapons in to Disney World on their senior trip and murder African-American guests who also happened to be in the park.

I would be willing to grant even to the more intelligent and thoughtful purveyors of this music - and Ihsahn of Emperor, a band that is still around and whose music has a majestic, almost operatic quality to it, comes across in his interview as intelligent, thoughtful, serious but never earnest - a bit more leeway were it not for the prevalence of dead bodies. Removed from its original context in Norway as a form of social and political protest against a stifling mediocrity imposed for national benefit, Black Metal becomes less political, less intelligent, and more simple-mindedly nihilistic. In America, bands like Buffalo's Cannibal Corpse, Tampa's Deicide, and Britain's Cradle of Filth seem to revel in shocking dress, behavior, and a kind of youthful overindulgence in the whole Sturm und Drang of anti-Christianity. This disgust is only slightly lessened in the case of Cannibal Corpse, whose lyrics are indecipherable. Even reading them while listening it becomes impossible to make any correlation due to the lead vocalist's hoarse grunting.

While an expression of youthful discontent at the benign oppression in a wealthy, indulgent society, Black Metal's seamy underside of arson, violence, and murder as well as its indulgence in racialist, fascist politics* makes it far less attractive despite its occasional forays in to musical territory that one can only describe as beautiful.

*The book includes a rare interview with Anton LaVey of San Francisco's Church of Satan. While certainly intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful, LaVey also comes across, pretty clearly, as a far-right political and social personality. His remarks against consumerism, for example, make me almost wish I had never said anything about American consumerism. Knowing his background, I always figured LaVey wasn't very serious about the whole Satan schtick; he started off as a carnival barker, and was a small time hustler as well. I assumed he indulged in Satanic fantasies as a way of making money a la L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. It seems, sad to say, he is quite comfortable with his mix of Nietzschean philosophy, human potential group dynamics, and what he calls an aesthetic that is similar to National Socialism with its enjoyment of drama and dynamic expression. In short, he seems to have been the real deal.

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