Intro — What Is the Occult?
“The occult” is a term that gets thrown around quite a lot these days. It’s mostly used to describe a certain aesthetic, one laden with candles, burly cloaks and pentagrams. It can also be used to connote an eerie or bizarre atmosphere, a sense that something is off. That shouldn’t be surprising; after all, “occult” comes from the Latin “occultus”, something hidden or secret. However, the occult is also a field of study, a body of knowledge and a sociological term which underwent plenty of historical permutations to finally end up with the meaning and context it bears today. We won’t be able to go into all of these twists and turns here, but it used to be quite a prestigious occupation. Look, for example, at John Dee, adviser to none other than Queen Elizabeth I. At a time when the lines between magic and science were still blurry, this mathematician and philosopher (being the classic Renaissance man) dabbled in geomancy, Hermeticism and a rich field of occult studies.
However, for the sake of brevity we’ll jump ahead to one Theodore Adorno. Far from a magician, Adorno was a philosopher from the important Frankfurt School. There, he studied with other great thinkers like Habermas and Horkheimer before finally moving to the States, via Oxford, New York and, finally L.A. There, hungry for simple material to read in English, Adorno turned to the horoscopes, or so the legend goes. In their lude pages, he found an interesting phenomena, one which would lead him to write one of his lesser known series of essays, entitled “The Stars Down To Earth”. This collection analyses the content of those horoscopes and tries to answer a host of questions: what draws these people to the same language? Can we identify their socio-economic backgrounds? What can we learn about the types of questions they ask and the answers which they receive?
There’s no clear cut answer. But from this initial inquiry, alongside other important works by diverse authors, came about the beginning of the study of the occult as a sociological phenomena. At its basis, derived directly from Adorno’s work, is the classification of those who deal with the “occult” in two main ways. First, they’re not a clear-cut group but rather what is often dubbed as a milieu. This term signifies a social environment, a collection of symbols, words, images and thoughts which swirl around in a chaotic and yet somewhat defined group. There’s no clear demarcations of who’s in and who’s out but everyone seems to know which is which, most of the time. Secondly, they’re seekers; they leave the safe confines of common wisdom and seek something beyond. They don’t care exactly what that is, as long as it’s beyond. Thus, Adorno and other researchers found people who had been into UFOs, astrology, New Age medicine, radical Christianity, magic and countless other beliefs in the span of several years. As long as it was “beyond”, they were hooked.
What does this have to do with metal, you might ask? Well, metal and the occult have an inexorable bond and have had it since the very first days of metal. Hell, Black Sabbath are one of the roots of metal and their very name is steeped in the occult. As time went by, dealing with demons, witchcraft, ritual and even UFOs became common in metal. So common, that the original meanings and implications of these images were fast forgotten, divorced from the underlying signifiers that had tied them together. Which is how milieus work; the ever shifting nature of the symbolic group makes sure that ideas are traded fast and that their original owners are forgotten.
But, you see, symbols have this tenacious quality to hold onto meanings. Even when the original ideas are forgotten, something of the way they fit together with other ideas sticks. The network of ideas, the complex tapestry that gives something meaning, looks quite the same. It inherits not the specifics which make it up but the rules which govern the weaving itself, the ways things come to make sense. And so, looking deeper into the ways in which the occult operates within metal, or the other way around, can help us gather insights about metal itself. What are the symbols that metal has borrowed from the occult and what underlying messages do they hint at? Can we pinpoint a certain relationship or perspective that metal has with or about the occult?
Before we begin, let me answer that last question: no. The structure of this post takes as obvious the fact that there isn’t one representation of the occult within metal. Instead, it embraces the idea of the milieu and explores the diverging ways in which these symbols are utilized. As such, we’re not here to give an exhausting overview of this subject. Indeed, such an overview would take countless essays, books and seminars, as metal is as divergent and complex as any other cultural sphere. Instead, we’re here to propose an initial mapping of the area, a declination of aims and goals or a nascent dictionary for the occult language within metal. For that purpose, we’ll be taking a look at three sub-genres and seeing how their music, history and symbology interact with the occult and what sort of messages they draw from that varied and unique milieu.
Part I — Doom Metal and the Will to Power
It’s only natural that we begin with doom metal. Spawned from one of the originators of metal, the afore-mentioned Black Sabbath, doom metal is perhaps the sub-genre most poised to draw from the occult. Interestingly enough, perhaps because of the decidedly anti-Christian themes which gave it birth, doom metal has chosen to focus on the satanic side of the occult. This specific sub-milieu houses a central image which is an inversion of a Christian one: the monk becomes the occultist, shrouded in the same cloaks and capuchins but hiding a subtle, dark and terrible truth underneath his smock. As such, his tools of the trade are similar as well: candles, incense and thick, leather bound books. All of these are utilized in the climactic ritual, a counterpoint to the Christian Mass, which summons forth powers from a realm beyond (just like the transubstantiation of the Catholic faith does).
But what is the goal of this summoning? What does the ritual hope to achieve? For that, we must return to Adorno and the reason his essays are called “The Stars Down to Earth”. In his theory, the central way of thinking that underpins the lure of the occult, that leads people to become seekers, is the desire to connect the unconnected. If you think about it, that’s exactly what magic does; if I explain to you exactly how and by what means I had just made that object fly across the room, the magic is gone. It is no longer occult, hidden, but now known, explained, done away with. It’s now science or, at the very least, technical. Instead, our egos yearn for the power of action at a distance, the ability to affect the world just by thinking hard enough.
And if you would give that ability to someone, what do you think they would do with it? Look beyond money, revenge or violence; what they would do with it, what you would do with it, is exact power. You would subjugate others to your will, bending the very rule of the world to your whims. This desire, an almost inherent magnetism that many of us feel, is what Nietzsche called (positively, by the way) the will to power. From it springs this part of the occult: you summon the demon so that it would do your bidding, so that it would grant you what you wish for, unbridled from the chains of Christian morality or guilt. Just take a look at the lyrics to this classic Candlesmass track, “Bewitched”:
“Can’t you see, the devil in me
just take a look in my eyes
I will play for you, this wicked melody
its magic will reach for your soul
It burns inside, no place to hide
this strange tune possesses your mind
It comes over you, and the nightmare is true
you’ll enter the realm of the dark
You are bewitched.
Bewitched by delight, you’ll reach the night
dancing and singing to my fiddle”
Everything we spoke about is here: the ritual in the form of the fiddle and the dance. The power coming from within (“the devil in me”) and granting our hero the ability to affect the outside world. The presence of a “devil”, an anti-Christian protagonist who now plays the positive role of wish fulfiller. These power-fantasies, however, are not limited to just the imagery of the ritual or the beyond. The idea of powerful beings that lie beyond, and which can grant boons to their followers, is common but not absolute. Often enough, the power to change the world around us in doom metal comes completely from within, aided only by the art of magic and craft. The occult becomes a tool, a key to unlock the power within us (interestingly enough, this idea will return in different form in our last subject). Mastodon‘s “The Last Baron”, ending the tale of our shaman-protagonist, is a good place to go for an example:
Dead end path
All that I need is this wise mans staff
Encased in crystal he leads the way
I guess they’d say we could set the world ablaze”
“Cyanide he craves
Coursing through his veins
Providing him with strength
To see this to the end
Afraid of psychic eyes
Faith in mystic power
The last baron”
There are plenty more examples, from all across the different kinds of doom music that exist out there. However, the point should be clear by now. The occult has, for ages now, been about unlocking secrets, whether external or internal, for the power they bequeath us. This power is to connect the unconnected: to reach across the gulf of space and enforce our inner will upon the outer world. Metal picked up on this primal desire, offering and depicting a wish-fulfillment of the highest degree. The particular type of this wish-fulfillment might explain metal’s widespread popularity with teenagers. After all, who among us hasn’t dreamed of unbridled power when they were sixteen? Doom metal speaks to these hidden places and often nourishes the same desires that the occult seems to satisfy. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised at the overwhelming presence of shared symbols and ideas that exist between the two.
Part II – Black Metal and the Call of the Wild
One’s first instinct when asked to find the occultism of black metal is, rightfully, to point to the overt Satanism and anti-Christian imagery that practically drips from the genre, much like doom metal. Behemoth and Mayhem are two of the biggest proprietors of the grim and imaginative style of heretical imagery in question here – the former even titling a song “Antichristian Phenomenon” – and, as two of the most popular and formative bands in black metal, having shaped the genre both musically and aesthetically, their contributions to black metal’s occultism should be neither understated nor taken for granted.
That being said, to simply delegate Satanic imagery as the sole mode of occultism in black metal is very, very wrong; the genre as a whole is steeped in a fine broth of paganism that has its roots in reverence for the natural world and the pre-Christian cultures of various European countries. Groups on the more atmospheric side of the genre, bands like Agalloch and Ulver, exemplify this best, musically, lyrically, and aesthetically. Look, for instance, at the translated lyrics of Ulver’s “I Troldskog Faren Vild”:
“They awaited the maiden’s homecoming
But she was led astray in the dark forest
The snow’s carpet had broadened itself
On the homeward path – her only friend
O could she but
Follow the starry trails
She would not be lost
Among these dark spruces”
The natural imagery here is plain to see; the “dark forest” and “snow’s carpet” complement the ethereal music to form a mental image of creeping woods and a smoky, grey dusk, and the listener can easily immerse themselves in the scene Ulver is creating here. “Dark spruces” and “starry trails” add another level of that naturalist significance and help flesh out the lyrical themes further. Bergtatt, Ulver’s first album, is regarded by many as the pinnacle of this more atmosphere-oriented style of black metal that leans heavily on the call of the wild and natural-world spirituality, but they’re not alone: with The Mantle, Agalloch conquered this style as well by adding a healthy dose of gloomy neo-folk to their sound. Take, for instance, the lyrics from “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion,” the second track on the album:
“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless. . .
This is where I choose to tread”
As though the folky, reverberating black metal didn’t speak for itself, what with the addition of wooden claves and layers of warm acoustic guitar over the plodding base, here we have what is possibly the most straightforward example of pagan ritualism within black metal: “On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape / In search of God, in spite of man” is a perfect summation of exactly what the entire genre aspires to. This passage is as much black metal pagan manifesto as it is a lyric. This is classically occult; the idea of nature as an entity, as something which can be reached out to and touched, permeate the occult milieu, from horoscopes to magic through Hermeticism and kabbalah.
Personally, I’d be lying if I said that this call of the wild wasn’t part of what enabled me to connect so strongly to quite a lot of black metal. The rule of the natural world in this genre adds a sense of palpable fervor and intimacy that many other metal subgenres lack, and the way bands bring the sprawling beauty of frostbitten forests and windswept valleys to their music creates an intimate passion that can be hard for other genres that operate at the same level of aggression. The next time you hear the rustle of leaves and feel the chill of the wind down your back at night, just know that somewhere out there, a black metal fan is having as close to a religious moment as a fan of the genre can possibly get.
Part III — Progressive and the New Age
Lastly, we come to a movement that is not often considered when one says “the occult”. New Age is hard to define; its beliefs span socio-economic groups, definitions and geographical boundaries. It is one of the widest spread movements in modern times but also one of the most loosely defined. There’s no central structure, no priesthood, not even an agreed upon code. But underneath that diffused demeanor, lies a common truth. The New Age is a movement which, historically, sprung from the same roots as neo-paganism and modern mysticism. The name references a flowering, an unfolding of new, human potential. The name was used long before it was appropriated by the New Age movement, among diverse thinkers in American, federalist thought, Carl Jung and, perhaps most importantly, Madame Blavatsky. The latter, a European mystic from the 19th century, is most important to our needs. Her theory, dubbed theosophy by herself and her followers, preached the idea of an upcoming, spiritual/metaphysical elevation of human-kind into a new race, more powerful, wise and in connection with the world.
Sounds racist? It was. That upcoming race was the Aryan race. Her ideas were later disseminated and appropriated by the thinkers who would give the Nazi movement their ideological fuel. But the ideas themselves, of an occult, mystical power embedded within humankind survived in much more esoteric places. They basically informed the entire movement and gave it its central idea. By looking deeply into ourselves, and with the aid of ancient texts, humanity can and should strive to unlock its higher potential. Starting to sound familiar? It should; these basic ideas are, and have been, at the basis of many progressive metal lyrics. The message of self-fulfillment through a mystical path has recently become even more prominent, with the rise of djent and the myriad bands that occupy and give meaning to that community.
Certainly many other sub-genres within progressive metal contain links to the New Age but djent is perhaps the most recent and obvious iteration. One only needs look at The Contortionist, a band that perhaps signifies the growing fascination of this sub-genre with these ideas as time goes by, to grasp the ideas being communicated here. One of Madame Blavatsky’s central ideas, and indeed an idea common to all magic, is that language, power, spirit and progress are all the same thing. Language is a map to the internal processes of the human and it contains within it all the hidden knowledge needed to unlock that power. In turn, by studying language, we can grow more human and more powerful. The last piece of this intellectual gymnastics is that growth is also simultaneously a return, a re-connection with primal states. Watch as The Contortionist explain all of this neatly:
Restore our vision
Of natural progression
Rise in groves to reclaim the source
We will be the salvation the Mother seeks
Traversing in all directions
Balance finds its place
Reaching for the Mother Sun
Rooted to intuition
You are the language”
As if this wasn’t enough to drive our point home, consider djent’s fascination with astral themes. This too echoes the ideas of Madame Blavatsky, ideas which permeate throughout the whole of the new age milieu. In Blavatsky’s theory, planets are both an object and a place but, more importantly, representations of states of power. Presence on a planet and transitions between them represent more than just geographical locality but also a state of mind, a maturity and a growing of powers. This idea can also be seen in the writings of C.S.Lewis, whose books dealt with physical travel to other planets that are accompanied by spiritual transitions (interestingly enough, his “Out of the Silent Planet” also lent its name to an Iron Maiden track).
As an example of this idea’s presence, and as a form of summary to this undeniably long post, I ask you to look at both the aesthetics and lyrics of one of the great masterpieces of djent. Uneven Structure‘s Februus does a clever thing; it rarely equates outright between mental states and astral locations. But reading the lyrics to the opening track and looking at the album’s cover, alongside a closer reading of the themes present in the album, should give us all the information we need. Astral locations within djent have held a fascination from the outset; some of the genre’s most classic albums are fixated upon these distant structures. Such is also the truth with New Age; remember, it’s “The Stars Down to Earth” and no mistake. What grander “connecting the unconnected” can we wish for? What greater power can we exert on the world around us than one that spans astral dimensions? What better thing to equate the human soul with than a burning star, for those who seek the beyond? Metal fits comfortably into that niche, both feeding and feeding upon the same emotional wells that motivate the seekers.
“A dense, dull quiver can be felt from far away
Morsels whirls all around, melting down
An aberration into the womb breaks the microcosm
Aurora of a new abstract and elaborated macrocosm
This irrepressible fever plucks on stimulations
A dim halo appears at the heart of this randomness
Its bracing radiation projects patterns all over
The splendor conveys me into a boiling torrent
Freed from the womb, an overwhelming light surrounds everything”