Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – Romanticism and Black Metal

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“”Understanding romantic aesthetics is not a simple undertaking for reasons that are internal to the nature of the subject. Distinguished scholars, such as Arthur Lovejoy, Northrop Frye and Isaiah Berlin, have remarked on the notorious challenges facing any attempt to define romanticism. Lovejoy, for example, claimed that romanticism is “the scandal of literary history and criticism”. The main difficulty in studying the romantics, according to him, is the lack of any “single real entity, or type of entity” that the concept “romanticism” designates. Lovejoy concluded, “the word ‘romantic’ has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing”.”

When one the most lauded sources for definitions of philosophy, thought, and cultures tell you that the subject you want to write on is too complicated, you should probably stop, if you’re clever. However, the two writers undertaking this task are known for many things but being “clever” isn’t one of them. So, at the onset of this monumental task, it would probably be easier to explain why we insist on making the attempt to talk about Romanticism, even in light of the delicate complexity of the subject matter. It’s probably because black metal is an intriguing phenomenon. It is something which is of our age and yet seems so strange to it, a kind of weird outgrowth whose roots can be traced to the main chronological body of our reality but whose leaves enjoy the light of far stranger suns than ours.

How can we explain this aesthetic called “black metal,” an aesthetic which is, in and of itself, as complex and elusive as Romanticism? How do we make sense of a cultural movement that has spawned white supremacists and killers but also introspective, politically progressive, and strangely poignant music at the same time? The mind begs for a reason, a kind of conceptual thread that would explain the disparity between the different parts of black metal. The rational part in us likes patterns and it demands for one to exist here, some method to the madness. And so, we offer one possible explanation: Romanticism.

To get underway, it’s necessary for understanding’s sake to embark on a small defining process for Romanticism. First, it was an historical phenomenon that began in the late 18th century and wove its way through the 19th century, intrinsically tied to the Enlightenment. It drew on ideas from literature, art, and philosophy to imagine everything anew, from the natural world through the role of humans in it and even to other worlds (science fiction had one of its golden ages as part of the Romantic movement). Secondly, it was an aesthetic which admired nature and harmony, an aesthetic which, time and again, imagined humans as part of the harmonic order of creation. As such, it also had a very unique role for those humans: they were sparks of the divine flame, beings endowed with great power but also chained to the world around them. This world wasn’t to be denied in favor of the spiritual one, like in Judeo-Christian tradition, but to be lived in, understood, enjoyed, conquered, and explored, all through the unique fire of human curiosity and ingenuity.

 More than anything, Romanticism equated that fire with the individual, the ability of the singular human to overcome their surroundings and prevail in the name of eternal principles. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the literary tradition it left us with, novels of singular protagonists making their way through the world in Bildungsroman: coming of age stories focused on educational attainment through hard work and intellectual prowess. Thus, nothing was more alluring to the Romantic experience than the figure of the genius, the towering intellect which cuts through distraction, pettiness, and challenge to shake the world to its foundations. That figure is also often the classic “tortured artist”, suffering great pains for their art because of their own sensitivity, society’s fear of them or just the cruel facts of nature. At this point, it should become clearer what black metal has to do with all of this. The joining points are manifold.

The conceptual beginnings of this piece come from a small coincidence that instantly elucidated the connection at hand: there is a song by Wolves In The Throne Room titled “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” For the uninitiated, the inspiration for this title comes from arguably the most famous Romantic painting (and the one used in the banner for this article). Caspar David Friedrich’s work displays everything about the Romantic aesthetic in a succinct manner: a single dominating human figure atop a quasi-celestial landscape, staring down upon his domain – but seen from the back so he still remains inaccessible to our sensibilities as an audience. The impenetrable man, conquering nature but simultaneously conquered by it, overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of the natural world.

Let us now compare this to the song of the same name. Immediately, we get a guitar tone that’s about as far abstracted from a guitar as one can get: brittle and reverberating, it dominates the mix with its earthy punch, but it’s also leaned back and, in a sense, far away from the listener. There’s a reservation in it that suggests we may not be able to fully understand it, fully able to co-opt it into our cognition of the band’s sound because of our inability to recreate it. It stands, like the natural world, at a remove from us, and the furious blast beats behind and vocals atop the guitar elevate the piece without ever bringing it closer to us. Fellow staffer Ahmed Hasan wrote a pretty brilliant piece a while back for his series “Beyond The Veil” about the potential of blast beats to suggest upwards momentum in altitude; this is crucial to understanding exactly what’s going on here:

My personal answer [to the question of what gives blast beats their power] would be the sense of flight that they bring. When used appropriately, blast beats can bring a feeling of ascension to a riff, pushing it ever forward and upward at breakneck speeds that no other style of drumming could possibly achieve.

This is what we find throughout the track, but especially at the 1:23 mark of “Wanderer.” For context, a new melody has been built atop the simple chord progression and tension is building within the track. Everything about the song wants to push itself away from the earth: the tempestuous blast beats are shackled to the ground by the earth-laden machinations of the guitar, and the growing disparity between the two erupts here. The introductory guitar gives way to an extraordinarily beautiful, soaring melody, and the track flies, burdened no longer by its tethers. The mind struggles to categorize the stark and immediate difference between the two sections, giving rise to a moment of absolute sublimity: reason disappears for an instant in the sudden change and the imagination, free entirely in that instant, increases manifold. There’s a sense of being overpowered by the music entirely, but at the same time, the music gives rise to an unmitigated wealth of feeling and freedom in the individual. 

That chase for the moment of Romantic sublime is incredibly common in black metal of the more atmospheric variety: bands operate at an oppressive, downtrodden remove before exploding outward into soaring, grandiose melodies. The twin feelings of overpowering emotion brought on by the melodies – often chosen to invoke a sense of despair, nostalgia, or isolation in nature – and the sudden lightness derived from the change in the music itself give rise to any one of a resplendent array of responses that all hinge on the fact that there is that moment of sublimity in the music’s movement from overpowering and heavy to light and beautiful.

There’s an alternative path for the sublime, though, and that’s the Romantic sublime originating from pure oppressive force. Where “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” claims the first, a song that can elucidate the second option here is “The Woods Are On Fire” by An Autumn For Crippled Children. Where the prior was the grand, beautiful vista of a vast forest or mountain range, this is the Romantic power and scale of nature illustrated through a hurricane or lightning storm.

The entire track is characterized by pulsing, clipping, whirring synthesizers and noisy guitars that dominate the mix and collide every instrument into a bright pastel smear of sound. There’s no real handle to find or thread that opens up an understanding into the song, only melodies that surface between roiling waves of static-laden noise whenever they have the opportunity. A stormy sea or woods ablaze, the difference in disaster is immaterial: the mind is overwhelmed and reason flees to safety, leaving imagination free to roam on its own accord and gather an insurmountable treasure trove of sensory information into a picture of pure beauty and, of course, sublimity. In the presence of such awe-inspiring natural spectacle, imagination becomes removed from its task as the gatherer of the senses just so it can be cognized and parsed by reason, and instead takes in the sensory information for its own purpose. In doing so, it reaches a transcendent and spiritual level unlike anything else, and puts us in touch with some higher ordering to the world that is otherwise inaccessible. (This is all, by the way, taken from Immanuel Kant’s theory of the sublime. If you’re interested, I’d suggest reading Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement or one of the many essays floating around the internet analyzing just how this works.)

The understanding of the sublime is one of the shared underpinnings of both Romanticism and black metal, but there is another: in the figure of the Romantic genius, the tortured artist who is so in tune with the world and so adept at unearthing its secrets that they know no respite from the pull of a higher power. Like moths to a fire, or Icarus to the sun, they come close to the spark of godhood that animates our world but are pushed away at its precipice by their own nature as mortal beings. In black metal’s epicenter there has always been the same kind of figure, the loner who possesses something which puts them in the perfect position to translate the human experience into something entirely new but is in turn alienated from the rest of the world by their power.

Figures like this are not just prominent in but inextricable from black metal. Individuals like Dead from Mayhem, Nattramn from Silencer, and, of course, Varg Vikernes of Burzum may not be worshiped in nearly the same way as the Romantic figure, but their lived experiences as translators of everything black metal from a more metaphysical, unseen realm into action in the world, and vice versa, speaks the connection between the individual and the community at large. These men are held at a distance, understood to be appreciable for what they’ve done and the strides they’ve made but not to be engaged with in any way. Dead’s suicide and the ensuing album cover for Dawn of the Blackhearts illustrates a deeper point as well: in the end, these figures should be memorialized in the only way appropriate, the way they invented new modes of experiencing the world. Of course, this is not to elevate the figures at the core of black metal in any way. They are, by and large, awful, awful people, and black metal is so deeply entrenched in bigotry and Nazism that any positive view of the men responsible for its expansion into the world is automatically tainted by a thousand disagreements and reservations. Nevertheless, they are at the core of black metal as these “tortured artists” and pretending otherwise is to negate its troubled legacy as a scene.

Black metal’s form also gives unique rise to solo artists that translate their experience: PanopticonSaor, and Mare Cognitum, three of the most impressive black metal bands today, are all made up of a singular individual who composes (and, in some cases, records) every instrument. The music is entirely a solitary creation; these artists work on their own to ensure a purity in their vision that only total creative authority can bring. Of course, other genres have solo artists as well (the burgeoning nu-prog scene is replete with them) but black metal’s cultural characteristics provide a unique niche for these individuals to move in tandem with the genre’s direction as a whole. 

All movements of history inherit shards of that which came before. History does not repeat in a cyclical fashion, but, like a snowball rolling down a hill, everything done on Earth is inherently laden with the detritus of its cultural predecessors. Trends emerge and then disappear, only to resurface later, and that’s exactly what has happened here: the search for a deeper meaning in the world, the isolation of the individual, the incredibly strong connection the natural world, all are signs that point to the Romantic tendencies latent in black metal that go unseen but have been uniquely and overwhelmingly formative to its development. The older movement heavily informs and shapes the newer in a powerful fashion, which leads to a richer, more nuanced culture developing around the music.

A real woman has curves, and a beautiful body, and a long neck, and a sorta stubby head. A real woman is made out of wood and has inlaid metal frets and pickups. Wait, that's a guitar. I'm thinking of a guitar.