The Paradox of Suffering: Catharsis in Depressive Suicidal Black Metal

Depressive Suicidal Black Metal is not a subtle genre of music. Arising as a symptom of the second wave of black metal misery sweeping Europe in the early 1990’s,

7 years ago

Depressive Suicidal Black Metal is not a subtle genre of music. Arising as a symptom of the second wave of black metal misery sweeping Europe in the early 1990’s, DSBM has since carved itself a particularly notorious and shocking niche within a genre already notorious for being shocking. Rumors shroud many of its most famous members. Niklas Kvarforth of Shining supposedly mutilated himself on stage. Nattramn of Silencer lays claim to a laundry list of whispered wonderings, including: self-flagellation during vocal recording, self-amputation of limbs (which he remedied via pig-limb prostheses), attempted axe-murder of a small child, and a subsequent institutionalization in a psychiatric hospital. Even the infamous crimes of Varg Vikernes swell the mythos of DSBM, as many consider Burzum’s early albums to be progenitors of DSBM. But these shocking crimes, half-truths, and hearsay are not the core of DSBM. Despite the ostensibly self-destructive nature of a genre that seems to literally advocate for suicide in its title, there is something far more beautiful at work here. Rather than promoting suicide, depressive suicidal black metal instead converts suffering into beauty through the process of creating, broadcasting, and receiving music.

It’s useful to look at the beginning of DSBM to understand the psyche behind the genre. Fittingly, the genre was birthed in Bethlehem in 1992 A.D. (although some would place the crown of thorns upon Strid). In Decibel’s revealing interview excerpt from the book Black Metal: The Cult Never Dies, Bethlehem bandleader Jürgen Bartsch describes the sordid lives of the Bethlehem band members. Between them, they had dealt with crushing poverty, orphanage, depression, addiction, violence, and physical and sexual abuse. United by their bonds of suffering, the band released their seminal EP Bethlehem. Bartsch is well aware that “[o]ur music reflected all these negative things from our youth”. But to Bartsch, the music resulting from his suffering “was relief.” Collectively, Bartsch says “[y]ou could channel all of the negative aspects of our life” into the music of Bethlehem. This is the secret of DSBM, right from the horse’s mouth. The music channeled from negative emotions, despite the screaming and the chaos and the minor keys, does not produce a negative effect. One does not become more depressed and suicidal by listening to DSBM. Instead, the beautiful paradox of DSBM is that the end result is wonderfully cathartic, both for the musicians and the audience.

The reasons for this catharsis are complicated, but the black beating heart of it is that there is agency in music. The abuses and addictions haunting Bethlehem’s band members were not chosen, but thrust upon them by the realities of living in failing, forgotten German slums. But in their music, they are able to choose how their suffering will sound. They are able to mold the riffs and shape the melodies that tell the story of their pain — and then broadcast it to the world at large. It’s an elegant, meticulously crafted plea for someone to hear and acknowledge their suffering. What DSBM (and many other music genres, although less blatantly) achieves is the encoding of suffering via music, to be decoded by an audience who may share in their pain and thus lessen its burden.

Part of what makes the creation and reception of DSBM so powerful is the exclusivity and the extremity the music breeds. Not many people listen to metal. Fewer listen to black metal, and fewer still venture into DSBM. It’s never been a particularly popular subgenre, but there’s reason for that. The literal screams of tortured agony that serve as the “vocals” for many DSBM bands (most notably, and infamously, Silencer) aren’t meant to be acoustically pleasing. They are meant to encode the immense suffering of the artists into music. The lo-fi, raw guitar sound and production is meant to strike the ugliest and most primal and base chords of human emotion. And yet, despite these barriers, the melodies are often gorgeous. The fuzzy, treble-peaked tremolo riffs providing the basis for most DSBM songs can be poignantly melancholy and painfully beautiful. Artists can encode their suffering into music through tortured screams, but they can also communicate that same pain with a bittersweet riff.

The result is a sound that can only be engaged with by people who legitimately enjoy (and therefore, decode) the music. In so doing, an ultra-exclusive group is created that can understand your suffering because they do too. It’s a community that understands that you may be depressed or suicidal, and that everything is not okay. Although it might seem like a wallowing pit of negativity, the truth is that the sharing and engagement with suffering creates a feeling of belonging. By listening to DSBM, people are not alone in their feelings. They are not isolated. And because of the exclusivity of DSBM, it’s a particularly poignant sense of belonging. Your parents will find no solace in Xasthur — but for some, it’s a haven. Our own Eden “The Machine” Kupermintz goes into some further detail on the function of suffering and identity in metal here, but the most relevant bit of it for this topic is this: In metal, “suffering and pain are often ultimate signs of belonging”. This is doubly true in DSBM, which is essentially founded on the concept of suffering. In DSBM, the people who feel alienated, misanthropic, and hurt may find a powerful catharsis in the music that acknowledges their suffering.

As a vessel for the transcription of an artist’s unique suffering, the music of DSBM is appropriately melancholy and meditative. It deals with raw emotion in different ways than, say, the blind aggression of grindcore. DSBM generally deals in understated and repetitive soundscapes. One of my personal favorite DSBM albums is Nyktalgia’s 2004 self-titled opus. The same melodies reappear throughout the album, weaving and bobbing among the electric fuzz of the guitar, irreverent to arbitrary divisions of song. Hear “Lamento Larmoyant” and listen for the incredibly subtle undulations of bass. Although it’s hidden (you might even need headphones to hear it), the bass provides some of the sweetest melodies on the album. Taken with the trademark lo-fi production and rasped shrieks of the vocalist, Nyktalgia is a classic DSBM album.

Of course, the lyrics are totally indecipherable. But that’s kinda the point. I purposely abstained from lyrical analyses in this article because, frankly, the lyrics are usually pretty bad. And furthermore, they are often unreleased and indecipherable anyways. Lyrics are largely irrelevant to DSBM. Suffering has no language.

As it turns out, depressive suicidal black metal isn’t quite so depressive or suicidal. Rather than exacerbating serious mental health issues, the creation, distribution, and reception of DSBM provides catharsis for artists and their listeners in their shared suffering. May none suffer alone or silently — scream, scream, scream!

Andrew Hatch

Published 7 years ago