As we’ve been saying to “moderates,” centrists or just those would hold a Platonic ideal of music, free from the mundane concerns of the world of phenomena, everything is political. It seems strange that these words even need to be uttered in a world in which every little event can be monitored, criticized, assigned a value and used to classify us, but here we are. People just can’t seem to get this fact in their head, and you know what, it’s understandable; the thought that nowhere is free of analysis and criticism, that all our actions reflect our worldviews, is scary. It’s scary to realize that very little of what we choose to enjoy, say or take part in comes from a true wellspring of pure choice within us, that all aspects of our lives are part of a web of power relations which can’t be untangled. But that’s exactly what our world teaches us if we look at it critically. Behind all our tastes, behavioral patterns and social forms lies a complex matrix of biological, economic, social, political and intellectual reasons. That matrix is heavily influenced by our perceptions of the world and the often un-examined axioms of our worldview.
But that’s the reality we live in, especially when it comes music. As something which is inherently expressive of a worldview, whether through lyrics or the power of musical suggestion, music is tied up into politics at its base level. This has always been the case. From Beethoven’s complex relationship with state propaganda, through Black Sabbath‘s greatest anti-war hit, to Open Mike Eagle‘s scathing, urban condemnation of racism, overt political themes have been a part of modern music since that term could even be understood. More importantly, even when these overt themes are missing, music is political. Even when bands don’t directly sing about politics, their lyrics and musical modes tell us things about how they see the world. Thrash still believes in the cathartic power of violence, even when it’s not explicitly saying that. American folk always stands in relation to the political and economic plight of vast swathes of American culture and their pain. Behind black metal’s obsession with nature, you can always find a complex relationship with the modern, with belief and with identity.
This stems from several causes, most of which we can’t accurately summarize here. First, music is art, and art is inherently about how someone views the world. When you decide which worldview to express through your art, whether emotional or otherwise, you inherently hint at what you think is right, at how things should be. That’s politics. Second, unlike what some people in music would like to tell you, music has always been and will probably always be a commercial activity. Music is a commodity, and all commodities are governed by the politics of who can sell them, how, when and why. This is becoming more and more apparent for music as the old models break down and new ones appear; if you think the question of the future of streaming is apolitical, you’ve not been paying too much attention to the struggles happening around it. Lastly, music is political the second it is played to more than one person. Because it quickly becomes a cultural signifier, a choice of aesthetic, preference and entertainment, a totem around which groups congregate, music quickly loses any claim to “purity” and becomes another power relationship. It is an organizer of groups and their behavior; that is the essence of politics.
Because the ties between music and politics are inherent (again, as that tie is inherent in all things) ignoring those ties is dangerous. When you seek to create a “politics free space,” you’re actually forfeiting political spaces to other people. Just because you want those spaces to be apolitical, doesn’t mean they will be so; in fact, it’s almost a certainty that they won’t be. Thus, when you refuse to play the games of politics, you give your contestants control of the playing field and risk having your alliances co-opted. It’s not a question of if you want music to be political; it’s a question of which politics will be expressed in your music and your musical community. Therefore, when you choose to ignore the political aspects of music, you’re basically giving up any control over which messages it will be used to propagate.
There are many ways in which such refusal to engage with the politics of music and, indeed, any cultural activity, manifests. Each side of the political spectrum has its own little ways of enacting this refusal. The political center refuses to engage in politics through a claim to neutrality and objectivity which doesn’t exist (since the refusal to engage is itself a political choice). The right refuses to engage with politics in myriad ways, a lot of which are often focused on a belief in the inherent and self-manifest superiority of one side of the issue (“this has always been the case and thus, this shall always be the case”). The left refuses to engage with politics in many ways as well, but one of the major ones is through the emphasis on purity, pruning and limiting certain types of speech (whether justly or not).
Since the vast majority of Heavy Blog contributors fall on the left side of the map (shocking, we know), focusing on the latter seems like the way to go. Criticizing the other side of the political map is easy enough; taking a hard look at your own camp is where things get tricky. Thus, let us turn our eyes on one of the most typical leftist refusals to engage: the retreat. There are few places in the cultural world where this retreat is more obvious than in music and, more specifically, in metal. Even more specifically, the current throes which are black metal is undergoing are even more lucrative for our needs. There, leftist retreat is alive and happening right now, both because of the virility of the claims on the other side (read: the amount of black metal that’s truly awful) and because the themes of black metal have already been declared by the larger, more abstract “left” as anathema in the past.
Black Metal and the Power of Nature
What exactly are we talking about here? It’s complicated, but focusing on black metal’s relationship with nature is a good idea (if we wish to keep the word count on this article relatively sane, which we do). Black metal is notorious for taking ideas about nature and turning them into fuel for its right wing, violent worldview. This isn’t surprising since branches of neo-paganism and theosophy (who spawned the modern, Western fascination with the power of nature) have always been firmly rooted in overt racism, but it’s still worth noting. The emotional connection to nature, the sense of grandeur and the power of natural phenomena are often all used to preach violence, oppression and conservatism. Shortly, the reasoning goes like this: in nature, all things have harmony. Thus, if we wish to be happy (which is equivalent to harmony since the days of the aforementioned Plato), we must return to nature. And what is natural to humanity? Like all apex predators, it is violence, self-sufficiency, hunter mentality, tribalism, clear borders, the will to defend them but also good attributes like integrity, honesty, perseverance and unity. It is a powerful ideological tool; it uses something we can all relate to and preaches conclusions which seem natural (pun intended), appealing to the more primal, base and impulsive parts of our psyche.
The left, in response, retreats. It declares the whole discussion of nature anathema, too putrid to deal with. It scoffs at the impulses which lead people to come into relation with nature and sets up a careful watch over the ways in which one can or cannot discuss the topic. If in nature lies a base, un-quantifiable primacy, the left sees it as a threat because the left would preach empathy, inclusiveness, radicalism, care for the weak, malleability and reform. Thus, the modern left turns it into something to be quarantined, understood and analyzed. This wasn’t always the case; communism and Soviet-ism, for example, used nature in very successful ways as part of their ideologies. But the modern day left, whether liberal, anarchists, Leftbook, feminist or otherwise, has mostly (and that’s a big mostly, since we obviously can’t intimately know every and all leftists group out there) adopted a post-modernist and capitalist conception of humanity’s relationship with nature (more on these topics can be read in the excellent Uneven Development by the equally excellent geographer Neil Smith).
“The Forest Must be Guarded!”
As we said above, the direct result of this retreat is that the field is left (pun intended) to those who would use nature as a vessel for their own ideology. While the left “wins” self-assurance and internal cultural capital, the right wins a powerful thematic tool, more language for its own ideological map and an outreach to thousands of listeners, some of which arrive in metal from a point of crisis and in search of a political map. In a growing order of abstraction, here’s what should happen instead: the left should engage. More black metal should be made under a different understanding of nature. More discussion and analysis should be had on the complex relationship between black metal, politics, nature, free will, personal might and violence. The left should think long and hard about how it understands nature and how it expresses it through music, black metal or otherwise.
An alternative to the right-wing view of the rich and plentiful feelings which nature evokes in us needs to be made available. Coming full circle, just because you want nature to play less of a mystical role in how people think about the world doesn’t mean it will. Nature will continue to move us and influence us; if we want to be relevant, leftists need to recognize that fact and engage with it. Well, practice what you preach, right? That’s exactly what we intend to do and, believe it or not, after more than a thousand words, we’ve finally come to the impetus of this entire post. Below, you’ll find two playlists. One was curated by Eden and the other by Simon. Their aim is to showcase the writers’ perspective on the complex issues of music, nature, emotions, mysticism and strength.
And what better subject within nature to compose a playlist for than Spring? As we stand on the cusp of this most mercurial of seasons, we find ourselves filled with many emotions. The thematics of Spring are complex; they include birth, youth, strength, vitality but also foolishness, light-headed disregard and softness. It has also historically been the fulcrum of poetry, literature, rituals, ceremonies, holidays and much more. You’d be hard-pressed to find a culture without a traditional Spring celebration and the season stood in the center of the most important pagan rituals. And yet, when you think of black metal, for example, you think of winter, of frostbitten landscapes and grim visages.
This is where politics comes in; why does black metal choose Winter for its favored season? Does black metal even do that or is music not fitting with the general theme pushed to the back of our perception, swallowed by the dominant narrative? What are the traits that the theme of Winter confer on the listener and the artist? And can we imagine a different way to think of not only Winter but of music in general in relation to other seasons? This is what the lists below will attempt. Eden showcases plenty of progressive rock, math rock and progressive metal. In doing so, the list attempts to offer a different narrative and include metal within it. Simon’s list goes one further, relying on black metal that’s more in keeping with themes of regeneration, vitality and personal development rather than the austere, power-focused and grim visions that are usually associated with black metal.
Not all of the bands on these lists are “pure” (Eden’s list, for example, includes a track from Saor, who has never made his views on Scottish nationalism a secret); not all of them have “healthy” or “correct” views on nature, and hell, the writers don’t even agree with all of the perspectives on the subject the bands might exhibit on the chosen tracks. But it’s all great, thoughtful and interesting music, with something to say about nature, humanity’s relationship with it and the meaning of that relationship. Thus, these playlists and their introductory paragraphs are an attempt at an example at how to approach the subject, how to begin the conversation on the theme of nature in music instead of retreating from it. They are only the beginning of such a conversation; just making a playlist and writing a post is not enough. To really engage in politics, you must be willing to walk the whole mile, to create a conversation that is long-term, sustainable and evolving.
Eden’s Playlist – Stained Glass Stories
If there’s a genre of music that’s made Spring part of its internal narrative, it’s progressive rock. The number of tracks dealing with the theme are countless, not to mention tracks who might remind us of the freshness of Spring. This obsession with the season makes sense in the larger context of progressive rock’s themes, namely flights of fantasy, other, vibrant worlds, adventure, matters of the heart and more. This preoccupation with Spring has also bled into the surrounding aesthetics of the genre; cover art like Yes‘s Fragile or Genesis‘s Selling England By the Pound are prime examples of this.
This also means that progressive rock is a good subject to consider the politics of theme. It is impossible to disengage this predominance of Spring without understanding the social context of progressive rock, it’s involvement with counter-culture and the Hippie movement, among other things. Obviously, our canvas is too small here to paint the full picture but suffice it to say that it’s not hard to understand the genre’s emphasis on nature and growth as an opposite to corporatism, war, judicial repression and, later one, Reaganism and Thatcherism. In the process, it became a sort of monoculture, possessed with a very narrow, idyllic and optimistic view of what Spring can mean. There are almost no hints among popular examples of criticism of the attitude and mindset of Spring or the flights of fantasy the bands themselves can be accused of.
That’s why I added a few other tracks into the mix; they are a sobering alternative to the crystal-clear tones of progressive rock or a different approach to its themes. Oak Pantheon for example still addresses the idea of growth but presents it as something almost overwhelming, too strong to bear. Similarly, Ulvesang creates a richer tapestry of nature, adding a fecund feel to it, of everything bursting into molding, somewhat suffocation growth while Ciccada nails the maddening sounds of everything coming to life around you. This playlist could have been dozens of tracks long; there are so many different perspectives on the subject I could have added. My aim was to narrow that down to a contrast that I found interesting, to offer a starting point for comparison and, from it, conversation. Enjoy!
Simon’s Playlist – The Shadowed Road
The mystical nature of Spring lies in the transition that it represents: the bleak, gray Winter dispelled by a resurgence of growth, the cold darkness giving way to the warmth and light of the Sun, death giving way to life. All around, plants spring back into bloom, the sky becomes blue and clear, the winds are less vicious and biting, and moods improve. It is, in every sense, a positive transition, a move that affects the psyche and the world itself in equal parts. Black metal, depressing as it usually is, is not particularly concerned with Spring in this sense. With the exception of a handful of bands – most notably fuzzed-out black metal rockers Kvelertak (the first version of my playlist was literally just their discography and nothing else) – there is not much black metal that strays from the genre’s typical frigidity into warmer sonic climes.
My playlist, then, focuses on the sort of emotional resonance that this weather brings. From the genesis of the world out of Ginnungagap in Enslaved‘s “Building With Fire” to Dawn Ray’d‘s “The Abyssal Plain”, which is a call to society’s trampled to rise up, I sought to create a playlist that would resonate with Spring in the best way that black metal can: by finding the darkest parts of it and achieving strength from that place. I’d be mistaken if I called this playlist particularly happy, although it has its moments – centerpiece “The Old Ones Are with Us” by Wolves in the Throne Room evokes beautiful images of springtime thaws amidst a Bacchanalian ritual – but it evokes emotions from a core of strength that can best be tapped into through themes of Spring.
Similarly, this transition is represented by the order of the tracks here. The music moves from the ritualistic frigidity of Dissection and the harsh, cold depression of Hope Drone through despair, thaw, growth, and, finally anger as it ends with the energetic crusty sound of Totem Skin and the almost sacerdotal occultism of Sun Worship. That’s all to say, listen to this in order to achieve the desired effect. I hope you enjoy listening to this playlist as much as I found pleasure in curating it.