Fighting Fire with Fire – Black Metal and Consumerism

Part I – “Enter the Eternal Fire” – A “Brief” Intro to Consumerism and the Void Consumerism has become a byword of our times. As such, it is often misused or expanded

6 years ago

Part I – “Enter the Eternal Fire” – A “Brief” Intro to Consumerism and the Void

Consumerism has become a byword of our times. As such, it is often misused or expanded to mean things which lie adjacent to its original, and more accurate, meaning. Consumerism, at its core, can mean two things: the first definition, which won’t really concern our inquiry here, is a policy or political system which prefers the rights and needs of consumers to other interests. The second, like many other ideologies and world perspectives, was an answer to a crisis; as the Industrial Revolution spun faster and faster near the beginning of the 20th century, over-production became a real concern. In their rush to create markets for the products they were producing, Western and non-Western industries (such as existed) worked hard to both create new markets (ushering in the height of colonialism which, among other motives, had a clear economical component) and “improve” the markets at home (that’s where/how we got planned obsolescence, among other things).

Consumerism was born, as cultural, social and economical forces converged to encourage and enable the purchase of products by an increasingly well-to-do populace. It didn’t come from nowhere, however; not much in history comes from nowhere. Consumerism was (and is) in fact, merely an acceleration of a process which the bourgeoisie class had been undergoing for a few centuries, namely the shift of privilege, and thus of power, from the ownership of land and goods to the ownership of urban assets, luxury and consumer goods, and participation in the civic process. As part of that process, ownership of things and of capital (an abstract, mathematical concept for the bourgeoisie, unlike the more tangible concepts of land and goods which the feudal/landed nobility grappled with) became synonymous with status, power, and social standing. Simply put, the more “stuff” you owned, the more respectable you were.

Consumerism took all of that and multiplied it by a global coefficient. In satisfying consumption goals, many phenomena played a part, whether planned or otherwise. Some of them were technical: there were more products to buy, more people to buy them, more interconnections between products were fostered (consider the modern day Apple and its endless host of expensive paraphernalia), and logistical titans were spawned to deliver those products. Vast changes to the Earth itself were made to support the budding and ever-growing global market; think of the Suez Canal, only one example at how Western governments literally practiced terra-forming to enable capitalism/consumerism to run more efficiently, as part of what is today called “extraction capitalism”.

But other, none physical infrastructure was needed. These were the social, cultural, and epistemological underpinnings of consumerism, ideas, behaviors, states of mind, and social structures which were necessary to make sure that the wheels of consumerism kept turning. The connection between consumption, societal status, power, legality, morality, and politics wound ever tighter. The epistemological aspect of these connections had to do with the nature of knowledge and how its fabricated, and how we conceptualize not only what we know about the world, but how we can know it. Namely, consumerism and capitalism needed order. Cataloging, understanding, making things make sense, is super useful when you’re looking to sell something or when you’re looking to put people to complex work. When that thing is ordered (be it a product or labor), it is parsimonious; you can divide it into easily saleable and re-saleable components and combine those components with other products to make more products (or, at least, to sell them together or to make them work together). When things are understood, they are intelligible; you can easily communicate their use and, from that use, their worth[1].

This kind of binding together of work and of worth filtered into the basest levels of our existence, psychological and emotional included. This claim is far from original of course; it was Marx and many other “modern” philosophers who first wrote of the alienation which results from the capitalist scheme of things[2], distancing ourselves from our self-worth as humans and from the products we consume. When your labor becomes who you are, inherently, you lose a sense of personal freedom, you become yoked to the ever repeating cycles of work and production which, at the end of the day, produce disposable, mechanical, and “dead” things. You become a living mechanism, afloat in a world of parsimonious and intelligble objects, constantly in touch with things to be understood, used, and discarded. More than that, you start to think of yourself in those terms, creating an internal void where the day-to-day is a repetitive, mechanical and meaningless slog that leaves you empty of purpose and a sense of accomplishment[3]. Sound familiar?

These powerful bonds between social status, privilege, buying power, products, psychology and consumerism became stronger and stronger, creating a feedback loop; the more society understood the world and what it was producing, the better it became at producing more things, the more consumption was required, the deeper the ties between power, knowledge, culture, and the individual were developed to boost, understand, and sell this consumption. Thus, in the West at least, we’ve arrived at a society where buying things appears to be not only the main function, but also the main purpose of the individual, at least for vast swathes of the populace.

But not in all portions of society, and by God, we’re finally getting close to our point. As with all cultural currents, especially those which immediately and aggressively attempt to “edit” the self, consumerism creates backlash. This backlash can take many forms and spring from many sources. Some of them are intellectual; not everyone wants to reduce the world and human life into what can be cataloged, made, and sold. Some of them are political; not everyone agrees that the good of those who make things should dictate the lives of those who consume them. Some of them are just plain visceral; people want to be cool and being normal isn’t cool. The hegemony—herein defined as the sum of the techniques, forms of knowledge, and habits of the ruling social norm, consumerism in our case—naturally doesn’t like that. It needs order, it needs people to go to work, it needs people to purchase products, and it needs them to do it well.

The hegemony needs things and people to fit into neat little boxes so that it can assign them value, worth, purpose, and goal. In short, it doesn’t “want” people doing their own thing and thus, it tries to make that thing unappealing by making these outsiders pay social prices. The different, whether they be intellectuals, organizers or just different for the sake of cool, are ostracized, labeled as pariahs, freaks, and misfits. For a lot of people, this pressure works; they have their wild years (which the hegemony wisely allows them, to blow off some steam and vent it safely) and then they grow up and buy a suit. But some of them, by the wonder of birth, chance, or fate, can’t settle for just blowing off steam. Something in them is just against and no amount of outside pressure can get them to break.

And so, at the headway of so many conflicting powers, interests, and perspectives, people rebel. Rebellion is the organization of being deviant, the science of being different, the acceptance and sublimation of the role that hegemony assigns you as an “other.” Some of these rebels write theory, which attempts to undermine the ruling order of things, flying in the face of accepted truths and habits of thought. Some of them organize, forming parties and other political organizations which challenge the prevalent methods of organization as proposed by society, refuting the idea that “this is just the way things are” by showing us and themselves other ways to be.

And some of them act out. Some of them go weird. Some of them dress funny and talk funny, about things you mustn’t talk about. Some of them make culture in all the wrong ways; they sing too loudly and they play too fast. Some of them get tattoos or wear weird makeup, not the right kind of makeup, in all the wrong ways. Some of them appeal to forms of knowledge which are inherently not modern for their truths, some of them appeal to elder gods, pagan deities, and ages long dead for their purpose in life, instead of to the gods of the stable job or the spirits of the front lawn. In short, some of them make fucking metal.

Part II – “Be Without Fear” – The Rebellious Youth of (Black) Metal

The early days of metal were rebellious for many reasons. Some of them, like we mentioned above, were purely mechanical, not stemming from deeper truths. It was just kids acting out. By taking the norms and conventions of music and turning them upside down, by messing with a form of art which had been tied to the production of prestige and power in Europe for a few dozen centuries by the late 20th, the early metalheads were giving society a huge middle finger. You hear it in interviews with the lates and greats; there was no agenda, there was just volume, anger, and a can-do attitude. The idea was to play it louder, faster, more aggressive than ever before. In short, the idea was to transgress, to go beyond, to break the boundaries of what society said was acceptable and flaunt those facts in society’s face.

But as we argued in our intro above, those boundaries exist for a reason. To be accurate, they exist for many reasons and those reasons are layered. First, there’s the layer of the immediate, of the physicality of the transgression: it’s just so loud. “It hurts my ears!”, “They’re just screaming, there’s no point!”, “You’re making a mess.” These are immediate, personal concerns which erupted (and erupt to this day) from the mouths of teachers, parents, and those in charge of public spaces (like police officers, mall guards, and municipal employees). You know, the front line of hegemony, the omnipresent panopticon of the chagrined adult, clinging to their sense of what’s “proper”, the proverbial “elf on a shelf”.

The second layer is the layer of worth. These things are not just a nuisance, they’re not just bothering these people. Because they’re a nuisance, they’re also inherently worthless. They’re a waste of time; “if only you applied yourself, you might actually be good at something.” What’s not “proper” is not only that which disturbs the peace; it is also that which wastes potential, which dedicates energy and time to things that don’t bear financial fruit, that don’t work well for consumerism. This is the domain of the newscaster, of the principal, of the community center manager. “What about a job? You can’t make a living as a musician.” Worth is measured by what can be sold and bought and what’s not “proper” is not allowed in the marketplace and what’s not allowed in the marketplace can’t yield financial fruits.

And herein we get to the bottom layer. What disturbs, what breaks boundaries, also becomes unintelligible. All of those figures cited above, all these figureheads of privilege and control are also, first and foremost perhaps, figures for the creation of knowledge. They tell us not only what is right for us, but also what is possible for us; they chart out the potential paths we might take towards success, success being disposable income and the power to buy. When metal breaks those limits, breaks those boundaries, it becomes unintelligible to them. It’s not only that the path you chose (to spend hours on that guitar, to wear corpse-paint, to scream into a microphone for hours on end) is not good; it just doesn’t make sense! And what doesn’t make sense can’t be sold. What doesn’t make sense can’t be cordoned, cataloged and mailed to the American consumer (“American” here being anyone who’s part of Western culture, very much “American” in many ways). What can’t be explained in the terms of the hegemony can’t receive a price tag and thus can’t partake in a clearance sale.

Think about it: why metal started making noise in the ethical and “respectable” marketplace we can all intuitively understand; it was just not done. But why should was it birthed in the economical underground? Why does the huge label care what they’re selling as long as they are selling? Why do concert halls care who buys their tickets as long as someone is? In short, what took consumerism so long, almost twenty years and perhaps more, to start really commodifying metal? Surely not all of the people involved in that industry were Puritan prudes, steeped in the Lutheran/Calvinistic ethics which made metal stink so much? That might explain some of metal’s lack of initial commercial appeal but not all of it; the missing piece is that the market just didn’t know what to do with metal. It couldn’t understand kids screaming about Crowley or, later on, about summoning elder gods from within the forest or, hell, about getting drunk and looking for fights all over town. It couldn’t understand it as music of course; all the adults knew about getting into fights and who Crowley was. But as art? As culture? No way.

That’s why metal started off in the underground, economically. It took time for consumerism to figure out what to do with it. Worse than that, since metal was organized and founded on inherently rebellious roots like we described above, metal kept upping the ante. Whenever consumerism would “finally” crack the code (“finally” in quotation here because it didn’t really take it that long, in the grand scheme of things) and figure how to sell something, whenever one formerly “wild” band would “sell out,” others would rise to grab the torch of extremism and take the fight to a whole new level. Usually, the escalation involved taking something which had been re-discovered by the mainstream as pleasing, a certain tone or antic of metal suddenly deemed worthy of consumers’ money, and twist it; they like this riff? Play it faster. They like the vocals? Chop them up. And so on.

That’s how we got black metal.[4] In the mid 80’s, heavy metal, progressive rock and other iterations of the genres seemed like dead ends to those who set out to make music which wanted to challenge not only the norms of music but the norms of the society which made them. The hippie movement was already mostly over and “sold out”; there was nothing inherently rebellious anymore in singing about love and its power. The music was also mainstream; Pink Floyd‘s The Dark Side of the Moon was already approaching total blockbuster standards, and many other bands who were once considered weird were now being printed and sold by the bucket, including Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and many, many more.

Thus, it fell to black metal and thrash metal to up the ante. Don’t forget that Venom‘s debut release was considered thrash when it released in 1982. Both genres were born from the same navel, even if their roads diverged quickly. That birthing place was the need to take things to the next level. For both black metal and thrash metal, for both Venom and Metallica, speed was one of the defining vectors in which their rebellious energies were directed. Unusual vocals, whether the rasp of Cronos on Black Metal or Hetfield’s by-now signature fire on Kill ‘Em All, were another technique used to draw a line in the sand, to say “this is not your father’s rock n’ roll, oh no; this is something new and you are not ready for it.”

But the escalation of techniques will only take you so far. Playing musically technically “wrong” raises some brows in certain circles, mostly those where metronomes are worshiped and the ability to read notes is praised, but it won’t get you your firestorm. Most people don’t care and, staying on that first layer of physical aversion, will simply tell you to turn off the music or go elsewhere to rid themselves of your nuisance. In order to really ruffle some feathers, you have to strike deeper, to start channeling ideas that disrupt those two “deeper” layers, that really send roots into the underbelly of the society in which you’re operating. In short, you have to start singing about and doing some really weird shit.

For Metallica, and other thrash metal bands of the time, the key was a glorification of “simple,” “clean” violence. Songs like “Battery,” “Whiplash” and “Seek & Destroy” are all about reveling in violence and the release which it brings. It’s a sort of visceral shedding of metaphorical chains, slipping loose one of the strongest bonds of propriety and “civilized” society: you must not be violent and, if you are forced to be violent by some threat, you must not enjoy it. Violence is to be undertaken with a heavy heart and heavy head, burdened with ponderous ideas like “honor,” “war crimes” and “civility.” For thrash metal, those are mere pretenses; violence is our primal state and to that primal state we are returning, shedding the limitations society has imposed on us, limitations which are hypocrisy and nothing more (Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? by Megadeth is exactly the pointing of that proverbial finger, the iron gaze at the elephant in the room which is society’s own dismissal of the rules it supposedly holds dear). That’s why Metallica’s career is littered with the image of the beast and the hunter; thrash metal worships that kind of unbridled, uncivilized violence at the core of those images (“The Four Horsemen”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Of Wolf and Man”, to name just a few).

For black metal, things went further. Who knows exactly why thrash metal stopped at the threshold of actually enacting the ideas they sang about (although early accounts of Metallica certainly paint a picture of violent and aggressive people) while black metal repeatedly walked the walk which their talk laid out? Perhaps the difference was in geography; something about the omnipotence of American culture, of American values, of American consumerist hegemony, kept those bands from diving off the deep end completely while Europe’s cultural background gave more headway to the weird, to the unsettling, to the primal?

Perhaps it was mere chance, a collection of events, people, and the confluence thereof, where things led one to the other: Dead’s suicide led to Euronymous making the infamous “bone necklaces,” which led to Mayhem‘s radicalization which led to the church burnings which, in turn, led to Varg and Euronymous developing burgeoning egos, egos which fatally clashed in 1993. Perhaps. There’s no real way to know why specific individuals did what they did, seeing as we live in the 21st century and we no longer trust the inviolability of confession. But regardless of motivation, it’s pretty clear that all of these actions, as well as the lyrical, instrumental, and performative content of black metal, was aimed at one thing: to be different. To stand out. To go farther and further than anyone had before in the realms of music, to swim against the current in a way which no one had dared before.

But here, we can ask “why?” What grant you all these actions, what’s the end goal here? In some cases, the answer is “merely” personal; some of the progenitors of black metal, like the aforementioned “Dead,” were deeply troubled and often mentally ill people who, of course, got no treatment or recourse from society. In some cases, the answer is more “intellectual”; some of the early black metal musicians were driven by intellectual passions, ideas and theories which bubbled in their minds and demanded an outlet, an outlet which they could not and would not receive in “respectable” academic circles exactly because these circles were “respectable” while their ideas were not. And, yes, in some cases, the answer is far simpler: it was cool. Being on the edge was cool and black metal was on the edge so people who wanted to be cool made black metal.

But all of those types of people have one goal in common: the goal was to make albums which wouldn’t sell. Selling was old, selling was normal, selling was boring. And the best way to not sell? Make stuff that’s too weird, too violent, too hedonistic, too scary to sell. Play faster, foster abrasiveness, scream your lyrics, wear corpse-paint. Do whatever you can to be out there, to be other, to show the hegemony that you will embrace the labels which they had thrust upon you and celebrate them. Make them fear you because they don’t understand and what they don’t understand they can’t sell and as long as they can’t sell, you can’t sell out and as long as you don’t sell out, you’re cool. And thus, a perfect cycle was made: the weirder you are, the less you sell. The less you sell, the weirder you are.

Part III – “Towards the Pantheon” – The Creation of Hegemony in Black Metal Spaces

These forces were the crucible in which black metal as we know it today was forged. The glorification of the obscure was its most obvious result; have you ever wondered just why black metal (and metal in general, never forget that these ideas very much apply to metal at large) is obsessed with things like the hooded figure, the tiny, limited release, the truly underground, the completely unintelligible? All of these things interact with, and rebel against, mainstream society, its rules and through them, ultimately, with the consumerism which stands behind much of its ideals and actions. You can’t really reach or attack consumerism directly; it’s an abstract notion and not something you can pin down. Likewise, you can’t really grasp society in your hands and choke its lifeblood out; society is everyone and everything and how they act. But that’s where the chink in the armor is: if you can hit enough people where it hurts, in their sensibilities and mannerisms, you can use them to attack society itself. And through society, consumerism.

So first, black metal puts an emphasis on the violent, quite like thrash metal. But black metal’s violence is deeper, more philosophical, more akin perhaps to Metallica’s latter messages; black metal doesn’t expose repressed desires and their ventings, like binge drinking or fighting. Instead, it attacks one of the first principles which make modern society be: the repression and control of violence itself, the idea that unbridled Violence is Bad and that Peace is Good. These are ideas which formed well beyond modernity but were some of the most basic precursors and later foundations of it. One of the main shifts from feudal to modern society lay in the curbing and confining of violence to the purview of the state. In feudal times, the license to violence lay, mostly, in the hands of the landed nobility simply because they were the ones who could afford to fight. In fact, to be violent was perceived as being noble, war and the exercise of arms standing in the center of familial privilege, honor and power.

As the feudal era came to an end, and monarchs and ecclesiastical figures started organizing society along the lines of the modern, absolute state, it became impossible for the nobility to keep its license to violence; you can’t run an ordered and efficient society when a whole group of people feel not only that they can wage a war on one another but that they should. The power of “the nobility of the sword” started to be dismantled. One of the ways in which that dismantling occurred was cultural; that’s how we got the Romantic knight (“Romantic” here denoting a type of behavior and a cultural movement, not sexual relationship or affectation), the gentle and noble warrior who would prefer not to draw his sword and who fights in the name of honor and other lofty ideals rather than to further his own family or estate. That’s how we got Versailles, where nobles congregated to gossip, discuss fashion, and rule the state through the power of the word and of debt rather than of the horse and the lance.

And these ideals became the foundation of our modern society; citizens don’t fight. Citizens, when forced to fight for their country, do so with gravitas and civility. In life, they prefer peace, calculation, rationality, and are mostly settled in their manner, at least in the public sphere. Citizens are polite. Black metal, drawing from nihilism and the most famous of nihilists (although not in the way you think), Friedrich Nietzsche[5], perceived all of these ideas as the thin veneer which society slaps on top of our true, authentic, violent self in order to tame us. Society wants us controllable, predictable, intelligible, and, like the king and the church and the proto-state, they can’t have a bunch of people running around and doing what they want, authentic to their true selves and their will to power, to dominance.

Using the ideological weight of what Nietzsche called “slave mentality” (characterized by a glorification of weakness, meekness and servility), modernity would deny us our inherent will to be great, to rise above the masses and claim our destiny. Black metal, like Nietzsche, wants us to peer past that veneer, into our true, powerful selves, to shake off society’s hold on who they once were, on the freedom we supposedly enjoyed when every person was free to enact their will upon the world without concern for man-made laws or ideological limitations. The past becomes a powerful site for self-actualization and for rebellion, as it is imagined as a time before these restraints were placed on us. A good way to rebel becomes the exaltation of the past, before production, before efficiency, before consumerism, before these chains were laid on us by society. Here’s Celtic Frost‘s “Fainted Eyes”, from the seminal To Mega Therion (1985):

Try to see through fainted views
As reality disappears in haze
A journey between eternal walls …

The senses unfold before my eyes
As the endless dreams begin to reign
And my hands slip off the edge
The waters grow dumb
While they descend (behind)
Fainted eyes

Drifting in the streams of wisdom
While recognizing all those banal tales
Sin beyond truth, (I see) glimmering splinters

Encountering my past in flickering whispers
While they drown behind their frontiers
And the rulers sink in agony

Fallacy and false idols
Unbelievable is the human direction
But the screams die away in the distance

Try to see through fainted views
But the dust still covers all my dreams
I wouldn’t tell you anyway

The violence here is more general, more abstract than, let’s say, Metallica’s “Battery”. Black metal can also adhere to a more literal type of violence, the actual maiming of flesh through force, but more often it appeals to a kind of unbridled passion, a will to do what thou wilt, to quote Master Crowley. This is, in essence, the Nietzschean ideal of the “master”, a type of psychological makeup under which a person is beholden to no morality but their own, to no overarching ideals but those which they make for themselves. This is what Celtic Frost refer to; the “streams of wisdom” are the days long gone, where passions ran loose and free, where people (usually men) did what they wanted to and expressed themselves, truly. The “banal tales” and the “fainted views” are today’s culture, the stories of sin, damnation, crime and its punishment, trying to keep us tame, to make us walk the line. To make us intelligible and parsimonious so that we can be predicted and sold to.

Of course, another potent locus of resistance to modernity lies in nature. You can already see it in the song above, but examples of black metal’s appeal to nature (one of the defining attributes of black metal, in fact, and once which we’ve covered in the past) are replete throughout its history. When taking black metal’s desire to resist consumerism, nature is an obvious ally; consumerism itself, and modern society alongside with it, draw from the idea that modern man is meant to conquer nature. Industry is, in many ways, our conquest of nature; we chop down forests so we can burn them for energy, divert rivers with huge dams, mine and blast mountains. No domain of nature, once powerful representations of everything grander than mankind, everything that can’t be understood or quantified by our tools, no corner of that supposedly unconquerable force remains unconquered.

Just like they do to people, consumerism and capitalism (in its later stages) need to organize and understand nature. In order to exploit a territory, you first need to survey it and chart it, so your teams know where to dig, where the forests are, where the ore lies and so on. You also need to understand that territory: what kind of wood are we talking about here? Is the ore deep in the mountain and will it react with certain chemicals? Where does this river come from and how far up on path should we build this dam? These inquiries, often answered by science, practical and otherwise, are necessary preludes to the exploitation and extraction of resources. Thus, industry and society must, once again, first cut everything up into little boxes and order them around before the work of production can begin.

In the face of those efforts, black metal summons forth a version of nature which is everything but controllable and understandable, in an attempt to appeal to something which consumerism can’t hope to understand and thus, cannot tame. Instead of the attitudes towards nature which popular music usually markets, either a folksy nostalgia for the good ol’ days of golden wheat fields or the awesome poetry of far away and admirable nature, black metal projects a kind of unbridled, cruel and inherently “other” view of nature. All of this is done, certainly, out of a penchant for those things and a real love for nature; this is especially true for musicians from Scandinavia and Northern Germany, where the real and visceral power of nature (as well as its otherworldly beauty) is undeniable. But these are far more than “just” aesthetic gestures, aimed at “just” the beauty of nature; see how nature and ideology mix, for example, in Ulver‘s “Bergtatt – Ind I Fjeldkamrene” (“Mountain Prisoner – Into The Mountain Rooms”) from their masterpiece, Bergtatt:

The maid begged for release
It didn’t help
And with her another maiden they abducted
They used her as they pleased
And not as they should

To there, where she saw the hall of shadows
So cold and ever-blue

The mountain took her in
To its hard grey-rock cheek
Again ruled the black night
And now she is forever lost…

She screamed with her last breath of voice
An epoch we’ll never forget
– A body become stone

…The moon has disappeared
And the stars have extinguished too

Ho! It rains and it blows!
For far north in the mountains
Deep under slopes
There they play

The maid, as established in the opening scenes of the album, is much more than “just” a lost person; she exemplifies Christianity. If we go back to the idea that feudal values were suppressed, in part, by stories and culture venerating a certain type of behavior, we’ll find the idea of the “chaste maiden” there as well. Women in Nordic sagas, just to give one example of a medieval culture that was converted to Christianity relatively late, aren’t beholden to the same values that women in late Christian folktales are; there’s very little there about virginity, chastity, demurring, or purity. These ideals and literary figures were part of the Christian effort to bring these cultures to bear. By setting wild, unbridled nature against this figure of Christian origin, a type of nature which is personified in figures from Scandinavian myth (trolls in this case, note that they rape the maid and “defile” her, according to Christian values), Ulver are making a very clear statement: our nature cannot be tamed by your values of submission and gentle civility nor can our nature be conquered by your understanding and analysis.

The last leg of black metal’s “evil” triangle is one which actually defies such an orderly and hierarchical geometrical shape, as it runs through the first two legs. It is a group of ideas, a kind of thematic obsession and style that has intrigued humans wherever they might be found, focused as it is at looking beyond but also underneath, at all which is obscure in the world. A gaze from which it draws its name, as it seeks to unveil knowledge supposedly hidden beneath the mundane world. I’m speaking, of course, of the occult, that hard to define, loosely bound group of ideas, theories, bodies of knowledge, and faintly similar historical figures. Instead of spending too many words on once again attempting to define this idea, I will refer you to a different post of mine, where I spent more time fleshing out this idea.

For now, for this inquiry, we don’t really need a complete definition of the occult idea anyway. Instead, we need only understand and focus on the idea that the occult is, at its core, inherently anti-consumerist. It focuses on revealing exactly the kinds of knowledge that consumerism doesn’t like, ideas that don’t have clear lines, that blend into each other. These ideas don’t conform to an ideal of truth in the same way that capitalism and its more rigid structures of knowledge do; they don’t bother with proof or rather, irrefutable proof. Instead, the occult often appeals to ideas like myth, intuition, sixth senses and many more elusive theories of knowledge (that is, ideas about how knowledge is gained and spread) which don’t translate clearly into products and strict ways of being which can be policed, repackaged, and resold.

Which is not to say that it hasn’t been; the modern industry of the occult is alive and well, its inherent un-intelligibility swiftly conquered by the organizing forces of consumerism (which, if you’ve been paying attention, is what I’m trying to say happened to black metal as well; the comparisons are fascinating but would need a much wider canvas to properly describe). However, this is exactly the kind of ideological “defeat” that enables reformers, those calling for a return to the days of glory, where knowledge was truly obscure and the path to hidden knowledge was open only to the faithful truly willing to make a sacrifice. Sounds familiar? That’s black metal. Its call for a return to the glory days of Europe past (never mind that version of Europe never existed in most cases) we assuredly see plenty of racism but also more benign desires still percolating through black metal today.

These desires are for a cleansing of the path to knowledge, for a return to the esoteries and mysteries of religions, ideas, and ways of life which have now been made clear and simple and in being made so, have lost much of their power and meaning. This is the way in which this last “leg” of the triangle fits in with the other two; all approaches of black metal are tainted by this kind of longing for a more complex world, for a time when things were simultaneously simpler (when we were freer, when we knew what was right) and the world was more accurately and richly described as the complicated, beguiling, deeply mystical thing is it, a time before the disenchantment, before the magic was drained from the world.

Thus, the diagram is complete: by appealing first to a violence unbridled by restraint, by then locating that violence aesthetically in nature cut loose, and then casting both efforts as hidden knowledge of the world, long suppressed, black metal concocts a perfect formula for social outcry, ostracization, and financial confusion, leading to obscure, limited, and small releases, which remain an “inside knowledge”, revealed only to the few, pure adherents of the movement. You’ll notice however that, like we mentioned above, none of these ideas are direct attacks on consumerism; they don’t even come into direct discourse with capitalism and consumerism for the most. And I don’t just mean that in the leftists sense, that’s there no critique of those things. There’s hardly any mention of them.

This makes sense; black metal artists were creating music, not philosophy. But music and musical, while not exactly fertile grounds for in-depth dissertations on politics or political philosophies, can spring forth from or develop more political ideas (the obvious example here being punk). In black metal’s case, these ideas were sidelined in favor of a ruling aesthetic, of ideas which were more abstract and metaphysical rather than direct, rigid or well thought out conceptions of the world we live in. To put it simply, there was no black metal understanding of modern economic/social system, whether coming from the left or the right. It just wasn’t that much of an issue for them, perhaps too far away from their own interests, and thus no “black metal image” of consumerism and what it meant was formed.

But here, of course, lies the entry point for consumerism. An in-group of specially selected members, with their own language, aesthetics, approved behaviors, and a fierce desire to preserve and maintain their perceived purity? That sounds awfully like a hegemony! And, indeed, it was; black metal, across the 80’s and well into the 90’s went under the establishment of a pantheon, of a hegemony, of do’s and don’ts, that is of a style. There came to pass accepted and unaccepted ways in which someone was or wasn’t black metal and the words “posuer” and “trve” first came to life. Not only was it a hegemony, it wasn’t inherently opposed to consumerism; it had some murky, abstract, and high-minded ideas about what it did and didn’t want from the modern world but there was no firm, ideological resistance to capital or to the marketplace.

Make no mistake; those ideas, as crude as they sometimes were, were still incredibly potent and served to keep black metal relatively obscure for a long time, nearly two decades. The visceral qualities of black metal adherence to the violent, the outdated, to the mythical, made sure that a long time would pass before the general populace, and the people who sold music to them, took notice of black metal’s potential to be sold. But the roots were already struck deep, the minute that black metal’s internal hegemony was formed and the minute that it chose to keep its critique of modern society, for the most part, ethereal, abstract, and obscure.

The mechanism to lay the grounds for consumerism’s entry into black metal was black metal’s own insistence on its style. By establishing correct and incorrect ways to make black metal, the genre also established ways to understand the style, to signify the worthy and unworthy parts of it, in other words, to signify value. By cataloging certain works as more or less black metal, the community (unbeknownst to them, of course) made the genre intelligible; even if outsiders didn’t exactly understand why, they slowly learned how to distinguish good acts from bad, relatively well (which is all consumerism needs. It doesn’t need to be right all of the time, just enough of the time to make a profit). By creating sub-genres according to a work’s relationship with the core ideals of the genre, black metal made itself parsimonious; even if outsiders didn’t really understand why, there were now types of black metal rather than a mess, a flurry of works right after the other. There were now “waves” and “styles”, groups which could appeal to a certain consumer and not the other, groups which could be cataloged, price-tagged and sold according to their popularity or rarity.

And so, through the very ideals which set black metal apart from the other genres of metal, it came to be understood, parceled and, ultimately, sold on the mass market. In short, the hegemony of black metal, in seeking to resist consumerism in certain ways, paved the way for consumerism’s triumph. When consumerism wins, it of course doesn’t vanquish or destroy that which it has won over; it needs the host to say alive so that the parasite can live. In black metal’s case, consumerism used the hegemony to sell the “big black metal bands” (Behemoth, Celtic Frost, Emperor and more) and sell them they did, by the millions. If you detect a hint of criticism in my voice, think nothing of it; this is not black metal’s fault. It’s not even special in this process; what we described above has happened and will happen to basically every single type of art, as long as consumerism and capitalism hold sway over us. Hell, even Dadaism, a style of art with firm groundings in anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideology, is being sold on this very same mass market. The aforementioned punk scene has also undergone its own process of cataloging and marketability increase. But, like punk (and, perhaps, Dadaism), the interesting thing about black metal is how these things happened, who facilitated it, and where do we go from here?

Part IV – “Wolves in the Throne Room” – The Diverging Paths of Current Black Metal Bands and the Possibility of Resistance

Because talking about the present and the future is way harder than talking about the past, I’m going to cut myself a break and make this segment a bit shorter. In fact, I believe I can get my point across with just two images and a smattering of words about each one. Ready? Here we go. The first one is a by-now infamous image from Apple’s of iPhone 5c; it shows that selfsame device displaying a series of screens, highlighting certain features of the product. In one of them, the one we assume is supposed to display the device’s abilities to play music, we find none other than the cover to Deafheaven‘s sensational album, Sunbather, an album which will perhaps always remain one of the most celebrated and despised albums of our time.

The MetalSucks article from which I got the image (it also contains another image, where the album is figured even more prominently) does a pretty good job of setting my punchline for me. It asks, in quite chagrined tones, “I hate throwing the word “hipster” around, but again, I think it needs to be discussed in this context: why is it only a certain type of metal that seems to be acceptable in these kinds of instances?”, going so far as to later point out that “it’s pretty fucking crazy, right???” The thing is that, no, this isn’t pretty fucking crazy. This, in fact, makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense because their aesthetic is not black metal’s original one, because it is a merging of mainstream sensibilities and black metal ones, exactly because, to put it bluntly, Deafheaven are “hipsters” (a term which I use with absolutely zero vitriol).

The taking of the aesthetics of a certain in-group and the re-making of it in a more palatable, fashionable, gentrified, and marketable way is, basically, what being a hipster is all about. Whether in fashion, food, or in everything else, being a hipster is about finding an in-group, adopting its style and regurgitating it in more easily consumable, identifiable, and relate-able ways (OK, maybe a bit of vitriol). This is, of course, far from the way in which the term is used online, especially by old-guard metalheads, where it is merely a derogatory term used to define anyone who likes new things over old things or anyone who enjoys something that doesn’t fit with the in-group’s definition of what’s good. But the fact is that hipster-ism is a very specific term and movement, a movement intrinsically linked with and, in many cases, serving consumerism. In many ways, it facilitates it by making its subjects (like denim jeans, indigenous foods, or black metal) more approachable, “prettier”, “cleaner”, more intelligible.

Which is why it’s no surprise that Deafheaven’s album cover made it on to Apple’s marketing material. I mean, look at it! If you knew nothing about this album, if you didn’t know it had screams on it or long, drawn-out riffs, or blast beats, would it look out of place to you? Even knowing those things it doesn’t look out of place; the album cover’s aesthetic is pitch perfect for Apple’s branding. Now, I’m not saying that Deafheaven designed their album’s cover specifically so that it would feature with Apple’s ads. In fact, they probably didn’t even know that this was going to happen. But you know how they did come to design Sunbather the way that they did, not just in looks but also in musical and lyrical content?

They came to it by doing the exact opposite of what the hegemony told them that black metal was about. They cast off the war-influenced clothes, the appeals to mighty, furious mother nature. They got rid of the muddy production and the cries for a return to the past. They were of course not the first to have done so but they were arguably the most successful at it by which we mean, they managed to reach the largest crowds with it. Get it now? If black metal’s hegemony was created around being unsaleable and ended up losing that fight by the very act of fighting, Deafheaven and other “hipster” black metal bands aren’t even attempting to fight that fight. As part of the process of resisting the hegemony of black metal they also did/do away with the struggle to be esoteric, to be “un-presentable”. And thus, you get an album cover that’s worthy of an Apple presentation. Look at that salmon pink, that beautifully subtle gradient. Look at the font and the presentation of the letters; it’s almost like it came from Apple’s own style guide except it didn’t. It came from an opposition to black metal’s style guide, one that’s inherently opposed to Apple’s. As we’re all taught in primary school, two negatives make a positive; when you resist something which resists another thing, you drift closer to that other thing.

Which is not to say that this is the only trajectory of resistance to black metal hegemony or that all post-black metal must become inherently palatable to the public. There are plenty of things to resist in black metal beyond just the style guide. Like its politics, those same racist, right-wing tendencies that clung to it by association with other parties who also celebrated Europe’s glorious, occult, natural past (hint: they’re called Nazis). By resisting those elements while keeping much of the style, new black metal bands scored a double hit. To start, they resist the black metal hegemony which tends to be white, male, and conservative. But they also resist the current trends that seem to have a choke-hold on our governments and politics, the ascendancy of the right wing.

I’m talking, of course, about the wave of leftist and anti-fascist black metal bands that has been springing up in recent years. It manages to maintain the aesthetics of black metal, both in lyrics and in visual delivery (as a cursory glance at the links above will show), while rebelling against the inherently conservative messages often (but not always) found in old-school black metal. Mostly gone are the appeals to the occult or to nature triumphant while misanthropy, an emphasis on modern suffering and the need to alleviate it by dismantling our current regimes, and nature as something to be longed for and preserved rule the day. The result is black metal music with a fresh and un-hegemonic approach to the style which still tends to be relatively unknown, obscure, and “true” to its sources.

But, of course, thinking that this slice of black metal is somehow immune to consumerism is absurd; just like in all aspects of our modern society, there is no stopping the all-seeing/all-sensemaking eye of the consumerist machine. And here comes my second image and the final point of this article (thank God). Lo’ and behold, Neckbeard Deathcamp! The band, arising out of nowhere, took the metal community by storm and reached far beyond just our community; they were featured on “serious” journalistic sites. Facebook and Twitter were set ablaze with their antics, provocative lyrics and song titles and, perhaps most of all, with their peculiar and zeitgeist-y aesthetics:

Within weeks, Neckbeard was signed to Prosthetic Records, with a full line of merch available for sale which was, how shall we say it, in incredibly poor taste, almost indistinguishable from actual Nazi paraphernalia (a very common mistake made when attempting to satirize something is to make your satire virtually inseparable from that thing). Naturally, their meteoric popularity led to some questions being asked: who were these people? Were they actually committed to the struggle or were they “lifestylists”, as anarchists like to say, interested only in the optics of resistance and a quick buck? Were their lyrics, containing almost no critique of value and simply making some (admittedly funny) jokes at the alt-right, really what the movement needed at this point? More importantly, why were we as a community signal boosting these very shallow leftists over some more mature, veteran, and committed acts?

Admittedly, it appears that Neckbeard Deathcamp are here to stay and they at least seem to be talking the talk, going from their Twitter feed. But that’s not really my point; my point is that signal boost, the immediate knee-jerk reaction, is something we must take stock of. Why did huge parts of the community leap to attention the second that Neckbeard Deathcamp raise their head? Why did it take such a short time for a label to sign the band and start selling merch (note that while proceeds from the album were donated to Planned Parenthood, sales from merch weren’t and the album was already streaming for free so where do you think the most sales happened)? More importantly, what does this tell us about the ongoing relationship between consumerism, black metal, and the metal community in general?

There are many possible answers to these questions and I believe that a whole new article as long as this one, if not longer, is needed to fully present them. They have to do with meme aesthetics, the post-factual age we find ourselves in, the rise of neo-fascism and the alt-right, and the continuing insistence of the old-guard of black metal to close ranks around their aesthetics and ideology. But more importantly for our needs here, and as a note of summary, I believe the Neckbeard Deathcamp example teaches us about the dangers of an aesthetic of resistance devoid of real resistance ideology, focused more on the aesthetics themselves and a base need to rebel. This was the nature of black metal’s culture of resistance, as it formed around certain ways of dress, certain types of lyrics or certain ideas of purity and authenticity rather than around a deep, meaningful critique of modern society and consumerism.

An absence of such an ideology creates a void and consumerism loves nothing more than a void. A void is something which consumerism knows how to exploit because it is an ideological chameleon. It cares more about selling things than about believing in things; as long as a field is intelligible and parsimonious, consumerism will attempt to sell it. And anything which is not actively resistant to being made sense of will be made sense of. It doesn’t matter whether it’s left, right, progressive, conservative, European or otherwise, if consumerism sees a potential within it to make a profit, it will make sure that potential will be realized via hegemony, via codes of acting, via types of aesthetics. Even the resistance to those things, like in the case of Deafheaven, can lead to increased marketability and palatability for the “purchasing public”.

So, what next? It’s probably easy to read this article and come to the conclusion that what I’m preaching is a retreat into “true” obscurity or a refusal to partake in consumerism at all. Stop selling your albums, stop marketing your music. Hell, stop writing a blog which, obviously, promotes the purchase of selling and buying music and is, arguably, just a huge marketing machine. Worse, the blog does consumerism’s job for it by cataloging music, by writing reviews which make albums and genres make sense and thus, tells which people when to buy them, opening up new consumers to music they might like, helping them understand where and when and how they should spend their money.

But that’s not what I’m saying; taking part in consumerism is unavoidable these days, at least until the revolution comes. “No ethical consumption under late stage capitalism” goes the leftist meme and it’s right; pretending you can just remove yourself from the consumerist cycle is a lie, a pretense meant to make you feel better, to keep your conscious clear. And that is exactly the mistake that black metal made way back in the 80’s and keeps making to this day. This mistake is the belief that black metal is somehow different, that simply by dressing, singing, playing, behaving differently you are somehow being radical. You’re not; these things make no impact on consumerism and, in fact, as I have attempted to show above, serve it. Just saying you’re counterculture and acting like it is not enough; you have to keep that flame alive by discussing alternatives, by making your music about resistance in a deep, meaningful, and ever-evolving way.

One last note: yes, throughout this article I made the assumption that resisting consumerism is an inherently good thing. If you disagree, knowing what we know about our planet and what’s coming, knowing what we know about what happens to music when it stagnates, knowing what we know about what happens when elites and old-guards are allowed to maintain their power, knowing what we know about how easily resistance is co-opted in the name of the very thing which it claimed to resist, then I really don’t know what to tell you. Change is necessary; that is a maxim and axiom by which I live my life and, like all axioms, there’s really no way for me to support it beyond pointing to the world and saying “see?” and trying to work from there. And the work is plenty, the work of resistance never ends.

It starts though with being aware. That starts with recognizing the ways in which consumerism influences every single aspect of our lives, including and especially the ways in which we resist and rebel, so that we can build better ways to resist and remain original. That starts with making sure that the culture which we create has things to say beyond “consumerism bad! Authenticity good!”, that divides its members into more interesting, informative, and precise groups than “trve” and “poseur”, that knows how to work with both the popular and the obscure in meaningful, productive ways. In short, we have a lot of fucking work to do if we want to keep metal exciting, fresh, new, forward-looking, and uncompromising in the face of regressive, conservative ideologies that would keep it where it is, beyond the few digressions which are required to keep things fresh enough to sell. We have a look of work if we’re to resist those who would keep their choke-hold on what goes out there, in the mass markets, in the wide reaches of the world where metal is, even now, being sold, re-sold, and then sold again as something new, refreshing, exciting, rebellious, counter-culture, original, without a second’s pause to ask the question, as I have attempted to do here, “but is it?”

[1] For a brief but nonetheless useful overview of the ties between modernism, post-modernism, consumerism, and order, I highly recommend reading Frederic Jameson’s “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”.

[2] For further reading on these ideas, I recommend several “classic” texts: Buber, Martin. I and Thou New York: Scribner, 1958, is a difficult but enlightening text on alienation, religion, capitalism/materialism and more. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from Illuminations. New York, Schocken Books, 1968, Pgs. 217-251, is a great translation of Benjamin’s work on art and alienation, super relevant to modern music and its ties to capitalist culture. And, of course, Karl Marx, “Alienated Labor,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), The Potable Karl Marx (1983) for one of the original distillations of these ideas.

[3] I cannot recommend this article enough for a super interesting intro to the idea of the void in Marxist thought, as told through both vaporwave and the wonderful philosopher Simone Weil. Yep, you read that right and it’s as amazing as it sounds.

[4]Throughout this passage, I will be relying on Olson, Benjamin. “I am the Black Wizards: Multiplicity, Mysticism and Identity in Black Metal Music and Culture.” Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. Bowling Green State University, 2008. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. 25 Sep 2018. Since this is a blog post rather than an academic essay, I won’t beleaguer you with specific references; suffice it to say that this entire thesis is well worth your time.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter A. Kaufmann. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. This is, of course, a citation for the full text. It’s one of the most analyzed and interpreted texts in Western culture but I really do recommend reading it in full. Until then, this Wikipedia article does a decent job of explaining the main idea I use here from this text.

Eden Kupermintz

Published 6 years ago