Chrome marks “transgressive” as a spelling mistake. Or at least it did, I think I’ve since added it to its dictionary. This is a good indication that a term only seems “correct” to me because I picked it up during my time in academia. However, in this case, I don’t find the term to be overly bloated or excessive. A transgressive thing is anything which goes beyond the borders of something else where it explicitly shouldn’t. A transgressive thing is a rupture, a break in a system that otherwise wants to be unbroken. It is more than a rebellion because, as we discussed extensively during the first installment of Fighting Fire with Fire, a system can come to codify accepted ways to rebel against it and thus co-opt them.
A rebellion which plays by the framework of the thing which it rebels against cannot be said to be transgressive because it doesn’t go beyond. The very act of stepping outside of the framework is what makes something transgressive. It’s also interesting to note that “transgression” is not marked by Chrome as a spelling mistake. “A transgression” is something we’re quite familiar with: an act which breaks the rules perhaps in a more social sense than a legal one. A faux pas, if you will. Or a crime. All of which to say that if your shock art, your weird clothes, your unaccepted speech, work from the same emotional, ideological, or aesthetic core, they are not transgressive; they are simply replicating the logic of the system they supposed work against, in new ways. In fact, your transgressions make that system stronger by giving the illusion that it allows freedom.1
But the title of this post doesn’t read “Metal and transgression”. There’s certainly a lot to be said about that subject as well: how metal flaunts social norms, how metal flaunts musical norms. The relationship between metal and crime (“breaking the law, breaking the law”). We might talk about these things in this post, in passing, but I don’t want to focus on the action, on the actual transgression and the forces, symbols, and interplay thereof which it represents and through which we come to understand metal’s supposed “deviance”. That’s a discussion about how metal eschews, or embraces, the mainstream and there have been many posts, articles, essays and the such on the topic.2
In fact, the previous installment in this series was, to an extent, a discussion of that transgression, how it came to be codified and, eventually, nullified by capitalism. Instead of rehashing these tired tropes, of the rebellious teenager in torn jeans or the enshrined conflict of Tipper Gore and Twisted Sister, I want to talk about a trangressive mode, a certain form of intent, a transgressive perspective on music, culture, and society which, I believe, is one of the fuels pumping metal’s 60 or so years long fire. Or one of the possible fuels, one of the wells or paths open to metal musicians, even if it’s too often under-utilized. I want to talk about a form of love called compassion. I want to talk specifically about a sort of compassion which is transgressive, a love that inherently goes beyond what it should love, that breaks down the borders of what is deemed worthy, or normal, to love. In short, I want to talk about what metal is so often missing and what I’d like to see more of: a love without borders.
But what the hell is transgressive love? To better understand this term, we actually have to turn to a (somewhat) unexpected place: Christianity. That’s right, one of metal’s favorite straw-men that, like many a repressed foe, is also one of metal’s biggest aesthetic inspirations, holds the key to a part of what makes metal tick. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, with its love for the obscure and mystical, God is love and acts of love and is loved and loves us. This is referred to as agape, the love which emanates from God to all of creation and, especially, to humans. This idea is ever-present in Christianity, from the more obscure sects and texts to the very foundation of Scripture. For example, it appears in one of the most famous quotes from the Gospel of John (3:16):
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This love, the love of God for the world, the love of Jesus for Man, and the love that Christians are supposed to have for each other and for God, is inherently transgressive. It breaks the world. In the Christian perspective, faith (which is love) is transgressive because it turns you against the mundane world. This world, of flesh and human existence, is fallen, lacking, and binding. It has its grubby hands around you and it wants you to stay here, where God is not (I don’t have time for caveats so let me just acknowledge that yes, I’m talking about a very specific brand of Christianity here but that brand just happens to be the most popular one, AKA Catholicism). Therefore, to love God, and for God to love you, the world must first be rent asunder, as Jesus says in Matthew 10:33-34:
“Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death / Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
Of course, this sort of transgressive love/faith also has social implications: if the world around you tells not to love Jesus or to stray from your faith, you must not heed it. Bonds of family, wealth, worldly love, honor, and the such must be ignored. That’s why the martyrs are so important to Christianity; their love performs the ultimate transgression. The martyr’s love denies/breaks the most fundamental worldly part of us: our very lives. In the name of the love of God, the martyrs give up their lives and renounce this broken world completely. The forces and logic of the market, of rationalism, of the quid pro quo that governs so much of human life, is done away with. There is no expectation of a reward in the martyr’s actions, in the act of transgressive love. You love because you love! There is no other choice. Anything less is not transgressive; it is maybe affection or self interest but it doesn’t burn with the irreducible, unintelligible fire of transgressive love, a fire that burns all calculations and markets.3
OK, but what the fuck does this have to do with metal, you might ask, and rightfully so. What if I told you that this sort of transgressive love, one which breaks and scorns the world, is one of the forces which have, sometimes and could again, lie at the base of metal’s rise to power? A factor in its mass appeal? What if I went one further and told you that if you want to “save metal”, like those gatekeepers we discussed in the previous installment of this series and which abound in our communities today, you must not fall prey to the allure of purity, a border-making impulse if there ever was one, but instead you need to support that love, the passion which burns inside the hearts of a lot of people who listen to metal, whatever form it might take?
What if, finally, I tried to say that the antidote to the “capitalization of metal”, the antidote to consumerism swallowing our genre whole and puking a more marketable, sleek, and cataloged version of metal out the other side is love? That the discourse of tradition, of purity, of a return to greatness, is the discourse of the market? That the market wants nothing more than for you to cling to your genre-guns because it can sell you those guns on a sliver platters? That the only way out, the only way to go through the market which inherently has sway over music, is to dive deep (or rise with) the irreducible power of transgressive love?
All of that is what I’ll try to claim in this essay. My thesis can be summarized thus: metal is great when it encourages a sort of transgressive love. This love is aimed at ideas, aesthetics, and themes which “break the world”, work against the grain of the society in which metal is formed. Therefore, my idea can be also be formulated thus: metal is great when it is radical. It is great when it looks into your heart, finds the love there and stokes it because the world around you (much like in the Christian vision of it) wants that love to die. That love is what lets us geek out about obscure bands no one but us cares about. It’s what allows us to take the more ridiculously flamboyant sub-genres of metal (like black metal or power metal) not seriously, but in the spirit in which they should be intended, as a sort of antidote and anti-thesis to our broken, muddled, capitalist world.
That love, most importantly at all, is the authentic kernel of truth which lies in the idea of a “battle sibling”, of the kinship we feel with other metalheads and that is (rightfully) often mocked. That there’s a version of that kinship that escapes that mockery because it is real, powered by a love that transgresses barriers of race, gender, class, and geographical location.
In order to make these points, and sketch out this sort of transgressive love and where it appears and doesn’t appear within metal, we’ll explore the same sub-genre we explored on the first iteration of this post: black metal. We will trace the ways in which black metal can resist and transgress the world around us. We’ll explore the ways in which black metal fans and musicians (often the same thing) revel in its specific types of transgressive love. We will look at black metal specifically not only to complement the previous part of this essay but because it can take the sort of power that can bubble beneath metal’s skin and write it large, without apology or shroud. Make no mistake: black metal, just like any other sort of metal, doesn’t inherently possess or express the sort of transgressive love we’re looking for. This sort of love must be cultivated, practiced, the word of its truth spoken and written every day for it to remain fresh.
In fact, much (most?) of metal has forgotten how to speak it, how to create and maintain it. Much of metal has surrendered to the market, to the idea that power means hate or strength rather than love and empathy. And so, finally, we’ll try to formulate ways in which this love can be maintained, stoked, and protected in ourselves, our friends, and our communities. For, at the very outset, this transgressive love means nothing if it is not performed together. This, at the very end, will be our point: like any good religion, metal’s radical potential, metal’s love, lies in the sort of communities which it fosters, arranged around one thing: the very love of ourselves and the people who we love with us.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”
Castles Conquered and Reclaimed – Black Metal, the Past, and Passion
I chose to focus on black metal in this essay for two reasons. One, it fits in nicely with the previous installment of Fighting Fire with Fire, which was heavily focused on black metal. But secondly, and more importantly, there’s a sort of terrible irony when talking about the subject of love and black metal. It’s certainly not the first emotion you’d associate with the sub-genre. On the face of it, black metal channels an array of feelings which seem to resonate more darkly: depression, hate, anger, defiance. But, I believe, when you throw off what black metal might like to think of itself, or, rather, the image certain members of it would like to present, another possible form of black metal manifests itself, arranged around different ideas.
Perhaps more than almost any other genre of metal, black metal can be about the passion which comes when you love something with a deep, fierce, and unrelenting dedication. It’s very much about being outcast for that love as well, deemed weird or eccentric for the degree of the dedication you’re willing to give this thing (essentially being labeled a “nerd” for it, since, let’s be honest, all fans of black metal and black metal musicians are nerds, at least to some extent). The object of this love varies from genre to genre; traditional black metal is all about the love of “folk”, in its more poetic and historical meanings but also the more literal and, sometimes, racist interpretations. Symphonic black metal is often about the love of power and its extravagant expression while depressive black metal can be seen as a twisted love affair with our own inner demons.
Pagan, folk and, often, atmospheric black metal return somewhat to the roots of the genre and focus on the love of nature, often stripping it of the folkish and historical elements of it, instead viewing it is an object worthy of a separate love, a unique love. This is, in essence and as an example, what Ulver did in the early days of black metal with Kveldssanger (even though one track on it hints towards a Christian/Scandinavian divide), showing that an entire album can be focused on nature alone. These ideas have recently been further articulated by bands like Falls of Rauros and Botanist, in whose work the love of nature is palpably powerful and universal, almost entirely devoid of any local elements, even if specific regions in the world play a big part in the composition and writing of the music.
Another example of the presence of love within black metal can be found in its more radical element. These elements are fast gathering popularity today, using black metal’s inherent ties to politics, love, and passion to promulgate left-wing politics. The list of names is (thankfully) long but two examples that are great for our needs are Mystras (spearheaded by Ayloss of Spectral Lore) and Ashbringer. Both of these bands channel the explosive emotions at the basis of black metal into social and political standpoints. They paint with the brush of black metal but they create an altogether different picture than bands operating in other sub-genres of black metal. Their vision is filled with passion not just for the past but also for the future. This is different than the type of yearning that is perhaps more readily associated with black metal, not a yearning for a past that must return, but rather a desire for a better future.
Mystras is an especially interesting example in this regard because the project is emphatically about the past. Most of its lyrics revolve around places, events, and personas from the history of rebellions and struggles for freedom. For example, and as I pointed out in my review of the album, “The Murder of Wat Tyler”, the third track on the album, is all about one of the first peasant rebellions against the king in England. Likewise, “Storm the Walls of Mystras” is an explicitly anti-imperial track but one which prefigures this anti-imperliasm into the oft-conquered and re-conquered city/region of Mystras in Greece.
But, crucially for our needs, these ideas and calls for rebellion do not remain in the past for Mystras. Instead, they are lessons to be learnt, stories to be heard, and sources of passion and love. That passion is the desire to continue on the fight, that love is the love for those who came before us in the struggle to create something better. As the closing track of the album, “Wrath and Glory”, says:
Who said there’s no beauty in the mighty sword that cuts
In the song that fills our hearts with wrath
And makes us lift our fists to roar like boars
Who said that honour is meaningless
For humanity is lost and doomed
That there’s no glory in our struggle
That our eyes see red and that our spirit is black
Who wept that the fight is futile
When death is certain
From the Jacquerie to the Spanish Irmandades
From Flanders to the Swabian highlands to Kinai
The fight against injustice is eternal
And Eternal we shall become
If you can read those last two lines and not choke up a bit with passion, comradery, and love, then I don’t know what to tell you. This is a great example of transgressive love: it looks at both the past and the future, at the “common” lessons and perspectives on both, and pierces through them with emotion. This is an important point: the message here is not intellectual. It’s not ideological (per se, explicitly). It’s emotional and aesthetic. We should fight because the fight is beautiful. We should fight because freedom is glorious. We should keep going because to stop would be to betray those we love. We fight for each other and for the future we know we deserve. We fight because we want what’s best for those we love.
That’s why this is a good example of transgressive love. Love bypasses all of the mundane, intellectual, and “rational” arguments of the world. It unmakes the current order of things where the past is dead, an object to be studied, deconstructed, and understood or an immovable force that drives us in a direction we cannot control, a chained Angel of History. Mystras, and other bands that weaponize love and passion in the service of radical politics, break down and corrode these structures of thought and understanding and appeal to a more visceral, common, and immediately approachable place within us: the place of love. The love of freedom, of justice, of equality, and of change that runs through us.
And it’s a good thing that they do because, as we discussed in the previous iteration of this essay, those orders, processes, rational arrangements, and ideas are all capitalism’s tools. It’s very convenient to capitalism that black metal has a nostalgia and a desire for the past. As long as that desire is “dead” or “inert”, that is content to simply look at the past as an object to be remembered, a dead thing on the mantel that we reminisce about or, worse, a thing to be returned to, capitalism can sell us that past. But when the past comes alive with passion, as it does in much of the more radical aspects of black metal, the hegemony fumbles. It is unsure how to market it to us. The past and the future coming alive give us what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called a “line of flight”, an avenue of approach that takes us outside of the controlled environment of hegemony, a moment for us to change.
Vigilance Perennial – Keeping the Passion of Black Metal Alive
This is, sadly, the exception to the rule, especially in black metal. As we covered in the previous iteration of this post, falling back on shock tactics is a much easier (and understandable) solution when you’re an artist in late capitalism. The market knows how to configure, catalog, and digest edginess, hate, and racism and, most importantly, it knows how to sell those things. Which means you get your cut, a cut you use to pay for things like food and shelter.
Witness the might of the capitalist snake, eating its own tail! This is the answer to why the genre that perhaps most claims to be transgressive has been reduced (and perhaps always was reduced) to a collection of edgy teens taking pictures in the snow with guns and maces. Instead of sending out calls for true radicalness, for true revolution, two things that must begin with compassion, empathy, and love, they send out messages of hate, individualistic anger, and a romantic, impotent yearning for a past that never was. Because they sell.
That’s also why black metal loves its delimitations. It loves to stay within the boxes it has painted itself from day one, because those boxes allow it to substantiate the meaning which it has lost (or perhaps never had) with the aesthetic trappings of mode and style. That is, the aesthetics of love and passion as evidenced in the Mystras track above (checking out the aforementioned Ashbringer and also Exulansis and Feminazgul if you’re tired of just that one example) are replaced by something else (or, rather, they are never allowed to grow in the first place).
When you’re not loving anything that is not yourself, when you’re not transgressing past who you are and what you know, when you don’t know what you’re fighting for, you end up fighting for forms instead of substance. This guitar technique, that art style, those lyrics or that subject matter become important to you because nothing of substance really is. You sold out in the deepest of senses, focused on the form (which is always easy for the market to monetize) instead of calling for something, instead of raising a flag about something, instead of breaking borders and going beyond. Beyond the mundane, beyond the expected. Beyond your genre.
Here’s an example: remember the furor about Sacred Son‘s cover art? Yeah, that’s about this. Why do you think people reacted so badly to that cover art? It’s because it “betrays” a sort of dedication to the music that the artist has that they lacked. Even more annoying to them was Sacred Son’s response to all of this, which was more or less: “I’m not sure what the problem is? The music speaks for itself”. And it sure does! You might not think it’s the best black metal ever made (I enjoyed it, for what it’s worth) but it was clearly a labor of passion.
Sacred Son clearly loves black metal. But for them, the “old-school” black metal fans that is, the content of the art, the passion brought forth from it, is irrelevant. Only the form matters and the form here was decidedly not black metal. So they didn’t even bother listening to the music because the music is besides the point. Give them the cookie-cutter accouterments of their specific sub-genre of choice and be done. This is also why bands like Inquisition are still defended as geniuses; if you listen to the music, it’s very clear that they haven’t had a new idea in decades. But it’s not about the content of the music but about the form and oh boy, do those guys conform!
Look back to the examples provided above for passionate, transgressive, love-filled black metal. Try to place your fingers exactly on how you would categorize the projects. Most of them defy easy encapsulation. Most of them expand and reconfigure what black metal is about. Some of them do this by going back to the roots of black metal (remember that radical also means “forming the root”), like Mystras does, eschewing more modern production, composition choices, and style.
This return is also a labor of love. Some of them, like the aforementioned Feminazgul or Botanist, add new instruments, sounds, and textures to the genre. Some of them play black metal pretty “straight”, not really messing around with the sound but rather with its execution, bringing forth a feeling of something on the edge of breaking, a testing of personal and community boundaries through love for the genre.
What all of these projects have in common is that they refuse to sacrifice the genre of music they admire to the hands of the conservative, of the complacent and the hateful. Their passion, their dedication to a better world, their love of not only the music they make but also of their cause, of the people who fight alongside them, allows them to also change and reconfigure the music they make. It allows them to transgress the expectations that the market has come to demand of them. They understand that the entire point of black metal is to be performed from an ideological core that is inherently opposed to the single most oppressive and “flattening” idea/concept around, the market.
But it’s hard. It’s hard not “just” because the market is everywhere and in order to live you need to eat and in order to eat you need money. It’s hard also because the market transcends the “everywhere” into the “everything” and creeps into your own mind. It’s hard because that burning core of passion that allows you to make spent, exhausted, breaking, raw, abrasive, and transgressive music is extremely hard to maintain. And you know what? It’s not only hard to maintain it when you’re an artist. It’s also hard to maintain it when you’re a listener. It’s hard to keep pushing forward, to keep demanding things so powerful, exposed, and unique from your music. It’s very easy, on all sides of the playing field, to become complacent. I am guilty of it myself, for sure.
So, I want to close off this essay (and, indeed, the “series”, as this ends Fighting Fire with Fire completely) with some tips that I have created for myself. The purpose of these tips is to keep you moving forward, to keep you from letting the market in. To help you guard that which is at the core of all music genres but, perhaps, most at the core of black metal: love. A burning love, a hurting love, a love that ought to be maintained. A love that needs to be maintained. A love that refuses to stay still and, instead, would rebel against all it sees as cruel, unjust, and stagnant in the world. A love that we feel when we listen to music that truly moves us.
The Rot in the Field is Holy – Tips For Staying Sharp
- Love is revolutionary. Love deeply, love widely, love fiercely. The only way to fight for a better future is to love that future and what it promises so hard that you are willing to bring it about.
- Ask yourself, in all things but especially music: who or what is this music against? Who is it for? All art is political. Everything we do is political. It’s not your fault but everything you consume is for and against someone. Try and think on who that is and support the things that fight for those you love.
- Critique the things you love. Critique the things you don’t love as well but even more important, critique the things you love. Ask yourself why you love them. Ask yourself what they’re missing. Ask yourself what you might add to them. Ask yourself how these things could be different.
- Listen to things you wouldn’t normally listen to. Seek out genres that you decided that you “don’t like” and try to check them out again. Stagnation is very hard to fall into and the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen is to already assume it’s happening and to actively fight it.
- Try to engage with your community and make it better. Really, you don’t have to do a lot. I do it with the blog. You can do it on your social media page. Just stay engaged with the people who like the things you also like. Passion breeds in numbers.
- Read theory. Seriously, people have told you that leftist theory is hard but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a good guide (which I co-collected). Theory is not the end of staying passionate, active, and committed but it’s a damn good start.
- Remember: another world is possible. If we demand it.
- Listen to good bands, bands that channel the power of love in the face of our everyday reality in their music. It is always easier to keep the flame alive when you’re doing it with more than just yourself. Think of listening to this sort of music like going to the gym; you’re exercising a muscle and this muscle allows you to push against the entire world. Here is a good list to start from; some of the bands were mentioned above and others weren’t, but they are all good and worth your time:
Feminazgul – No Dawn for Men
Ashbringer – Absolution
Mystras – Castles Conquered & Reclaimed
Yovel – Forthcoming Humanity
Book of Sand – Occult Anarchist Propaganda
Underdark – Mourning Cloak
Sacred Son – Arthurian Catacombs
Dawn Ray’d – Behold Sedition Plainsong
Alright, we’re done. Now you finally know why these two essays are called “Fighting Fire with Fire”. There is a great conflagration that burns through our world. It is called capitalism and it will eat everything we love if we let it. The only answer is to light a stronger fire to fight it. Music is not the only way to light that fire but it’s a damn good way to keep it alive.
- There’s been a lot written about this idea in the past 100 years or so. A good start would be Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. You can also read Antonio Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks.
- Kieran Fisher, who used to write for us, explored this quite well in his piece about the “Satanic Panic” in the United States. This is obviously just one example.
- If you want to dive deeper into these ideas, and I recommend it since they’re fascinating, I suggest you read St. Augustine’s Confessions as a good starting point.