The Black Metal Phenomenom – A Reasonable Approach I am writing this because I have the desire to address, in my own way, some of the ideas and themes that seem to be rampant in the black metal fan community which I find disturbing. Unfortunately, every genre of music has some kind of attitude or lifestyle associated with it, and black metal has developed its own unfavorable associations; the story does not end there, though. Everyone is aware that black metal was formed as the musical culmination of an attitude and a lifestyle, but as much as some of the modern fans would like to think, their own attitude and lifestyle is not the equivalent of the one it was founded on. There are a couple issues I want to discuss in this piece. I suggest skipping to whichever you are most interested in unless you wish to read all 6 pages of this (though I would be grateful for that). The first issue is the reverance and idol worship of the old school. The second issue is the unjustified emphasis on religion/culture in black metal. The third issue is the so-called saturation of the genre. The fourth issue is the vehement opposition to exposure of the music to people. The fifth issue (to be covered later) is the difference between an influence and a rip-off, and the abuse of the latter. Needless to say I feel strongly about all of these issues otherwise I wouldn’t take the time to write about them. I highly encourage disagreement and dissenting opinions especially when presented in an educated manner, and at the same time I would request that any replies have at least a tinge of respect for the time I’ve devoted to this. Issue One: “Darkthrone, Emperor, Bathory, Immortal, Burzum, Mayhem did it first, did it best, and everything since then has been one form of imitation or another that fails to match the original masterpieces.” Let’s deal with this using some statements which I believe are true: The bands listed did it first, and they did it very well, creating a number of masterpieces. There exist a number of purely imitation bands, simply seeking to recreate the style and rewrite the riffs of one of the original bands. There exist a much greater number of bands who drew heavily on the styles of those bands, but write music with varying degrees of uniqueness based on that. While the scene revolving around the bands listed produced a disproportionate number of legendary albums, every single year since 1992 has produced just as many legendary albums, if not more, many of which are just as good as (or better than) the originals. Here is my take on this. It may be easier to understand my perspective after reading the section on religion in the music, but this comes first. I am not stupid enough to argue that the “great” bands were not great – they were. But I do not believe they were the best. For every style they represented or even invented, I can name 5 bands that I think do it just as well, sometimes better. I will not argue against the greatness of some of the classic albums, but at the same time I hold plenty of post-2000 releases in equally high regard. Another reason they continue to be so popular within the genre is one that is seen in all genres of music. They are easy to like, not in a general sense, but among black metal. The fact that music is easy to like, simple, or widely appealing does not make it any less worthwhile, but it does help explain why bands like Darkthrone are widely popular even outside of black metal. It is not always effective to look at music from an objective standpoint but I am going to try it here. Music will always evolve as more music is created and the trees of influence expand and mingle. Such is the case with black metal. To me, it seems highly improbable, even downright silly, that with the massive increase in bands creating this style of music there cannot be anything matching the first attempts. Thinking about this leads me to look at what else might cause so many people to hold this view. Well the first option is that, truly, the original masterpieces are the best black metal albums ever made, and unlikely as it seems, there are none among the massive number of subsequent bands that are as good. Needless to say, I don’t think this is the correct option. This is what I believe is the truth, and I am forced to speculate because truly I cannot know the minds of men, but at the same time I am not stupid or blind; I can develop an informed opinion on the matter through my experiences. A bit of generalization is required here, so bear with me as I explain what I think is the most common case. First, an example. You ask a pop fan, what are his favorite artists, he lists the 5 most famous in existence. You ask him, what about these 5 pop artists, what do you think? He might say, oh I don’t know, I haven’t heard them. Such is the attitude of a pop fan, who probably doesn’t see music as anything but noise in the background in his car or at a party, and thus doesn’t reject the suggestion that someone could be better than the 5 most famous. The same question posed to a black metal fan, will quite likely elicit the response that his 5 are unquestionably the best, because they embodied the spirit of black metal, they created it, and the fan will probably be some form of furious over the fact that another band even tried to imitate it. Such is the attitude of a black metal fan (see Issue Four for an in-depth discussion on this). So here is what I’m getting at with this. Everyone who listens to black metal has heard the original bands. They are very good, with some amazing material. Given the mindset, the perceived social superiority, of an average black metal fan, it is easily understandable how one might psychologically associate with those original bands. We like to see ourselves as the elite, the original, the true, and kneeling before the altar of Darkthrone is a subconscious (or even conscious) way of doing that. I can easily see the argument arising here that somehow black metal fans are not susceptible to the same kind of socio-psychological forces as say, a pop fan (who will gravitate to whatever is most popular). Of course, I think that is ridiculous, because we are humans like anyone else, and what we perceive effects what we feel which in turn effects what we think. While this type of influence may not be as obvious or well documented as the “sheep in the herd” mentality, it isn’t unheard of. I think that some people feel that keeping Mayhem and the rest at the top of the list somehow preserves the “purity” of the genre that (they perceive) is disappearing. If you are one who has heard black metal modern and old, given it all an equal chance, and believes that the originals truly are the best, please don’t take issue personally with what I am saying. I respect your opinion and I’m not calling to question your intelligence or sincerity. I just ask you to remember that anyone is capable of saying yes, I have done all that, and still believe – but only they can know if it is true. Being convinced of something does not make it true. But after all, it is a matter of opinion. Issue Two: What role does religion and lifestyle play in black metal? This is a very touchy question, first because many black metallers have staunch and opinionated answers to this, and second because it is very easy for me to stray off topic when talking about such things. So in addressing this issue I will make a concerted effort to be concise and on topic, which still guarantees nothing about length; this could get long. The first thing that should be pointed out is that black metal is not the first and won’t be the last genre to be associated strongly with, and originate from, a certain subculture. It follows that fans of black metal are not the first to exude the desire to preserve this association with culture. This doesn’t really mean anything in and of itself, as what applies to one doesn’t necessarily apply to all, but it is worth mentioning. I have great respect for the ideals presented by early black metal and maintained by much of modern black metal. In many ways they represent my own beliefs, and there can be nothing short of admiration for the devotion exhibited in some of the more (in)famous cases. That is just a disclaimer, it has nothing to do with the essence of this argument, which is as follows. Black metal is, above all else, music. It is possible, and in some cases recommended(referring to NSBM), to separate the music from the beliefs of those who wrote it. This is heresy to many black metallers, without doubt. But think about anyone who could listen to the music completely out of the context of its history. This would require extenuating circumstances, yet it serves to illustrate the fact that the reason black metal is so powerful is not because of what the bands are saying in their lyrics (especially to Americans like me) or album artwork. Black metal, the music, bared of all context, history, tradition and comparison, is powerful - and if it isn’t, it is pointless. To argue that black metal requires the musicians to be satanic/pagan/misanthropic/grim/nazi or anything of the sort is almost laughable. Further, to argue that modern black metal is predominately being made by people simply trying to imitate these ideas (yes, I have heard people say this) is equally comical. Most obviously, we have no idea what most of the people behind the music are like, as they don’t all get Varg-esque news coverage. Aside from that, it hardly matters what the musicians believe, and there is nothing that reeks worse of faux-elitism than accusing others of moral/ethical/religious impurity (especially those who are on your side or at least in relative agreement with you). It seems a great affront on the value of the music itself to claim that the lyrics or more especially, actions of the musicians behind the music, is such an important part of what we get out of listening to black metal. There is certainly nothing wrong with getting these things yourself because we each look for different things in music. However, a claim that ignoring the message makes the music less of an experience, or less valuable, feels dangerously like an indictment of the music itself. I simply can’t agree with such a claim under any circumstances. The main argument within this issue that I do see as valid is that in order to make grim music, you must have either a grim personality or a grim mood at the time of composition. Insert any emotion applicable to black metal, and I would say that it is probably most effectively written by someone who strongly associates with that emotion. Where this clashes with the black metal issue, however, is that these grim/angry/bleak emotions can arise from anything, from any person with any set of beliefs, and since music is quite literally a universal language, the source of the sort of emotions we are familiar with in black metal is completely irrelevant as long as they are conveyed effectively through the music. In this discussion I have been referring to black metal as a genre of music. It is anyones right to discuss black metal as a culture, and when doing so none of this holds meaning. Black metal is music, black metal is also a culture; they are not inseparable. As you see, I just evaluated the music side of it and questions of the underlying beliefs cannot be raised without straying into the culture side. Perhaps most importantly to this discussion is the fact that unless we specifically pursue the issue with a particular band or they actively demonstrate it, we have no way of knowing what belief system they subscribe to. If a band chooses to write black metal while remaining anonymous and not promoting anything, as if this were not obvious, they are still black metal, and there is no theological requirement to making black metal any more than there is to making jazz. Note: This is not intended to address “unblack”, “white”, or “christian black metal”, nor was any of it written with those in mind. I do, indeed, have an opinion(negative, if you must know) of this type of metal, but that is not the topic of this discussion and I will not address it here. Issue Three: Is the black metal scene satured? Well, what does that even mean? To me this is a very simple issue and shouldn’t require a lot of time. I think the fact that the issue even exists is a reflection of the fact that, when bored, or for any other reason, people can and will find something to complain about. One of the most common complaints I hear about the modern black metal scene today is that it is bloated. “There are too many bands making music, more than any other genre in metal, and almost all of it sucks or is a blatant ripoff, making it impossible to find good music.” First of all, the more bands making the music, the more likely there will be good material out there. Even if the ratio of good to bad gets worse (which I don’t necessarily believe), the quantity of good should still go up. The only legitimate concern involving this issue is that it may be harder for a truly gifted band to gain notice or recognition. Of course, then we have the slightly off-topic argument that they don’t want notice or recognition, but in that case it means the fans, us, are less likely to hear the good music. As far as I can see, there are an unbelievably greater number of death, gothic, and metalcore bands forming than black, which makes sense given the comparitive popularity of said genres; this makes the assertion that black metal is “more bloated” than other genres false, or at best, nitpicking. In any case, out of this mass of black metal bands, there comes a mass of good music. I know it is popular/trendy to deny the merit of most new black metal, but a lot of it is very good. There is also a huge variety of influences being incorporated into the genre, which can only be seen as a good thing, mostly because musical “purity” doesn’t really exist. For every industrial or power influenced black metal band, there is one that plays purely traditional black metal. The existence of diversity does not cause a decrease in quality. So let me address the people who like to voice this complaint: Can you name any bands, not of the past 2 years, who made up the bloat of the genre, the bands that had no merit and didn’t make good music? I’d be willing to bet that you cannot. There could be thousands of awful black metal bands out there, and as long as I am not required to acknowledge and remember them, they will affect me no more than the thousands of awful rock or pop bands that in reality do exist. The only reason that a multitude of poor bands could cause problems in finding good ones is if you have an uneffective means of getting recommendations or finding music. Good bands get talked about, bad ones don’t, and it is as easy to navigate the difference now as it ever was (easier, actually – read: internet). I will be blunt here. In my opinion, if you think that modern black metal is no good (or whatever other negative quality), you either haven’t truly listened to it (or you have unbelievably horrid luck in choosing what to listen to), you are too close-minded to judge it on equal grounds, or you are just an ignorant faux-elitist kid. Issue Four: A common attitude among black metal fans today is to exhibit anger or dismay over the growing number of fans of the genre. Often this has something to do with “purity” or some other abstract ideal, which as far as I know has no basis in reality at all. Purity has nothing to do with black metal, and the number of people who enjoy the music has nothing to do with its purity anyway, making the whole idea pointless. This goes hand in hand with the grave misconception that black metal is inherently anti-social. In fact, this is far from the truth, as the original “black metal spirit” was based on rising up, uniting, fighting against christianity and the modern era (it should be pointed out that it takes very little reading/knowledge to discover the truth of this). None of those are anti-social ideas, and the ridiculous notion that black metal is an exclusive community that does not welcome new members is obviously not in line with that spirit. The ideas that were banded by the second wave of black metal were not new, it was simply the first time they were attached so firmly to a type of music. Black metal fans out there who are angered by the expansion of the genre should be aware of the fact that this is not a new sentiment even among music. In fact, it is pretty common for there to be a movement against the popularizing of a type of music. To think that black metal is somehow different is to be naïve in the face of history, and the timeline of black metal development points directly to that and can be compared to other musical movements in the past. Here is another thing that is undoubtedly hard for some people to deal with, to the point that most will probably argue it to death or refuse to accept it. Black metal is music, like any other music, that is designed to some extent to be pleasing. We are not a unique breed of music fans because we like music that is extremely hateful or depressing, and listening to black metal doesn’t make us different. I have witnessed people arguing that the point of black metal is for it to be uncomfortable or even painful to listen to, which simply isn’t true, though that is not to say it can’t be achieved if you actively seek out the right bands. Luckily perhaps, there is no shortage of angry and sad people in this world. The simple fact is the more people that are exposed to the music the more will end up liking it. The ratio will never be as great as pop music, because pop is specifically designed to appeal to the maximum number of people. But it is simply foolish to rebel against reality and statistics. Black metal has been around for 15+ years give or take, and being an extreme variant of metal it will never reach as many ears as most types of music, but it will still continue to grow and gain new fans the longer it is around. That is the way of music, and no black metal in existence is too raw or grim to halt this process. My suggestion is that the black metal community try to embrace this and take solace in the fact that more people are at the very least being exposed to the message in the music, and with luck, finding truth in the principles. It seems almost ridiculous that these things even need to be said. It should be common sense, right? Yet I see, every day through reading online, people ranting about the state of black metal, the pollution of the fan base, etc etc, and you would think that the self-proclaimed true black metallers might have a firmer grasp on reality.