BLACK METAL THEORY by Francesco Tenaglia

Theodor Kittelsen, Up in the Hills a Clarion Call Rings Out (1900)

In its initial incarnation in the 90s, Norwegian Black Metal was a variant of heavy metal, which adopted an innovative style: blurred and misty layers of tremolo-ed guitars took the place of the, previously fashionable, rushing technical gymnastics on the instruments; a purist lo-fi recording approach was preferred to the “high-definition” production value of thrash metal and death metal; singers abandoned the macho growls of the past and assumed more mournful and lamenting modes of singing. Some would say that one of the strengths of black metal has been a completely humorless and literal re-interpretation of the grand guignolesque theatrics, which have always been essential to rock and roll music entertainment, from glam to hard rock. The Norwegian scene has produced a bona-fide mix of ferocious anti-Christianity (most of the participants defined themselves Satanists or Pagans), misanthropy and an absolutist rejection of contemporary consumer society (this very often paired with supporting totalitarian ideologies), which in its turn has been at the root of the production of a few truly excellent records, but also of an escalating violence, which reached its height, in 1994, when Varg Vikernes of the band Burzum was convicted for the murder of Øystein Aarseth (known as Euronymous) of the band Mayhem and for the burning of several churches of historical relevance.

Burning Church

In 2009, a series of symposia and publications regarding “Black Metal Theory” was initiated by Nicola Masciandaro. The first symposium was held at the Public Assembly Hall in Brooklyn in December 2009. The Symposium and resulting book was called Hideous Gnosis. Professor Scott Wilson (professor of Media And Cultural Studies at the Kingston University in London) who organized the second one Melancology – in London in January 2011 was good enough to have a conversation with us about this nascent theoretical field.

Would you please introduce us to Black Metal Theory?

Black Metal Theory concerns the violent conjunction of theoretical ideas and Black Metal. It involves an indefinite number of people, some of them academic but not all, who love Black Metal, love the experience of Black Metal but who also love reflecting on that experience. Black Metal Theory is emphatically NOT Black Metal Studies. It does not involve taking a cultural studies, sociological or ethnographic approach to Black Metal; it is not a form of musicology. On the contrary it attempts to find different ways of thinking, speaking and writing about Black Metal that are fully cognizant of the fact that you can’t write about Black Metal. Eugene Thacker’s paper ‘Sounds from the Abyss’ at the last Symposium, for example, demonstrated a non-cultural studies, non-musicological way of talking about the music.

There are plans for a third and initial ideas for the location include Oslo, Budapest, LA, Edinburgh. It will be organized by someone else.

What were the main themes in the latest symposium?

One of the most important things about this violent conjunction is the way in which Black Metal disturbs thought, leading to the creation of new concepts. As a musical form that evokes frozen, desolated landscapes, infernal forests real and phantasmal, physical and metaphysical, for example, Black Metal is clearly a form of environmental writing, but one that could not easily be accommodated into current ecological discourse. Participants seriously considered the idea of melancology both as black ecology, exploring black metal as a geophilosophy of real and psychic spaces (the frozen desert is not so much ‘out there’ but inside you), and as an ethos, looking at black metal as the re-occultation of black blood and bile in rituals of mourning and celebration for the death of God and the extinction of his creation, particularly humanity, under the black sun of melancholy. As such, the symposium connected with a new strain in contemporary philosophy that regards extinction as a speculative opportunity for thought. Black metal resounds from the abyss and it is precisely only in relation to its sonic forces that the question of intervention in the environment arises in the articulation of melancology with ethics. That is, in deciding ‘which way out’ we should take, in deciding with what surpluses to dwell, with what waste, what detritus or decay in a process of unbinding with sonic forces that traverse an earth choking in wealth and death.

Black metal, or associated imagery and references, seem to have percolated in experimental music in the 00s or in other fields such as contemporary art/cinema. What would you say are the elements that have kept the genre relevant after all these years?

This is an area addressed at the conference by Amelia Ishmael from the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She argues that it is not so much the imagery derived from album covers and promotional materials that is significant, but the sonic production of a kind of ‘formless presence’ that infuses some contemporary art, both audio and visual. She discusses, for example, the sculptural installations of Banks Violette, the drawings and video art of artist/musician Terence Hannum, and the photography of Grant Willing. For myself I would even risk suggesting that in its defining moment in Norway in the early 1990s, black metal is genuinely art, the most significant art from Norway since Munch and Ibsen, and as such continues, and will continue for some time to come, to exert a profound influence on artists and musicians alike. In Norway at that moment a ‘terrible beauty was born’, to echo W.B. Yeats, a trauma to which many people in Norway would have a highly equivocal attitude I should think.

Per Yngve Ohlin (stage name: Dead) singer for Mayhem, who committed suicide in 1991, at the age of 22.

I guess that some of the more severe criticism Black Metal Theory might have received has been generated by the rabid anti-intellectualism and affiliation with extreme right wing political movements known to characterize some aspects of Black Metal. How would you respond to such points?

Hostility to so-called intellectual commentary on popular music is not especially a feature of BM fans, but of a strange alliance between conservative critics who say that such music does not deserve critical inquiry and journalists and bloggers who say it does not require it. Theory is either redundant or it misses the point which can only be grasped in authentic, inexpressible experience. Journalists – particularly in Britain and the US – like to mystify popular music in this way order to support their own professional authority. More interesting to us are the fans – from the guy who wrote to us from prison in America to thank us for Hideous Gnosis – and to bands like Abgott who performed for us at the most recent symposium who totally support the idea of Black Metal Theory Symposia. I have a number of answers to your question about extreme right wing politics. The first would be simply to state the fact that there is nothing intrinsically right wing or fascist about black metal any more than there is about basket weaving or ecology. No doubt there are some extreme right wing basket weavers out there, and certainly judging by their websites many fascist groups are keen to proclaim how ‘green’ they are. The second point to make would be that in Europe and the US the Nazis are the default position for anyone who wants to draw attention to their negativity and rejection of liberal culture: from Sid Vicious wearing a swastika on his chest in 1976 to the Columbine murderers in the ’90s. Euronymous was well aware of this ‘strategic’ aspect of self-representation which is why he chose to call himself a Stalinist and celebrate notorious Communist regimes. The Nazis were ‘way too commercial’ in his view. Euronymous had a great sense of humor. The third point to say is that where it exists, this extreme right wing, racist aspect to black metal can be seen as an interesting symptom of the ressentiment of white culture. This was the view taken at the Melancology symposium by our Tunisian colleague Hager Weslati from Kingston University. Quoting Hellhammer’s provocation, ‘we don’t like black people here. Black metal is for white people’, Hager, speaking as a black woman who loves black metal, replies in kind by saying that ‘I find that aspect of the genre fascinating’, adding ironically, ‘in the same way that I cannot reconcile myself with keyboards and women on a Black Metal stage’. For her, music is not the vehicle of racial antagonisms or questions of otherness so much as what is at stake for such questions; it is the site of contestation and appropriation.


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