May 21st, 2014
Assorted Metal Covers. Covers from top to bottom: Locrian’s LP “Crystal World”, Mastodon’s LP “The Hunter”, Metallica’s single for “One”, Burzum’s self-titled first LP, Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” LP, Lurker of Chalice’s self-titled LP
I read a Harper’s article recently by poet Michael Robbins entitled “Destroy Your Safe And Happy Lives” (May 2104 issue). The piece was about the metal music genre, specifically its heavier, darker-themed, louder & faster variants black metal, death metal & thrash metal (hereafter collectively referred to in this piece as “dark metal”). Robbins seeks to situate dark metal’s subject matter & aesthetic within a creative continuum that begins at least with the literary & philosophical tenets of the Romantics. His essay is entertaining, & at times insightful and revealing, but too often feels conflicted and second-guessy about the merits of its subject matter, in the process coming off as somewhat of a lukewarm apologia. The only moments of true clarity & impact come at the end, where Robbins discusses his subject not as a scholar but as a person, as a male who looks back to his youth and feels he can no longer relate to conventional rock.
I believe a lot of this was planned — it feels like Robbins wanted to acknowledge dark metal’s deficits, connect metal to poets such as Rilke and Blake, & then close strong and make a case for why it has impact: that of heaven-storming aural assault. But it doesn’t quite work. To me, he does too much damage with his frequent dismissals of metal’s histrionics & goofiness, as well as with his unsuccessful attempts to illuminate dark metal by way of stanzas by Milton and Rilke, to leave the reader with a clear idea of why this music is worth paying attention to, or, for that matter, a clear idea of the author’s position (and, mind you, even conflict and indecision can be a position, but in this essay I do not find this to be the case).
Example: from the very beginning of the essay Robbins juxtaposes a Blake excerpt that includes the line “All that can be annihilated must be annihilated” with a brief imagined description of what the birth of dark metal must have looked like. He next confesses that “[the] two histories probably have no connection besides the one they spark in me”. He’s right, they don’t, except superficially; the de-contextualized Blake line & the long poetic argument it’s a part of both have little, if anything to do with the shallow ranting typical of dark metal lyrics. I appreciate his candor, but by opening his work essentially admitting that his subject doesn’t really objectively belong in the same discussion as what he’s using to elucidate it, he doesn’t really inspire confidence.
This pattern of the author undercutting his subject continues: metal’s Satanism is “definitely silly”, Swedish metal band Ghost is “goofy”; the very “apotheosis” of how metal echoes Romanticism’s preoccupation with nature as dark & sublime refuge from humanity? It’s a song by the band Immortal, and it’s described as “embarrassingly inane”. In a way Robbins probably did not intend, his words sink deeper & echo longer when he’s writing off something “silly” about dark metal, than when he’s explaining why a passage of Milton really should have bearing on Norwegian Black Metal, and vice versa. (As with the Blake quote, the Milton citation doesn’t really work: the serious, complex way Milton characterizes Satan’s philosophy and character over the course of Paradise Lost bears little resemblance to the simplistic, reductive way Satan/Satanism is written about for cheap surface effect in the campy lyrics of, say, Mercyful Fate).
I’m not saying there isn’t something to be gained by examining metal songs and lyrics in light of the works of poets from the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophies and works of folk like, say, Blake have had a vast influence on modern culture, especially on the American beat poets of the 50s, & on American rock icons like Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan. The problem I have is not that Robbins is seeking to make connections between the new and the old — it’s just the way he’s doing it I find, at the very least, uninteresting.
Let’s say I identify some centuries’-old thinker or poet, and let’s say I summarize this poet’s innovations and views: how he urged us to follow our natural healthy lusty desires, however “dark” society deemed them; how he rebelled against the prevailing notions of the day, especially as regards the dogma of religion he encountered in England in the late 18th century, etc. And let’s say I point out all this stuff, & then say “And you know what else? See those guys dressed up in black monk’s robes and singing out of upside-down cross microphones, writing about Belial, blood sacrifice & destruction? The ones harpy-shrieking their lyrics with full camp? They’re rebels too. A lot like that poet.” Let’s say I do all that. I’ve accomplished nothing in doing so. Just wasted keystrokes.
Now this isn’t a slag on metal. And it’s not a way of saying old poets are too important to mention in the same sentence as metal. It’s just that the connection drawn in my admittedly exaggerated example — and, to a degree less egregious, Robbins’ — is so tenuous and elementary as to be beneath consideration. You could replace the robed black metal dudes in the above paragraph’s example with any agents of human expression that have, well, rebelled. Punk rockers. Dadaists. Surrealists. Situationists. Fauvists. Whatever. There’s always a group of thinkers and expressers who espouse individual freedoms and who explore and celebrate ideas about the human condition that the majority have always shat on (sex is not shameless, nature should be saved, humans aren’t the center of the universe, the oppressed and poor should be championed against reigning power structures, industrial/technological “progress” isn’t always a good thing, etc.). But the means by which and the reasons why different groups of men and women have expressed discontent & rebelled over time are unique; any affinities drawn between them must therefore be rigorous & careful lest they diminish & even ridicule the subject matter being compared. That’s why I feel this element of Robbins’ essay, while no doubt borne of intellectual curiosity and well-meant, was entirely disposable, & at worst did a disservice to dark metal artists and 18th century poets alike.
I like me some metal. Black, dark, white, thrash, doom, drone, speed, hair, whatever. But like Robbins, I agree that all the genre fractalling that goes on with the genre — with all rock? with all music? — is ridiculous. So let me re-phrase: I like me some troubled, distorted, frantic-fast or oozy-slow, loud ugly music. I’ve shouted along & white-boy-shuffled along and beerily slow-headbanged along to plenty of this stuff in my time. A lot of it’s campy & over-the-top, but even when cheesy, it’s often compelling, and in many different ways: some of it’s rollicking & swaggery & lusty (Motorhead, AC/DC) some of it’s tortured & wrenching (Weakling), some of it’s ecstatic and vast, featuring major chords (!) and a sense of spirit-yearning (DeafHeaven, Liturgy), some of it eldritch & monk-robed & sepulchral (Burzum, Lurker of Chalice). Some of it’s just really good, fast/loud melodic rock about the darker side of what we are & do (Metallica, Slayer). In short, there’s a fair amount of variation in music known as metal, similar to what you’d find in other styles of music built on guitar, bass, drums and hollering (minus, say, the social crit of punk, or the vulnerability & love songs of softer rock, or, umm, anything celebratory & jubilant for that matter). Except a hell of a lot louder. And faster (or, sometimes, sludge-slower). But nearly always denser — stacked with distortion, fuzz, or cascades of rapid-fire drums and guitars and reverb. And, as Robbins notes, it’s goddamned gigantic like few other musics (save the likes of Rhys Chatham, Branca, Wagner, Beethoven, Sonic Youth, live My Bloody valentine, Mahler, Stravinsky, certain Bartok pieces, or Penderecki).
The best of this kind of music I consume on multiple levels, & as fully-developed art beyond just noise-catharsis. The rest of dark metal I listen for pretty much that one reason: to have my skull re-settled. I like to escape into noise and be left baffled. I like the womb-bliss of sound-death. The vocal line becomes just another instrument to me. The sung lyrics, tragically stupid on paper, are partially redeemed & often transformed into mantras of authenticity & weight by the black craggy sonic cathedrals that house them (as is the case with most rock music, and arguably all pop… minus the black cathedrals that is).
(Note: I stress sung lyrics above because I have little use for dark metal’s hallmark incomprehensible guttural growls, which are usually cartoonish & a form of cowardice to me, a mumbly reluctance to expose one’s language & meaning. The only exception to this is if the accompanying compositions are so distinguished & artful & unusual that I can be distracted from said stuck-pig squeals and dying warthog grunts. And so, unintelligible growlers: don’t hide behind the scrape and bubble of your vocal chords, try owning your words, let them gain strength from sound and amplify. Even if they sorta suck [Slayer, Maiden], the excellent music backboning them will lend strength to the occasional heard noun or phrase.)
Just as metal lyrics on paper are often redeemed by metal sonics, without said lyrics, a fair amount of metal’s music as pure instrumental would be of limited artistic merit: unsubtle, tiresomely virtuosic, claustrophobically dense, unvaried bombast. Constant clatter. (Especially when we’re talking about dark metal, since earlier metal, like AC/DC or Sabbath, is a breath of fresh air after an hour of Deafheaven and the like. Why? One word: space! breathing room! No guitars for a couple beats! A break between drum fills!)
This is just the nature of the hybrid art form of song: sung words+music together create a whole much more interesting and powerful than each separately considered part. Whether in metal or pop rock or a Dylan tune, song only ever reaches us as indissoluble unity. Shitty or merely clever or abstruse lyrics become profound; repetitive instrumentals suddenly become dramatic stories we hang on measure to measure. And metal is just another form of pop song (I agree completely with Robbins on this point), despite all the baroque compositional trappings and disorienting noises & extremities of subject matter. And so when it all comes together in a metal song, it’s the “biggest rock and roll you’ve ever heard”, as Robbins enthuses, the sonics dignifying and elevating the meager text, and the meager text enriching the big doomy chords and over-dramatic multi-part structures.
For this reason, I believe music criticism focusing on song should be careful when bringing to bear other art-forms — including poetry or purely instrumental art music — unless it qualifies such citations and does not make them bear much, if any of the weight of the aesthetic judgment or argument. Otherwise the critic just isn’t taking the most advantage of his his/her core subject matter, and is taking valuable print space away from much more revealing insights that he/she could be expressing.
While I find unconvincing some aspects of how Robbins engages with his material, I do think he nails a lot in his essay. As I mentioned earlier, he’s at his most passionate and convincing when he’s describing the sheer aural assault of metal. Next to his closing passage discussing Converge, the highest praise he affords metal is this, in reference to the band Wolves in the Throne Room: “when [the singer] screams out of a shoegazing guitar haze […],it’s no longer merely silly, because the sound is overpowering, majestic, soothing, and threatening all at once”. Yup, spot on. I would have liked Robbins to have focused more of his energies here: how it is that metal is able to (sometimes) redeem its indecipherable & “unskillful” (to quote the author) lyrical matter by dint of sonic majesty.
I also found compelling his resigned report, late in the essay, that the Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” does nothing for him anymore, that “listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore”, and that “music can’t ever again be as important to me as it was when I was young.” Unghh! Fist to the sternum there, that’s a sad, tough read. And even if we allow for the possibility that this is partial overdrama, this is way more impactful than most of what Robbins spent time trying to elucidate about Metal’s lineage aesthetically/lyrically, its connection to Blake, etc.
Clearly Robbins still can be moved terrifically by rock music, however, given the way he writes about metal. It’s just that only a specific type of rock does it for him: rock that expresses power, anger, and the visceral thrills of speed and dangerous volume. I get it, there are days when I need those thrills for hours at a time. But there are days when I just want to hear the Stones’ “Loving Cup” or “Moonlight Mile” and feel loose, tender & joyous. I felt sad for the author that he seems temporarily to not be able to connect to rock that isn’t martial and monolithic; which doesn’t block out the soundfield like a giant planet of static. Still, this is along the lines of the kind of essay I would have liked to seen written — exploring how the author went from rock fan to someone who who can’t listen to Exile anymore, and who needs the blitzkrieg of dark metal to get his music rocks off. And what it is about dark metal that became that outlet for him.
Robbins unfortunately goes further with his post-Exile glum musings of disenchanted adulthood with statements like “[…] rock and roll, like all art, lies”. Big sigh. Oh and “no one ever had their lives changed by a poem”. Another sigh. This was all a shame to read; clearly Robbins is too nuanced a thinker for this kind of attractive, sound-bytable power-statement which, like most attempts to sum up complex matters succinctly, rings hollow. I can only assume he fell prey here to the same kind of blinding disappointment that led him feel that “music can’t ever again be as important to me as it was when I was young”.
Still, dismissable as it is, it deserves rebuttal, if for no other reason than I get annoyed with big grumpy fake universals like this. Yes: Art does ask us sometimes to change our lives, and it does not lie if it does so. Is it a lie if a poem has correct, crystalline insight into the human condition? And if it then urges us to consider a different path? If the reader does nothing with that imperative, is the art therefore a lie? And does the reader have to stop everything he/she is doing and alter one’s life on the spot in order for change to have occurred?
Reading Rilke & poets like him over and over never led to any epiphany that caused me to immediately and permanently break a habit or re-fashion my existence. But I guarantee you my readings of the great poets built up in me over the years, reminding me of my convictions and better selves, nudging me toward the me I want to become, and some of the changes I’ve made in my life for the better are at least partially owing to these art-works. This is the slow, barnacling, incremental force of certain poems, spiritual texts, novels, paintings, symphonies, films: they keep us in touch with the beautiful, the good, the best parts of us, and if they don’t radically change our brains right then, they damned well help create the conditions for change down the line.
Reading Robbins’ essay, writing about it, it got me thinking: why do I listen to dark metal? Or metal period? What else does it have to offer aside from grand canyons of skull-shaking sound, which is what Robbins ultimately seems to find the most consistently impressive of the genre’s offerings?
Evaluated in light of all the music I’ve ever heard, most dark metal falls short of almost every musical standard that exists if we understand music to be sound artfully organized in time + soul (put another way, if we understand good songs to excel in their lyrical, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, metrical, structural, formal, textural aspects — plus heart and spirit). Most of dark metal is exhausting music of youthful tantrum. Most of it uses noise and fury not as a means to an end — the end being direct communication of rational, emotional and spiritual substance to other humans — but as an end in itself, which instantly categorizes it as lesser art to me.
Now, none of what I just said matters to those who need this kind of music, and I recognize that; similarly, I recognize that the dude who paints nothing but giant black canvases might bring therapeutic comfort to someone who sits on a bench staring at every black brush stroke for an hour each Sunday at the museum. There’s something for everyone, and while I’m fine with that in a general humanistic sense, & welcome it existing, it doesn’t stop me from judging against such art on purely aesthetic grounds, which is what I’m doing here.
When dark metal actually works though, actually delivers as a well-rounded art expression, it’s a marvel of controlled, intricate, expressive musical violence. In the best dark metal you’ll find, for instance, chording & harmonic complexities created by overlapping guitar and bass lines are daring & unusually rich, as in the case of works by Krallice, Mastodon, or Lurker of Chalice. Song structures can be vast, intricate and breath-taking, sustaining interest over lengthy periods of time, featuring unusual modulations, chord changes, tempo changes & mood changes, as in the work of Tool (first two records), Baroness, early Metallica, and Krallice. The best dark metal demonstrates an expert grasp of rhythm and meter, leveraging these devices to create challenging and fascinating timings — think Pantera, Helmet, Mastodon (“Leviathan” LP) & Slayer. The melodic motifs & full blown melodies that feature in the works of Metallica, Black Sabbath & Baroness, and even the repeating guitar motifs in the longform structures of Krallice, built upon themselves in cellular fashion, constitute a kind of melodic engagement that is crucial to me in separating the best dark metal from the common.
The best dark metal also knows how to use space. Space as rest, both from the monstrous crypt-growl style of the genre, and from the dense everything-playing-32nd-notes-at-max-volume instrumental approach. In this regard, the best dark metal takes a cue from metal’s forefathers — AC/DC, Sabbath — to relax, pause, breathe, change it up. Using space properly makes the clattering velocity and shrieking-as-instrument of dark metal actually effective when they come back into the mix, and makes them stand out as useful compositional tools, not just rage-fit, or really fast jam-band wanking.
Finally — perhaps the most sensitive topic when discussing dark metal’s merits or lack thereof — the best of the genre features text & themes which, if not poetry, are at least plainspoken & intelligible, and are about some kind of discernible subject or feeling-state, all of which becomes supercharged with meaning and interest when fused with the music; think Metallica, Slayer, Baroness, Mastodon, Tool. Without this the style is at a distinct disadvantage. (Many would disagree; comments like this on youtube abound: “listen to the music, not the lyrics …i never know (or care) what the lyrics are about when i listen to metal, punk, hardcore, power-electronics, etc..”. The problem is, you strip out the text and you’ll notice its absence. It serves a purpose. If you are able to, try listening to any of your favorite dark metal songs without vocals. You won’t be as engaged. The humanizing element is stripped out; no feeling human is bearing witness to what is often otherwise chugging violent monotony. Once the metal bar has been set by bands who properly fuse velocity, power, melody, harmony, rhythm and spirit with enunciated text, why settle for dark metal that doesn’t? The exceptions to this, as mentioned earlier, are bands whose artistic excellence in all the other above-noted areas is significant enough to outweigh the liability of indecipherable creature-scream [Lurker of Chalice, Krallice, Mastodon, some Converge]).
When dark metal gets everything right, the stuff that the genre is bashed for — unremitting intensity & volume, hailstorms of percussive blast-beats, crusty horror-movie Gollumesque-vocals, campy-pained emotional delivery, hokey demonic themes — is no longer a liability. It becomes instead formidable, serious, almost profound, & stops you in mid-listen. Cartoonish camp-pain becomes elevated to real felt anguish. The urgent language of catharsis, prophesy, & indictment are sublimated by the supporting structures of sound, paving the way for us to connect with the song’s core, and find comfort for our own wounded selves. The best metal is more than just an angry cry, it is mastered, meted-out & controlled sorrow for & outrage at the human dilemma. It becomes that enraged “wooly rhino crashing into a Pleistocene clearing” (what a great image!) appearing at the end of Robbins’ essay, when he describes what Converge sounds like when it blasts into song live.
Having said that, here’s my list of wooly rhinos: Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”, Boris’ “Pink”, Burzum’s “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss”, early Swans, Iron Maiden’s “Piece of Mind”, early Melvins, Baroness, Made out of Babies’ “Trophy”, Krallice’s “Dimensional Bleedthrough”, any of Black Sabbath’s early records, Lurker of Chalice’s self-titled record, Slayer’s “South of Heaven”, Motorhead’s “Overkill” & “Ace of Spades”. These albums deliver the dark, the fury, the trouble, the sound, as well as artistic substance. They are records of craft, of perseverance, of dignity.
As for the rest the genre? Well, regardless of its impoverishments, people who need to listen to someone screaming at the top of their longs about the witching hour over a blizzard of undifferentiated noise, well, need to listen to it. It doesn’t matter what some internet fuck (me) says about it. It arises out of a modern need for a certain kind of dissociative sonic experience — & musicians right now are creating it in response to certain widespread present-day realities that didn’t exist a hundred years ago. I get that, I get it keenly; If I hadn’t had certain very loud and very ugly merit-less records to listen to at key moments during my last ten years of zombifying desk jobs, I might have junked my monitor out the nearest 12th story window and bounced out to follow it, laughing all the way to the bottom.
Robbins has a bit of a different take; he says we “need German poetry and Norwegian black metal because they provide the illusion that we are changing”. I don’t agree; statements like this unfortunately betray the author’s general cynicism & disappointment more than they resonate with truth. Here’s what I think: some of us need German poetry and Norwegian black metal — hell, all dark metal — because both, in their own way, make us feel less alone when we are going through awful, unusually powerful feelings. If we can get all that with excellent art to boot, why not? But if all we can get is the black & the angst & the noise, then that’s fine too. The darkest seasons call for the darkest wine; some nights I’ll drink any of it as long as I can’t see through it.