I first heard Mayhem’s De Mysteriis dom Sathanus at my friend Danny McClain’s place when I lived in south St. Louis. I’m not sure when or what year it was, but I remember thinking that the record was everything you’d probably expect a black metal record to be: intense, aggressive, etc.—whatever other words you want to use when talking about black metal. But this one stands out, as much for my memories of listening to it with Danny as for its being an atypical (and therefore influential) black metal record: it’s a relatively clean and intricate record in a genre sometimes known for its obscure sonic texture (read: crappy recording) and repetition.
Hypnotic, angular guitars form the opening progression, underlaid by a pummeling blast beat—the characteristic black metal drum beat. Attila Csihar’s vocals eventually scrape across this first song, saying that “this dark fog will appear / up from the tombs… to take one more life.”
Like Mayhem’s “Funeral Fog,” Bathory’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark opens with a song whose lyrics are dark, tending toward the downcast: after a brief ambient phrase, the totally brutal “Massacre” begins. It’s a song whose title would seem to play on the Catholic “Mass” in connection with the bloody landscape of any massacre; here, a once “peaceful valley echoes with cries / cascades of blood and brains as the midday sun rise[s]”:
For some in its ranks black metal (an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal most often characterized by an emphasis on fast (tremolo-picked) guitars, heavy use of distortion, ‘blast beat’ style drumming, poor (‘lo-fi’) recording quality, and Satanic or misanthropic lyrical content) is the anti-Christian musical force par excellence, where Christianity is thought oppressive both personally, politically, and culturally—this aside from the long history of violence done by those in Jesus’ name. As a reaction against all this, black metal has been most popularized (fetishized?) by its own history of violence, church burnings, extreme inter-and-intra band conflict, murder, suicide, nationalism, style of dress, and of course: Satan.
But for all the violent lyric imagery and dark (even angry) music, it’s still hard for me to say it’s truly ‘evil’ music. Sure, it’s associated with Satan, and it’s aggressive and downcast turning toward the depressive (though it’s by no means the absolute depressive, death-like stillness of Worship’s “Solicide and the Dawning of the Moonkult,” from their Last CD before Doomsday—a landmark funeral doom release), but I think of this as more of a concern for personal, political, and cultural issues writ into art. Calling this concern ‘evil’ just sort of misses the point.
Unfortunately, black metal’s recent popularity sometimes makes more recent and legitimately exciting bands like Deathspell Omega seem more like the genre’s Death Cab For Cutie. Deathspell Omega’s 20+ minute song “Chaining the Katechon” is a great example of just how black metal has developed since some of those early influential bands. This song’s musicianship and detail-laden structure totally eschews the repetition of its forebears; and while it still remains lyrically dark, the lyrics are much more complex—complexity being one of Deathspell’s general characteristics.
But where Deathspell Omega chart legitimately expansive boundaries, maintaining a direct connection to several ‘traditional’ black metal characteristics, other more-popular bands have taken some of the genre’s more accessible characteristics and have made something that resembles black metal, but which the true believers sometimes don’t seem to accept—or at least it’s got them arguing.
Where Deafheaven seem like they’d probably be Zach Braff’s favorite black metal band, Krallice* is the New York-based black metal band that’s taken the genre’s characteristics and stretched it in totally new and awesome ways. All of guitarist Mick Barr’s projects are equally progressive and determinately minimal, but Krallice somehow manages to take repetition and an intense sensitivity to texture, and to merge these with post-minimalist sensibilities and progressive, intricately-expansive song structures.
And so, except for some legitimately interested in exploring the music, and except for some who seem to have taken an interest in the genre’s ideological underpinnings—its musical aesthetic as well as its religious sentiment as against, and its apparent political and cultural sentiments also as against—it sometimes seems like more attention is given to the personal lives of the musicians and to its own sensationalized history. See any of the various recent documentaries to get a really thorough history lesson.
Vice’s documentary True Norwegian Black Metal does as much (maybe more) to sensationalize the genre and its history as any other. In the documentary’s final moments of an interview with Gorgoroth’s vocalist Gaahl, who had previously led the documentary crew to a tiny, secluded cabin built by his grandparents at the top of a remote, snowy mountain, he tells the interviewer “I don’t think that you ask me the right questions… I don’t think you’re focusing on what’s being told.” When the interviewer then asks Gaahl to “guide” him, Gaahl stares intensely into space for the next handful of minutes in absolute silence. He eventually takes a drink of wine and looks at the interviewer off camera, seeming to tell him “this interview is over.” It’s an extremely tense close to a documentary crammed with violence and mayhem. But it’s telling in that it focuses on and sensationalizes the scene, and ignores what’s at the center of the music.
. . .
All this brings me to Michael Cross’ The Katechon. Taking its title from the biblical concept of the katechon, Cross refers to ‘the one who withholds’ the Antichrist from appearing and, by extension, from allowing the fullness of Christ’s redemptive work to be complete on the earth—though of course “It is finished.” In this context, the one who withholds can only be God’s unseen presence on the earth actively working against absolute chaos, destruction, and mayhem from being unleashed.
It’s a relatively minor moment in the book of 2 Thessalonians, let alone all of the New Testament, but this belies its presence as a deeply intriguing theological concept—it implicates that personal, political, and cultural suffering is actively allowed by God, presumably for the sake of His Larger Purposes (which I guess would ultimately be human redemption). It also implies that it could (literally) be a hell of a lot worse.
Beyond this, however, it’s also an intriguing place for Cross to begin the poem, particularly because of its political ramifications generally, and more because of its connections to our political and cultural climate at the moment. On the first page of the Delete Press edition of lines 1-100, Cross writes: “… rugged, sat at meats, huckled bones—canaille fucked too // its licking blood, likely cleaved a face from outbreath—sprays blood on my blood.” (lines 2-3) Here Cross mixes brutal imagery with the act of ingestion in a sonically, tactilely, and viscerally dense language that expands across the page in long lines appearing to approach prose. Elsewhere, he writes:
“…the mouth’s smallish beads secreting themselves
like garbage in a muslin bag, a bouquet garnie, but a daub to ear at at first nothing,
then nothing prised out: kids stuffing themselves in moist burrows, forbidden to lick
their fingers even scrapping for a bit of the carcass.” (lines 21-24)
The body, particularly the mouth, figures prominently in several moments. By extension, this implicates language, the language of the poem itself, and the political uses of language and speech: “put tongue to take of the dust // of women what’s dug free by the pate of speech, so its violence, sans-, cum-, qua- // cruelty—the trick of speech that breath comes fluttering out when the tongue sweeps.” (lines 5-9)
In thinking of the ‘concerns’ of black metal, I can’t help but think of Cross’ poem. Cross’ language in The Katechon is easily as ‘dark’ as those of black metal bands—but of course, it’s much more satisfyingly and sonically dense, attending to itself as a tactile, textural object in ways black metal lyrics don’t even approach. Cross’ poem also addresses ‘concerns’ of our political and cultural moment: “… the tongue literally pearls // from bone, ribs blossoming light, bearing fruit in the shadow of the light // beaming through its cage and out past spatial enclosures of law (pardes).” (lines 57-59) He also writes that: “we’re so stacked against ourselves from the outset, // we who benefit from the recrudescence of franchise despite black earth, // infixed mortgage-pillars, pilferage rote to loose debt.” (lines 72-74)
In his postscript to lines 101-200 of The Katechon (in Damn the Caesars’ 2012 Crisis Inquiry special issue), Andrew Rippeon highlights the tensions between the personal and the political, tying them directly to the historical moment in which the poem is being written. And really, this is exactly what ‘concerned’ all those early black metal musicians who were more interested in reacting as against in their particular cultural, political, and personal moment (sometimes going so far as to commit suicide). Rippeon reminds us that Cross read from The Katechon during Occupy Oakland, making the point that:
“[i]deological conflict, too, has its eschatology. Protests are issued permits; maintenance schedules are cited as cause for evictions… [a]t a moment when Law and Anti-Law have crystallized so clearly in static opposition to one another, one possible reading of the katechon is merely the symbiosis of these two, their mutuality, the total figure they share (and with it, the illusion of their opposition)—a withholding, not through interdiction, but interaction.” (10-11)
So Cross’ poem posits a direct connection between each of these, asserting a relative co-existence between personal concerns (of the body, of paying our bills, etc.) and their political and cultural connections. In looking toward a future in which a political (and biblical) katechon has been removed, through a necessary release of chaos, a ‘hope’ of a kind simultaneously arrives, one in which the presence of his poem and the act of its writing posits the possibility of redemption. This would certainly seem to be against all the ideological underpinnings of black metal, but isn’t this what they were really all about: asserting that the present is not enough, that there’s something else available, even if it’s not immediate?
In the final lines of the Delete Press edition, Cross writes that “[w]hat benefits inward construals might be a singular thing in a sea of paler attributes, // may harm the body outside, name proclaimed, may be found, may be lastingly renewed.” (lines 99-100) Here, the sentence completes, but we know that the poem isn’t over. And in the final lines included in Crisis Inquiry, Cross writes of “a non-existent narrative // corresponding to a non-existent desire to explain, but take it: what goes on…” (lines 199-200)
Here, expectant for a future in which the promise of redemption takes place, where all concerns find their resolution, here the sentence hangs—here where there is no resolution.
I feel like I should mention that, writing above about listening to music with Danny, I’m struck by the strange timing of this blog entry; this past weekend marks the three-year anniversary of his death. He was an awesome human being who loved music and reading, and whose presence on the earth continues to be missed by many. I’m not writing to eulogize him or anything; I just want to draw some attention to his phenomenal work as a musician. He was drummer for St. Louis’ Grand Ulena (with Darin Gray and Chris Trull) and performed regularly doing noise and free-jazz influenced improv. Very infrequently, he played synth/electronics with St. Louis power electronics duo Killer Looks. Danny’s presence is indeed missed.
– DAVID JAMES MILLER
David James Miller is a poet, musician, and educator. He is the author of the chapbook Facts & Other Objects (JR Vansant), and his writing may also be found in Otoliths, elimae, Diagram, The Cultural Society, and elsewhere. He writes from New Haven, CT, where he lives with his wife and children.
* There was this one time I saw Bruce Andrews at a Krallice show—totally surprised to see him there; I’d only ever seen him around at poetry readings (and on the Bill O’Reilly’s show). I remember a younger hipster-looking guy in a jean jacket yanking on his arm to talk to him while Bruce seemed to be wanting to pay attention to the band
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