I love black metal to the point of obsession. I've been under its spell for a few years now. I dig both the early pioneers of the genre, like Burzum, Mayhem, Dark Throne, Emperor, and Immortal, and later explorers like Behemoth, Belphegor, Gorgoroth, Watain, Marduk, Negura Bunget, Shining and Inquisition. Initially, the music was characterized by low production, cold, harsh, repetitive riffs, shrieked inhuman sounding vocals, relentless, aggressive drumming, and more melodic, sublime instrumental parts that seemed to form gradually from the primordial chaos of the more aggressive parts. After the late '80s and early '90s there was an explosion of black metal sub-genres: Satanic Black Metal, Ambient/Pagan Black Metal, Depressive/Suicidal Black Metal and others. Each sub-genre came with its own musical style but they all evolved from the stylistic matrix of early black metal.
Reflecting on my obsession with black metal, I realized that one of the things that attracted me to it was its esoteric, obscure, mystery-generating power. Black metal is a very suggestive style, it suggests what is hidden from view, it's a burning arrow shot into darkness, a light that makes the darkness even more solid and threatening. Hence the repeated images of woods, and sharp mountain peaks, deep, forgotten lakes and caves. When you go up a trail in a forested mountain, all around you is hidden, even in daylight. By contrast, walking down a city sidewalk, everything is open to view. Deep caves and lakes are also archetypal representations of the unknown and terrifying.
The esoteric character of black metal comes in sharp focus when we compare black metal to death metal. Most death metal is about rape and torture, serial killers, and flesh-eating zombies. But this music is all in the light, out in the open, and that makes it less dangerous, less insidious. And it has very limited expressive power. I mean, you can kidnap a girl, drag her in your basement, rape and strangle her, stab her body brutally, eat her flesh and then vomit it and then rape the mangled corpse again and again and again till you feel nauseous. But this is a scene that everyone can see in the smallest details. There's no shadows in death metal. In other words, while death metal is the sound of torture, brutality and morbidity, black metal is a cold, deep vibration which hypnotizes your very soul and takes it to the brink of madness. Only the grimness of black metal can darken your spirit. By contrast, the relentless violence of death metal can only infect and decompose your flesh.
Thinking of this mystery-generating power of black metal reminded me of Romanian philosopher and poet Lucian Blaga. The concept of mystery is at the heart of Blaga's philosophical system. Understanding how this notion relates in his system to human existence, cultural style and the hidden powers of the unconscious can throw some light on black metal, and into what glues together its various sub-genres. Conversely, black metal can be a great place to start toward grasping Blaga's philosophy. I'm not going to follow all these connections in this post, but rather clear some paths for future explorations.
According to Blaga, man is essentially a seeker of knowledge and revelation regarding the universe and his place in it. But, on his view, the unknown is a mystery that could never be fully revealed.
|Romanian philosopher Lucian Blaga |
"Blaga's world was saturated with mysteries of all kinds [...]. For him mystery was not the completely unknowable but an obscurity not yet adequately illuminated. It was full of meaning precisely because it concealed so much, and this overpowering incitement to investigation led Blaga to the depths of the human psyche and the furthest limits of human reason.
Man's vocation could be none other than to reveal mystery and that, in so doing, he became a creator of culture.
Blaga was intrigued by how man approached the unknowable, that is, by what mechanisms he created culture, and thus he was led to investigate cultural style. By the term style he didn't mean the outward form of a work of art or literature, but rather its manner of being. It was style that imbued works of art and literature and even entire ethnic communities and historical periods with their unique character; it was style that revealed the hidden side of human nature and thus became the principal means of objectifying human spirituality; and it was style that caused creativity to differ from individual to individual, people to people, and period to period.
Beside mystery, the unconscious was an indispensable component of Blaga's theory of style. Indeed, he located the source of style in the unconscious, and, thus, his theory of style and his entire philosophy of culture were based on the presupposition that creative acts such as the structuring of a work of art, a philosophical theory, or a scientific hypothesis were directed by powers beyond the control of the conscious. As he put it, style was the "supreme yoke" which held an author, a current, or an entire culture in bondage and from which none could escape. Although he didn't question the important contribution that the conscious made to the external elaboration of style, he denied that man's fundamental way of being, his "inner style," could be substantially altered by his own will.
Blaga argued, the unconscious was a psychic reality possessing it own "sovereign" functions and an internal order and equilibrium of unlimited creative virtues. He admired Jung especially for having enriched the doctrine of the unconscious through his theory of psychic archetypes, which Blaga adapted for his own conception of the unconscious categories, and through his theory of the collective unconscious, which helped Blaga account for the continuity of cultural style throughout the centuries.
The categories of the unconscious are determinants of style, and, grouped together, they formed a general pattern, or "stylistic matrix," which imposed itself on every culture and endowed it with individuality.
Blaga was fascinated not only with the theoretical aspects of style, but eagerly undertook to apply his ideas to Romanian culture, explaining its uniqueness by using the categories of the unconscious stylistic matrix. He concentrated on the rural world, where he thought the main constituent elements of Romanian spirituality lay. He conceived of the Romanian village as the locale of the organic, pre-eminently human mode of existence, the place of the generating sources of the native culture were strongest and purest. In fact, when he spoke of "culture" he meant the creative life of the village, and it was through this culture, "our eternity revealed in time," that the Romanians participated in the great adventure of cosmic creation. He contrasted this culture, a product of the "rural soul," with "civilization," whose embodiment was the city, the mechanized, bourgeois world, whose collapse seemed to him close at hand. For him, the great urban center of the twentieth century was the locale of the "non-creative" preoccupations such as the accumulation of positive knowledge and the formulation of rationalistic conceptions; it was the place where man lost his "cosmic sentiment" and his attachment to the specifically human, organic mode of existence. But the village was for him always the preeminent zone of mythical thought, which assimilated concrete appearances and enabled man to enter into a creative relationship with existence." (Keith Hitchins' Introduction to the English Translation of Blaga's play Zalmoxis, Obscure Pagan)
Armed with these basic concepts of Blaga's philosophy we can now take a closer look at black metal's sub-genres and see that what ties all of them together is their power to reveal mystery. During the wave of media craze in Norway following the church burnings and other criminal activities related to the black metal milieu in the early '90s, the members of the movement were called Satanists. This label had a good shock value and increased newspaper sales and TV ratings. Later on, Varg Vikernes, the creative force behind Burzum, went to great lengths in arguing that none of the people in their movement were actual Satanists, but rather anti-Christians and seekers of the lost, forgotten spirit of Norse mythology and ancient Nordic customs and traditions (check interview here). But, leaving aside the politics surrounding this issue, both the Christian image of Satan as God's Accuser and Opposer AND the revival of the pagan Nordic Gods are both creations meant to reveal mystery. So, in spite of Varg's clarification, there has been an inflation of outstanding Satanic Black Metal bands like the pioneers Mayhem and Beherit, and later acts like Watain, Belphegor, Behemoth and Inquisition, to name just a few. Mayhem's second album is called De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. The name speaks for itself, reinforcing my point.
So, Satan is a romantic figure who rebels against God and forges his own path. It's a symbol of the individual's struggle to challenge the order imposed on him, free himself and embark on a quest toward knowledge and self-improvement. Lucifer is the bringer of light. Thus, the figure of Satan naturally lends itself to black metal. Dagon from Inquisition makes this point vivid in the interview below.
Similarly, the destruction of Christianity and revival of ancient pagan deities is also an instance of man as a mystery creator. Eradicating Christianity reveals a mystery, a lost, forgotten world of runes and ancient artifacts. Something we should piece together from bits and pieces that still survive today. It's also an inner journey, a spiritual quest of a pre-Christian mode of being, a time when man was more closely attuned to the rhythms of the cosmos. This is why Blaga says that the village is the preeminent zone of mythical thought.
This conclusion of Blaga's philosophy has been followed by critically-acclaimed Romanian ambient/folk black metal band Negura Bunget. In one of his interviews, Negru, drummer and founder of the band, describes pre-Christian rituals and traditions which still survive in the countryside. One of these is Sînzienele. "On Sînziene people put fairies at their doors and windows as a means of protection against evil fairies and spirits. The magical ritual is based on a symbolic association of the sun with the flowers, the Fairies and the garland wreathed of those flowers. The Fairies embody some of the characteristic features of plants. Another type of ritual consisted of a torch lighting symbolizing the invincibility of the sun during the longest day of the year. Torches used to be lighted on the hills surrounding the villages the night before the celebration and afterward spun in the air and thrusted in the middle of the orchards and cornfields." Below is an awesome video by Negura Bunget.
Regarding the importance of the countryside as an inspiration for Negura Bunget's music, Negru adds: "There are still original traditions being kept around the country, but they are disappearing slowly. Fortunately, Romania has still parts of the country which are not connected with the modern world...no roads, electricity of phones...so people living in those areas still keep traditions and practices in their original forms."
Finally, just like Satanic and Pagan Black Metal, Depressive/Suicidal Black Metal is also a revelation of mystery. Depressive Black Metal focuses on self-destruction as a way of attaining higher knowledge. Revelation or shining, as Niklas Kvarforth from Shining puts it. In this context, the normal functioning of our cognitive and physical systems are a veil which hides reality as it is in itself. So, the process of self-destruction, through drugs or other excesses is nothing but a deliberate attempt to look beyond that veil. The idea of mortifying one's body to attain the absolute truth is not new and has been put in practice by mystics of various religions since the dawn of time. But, as Blaga claims, the unknown is a mystery that could never be FULLY revealed. One way of understanding this is by reminding ourselves that reality always reveals itself to a conscious subject in a form that fits that subject's mind. So a mind monitoring its own destruction is still a mind, a subject, which perceives reality as it appears to him, not as it is in itself. Thus, no matter whether we perceive the world with our physical eyes or with our inner, psychic third eye, the world will be framed by darkness, never fully present, always partially hidden.
I finish with a note on black metal symbolism. The color black is associated with Saturn, the Roman god of generation, dissolution, plenty, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation. Black is the color of the earth and of the night. Always on a quest, restless creators lit torches and throw them into the blackness. Darkness is thus the place of origin, of birth and rebirth. It's always pregnant with new terrifying and sublime sights, with magical, dreamy landscapes. As Nietzsche said, "When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you
." And the music that accompanies that
deep, hypnotic gaze is black metal.