BLACK METAL: BEYOND THE DARKNESS Q&A PART 2

In the first part of our interrogations with the guys behind the new book, ‘Black Metal: Beyond The Darkness’, posted HERE, we spoke to the editor of Black Dog Publishing, the company releasing the book. In this second instalment, Zero Tolerance calls upon contributors Brandon Stosuy, editor of Pitchfork, and Louis Pattison, fellow ZT writer, to discuss black metal academia, ideology, and progression. Dive into the blackness below…

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ZT: What attracted you to this project?

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BS: Black Dog is a good, smart, reputable press. They’d published Marc Master’s book on no wave a couple years ago– he’s a friend and a writer for us at Pitchfork. They were on my radar because of that. Also, when Tom Howells approached me about contributing, he mentioned Nathan Birk was involved. I always liked Nathan’s Metal Maniacs column. It has this humorous, more-underground-than-underground tone. He’s not one of the usual suspects for a book like this– it showed me they were doing something different.

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They were also open to ideas. I got Neill Jameson involved, for instance, someone who should be writing his own book on the stuff. And, at one point friends in Krallice and Castevet were helping track down old black metal album covers for some of the illustrations. The whole thing felt very much part of the actual black metal “scene” and not a stuffy book by people from outside that world.

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LP: I thought Black Dog did a good job on the recent Krautrock book, and the brief for Beyond The Darkness sounded pretty interesting: in short, to get beyond the pretty well-worn Lords Of Chaos yarns about church-burning and murder and engage with contemporary black metal music and culture. It was nice to be asked, and I thought the finished result was pretty successful: not definitive, perhaps, but there’s plenty of interesting stuff in there.

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ZT: Could you tell us what aspects (and artists) of black metal you examined in your contribution to the book?

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BS:  I contributed a section from an American black metal oral history I’ve been putting together, off and on, for years. It’s something I’ll eventually publish in book form. The section here is a mash of a few different bits. The main chunk originally appeared in the Believer in 2007; it gives an overview of black metal from the early days in Norway to the more contemporary scene in the United States. I also included newer interviews I contributed to the Hideous Gnosis black metal theory symposium in 2010. I capped it with introduction I wrote last month. The latter works as a kind of update: Here’s what’s happened since 2007 and 2010, basically. A lot’s changed since then, and I wanted to make note of that.

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All said, though, the bulk of my piece consists of first-person reflections made by members of Krieg, Bone Awl, Cult of Daath, Inquisition, Nachtmystium, Wrnlrd, Ancestors, Bahimiron, Averse Sefira, some label heads (Ajna, Profound Lore), etc. There are a couple dozen people quoted. The oral history approach works really well for this particular scene– letting the musicians and other participants speak for themselves without my analysis getting in the way. The black metal scene is like punk in that way: Even though there are hundreds of books and articles and essays and etc published on punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk remains the most insightful long-form text. I was inspired by that.

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LP:  I’m no theoretician, really, nor am I going to pretend to be some sort of kvlt fanatic. My main engagement with black metal is as a fan and as a consumer. It’s interesting to me that black metal as we know it pretty much grew out of a shop, Euronymous’ Helvete. Relatively few of us live near a shop that holds proper black metal stock, so for those still attracted by the idea of physical music consumption and not just downloading .rar files off the internet, the acquisition of black metal often involves mail order.

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The basic idea for my chapter was to speak directly to a broad cross-section of shop and distro owners and try to build up a picture of the way contemporary black metal culture is shaped by its methods of sale and distribution. The likes of Andee from Aquarius Records/Tumult, Mikko Aspa of the band Clandestine Blaze/the label/distro Northern Heritage, Adam of the label/distro Crucial Blast and Aaron of cassette label Teutonic Satan were good enough to give me a bit of their time.

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As a bit of a wild card, I also spoke to a music manager at HMV, who gave me a bit of perspective about how black metal sells on the high street. There’s a few other people I would have liked to get in there – George Proctor of Legion Blotan was too busy to contribute – but I think the answers I got back constitute a pretty interesting overview of how this stuff finds its way from maker to fan.

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ZT: As much as ideology and philosophy plays a part in black metal, do you think there is a danger of over-intellectualizing the genre and alienating some people? For instance, the ‘manifesto’ of Liturgy’s Hunter Hun-Hendrix hasn’t been so warmly received by black metal fans.

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BS:  You can overdo or over-analyze anything, sure. I like what Hunter brings to contemporary black metal: there are too many bands, and fans, who toe the line; he’s been ballsy enough to repeatedly shake things up. (That Shellac cover?) I’m much more interested in his approach than I am another Darkthrone clone or a pack of web board whiners. And, I mean, have you ever sat down and read Varg Vikernes’ essays? Much more laughable than what Hunter’s writing.

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LP:  Personally I’m not entirely sure what to make of Hunter’s manifesto, and I think his initial expression of it was conducted with an arrogance that didn’t do him any favours: ‘Oh, we’re Hyperborean Black Metal now, are we? Thanks for the update, man.’ Still, I regard the first Liturgy album as a pretty good record – albeit not really a black metal one – and I personally don’t have a problem with Hunter messing around in the hinterland of the genre.

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Intellectualising black metal is hardly a new thing – Varg pretty much thinks of himself as an intellectual/philosopher, right? Basically I think it comes down to what ideas you like, and which you don’t. The short answer, I think, is that black metal is big and ugly enough to look after itself, and anyone who is going to be seriously alienated from the genre by a few people tossing theory around in the background is probably not taking it seriously enough.

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ZT: With extreme metal being more popular than ever, is there a risk of pandering? Is some of the meaning of black metal lost with attempts to legitimize it for mainstream or intellectual consumption? Do you think there’s a danger of losing some of black metal’s mystery in bringing it down to academic analysis?

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BS:  If anything, academia’s the exact opposite of mainstream. It’s sort of the most specific, sealed-off world, and maybe the most uncool thing possible. I do know what you mean, but this is something that comes up with any kind of music, or scene, when it appears in a publication that caters to a more general audience. I remember when the NY Times wrote about Sunn O))) a few years ago and people flipped out. I also remember hardcore showing up in the local paper when I was a teenager and it freaking me out. (Or seeing a feature on Metallica when I was a kid and feeling like he end was near…) Most recently, I suppose, it was the New Yorker black metal piece… it happens every few years. And you know what? I can guarantee you that your standard New Yorker reader never bothered to looked up Inquisition after reading that piece, and that those guys will be just as “underground” next year.

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Black metal has lost some of its mystery, for sure, but I’d put more of the blame on the internet– and people’s inability to keep a secret and to stop “over sharing.”The scene has also just moved that way on its own. Folks stopped wearing corpsepaint, started using their real names, asked Thurston Moore to be in their band. Things change.  Music scenes don’t stay the same forever. I can think of nothing worse than a completely static music scene. Plus, no matter what happens in the more spotlit corners, there will always be a shadowy underground. (For the record, I do think academic readings of subculture can be off the mark: Once people stop talking about the music, and get lost in their own theories, things go to shit. That goes for anything, though.)

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LP:  Uh, I think my answer to each would be “not really” – but to properly answer them I’m going to have to digress. For me, one of the really interesting things about BM, on a really base level, is that for an style of music that is known for being so closely tied to a spirit of almost puritanical Nordic nationalism, it’s exploded across the globe. There are black metal bands in pretty much every country in the world, and the sound itself has proven really mutable and ripe for cross-pollination with other genres (punk, drone, doom, avant-garde, etc etc).

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To quote Adam of Crucial Blast from the book: “Black metal itself was wild and experimental when it first took form, and its DNA is highly prone to mutation, despite what purists might argue. Just look at the Deathlike Silence roster, which could be seen as part of ground zero of the second wave of BM – you’ve got bands like Abruptum and Sigh, both very weird, avant-garde, coming right out of the primordial ooze of black metal.  Black metal at its core is supposed to be otherworldly, fantastic, and by its very nature can lead the music into some very strange and ‘experimental’ territory.”

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You can add to the above that pretty much everyone working in the form believes they’re making “true” black metal, or at least black metal that’s true to their own experience. There is no strong consensus on “the meaning” of black metal, and I believe it’s basically up for any participant to build their own “mystery”.

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I would say something, too, about the idea of mainstream/tabloid exposure “ruining” black metal: a big part of the reason that the genre has had such reach and longevity and grew outside of the original Black Circle is thanks to the a) Scandinavian tabloid newspapers and b) subsequent reports in the British mainstream metal press (Kerrang, etc). Black metal as a sound and a visual aesthetic was pretty much forged with the mainstream watching in horror, and you can be sure that it was those lurid early tabloid  reports of burning churches and murder trials that set a lot of later fanatics on the path. That’s not to say that certain types of mainstream exposure could ruin the genre, but I think in general it’s proved pretty resiliant. It survived Vegan Black Metal Chef, right?

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ZT: “Black metal is increasingly forward-thinking despite maintaining a purity of expression that is tied to the past”. With this discrepancy between progressing and staying true to the roots of black metal in mind, is the book appealing to the former, those that favour black metal’s progression? What do you think those in the scene that don’t believe in black metal’s progression will make of this book and its perspectives?

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BS: I’m sure plenty of people will hate the book. Or say they hate the book. If you actually do look at it, there’s a ton of historical info and archival materials that should appeal to anyone who considers themselves a fan of black metal. This is maybe a bit off topic, but it’s something I think about often when I see people getting up in arms about “the mainstream”: I grew up in a working class family in a small, poor farming community and discovered a lot of what I discovered because I got into punk and metal at a young age. If it weren’t for that, I imagine I might still be working in the convenience store in my hometown.

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But punk, especially, inspired me to be ambitious in certain ways, and to attempt to get out of that situation. I wrote my own zine, had a noise cassette label, put on shows at my dad’s farm. This stuff was all funded by the shit jobs I worked. There was no way in I could’ve imagined living off my writing when I was a kid, but I kept pushing, and part of that involved reading everything I could on anything that meant something to me…I didn’t agree with all of it, but I appreciated that it existed.

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When people sit around and complain endlessly about something being false, and devote time that could be spent learning or creating their own work on shit talking… I feel like that comes from a real position of privilege.  It’s not something I get. Besides, progression is inevitable. The idea of something remaining fixed is a fantasy…. and not a very sexy one.

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LP: I’m sure there’s many out there who basically regard the idea of a coffee table book on black metal as an abomination. Wouldn’t be black metal if not. I don’t think the book is that heavy on the theory – indeed, a lot of it is interview and history, such as Nathan’s piece on Greek/French/Italian metal and Stosuy’s oral history of USBM. But I think few with an interest in black metal would agree its glory days are over.

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‘Progression’ is a vague word. If you mean synths and awkward time signatures, I guess black metal went progressive some time ago. Unless you’re recording Darkthrone covers to cassette in filthy lo-fi you’re probably pushing the genre forward in some way – and even those tapes sometimes have a quality that makes them feel like something fresh. Whatever anyone thinks, the genre marches on.

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