Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In the Nightside Eclipse

We have to be careful not to believe what black metal tells us about itself. There are two competing stories. On one hand, the teenage rock 'n roll rebellion of Venom and early Mayhem, on the other hand the *ressentiment* of pretentious underground Internet Recording Artists burrowing further into their own insecure lack of self-definition. One side assures us that black metal is about church-burning, leather-wearing, and goat fornicating, while the other side strains to intellectualize its emo roots, painfully obscuring any vitality leftover from metal and turning into its own caption on itself.

One of the most sophisticated black metal bands was Emperor. Elitist, literary, highly proficient musicians, their album At the Nightside Eclipse stands as a high-water mark for what the genre might achieve in terms of utter seriousness. At the same time, the album (its art especially) verges on fantasy metal in some points. The influence of Emperor is just as much the dousing of everything in keyboards and a renewed interest in the narrative employment of orcs.

As great as Emperor were, and as gripping as their presentation is, the later development of Emperor into pony-tail wearing prog musicians and goths suggests that something was wrong even early on. Very likely it was the feeling that they had something to do with classical music, which is true and interesting but also misguided. Another culprit might have been their feeling that they were philosophers of some kind, which is always better left suggestively for others to pick up on, and ought never to lead to the sort of concept albums Emperor later made.

So what might Emperor, and the kind of black metal they stand for, have been really about? (if not about drinking flaming goat semen and spitting it on the Virgin Mary, for instance?)


Let me transport you for a moment to the plains of Troy, and the songs of Homer. The poet calls up before us the most heinous, unrelenting violence, one shattered ribcage after another. Great men heave giant stones at one another, and hack obstructing limbs away from the armor they rip from corpses. All this slaughter is devoid of piety or remorse or even the apology of necessity. It is hard work but it is man's work, and the war stretches on, one suspects, because there is nothing outside of this hell. (And in the Iliad, we never leave Troy or see how one could.)

Here there is no mysticism or frostwinds or Viking raids or KISS-style face paint, but you still have everything essential to black metal. Namely this, the utter horror and violence of existence--an unceasing march to death, shortened by constant warfare and the mercilessness both of man and nature--is asserted as itself meaningful.

What separates the Iliad from the nonsensical chaos of an all-consuming violence is only grasping that given, absolutely un-removeable fact (of death) and turning it into something willed, mastered, wished-for. Life is a long (or not so long) pointless agony, however it is dressed up: no different from the meaningless existence and death of a bunch of benighted monkeys or rodents. The Iliad shows us this SAME dreadful insanity, but as by a reversal of perspective, as though it were our own volition and desire.

One stupid thing that is written about Homer is that, by turning this painful conflict INTO art, the poet "immortalizes" the heroes. No no no no. There is not some pointless thing, the Trojan war, which BECOMES art (is set down in art). The Trojan war already is the immortalization, the purpose, the accomplishment. The war is its own meaning. But nothing has been ADDED to existence other than SEEING it as having this meaning.


To return to black metal. It is easy to get caught up in Emperor's lyrics about "the infinity of thought," the ageless generations of black wizards, etc. But what do we really know about this arcane wisdom that they summon? Only that the agents of darkness cry out in the sorrow of seeking knowledge, of isolation, and that they wield unconquerable swords, they are eternally wrathful, that they wish for a union with the mystery of a hateful nature, and that they will wreak woe upon all in the name of the Lord of Strife.

But that is all on THIS side of the "mysteries" and "transcendence" of a religious (Satanic) view of the world. What Emperor are ABOUT is bringing "awe and derision" into the world, establishing a limitless empire of pain, and so forth. And the soul behind all of this only EVOKES the dark meaning of what is essentially a rapacious horde of unchristian, unapologetic tyrannical barbarian conquest. The "values" evoked are not values *aimed at* in a subsequent rule, but are just already the values of slaughtering and defiling.

My point is, THIS is evoked as meaningful, profound, mystical, eternal, etc.

"We will grant Him their pain. He will grant us His flame. In flesh and blood. He will arise to deliver the key. As the armours black robe slides across the landscape, we see the land of wisdom, strength and pure evil... Darkness, frost, hate... the throne will be ours.

May the wolves start to howl again. May the age of darkness arise. May we touch the black flames of the past again... and forevermore."


It is easy, then, to draw the contrast with death metal, which is philosophically a 180 from black metal. A band like Carcass revel precisely in the meaninglessness of gore and anatomical destruction. Their lyrics are a nihilistic joke. But you also see that the answer has nothing to do with "evil" or "darkness." As Nietzsche teaches us, evil is something to go beyond..., but this is something you can't tell teenagers.