Graven Voices: Black Metal and Romantic History

 Julian Knox, University of South Alabama

 

1.    Fetishization of the grave has been a thematic mainstay of heavy metal music since the inception of the genre at the turn of the 1970s, but what began with spooky album art, downtuned guitars, and lyrics celebrating the ineluctable supremacy of death (all may be found on Black Sabbath’s self-titled 1970 debut) by the mid-1980s had become, in certain circles, something altogether more confrontational. In place of singing in the traditional sense, bands such as Venom, Bathory, and Hellhammer chose to deliver their lyrics in a “harsh” style that has been compared to everything from a mammal in its death-throes to the cries of demons pillaging the landscape to the Cookie Monster. Rather than sing merely about death, the vocal delivery of these three bands strove to embody it as well. One might indeed define the history and development of heavy metal up through the end of the century via this pursuit of the mimesis of death, culminating in the string of real-life homicides and suicides perpetrated by members of the Scandinavian “black metal” scene in the 1990s.

2.    Pushing the sonic innovations of its forebears to performative and ideological extremes, black metal’s relationship to death and burial is, in some respects, so earnestly literal that it appears wholly unconcerned with maintaining or even recognizing any boundaries between life and art. In a now-legendary concert held in Leipzig, Germany in 1990, the band Mayhem adorned its stage with pigs’ heads impaled on stakes and dead ravens in bags, and its singer—who went by the moniker Dead—wore death-like “corpsepaint”[1] and buried his clothes underground for three days prior in order that death and decomposition become palpable parts of the total performance. Less than six months later, Dead took his own life with a shotgun-blast to the head. In their book, Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground,[2] journalists Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind emphasize black metal’s notoriety for burning down the fourth wall via incidents such as Dead’s suicide, the subsequent murder of his bandmate Euronymous at the hands of Varg Vikernes of the band Burzum—who also claimed responsibility for the arson of several historical Norwegian stave-churches—and the alleged affiliation of some black metal musicians with satanic sects and far-right political groups.[3] When in that same Leipzig performance, however, Dead proclaims in his singular rasp, “The past is alive!” in the refrain to the song “Pagan Fears,” his “morbid fascination of death”[4] reflects an engagement with history, memory and time that is itself far more fundamental to the genre than the “ambiguous but undeniable” thread between violent aesthetics and real-world violence that Moynihan and Søderlind seek to trace in their study. In the mortuary atmosphere that he had assiduously cultivated for this performance, Dead delivers his lyrics not in the voice of the dying—as in the gruffer, deeper vocal delivery of black metal’s death metal cousins—but rather in the voice of the already-dead, echoing up from the depths to assert its ghastly inviolability in the face of time and progress: “Some memories will never go away / And they will forever be here” (Mayhem).

3.    As a “Call From the Grave,”[5] black metal vocals perform the past as if it were still alive in the present in all its hoary raiments, buried but not silenced, and accordingly they offer a means of historical knowing bound neither by the senseless march of chronology nor by teleological imperatives of progress, but evocative instead of an immanent “now” in which death, and the stories it tells, is always present. Emblematizing black metal’s disarming conjunction of pulp-supernaturalism and fantasy with philosophical profundity, Dead explains in an interview with Slayer magazine[6] that the lyrics to “Pagan Fears”

talk of some people living in an ancient and barbaric society (Fucking Hell how I hate the word society, when it is used as a topic in lyrics, but of course I don’t mention that word in ‘Pagan Fears’!) and the idea, that the past isn’t dying, but remains in some faded reality and that they’ll not die out, but remain in the past which is actually not dying, to haunt people in the future, pop up in their minds. The time itself exists and is eternal, so is it vanishing? They realize they remain forever. (Kristiansen 291)

Dead might be maladjusted. The first line of his suicide note, after all, reads “Sorry for the mess.” But in this he is a comprehensively Romantic figure: his habit of on-stage self-laceration recalls the circuit Coleridge sketches between self-destruction and expression in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”;[7] his distaste for art that addresses “society” echoes the sentiments of Shelley’s Alastor, Byron’s Cain, Clare’s peripatetic outsider, and even the young Wordsworth of The Prelude (in addition to Coleridge’s eternally-alienated Mariner); and his suicide rivals that only of Goethe’s Werther[8] in terms of the exalted stature he attained within the scene as a consequence. Above all this, however, it is Dead’s idea of the past as “remain[ing] forever” to haunt the present and future that brings black metal into direct conversation with Romanticism, particularly insofar as both movements figure the grave less as an emblem of loss, less still as a reminder of mortality, than as a site of communion with a past that never passed into silence.

4.    The poetry of the “Graveyard School” typically associates the tomb with an absence of sound. In Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the speaker ponders the lives and voices of those that lie beneath, only to behold the “silent dust” covering a “mute inglorious Milton” (43, 59), and in Robert Blair’s “The Grave,” “nought but silence reigns” in “the gloomy horrors of the tomb” (13, 5). By contrast, in a Romantic poem such as Wordsworth’s “We are Seven,” the grave becomes the site of a temporal-philosophical struggle between the narrator, whose perspective (like that of the “Graveyard poets”) is attuned to loss and finitude, and that of the child whose six buried siblings “are” and remain defiantly present. The speaker finally sighs that he is “throwing words away” in seeking rational clarification (67); but in the child’s view, nothing is thrown away, as she never resorts to the past tense in relating her situation. Bereavement is inconceivable, for she has not yet adopted a notion of time as “passing.” Sans innocence, the voice of black metal is akin to the voice of Wordsworth’s solitary child: both endow the grave with speech, and challenge the conventional logic by which time becomes a mechanism of perpetual loss. Where Wordsworth achieves this effect through the girl’s haunting use of present-tense, black metal integrates the past into the present by manifesting death through a sepulchral voice that proclaims itself “from the grave” or otherwise “telepathic with the deceased.”[9]

5.    When in the opening act of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley has The Earth urge Prometheus to

know that there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live (I.195-98),

he foregrounds the imperative to know death as instrumental to Prometheus’s revolutionary project (a knowing that is initiated in Act II with Asia and Panthea’s journey to the cave of Demogorgon). Shelley subsequently identifies this knowing as the province of poetry, whose “secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life” (505). Similarly, in his fragment “[Could I remount the river of my years]” Byron asks whether the “underearth inhabitants […] in their silent cities dwell / Each in his incommunicative cell” or if they instead “have their own language—and a sense / Of breathless being—darkened and intense— / As midnight in her solitude” (23, 27-31). Byron’s description of this language of the grave might double as a brief catalogue of attributes shared by his tragic protagonists, solitary and brooding in bearing the burdens of their forbidden knowledge. Perhaps for Byron the ideality or at least expressive promise of such a language proceeds from the fact that it articulates a state of “being” that must remain inarticulable. Like the song of Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid, or of Shelley’s Sky-Lark, the language of the grave is not one that Byron can imitate, let alone reproduce; not even Manfred can conceivably know this tongue until after the drama concludes, nor any of the litany of visiting or summoned spirits for whom “the thing / Mortals call death hath nought to do” (I.i.162-3). More than a mere vanitas or reminder of mortality, the grave in Byron’s fragment becomes “the key / Of thy profundity […] / The portal of thy universal cave” (34-36, “thy” here referring to the Earth). Embodying a radical ontology in which death is not excluded from, but rather enfolded into a “universal” sense of being, Byron’s figuration of the grave affirmatively binds the dead to the living as a presence capable of transforming our quotidian consciousness of “the stream of hours” into an intuition of “profundity” whose revelation of “things untold” transcends the temporal limitations of language itself (3). While for Byron such revelations must finally remain speculative—he “would walk in spirit” in Earth’s “universal cave” if only he could (37) —black metal brashly and theatrically dispenses with such boundaries in depicting its stage as a grave, its performance as a ritual, and in turn its music as the presence summoned by that ritual.

6.    In an essay reprinted in the appendix to Lords of Chaos, the Austrian writer and performer Kadmon describes black metal as “a werewolf culture, a werewolf romanticism” (386), and to a large extent the cultivation of Romantic roots is part and parcel of black metal’s performative ethos. Black metal musicians have been known to use Romantic-associated monikers such as “Alastor” and “Demogorgon,” “Faust” and “Prometheus”[10] in naming their bands, albums, and stage personae. In its album art, music videos, and other promotional materials, black metal is distinctive among other genres of metal for its use of images that illustrate the sublimity of nature in the form of forests and mountains, or that depict a solitary wanderer or spirit (often a corpsepainted band-member) in communion with nature, or that directly reproduce the Romantic paintings associated with such themes, such as Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist, or the Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen’s haunting images of the black death in his Svartedauen collection.[11] For its 2013 album, Echoes of Battle, American black metal band Caladan Brood uses the landscape paintings of Hudson River School artist Albert Bierstadt on the cover, gatefold, and inner sleeves of the vinyl edition. Caladan Brood’s two members are named “Mortal Sword” and “Shield Anvil” after characters in Steven Erikson’s contemporary fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, upon which the album’s lyrics are loosely based (the band itself is named after a warlord demigod who appears throughout the series). The band employs Bierstadt’s sweeping landscapes as a framing device for the sonic landscapes it conjures in its epic songs, all of which clock in at over nine minutes in length and feature ponderous, marching drum-beats accompanied by a combination of lush, quasi-orchestral instrumentation and furiously tremolo-picked guitar lines, and vocals that alternate between “clean,” choir-like chanting and the “harsh” rasp of the graven voice endemic to black metal.

7.    If, as Nicola Masciandaro and Reza Negarestani have suggested in the published proceedings of the first-ever academic conference devoted exclusively to the genre,[12] black metal evokes “an impersonal realm where the already-dead finds its voice in the living” (262), and if, as I have argued here, this vocal conjuration of the dead constitutes a serious engagement with Romantic representations of the grave as a space in which history is figured as immanent, rather than as progressive or otherwise-linear in its workings, then Caladan Brood’s Echoes of Battle dramatizes this symbiosis of the living and the dead through the echoing play of voices it instantiates between the armies traversing the field of battle (the “clean” chanted vocals) and the voices of the fallen ringing up through the depths (the “harsh” sepulchral voice). After a gradually-rising introduction in which a medieval-sounding guitar and piano are soon joined by drums, keyboard, and distorted guitar on the album’s opening song, “City of Azure Fire,” a voice sings in characteristic black metal rasp of “a wondrous shimmering place / Through ages forgotten, in many a traveler’s dream,” as if to lead us into the titular city by way of the graves and buried memories that lie beneath its walls—walls which, as the sonorous, choric voice of the “living” reminds us in the verse that follows, are themselves alive with spirits: “Shadows gather in midnight processions / As wraiths and ghosts sing laments in the walls.” More than simply juxtapose dead and living, past and present, Caladan Brood’s dueling vocals create an aural tapestry that weaves these binaries together, resolving all voices, and the respective temporal positions of those voices, onto a single plane. When in the third verse of “City of Azure Fire” the sepulchral voice sings of “the tolling of bells / Funeral march to the sound of the knell,” it signals that the marching cadence of its “clean” vocal counterpart is itself funereal insofar as this march leads unerringly to the grave, just as its own voice, “born of stone and dust,”[13] rises from the grave to announce its haunting presence to the presently living. On the field of history as imagined by Caladan Brood, the living as well as the deceased possess a mutually-constitutive expressive agency.

8.    In articulating this theme, Caladan Brood draws from American Romantic writing perhaps even more heavily than from its primary source in The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Alongside the British Romantic poets, one of the most influential literary touchstones for the Hudson River School of painting from which Caladan Brood takes its album art is William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” first published in the North American Review in 1817. Asher B. Durand translated the poem into a visual image in his 1850 painting, Landscape—Scene from “Thanatopsis” and depicted Bryant together with his friend, the painter Thomas Cole, in the Catskill Mountains in the iconic Kindred Spirits, painted a year earlier. In the poem, whose address takes the form of advice to one who is racked by “thoughts / Of the last bitter hour” (8-9), Bryant describes the Earth as “one mighty sepulchre […] the great tomb of man” (37, 45) and death as a form of communion with all that has passed before. Accordingly, he instructs his listener to “approach thy grave, / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams (79-81). Like his British Romantic contemporaries, Bryant depicts the grave less as an endpoint than as a portal to a grander consciousness of humankind, nature, and the workings of time. Seen in this light, Hudson River School paintings such as Durand’s and Bierstadt’s become visionary documents of the ceaseless interplay of death and life, their nominally picturesque or sublime scenery only the outer lineaments of the landscape-as-grave into which all elements resolve, and from which new growth issues eternally. In the refrain of Echoes of Battle’s title-track—and the central refrain of the album as a whole—the lyrics announce that

There is a deep pathos here
A monumental sorrow
Blood has stained this ground
The very land itself a barrow.

Sung in a “harsh” voice and accompanied by the sounds of swords clashing on the battlefield, the effect conjured here is one of an open grave, into which vast armies tumble just as voices rise from within it to proclaim not a “victory” over the living, nor any other didactic reminder of mortality, but to evoke instead the “deep pathos” through which dead and living, past and present, are revealed as constitutive, ever-present aspects of a sublime totality. In summoning the sepulchral voice to insist on the undying primacy of the past in the present moment, Caladan Brood and its black metal confederates concurrently unearth a major strain of Romantic thinking on time and history that is refracted through the grave, and in turn defy their audience to consider the relevance of this thinking to the present day. If Walter Benjamin describes our conventional and ultimately catastrophically-progressive view of history through the image of a backwards-facing angel that sees only “wreckage upon wreckage” as it drives headlong into a future that it cannot perceive (257), black metal presents history as a demon peering forth from an open grave onto a world it never departed.

 

Works Cited

“Bathory’s Co-Founding Drummer Jonas Åkerlund To Direct Film Adaptation of ‘Lords Of Chaos.’” Blabbermouth.net, 4 May 2014, http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/bathorys-co-founding-drummer-jonas-akerlund-to-direct-film-adaptation-of-lords-of-chaos/. Accessed 20. Dec 2016.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Blair, Robert. The Poetical Works of Beattie, Blair, and Falconer. Ed. George Gilfillan. Edinburgh: J. Nichol, 1854.

Bryant, William Cullen. The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant. Ed. Parke Goodwin. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann and Barry Weller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-1993.

Caladan Brood. Echoes of Battle, Northern Silence Productions, 2013. Vinyl LP.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poetical Works. Ed. J. C. C. Mays. 2001. 3 vols. Vol. 16 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London and Princeton: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Princeton UP, 1969-2002.

Gray, Thomas. Poetical Works. Ed. Roger Lonsdale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Kristiansen, Jon. Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries. Ed. Tara G. Warrior. New York: Bazillion Points, 2011.

Masciandaro, Nicola, and Reza Negarestani. “Black Metal Commentary.” Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010.

Mayhem. “Pagan Fears.” Live in Leipzig, Century Media, 2012. Vinyl LP.

Moynihan, Michael, and Didrik Søderlind. Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003.

Patterson, Dayal. Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2013.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.

Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems, 1797-1800. Ed. James Butler and Karen Green. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

 


 

[1] One of the visual hallmarks of black metal, although by no means “required” or as ubiquitous within the genre as in its formative years, is corpsepaint: black-and-white facepaint that lends its bearer the appearance of a ghoul or freshly-risen corpse. While performers such as Kiss and Alice Cooper had been wearing black-and-white face-paint long before black metal came into existence, “Dead” has been credited by Mayhem bassist Necrobutcher in Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult as definitively inventing corpsepaint: “The name corpsepaint was never used by the bands who used paint like Celtic Frost, King Diamond, Alice Cooper, Kiss or any other bands that used this sort of makeup. They weren’t painting themselves to look like they were dead, just to look evil or cool. With corpsepaint today, I don’t see any corpse… [With Dead] it wasn’t like dark, it was green, decomposition colors, snot coming from the nose…” (144).

[2] The enduring popularity of this book, and the black metal “true crime” mythos it perpetuates, is evident in the fact that filming for a big-screen adaptation commenced in Norway in the Fall of 2015 (“Bathory’s”).

[3] As zine-writer and prominent extreme metal personality Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen has recently stated, however, “Lords of Chaos was not a big thing in Norway as far as I could tell. I think it became much bigger in the U.S. a few years later. Here in Norway, we already had the black metal sensationalism explosion with Varg being in the papers all the time for years. The book just exported that to the United States” (331).

[4] Title of a 2001 album by Norwegian black metal band Carpathian Forest.

[5] Title of a Bathory song from its 1987 album, Under the Sign of the Black Mark.

[6] The longest-running (from 1985 until 2010) and, within the scene, most highly-regarded extreme metal zine, written and published by Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen.

[7] “I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, / And cried, A sail! a sail!” (160-61).

[8] The success of Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was such that it stoked fears of a copycat-suicide epidemic, which despite being overblown have given us the term “The Werther Effect” to describe imitation suicides. In black metal, it is not uncommon to hear fans declare their refusal to listen to any Mayhem material postdating Dead’s suicide, despite the band continuing to tour and release albums into the present day. Members of relatively well-known black metal bands such as Dissection, Diaboli, and Strid have all committed suicide in the years since, but perhaps more telling than this in the present context is the fact that an entire subgenre known as “Depressive-Suicidal Black Metal” explicitly valorizing self-harm has existed and grown since the mid-1990s.

[9] Title of a 2004 album by American black metal band Xasthur.

[10] According to Encyclopaedia Metallum (metal-archives.com), the most comprehensive existing (and continually-updated) repository of metal bands, albums, and members, there are at least three black metal bands named “Alastor,” hailing respectively from Austria, Portugal, and Greece. Nearly a dozen black metal bands are named “Demogorgon,” and a prominent member of several Greek black metal bands uses it as a stage-name. “Faust” is the stage-name of Bård Eithun, original drummer of prominent Norwegian black metal band Emperor, who spent nearly ten years in jail for murder. In 2012, American black metal band Agalloch recorded a musical interpretation of Goethe’s Faust entitled Faustian Echoes. Finnish band Black Crucifixion’s first full-length album is entitled Faustian Dream; an earlier EP is entitled Promethean Gift. Prometheus – The Discipline of Fire & Demise is the title of Emperor’s final album.

[11] An original compilation of black metal and dark folk songs inspired by Friedrich’s painting was released in 2010; its promotional flyer reads, “These bands bring a tribute to the painting & the painter, but also an honor to the wandering pantheistic spirit within each of us.” Friedrich’s painting, The Abbey in the Oakwood, featuring a ruined cloister and cemetery surrounded by leafless trees, appears on at least a half dozen black metal album covers. Kittelsen’s images of the black death, collected in his book Svartedauen, grace the covers of the first four Burzum albums.

[12] Held in Brooklyn, NY on December 12, 2009, and published as Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I (2012).

[13] The title of the sixth track on the vinyl edition of Echoes of Battle.