The curse of blanket assumptions

Blood overcomes flesh
Sulphur overcomes silver
Strictness kills mercy,
And fire overcomes earth
And when the sun sets,
It’s red, you see
An Omen for when the final dusk comes

-Condemner, Omens of Perdition

Sometimes, generalizations are made to serve a greater purpose and help us cut to the chase by eliminating from a contention that which is obvious. In doing so, we arrive closer to the essence of the contention, to the real difference between two things set in contrast; we separate the wheat from the chaff. For example, I may assert that traditionally mercantile communities rarely indulge unpredicatedly, with any degree of true passion, in vocations pleasing to the higher intellect. My justification would be that if one is raised in an environment where material concern forms the overwhelming bulk of one’s idea of a happy life, then it stands to reason that that part of the thinking faculty stimulated by art and other subtle, idealistic musings will remain in an obscured state.

Generalization, though a statistically-oriented exercise, is ultimately speculative in nature, and therefore prone to the odd anomaly. But in this case, the anomaly, rather than upending the original generalization, ends up reinforcing it; in common parlance, this means that the exception proves the rule. If one out of ten people is homosexually inclined, then, leaving out all debate about freedom of choice, the homosexual individual still represents a natural aberration in that sample demographic. Any attempt at converting this state of being into an example of normative behavior, however charitable the reasoning behind it may be, is self-serving and a distortion of reality.

Generalizations or blanket statements can be extended to all sorts of phenomena, including heavy metal, provided the intention behind them is pure and based on accumulated experience. Unfortunately, blanket assumptions are often made because their prosecutor is too lazy to refer to that bank of experience; more damnedly, he might not even have gathered the requisite experience to make said generalization. In such a case, the generalization is an easy way for its prosecutor to leap to a premeditated and, in all likelihood, prejudiced conclusion. This does nobody any favors; not only is it dishonest behavior, but it also dilutes any element of truth that may have perchance existed in the premise behind the original generalization.

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It is good to be human

A strange thing to say on a metal blog, very Biblical in its “…go forth, replenish and multiply, and establish thy dominion over all the fish of the water and the fowl of the air and everything that creepeth over the earth…” stance, but I’ve never held much sympathy for the existential nihilistic point of view. It’s become a fashion among people happily ensconced in their miserable middle class lives to advocate antinatalism and to wish the annihilation of the human species for all the harm it causes the earth and its other animal inhabitants. The harm done is indisputable, but the comic irony in that formulation is that only we humans are in a position to quantify that harm done. To everything else that breathes around us, shit simply happens. Their descendants don’t go on holding grudges and planning bloody coups against us, they don’t incur any collective, cross-generational scarring (though I read somewhere that crows have photographic memories and can come peck at you as late as twenty years after you may have caused them or theirs injury). Unless they happen to go extinct, in which case some human scribe laments their passing.

I believe Kurt Vonnegut said, in either Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, and I paraphrase him, that the world as it is, is the only way it could possibly exist; the street urchin begging at the traffic light, genocide, a beautiful piece of music, and random acts of cruelty or munificence, are all co-dependent parts of the larger equation. While this may seem a fatalistic perspective to adopt on life, it is in fact a recognition of the fact that everything we see around us, good and bad, is equally necessary to our innate condition. We have a tendency to relate only positive connotations to the word “human”, but the word, and its subject, when viewed from the bird’s eye, are inherently unfeeling to moral grandstanding.

It is good to be human despite the frequent fuckups it entails. I wouldn’t want to be anything else. I won’t conceal the pathological urge to witness a super-cosmic act of destruction, an instant-acting Extinction Level Event up close, but I’m not praying all night to the seven heavens to make it happen. Neither am I averse to visiting unabridged incidents of bloodshed on stupid people; the way to solve most of the world’s problems is not by stopping all human reproduction, but by preventing stupid people from reproducing, either by sterilization or extermination if need be. Yet another reason to actively campaign for the right to die; if you think your life is so innately worthless as to not warrant existence, live up to your word and kill yourself. Stop trying to “improve” the world by going vegan and riding bicycles and getting your tubes tied; cast your mind however many-billions of years into the future as a giant sun is about to eat up a toasted Earth, realize the futility of it all, and kill yourself.

A human life affords a breadth of experience and introspection that is inaccessible to anything else on the planet; it is a reasonably well-endowed, all-round spectrum of knowledge that makes that life precious to itself over its duration. Until we are supplanted by a more intelligent species, this is how it is. It makes sense to derive your sense of self-worth from an appreciation of this fundamental truth, not by choosing a cause, be it wildlife conservation or Black Lives Matter. The first belongs to the natural order of things and gives you the requisite humility in light of your special position and your duty as a human being in that order; the second comes from inadequate or ill-affected personal-psychological development, where one goes out to fill the hole in their lives with a borrowed identity. The person subscribing to the first line of thought always calls himself an individual above all else, the second prefers to hide under labels and then gloats as he dissembles.

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Retrospective: Horrified, Chemical Exposure, Altars of Madness, and I.N.R.I.

A fine test of whether you take yourself altogether too seriously is to stay locked up in a room and play the four titles mentioned in this post’s header. If you can’t contain yourself from running around with mad abandon at the risk of serious whiplash a few hours later, you’re good to go. And to live. Don’t let the child inside grow up may seem too trite a cliche; it may even appear inappropriate for music as innately “negative” as this. But hold on, is this music really negative? Is it cynical? After all, it does shine a mirror on the ugly face of reality; Horrified and Chemical Exposure/Illusions recount graphically the aftermath of nuclear fallout and the very frail nature of human life, so easily dismembered and strewn about like inanimate hunks of meat. Altars of Madness and I.N.R.I., on the other hand, carry a Biblical sense of proportion about them, conjuring the perennial conflict between good and evil in death/black metal form.

This is heady, heavy subject matter to be sure, deserving of serious contemplation for after-hours; to the neutral bystander it must seem silly that we spend so much time conjecturing and philosophizing over music so brash and abrasive. My old landlord, a journalist of some repute, once read an entry on this blog and told me – without guile, I must add in his defense – he never knew you could get so much out of this music. His opinion is one you can ascribe to virtually everybody unhessian around you, and it is a perfectly understandable sentiment, too; it comes from a fundamental inability or unwillingness to connect sign with signified. Music is the sign, what it aims to express is the signified; most popular music is overloaded symbolically but criminally neglects to cultivate a world-view, instead relying on lyrical-consonant manipulation to build ultimately only an ephemeral state of mind. Metal, however, insinuates, it uses music of a suitably dark and virile character to suggest the germ of an idea, an idea of strength, confrontation, triumph, but, above all else, honesty. The truth is always beautiful but it is rarely pretty; real metal understands this profound shading, and strives to approximate it, always.

The four albums mentioned all play by different rules, too. Altars of Madness is of course the most technically and compositionally nuanced of the lot, one of the finest representations of the call-response dialectic in metal. Morbid Angel‘s great skill in their early period was in painting startlingly realized musical images; this achievement becomes all the more astounding considering the breakneck, instinctive nature of Altars of Madness. Many of these songs had been in gestation for years before official release on record, and therefore must have seen forethought in terms of arrangement, but the vibe for these forty minutes is still one of emanation and fulfillment of raw will in the moment, almost omnipotent in its implication: they thought and therefore it was.

Sarcofago‘s I.N.R.I. brought together nascent grindcore with the primitive rumblings of compatriots Sepultura, and created the template for much black metal and what would come to be called war metal. Sarcofago being a band rooted in the 80s, I.N.R.I. also carries the dark melodic sensibility of a Melissa and genre forerunners Bulldozer. Often slighted for its lack of narrative pretension, I.N.R.I. in fact excels in that very department by building ascending cycles of intensity, a songwriting trope which would soon become the trademark of an entire sub-genre.

Illusions, or Chemical Exposure, as rechristened by Roadrunner, is speed/thrash metal (take your pick as you please. I think I’ll call this thrash today) through and through. It’s unfortunate that that genre denomination has become a bit of a cuss word in recent times; one can only try something on what it purports to achieve. Metallica on Ride The Lightning aimed for scope and grandeur, and they succeeded beyond all compare despite the label of speed metal they carried. Mustaine cared more about getting his and that viciousness knives through Killing Is My Business…to this day, long after both parties to the conflict have become shriveled versions of their young selves. Swallowed In Black would see Sadus evolve their craft, ever so imperceptibly, into something verging on the lateral, narrative dexterity of death metal, but on their debut, Sadus had one and one mission only: Death To Posers (D.T.P.)

The eldest of these four albums (song-wise, a toss-up between the Morbid Angel demos and the Genocide version of Repulsion) is still the most exhilarating, more than thirty years after its release. Death metal would not exist, not the way it does, without Repulsion and Horrified. It’s really as simple as that. Horrified is traditionally accepted as the greatest grindcore album ever; it’s hard to dispute this, but a more nuanced interpretation reveals Horrified to be composed out of metal riffs arranged in grindcore fashion. In other words, instead of letting those riffs branch out and develop in the manner of death metal or black metal, Repulsion rein them in like a frothing-at-the-mouth Cerberus, and inject them with unparalleled amounts of speed and conviction. Frighteningly tunnel-visioned and entirely life-affirming, Horrified remains in a class of its own, a true touchstone for genuine extreme music cutting across all partisan divides.

That life-affirming bit…I’m sure I’ve used that term before and it brings me back to the premise phrased in the opening of this post. Such rough, abrasive music, articulating such a pessimistic view of the world, what can possibly be life-affirming about it? I don’t know if there’s a ready answer to this; I do know that I never feel as alive as when I hear it, the rush of blood it actuates is almost on par with great sex, and what greater life force exists? I also know that the mental extension it facilitates is a powerful and enriching stimulant in itself. Maybe in achieving this psychosomatic union, it overcomes an artificial mind vs body dichotomy, and makes us more complete human beings.

 

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Fetishizing elitism

A 300 lb narwhale talks of war and Satan and 88 with cartoonish glee. A man-child with poor bone formation holds his fist up against the backdrop of Belsen concentration camp, in tribute to the gods of war metal, but little does he realize that his thumb best not be sticking up alongside the index finger if he gets into a fight. A crust/death band frontman from the capital says his project is influenced by Julius Evola and Pete Helmkamp, but I wonder what Evola or Helmkamp would make of this person’s avowed anti-casteism and all-around liberal-secular humanism. The two Jews running Metalsucks prostrate themselves most shamefully to clicks and hits, and live up to every cliche ever leveled against their community, but then are only too happy to act the victim when someone points out there is no smoke without a fire. Kim Kelly, that desperate CUNT of a hag, talks like she is God’s gift to “metal journalism”, but in what self-respecting company of hessians would she not be eviscerated to shreds within seconds?

It’s enough to make me feel like I’m inhabiting an alternate dimension. All subcultures have their rites of initiation; once past those rites, a certain psychological empowerment takes place; in an individual already assured of his place in the world, this empowerment presents new doors and opportunities for further self-improvement. Conversely, in a person who doesn’t amount to much to begin with, this empowerment is an entirely synthetic one and even assumes a deleterious character; it rushes in to compensate for the void which has always existed in the center of this shell of a human being. It breeds an obnoxious confidence with no basis in reality; this person in essence still remains chronically incapable of forming an opinion of any substance or standing up for what he purports to believe in, but he has now gathered an assortment of coolness around himself; little street trifles and gewgaws with which he can project an impression of authority.

I wonder whether he believes in it himself. I think he must; he is simple-minded enough to convince himself; God knows he has enough reinforcement at all times from people of similar calibre. The funny thing about him is that he never crosses paths with those he perceives with animal instinct as his intellectual superiors, but he is always more than eager to demonstrate his prowess with rude abandon before people he feels lie lower in this strange rabbit-hole hierarchy he has built for himself.

This cognitive dissonance thrives amidst heavy metal’s bombast. I think of it as a trickle-down elitism of sorts, where I shit on you but since you can’t shit right back up at me – unless you’re a monkey flinging turds at people randomly, and who’s to say you aren’t? – you defecate on the ones directly beneath you. And so it trickles ever downward. I’ve written about what I think of elitism, in metal and in life, before; some of those times I was drunk, others not so much. I don’t know what I am right now, it feels a little silly to talk of a subject that should be beyond the purview of words. It also feels surreal to see people you wouldn’t give the time of day adopt a pose which flies in the face of all their past and present actions.

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Why Blood matters

Death – a world of pain lies in this world
Death – is eternal sleep
Death – is a silent man,
But he conquers everyone
Every step in life is a step towards death
Nobody escapes death if he hadn’t escaped life
If there wouldn’t be death
Nobody would appreciate life
Maybe one hasn’t yet a name for it

–  Blood, ‘Be Doomed’

To call Blood only a grindcore band is to do disservice to both grindcore and Blood themselves. Grindcore in its purest form is rabid musical deconstructionism, best exemplified by Napalm Death’s Peel Sessions. And so it should always remain, as an amorphously articulated explosion of outrage for or against political means and ends. Those political predilections may vary wildly on the individual plane, but most people with perspective refuse to let themselves be consciously or conscientiously aligned, all of the time, with either left or right. For perhaps the first four decades of one’s life, personal philosophies remain in a state of constant churn n’ turn, and it is only after that phase, once the individual has gathered adequate experience and knowledge, that they begin the process of ossification.

This doesn’t mean we choose the lukewarm, undecided middle ground in the interim, either; there are certain causes we ought to feel overwhelmingly disposed towards regardless of the end of political spectrum or time bracket of personal ideological evolution they occupy; a well-tuned intuition serves as a guiding light in such trying waters. The most important thing, however, is to make that decision in as holistically educated a manner as possible, and with the measured humility which our half-baked awareness warrants.

Music is made of melodic units of information; of themselves, too, but especially when they communicate with each other, these units evoke certain feelings that allow us to form a more substantial link between the abstract and the tangible. This dialogue may be subject to interpretation to an extent, but when conducted with direction and interpreted with honesty, undoubtedly brings us closer to a more defined world-view.

It is hard to discern the symbolization behind the unmusic that is grindcore with any kind of depth. Its staunchly anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian history, a direct bleedover from associated punk styles, allows us to subliminally read meaning into a form where there is none to begin with. But because grindcore operates within a self-imposed stylistic straitjacket, the possibilities available to it for creating a world-view of any clarity become limited. It can be used as a tool for releasing pent energy; it can be construed as an expression of anarchy, but in the absence of greater definition and purpose, it is liable also to be viewed as nihilistic in the most misunderstood sense of the term.

Blood certainly referenced grindcore, in phrase-formation, as a passage of hyperactivity in a greater scheme, and as ideological ballast; their musical workings, however, had as much in common with the multifaceted mirrorhouse of images that is death metal and speed metal. Dynamism in metal is the constant interplay among patterns, a perpetual clashing of opposite wills in which there is no victor; rather combating riffs, through their violent but strangely congruent dance, create a gradually unfolding narrative tapestry for the benefit of the listener.

George Santayana in his aesthetic philosophy defined the beautiful as that which gives the higher sense of intellect (as opposed to the lower senses, constituted primarily by smell, taste, and touch. Santayana considered sight and hearing to occupy a higher position in the conventional five-sense hierarchy) food for contemplation, nourishment, and a certain unselfish, non-utilitarian kind of pleasure. This position closely resembles the stage on which we try the case for absolute metal, where structuralism and emotional appeal dovetail in synchronized manner to make for an ultimately enriching experience.

With a new Blood album in the works, perhaps the time is ripe to christen this fine band as an example of absolute death/grind. I  know of few others – in grindcore or death metal – that have maintained an aura of impending apocalyptic doom for as long and with no concessions whatsoever to foundational integrity. Grindcore, death metal…these are genres that could exist only in a post-industrial society, where flesh-and-bone human beings are regarded as “resources” to be employed or disposed of in the service of the impersonal inorganic. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? What madness, to fly in the face of all known natural harmony, to live life by the leash and in the noose, and then have the presumption to call it progress?

Explicitly, instinctively, Blood have understood this facade from inception. If the truth is beautiful by sole account of its being the truth, then Blood have been veritable prophets of today’s beautifully ugly truth. To assign labels of left and right to a band such as this is disingenuous; one can empathize with the social critiques of people like Marx and Shaw on a human level, within the context of time and environment in which they were written, without crossing over into full-blown cultural-intersectional-economic Marxism. Mitigation can be achieved without either persecution or appeasement but this calls for statesmanship and a grasp of historical depth. A glance through a Blood lyric sheet reveals them to be individuals, not glorified party manifestos; you can disagree with an individual because you are an individual, too, but simultaneously also appreciate independent thought in another such as yourself. The subconscious is bombarded with impressions through the day; Blood regurgitate these impressions as shrapnel-doggerel in a vaguely channelized splatter pattern; much like how our dreams and nightmares exist in a world of levitated logic all its own but past their layers of absurdness still conceal undeniable links with a reality more beautiful and more terrifying than heaven and hell can ever be.

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Two promising demos from 2017: Sickness (Finland) and Moenen of Xezbeth (Belgium)

   

Extreme metal should have always remained lo-fi, a sentiment previously expressed and one to abide by. In a technologically advanced age, however, a tendency such as this could be construed as mere gimmick if the grime doesn’t in fact conceal layers of genuine substance. But when said substance is in place, the gimmick can be interpreted as manifesto and a way to sever all links with the tawdry mainstream. Like how forerunners of black metal used corpse paint to submerge the ego, a buried production in the right hands can eliminate all distraction and elevate the music to rightful preeminence. See, then, how this form of music, so popular today, reasserts its iconoclastic, introverted character. As it should.

Surprisingly, there is a sort of unorganized movement coalescing around this re-emergent metal philosophy, well-worth investigating for the curious fan (interested readers would be well-directed to Youtube user Greg Biehl who seems to have his finger on the pulse of this scene). The following two demos of recent vintage are fine examples of just this adjusted mindset:

Sickness – Deus Maledictus Est
This recording presents eleven pocket-sized songs done in the old Repulsion, Morbid Angel (Thy Kingdom Come), Insanity (mid-80s demos), and Necrovore style. Those names aren’t idly taken; Deus Maledictus Est is a frighteningly accurate reproduction of a bygone era, but don’t let the reproduction part dissuade you; the spirit coursing through these songs can’t be dismissed as plain imitation. That spirit is the same from Black Sabbath through to the present day; it remains eternal and it is metal itself. Intricate, turn-on-a-dime, and unremittingly violent, Deus Maledictus Est couches death metal in the brisk, grindcore song format; in doing so, it rids itself of all potential filler and perhaps even points yet another way forward for the genre. The banshee vocals are definitely a sideshow, but they don’t stop this little thirteen minute sampler from being one of the most re-galvanizing death metal outings in recent times.

Moenen of Xezbeth – Dawn of Morbid Sorcery
Epic and mystical like the Conan The Barbarian soundtrack, Dawn of Morbid Sorcery references tonally-rich underground legends like Thergothon and Avzhia. But Moenen of Xezbeth don’t allow themselves to become lost in sentimental atavism like so many bands playing dress-up; there is red-stained steel to this album and it reemphasizes the band’s music as a commentary on matters larger-than-life from a cold and impersonal vantage point. Judging from the grasp of pacing and development in evidence here, Moenen of Xezbeth would be entirely at home with a longer running-time, too. If the aim of a demo is to provide a primer of the band’s strengths, then Dawn of Morbid Sorcery is a resounding success.

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Phrenelith – Desolate Endscape (2017)

As Incantation slide further into impressionistic senility, Phrenelith appear on the scene seemingly well-equipped to carry the baton forward. Techniques from that school are found in abundance on Desolate Endscape, be it the scaffolding riff lines rooted in chromaticism, the natural harmonic punctuation, or the trademark crawl. But this album also boasts a loose and organic character which differentiates it from a blatant derivative like Father Befouled. It’s almost as if at any given time Phrenelith forget that they’re supposed to strictly adhere to the style in vogue, breaking out into more heightened self-awareness. Their melodic palette is a little “brighter” than their ancestors, with phrases occasionally referencing European forms of death metal; in this, they are similar to the underrated Deteriorot who used much the same foundation to make imposingly dark melodic death metal of a unique character.

Phrenelith get the stuff of this style; in particular, they understand the use of repetition at both slow and fast tempos. A musical device routinely abused by lesser bands, repetition hinges chiefly on placement and duration. Both qualities in turn revolve around song-sense and restraint. Phrenelith throw a nod in the direction of Immolation‘s heralded album finales from yesteryear, but they also bring to mind the Pete Sandoval-fueled grinding battery of Altars of Madness; the latter, placed in the main body of the song, imparts tremendous, hypnotic forward momentum to the music.

Incantation themselves, in their pursuit of the doomier end of dynamics, have greatly missed this sense of feverish activity since The Mortal Throne of Nazarene. Phrenelith, though, have learned well the lessons of the past; theirs may not be the intense, call-response dialectic of Morbid Angel; instead, like Incantation, Phrenelith build riff line upon riff line in what amounts to an ever-probing soliloquy, a broadcasting organ that uses the culmination of what has gone before to build anew.

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Perverted Ceremony – Sabbat of Behezael (2017)

Perverted Ceremony have taken the best trimmings from the primal black metal second wave and created an album which feels pulsing and dangerous even at this late date. Sabbat of Behezael is obviously influenced by the likes of Beherit, Von, Goatlord, and Samael in both aesthetic and writing, but unlike so many doing this style under the war metal pennant, this album also boasts a significant melodic-narrative prowess, albeit firmly based in the dark and dissonant camp.

As long-term fans of underground horror and heavy metal, we are more than willing to suspend our disbelief and buy into the presented premise, provided the evidence is compelling enough to make us linger in that state of suspended skepticism. Far too many bands, however, seem incapable of remaining loyal to their original motives; thus the often jarring shifts in composition which pull the listener out of the aura he has consented to be built around the work at hand.

Not only does Sabbat of Behezael excel at keeping this cohesion in both intent and narration, but it also reveals a subtle harmonic complexity belying its rough exterior. Like Samael on Worship Him, there is a lateral activity on view here which doesn’t compromise the all-around brutality but in fact enhances it. Individual riffsets are simple and monolithic like plates floating on a bed of liquid magma but each such riffset contains a head and a tail carved with just enough awareness to make a close fit with its neighbour. Guitar solos are almost out of tune, as should be for music reflecting so much malice, but they are not without intelligence, erupting either as violent release or in the form of moldering, mood-developing device.

Sabbat of Behezael arrives at an opportune time for black metal, a time when the scene is riven into one of three flavors: self-referentially violent war metal, dissonant orthodox fare, and the flowing, tremolo-picked minor scale style. Yet the disappointment with these variants, regardless of their pretension to the contrary, has been the absence of the intangible, quasi-ritualistic darkness that was such a hallmark of the classics. Perverted Ceremony may be standing on the shoulders of those same giants, but they have done a valuable twofold service, by parting with the mainstream in the way they compose black metal and, more importantly, by reintroducing that lost and vital element of evil in all relevant discussion about the genre.

 

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Engulfed – Engulfed in Obscurity (2017)

An absolute, instrumental death metal album and the changes which this shift in paradigm would necessarily induce in core songwriting remains fascinating to think about. Tonal consistency and eventual unity across the album, much after the manner of classical composition, would have to be the overriding aspect of such an endeavor. Death metal, despite all its innovation to the contrary, still remains constrained by convention; thus the constitution of albums into discrete, fully self-contained “songs”. This, of itself, is no bad thing, is even an integral part of metal songwriting, and has given occasion to many a classic over the years; but the format’s rigid delineation doesn’t quite help in creating the seamless, overarching fabric that could conceivably be the next step in the genre’s evolution.

Bands like The Chasm, Into Oblivion, and Zealotry have tantalizingly hinted at just such a possibility, where vocals relinquish their ornamental role and allow the instrumentation to play sole shepherd. Engulfed‘s style is noticeably different from these bands; vocals still conduct songs with some officiousness, but it is also possible to visualize Engulfed in Obscurity purely as a function of riff and percussion without being none the worse for wear because of it.

It is a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, we speak of album-wide cohesiveness to escape the straitjacket of the songform, yet we also appreciate the primacy of the “hook” to all metal composition. Engulfed certainly have the tonal unity to speak for them but whether this stems from wider vision or inherent melodic limitation is yet to be seen. At this early stage, there is little to tell one song apart from another on this album; Engulfed play an intensely modal form of blackened death metal, not dissimilar to what Adversarial plied on All Idols Fall Before The Hammer (and so egregiously parted ways with on the follow-up). Entire riff shapes, played almost-exclusively as single-note melodies, are shifted up or down the musical register, with notes added or subtracted to culminate in an appropriate call-answer aesthetic. This modal approach, where notes are contained within a definite, scalar framework, gives a continuous quality to the music, but it also robs it of the spontaneity from which idiosyncratic character is built. The challenge that now presents itself to this collective is to retain much of this admirable continuity whilst simultaneously breaking stride and letting the highs and the lows stand forth with greater detail.

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Spirituality in black metal and Highland’s Loyal to the Night Sky

D.A.R.G. left an interesting comment on a previous post which expressed my general ambivalence towards what passes for black metal today. According to him, “…what we want from black metal, is its capacity to transmit an experience of transformation, of realization, I think. This does not mean that it should be considered as lacking any relation to musical structure. Having a holistic view of affairs, I do not think any level is disconnected; I do think, however, that one can err in awarding too much importance to either ideology / religion, or to structural / technical complexity. Some works are good examples of beauty without any relevance or use besides lifting up our eyes. I would say that black metal must be strong in that relevance, because it does not have the power and open-endedness of European classical music to create objects of beauty in the search for ‘absolute music’ (read as music for its own sake)

So, if I interpret this perspective correctly, theme and technique, though far from irrelevant in black metal, are still only so many stylistic markers. In effect, what D.A.R.G. proposes is treating black metal on a spiritual plane first and foremost, albeit always guided by those stylistic markers as auxiliaries.

Loyal to the Night Sky is a diligent study in second and third wave black metal from around the world. Like Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult, Highland prove there is life still in this style’s flogged carcass when the music is composed with both knowledge and feeling. Caustic, quick-paced riffing like that on Immortal’s Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism mixes with the long-chained wintry melodies of Sorcier des Glaces, the romantic despair of Mutiilation and Clandestine Blaze, and the cosmic-cthonic drone of Inquisition. A Blaze in the Northern Sky isn’t an infrequent reference, either. Highland may not have come close to realizing an unique identity on this album, but the intelligence in evidence here…scratch that, call it precocious awareness instead, because intelligence suggests a conniving quality, and such is never the case here. But in any event, the sincerity with which Loyal to the Night Sky is written augurs well for the future.

But what really is spirituality, and in the context of black metal, at that? A recent insightful article over at Black Ivory Tower went some way in describing the difference between the sacred and the profane in art. To surmise, sacred art is created in homage to an external object that human comprehension is incapable of grasping in its entirety. It is a seat traditionally occupied in human history by an all-powerful God. Man tries to make sense of the invisible all-pervasive by choosing a medium equally inexplicable in its workings: art, and musical art in particular, helps him to capture some element of that immaterial truth which he cannot prove but which he feels with all his being.

Profane art, on the other hand, is something that has no reason to exist outside of itself. Though it may broaden the technical-aesthetic possibilities available to the form under consideration, this mode of expression ultimately lies within the purview of the mundane. Where sacred art tries to give greater meaning to man’s existence in the face of his many limitations, profane art aims to please with form, but does not reveal substance.

If I’m following the thread correctly, according to Black Ivory Tower, spirituality belongs to the realm of sacred art. Non-committal secularism, however, is firmly planted in the profane camp. For better and for worse, the world today follows a Western Enlightenment-driven narrative with a focus on just that secularism, resulting in the increasing marginalization and substantial erosion of both oriental and occidental art forms which once existed for the sole purpose of exalting the highest ideal. That ideal is nothing but the idea of God, an idea much stigmatized today, but what is God if not the virtues man aspires to only multiplied unto infinity? At its purest, God is an abstract mental formulation rooted in the logical faculty; that we choose to build on it the way we do is more an indictment of our egoism than any native flaw in God as ontological argument itself.

But can only sacred, religious art claim to be spiritual? Moreover, do the terms sacred and profane have real existence, or are they designed by society to fit into its spectrum of tolerance at any given point in time? And finally, considering the thrust of the Black Ivory Tower article, can only those literally and figuratively “of the cloth” experience sacred art in its entirety as intended by the artist?

These are no unequivocal answers to these questions, but I will attempt them anyway. I choose to dissociate spirituality from labels of sacred and profane, both. From there, I proceed to siphon out all ideological-political ascriptions that the two labels may carry. I recognize the sacred and the profane as inversions of each other, as light and dark. Beauty is to be found in both; the dark dissembles more and therefore presents the greater reward at the time of revelation, but, as the Russian existentialists were wont to say, the main thing is, at all times, beauty. And what is beauty if not symmetry, in all that it entails, and the form that rises from it? Beauty then is a kind of truth, from which we can perhaps extrapolate that the sacred and the profane both in their rightful stations are merely diametrically opposed ways of interpreting reality.

Do the sacred and the profane have real existence or are they only social constructs? I believe the sacred to be real enough. The human mind naturally takes to clean lines, consonant harmonies, and a generally amicable relationship with the environment; this recognition is achieved at an early stage of psychological development; it is a kind of a priori knowledge and therefore requires no social impetus to register. One may consider themselves cautiously atheistic or agnostic, but who doesn’t feel a sense of inner equilibrium whilst inside an unhurried place of worship regardless of religion or creed? The intent with which the sacred is created has a way of interposing on raw consciousness; despite ideological convictions, one can’t help but acknowledge this phenomenon.

An appreciation of the profane, however, comes at a much later stage of psychological development, and is spurred on in no small manner by the social milieu and the dissatisfaction one may experience with sacred modes of expression in that setting. In other words, knowledge of the profane isn’t innate but is contingent on and constituted by numerous external factors which bleed into one another in all their fine distinction.

But when that knowledge is eventually consummated, the profane assumes the same emotional and intellectual heft as the sacred. Is this not how we feel about black metal, and all metal, at large? Universally regarded as the very personification of the profane, black metal illuminates only a different aspect of the same reality. Nevertheless, there is spirituality here, too. A spiritual experience reduced to its core may be a non-denominational, homogeneous feeling, but one does not start with this awareness while receiving profane art; because as alluded to earlier, honing of the profane instinct, unlike the sacred, is a social-observational function. One has to have known spirituality a priori through the sacred in order to appreciate its twin aspect in the profane when it makes itself felt. Seen through this lens, the spirituality of black metal distilled to its constituents becomes not so different from the spirituality of devotional music.

 

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