Shamanism, ego-killing, comedowns, and life after metal


In old times, witch doctors held very real prominence for their tribes, in stark contrast with the curious indulgence with which they are regarded today. They were the arbiters between the clan and the spirit world, using their esoteric knowledge of weather, wind, and nature to forecast harvest and prey, and to cure mysterious ailments. Shamans of the central Eurasian steppes, yogis from the Indian subcontinent, Maenads of the Dionysian cults of Greece, and Native American tribes, all would frequently force themselves into heightened, altered states of awareness to achieve otherwise inaccessible insights and perspectives on things concerning immediate life around them.

Intoxicants and hallucinogenics, rhythmic drums, and song-and-dance rituals, would be crucial aids in this process, helping the shaman to bypass his ego and to achieve a oneness with the universal consciousness. This universal consciousness is conceived across Indo-European and Siberian cultures as the world tree; the Ashvattha in Vedic scripture, inverted in orientation, signifying all creation flowing “downwards” from the immortal ‘Brahmana’, or the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology. The shaman in his altered state of mind could traverse the various zones thought to be connected by this world tree, interact with the spirits residing therein, and find the answers he sought. ashvattha

This mystical process, at least in its saliencies, strikes a familiar note with how many lovers of heavy metal relate to and interact with the music. Substances, and alcohol in particular, for better or worse, are integral to this form of music, much to the chagrin of the “Music and music alone makes me high!” crowd; alcohol, more so, because it elevates sensitivity to emotion, and heavy metal is nothing if not an emotional music. With due care taken to ensure that it is the subject riding the monkey and not the other way around, one observes over the course of sustained consumption and listening that time begins to lose its linearity, and the sublimation of the ego or the super-consciousness referred to above commences. Inferences and cross-realizations, previously buried under the debris of prosaic thought, make themselves known, as the music achieves living contours and communicates a holistic meaning and message that ties it in with the universe that it inhabits.

The uncaring, lo-fidelity aesthetic of extreme metal, and black metal in particular, may be considered by the lay listener and perhaps by many a band itself, as some kind of childish attempt at being malevolent. But taking an abstract line of thinking to its logical extreme and associating it with the shamanism of previous passages, this same minimalism also celebrates a killing of the ego, is in fact the blood streaming down the altar from the corpse of the ego. Transilvanian Hunger may be described as necr0 in jest by many a hipster, but what its sparse, fluttering-of-a-paper-heart sound truly signifies is a renunciation and a destruction of the self-conscious, saddled as it is with the tedious gambits of pride and vanity. It demands effort of the listener to see past, rather to tear apart the illusory veils of conditioning, and to become one with the thrum of its ritual frequencies. The path the listener takes if he’s fortunate enough to make it this far is up to his individual constitution, but this, I believe, should be the true and solitary aim of all metal, and shares common ground with olden shamanism. We’re all trying to get at some semblance of sense in a numbingly mundane world; our clothes and ways may have changed, but the core motives are still much the same.

Where metal differs from many other substance-fueled music cultures is in its unusually rich tapestry, on a textural, thematic and ambitious level, and this is evident in the music retaining its depth once sobriety reasserts itself. Other minimalist genres act primarily as a conduit under the influence to reach higher truths, often deviating entirely from the path of origin. This is a legitimate enough method of itself, but it speaks little for the intrinsic worth of the music if it is unable to hold up under the cold glare of objective scrutiny. Metal creates a universe of its own, operating by its own special rules, within its own special paradigm, but still mirroring a greater reality. Metal may be fantastical, but it isn’t absurdist.

After an intense spell of listening, however, follows the inevitable comedown. Shamans, on returning from their trances, would spend the next few days in a sort of dazed torpor, tapped out on the massive surge of adrenaline that may have fueled their revelations. It is not uncommon to experience this same sensation following an especially involved hearing period, when mind and body both collude with the music in symphony. This is felt even more acutely during the build-up to an eagerly anticipated concert when ordinary, id-related concerns of pain and personal safety take a backseat to the electricity coursing through the veins. The amplified, closely clustered sound of extreme metal in live settings, under just the right circumstances, subsumes mostly all other sensory input and induces the same shamanistic state of being in the witness.

But once this tide of ecstasy subsides, it isn’t uncommon to wonder whether one will feel the same way about the music anytime soon. Of course, with time, it becomes obvious that a return to the natural state of affairs is inevitable, much like the regeneration in all life at large. But for that brief, sere period, it is worth thinking about a life after metal, if such a day ever dawns. What would be the honourable and logical way out? One has to be true to oneself, to be sure, but unless there has been a drastic change in the psychological make-up of the listener concerned, it would seem but natural that he would still try to seek out music that closely approximates the ideals he appreciated in metal. To do so, we need to arrive at a consistent encapsulation of what those ideals would be but it would be safe to say that the ideal encapsulated by metal, in any case, is a perpetual reaching for the highest in human experience. If we have that, we have a starting point, and that, in many ways, is as crucial as the journey and the destination themselves.

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