Black metal’s sere, even blight-stricken, landscape in the year 2015 becomes more evident after a weekend spent trawling the obscure corners of Youtube in an attempt at discovering something worth salvaging and promoting. Nobody wants to be a forever pessimist and dismiss out of hand bands that obviously expend considerable effort in terms of time and money, not to mention emotional investment, putting together albums that they, at any rate, feel adequately representative of the genre.
As metal fans, we are all familiar with the child-like sense of wonder we experience on chancing upon a promising band that clicks with an ineffable something inside while simultaneously upholding the founding notions of the music. This is a feeling that persists despite age and the unrelenting cynicism that gradually comes crawling and colors our best intentions. Hearing that increasingly rare band circumvent this negativity with undeniable sincerity is a life-affirming experience, not only because it sustains our faith in the future of metal as a viable art form but also because it demonstrates that the flame of optimism, so crucial in avoiding a descent into fatalism, still survives, if only as a barely discernible flicker.
Denouncing bands that have no claim to legitimacy in the first place seems like an exercise in futility to me, unless it can be used to direct attention towards a greater malaise within the genre and society at large. Or if it happens to be the result of a drink-fueled tirade bound to be regretted the day after. However, sometimes, the best of preliminary motives cannot suppress an overwhelming despair in the avid listener as he is confronted with the mediocrity rife in the underground scene. As much as he may try to soldier on in increasingly feeble hopes of stumbling upon proverbial El Dorado, it is only a matter of time before disappointing realization dawns to suggest that black metal – and death metal, while we’re at it – as a genre is quite fucked. What is left today is the mouldering remains of a corpse on stage being manoeuvred into temporary animation by strings pulled from behind curtains. This sleight of hand may not be evident to those in the galleries but for ones with keen eyes in the front row, the lack of any real life is painfully obvious.
Black metal, today, seems to have split itself into three camps vying for credibility. These can be broadly listed as:
(1) Raw and extremely confrontational war metal influenced by bands like Sarcofago, Beherit, Archgoat, and Blasphemy with a healthy helping from Ledney-McEntee projects.
(2) Naturalist, folkist or nationalist black metal derived from bands like Burzum, Graveland, Summoning, and Drudkh.
(3) Occult, orthodox black metal that owes allegiance to the aesthetic and musical palette brought into popular parlance by Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord.
This is much of what passes for black metal today, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge of newer bands. Bands like the new side-project Kaeck from members of Sammath, hearkening back to the era of the old Norwegian bands, with elaborate and expansive melodic development but with darkness and violence in tact, are rare and occupy the fringes of fan consciousness. War metal bands are self-cannibalizing in their uncompromising extremity and have beaten
themselves into a cul de sac with no exit strategy. There they stand with fiery pose, lashing out against a mainstream that has long since absorbed them into its fold.
War metal sells today, at least in relative terms, and is a sure-fire way of attracting outsider kids by way of image and brutality. There is something to be said for the latter, no doubt, but does that same obsession for one-dimensional violence hold a greater meaning beyond the gratuitous moment? One might slip on a war metal record repeatedly over time, enjoy it even, but will it engender anything more than a surface-level dialogue with the listener?
There are two questions, then, that war metal bands and fans need to ask themselves: (1) What is it all about? and (2) Is this what they want from their black metal?
The nature and nationalism themed bands, on the other hand, swerve hard in the opposite direction. A sense of melody is not lacking in them; to the contrary, in their concerted efforts at anthropomorphizing nature and history, they end up overcompensating and depleting the music of a certain dark energy and vital momentum. Major-scale folk melodies more at home during the bonhomie of harvest rituals than on a black metal album introduce a populist aspect to a music
that should be anything but. An effete element sometimes becomes endemic in the songwriting as bands scramble to include influences from punk and indie rock to supply these epic subjects with the grandeur that they deserve.
Nature-worship was a part of the old bands also but it wasn’t gauche and it didn’t pander. The sense of mystery those bands evoked through their brand of esotericism, often clumsy on first acquaintance, was a subliminal extension of the musicians’ personalities and how they understood their place in the greater universe. Every moment of their music was pregnant with potential and the promise of some momentous revelation. What they revealed was open to interpretation but the feeling of being ushered along on the top of some swell was all too palpable, and something that is sorely missed in modern bands.
The third type of black metal in practice today desperately wants the listener to believe that they hold the key to some reservoir of hidden knowledge. Theatrical to an extreme, these bands will employ all manner of arcana to fool an eager audience into thinking that they’re hearing something more than they actually are. The music itself is almost uniformly listless navel-gazing devoid of character and story-telling prowess, and so uses dissonance and droning segments to confuse the unsuspecting listener. Bands, young and old, are jumping into this fray like the rats of Hamelin, sensing an opportunity to cash in on the cliche mystique regularly ascribed to the genre. This style of band is by far the most aggravating of the three seeing as how it depends on things external to the music to enhance its credentials.
Virtually every band I came across during my weekend romp falls into some variant of these three categories. Gut instinct as a listener should never be underestimated; you like what you like, analytical nitpicking can wait till later. However, instinct is not entirely accidental and can be honed over years of listening to pick out certain desirable traits. Modern black metal fails to excite even that first blush so to what end further analysis? That more than anything else is the most damning indictment that can be visited upon new bands.