Black metal arose out of the maladjustment and disenchantment of a young generation with the over-the-top commercialism of the world around them. This angst found release in the techniques that black metal innovated, and the stubbornly lo-fi and inaccessible forms in which the music presented itself. The first sought to sufficiently differentiate black metal from death metal on the musical level, to evolve a more narrative style of metal that previous incarnations were incapable of. The second, however, along with accompaniments like corpse paint and pseudonyms, in many ways captured the true black metal ethic: the killing of the ego, the subordination of the personal to the external, a steadfast and impenetrable elitism, designed to be inaccessible to all but the most dedicated.
In time, both these pillars of black metal came to be thought of as pastiche, or a passiondead sine qua non. Bands, perhaps up to the early 00s even, continued reproducing both facets with diligent study, however, the impetus present to the original bands was lost. Not only did the techniques which black metal created to assert its identity lose their orientation and slide back towards the percussively choppy realm of death metal, but, in even greater contravention of its natively iconoclastic spirit, black metal came to be a by-the-numbers endeavour to be made with pristine clarity inside a state-of-the-art studio.
The public latched on to this incremental accessibility and showered their heroes with great adulation. The instant that black metal musicians themselves grasped this development sounded the ultimate death knell for the genre. When relatively slight concessions could bring in such favour, imagine the rewards that might lie further down the road of mass appeasement! Of all metal sub-genres, black metal musicians of the modern era are perhaps the most adept at tailoring their music to the demands of a varied clientele. In this pursuit, they try to democratically meet their fans’ expectations by reducing their music to a chemical experiment in the laboratory, an assiduous toying around with the beads of an ABACUS scale, to arrive at just the right compound.
Is all of this a purposely cynical fraud perpetrated by black metal bands in secret congress? That would be stretching credulity, but collective consciousness in a subculture waxes and wanes in direct relation to its environment. But isn’t the environment today, if anything, even more crass and whored-out than it was during the birthing of the genre? Where all discourse has come to be subsumed under a uniformly egalitarian, transnationalist, “intersectionalist” rubric? What stops modern black metal bands from regaining some quantum of the vitality that spurred the originals? What is it that I mean by “the impetus is lost”?
The challenges of the world don’t stay constant. What existed thirty years ago was an isolated, localized world; what exists today is far more inflated in scope, but also, paradoxically and perhaps as a direct outcome, far more intrusive on the personal and communal plane. People like Rob Darken and Varg Vikernes have realized this, in thought and in their music, with varying effectiveness, but in both cases by avoiding the stagnancy that surrounds them, by eschewing almost entirely the ambit of traditional black metal.
To the rest of the field, playing black metal has become a job, with all the stultification of the mind that a job entails. Playing black metal today is like getting up in the morning, taking a shit, brushing your teeth, putting on business casuals, and heading out for the 9-5. But what stirs the spirit in any of this? What inflames the passions? What is the one monumental, waking thought that occupies the mind? Does black metal, the way it is today, believe itself to be a catalyst for any kind of sublative, transcendent movement?
These more than anything else are the questions that black metal musicians ought to be asking of themselves. And if the answers lie outside the purview of the style, then so be it.