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

  1. Gored says:

    Excellent piece! I’ve not heard this album, I’m about to check it out right now.
    I think you have hit the nail on the head though, with the idea of beauty as the root of the sacred. But it may be possible to reduce it even further, and say that “awe” could be the root of beauty, no? I believe that awe or wonderment is an appropriate surrogate for spirituality, for those of us who are not inclined toward the fantastic.

    • Agree completely. There’s only one sense of awe when you drill down to basics, it just finds expression through diverse forms. It’s how I think of life too. At the very beginning, before consciousness or morphology even take shape, there’s only one animating, life-giving force common to all organisms. I don’t know what it is, where it comes from, but when you reduce to relative singularity, it has to be the same for everybody.

  2. maximusmeyer says:

    Great work, and thanks for the kudos.

    You’re right in that the delineation between sacred and profane art is a kind of ‘social construct’ in that it can only exist when there’s a strong sacred presence amid society. Religious art is clearly recognized as such in both content and form while profane art, though it can have beautiful, masterful forms, is recognized as such through its freer and folksier modes of expression (think of the difference between the choir of Benedictines and the bard at court). When the sacred fades away from society, however, which historically speaking occurred parallel to the division of ‘fine’ arts from what we now know as ‘trades,’ that ‘social construct’ becomes blurred, namely because the profane arts start to fulfill the function of the sacred (in an ersatz way of course).

    Despite the pervasive rationalization of our society, the sacred doesn’t just go away; humans have fundamental needs, the most urgent being to attain meaning and reconcile himself with the cosmos. The forms that help us achieve this may fall apart, but the need remains. That’s why the sacred shows itself in different ways, emerging sometimes in the least likely places. This is where the strength and beauty of black metal comes from, because, like the great classical traditions, there are signs of a deep marriage between form and content; the longing for eternal rest manifests in clear and potent expressions of musical wisdom.

    That these are most often unconscious expressions only illustrates my point. The solid forms of the sacred have been shattered, but they were also scattered, and rise up anew in all sorts of other fertile, inchoate soils. The black metal art, a thoroughly profane art, is nevertheless profoundly diffused with the sacred.

    I referenced Schuon in my Arvo Part review, and I think his words here are fitting in that it’s easy to see how they may apply to black metal:

    ‘[F]or contemporary artists and insofar as profane art is concerned, there can be no question of “just going back,” for one never gets back to one’s starting point; rather should the valid experiments of naturalism and impressionism be combined with the principles of normal and normalizing art, as is in fact done by some artists who are in general little known. Modern art – starting from the Renaissance – does include some more or less isolated works which, though they fit into the style of their period, are in a deeper sense opposed to it and neutralize its errors by their own qualities….

    ‘Insofar as profane art can be legitimate – and it can be, more than ever before, in this period of disfigurement and vulgarity – its mission is one of transmitting qualities of intelligence, beauty, and nobility; and this is something which cannot be realized apart from the rules which are imposed on us, not only by the very nature of the art in question, but also by the spiritual truth flowing from the divine prototype of every human creation.’

    Excerpted from ‘Principles and Criteria of Art’

  3. Pingback: Spirituality in black metal —a follow up – Praefuscus Ferrum

  4. D. A. R. G. says:

    Black metal as representation of Evil, and thence as “profanity” is the exclusive response of the bankrupt Judeo-Christian vision. In my view, Black metal is a way to access the sacred as is. I’ve written about this and as a follow-up to this article here: https://praefuscusferrum.com/2017/06/17/spirituality-in-black-metal-a-follow-up/

  5. photo-rick says:

    I did an academic thesis paper on the contemporaneity of black metal. The professor was quite surprised to learn how much aesthetic and intellectual traction this oft-derided genre has and continues to gain in the past 25 years.

    I’m having a bit of a hard time following in the premise here. The assertion is that the profane seeks to please through form. Wouldn’t this be what is recognized early in psychological development? I would imagine that the appreciation of the sacred, as one is taught to understand the implications of the sacred, would be the one that is appreciated later in life (note – I use the word taught with the understanding that one teaches from their own imperfect understanding).

  6. P.B. says:

    I’m generally with you on this, but I feel like any notion that “beautiful at a musical level” and “spiritual” can be separated is a false dichotomy.

    Unless we’re going to go into total idiotic post-modern relativism, we have to accept some form of morality, at least in the sense of “some potential ways the world can be are more desirable than others, and we should work to make those come about”. The question is, what are these states of the world that are desirable? Is it the avoidance of pain and suffering? It can’t possibly be that — mothers look forward to giving birth despite knowing the pain that’s going to come with it, athletes embrace pain the weight room, and, more relevant to our interests, who among us doesn’t have concert memory that we smile about that left us with a busted open head or a limp for a few days or an eye that bothered us for a week or two? The pursuit of happiness in itself is a better rule, but still insufficient. Tragedies fill the canons of literature and art moreso than comedies; we’re hard-wired to seek out these feelings of sorrow and distress, which makes no sense if maximal happiness is desirable.

    The only answer that makes sense is that what is moral is whatever is most beautiful. From this, we can gather that our “purpose”, if you will, is to create beauty. And, from that, we’re forced to conclude that the beautiful and the sacred are one and the same.

    Profanatica may rage against any notion of gOD with all their might — they even have “Profan(e)” right in their name — but despite all of their vomiting on gOD’s child and defiling the virgin mARY’s cunt, we immediately recognize the spirit it fills us with. How can that not be a reflection of the divine? And, conversely, can we say that an album like Atheist’s “Jupiter” that is strictly composed and performed with proper academic musicality of the highest order is as immediately pleasing to the ear as Absurd’s “Facta Loquuntur”, Emperor’s “Wrath of the Tyrant”, or Impaled Nazarene’s “Torl Compt Norz Norz Norz”, albums being bashed out by kids with minimal training seeking to create the spirit they were filled with through sounds? For all of its poor playing I know that you nodded along with “Pesttanz” the first time you heard it, whereas the lead single from “Jupiter” just sounded like a jumble of shit to you on first listening (and probably stayed that way forever, if it even got a second listen).

    Communication in art follows from aesthetics, and our aesthetic preference is informed by communication. Trying to separate these is a pointless task. The most beautiful art points to the divine simply by being beautiful. Art that points to the divine is beautiful by its very nature. There’s no avoiding this.

    • I think we’re in general agreement. But do you think it is possible to know unconventional beauty, such as we experience through this music, without having known beauty and general appreciation of aesthetics in the conventional form? I think what struck me while writing this post is that there is an order of precedence between the two. Furthermore, if you accept that order of precedence, then an appreciation of the unconventional has to necessarily contain something other than just the substance at hand i.e. music in this case. It may be a reaction against social conditioning or something else which marks out the unconventional in greater relief, attracts our powers of curiosity and investigation, etc. Eventually, yes, all beauty once revealed is homogeneous, but the road to appreciating the different facets under which it manifests itself aren’t the same.

      • P.B. says:

        After thinking about it a bit, I don’t know that I’d say that metal aesthetics are so unconventional, much less enough so to create some kind of precedence. Maybe at the extreme lunatic fringe of early Beherit, but shy of that… I’m not seeing it. Using chromatic or modal progressions to create scary yet fascinating music isn’t an idea that was new in 1970; we can all name Romantic and Baroque examples of similar ideas (Night on Bald Mountain, Mars Bringer of War, even Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor).

        Bands railing against conventional forms and intentionally creating something “ugly” is how we get nonsense like Nyogthaeblisz or Teitanblood. We can all immediately tell and reject the bands that are so busy trying to be “intense” or whatever that they don’t write songs. Can you come up with any interpretation where “I am the Black Wizards” or “The Gathering” or “Beyond all Horizons” are ugly? I can’t.

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