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.