The obscurity sweepstakes

All metalheads want their favorite bands to be suitably obscure, hidden away from the mainstream. Deathspell Omega remain steadfastly aloof, giving a grand total of two interviews in fifteen years, both couched in arcane references; their music, as it is, is chaotic and breaks entirely with all allusions to black metal, and their lyrics are some twisted variant of Sunday school. Mgla have followed much the same path, faces masked, identities undisclosed, to purportedly do away with peripheral matters and focus all attention on the music. Countless others sell their music in limited numbers or on obsolete media with the intention of shunning the assembly line ethos of record labels, though what this means for a genre already on the fringes is anybody’s guess. Analog demo-level productions are back in vogue, aparently to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of audience quality. The motive behind all these actions is to restore underground metal to its rightful position out of the spotlight; the unsaid assumption is that these actions, sincere though they may be in conception, will also give free rein to the creative energies of metal musicians.

Yet, each of these phenomena attracts its fair share of ears and eyeballs, and not always because of the quality of music on offer. Your average lay person may not be able to tell Immolation from Intolitarian and thus be appropriately turned off by the war metal juggalo’s dedicated use of genocidal motifs, but to anyone remotely schooled in the underground, it is self-evident that deliberate attempts at manufacturing obscurity come with a dog-whistle riding its underbelly, anticipating a crowd whose tastes are aligned or worse, determined, with assertions of purity. Once the listener participates in this arrangement, he tacitly declares his allegiance to the intellectual over the musical, in whatever hue it is presented; what starts as a noble endeavor thereafter devolves into yet another race, driven by equally banal preoccupations, to outdo all others in the obscurity sweepstakes.

For the bands, it is a classic catch-22 alright, and makes me feel not a little hypocritical when I call them out as soon as they sell out but then in the same breath turn around and damn them when they show the temerity to renounce conventional avenues to fame. But it is what is, an indictment of the time we live in: people are desensitized and people are alienated. The one leads to a demand for the ever more novel while the other goads them on to become obedient little rebels in a cause which they think makes them stand out from everybody else. Metal bands, perhaps unbeknownst to them, then have chanced upon the ideal marketplace to disseminate their music through the currency of an artificial integrity.

What are they to do then? How do metal bands remain obscure without explicitly rallying to arms under the pennant of obscurity? What does obscurity even mean in the context of heavy metal and the present time when technology provides so many temptations to prostrate oneself before the wider world? Is obscurity even desirable? Surely, to avail of that same technology to sell one’s art is no crime; art does not exist in a vacuum; it is made to elicit a reaction and in what is a mutually reinforcing loop, the artist thrives on this reaction, be it positive or otherwise. Why would any self-respecting artist then willingly short-circuit the extent to which his work can be promulgated?

In my opinion, this shouldn’t even be a matter for debate, much less something a band feels the need to bang on about. I’m only projecting, but to me metal is an introverted music, and therefore the desire to keep it obscure should be a natural-subliminal extension of the musician’s personality. This introversion I speak of is not necessarily that of the cliche skinny nerd locked up inside his bedroom; most of us are reasonably functioning members of society, if not out of choice then because of a grudging acknowledgement of its rules, but that does not preclude us from retreating from its corrosive glare at every given opportunity (and no, hipsters bandying their introversion through memes on social media do not count). As the root of the word suggests, the introvert inverts attention back upon himself and constantly struggles to modulate his behavior to keep himself honest.

Bands of course are a composite of different personalities but I find it hard to imagine that  some of my favorite bands – Deceased, The Chasm, Mortem – don’t contain at least a kernel of this disposition, however personable they might appear to be otherwise. Their obscurity is not premeditated on grandiose disavowals but manifests itself almost despite themselves. They exert the utmost effort into the most important thing of all, the act of creating music. They promote the fruits of that labor but only as something that any creator would want to genially share with like-minded souls. They do the tour cycles if they’re so lucky, they interact with the people who admire their work, and they then retire into the background until it is time to repeat the process. One might say this is the normal, old-fashioned way of doing things, but I can’t help but infer from this a sort of half-smiling, shake-of-the-head acknowledgement of the way the world works. After all, Deathspell Omega and Mgla, despite appearing content to remain in the shadows, are far more popular than The Chasm, Deceased, and Mortem, and only a rube would credit this solely to the respective quality of music.

But there is more than just resignation. There is pride there, too; pride in a job well done, confidence in letting the music speak for itself, and above all else, faith in that unsaid credo of heavy metal – you don’t find the music, it is the music that finds you.



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4 Responses to The obscurity sweepstakes

  1. Jake says:

    Beautiful stuff.

  2. P.B. says:

    I have to stick up for the lo-fi demo bands a bit, I feel; in a lot of cases, that strikes me as more of an aesthetic choice than a value statement. Not necessarily in the case of the dumb war metal bands where you can’t even hear what notes are being played, but in the case of something like “The Spearwound Salvation” by Ultra Silvam or “Demo I” by Hexagon or “Subterranean Death Rising” by Necromaniac, the raw sound more akin to what you’d hear if the songs were being performed live gives them greater spontaneity and energy than a squeaky-clean modern recording would, which is suitable for an album intended to be ripping and ferocious in such a way.

    I have no need to ever hear a cleanly produced version of this, but I love it the way it currently is:

  3. S says:

    The links are dead, assuming they’re the bands you mentioned. Great writing, I agree that the art should speak for itself. While not necessarily metal, the band Tragedy is much like this. Thanks

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