November 11, 2009
I read with interest R. J. Stove’s recent blog about new a book by Gerd Bayer, Heavy Metal Music in Britain, and I would like to add my own remarks to Mr. Devin Reid Saucier’s apposite reply.
As I pointed in my previous article on Black Metal, and as Devin iterated a few days ago, much has changed in the world of Metal since its inception in the 1970s. Not only did Heavy Metal beget a variety of more extreme music genres during the 1980s, including Black Metal, Death Metal, Thrash Metal, and Doom Metal; but those genres, in turn, begot even more extreme—and this time much more serious—variants during the 1990s, and became greatly refined during the 2000s. It’s a shame that Mr. Stove saw no need to update his knowledge on the topic of Metal music before commenting on it, because I am sure that if he had, he would have discovered that, irrespective of personal preferences, some of the best modern popular music being recorded and released today is coming from extreme Metal musicians.
I rate this music highly not only because it is technically accomplished, artistically honest, and multifarious in style, but also because both in form and content, it is as European as Beethoven, Berlioz, Holst, and Wagner. I would even go as far as to say that many musicians who would have become Beethovens, Berliozes, Holsts, and Wagners in the past, are today opting to follow their muses within contemporary musical forms, where they feel they can break new ground using novel sounds and technologies—just like what we nowadays call “Classical” composers did in their time. I am certainly not the only one to make this claim—this argument was rehearsed some years ago by none other than Charles Murray in Human Accomplishment.
Because it is sonically extreme, the uninitiated tend to assume that Metal music is the province of youth, and that defection to more middle-aged forms of music will almost inevitably accompany a fan’s transition into adulthood. In Keith Dunstan’s words, “Something very strange happens to the eardrums at the age of about 30.” But as the owner of an extreme Metal record label, I have found this assumption to be incorrect. Never mind that I am 39 and neither apologetic nor about to tire of this type of music: some of our customers are well into their middle age—three years ago I met one of them, an avid and very knowledgeable female collector, who at the time was 53; another, who began ordering from us at 67, is now 73. While it is true that defections occur, this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Metal music, and neither is it one that is necessarily linked to age: people change, choose new identities, or find themselves. Those who choose new identities often do so out of weakness, buckling under the social pressure to conform, and become virulently contemptuous of Metal music while harboring a guilty, secret, suppressed passion for it. Those who find themselves are typically individuals who, as conformist teenagers, followed their peers into a music scene, simply to belong, while never genuinely being interested in the artform per se.
This lack of age correlation results perhaps from the fact that the themes of contemporary extreme Metal have little to do with those that are commonly associated with traditional Heavy Metal. While the latter is largely defined by a youthful preoccupation with rebelling against parents, the former is largely defined by a young generation’s yearning for the values of their grandparents—or, perhaps more accurately, the values of their great-great-great-grandparents. On a symbolic level, Heavy Metal fans think that their parents are too conservative; Black Metal fans think that their parents are nowhere near conservative enough. The parents of Heavy Metal fans feel betrayed by their sons, whom they regard as embarrassing hooligans; fans of Black Metal feel betrayed by their parents, whom they regard as embarrassing liberals. Heavy Metal fans want to drink beer, have sex, and smash hotel rooms.
Black Metal fans want to smash the system—but not out of a brainless, juvenile impulse. They believe the system is rotten; they have an elitist contempt for mass society; and they desire a new order, one founded on radically traditional, heroic, spiritual, or mystical values. This is not uniformly evident across the whole spectrum of Black Metal, of course, for in some cases artists adopt Satanic or occult imagery and lyrical themes, while in others, they cultivate an image of complete nihilism and suicidal depression. Even these strands of Black Metal, however, can (and, in my opinion, should) be interpreted from a neo-Romantic perspective, from which they emerge as metaphors for, again, a rejection of mass society. This is because, in common with critics of modernity, liberalism, and industrialism, mass society is perceived by Black Metallers as superficial, banal, self-deluded, soulless, mechanistic, hedonistic, and materialistic. Hence, the cultivation of intense—and especially dark—emotion, and the search for transcendent, authentic, ancient spiritual meaning, serves as a negation of that mass society. (We must not forget that the Romantics cultivated similar sentiments, with a similarly Gothic sensibility.) Without a doubt, such negation is more explicitly and intelligibly found in some of the genres closely linked to Black Metal, such as Folk Metal and Viking Metal.
Maybe Mr. Stove is correct in that Heavy Metal seeks to shut down frontal lobe cognition, but he would be wrong to assume the same about Black Metal and its derivations, for Black Metal seeks to shut down a system that has resulted from the absence of frontal lobe cognition.
As to the socio-economic status of Metal fans, this needs to be discussed as well, for IQ pre-determines socio-economic status (not, as Leftists argue, the other way around), and Mr. Stove seems to believe that all Metal (and by extension its fan base) is “as dumb as three boxes of rocks.” The socio-economic status of the average Metal fan has varied over time. As Deena Weinstein has pointed out, Heavy Metal was originally a male, White, working class phenomenon. Later on, however, it acquired a middle class, and more gender-balanced audience. Subsequent offshoots of Heavy Metal, and particularly the extreme Metal forms of the 1990s and beyond, have been the domain of a mainly White, middle class constituency, living quiet lives and holding respectable jobs in provincial towns.
In my travels I have encountered not only magazine editors and leaders of university political organizations, but also authors, rare booksellers, computer scientists, accountants, graphic designers, academics, and civil servants, often working for large organizations. Of course, there are also decorators, police officers, bakers, deliverymen, and farmers—the latter (at least the ones I have met) all very pleasant and thoughtful people with comfortable lives. Fans on the upper echelons of the social pyramid, however, are also either present in our mailing list or among my personal friends (or both). Of the two that come immediately to mind, one is a scholar of material culture and the other a surgeon.
I’m certainly not saying that Black Metal is the musical equivalent of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. It is not. It is, when all is said and done, still modern popular music. But this is not to say that it is not worthy of intellectual investigation. This type of music appeals to individuals from all walks of life, who, nevertheless, share a common turn of mind: one that is inegalitarian, neo-pagan, non-manichean, neo-Romantic, and anti-modern; one that is, in other words, Nietzschean and Darwinian, or, perhaps more accurately and succinctly, vÃ¶lkisch. I submit that in times when the liberal project has proven itself a catastrophic failure; when it is increasingly obvious to many that its premises are false, its scholarship a fraud, its politics a sham, and its utopia impossible; when it is revealed that the only possible future it leads to is political oppression and a managed descent into universal poverty, manifestations within popular culture of an anti-liberal, counter-cultural current are of particular interest. They may, after all, point to what could one day replace our present liberal establishment, once it comes crashing down around our ears.
For these reasons, I believe that Mr. Stove is right to call for further research on the overlap between Metal fans and readers of Taki’s Magazine.