October 19, 2009
I was once asked to imagine what the world would look like today had North American settlers snubbed the African slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. We can let our imaginations run wild with speculation, but one thing is certain: had the slave markets in Africa been starved of custom, our Pop music charts would look nothing like they do today.
Most of mainstream Pop nowadays is African-American in either origin or derivation, even if the musicians playing it are not. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find even a nanosecond of music in the charts that is quintessentially European in its sensibility. The fact that music derived from African-American creativity has come to enjoy maximum visibility in contemporary mainstream culture, however, says more about the policies of corporate record labels and the mass media of news and entertainment than it does about the quality of music originating in the European soul on either side of the Atlantic. This music is alive and well, I am happy to report, thriving purer and truer than ever, aloof from”and completely ignored by”the brainless and banal MTV sausage factory.
What does this music sound like?
I should perhaps use the plural, for there are several genres worthy of examination: Neo-Folk, Martial Industrial, and various forms of extreme Metal, including Black Metal, Folk Metal, and Viking Metal. I can speak with most authority on the latter three genres, but my reflections apply to all of the above-mentioned musical forms.
Obviously, Black, Folk, and Viking Metal grew out of Heavy Metal, but ought not be considered of equivalent worth to the latter, for they are considerably more sophisticated in both lyrical content and approach to musical composition. Folk and Viking Metal lyrics tend to draw from pre-Christian mythology and ancient and mediaeval history, and are replete with references that are arcane to most victims of modern miseducation. Black Metal comes in many different flavors”from Satanic to suicidal to strongly nationalistic”but the lyrics generally reflect a decidedly pagan and neo-Romantic sensibility, emphasizing”always to a harrowing degree”dark emotion and obscure mysticism. Musically, they can be quite complex, drawing extensively from Classical and traditional Folk music, with varied and layered instrumentation, expressionistic riffing, elaborate orchestration, an epic sense of melody, and scintillating musicianship. And while many Black Metal bands favor an almost cacophonously raw and primitive sound (an approach that derives from early Punk influences), there are many others producing highly polished and accomplished albums.
These genres are also ideological in a way that their progenitor never was. Heavy Metal focused on themes related to youth and demonstrated an almost single-minded preoccupation with sex, crapulent excess, and low-brow posturing, with its frontmen displaying few commitments beyond contempt for authority. Black, Folk, and Viking Metal, on the other hand, are much more serious and emphatically vÃ¶lkisch cultural forms: encoded in the lyrics, the artwork, and the music we find a complete rejection of the tenets of modernism and liberalism. Artists playing this type of music despise the urban, cosmopolitan, and/or egalitarian values of our time, and the banal commercial culture that goes along with it, and instead yearn nostalgically for the organic communities, rural sensibilities, elitism, natural hierarchies, and heroic values they associate with the ancestral culture of the remote past. Theirs is a mystical conception of nature, blood, and soil, and Black Metal artists may be called “conservative revolutionary” in so much as they advocate putting an end to the liberal order, by revolutionary means if necessary, and instituting a new dispensation founded on conservative principles.(Of course, the term “conservative” must not be understood here as having anything to do with the Republicans)
This conservative Revolutionary worldview finds its American parallel with the so-called “Southern Agrarians,” a loosely aligned group of literary and cultural critics, led by Robert Penn Warren and others, who opposed modernity, urbanism, and industrialism and the general trajectory of their country during the 1920s and “30s. Though “politicized” in this way, Black, Folk, and Viking Metal musicians are, on the whole, uninterested in mass politics. What’s at stake for them are cultural and spiritual aspects of existence, as well the source of the West’s rapid decline. While the rockers and hippies from the 1960s posed as left-wing activists, Black, Folk, and Viking Metal albums depict primeval, bucolic, and often turbulent natural landscapes, mediaeval weaponry, pagan warriors, runes, and folkish decorative art. The world depicted is one in which the industrial revolution never took place.
Misconceptions about Metal music abound in the popular mind: it is, in fact, probably the only form of music about which mainstream types feel justified in having strong negative opinions without having heard a single note. “It’s all noise!” they exclaim, their brains throbbing with the mechanistic Techno pulse pumped in from their iPods. Metal relishes in its own marginality, but the reality is that much of it, and especially Folk and Viking Metal, is hugely engaging and entertaining: I often describe it to the curious as a fusion of folk and simplified Classical Music (particularly that from the Romantic period) with percussion and heavy electric guitars.
One can discern a certain aesthetic empathy between some extreme Metal albums and the works of Holst, Wagner, and Berlioz. And it’s no coincidence that many fans of extreme Metal also like opera and symphonic music and that many extreme Metal musicians claim to be inspired by their Classical forbearers. In some cases, such as with the Swedish band Therion, we can see a complete fusion between Metal and opera. (Therion had its origins in the Death Metal scene, but nowadays it’s very close musically to the genres under consideration here, as evinced by albums like The Secret of the Runes.)
Given the quality and sophistication of much of the musical output, it’s not difficult to understand why fans of Black, Folk, and Viking Metal are often contemptuous of mainstream Pop, regarding it as frivolous, predictable, and bland, if not downright odious. And I honestly do believe that what’s being produced within the various extreme Metal music scenes is the most artistically and technically challenging popular music of our day. Furthermore, Metal has what it takes to endure, just as the vast majority of mainstream Pop will soon thankfully be forgotten”or rather remembered only as something the multitudes bought up mostly out fear of not being considered sufficiently “cool” by their peers. The fact that mainstream Pop is much more visible and commercially active today certainly doesn”t mean that, given the choice, people would prefer it: it only means that it enjoys favor among media and entertainment industry plutocrats, who are able to advertise and promote such garbage. Pop’s ubiquity maintains its popularity: and as all humans have an innate desire for belonging, few would wish to risk marginalizing themselves through the cultivation of unfashionable tastes. Pop’s transience, as well as the vast amounts of capital required to advertise and promote it, can only be proof that its dominance in the culture is artificially maintained.
Black, Folk, and Viking Metal thrive even though they enjoy hardly any public visibility and are sustained on very limited investment. And when Metal music has enjoyed financial backing from a sizeable record label, artists have achieved impressive sales and long careers. Perhaps the best example of this is Nightwish, a symphonic Power/Gothic Metal quintet (with origins in the Black Metal scene and noticeable Classical influences), which is Finland’s most successful band, with four million albums sold, with one silver, 11 gold, and 12 platinum awards.
Black, Folk, and Viking Metal, and by extension Neo-Folk and Martial Industrial, are immensely beneficial for the European soul, and most welcome in our troubled times. For there is no denying, and I am certainly not alone in thinking this, that a form of music that is quintessentially European in character, with deep roots in European history, mythology, and tradition, is infinitely more likely to revitalize Western man than the spiritually destructive fare of modern mainstream Pop, almost all of which is soaked through with everything we spend our time criticizing on webzines like Takimag. Even if we forget for a moment the “cop killer” posturing Gangsta Rap, we still cannot see it as beneficial to the West that its cultural forms are”and have been for decades”systematically displaced, de-emphasized, and made compatible with global mass entertainment. The rest is piano recitals.
One wonders if our present media, academic, and political establishment is aware of the disruptive, “subversive,” and emphatically European aspects of a genre of music that’s still just outside its control. At any rate, let’s hope that Jacques Attali‘s theory is right and that Viking Metal might represent the noise of the future.