As part of my New Year's resolution to listen to music outside of my comfort zone, I've been exploring black metal. Black metal is a form of extreme metal that is based around blast beats, screeching vocals, and tremolo picking, which basically means quickly strumming the same note. It was born in the late 80s out of the thrash scene, and has become kind of a Big Deal in the last ten years. A lot of critics and musicians seem to take it seriously, and it seems to be the metal sub-genre that is generating the most excitement. My knowledge of black metal is mostly limited to the violence, racism, and church burnings associated with the early 90s Norwegian scene, and the fact that they all wear goofy corpsepaint. I find the screeching vocals incredibly annoying, and the aesthetics, theatricality, anti-Christian rhetoric, and overall creepy vibe kept me far away from black metal until recently.
After Deafheaven's "Sunbather" was voted one of the best albums of the year by Pitchfork, I decided to give it a listen. Deafheavan aren't a "true" black metal band: they don't dress up or wear make up and there is a distinctly hipster vibe to their music. Like Brooklyn's Liturgy, they are essentially hipster post-black metal, but stick largely to the black metal sonic template. They seemed like a good enough starting point for my entry into the genre.
So after listening to "Sunbather" and Liturgy's "Anasthetica," I have to say that I kind of get black metal. I don't think I'm going to listen to a lot of it, but I get why people dig it. First the good: sonically, it can be interesting. It lends itself to a more orchestral, epic vibe than normal metal. Normal metal is all about precision and riffs. Black metal is more about walls of sound and textures. Done well, it can be very powerful, and it sounds different from most music out there. It's heavy, but there is also room to explore different song structures and incorporate other elements. It's not as staid or rigid as a lot of metal or hardcore.
It is also very effective outsider music. It is so extreme and grating that there is no danger of your little sister's friends getting into it. Normal people will never like black metal. Emperor will never be on a Toyata commercial. It is totally extreme and totally exclusive.
Deafheaven in particular explores the contrast between the aggressive and ugly and the soft and pretty. In some ways it reminds me of Fucked Up's "Chemistry of Modern Life," in that it has these rich textures and thoughtful lyrics presented in a package of extreme music. The play between the pretty and ugly works well with Deafheaven. It's a powerful, epic album, and one I find myself enjoying despite my aversion to the screeching vocals.
The svocals still make no sense to me, and I find them annoying. I like some extreme music, and I can listen to Cookie Monster vocals with no problem, but there is something so grating about black metal vocals. It also doesn't make sense to me that a genre so fixated on their lyrical themes has lyrics that are impossible to understand. I never understood this about grind core or power violence either - if you are just growling and screaming into a microphone, don't pretend you are saying actual words. That's what's so interesting about "Sunbather." He's screaming like he's singing about satan and Norse gods or whatever, but the lyrics are actually collegeate poetry about love and longing. The lyrics to the title track are:
I held my breath and drove through a maze of wealthy homes
I watched how green the trees were
I watched the steep walkways and the white fences
I gripped the wheel
I sweated against the leather
I watched dogs twist through the wealthy garden
I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs
I gazed into reflective eyes
I cried against an ocean of light
It's 5AM and my heart flourishes at each passing moment
Always and forever
I totally relate where singer Gary Clarke is coming from. Like, literally relate because I too spent a good chunk of my twenties being broke in wealthy San Francisco, and I know that mix of longing and jealousy towards the wealthier classes. Those emotions come through on "Sunbather." It's an intense album, but I can't help but feel that it would be so much better if they had an actual, you know, singer singing. Even angry hardcore singing. Anything but dying-eagle screeching.
The other problem I have with black metal is that the music is exhausting. It's being hit in the face repeatedly, or having to take public transportation during rush hour in a bus full of teenagers and drug addicts. There is not a millimeter of space - it's all blast beats and strumming guitars. It's one of the few types of music that genuinely scares me. Partially because it sounds so damn evil, but also because of its history as the music of choice for sociopaths and racists. I know that the whole racist thing was supposedly years ago, but people still love Burzum, and that is a project of an outspoken racist and neo-fascist. People poo-pooing black metal's racist past remind me of people poo-pooing Oi!'s racist past. Maybe the bands are overtly racist, but part of its DNA is that racism.
And what better music for white racists than black metal? Unlike most metal or rock music, it has nothing to do with black American blues music. It has zero groove. It has no beat. It is the whitest music in the world. Despite being called black metal, I am pretty sure that it is the type of music that has the fewest black people actually engaged with it.
My biggest beef with black metal is how deliberately wallowing and self-margianalizing it is. It's music for outsiders by outsiders, and it is guaranteed to keep making you feel like an outsider. I'm not proposing that disenchanted youth should pump some Taylor Swift, but it doesn't seem healthy to me to bury yourself in music that is so intent on making you feel alienated and terrible. Maybe it is like the blues in that there is a catharsis in embracing your misery, but it doesn't sound healthy. And yes, I realize that is what the boomers thought about punk and their parents thought about rock and their parents thought about Frank Sinatra. In the end I'd rather listen to something that isn't as focused on feeling like shit. Like Coltrane. Or just about anything else, really.
Even after delving into black metal, I don't understand why it has become the new hip metal genre. NPR writes about it, and it is Pitchfork's new favorite thing, along with abstract electronic music compositions and whatever Arcade Fire and Kanye release. It makes no sense to me that mainstream and indie music sites are covering this fringe extreme metal while giving other forms of loud music (i.e. contemporary punk and hardcore) largely a pass. Why choose this particular form of loud music to intellectualize about? Is it because it is fringe and outré and dangerous? It's similar to how they get really excited about street rap mix tapes but tend not to cover underground or indie rap. Since it is way cooler for white hipsters to write about poor black kids dealing drugs and shooting people than to listen to rappers closer to their actual demographic and experience. God forbid. (Pot.Kettle.Black)