Black is the night

The darkness is encroaching into the day as the clocks move back and winter comes. To celebrate this unfortunate fact, we end the month of October with bands of children in absurd costumes who set out to frighten nice suburban residents.

So what better time to talk about black metal?

Black metal is a proudly grotesque form of music. The black metal fan enjoys highly-distorted, poorly-produced music that is simple and repetitive and over which one band member screams demonically. None of this is in fact an insult; many black metal fans would embrace this description wholly.

The traditional black metal performer dresses something like this:

gaahl-sotra

Newer bands, and those who belong to strange sub-genres, often forgo the traditional attire, or at least tone it down. The chap pictured above, nicknamed Ghaal, is somewhat old school — now heading into his middle-age. (Does that explain his slight stoop in the picture?) There is sort of ‘early music movement’, as it were, within black metal. It consists of those even more ‘traditional’ than Ghaal. They like the themes to be unabashedly satanic and Norse-inspired, the recording quality to be primitive, the music to be at best skeletal — as it was in the early days of black metal.

It would be a mistake to think that these ridiculous chaps in their satanic garbs are all mere poseurs. Some were genuinely violent, even murderous. The dozens of church burnings in Norway were no small matter. Ghaal tortured a man and was later imprisoned. Varg Vikenes, one of the earliest and most influential performers, murdered the guitarist of a rival band, aided in several church burnings and kept explosives in his home. For all this, the lenient Norweigian system gave him only twenty-one years in prison. And still he was released six years early. He now spends much of his time making National Socialist YouTube videos for his nearly 150,000 subscribers.

This is all very sensational and grimly fascinating, but what about the music? Let’s listen to some, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ by Darkthrone, recorded in 1994 (and no, it’s not YouTube’s fault: the music is supposed to sound that tinny):

This seems to me to be self-evidently bad music. But its problems aren’t actually unique to the genre. Like most rock and metal, the emphasis is on (and this is not an exhaustive list):

  • extra-musical qualities (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. the low-fi production)
  • a very limited use of harmony
  • a repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating the volume and thus limiting the dynamic range

What’s worse is that black metal is even simpler and more primitive than most metal. In its original form, it was basically punk music but slower and more miserable. And like punk, the fashion mattered far more than the music.

Nevertheless, these dank underbellies of the metal world often do attract some good musicians. Many of them have ignored the proscription against complexity, disavow some of the nastiness, but like the dark, lonely feel — the emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ and the like.

Okay, here is where this embarrassed blogger fesses up: I was once a black metal fan — well, ‘fan’ might be a bit strong. I never, ever dressed like that pillock above, to start with! But there were a few bands I was obsessed with. One was a French band with a German name, Blut Aus Nord. It only really consists of one chap who goes by the name Vindsval. He never performs live and never has revealed his real name. So I assume he continues this project out of a love of music, not vanity and image. It’s been a few years, so I wondered, given my radical musical transformation towards classical music, what I make of it now. First, a listen:

It does have a certain perverse majesty. Still, listening again I find many problems with this music that I would have missed a few years ago. Melodies that seldom last longer than two bars — and when they do, it is far from seamless. Ideas that are never really developed. Repetition ad nauseam. The piece consists of a succession of ideas, the kind of thing most young aspiring composers do when they start out: they have so many ideas that they put them all down one after another, rather than extracting from each idea all that they can.

But Vindsval obviously does take care to craft these ideas. They don’t follow standard rock/metal chord progression; he experiments with metres, modality, modulations, chromaticism. This leads to some jerky transitions, but also some genuinely interesting music.

A bit over two years ago I released a black metal EP. It’s still available online, for free, and as I’ve long since forgotten both my username and password it will doubtless remain there. The music was not traditional black metal. It belonged to a tiny subgenre, namely ‘industrial black metal’. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…) and amazingly got two reviews. Rock and metal reviews are invariably silly, and extreme metal reviews are among the most amusing. My little EP was given this flattering description:

The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.

Here it is:

I have mixed feelings about that whole period. But anyway, soon after that EP I found classical music and it’s been nothing but sunlit uplands since then. To cleanse both palate and mind, here’s some genuinely good, though nonetheless frightening music, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8:

 

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