Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's core idea, that black metal is fundamentally European in outlook and thus requires philosophical reshuffling in order to be relevant to American life and culture, is certainly defensible. This has been true of other musical movements in the past; contrast, say, the Sex Pistols' declaration of "No Future" with Black Flag's determination to "Rise Above." Compare the fatalistic doom of Black Sabbath when they were 100% English to the heroic mythmaking of their second lineup, with Italian-Americans Ronnie James Dio and Vinny Appice on vocals and drums, respectively. The wintry nihilism of black metal as performed by its Scandinavian creators—Mayhem, Enslaved et al.—is only minimally applicable to American sensibilities. Consequently, US black metal acts like Nachtmystium and Black Anvil add elements of punk, industrial and Goth in order to give the music a rock-star edge it would otherwise lack.
Hunt-Hendrix's use of the word "transcendental" is misleading, though. He seems to be primarily talking about transcending the limitations of black metal as a musical genre and set of philosophical concepts—actual links to Transcendentalism are minimal. The closest thing modern America has to the 19th Century Transcendentalists are the Amish, or maybe some super-committed hippies, militant environmentalists, et cetera. There are black metal musicians who have taken the genre's embrace of paganism and primeval nature in that direction, most notably the Pacific Northwest-based group Wolves in the Throne Room, whose members live on a collective farm in the woods. But Hunt-Hendrix is a city kid, and he wants no part of this kind of rejectionism. "I'm not interested in pre-industrial ideals," he says. "The more technology and science the better."
Of course, it's possible to argue that black metal itself is essentially anti-metal, that the qualities it emphasizes—obscurantism, lack of catharsis (blast beats aside, the guitar riffs seem to hover in place rather than galloping forward), crude sound quality—are precisely the opposite of metal as it's been known since the late 1970s, when bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest were first forging a unique sound out of the ashes of the heavy blues-rock scene. Black metal rejects the strutting godhood of arena-sized metal, and the use of makeup puts them into a weirdly androgynous performative space occupied mostly by, yes, Kiss and the other glam-rockers of the 1970s (from stars like David Bowie and Alice Cooper to also-rans like T.Rex and Jobriath). Is black metal itself androgynous, and is Hunt-Hendrix, with his shrieks that are sometimes more like the yelps of a startled Girl Scout, playing into that?
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I've got a longish feature on the Brooklyn-based black metal-ish band Liturgy in the Summer 2011 issue of Signal to Noise. I'm not gonna put the whole thing here; you should buy the magazine. But here are a few paragraphs, to give you some idea of its tone: