I’ve never considered myself to be particularly bold in my choice of music. The hardest band on my iPod right now is probably Rage Against the Machine. Questionable iTunes purchases aside, my exposure to black metal is limited to a few songs I was forced to listen to by a good friend from high school. My reaction was always the same: “I don’t get it.”
Black is the night, metal we fight/Power amps set to explode./Energy screams, magic and dreams/Satan records the first note./We chime the bell, chaos and hell/Metal for maniacs pure./Fast melting steel, fortune on wheels/Brain hemorrhage is the cure.
These lyrics, taken from Venom’s 1982 album, Black Metal, encapsulate what I (and, I would imagine, many others) understand of the genre. When I think of black metal, I think of people dressed in black leather, of frontmen whose voices are distorted and often unintelligible, and last, but probably not least, I think of Satan.
This impression describes well what the genre has come to stand for in recent years. The history of black metal, however, is complicated—inextricable as it is from the dense, somewhat confusing web of subtly divergent “metal” genres and subgenres.
Although it is difficult to specify any singular point as a beginning, there seems to be a consensus that the chronicle of metal begins with the music of bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple in the late sixties and seventies. The influences of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin shine through in the black metal bands of today—Ozzy’s penchant for the lurid and theatrical, Jimmy Page’s interest in the occult.
In the grand scheme of the genre—from proto-and heavy metal bands to power metal and thrash—black metal seems to stand at the frontier of metal music, a place where metal is taken to an extreme, pushed farther and farther past the limits of conventional mainstream culture. As Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix describes in his manifesto, “Transcendental Black Metal,” black metal is “governed by a dimly understood but acutely felt ideal, or a final cause. This final cause is named the Haptic Void. The Haptic Void is a hypothetical total of maximal level of intensity.” The intensity is both audible and visible: Musicians push against the confines of technical convention, as instruments are taken to their physical limits, voices included.
Birthed in the harsh landscapes of Norway, the music is aggressive and violent. Brandon Stosuy, an editor at Pitchfork, described it in The Believer as: “Black metal’s gone through various shifts, but generally speaking, the guitars buzz, the drums are quick, the vocals shrieking, ghostly, and anguished. The early work had a particularly eerie, lo-fi sound. As the scene developed, and younger musicians mastered their instruments, the structures grew more complex. Black metal is generally not as straight-up technical as death; it’s usually more classically symphonic.”
In addition to variance in style and technique, each subgenre operates within a distinct set of thematic concerns. The veneration of a pre-Christian past and anti-Christian tendencies have become almost synonymous with Scandinavian black metal, a subgenre that is becoming increasingly separate from diverging American styles. In his 2009 manifesto, delivered at the Hideous Gnosis symposium, a six hour event held at Brooklyn’s Public Assembly, Hunt-Hendrix defined a new set of principles and goals for American black metal, or “USBM” as it is often abbreviated: “USBM stands in the shadow of Hyperborean black metal”—aka, Scandinavian black metal. “The time has come for a decisive break with the European tradition and the establishment of a truly American black metal. And we should say ‘American’ rather than ‘US’: the US is a declining empire, American is an eternal ideal representing human dignity, hybridization and creative evolution,” he continued.
Despite metal fans’ anti-systemic stance, the genre and those who follow it remain ex- tremely rigid and elitist. Hunt-Hendrix’s push for hybridization is, for some purists, problem- atic. In spite of their emphatic rejection of the mainstream, certain black metal enthusiasts, particularly in the Nordic countries, have very little interest in seeing the genre change. The rift that Hunt-Hendrix calls for is one that, as is mentioned in the quote, rests in geography. Bands like Liturgy and Krallice, both New York- based—as well as Nachtmystium, Xasthur, Leviathan, and Krohm—have become leaders in the cultivation of an American black metal.
The difference between the Scandinavians and the Americans is marked.Both technique and theme are decidedly toned down by American bands. Gone are the blood-smeared performers and speared, rotting animal carcasses in live shows (see: Watain), as well as the off-stage violence that sur- round their European counterparts (several Norwe- gian musicians have been implicated in the murders of rival musicians).
In its departure from misanthropic and Pagan themes, USBM seems much more self-aware, with events like Hideous Gnosis seeking to create a space where theorizing and open discussion about the direction of the genre could take place. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to theorize about a genre that seems so intent on negating convention and, according to Ben Ratliff’s article in the New York Times, “talking about black metal in certain quarters seems deeply lame.”
Still, events like Hideous Gnosis expose the growth of an American audience for black metal, one that is increasingly mainstream. Several taste-making publications—including the New York Times, Slate, and Pitchfork, to name a few—have published features on the nascent New York scene. The fact that the sympo- sium was held in Brooklyn is testament to New York’s growing role in the rise of USBM.
If the arctic cold in isolated parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland foment a music that is rigidly aggressive and anti-social, it makes sense that a place like New York City, in all its crowded heterogeneity, would foster bands that seek to break the mold of the past and question convention. “It’s a dirty, crowded place,” Stosuy says. “In early black metal, you get people focused on a more rural, wooded atmosphere. In recent years, urban black metal’s become a much bigger deal.” Also, there’s history to consider: Hubs such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City acted as principal forces in the formation of a New York punk scene.
To me, black metal is about alienation—about seeking a place to experience rage in all its intensity. What makes the growing black metal scene in New York so interesting, however, is that with all its misanthropic tendencies, a traditionalist black metal scene would be hard-pressed to thrive or become fully engaged with the city. The aggressive nature of the music, on the other hand, seems like the perfect outlet for this densely-populated, angry metropolis.