I’d like to turn your attention for a moment to heavy metal music.
Aside from a few friends and family, I’m unclear about who is out there reading this blog, but I’m now picturing monocles popping out of eyes and a needle scratching across Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations.* It’s supposed to be a book blog after all. But I should be able to focus on other arts from time to time, no?
I’ve been thinking about heavy metal a lot lately thanks to catching two recent works on the subject: Until the Light Takes Us (an independent documentary on the Norwegian Black Metal scene of the 1990s) and Metal Evolution (a television series on VH1—MuchMoreMusic in Canada).
Both of these documentaries have made me reexamine why I liked heavy metal as a youngster and why it still holds some appeal for me today. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the concept of dangerous music. When I was fourteen, my mother was horrified by the idea that I might want to go to an AC/DC concert. To her, they were as dangerous as drugs and other vices—an active threat to the the well being of her son. Today, AC/DC are essentially corporate—elder statesmen of the rock establishment who will eventually play the Super Bowl Halftime show, I have no doubt. It’s hard to even think of them as metal anymore, though that’s what they were.
As I kid, I kind of thought heavy metal was dangerous too. Of course, that was the appeal. Because it was dark and vaguely threatening we were drawn to it as curious adolescents looking for another window onto the world of adult experience. It was an easy outlet for our hormone driven aggression and seemed to express our expereince as outsiders.
Elvis was once dangerous though, right? Doesn’t most rock music go through this cycle of moving from outside to in, along with the aging of their target demographics?
Yes and no.
Let’s go back to Until the Light Takes Us (“Until” hereafter). Until reminds us that some music scenes really are built and maintained by the truly dangerous. In the 1990s in Norway, an underground metal scene developed under the influence of the highly theatrical music and appearance of bands like Venom and Bathory—probably mainly Venom but this point is somewhat contentious—and a smattering of other earlier heavy acts and even punk and goth. Venom had taken their own Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper influences to their logical limits and created a sludgy, horror-movie themed, and hair-metal tinged sideshow.
This second-echo influence led to a very low-fi, horror-drenched metal, literally named after a Venom song: Black Metal. The ironies flow from there: Norwegian black metal was low-fi for aesthetic reasons—as a reaction to the popularity of glam**—but also because Venom weren’t very good musicians and their early albums were badly produced. The Norwegian kids also took Venoms‘ horror-movie aesthetics to extremes; transforming the cartoonish makeup of Kiss into corpse-paint.
What resulted was a music scene built on all the most dubious impulses of a mediocre metal band from the 1980s, taken to new heights (or I guess depths). Norwegian black metal became much closer to real art and eventually real danger, where there was little in their primary influences. An echo, of an echo becomes something nearly real. Norwegian black metal was post-modernism at its most ridiculous and sublime.
This is also the point at which the black metal scene in Norway began to devolve into real madness—including suicide, arson and finally murder. The second wave of kids influenced by the early Norwegian black metal founders even took the horror trappings deadly seriously and declared themselves Satanists. The sometimes sympathetic outsider stance of angry young men turned into pathology.
Until is a highly evocative and lyrically shot and edited film. It sets up a convincing dialectic between two of the principal founders of Norwegian black metal: Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell and Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes—with Nagell representing ART and Vikernes representing POLITICS. The camera follows Nagell all over Oslo and through forests and even to Sweden. His restless wandering is set against static shots of Vikernes being interviewed in prison, where he is serving 21 years for the murder of another key member of the scene Euronymous.
Vikernes is an initially warm, engaging and articulate interviewee. He is roughly handsome and almost boyish. But, gradually, as you’re exposed to more and more of his “philosophies”, Vikernes emerges as a real monster. His anti-Christian, pro-pagan politics are actually born out of deep hatreds and antisemitism. The twinkle in his eye starts to look like madness. His detailed description of Euronymous’ murder—couched as self-defense—is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen in a documentary.
Whereas, the brooding and sullen Nagell emerges as the main protagonist of the film. His thoughts on the violence of the scene—and Vikernes role in particular—remain obscure, but his passion for his art is undeniable. He seems a little lost at times, like he can’t quite wrap his head around what became of the black metal scene. And he often has difficultly articulating his positions during the interviews. But a real intelligence and a deeply felt artistic temperament clearly drive him. Nagell apparently never participated in the violence and madness of Norwegian black metal, he seems to be a music lover through and through. I wish the filmmakers had included some live footage of Nagell playing black metal today. I like to think that would be his real element and might show him as less sullen under the right circumstances.
The directors of Until, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, make some really interesting creative choices throughout. For a documentary ostensibly about a heavy metal subculture, black metal music is fairly minimal on the soundtrack—highlighting key scenes but not overwhelming the chilly, slow-burning atmosphere of the film. In fact, the main musical keys at the beginning and end of the piece are cold, Nordic electro-pop. Norway becomes more than simply the background to the events documented—its cold, grey conservative nature a prime influence on young, disgruntled outsiders. Until the Light Takes Us is low, slow and dark—fittingly reflecting the music, lifestyle and tragedies it documents.
Metal Evolution on the other hand, is a much more approachable experience than Until—less art and more straightforward reportage. It demystifies a lot of the sub-genre boundaries of metal, rendering it less threatening to the average bystander, by following the logical trail of influences from band to band. And Metal Evolution glories in the music.
Sam Dunn is an affable and engaging anthropology grad who turned his love of heavy metal into a cottage industry after the success of his first co-directed film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. In Metal Evolution, Mr. Dunn explored the world of heavy metal as any anthropologist would: through personal exploration of the tribal subcultures of metal—first-hand field observation and recording, often as a participant in the rituals himself.
Metal Evolution once again features Mr. Dunn as protagonist and audience surrogate and shows us the birth and development of metal as a musical genre in careful detail. Each episode tends to focus on the development, peak and influence of separate sub-genres (e.g. pre-metal, new wave of British heavy metal, glam, thrash etc.).
The advantage of this approach is to better place metal in the overall history of music and to help draw attention to the artistic merits of the various approaches to the form.
Mr. Dunn’s only real weakness is his need to see metal culture and art as posivitely as possible. This approach is refreshing compared to most media coverage, but occasionaly one-sided and perhaps a little too fanboyish at times. Intellectually, I feel I have to make this point as an objective criticism, but really, most of the time, I’m right there with Mr. Dunn throwing up the horns.
I would love for my friends and family to watch this show, because I think it helps separate into discreet art what can sometimes seem like undifferentiated noise.
The point is, it seems to me at least, that heaviness in music is extremely subjective. Pelican, in particular, is downright pastoral compared to most metal, but I’ve had people in my car ask me what that noise is they’re being subjected to.
I think some heavy metal still appeals to me for the same reason some free-jazz does: they can be dense, challenging listening experiences that reward both close attention and trance-like reverie—and both can devolve without warning into cathartic chaos.
*To be fair, I used this pretentious example because I actually own a vinyl copy myself—bought only this year—which is doubly pretentious considering the archaic nature of the media.
***I have to admit to a certain affection for Amon Amarth’s long-standing, and single-minded dedication to the sub-genre of Viking Metal—no, really, it’s a thing, Google it.