Next weekend a very strange event is taking place in Dublin. The world’s third Black Metal Theory Symposium will happen in the Pint Bar on Eden Quay, during the afternoon of Sunday 20th of November. There is going to be a series of talks with titles like On the Mystical Love of Black Metal, Folding a Cadaverous Scream: The Disharmonious Flesh of Recombinant Horror, and “The Hopeless Soul Keeps Mating”: Notes on Black Metal and Contemporary Fiction. Scanning through the abstracts you will find references to thinkers like Deleuze, Kant and Bataille, and to concepts like speculative realism, queer theology, and medieval mystical discourse. After this series of talks, which include breaks for “refreshments”, there will be performances from Eternal Helcaraxe and Wound Upon Wound. Seriously, I can’t think of a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon and evening.
A quick explanation might be necessary for those not well versed in the sub-genres of metal. Black metal arose out of 1980s thrash metal and combines ultra-fast, ultra-heavy, intense metal with subject matter mostly centered around anti-Christian ideology, nihilism, satanism, and general misanthropy. The term came from English band Venom’s second album (Black Metal 1982), but the whole genre really came into its own with the so-called “second wave” of black metal which arose in Norway in the 1990s, and included bands like Burzum and Mayhem. Unfortunately this scene tends to be remembered less for the music than for certain notorious incidents that occurred within it. An extremely aggressive anti-Christian stance was de rigeur and it wasn’t long before both fans and band members took to burning down churches right across Norway. This was accompanied by a violent internal feud that culminated with Varg Vikernes of Burzum being sentenced to 21 years in prison for the murder of Mayhem’s guitarist (he’s now out). The notoriety of this incident has cast a long shadow over the whole scene but it hasn’t stopped the Norwegian government from acknowledging black metal as as important part of their cultural heritage. It was recently announced that Norwegian diplomats would henceforth receive some basic schooling in the ways of black metal, so that they could effectively deal with the increasing numbers of queries they receive about their country’s most infamous musical export.
These days Black Metal is pretty big news in underground music circles in the US, with many new bands taking up the style and stretching it in new and unexpected directions. It may seem an unlikely subject for intellectual academic analysis but some of the participants themselves (particularly from the more recent wave of US bands) are not averse to such activity. For example, here’s a quote from Aaron Weaver of Wolves In The Throne Room which is taken from this interview:
I think that black metal fundamentally is an attempt to reawaken an ancient spirit. It’s an attempt to touch some sort of transcendent primal knowledge that I think human beings had access to up until 3 or 4 hundred years ago when the world changed so much with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I think that black metal is an artistic movement that is critiquing modernity on a fundamental level saying that the modern world view is missing something. It’s missing acknowledgement of a spiritual reality. That estrangement from spiritual knowledge is the source of very deep sadness and alienation. I think that is fundamentally what black metal is all about
Another case in point would be Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Brooklyn band Liturgy who went as far as to present a paper called Transcendental Black Metal at the first Black Metal Theory Symposium. This called for the acknowledgement of US Black Metal as a different entity to its European precursor, defining a distinct set of aesthetic concerns, and arguing that it is based on a positive notion of transcendence, as opposed to a negative nihilism. It would be wrong to suggest though that such discourse is not without its critics within the tight-knit BM community. A quick Google search will turn up legions of enraged fans spitting fire at these guys for what they see as pseudo-intellectual posing.
Anyway, a bunch of small serendipitous events have had me thinking about Black Metal recently and hence getting really interested in going to this thing that is happening next weekend. The first was when a lady called Amelia Ishmael left a comment on a blog last week (hi Amelia!). I found out that she was an academic from Chicago with a specialism in Black Metal Theory, and after exchanging some messages with her, she alerted me to the symposium in Dublin. The second was a photo on Facebook of a friend of mine, Kris (hi Kris!), proudly standing outside the Helvete record shop in Oslo (original home of BM), clutching a bunch of vinyl under his arm. The third one was going to see, and photograph, the aforementioned Wolves In The Throne Room in Whelans. WITTR would be a prime exponent of the progressive end of Black Metal and as such incorporate all sorts of influences like drone, folk and ambient music into their sound. It was an unbelievably great gig – loud, intense, thrilling music that made almost everything else I have been to see in the last while seem puny and insignificant by comparison.
The photo above is an exposure of 14 minutes at f16. The venue was way, way darker than it would normally be, and so I opened up the aperture much more than I usually would do. Most of the light was coming from the lamps shining upwards towards the backdrops, and the band insisted on no flash photography during the gig, which was alright by me. About the only other sources were small lights attached to the guitars. This is why you can’t see the guitarists at all in the picture, you can just see the trails left behind by the lights. They have entirely disappeared into the darkness which, I imagine, is exactly how they would like it.