In Brooklyn, Nothing is Sacred, Not Even the Sacrilegious

When I was in high school, there used to be this kid named Dan. Dan was the focus of much undeserved frustration from me and my friends. First of all, he was home schooled, so instantly myself and all my friends were jealous that he didn’t have to wake up early and go to an eight hour prison everyday. The other thing about Dan was he was really, really, really good at guitar. He could even play Heavy Metal guitar. Dan knew more about guitars then the rest of us, could play scales faster than us, shred power chords heavier than the rest of us and just to show off (so I believed at the time) could even play whatever songs were popular on the radio. All of them. No matter who it was. Of course, Dan was just one of those incredibly gifted kids who also spent a lot of time playing music. Unfortunately, for a long time, the impression that he left with me was that, while technically capable at performing songs, he lacked passion and originality.

This little trip down memory lane serves two purposes. One, it’s to remind me, the author of another lengthy rant, that not everything is as it appears to me. Two, it’s to help illustrate my bias for how I appreciate music. This is important because our topic today is USBM (United States Black Metal) or, as some would argue, Brooklyn Black Metal. Black Metal, for those of you with better things to do with your time, is a music genre of much agonized, technically proficient and overly self-indulgent musical stylings. It takes a lot of knowledge, time, study, dedication and a total lack of a social awareness to play Black Metal. It is a fast paced, amazingly technical music style, that relies on the precision of its instrumentalists to be successful. I, as a musician, have never, ever, ever been interested in approaching music making that way. I prefer to find dynamic, curious and interesting sounds in a variety of ways. My knowledge of music theory and construct is strongly limited. I play music from the gut. It’s not the only way to make great music, it’s just the way I do it. But I have to remember that not everyone else does.

So, yes, USBM, or more specifically, the Black Metal hybrid music that is coming out of Brooklyn has been on my mind recently. Briefly, Black Metal is a music style that was born mostly out of Norway in the late eighties and rose to popularity over the next twenty years or so. For a long time it was exclusively the export of Europe with Norway being its biggest garden. Generally, it’s a bunch of dudes paining their faces like sad, evil clowns, singing about death, though there are variants and off-shoots even of this. Wikipedia has a better, more thorough, quick history. Also, there are a ton of documentaries and  books you can read that are  mostly accurate and filled with continuing controversy.

Recently, however, a few bands from the good old United States of America have emerged adopting the dynamics of black metal. Why shouldn’t there be? After all, American culture (we always like to call this western culture, but that’s bullshit, it’s always Americans who co-opt shit first) is based on the appropriation of other cultures. We continually find what we like, adopt it and then bastardize whatever it is we stole and claim total and complete ownership. Generally we do this of disenfranchised groups and often within our own society (see Hip Hop). New York City, where authenticity is so often claimed and rarely actually exists, of course, produced two Black Metal bands. Krallice, featuring Mick Barr and media darlings Liturgy fronted by pleasant-looking, college graduate Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.

What is most curious about the rise of Black Metal in the United States is not that it took so long for the export to become a part of the heavy metal scene, or that it even caught on at all. What is perplexing is that in the short four years or so in which it has truly emerged from the depths of the underground it is being embraced by mainstream media. Around the same time I was introduced to Portland’s Agalloch (not strictly Black Metal, but very influenced by Black Metal), so it seemed the rest of the world was. So much so that their 2010 album Marrow of the Spirit landed on a few best of lists, including NPR. Suddenly the most marginalized, underground, oddity of metal music with an even more storied history than Death Metal was not only being introduced to a wider audience, but it seemed to be gaining acceptance.

Heavy Metal music is outsider music. It is a genre and style of music created by and for loner types, almost exclusively men, after hours and hours of work that focuses its self on elements of evil, horror, fantasy, violence and gore. Sure, while bands like Agalloch are much more interested in a supernatural world filled with the magic and power of nature, it’s not the type of theme that gets the average person to shake their ass. It’s music that is largely intellectual, black metal especially, despite the make up and questionable wardrobe choices and childish theatrics. The themes of black metal may not have always been that well refined, or even socially acceptable as Nationalism, Racism and Homophobia still run rampant through the scene. But more and more, black metal continues to grow, morph and change, growing out of the gore-centered, “extreme” past. One could argue that it’s the emergence of USBM that has brought this about, up turning the roots forged in the frozen, Nordic, tundra.

Krallice, as previously mentioned, features guitarist Mick Barr. Barr has been in a long line of interesting, hi-speed, guitar heavy bands including Crom (who had roots in DC) and Orthrelm. Reading Barr’s biography, you will find that he was awarded a grant by the Foundation for Contemporary artists, an arts foundation started by such metal-heads as  Jasper Johns and John Cage. Barr does not seem the most likely candidate to be ushering in black metal music to the United States or the liberal listeners at NPR. But there he is, on NPR. I can’t stress that enough.

What is odd to me is just this acceptance of the establishment. Granted, so far as I can tell, Krallice is not a gloom and doom  type of band. Sure, the music is arpeggiator fast with screechy wailings complemented by cookie monster growls of evil. And yes, the songs are full of the blast beat that makes black metal powerful, sweeping out the way some of the intense guitar work. Why the fuck does anyone at NPR even know who this band is and how do they even have a working knowledge of black metal at all? In his review of their album Diotima, Lars Gotrich stated “What started as a vehicle for guitarists Mick Barr and Colin Marston to apply their insane technical skill to classic Darkthrone riffage is now a fully formed unit, crafting dense compositions that go beyond the band’s individual talents to achieve something greater.” You know about Darkthrone and you got hired at NPR, home of Morning Edition, Terri Gross, Click and Clack and so on and so forth? It was shocking enough, that scene in Instrument, the documentary about Fugazi, where some well-mannered white lady with a baby and one of those colorful rastafarian hats that white people used to wear in the 90’s stated she learned about THAT band on Now Hear This. But now, 15 years later you’re playing Krallice? I can only take Krallice in short doses and I own albums by Pig Destroyer and Obituary. Don’t get me wrong, the long stretches of distorted, thrashingly awesome riffs on “The Clearing” are transcendental to my ears. But my ears, unlike the average NPR listener I assume, have been covered in similar onslaughts of metal awesomeness through the ages since I was 10. I’d like to think that my added 24 years of metal love are trained to appreciate and understand the dynamics of this music more than people who listen to The Low Anthem or Aimmee Mann or some other pleasant, non-controversial music type.

I realize that comes off a bit didactic and shitty of me. Of course I believe that music is free to be enjoyed by any and all ears. Music has no boundaries, speaking just from a standpoint of physics alone. But Black Metal, heavy metal music and all its sub-genres has never been about acceptance. In fact, it’s very clearly anti-establishment music. Black Metal in particular is filled with church burners, murderers, racists, homophobes and other such violent malady makers. And these are not the exceptions to the rule most often. Barr, whether he believes any of this or not most likely understands that he is associating his art with a culture that promotes such vile. Barr and those in his musical company are clearly capable of great composition and performance and so, with this moniker they consciously chose to play black metal. Obviously he has no control on who listens or picks it up and pushes it forward, but this is outsider music being made by less an outsider than appears.

Further, Gotrich’s praise for this band continues to be problematic. The ownership, and yes, I do believe musical creation has ownership, of the genre is bestowed to Krallice. Gotrich end’s his review stating, “This is the next step,” indicating that Krallice has stretched the boundaries of Black Metal music out of its insular ghetto. This becomes problematic, because as Black Metal and the Black Metal scene goes, Krallice is, in comparison, relatively tame. Compared to long running bands like Gorgoroth they are downright pleasant. When put next to the complicated persona of Var Vikernes and his prodigious music in Buzrum, Krallice looks like a bunch of nice, art school kids. Their lightness in effect is what makes them capable of being appealing. There is absolutely nothing controversial about the content of the lyrics or the music of Krallice. As such, it’s difficult to say they stretched the boundaries, so much as cut out the parts that would have made their music less appealing to a wider audience.

Lurking in the same neighborhood is the even more complicated Liturgy. Where Barr and Krallice are mostly concerned about the true nature of metal, which is at its core just ROCKING THE FUCK OUT, Liturgy is a whole other beast. Once again, the central, public figure of this group is a young man named Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. Hunt-Hendrix, is an impossibly complicated young man whose personal history has quickly overshadowed and informed the whole that is Liturgy. Hunt-Hendrix, a gifted and driven young man started playing music very early in his life. At one point this dude decided he should enroll in classes at Columbia University in New York City, hang out with those dorks in Vampire Weekend and get a useful and lucrative degree in Philosophy. Educators and administrators at our higher learning centers in America should be praising Hunt-Hendrix, for he has single-handedly created another job choice for philosophy majors. One more prestigious at least than barista.

Hunt-Hendrix has taken the loner, geeky, too much time on his hands aspect of being a black metal musician a step further than anyone previously. Hunter-Hendrix has taken the liberty to label the music of Liturgy as Transcendental Black Metal Music. As Hunt-Hendrix is a philosophy major, I am going to assume that the context of Transcendence is one that recognizes his version of Black Metal reaching beyond all Black Metal that has come before Liturgy. In fact, he has made several statements, including an academic paper (part of which can be found here) on the subject. Hunter-Hendrix explains in Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptical Humanism that “Transcendental Black Metal is black metal in the mode of Sacrifice. It is a clearing aside of contingent features and a fresh exploration of the essence of black metal.”

This attitude has, as one would expect from a very  socially sheltered culture, been met with a lot of resistance. Liturgy has been accused of and labeled to be nothing more than New York hipsters. Dale Eisenger of NBC New York points out about the band that “Accusations of hipsterism latching on to black metal as a style were only bolstered by the overwrought waxing of lead man Hunter Hunt-Hendrix – he calls his music transcendental black metal in an attempt to move what he sees as a visceral genre into something more cerebral.” All of this makes Liturgy seem more like a doctoral thesis than anything that would make one want to bang their head and thrash about their lonely, black painted room.

Having said all this, the music on Liturgy’s recently released Aesthethica is more cerebral than guttural, showcasing that intellect is once again the prime objective in USBM. Tremendously long and mostly annoying chants hyphenate the self described burst beats that are the thrust and crux of Liturgy’s thrashing tome. The band manages to find a decidedly non-black metal grove on some of the instrumental songs, but none of them really seem to be genre pushing, though they are the highlights and the most pleasant aspects of the album. But the music is mostly theatrical, relying on heavy repetition over traditionally shorter songs. And while there are moments of musical and metaphysical transcendence that can be found in some of the moments of Aesthetica, it’s mostly just a high-pitched rock opera.

The result is a band that seems more dissected for its philosophical presentation and the mystique of their 13 point program to reinvent black metal. The merits of the music seems less the struggle than the aesthetic non-choices that gets Liturgy into trouble. Granted, Hunt-Hendrix does look like he crawled out of a trust-fund furnished apartment complex in Bed-Stuy rather than some Kiss encrusted coffin in the dirt of Valhalla. But that criticism seems to have little to do with the music. Liturgy might be more high tonal and grating than how I like my Black Metal, but there are qualities of the music that make it engaging and interesting. Burst Beats may be a point of idealism for Hunt-Hendrix, but his application of a more fluid style of drums certainly does transcend the chop and hack death march of Black Metal’s beloved blast beat.

With greater access to resources as well as media Krallice and Liturgy supersede the originating predecessors of Black Metal, diminishing the role of the borrowed culture further. This seems clear especially when Hunt-Hendrix declares “The time has come for a decisive break with the European tradition and the establishment of a truly American black metal,” marking clearly a desire to exit himself from the exact culture that he has exploited. Hunt-Hendrix, bold, creative and driven as he may be, seeks to strike away from an art form he knows to be visceral. Barr’s acceptance by established art-world denizens makes him less an outsider, than just another high-art creator. While his intentions and desire may come from a place of purity, and I don’t doubt that they do, the praise and financial backing of a highly respected foundation, coupled with media acceptance, puts him and Krallice in a precocious spot.

Black Metal after all is a reaction to what some see as a diminishing of their own culture which is being homogenized by western corporate influence. Abroad, many countries watch American culture overtaking their own popular, local and natural culture and thus diminishing centuries of their own unique and cherished history (the documentary Until the Light Takes Uswhile not the most objective, has a good few minutes on this fact that is poignant and worth your time). The negative reaction Liturgy especially has received from the torch bearers of so-called true black metal does not seem totally unwarranted. The insult of an American trying to take ownership away from the originators seems arrogant. Further the added philosophical and academic presentations Hunt-Hendrix has been prone to give serves to undermine the anger felt by the creators and fans of Black Metal.

Once again, we find technically talented and over educated young men assuming that they can co-opt and appropriate what ultimately does not belong to them. This is complicated by the fact that Black Metal (mostly) originated in Norway, the second wealthiest country in the world based in large part on oil trade, is not a nation deprived of privileges. However, Nordic culture  and history is older than that of the neighborhood of Brooklyn and is often at the center of what drives creativity in Black Metal. Outside of the anger fueled youth, clad in ancient warrior outfits, the music and ideas began to grow and embrace the transcendence of consciousness, nature as power and the destructive nature of human kind. This was done far before Black Metal emerged in the United States.  Ultimately, USBM, or more appropriately at this juncture, Brooklyn Black Metal is another instance of white, privileged, American boys co-opting a musical sub-culture that is driven by the history, culture and circumstance in which is was created.

5 Comments

  1. Once again, great great stuff Erik. I can’t help but chime in a bit on this one, as it is near and dear to my black heart. First, to clarify a bit, what you are referring to here is the second wave of black metal, which was more emergent in the 90’s. Black metal started with Venom, who coined the phrase, and was taken up, at least sound-wise, by groups such as (early for this instance) Bathory, Celtic Frost, and even Possessed or Sarcofago.

    Second, I feel it’s a bit of an understatement to say that themes such as Nationalism and racism still run rampant through the scene. Famine of French horde Peste Noire, somewhat famously said, “‘To my mind, without being necessarily N[ational] S[ocialist], real BM is always extreme right-wing music.” And I feel this is true. While groups such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Panopticon exist (with anarchist, green anarchist, and even deep ecology themes), I think there has to be a certain amount of acceptance and ownership of right wing beliefs and actions to fully embrace black metal (I know I’ve gone through this ownership, and it’s helped shape who I am now). While Satanism is still a large part of black metal, early on it’s adherents began to shift towards the exploration of pre-christian cultures of their homeland (specifically in the Norwegian and Swedish instances). This led to the rise of pagan, and specifically Asatru themes and beliefs. But here, the interplay of NSBM also became the most prevalent. In fact, I learned an entire iconical code of aryan supremal signifiers through all of this. So, you can’t really say that conservative, reactionary, or right wing tendencies are a problem in black metal, they are it’s very foundation.

    I think Mick Barr is a genius, but I’ve never been that into Krallice. I view it as a bit of a very tightly skilled Weakling worship band. Which is also not to say that a lot of black metal is overly skilled and technical. In fact, my tastes tend dip more towards the primal, chaotic, and somewhat more simplistic sounds of black metal. Yes, to be sure, unless you talking about the dead beaten horse of ambient suicidal BM, the most rigorous aspect of the genre is simply to play fast. In fact, in many ways it’s still just a sped up version of the same three chord model punk came from.

    As for Liturgy, well, by and large, they don’t matter. I think the one flaw in your argument may be the sense of privileged, co-option by the USBM movement. There is a huge network of groups in the US, and the southern americas, championed by labels such as Nuclear War Now, that may be considered part of the actual Black Metal world, but all of the rest is just america pondering about americans. I genuinely feel that the international BM scene, especially around the areas where it was born, give little care, and even less credibility to the USBM community in the vein of groups such as Krallice, Liturgy, Ash Pool, or maybe even Bone Awl. Most of that is just “hipsters” coopting something they find intriguing, and dangerous. But it never leaves that ghetto. I sincerely doubt anyone outside of the US feels that black metal is being taken over by american arrogance. We aren’t even a blip on the their radar. Most of the people involved in these debates can only see the part of the iceberg poking above the water level, when, in fact, there is an entire leviathan underneath (RDRR), that they will actively not be allowed to explore.

    Personally, I’m hoping that this is the year that all of the black metal fanfare goes away. No more pitchfork articles, no more people from the art world forming black metal bands, no more black metal on NPR. Over. Done. Trend finished. And let’s move on. That way, I can go back to simply enjoying black metal. While I enjoy many variants of the genre (though I was never into the pagan variety and I try to steer clear of overtly NS groups) I’m far more interested in exploring the sounds of artists such as Tjolgtjar, Dead Reptile Shrine, Furze, and Woods of Infinity than any essay worthy outfit from Brooklyn.

    Which is all to say, thanks for tearing in, and creating a space for this dialogue today. I really appreciate your pieces.

    • Hey Denamn,

      Thanks for the space and giving insight into the history. I never really quite know how deep to get with some of that stuff, so I generalize. We all benefit here though, from your wealth of knowledge on the subject.

      I’m not sure I entirely agree though that USBM isn’t pissing people off though. I’ve been diving into the blogs and message boards and comment sections and people really do seem upset with Liturgy especially. And rightfully so I think. It is exactly the arrogance and backgrounds of these two bands that I think people have a problem with. That doesn’t necessarily include all other USBM bands of course, and again, my knowledge and the amount of space I felt I should use were limited here. I’m actually interested in Albuquerque for that matter. Metal of all types is really big here and there are Black Metal bands about town that I still need to check out. Of course, I will keep you posted.

      Glad you liked it. I hope people read yr comment to get the perspective I don’t have that really should be included in this dialog. Thanks for the space!

  2. Can you fault a 20-something dude with an awesome job to NOT share his love of metal? -Lars, the guy at NPR who likes metal.

  3. Lars,

    I can’t fault you for sharing your love of metal, at all. I also can’t fault you for finding a job in public radio and journalism. However, much of my assertion here is that, something that was created as outsider art, purposely, is now finding it’s way into the mainstream media, largely at the hands of American journalists such as your self, who are (and I consider myself a part of this) third parties to a third generation of a movement that exists in opposition to this.

    Black Metal, for all it’s ills, has a lot of good means of addressing colonialism, privilege, culture eradication and for good measure. Norway, while clearly not a perfect society has been homogenized by Christianity, though the social ramifications of that barely exist, a lot of Nordic culture and history fell victim to the prostitution of God and Jesus by some very sick people. And upon recovery of that rejection, Norway, like many other countries has been forced through global capitalism to accept western, mostly American culture, further to the detriment of their own identity. This is not unique to Norway or Black Metal, but it seems, once again, cultural elitists (and we are cultural elitists, both you and I and the people in the bands I talked about) have first connected to and then co-opted a culture which does not belong to us. This is not much different then what happened to Hip Hop, or Rock and Roll or any number of counter cultures that grew organically. The educated class (and we are a part of the educated class, both you and I and the people in the bands I talked about) we are co-opting what was once revolutionary music. You will agree, as ugly as Black Metal was, it was revolutionary. It was created by people who wanted to change things and make them better, to reclaim their space, not just in their own society, but in the world.

    I find the coverage of a lot of music is devoid of it’s relation to class and capitalism, to male and white and American privilege. And while music doesn’t make anyone any money any more, it’s still tied to consumerism on every level, no matter how modest, no matter the intentions. It bothers me that we allow the so called cultural elite to co-opt movements, bastardize them, make them safe and present them to the greater public in a pretty package. Krallice, Agalloch and Liturgy are all, very pretty, very safe and very consumable. Clearly. What is lost is the history of black metal. Liturgy assumes that Black Metal preceding them is the past and no longer relevant. That should cause us pause.

    But thank you Lars for engaging this article. My intent is not to insist that this discourse does not belong, but to question it. We must question the things we love, challenge ourselves and be critical of what speaks to us. We must have a reason, even when the sounds strike us so viscerally. I hope you are well. Keep the dialog alive.

  4. […] Sometimes, I cant help but question the authenticity of an artist. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing either. And though it is much easier to do it with bands in genres you only have a cursory knowledge of, it should probably be done more with bands in genres you are pretty familiar with. Somehow, I am less willing to give someone in hip-hop or black metal the benefit of the doubt because while those are significant parts of my record collection, they are paled by punk rock bands from all over the place. Punk rock is something I feel I am somewhat of an authority on. Not like an academic authority, but it’s the type of music I have been listening to most consistently since I was 13 and found Black Flag’s The First Four Years in my possession and decided everything else, including death metal, was full of a bunch of posers. […]


Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s