Looked up this New York Times article this morning on the Black Metal Symposium brought up by Mike...(funny article title I think)
December 15, 2009
Thank You, Professor, That Was Putrid By BEN RATLIFF
The bald, beefy moderator, Niall Scott of the University of Central Lancashire, approached the podium in darkness. “It is my revolting pleasure,” he susurrated, pulling on his long goatee, “to introduce Professor Erik Butler, who will present his paper ‘The Counter-Reformation in Stone and Metal: Spiritual Substances.’ ”
And Mr. Butler, an assistant professor of German studies at Emory University, talked about black-metal music — in its second-wave, largely Norwegian form — as a cryptic expression of Roman Catholicism. He started with the 16th-century Council of Trent and the early modern church. He quoted lyrics from the face-painted, early-1990s Norwegian black-metal bands Gorgoroth and Immortal; he framed black metal as respecting some of rock’s orthodoxies, as opposed to the heresies of disco and punk; and he spoke of black metal’s preoccupation with “the abiding and transcendent: stone, mountain, moon.”
You can imagine several orders of hostility toward “Hideous Gnosis,” a six-hour theory symposium on black-metal music that commenced on Saturday afternoon at Public Assembly, a bar and nightclub in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not just because plenty of people like to make fun of academics discoursing on youth culture but because the subject was something like the music that dare not speak its name.
Black metal, which has been a self-conscious genre since the early 1990s — with a prehistory in some ’80s metal bands — remains metal’s most underground subspecies. (Black refers to a bleak outlook on life.) Musically it’s all scoured howls, nonsyncopated blast-beat drums, and cold, trebly guitars. It sounds like it’s rotting, and that’s the point: black metal represents decay, radical individualism, misanthropy, negativity about all systems, and awe of the natural world. (Death metal, on the other hand, is more proactive, body-centered and psyched about gore.)
“The purest black-metal artist is one who’s unknown and inaccessible,” said Nicola Masciandaro, a professor of medieval literature at Brooklyn College who organized the six-hour event.
In a way, black metal runs on a very old cultural motor: loss of faith, and the hysterical fear and sadness that come with it. But it has become one of rock’s best modes of resistance, which is why it persists, why recent books and films about it have found an audience (like Peter Beste’s photo essay “True Norwegian Black Metal” and the documentary “Until the Light Takes Us”) and why it has inspired a new American wave of bands, including Nachtmystium, Krallice, Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy.
Even as the Americans bend black metal far away from tribalism, violence or antireligious malevolence (some Norwegian black-metal musicians became notorious for murder and church burnings) and toward something more Whitman-esque, it remains ingrown. Some of its practitioners — like the Americans Xasthur and Leviathan — make records but will not perform or, in Leviathan’s case, give interviews. Talking about black metal in certain quarters seems deeply lame.
One commenter on the online-forum page of the metal magazine Decibel summed up a certain kind of black-metal fan’s attitude toward the symposium. This music, the contributor wrote, “has nothing to do with being intellectual and everything to do with not wanting to try and break every little thing apart” for analysis.
“There’s lots of resentment toward a sensible discourse around black metal,” said Mr. Masciandaro in an interview. “There’s also lots of dissent and difference around what black metal is. Its center of gravity is an essential negativity, an idea of some remainder, something that cannot be reduced.” He was inspired to organize the symposium, he said, by the conference on heavy metal, held last year in Salzburg, Austria, organized by Mr. Scott. He was there and wanted to create a more specific event. He chose a club with a bar as the setting, rather than a university, figuring it would be more “ludic.”
Was the afternoon humorous, ridiculous or at least ludic? Not really. (It could have used a few more dozen spectators and a temperature boost of about 15 degrees.) To the contrary, it felt necessary. Despite what black-metal musicians might proclaim — Ovskum, an Italian singer and guitarist, was quoted in one of the symposium’s lectures as saying, “my music does not come from a philosophy but from a precritical compulsion” — their work is basically philosophy. It is theoretical, a grid for looking at life, with ancient roots. It could use a critical apparatus, and though the afternoon’s many citings of Continental philosophers like Lacan, Derrida and Bataille might have seemed ludicrously distant to the practice of black metal, such writings relate to the subgenre’s big subjects: death and time.
Mr. Masciandaro’s lecture, “Anti-Cosmosis: Black Mahapralaya,” dealt with ideas of cosmic evolution and annihilation in black metal. In “Perpetual Rot: Obsessive Cycles of Deterioration,” Joseph Russo talked about, um, rot, and the “liminal death-space” in the work of Xasthur. Brandon Stosuy, a Brooklyn music critic, read from his oral history in progress of American black metal: a welcome demystification, cast in normal-dude voices.
“Transcendental Black Metal,” a lecture by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, the young singer and guitarist of the Brooklyn band Liturgy, gave the Nordic black-metal tradition a stern challenge, and amounted to an artistic manifesto for his own band. He discussed how America represents “dignity, freedom, renewal and hybridization,” and suggested that these qualities could be represented in a new form of black metal. He proposed a new rhythm to replace the blast beat: the “burst beat,” by which rhythm can contract and expand in time, as in free jazz. He cited Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America” as philosophical models, with their “joyful experience of the continuity of existence.” He talked of “life and hypertrophy” replacing “death and atrophy,” and in his own way he was as nonnegotiable as Ovskum: “Our affirmation is a refusal to deny.”
During a Q. and A. period Mr. Hunt-Hendrix was challenged by Scott Wilson, a professor from Lancaster University, who, like Mr. Scott, had traveled from England to attend the conference. Mr. Wilson wondered, skeptically, if transcendentalist black metal just boiled down to “all you need is love.”
“I’m not so interested in defending anything I say,” Mr. Hunt-Hendrix replied. “I only like to be judged on whether it’s interesting or not.”
But perhaps the day’s most profound lecture came from Mr. Scott, who spoke in priestly cadences about black metal as part of the ritual of confession.
“The black metal event is a confession without need of absolution, without need of redemption,” he said. It is, he added, “a cleaning up of the mess of others.” He invoked the old English tradition of sin eating by means of burial cakes, in which a loaf of bread was put on a funeral bier or a corpse, and a paid member of the community would eat the bread, representing sin, to absolve and comfort the deceased.
“Black metal has become the sin eater,” he intoned. “It is engaged in transgressive behavior to be rid of it.”
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