Rotten With Perfection: Deafheaven’s Sunbather

Some of my favorite records are the ones where a band leaps outside the bounds of their past and tries something their fans might not dig. I’m thinking of post-Until Your Heart Stops Cave In (Jupiter polarized their existing fans, while Antenna proved they were onto something new), Corrosion of Conformity’s definitively metal years (starting with Blind, but culminating in the Pepper Keenan-led Deliverance and Wiseblood), and even Kill Holiday’s swan song (Somewhere Between the Wrong is Right, on which they abandoned aggressive hardcore for an energized gothic-pop sound, by turns reminiscent of The Smiths, The Cure, and Ride). Sunbather doesn’t stray from the Deafheaven signature sound but strengthens it instead, and it reminds me of the things I love about the ill-fated albums above. Whether it was growing pains or genre strains, those bands all sacrificed something to pave the path for odd weldings and meldings of metal like this.

Deafheaven

If Mayhem and Mogwai collaborated on a record in some other universe and someone brought it back to ours, it might sound like Sunbather. If Immortal and My Bloody Valentine melted into one smooth mound of blast beats and gauzy guitar, it might sound like Sunbather. If Emporer and Explosions in the Sky had naughty, noisy sex, it might sound like Sunbather. If Taake and Flying Saucer Attack collided head-on in midair at a thousand miles an hour in slow motion, it might sound like Sunbather.

Of course, Sunbather doesn’t and wouldn’t really sound like any of that nonsense, but the marriage of shoegazing and black metal makes a lot of sense. A match made made somewhere south of heaven, both subgenres are about meditation, contemplation, and introspection, in sharp contrast to the pomp and posturing of their rock forebears. While Deafheaven is easily among the best, they’re not the only outfit doing this misfit sound: Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Light Bearer, Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Liturgy, Krallice, and Seidr, among many others, are all bashing and bastardizing black metal into something else entirely.

Deafheaven: SunbatherWhen genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Radiohead, dälek, Godflesh, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble. Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound.

Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. With renewed focus and fury, Deafheaven moves. George Clarke’s vocals have never sounded more shredded or sincere, and Kerry McCoy’s guitar work is driving, diving, and daring. The addition of Daniel Tracy on drums tightened the trio into an ensemble capable of new leaps, depths, textures, and sophistication. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through.

“You might come across American black metal and see a greater tendency to humanize the terms, which may seem somewhat contradictory,” says He Who Crushes Teeth from California’s Bone Awl, “But I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity” (quoted in Masciandro, 2010, p. 152). Kenneth Burke (1966) defined the human as “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection” (p. 16). The very Burkean phrase “rotten with perfection” is an apt description of Sunbather, not only in its intent but also in its execution. “The ‘Sunbather’ is essentially the idea of perfection,” Clarke tells National Underground. “A wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality because of your own faults, relationship troubles, family troubles, death, etc.” (quoted in Glaser, 2013). Balancing ambitions for more with appreciating what we have is a definitively human struggle.

“If you let go of the idea of perfection,” Anna Chlumsky once said, “a lot of beauty can happen.” Thankfully with Sunbather, Deafheaven endeavor to bring us both.

————–

Here’s a brief peek into the making of Sunbather, which comes out June 11th on Deathwish, Inc. [runtime: 7:53]:

Ie_6P3h-inc

————–

References:

Burke, Kenneth. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glaser, Anthony (2013, March 11). Interview: Deafheaven. National Underground.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

Concept-Oriented Discography: Literary Post-Metal

Though the concept album has a history dating back to the 1940s, prog rock acts like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Rush are probably the first bands to come to mind. Just doing an album-length story connotes prog leanings, recall The Mars Volta‘s De-Loused in the Comatorium (GSL, 2003) and Francis the Mute (GSL, 2005). Metal picked up the concept mantle in a big way. Devilish icons like King Diamond wouldn’t have records if it weren’t for album-long narratives. The same can be said for Coheed and Cambria with their multi-album and comic-book epic The Armory Wars, Voivod with their career-spanning, post-apocalyptic visions, and Mastodon‘s Melville-driven Leviathan (Relapse, 2004). Drummer Brann Dailor explains the literary influence on that record in a 2004 interview, saying that the summer before, he was reading Moby Dick

We were in London in fact, and I kinda just spouted off why we should choose Moby Dick as a guideline of what to write about and what to go for. I was looking up all these passages and reading them to the guys and saying: look, they call Moby Dick the sea-salt mastodon, you know, it’s all in here. There are so many different images we can borrow from whaling and just the whole thing as a complete package.

As bizarre as it might seem for a metal band to be influenced by classic literature, it makes sense when you look at the histrionics of metal in the first place. It’s all a kind of theatre. The stories are endemic to the genre. “[W]e just chose Moby Dick ’cause we’re all really interested in any kind of folklore,” Dailor continues, “We’re totally into Sasquatch and The Yeti and The Loch Ness Monster and all that stuff, you know? We’re into that kind of subject matter.” Folklore is metal’s secret lifeblood. Slayer, Ghost, Bathory, and many others mine the story of Elizabeth Bathory for themes, Maine’s Falls of Rauros lifted their name from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Light Bearer‘s four-part saga, Æsahættr Tetralogy, is influenced by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trology (Everyman’s Library, 2011) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Samuel Simmons, 1667), among other texts.

The now-defunct Fall of Efrafa took their name from Richard Adams’ Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972). Their Warren of Snares trilogy (Halo of Flies, 2010) is an elaborate artistic, musical, and literary artifact based on the mythology in Adams’ novel. Watership Down is an allegory in which the endeavors of a group of rabbits — Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Silver, “mirror the timeless struggles between tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state” (Magill, 1991). Fall of Efrafa extended this allegory to rail against all forms of oppression. Vocalist and artist Alex CF described it like this:

From the point of view of the metaphorical tale behind the band; the story is about desperation, as the ‘Efrafa’ encroach more and more upon the earth, what is left for those who share this space with us? The story is a war of will, not only to stand your ground, but also not to give in to the crutch of misguided belief. From the point of view of us as a band it has a lot to do with our lives outside this; what we cherish and think about, what we read…

The Warren of Snares box-set comes with the trilogy on six LPs, a book, posters, and a silk-screened tote bag, among other paraphernalia. With delicately dark art work by Alex CF (who now serves vocal and art duties in Light Bearer and Momentum), the box is an artifact worthy of time-honored capsuling.

In another extended package, Swedish post-metal band Cult of Luna’s Eviga Riket tells the story behind their 2008 record Eternal Kingdom (Earache). During rehearsals for that record, which were conducted in an abandoned mental institution, the band happened upon the journals of former inhabitant Holgar Nilsson. The songs on Eternal Kingdom are based on Nilsson’s journals, which chronicle his torment by an owl demon (the Näcken), his drowning his pregnant wife at its command (leading to his institutionalization), and his demise in the ongoing battle between the herbivores and carnivores, the humans and other “malformed fauna.” Drawn from Nilsson’s journals (titled “Tales from the Eternal Kingdom”), Eviga Riket tells his story in full, in both English and Swedish, hauntingly illustrated by Joris Vanpoucke. The hardbound book also includes an audio version on DVD read by Anna Guthrie accompanyed by Vanpoucke’s visuals and new music by the band.

Cult of Luna also released a live DVD of a 2008 performance of these songs in Scala, London (Fire Was Born; Earache, 2009). With the self-funded and released Eviga Riket finishing the story at last, they’re planning to move on to new material.

In our day of downloading disposable sounds and music perceived as free window-dressing, it is heartening to see bands take the longview — without automatically looking backward.

————-

Fluff Fest: Here’s Fall of Efrafa performing “No Longer Human” from Owsla (2006), part one of The Warren of Snares trilogy during their last tour in 2009 [runtime: 7:29]:

wLZVNf6gQL0

References:

Deaf Sparrow. Fall of Efrafa: Representing the End of All Forms of Oppression; Religious Political & Emotional.

Magill, Frank N. (Ed.). (1991). Watership Down. Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Fiction Series. Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, Inc.

Schwartz, Paul. (2004, August 31). Where Swims the Leviathan? Chronicles of Chaos.

Fear of a Black Metal: Cyclonopedia and Evil

Borrowing everything from the Scandinavians except the panda paint, America Black Metal bands blend the core aesthetic with other subgenres to great effect. Over the past few years, it has become my favorite accompanying sound for almost any activity. Its energy, its all-encompassing crests and crumbles, its sheer power moves me in ways no other genre has in many years. And I am not alone: The darkness of this stuff touches something in us, something buried deep in our beings, in our nature.

We cannot understand and fight evil as long as we consider it to be an abstract concept external to ourselves.
— Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Evil, p. 231

Among the best of this mix of subgenres (e.g., Seidr, Panopticon, Deafheaven, Liturgy, Krallice, Falls of Rauros, et al.), the undisputed masters stateside are Wolves in the Throne Room. Their Cascadian Black Metal is as majestic as it is monolithic, mixing the forest and the trees, their epic songs can be as dense as they are sparse. In a 2006 interview, they explain the draw of Black Metal:

True Norwegian Black Metal is completely unbalanced – that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that winter is eternal. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying humanity; destroying ones own self in an orgy of self loathing and hopelessness. I believe one must focus on this image of eternal winter in order to understand Black Metal for it is a crucial metaphor that reveals our sadness and woe as a race. In our hubris, we have rejected the earth and the wisdom of countless generations for the baubles of modernity. In return, we have been left stranded and bereft in this spiritually freezing hell.

To us, the driving impulse of Black Metal is more about deep ecology than anything else and can best be understood through the application of eco-psychology. Why are we sad and miserable? Because our modern culture has failed – we are all failures. The world around us has failed to sustain our humanity, our spirituality. The deep woe inside black metal is about fear – that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level. Black Metal is also about self loathing, for modernity has transformed us, our minds, bodies and spirit, into an alien life form; one not suited to life on earth without the mediating forces of technology, culture and organized religion. We are weak and pitiful in our strength over the earth – in conquering, we have destroyed ourselves. Black Metal expresses disgust with humanity and revels in the misery that one finds when the falseness of our lives is revealed (quoted in Smith, 2006).

The urge to return to our roots is a prevailing ethos in Black Metal of all paints. In Norway, it’s about returning to the Norse traditions that predate the Christian and Western influences on the culture there. For Wolves in the Throne Room, it’s about a return to nature. “Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveal themselves with age and experience,” they continue. “Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives” (quoted in Smith, 2006). Drummer and one half of the brothers that make up the core of Wolves in the Throne Room, Aaron Weaver was taken by Black Metal upon first hearing it. “… it’s more about creating a trance effect. It’s really got more in common with shamanic drumming and with noise music. It’s not heavy metal, it’s not riffs, it’s not head-banging music at all… It’s meditative music. Most heavy metal is very extroverted. It’s about putting on a big show and head banging and drinking a beer with your buddies. Black metal is the exact opposite. It’s all about gazing inwards and trying to discover things about yourself” (quoted in Moyer, p. 42). Having seen these guys live last year, I can truly say that their music is introspective to the point of turning one inside out.

Weaver discusses the connections between Black metal and the radical Northwestern culture he and his brother are immersed in, both of which are about “critiquing civilization, yearning for a more ancient sense of the world, a connection with tradition and nature that we’ve perhaps lost as modern people.” That’s not the whole of it, of course, he adds, “Then the darker side of it as well exists in both worlds. In both the Black Metal world and the ecological punk world, a hatred of humanity and a strong sense of misanthropy as we look around and see what humanity has wrought” (Moyer, p. 42).

We are going back to the future and forward to the past, engaging all of history’s villains and saints in quick time… Ancient ethnic sores are belching fire while transnational companies linked by satellites conduct their business oblivious to the fuedal past below. — Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 18.

Aside from Lords of Chaos (feral house, 2003) and the documentary Until the Light Takes Us (2009), Hideous Gnosis (CreateSpace, 2010) is the most in-depth exploration of what Black Metal’s not-so-joyous noise might mean to fans and to theorists of same. Though it’s a compilation of essays, documents, and thoughts from a symposium by the same name, which took place on December 12, 2009 in Brooklyn, New York, the book stands alone well as a collection of academic work on the subject. Edited by Nicola Masciandaro, it brings together pieces by Steven Shakespeare, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of Liturgy), Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, and Evan Calder Williams, among many others, as well as naysayers and haters from the blog’s comments section, “to bask in the speculative glory of the problematic,” as Reza Negarestani puts it (quoted in Masciandaro, p. 267). Whenever academics or nerds turn their attention to something so sacredly held as Black Metal, its fans are likely to be wary. But if you, like me, enjoy immersing yourself in as many aspects as possible of the things you love, this collection is a welcome addition to Blackened Theory, the literature, music, thought, and culture that is Black Metal — and the internal, eternal evil that drives it.

@1jamiebell: What’s the speed of dark? (Tweeted March 22, 2012)

Another symposium collection, Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium (punctum books, 2011) brings together scholars to discuss Reza Negarestani’s world-warping book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008). Not since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000) have I been so simultaneously intrigued and scared of a book. It is a return to the “hidden prehistory” (as Steven Shaviro describes it) of the dark global forces of the twenty-first century. It is at once philosophical fiction, nomad archeology, Middle Eastern occult study, object-oriented ontology, and straight-up horror, all centered on Western civilization’s lust for oil, the darkest of matters. Leper Creativity sets out to excavate this work’s dark secrets. Their own introductory language reads as follows:

Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.

More than worthy of a symposium as such, Cyclonopedia bridges and problematizes the divide between modern, global politics and the dark forces of ancient humanity. Claudia Card (2002) wrote, “The denial of evil has become an important strand of twentieth-century secular Western culture” (p. 28). To deny evil is to deny ourselves, to deny a part of our positive nature. Cyclonopedia digs deep into both sides. It is a triumph in both form and content. We’re dropped into the first hole in the plot as a young American woman arrives at a hotel in Istanbul to meet an online acquaintance with an unpronounceable name who never actually shows up. She finds a manuscript in her hotel room and begins culling its clues leaving her to wonder if her friend from afar was real at all (as Johnny did Zumpano in House of Leaves). “Meanwhile, as the War on Terror escalates,” the jacket copy explains, “the U. S. is dragged into an asymmetrical engagement with occultures whose principles are ancient, obscure, and saturated in oil. It is as if war itself is feeding upon the warmachines, leveling cities into the desert, seducing the aggressors into the dark heart of oil.” As Howard Bloom (1995) explains, “Behind the writhing of evil is a competition between organizational devices, each trying to harness the universe to its own particular pattern, each attempting to hoist the cosmos one step higher on a ladder of increasing complexity” (p. 325). The Middle East is sentient, alive, proclaims the embedded manuscript’s author Dr. Hamid Parsani, dark forces its lifeblood, its story the evil of all of history — human and nonhuman.

“Evil is a by-product, a component, of creation” Bloom (1995, p. 2) writes matter-of-factly. To understand its legion forces, we have to look extensively at the edges between nefarious, non-human history, as well as the insidious inside ourselves. It is in this way that the draw of Black Metal and the study of its ethos is something we cannot afford to ignore.

—————–

Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium is available as a free download from punctum books. Many thanks to Kenyatta Cheese who emailed me about Cyclonopedia almost two years ago. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

References:

Beck, Don, & Cowan, Christopher. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bloom, Howard. (1995). The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Card, Claudia. (2002). The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Moyer, Matthew. (2011, Winter). Wolves in the Throne Room: From Mount Olympia. Ghetto Blaster, 30, 40-42.

Negarestani, Reza. (2008). Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. New York: re.press.

Smith, Bradley. (2006). Interview with Wolves in the Throne Room. Nocturnal Cult.

Keller, Ed, Nicola Masciandaro, Nicola, & Thacker, Eugene. (eds.). (2011). Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. New York: punctum books.

Svendsen, Lars. (2010). A Philosophy of Evil. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive.

Black Metallic: Until the Light Takes Us

Described as “the most widely demonized and vilified music scene in rock history,” (O’Hehir, 2009), the Norwegian black metal scene of the late 80s and early 90s took Black Metal to new extremes. The bands and fans all wore head-to-toe black leather, wrist- and arm-bands and boots with spikes or nails, and black and white “corpse paint.” Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us (2009) tells the story of the scene in stark tones and up-close interviews.

Members of the bands Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal, and Emperor provide more than a full cast of characters. The major players involved in the scene include Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a Eronymous) of Mayhem, Per Yngve Ohlin (a.k.a. Dead) of Mayhem, Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. Count Grishnackh) of Burzum and Mayhem, and Bärd Eithun (a.k.a. Faust) of Emperor, among several others. “Dead’s name was an ever-looming portent of his destiny” write Moynihan & Søderlind (2003, p. 58). Very much into self-mutilation, often on stage, Dead eventually shot himself in the head with a shotgun. His band-mate Euronymous found the body, took pictures, and reportedly took pieces of his skull and brains. One of the pictures ended up as the cover art for a live Mayhem record (Dawn of the Black Hearts; 1995), and Euronymous supposedly made stew out of Dead’s brains and necklaces out of his skull.

The sometime bass player for Mayhem and full-time one-man-band Burzum, Grishnackh, paranoid of an alleged plot by Euronymous to kill him, beat him to the punch: One late night in Oslo, Grishnackh stabbed Euronymous to death. Euronymous had been the figurehead of the Norwegian black metal scene. His record store in Oslo, Helvete, had served as a central meeting place for bands and fans, as well as a place to buy records and paraphernalia. It was darkly lit and Euronymous wanted it to be kept completely dark and to make customers use torches to see the records and their way around.

Underwhelmed by what he saw as posturing without action by Euronymous, Grishnackh allegedly set about burning down churches. Grishnackh’s philosophy is one of nationalism. He sees Christianity as colonialist, having moved into Norway and displaced the native Norse religion. His intentions did not keep the church burnings from being seen as “Satanically motivated” by the media. The heavy metal magazine Kerrang! ran a cover story that read, “Arson… Death… Satanic Ritual… The Ugly Truth about Black Metal” and the spread bore the quotation, “We are but slaves of the one with horns…” across the top of its pages (Moynihan & Søderlind, 2003, p. 100-101). “Copycat church attacks followed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, often accompanied with spray-painted pentacles and 666’s and so forth, and whatever had once been distinctive about the Norwegian scene just became, in Vikernes’ [Grishnackh] words, “a bunch of brain-dead, heavy-metal guys.”

The image of the black metal scene at large was one of darkness and evil. Hebdige (1979) writes, “In most cases, it is the subculture’s stylistic innovations which first attract the media’s attention. Subsequently deviant or ‘anti-social’ acts—vandalism, swearing, fighting, ‘animal behaviour’—are ‘discovered’ by the police, the judiciary, the press; and these acts are used to ‘explain’ the subculture’s original transgression of sartorial codes. In fact, either deviant behaviour or the identification of a distinctive uniform (or more typically a combination of the two) can provide the catalyst for a moral panic” (p. 93). The moral panic that followed the church burnings illustrates how easily such a scene is vilified and labeled “Satanic.” Subcultures are largely imagistic and operate on the level of surfaces: Never mind that half the members of the bands involved are or were serving prison terms for their actions. A movement as such quickly becomes regarded as exclusively stylistic. Attaching Satan to a movement that was largely nationalist in nature is a move that occurs on the surface of the phenomenon.

In order to get under the skin of this scene, filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell moved to Norway and hung-out with Darkthrone’s Fenriz, Hellhammer from Mayhem, Frost from Satyricon, the guys in Immortal, and visited Vikernes in prison, among others. Throughout the film, it is the stalwarts of the scene who tell the story. Aites and Ewell make no appearance. Their placement in situ gives the film an immediacy that many narrated documentaries lack. If you’re at all interested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene or the chaos thereof, this film is indispensable.

Until the Light Takes Us is currently making its way around the country. Keep your eyes open.

Here’s the official trailer [runtime: 2:07]:

Sr_RaCM-1ug

References

Aites, A. & Ewell, A. (Directors). (2009). Until the light takes us [Motion picture]. United States: Field Pictures.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. New York: Routledge.

Moynihan, M. & Søderlind, D. (2003). Lords of chaos: The bloody rise of the Satanic metalunderground. Los Angeles: Feral House.

O’Hehir, A. (2009, December 6). Sympathy for the devil worshipers: Until the light takes us movie review. Retrieved on December 7, 2009 from Salon.com.