Sunday, October 19, 2014

Black metal ecology

As an outsider and music fan looking into black metal, it's interesting how to see how quickly it moved from straight-up Satanic nihilism 'n' blast-beats in the early 90's to the search for new musical and cultural values.

Much like punk (or any Romantic movement, for that matter) the rejection of the immediate past becomes not just a foundation for new orthodoxies, but for new heresies.The rediscovery of forgotten traditions. 

And one persistent escape route from pure negation has been towards deep ecological themes

After all, if you've rejected not just humanism and liberalism, but the ideological boundaries of traditional black metal, where do you go? The pursuit of transcendence through nature - generally implicitly but sometimes explicitly pagan - suggests a way of living rightly as well as providing lyrical inspiration and a whole new instrumental palette from the folk tradition.

Musically and memetically speaking, this interest in nature and folk music was embedded in the genre at a relatively early stage - most prominently in Ulver (see my Kveldsanger review here) but also in the Tolkienesque leanings of most of the early 90's Norwegian bands. 

Yet the fullest implications of black metal ecology seem to have been worked out in the US - the last Western frontier state - with bands like Agalloch, Botanist, Panopticon and Wolves In The Throne Room (WITTR). 

These band's membership of the black metal club may be disputed by the kvlt or denied by the bands themselves. But they're certainly 'blackened' in the sense that it's impossible to imagine them existing without the Norwegian year zero. 

Wolves in the Throne Room, Tivoli Helling, Utrecht by Enric Martinez, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

Wolves In The Throne Room

WITTR - particularly, their Black Cascade album, was my gateway to black metal and its offshoots - how could I resist a band which allegedly formed at an Earth First camp and sounded like the imminent collapse of civilisation?

Or - for the more prosaically minded - exactly as exciting as a shoe-gazing Motörhead might sound? 

Since Black Cascade, when the first fan-boy in corpse-paint disparaged them as hipsters and sellouts, WITTR have been on an escape trajectory from black metal.  So they've dialed back the aggression and moved onto the endearingly grand Celestial Lineage and its ambient alter ego, Celestite

From the first of those, Woodland Cathedral (below) mixes chanted vocals, organ with that black metal tremolo guitar to beguiling effect.  Being the song of love and reverence to the forest which the title suggests, it does exemplify the tendency of eco-metal to take itself very seriously indeed. While this fits the subject matter, it does also leave it looking a little po-faced at times.

Bearing witness

An interesting way of viewing WITTR is - I think - as a project of bearing witness, an idea common to the Quakers on the one hand as it is to the nihilistic fantasies of Lovecraft on the other.

Despite their eco-anarchist roots and their agrarian commune in the Pacific Northwest, they aren't in the business of providing solutions to environmental problems. They aren't even inclined to offer a lyrical diagnosis, in the same way that a death metal, punk or grindcore act from similar sub-cultural roots might be inclined to decry the evils of the world.

Rather, WITTR observe. Their songs look at the rapture of nature as is, and the imagined apocalypse as may be.

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