Green is the new Black Metal (Dan Platt)
I have an unhealthy obsession with black metal. (*1*) [–> these are footnotes. Does anyone know if it’s possible to create html anchors in these posts, so that I could link directly to the footnotes?]
For a long time, metal was my dark secret: I hid my old Slayer t-shirts under cardigans. I read Pitchfork so I could affect interest in the latest Sufjan Stevens record. The “satanic” (and occasionally far-right) philosophy of my favorite bands was offensive, and their lyrics and imagery were downright silly. Like a pair of sweatshop sneakers, I was ashamed to be seen with them.
Lucky for me (perhaps unlucky for my neighbors) black metal seems to have developed a conscience in the past few years. Some important black metal bands have traded cartoon devil-worship for Gaiaism, church burning for Earth First!’ing. Instead of dirges for mystical Viking warriors, they’re creating elegies for wild mountain landscapes.
In the spirit of the genre, it is not pretty.
So who or what is responsible for the greening of black metal? A good starting point is Wolves in the Throne Room (*2*) (listen), an Olympia, Washington-based band fronted by the brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver. (*3*)
When they’re not touring with Wolves in the Throne Room, the Weavers work at their farm outside of Olympia. In an interview in Pitchfork (second article down), journalist Brandon Stosuy asks about how the economic downturn is affecting the band. Aaron Weaver responds: “I have noticed that nails and manure are a little cheaper than they were a couple of years ago.” In any case, it’s good to know someone still takes Walden seriously.
But it’s not just the band’s yeoman/artisan image that earns them the “environmentalist” tag. In this 2006 interview, (*4*) Weaver uses the discourse of environmental psychology to explain the band’s aesthetic: “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” (It’s good to know someone still takes Paul Shepard seriously.). “Apocalyptic” is word often used to describe the “woe” in black metal (and Wolves in the Throne Room in particular), but there’s also an element of the redemptive to their music. The final words of the band’s 2007 album Two Hunters are “When I awake, the world will be born anew,” and the outro features the sound of chirping birds. The Weavers’ apocalypse is regenerative, even *gasp* hopeful. They’re lucky they haven’t had their black metal licenses revoked.
In the end, bands like Wolves in the Throne Room have left me maybe a little less ashamed of my black metal obsession, but they’ve also raised a whole lot of perplexing questions: If the black metal subculture is increasingly receptive to radical environmentalism, then why? What does this trend say about mainstream culture? [I’m eagerly anticipating next week’s discussion of Neuromancer, a text that is closely linked to the “cyberpunk” subculture.] Can subcultures like black metal effect a meaningful “intervention” in mass culture’s attitudes toward the environment? Are bands like Wolves in the Throne Room just replacing the violent, reactionary anti-Christian rhetoric of older bands for (similar) anti-modern rhetoric? Is there a deeper connection between black metal aesthetics and apocalyptic thinking?
I’m considering these questions while immersed in a soundscape of pained, inhuman howls and distorted guitar, droning and writhing like the winds of a storm. Perhaps it’s time to tune out the apocalypse and cuddle up with something sweet and harmless and life-affirming.
1. A quick primer: black metal is a subgenre of heavy metal that is characterized by droning, dissonance and distortion, absence of melody or harmony, and vocals that are almost entirely unintelligible, delivered in shrieks, howls and growls. The first black metal bands came out of Norway in the early 90s, and the genre is permanently associated with the violent “satanic” ideology of Norwegian black metal bands like Burzum and Gorgoroth. Wikipedia for more.
I think I may try to write about black metal for my final paper, so I’d really value your comments on this topic. Sorry this post is so long!
2. Wolves in the Throne Room is one of the most interesting (and successful) environmentalist black metal bands, but they’re not the only ones. Wold, a band from Saskatchewan, recently released Stratification, a black metal/noise album that evokes the terrifying and disorienting experience of a blizzard on the Canadian prairie (listen – it’s wicked creepy, so don’t say I didn’t warn you). There’s also Velvet Cacoon (listen), a mysterious (perhaps defunct) band from Portland, whose members have expressed direct support for ecoterrorism.
4. In the same interview, Weaver makes some strange and problematic allusions to Nazism and radical ecology. Like many of their artistic forebears in Norway, Wolves in the Throne has been accused of espousing fascism, a charge that Weaver adamantly denies (halfway down the page), and which he attributes to misquoting and misinterpretation. Obviously, this is a very serious issue in analyzing Wolves in the Throne Room — and black metal in general — that I’m eliding in this post.
Apologies to DFW for the footnotes.