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Green is the new Black Metal (Dan Platt)

October 21, 2009

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*)

Nathan Weaver, Wolves in the Throne Room

Nathan Weaver, Wolves in the Throne Room

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.

3. For a good background on Wolves in the Throne Room, check out this article from Slate. Another good interview is here.

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. jnoyce permalink
    October 21, 2009 7:51 pm

    Dan! Reading your comments about these bands and the unexpected (at least for me) connections that they have to environmental rhetoric/activism is hella intriguing! A very different aesthetic sensibility from backpacks and Chacos, eh?

    Coalesce is a band I love from Kansas whose work came to mind as I was reading your post…their genre is difficult to describe, but they speak to that in this interview (also from pitchfork). In this interview, Jes Steineger (the guitar player) speaks to his desire to create/nurture a particularly American sound. He relates this idea of “Americana” to the earth, and particularly to midwestern dirt & farming. It occurs to me that this might be a different way of looking at the connection between the environment and hardcore/metal music. Instead of motivating some kind of activism, the music itself is in part motivated by a particular understanding of the environment and its influence on our identities (and artistic expression).

    I can’t figure out how to link to the site in this “comments” section; sorry! Here’s the interview:

    http://pitchfork.com/features/show-no-mercy/7668-show-no-mercy/

  2. ssiperstein permalink*
    October 22, 2009 4:34 am

    Dan — fascinating post, and the topic seems ripe for a more sustained ecocritical and cultural studies-type analysis. Thinking about your ideas and your reading of Wolves in the Throne Room, I keep coming back to the idea of “woe.” Perhaps “woe,” and relatedly, “melancholy” are themselves inherently ecological emotions. (Melancholia is of course the Earth Humor). Maybe Brandon Stosuy and Wolves in the Throne Room are onto something, that what we need now in our ecological crisis is melancholia. Not in some abstract sadness for something ‘over there’ but in the very close feeling of ‘holy crap, I really messed up and it’s okay to feel utterly depressed about it.’ Yes, we should hold onto hope and yes, we should feel love for all beings, but maybe black metal is just the right art form for what we really need: woe, melancholy, and, like the character Nell from the film “Safe,” pure screaming anger.

  3. October 22, 2009 9:04 pm

    Dan, This is indeed a fascinating post.

    For now, however, I wanted to comment on your technical question about footnotes and wordpress anchors. See the general post I am leaving on the blog for that info.

  4. October 26, 2009 7:11 pm

    Dan,

    I think the melding of pastoral elegy (or melancholy) with black metal soundscapes definitely bears sustained analysis; such a project would speak to the fields of cultural studies and environmental studies but also to contemporary green politics in Europe. You might examine an ancient pastoral text in which (poetic) song and agricultural husbandry are linked via the mode of elegy––namely, Virgil’s “Eclogues.” But you might also think about why “green black metal” resonates (I suspect) with European green politics. I would hazard that it remains more marginal and unknown to U.S. environmentalism. In Europe, however, green politics seems more open to “dark” aesthetics. (German environmentalism, for example, eschews “back-to-land” and other utopian discourses that have been important to U.S. environmentalism, because they connote the blood and soil ideology of German fascism and the Nazis.)

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