Is Black Metal Coming of Age?
The case of the French decadents and the Ukrainian romantics:
Deathspell Omega and Drudkh

by: Andreas Marouchos
"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy."
-- Ludwig van Beethoven

This article is concentric with regards to its contents, i.e. it will primarily revolve around two prime examples of what I, and perhaps others, would term as 'intelligent black metal', and then attempt to infer whether or not the aesthetics in question are a natural continuation of the genre itself or a fundamental re-elucidation of the real potency that the genre can carry. Before I embark, I must make it clear that the importance of other like-minded bands that have not been included in this article should not be overshadowed, and that these two bands in question were selected because they are the most representative of the issue that I'm stressing herein.

Akin to the laws of natural selection, there comes a pivotal point in the course of a musical genre's chronicle where it is confronted with two choices: it can either evolve and persist, or wither and die. The case of black metal is still debatable; many a devoted fan will instantly quip that "black metal died with Euronymous", "black metal only existed between 1989 and 1994", "no more 'evil' atmosphere", "not true enough", "not kvlt enough" et cetera, et cetera. From my own standpoint, I believe black metal has matured and streamlined its means of musical clarity in many ways; one need only look at the quantity and quality of bands that surface these days. However, I don't believe that it has fully realized its true potential, as an Art form first and foremost, and as a musical genre under the Metal banner second. Not yet, at least.

First of all, how does one define black metal? Every one of its impassioned listeners undoubtedly know, albeit at an intuitive level, that what they're listening to is black metal; but let us delve beyond the musical phenomenon, beyond the tremolo riffing, the double-bass, the low-fi production and the primeval shrieks, beyond the perceived aspect of the music itself, and into its very core, which speaks directly to the subconscious.

"Misanthropy", "nihilistic enmity", "hatred": these words have been used extensively and interchangeably to describe the emotive inspirations that drive the music itself. But these words are quite generic, and in themselves inadequate. Furthermore, the fundamental fallacy of any such argument is to confuse a cause for an effect and vice versa; "misanthropy" and "hatred" are both emotive excrescences of the same psychological predisposition. Now, how about a fine slab of existential angst the French way?

"But if there is a meaning? Today I don't know what it is. Tomorrow? Tomorrow, who can tell me? Am I going to find out what it is? No, I can't conceive of any 'meaning' other than 'my' anguish, and as for that, I know all about it. And for the time being: nonsense. Monsieur Nonsense is writing and understands that he is mad. It's atrocious."

"My thought is me: that's why I can't stop. I exist because I think... and I can't stop myself from thinking. At this very moment -- it's frightful -- if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire."

The former is quoted from the lyrics of a Deathspell Omega song, titled "Diabolus Absconditus"; the latter is from Sartre's literary existentialist masterpiece, "Nausea". Introspectively, what one might infer by juxtaposing the two segments is the common inherent realization, the abrupt dissociation and dismantling of an individual's world of apparent order and reason. Now, here is Camus from his infamous "Myth of Sisyphus" essay:

"If this myth [of Sisyphus] is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his [Sisyphus'] torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent."

And Deathspell Omega yet again from "Diabolus Absconditus":

"Would it all be absurd? Or might it make some kind of sense? I've made myself sick wondering about it. I awake in the morning -- just the way millions do, millions of boys, girls, infants and old men, their slumber dissipated forever... These millions, those slumbers have no meaning"

But wait! These sentiments were the prime tenets of the finest of fin de siècle French literature and 20th century existentialism -- how did they find themselves in the noosphere of black metal so many decades later? Through what crack did these ideas burrow? What was it in the fundamental nature of black metal that allowed such a deep-seeded emotion, deeply buried within the subconscious, to be expressed musically?

This conscious descent the band members that comprise DsO have taken, much like Camus' absurd hero, is integral with respect to the issue herein. In doing so, they have managed to transcend the very ideology and aesthetics that were originally thought to have spawned black metal in the first place. They have gone to see "what causes the shadow", instead of "lingering in the shadow" itself, to borrow a more Platonic allegory. In the case of the French blacksters, the ideology has strayed far and beyond the Satanic imagery of yore, it has surpassed self-indulgent LaVey-an tomfoolery, and has reached the subconscious fountainhead of the genre that links the sensual and the psycho-cognitive world.

Was black metal ever capable of achieving this? Let us look back to early Bathory: in _Under the Sign of the Black Mark_ we have harsh musicianship and a profoundly enraptured Quorthon with the dark and the Satanic. One could say that the flood gates were finally opened to a grey area of our minds that very few dare speak of. Then come Celtic Frost with their avant-garde masterpiece, _To Mega Therion_, which was simply sublime musically and essentially set the plainfield for the genre.

Fast-forward now to Burzum, and the quintessential albums _Hvis Lyset Tar oss_ and _Filosofem_. How could anyone exude in such a clear and transcendental manner the sentiment of existential alienation without possessing that very experience I'm referring to in the first place? And finally Deathspell Omega: for the first time there is a premeditated direction in the form of an actual philosophical inquiry. Here the debate on the existence or non-existence of a Divine Being, the doubt of Reason's plenitude and, last and not least, the apprehension in dealing with these questions are systematically analyzed and inquired upon and ultimately channeled through the musical medium; they are not masqueraded with vain idolatry or superficial mysticism.

These bands, and of course others that have gone unmentioned for the sake of brevity, have done the genre a service -- each in its own way at different stages in its evolution, not necessarily in terms of sheer musical exploitation but in terms of pure Art, where the genre has been broadened aesthetically to be more inclusive of more serious matters.

Onwards now to Drudkh, who from their titular description one might assume them of being of a more benign nature. Nonetheless, Drudkh are romantic in the Dionysian sense. The music therein is restless but bound like a blithesome, belligerent horse into an ephemeral submission by the daedal artistic dexterity of its creators.

Again Drudkh's aesthetical fountainhead, as with DsO's case, lies deeply within the subconscious, but it has taken a different turn in contemplation. Here the musicians, by primarily drawing aspiration from folk pride and tradition, have shed light on the very tragedy of what it is to exist and the perennial struggle to maintain that state, and more importantly to perpetuate unto posterity the few things that a man can hold dear -- his values, his ideas -- against the elements and adversity.

This struggle, this dramatic cycle that countless generations have followed, has never before been so finely crystallized as in their latest opus, _Blood in Our Wells_, an exquisitely epic musical phantasmagoria of sound and emotion. Epic because of its boldness and uplifting cadence, and exquisite because of the pure means by which the music reaches the listener. Although despondent and bleak in tone, it showcases the tenacity of Man through the ages, the sacrifices he has taken, the blood he has spilt and the cries of his dead. Yes, Drudkh's offerings are delectable threnodies in their own accord, with a touching and yet subtle overtone of pride.

Are Deathspell Omega and Drudkh proof that black metal can migrate from its stagnated ideological background and settle unto more fertile grounds? Or are these bands nothing more than a fading glint? Alas, this calls for yet another long-favored cliché among writers: time will tell. But be it as it may, the one sure thing is that at last -- after a near two-and-a-half decades -- black metal artistry has reached a very interesting plateau of resourcefulness in its history which may prove defining in its evolutionary course.

(article submitted 18/12/2006)

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