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[Criticism]

Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives

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A poet’s guide to metal

In the beginning, William Blake writes a gonzo mythopoeia called Milton:

All that can be annihilated must be annihilated
That the Children of Jerusalem may be saved from slavery
There is a Negation, & there is a Contrary
The Negation must be destroyd to redeem the Contraries
The Negation is the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man
This is a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway

In another beginning, a bunch of working-class drug users detune their guitars and add some horror-flick spookiness to the blues. Metal — no one can agree on when or why the “heavy” fell off — is born, half in love with easeful death and with Rimbaud’s “chaos of ice and polar night,” which could describe the sound of a record like the Norwegian black-metal band Immortal’s Sons of Northern Darkness.1

1 A note on terminology: the tag “heavy metal” was applied to various psychedelic and/or blues-based rock bands throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, but it seems to have stuck when Lester Bangs used it to describe Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, by broad consensus the first (and perhaps the best) heavy-metal bands. As rock and roll became rock, heavy metal yielded to metal — splintering into a kajillion subgenres ranging from cough-syrup slow to so fast that drummers use electronic triggers to produce uniform beats at tempos faster than is normally possible with human arms and legs. Genre classification doesn’t interest me. Listen to Poison Idea’s Feel the Darkness followed by Repulsion’s Horrified and tell me the main difference between hardcore punk and metal isn’t that one has a bullshit positive message and one has a bullshit negative message. Hell, I think Steely Dan is metal half the time. But for the record, here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular metal subgenres. Thrash metal is fast and angry; practitioners often appear to have spent too much time lifting weights. Death metal comes from Florida, is superfast, and sometimes employs meters more often associated with jazz, or at least with Weather Report; lyrics tend to be about death and dying and killing. Black metal is from Norway, sounds like Joy Division on Benzedrine, and won’t shut up about Satan; these are the idiots who burned dozens of churches, some centuries old. Doom metal is low and slow, sometimes to the point of sounding like Pauline Oliveros, and mainly concerns the relationship between despair and marijuana.

These two histories probably have no connection besides the one they spark in me, even if “All that can be annihilated must be annihilated” could be every metal band’s credo; it’s precisely because the line is a sort of affirmation — destruction in the name of redemption.2 But this is how popular music works: in secret histories and self-contained channels. As John Ashbery says, “The songs decorate our notion of the world / And mark its limits.”

2 Of course, Blake urges “mental fight” in the name of an idiosyncratic militant Christianity, whereas metal tends to be Christ-centric in, um, a slightly different way. But the marshaling of spiritual resources against Reason’s temples of destruction finds surprising resonance in the visions of technocratic nightmare common to certain strains of metal (e.g., the Quebecois band Voivod’s entire oeuvre).

Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction. Together with Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo, they say: “You must change your life.” To see metal as demanding something of us — a fundamental change, a shift in perspective, an acknowledgment that we are headed in the wrong direction — is to admit that when we listen to it, we’re receptive to its message. (“I beg you to listen,” Ashbery writes. “You are already listening.”) But metal’s message is not the same thing as its rhetoric.

Metal’s most familiar trope is, duh, Satanism, which might be silly — okay, it’s definitely silly — but has a distinguished literary pedigree. Romantic diabolism since the nineteenth century has taken its cue from Milton’s Paradise Lost. “Milton’s Devil as a moral being,” wrote Shelley, is “far superior to his God.” Blake said Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” In the twentieth century, this view of Milton was charmingly defended by William Empson, who argued, more or less, that if by the end of the poem Satan is a rather unsympathetic character, it’s only because God’s such a jerk.

Whatever one thinks of this interpretation — and most modern critics reject it — it’s clear that Satan has the best lines:

That we were formed then, say’st thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learned: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power . . .

For Shelley, it is Satan’s “energy and magnificence” in such passages that mark his superiority. A similar energy inspired Lord Byron, whose epigones Robert Southey dubbed, to Byron’s evident delight, the Satanic School. And a bit later, in the France of the Second Empire, Charles Baudelaire would write a prayer to the “loveliest” angel, “a God betrayed, to whom no anthems rise”: “O Satan, take pity on my sore distress!”3

3 “To whom no anthems rise” is Richard Howard’s version of Baudelaire’s more straightforward “privé de louanges.” “Rise” is a nice touch.

Well, Old Scratch has more anthems by now than he knows what to do with. And of course Satanism in metal — from Black Sabbath (some of whose early lyrics are actually kind of Christian) to the goofy Swedish pop-metal band Ghost, whose members dress as skeleton popes — is just theater, a metaphor for nonconformity that affirms dark, creative energies that orthodox political-religious-scientific thought would repress. A few black-metal bands profess a dully literal belief in Satanism, but I’m not convinced they’re actually interested in anything besides adolescent provocation. As the poet Brandon Brown writes in his obnoxious pseudotranslation of Les Fleurs du mal: “I’d worship Satan / if only I weren’t so allergic to the monochrome / gloomy sartorial orthodoxy / and Nordic vibrato of its brutal / soundtrack.” That’s a lazy reading of black metal, but Brown’s point is well taken: Satanism is boring.

More seductive is another trope derived from Romanticism, metal’s enthralling evocation of nature as a sublime and eerie prophylactic against “killing technology,” as Voivod has it. This can get silly, too: when I saw them in the summer of 2012, Agalloch had little shrines of animal bones set up on their merch table. Aaron Weaver, the drummer and songwriter for Wolves in the Throne Room, once said that the group’s black metal is inspired by “the moss, the roots and the trees, and the animals that live around here, and the weather and the natural forces that human beings encounter.” You expect him to try to sell you some beads. But when, on the band’s “Prayer of Transformation,” Nathan Weaver screams out of a shoegazing guitar haze, “Lay your corpse upon a nest of oak leaves . . . A vessel awaits built from owl feathers and moss,” it’s no longer merely silly, because the sound is overpowering, majestic, soothing, and threatening all at once, like a pretty dentist’s assistant slipping the mask over your face. I imagine a band playing in some natural old-growth cathedral, overtones crashing into boulders and echoing off ferns.

Nattefrost of the band Carpathian Forest, Oslo. Photographs by Peter Beste, from his monograph True Norwegian Black Metal, published by Vice

Nattefrost of the band Carpathian Forest, Oslo. Photographs by Peter Beste,
from his monograph True Norwegian Black Metal, published by Vice

The apotheosis of this pagan current is reached in the video for Immortal’s “The Call of the Wintermoon,” which suggests an infernal collaboration between Caspar David Friedrich and Walt Disney. The band members, dressed as wizards, scamper about in an impossibly green forest, breathing fire and posing dramatically in time with the song’s relentless clatter, which sounds a bit like one of those apps that play rain sounds while you sleep, except with someone croaking semicomprehensibly about “winterwings” and “Northern darkness.” It’s both embarrassingly inane and, somehow, genuinely evocative of an eerie wilderness sublime, a hokey reminder of why the Puritans of early New England associated the forest with the devil. These corpse-painted Gandalfs are late for a black mass with Hawthorne’s Goody Cloyse.

Black metal’s romantic fetishization of nature is — like Satanism, really — an “angry lament for human folly,” as Erik Davis put it in an article for Slate on Wolves in the Throne Room. (“Evil is the nature of mankind,” the devil tells Goodman Brown.) It’s a mystic-igloo version of Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” —

Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The Winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not

— and just as didactic-mournful in its way as the sardonic eco-rage of a poet like Juliana Spahr:

We let the runoff from agriculture, surface mines, forestry, home wastewater treatment systems, construction sites, urban yards, and roadways into our hearts.
We let chloride, magnesium, sulfate, manganese, iron, nitrite/nitrate, aluminum, suspended solids, zinc, phosphorus, fertilizers, animal wastes, oil, grease, dioxins, heavy metals and lead go through our skin and into our tissues.
We were born at the beginning of these things, at the time of chemicals combining, at the time of stream run off.
These things were a part of us and would become more a part of us but we did not know it yet.
Still we noticed enough to sing a lament.

4 The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk paraphrases Rilke’s directive as “Give up your attachment to comfortable ways of living.”

Metal’s iconography — devil horns, pagan altars, blood on the forest floor — embraces the dark and primordial; it’s a rebuke to our soft lives.4 We are, metal says, “out of tune.” Deathspell Omega, a wonderfully pretentious French black-metal band (their latest record titles are in Latin), quote Georges Bataille: “Every human being not going to the extreme limit is the servant or the enemy of man and the accomplice of a nameless obscenity.” Which sounds like a translation back into English of a bad translation into French of one of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell.” I’m surprised more bands haven’t plundered this treasure chest: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”; “The lust of the goat is the bounty of God”; “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”; “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”; “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” Sounds pretty metal to me.

Although metal lyrics provide a trove of such sentiments, no one should listen to metal for the lyrics, which are mostly unskillful. They’re also mostly indecipherable, so no matter. (Yes, there are plenty of exceptions — smart lyrics, clear vocals, both at the same time. I said “mostly.”) Metal makes its argument viscerally. It’s “a triumph of vulgarity, velocity,” says the music critic Chuck Eddy, with “no redeeming social value.”

Erik Danielsson, front man for the Swedish black-metal outfit Watain, told me that metal “is the form of music through which diabolical energies flow with the most swiftness and potency.” All metal is a variation on two themes: loud and fast. Some songs are quiet and slow, but always against the background of normative loudness and speed. (Punk and free jazz are loud and fast, too, but metal is louder, faster, and less wholesome.)

That said, what always has to be emphasized to metal skeptics is that, as Eddy writes, “it really doesn’t ‘all sound the same’ . . . By now it’s more varied than any other white-rock genre.” If you never listen to something, it’s easy to say it all sounds the same. But Guns N’ Roses’ tuneful boogie doesn’t sound at all like Converge’s war punk. You can hear Iron Maiden’s guitar trellises in Carcass’s jet-engine revs, but you’d never mistake one for the other. Kvelertak and Baroness throw pop hooks; Gorguts have more in common with Scott Walker than with Metallica. Cauldron and Hammers of Misfortune geek out on Eighties power chords; Grave Miasma and Nile flirt with Middle Eastern modalities. Corsair are obstinately pretty; Incantation are ugly as sin.

5 The scene also demonstrates an important difference between a popular art like rock music and an elite one like poetry: the possibilities each offers for communal or collective experience differ in kind and degree. Neither the bartender nor I need to identify “Ramble On” as a Zeppelin song—part of the point is everybody knows that. At least in America, there is no recent poem everyone in a bar would recognize. 
6 Another of Sloterdijk’s paraphrases of this imperative: “Seize the chance to train with a god!” He also offers an intriguing defense of the popular tendency, which I follow in this essay, to divorce the closing lines of Rilke’s sonnet from their context. 

Metal doesn’t sound evil. Evil has no particular sound. Metal doesn’t sound fascistic — the camp commandant listening to Beethoven in the evenings has become a cliché. If you read about metal, you’ll learn that it often employs Aeolian harmonies, staccato articulations, perfect fifths, and other things I but dimly apprehend. What metal sounds like is the biggest rock and roll you’ve ever heard. I have the TV on as I write this, and I’m half-watching the cheesy postapocalyptic drama Revolution, in which the world has gone dark, when a scene catches my attention. A band in a bar is playing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” as if it were a My Morning Jacket song. The bartender is telling a story about the day the power came back on unexpectedly for a few minutes after fifteen years of candlelight: “That Wurlitzer over there roars to life, plays ‘Ramble On’ for like four whole minutes, then goes dark. People cried. They said it was like hearing the voice of God.”5 It is, of course, the voice of a god, Apollo, that issues the imperative from Rilke’s stone.6

The audience at Inferno Festival, Oslo

The audience at Inferno Festival, Oslo

Somehow this wouldn’t work as well with “Gimme Shelter” or “Born to Run.” Greil Marcus wrote that Zeppelin’s music “meant to storm Heaven, and it came close.” That’s a definition of metal I can live with, or at least of metal at its best: Death’s The Sound of Perseverance, Converge’s Jane Doe, Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break the Oath, Mastodon’s Remission, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, Van Halen’s 1984, Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence, the last two and a half minutes of Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell,” when Terry Butler’s throbbing bass line doubles in tempo and Tony Iommi solos in a blizzard of notes and Ronnie James Dio sings about the lies of this world like he’s running along a collapsing bridge, one step ahead of the crevasse. They mean to storm heaven. They come close. “Go and speed,” Chaos tells Satan in Paradise Lost; “Havoc, and spoil, and ruin, are my gain.”

Rock and roll says: Why don’t you take a good look at yourself and describe what you see — and baby, baby, baby, do you like it? It says you must change your life. But rock and roll, like all art, lies. Publishers Weekly closed a review of Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke with the claim that “readers will be helpless, after passing through this book, against the command that closes ‘Archaic Torso.’ ” But no one has ever changed his life because of a poem or a song. Changing your life is for Simone Weil or the Buddha. The rest of us need German poetry and Norwegian black metal because they provide the illusion that we are changing, or have changed, or will change, or even want to change our lives.

7 When I interviewed Jonah Falco, drummer for the Toronto hardcore band Fucked Up (currently the planet’s best band), he told me that “punk and metal have been these parallel yet constantly diverging paths.” They seem to me even closer, in spirit and sound, than that paradoxical metaphor implies. As the group’s guitarist Mike Haliechuk said during the same interview: “I think I just like loud music.” 

This is one of many points at which punk and metal dovetail.7 I just picked up my old copy of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (a reading of punk in the light of Dada, Adorno, Lettrism, and the Situationist International) to see if Marcus might have used Rilke’s lines, only to find them quoted on the inside cover, in Robert Walsh’s blurb. “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late” (the Mekons) is the punk version. No one ever has. The Mekons know this, just as the grindcore band Liberteer don’t expect anyone to follow up lyric exhortations like “To be happy, goddamn it, kill those who own property.”

A pop song — and metal, for all its fuck no, is pop music — is a commodity, and its market conditions are written into its chord structure. It is caught up entirely in capitalism’s circuits. A wash of guitars and a blast beat do not have the power to resist the contradictions they expose and express.

Imagine if, “after passing through [a] book,” presto, we were “helpless” to avoid changing our lives. Sometimes I wonder what metal would sound like after capitalism, or whether we would even need metal then. I wonder the same about poetry.

The finest of the first generation of rock critics — Marcus, Robert Christgau, Robert Palmer, Ellen Willis — ignored metal almost entirely. (Willis raved about Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, but only after claiming that the first three records “are mostly awful,” which is blasphemous.) Their hostility makes a rough sense. These were people who’d grown up on Elvis and Chuck Berry, had their brains rewired by Beatles-Stones-Dylan, were on the scene for punk and young and smart enough to write terrific things about it. They had to make the case that rock and roll was worth writing intelligently — even intellectually — about. William Shawn had to be persuaded that popular music was something The New Yorker needed to cover, and that a young woman who had written for Cheetah was the one to cover it. These critics weren’t about to squander their hard-earned cultural capital on an avowedly anti-intellectual genre known primarily for its cartoonish demonology. I mean, the Ramones were too dumb for Marcus.

This critical negligence means that metal has had the freedom to develop from its bluesy origins in England’s working class into one of the most vibrantly imaginative and complex genres of popular art without a lot of outside interference or notice. (That’s changed relatively recently — Ben Ratliff, for instance, writes about death metal and black metal for the New York Times; the metal faithful predictably cry hipster incursion.) I invite anyone who’s dismissed metal from afar to check out Gorguts’ Colored Sands and Deafheaven’s Sunbather, two of last year’s most celebrated releases. I doubt they’re what you’re expecting.

I don’t promise you’ll like them, though. Kant claims that aesthetic judgments contain an implicit ought — I feel that a person ought to agree with my judgment of the beautiful, even though I recognize he may, foolishly, dissent from it. This is not how I feel about metal. I can understand why a person would not care to devote much time to music that involves a lunatic growling, “Colon, cry for me!” over an unremitting tornado of guitars and drums (not that you can really make out what Lord Worm is growling about on Cryptopsy’s “Slit Your Guts”).

But I do think it’s a shame to spend your middle years listening to the same old Game Theory records. The summer I was twenty-three, stumbling around Europe, I listened to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street on my Walkman at least once a day. Those songs slide right off me now. They gave me everything they had in them, and I’m grateful.

I didn’t get into metal until I was in my thirties, and then only because — this is really embarrassing to admit, but as they say in A.A., we’re only as sick as our secrets — I was flipping through one of Robert Christgau’s old Consumer Guide collections and saw that he’d given Slayer’s Reign in Blood a B+. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on it, I turn up some unsuspected star chart that leads me off in search of ever more distant constellations. It’s like being seventeen again, perusing the testimony of Christgau and Marcus, scouring every record store in town for some out-of-print Adverts album I just had to hear.

Except, of course, it’s not like being seventeen at all. That out-of-print record is a Google search away, and music can’t ever again be as important to me as it was when I was young. Emerson wrote that “After thirty a man wakes up sad every morning excepting perhaps five or six until the day of his death.” This is — how shall I put it — true. Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore.

Recently I took my writing students to see Converge at the Metro in Chicago. It wasn’t like seeing Sonic Youth in Denver in 1990. For one thing, I was in the balcony rather than pressed up against the stage like a pilgrim on the hajj. For another, I had to keep my eye on a bunch of college kids to make sure they weren’t drinking alcohol on school time. But Converge (who aren’t much younger than I) took over that space like a bellowing woolly rhino crashing into a Pleistocene clearing. The enormousness of that sound, its rooms and crevices. The nearest objective correlative I know is in Christopher Logue’s All Day Permanent Red, which takes as its subject battle scenes from the Iliad:

Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
Add the receding traction of its slats
Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.

It’s war music.

At one point the band lurched into a slow, martial burner I recognized from the new record, which I was still getting to know. I listened to it again when I got home — “Empty on the Inside” (as opposed to being empty on, like, the outside?). The studio version is good, but the song had been something else onstage — feral and free, the reverberation of decreation. I googled the lyrics. And was reminded that the frequent indecipherability of Jacob Bannon’s vocals is a blessing. One line struck me, though. You can barely hear it on the album — Bannon’s not singing, just kind of muttering to himself, a pervert on a park bench watching girls walk home from school.

“I can’t shake these beasts from my bones.”

is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex, which will be published this fall by Penguin.

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May 2014