Sunday, February 24, 2008

Black Metal As Play (pt. 2)

What can be learned about Black Metal if we discus it along the lines of the four types of play identified by Roger Caillois?


Of course, a certain amount of rivalry is always part of any music scene; competitiveness between different localities (East vs. West Coast), countries, bands and even opera singers and classical composers (Bononcini vs. Händel) is far from unusual in the history of music. Thus, it is not surprising that competition has been part and parcel of Black Metal ever since it's Dream Time origins in Norway.

Norwegian Black Metal crowds were antagonistic to Swedish Black Metal crowds, so much so that when Euronymous was murdered many were suspicious of the Swedes. A brief conflict between Norwegian and Finnish scenes from 1992 to 1993 was known as
the "Dark War". Black Metal strove to prove it's superiority to Death Metal. Black Metal as a religious undertaking sought out conflict with Christianity.

All this is well within the bounds of the usual in music. What is remarkable about Black Metal is how that competitiveness got out of hand.

These competitive games overflew the boundaries of their musical and religious arenas and degenerated into violence, directed both internally as well as towards religious, racial and sexual Others: Euronymous was murdered, Bård Eithun killed a homosexual man in a park in Lillehammer, Churches went up in flames and NSBM reared it's ugly head.


Games of chance seem to play no important role in Black Metal's web of significance. Perhaps though it's orientation towards Satanism and Paganism (Asatru and Wotanism specifically) reveal a connection to Caillois' concept of Alea. Can Black Metal's use of these religious cultures be described as 'superstitious attempts to manipulate fate'?


Black Metal may be the most theatrical music culture.

One of the most salient features of Black Metal is the use of black and white makeup (sometimes detailed with "blood") used to simulate a corpse-like appearance: 'corpse-paint'. The way the 'corpse-paint' is applied, points towards an affinity with the use of masks in primitive society. What Caillois writes about masks, is also true of corpse-paint in Black Metal: "[Masks] emerge in festivals - an interregnum of vertigo, effervescence, and fluidity in which everything that symbolizes order in the universe is temporarily abolished (...). Masks, always fabricated secretly and destroyed after use, transform the officiants into gods, spirits, animal ancestors, and all types of creative and supernatural powers." The mask-like corpse-paint is complemented with black and spike-studded costumes whose appearance is as much dictated by tradition as the religious robes of priests.

Bands that perform live often make use of stage props: Mayhem for example adorn the stage with staked pig's heads. Most musicians employ stage names, names which point towards mimicry of mythological or folkloric figures (for example, Emperor's Bård Eithun used "Faust" as a nom-de-plume).

The corruption of Agôn in Black Metal is closely related to the corruption of Mimicry. While it may be argued that the violence of the Norwegian Black Metal inner circle is the result of Agôn overflowing it's boundaries, it can just as well be argued that the burning of churches and the killings are the result of an excess of Mimicry, the actors identifying with their roles so strongly that vainglorious histrionics lead to real-life crime.


Other than with musical cultures such as Acid House (XTC), UK Garage (Cocaine), Dub and it's offspring (Weed), Psychedelic Rock (LSD) and Punk Rock (Amphetamines), there is no powerful connection between Black Metal and a single intoxicant. Drugs do not figure strongly in Black Metal's iconography. Moynihan and Søderlind's book on Black Metal, "Lords Of Chaos", is unusual for a description of a post-1960s musical youth culture in that it features no accounts of drug use.

But that is not so say that ilinx - games of disorientation - plays no role in Black Metal; on the contrary.

As Caillois points out, mimicry and ilinx are linked together in possession cults, the performance of the role of a supernatural spirit leads to trance, frenzy, delirium. Corpse-paint, performing that one is one of the dead, points towards a cold and glittering trance. And doesn't "Freezing Moon", a song that can be seen as the foundation stone of contemporary Black Metal, points towards moon-sickness, a vertiginous intoxication with the icy light, the luminescent spirit, of the moon?

At Black Metal concerts, as the audience gives in to the intoxication of the music, they surrender to mad, tremendous and convulsive movements.

But in the final analysis it is the music itself which is vertiginous, Black Metal itself is the locus of the derangement of the senses, the distortion of the guitars distorting the rational mind, the barrage of blast beats destroying the walls of duty, truth, and reason. "The invasion of ghosts, the trances and frenzies they cause, the intoxication of fear and the inspiring of fear..." (Caillois) reach their peak in that music.


Black Metal may well be the most playful genre of Metal. In this sense, Black Metal and Gothic subcultures are closely related.

In the 'serious' music press, this playfulness is often cause for a disdainful treatment of the genre. Black Metal kultists may feel that calling their music 'playful' makes it seem childish. But Black Metal's playfulness does not lessen it's moral seriousness. Let us not forget that the grimmest of violence is part and parcel of sports; more blood has been shed in the cause of soccer - a mere game! - than all Black Metal hordes together can ever hope to spill.

More importantly, I feel Black Metal's playfulness - the fierceness of it's
Agôn, the inventiveness of it's Mimicry, the exuberance of it's Ilinx - attest to it's continued vitality.

Post scriptum

I'd like to direct your attention to Nicola Masciandaro highly interesting comment to the first post of the two-part series.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your writing. It's interesting to see someone write about music (an especially black metal) in such a serious way. This is one of the best blogs around.

valter said...

Thank you!