Many sociological accounts until the nineteeninetees would suggest that people join cults, sects and occult groups out of socio-economic frustration and social isolation; occultists are marginal people subscribing to marginal beliefs. More recent research, such as Tanya Luhrmann's 'Persuasions of the Witch's Craft' suggests otherwise: most paganists are solid, well-functioning middle-class suburbanites, not Lumpenproletariat. Rather than "ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, (...) vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars" (Marx), occultists are secretaries, civil servants, computer workers.
However, that most occultists are middle-class suburbanites leaves open the possibility that some are marginal people. Swedish Black Metal band Ofermod are a case in point.
Guitarist Michayah, the driving force behind Ofermod, is a convicted heroin dealer, and a (former?) addict. Heroin addiction is a virtual guarantee for socio-economic frustration and social isolation: in an interview with Terrorizer magazine Michayah speaks of the 'violence and misery that one has to face each and every day'. What's more, Michayah has been in prison almost without interruption since March 2006, having been convicted for assault, robbery and other violent crimes.
Michayah is also a dedicated occultist, his intellectually elaborate yet violent 'chaos theology' taking inspiration from Qabbalah, Aleister Crowley and Gnosticism. Michayah's occult practice seems to be a relatively socially isolated endeavor, as it takes place outside Wiccan witchcraft communities ('covens') or formalized Western Mysteries fraternities.
As Michayah posits his theological position as fundamental to his music, I will explore it a little further. Unusually for religiously oriented Black Metal, Michaya has rejected Satanism and Evil: "Only Christian exoteric fools can be Satanists". His theology posits Chaos as a supreme and remote deity (the 'Lord of Radiant Darkness'). This deity is 'utter spiritual death' and exists beyond Good and Evil. Good and Evil are concepts of the material world. It is essential to free oneself from this base material world and from bodily existence, which is a prison of flesh. Michayah: "The very creation of the entire cosmos can be related to as an act of pure evil, so from this point of view, its destruction must be considered a blessing. (...) To be human is to be cursed. But there is a way out of this circle of the worms called men, and it is called theurgy and magic. The transformation of the human to the super-human." Here, Michaya's theology is obviously strongly Gnosticist, albeit with a Nietzschean slant.
By rejecting Evil, Michaya has repudiated transgression as a too this-worldly endeavor. Equally, he has rejected Good. Transgression of any symbolic boundary sustains that boundary; thus, transgression supposes a degree, a hypocrisy, which Michaya rejects. By rejecting both transgression and the boundary that is transgressed, Michayah has deprived himself of everything but self-interest.
Indeed, Michayah submits himself rigorously to self-interest. The interviews published on the Ofermod website evince an agressive, overwrought (drug-fostered?) egotism: "Most of the people who listen to Black/Death Metal should go and kill themselves, simply because they are not worthy to dwell in the same dimension as myself.' His tales about drug use, the criminal world and his knowledge of the occult only serve to exaggerate his own importance, power, and notoriety. In an interview with Terrorizer magazine, Michayah promotes the use of heroin (!), not as a way to dissolve the ego but on the contrary to harden it: "It is not only educational about the human nature, but also a process that hardens the individual, with all the violence and misery one has to face each and every day." Heroin is not only highly addictive but also generates a strong tolerance in the user: soon, the drug is used primarily to avoid to prevent the effects of withdrawal, i.e. for future well-being instead of momentary loss of self. Thus, heroin addiction produces economic subservience. Michayah is profoundly servile, a hysterical slave to his self.
For sociologist Emil Durkheim, the sacred world is coterminous with the world of the social. Society does not only - like a divinity - establish moral rules, it has the power to call forth or inhibit conduct, irrespective of any utilitarian calculation of beneficial or harmful results. Furthermore, society has a stimulating and invigorating effect on it's members: in a crowd one becomes capable of exalted emotions and conduct of which one is incapable when left to one's individual resources. Society is to it's members what a god is to the faithful.
Social isolation is in effect the absence of the social. Where the social is absent, it has no power to call forth or inhibit conduct: anomie is the result. Only unrestrained utilitarian calculation remains. In the case of Michayah, this calculation is bolstered by identity politics, by disengagement with social relations, and by a refusal to communicate. Utter spiritual death means the absence of the stimulation, invigoration or exaltation that the social inspires. Michayah has deified his impasse, his social dead end.
Michayah can be likened to Jean Genet - or, to put it more exactly, the philosophical portrait of Jean Genet's painted by Georges Bataille in his 1957 book 'Literature and Evil':
"Genet's will is no longer the furtive will of any man, of any 'sinner' who is satisfied with a minimum of irregularity. It requires a general negation of the taboo, a search for Evil relentlessly pursued till the moment when every barrier has been broken and we reach a state of complete collapse. (...) An unlimited weakness becomes evident; it affects disinterested crime and the basest calculation, open cynicism and treason. No taboo gives Genet the sensation of a taboo anymore and, with numb senses, he finally founders."
So what about the music?
Ofermod's 'Mystérion Tés Anomias' is composed of two parts. The first, Mysterium Iniquitatis, was originally released as a 7" in 1998 by Pounding Metal Productions; the second, Netivah Ha-Chokmah, was recorded in 2004. Both were recorded in the Necromorbus studios and both were released by French Black Metal label Norma Evangelium Diaboli in March 2005 on the cd under review.
The albums starts with a passage of Alfred Schnittke's music, which slowly builds and builds an builds the tension until an eruption takes place, an eruption that is best described as a cold conflagration of Black and Death Metal. The sound is fuller and clearer, less fuzzy than is usual with Black Metal recordings, and the musicianship is technically excellent - as is to be expected from a musician who studies technically highly complex forms of occultism. The 'art brut' character that is associated with some Black Metal bands (Striborg, Dead Reptile Shrine) is far off: rather than damaged and demented, the music is eerie and intelligent. Rather than communicative, the singing (or more accurately: shouting) is self-absorbed, pompous and demonstrative; I am reminded a little of fake-medieval techno-gothic band Will, but thankfully the singing is not as ludicrously bad as John McRae's vocals for that band and does not distract from the music. Though short - a mere 26 minutes - this is an excellent album, that I can wholeheartedly recommend. The excellence of Ofermod's music is reflected by the fact that it has influenced other important Black Metal bands, such as Ondskapt, Watain and Funeral Mist.
Michayah's refusal to communicate, does not mean that his audience perforce cannot communicate with the music he has created - as long as the audience is willing to sever the ties that bind the music to its creator. The destiny of a artistic creation lies not in creator, but in its destination, in its audience. As an audience, we can use Ofermod's music in a way that refuses Michayah's egotistic theology and bathe in the eerie unlight of the music's cold conflagration.
From Ofermod's website: "In December 2005 the Holy Union of OFERMOD will once again enter Necromorbus Studios. This time to start the recording process of their long-awaited full length debut: "Pentagrammaton". (...) Some titles that will be included on the album are: (...) "A Likeness To Yah". Pentagrammaton would be the first Black Metal album to have a Rastafari song title! ;-)
Here is Stewart Voegtlin's review of Ofermod's album.
Here is a very interesting article on Marx's concept of the 'lumpenproletariat'.