Swedish Black Metal band Marduk released the classic album 'Panzer Division Marduk' in 1999. It is a concept album dealing with themes of war and warfare.
Panzer Division Marduk presents us with a nostalgic view of warfare - the unlikely nostalgia of those living in the age of the information war, for the era of the industrial war. The album was released about eight years after the Gulf War, that turning point in military history in which a war of tanks, projectiles and missiles was enveloped and swallowed up by a war of electronic media. But even though Panzer Division Marduk came out after the Gulf War, the album's artwork and lyrics refer to the tanks, bunkers, bombardments and small-arms fire of the Second World War. On Marduk's battlefield, satellites play no role.
The nostalgic nature of Marduk's presentation of war becomes evident when it is compared to the presentation of war in Electronic Body Music (EBM), a musical genre which emerged roughly half a decade before Black Metal and which also thematized warfare. EBM bands like Front 242 and Front Line Assembly used sparse electronic rhythms to simulate a futuristic war, looking forward, extolling the beauty of cybernetic organisms, orbital tele-surveillance, satellite warfare, virtual reality, tele-piloted aerial reconnaisance and so on. Marduk on the other hand looks backward and adorns the album with the photograph of a Swedish tank used in World War II, while the internal sleeve pictures a Red Army tank column driving through a ruined Berlin in 1945.
Appropriately, the Black Metal on Panzer Division Marduk is one of breakneck speed, with rushing blast beats and hysterical riffing. This celebration of musical speed can be connected to the speed that was the dominant characteristic of the warfare in the Second World War: Blitzkrieg! This era of the Fast War ended with the Gulf War, in which speed became absolute and was thereby transformed into instantaneousness. The absolute immediacy of transmission of electronic data surpassed the relative (fast, but not immediate) speed of the driving and flying fortresses of industrial warfare. I understand the headlong rush of Marduk's Black Metal as a sign of nostalgia for a war of movement, felt in the age of the ubiquitous, instantaneous, omniscient and omnipresent war machine.
The lyrics to Panzer Division Marduk may present images of industrial warfare, but it frames these images in an archaic, pre-industrial context. There are two aspects to this archaic context: one religious, one erotic. The religious aspect is evident in the lyrics which portray an inverted Crusade, an Unholy War: "Panzer division Marduk continues its triumphant crusade / Against christianity and your worthless humanity" and "Baptism by fire / Feel the wrath of Satan's relentless flames / Ungodly desires / When god is lost and on his planet hellfire reigns". The second aspect is evident in a glorification of cruelty, which veers towards eroticism; this aspect is particularly evident in those songs which juxtapose (homo-erotic) sadism with the suffering of Christ. The religious and erotic character of Marduk's warfare point towards the wasteful, cruel, frenzied, transgressive character of archaic war, an aspect that was already almost lost in industrial warfare:
"Organized war with its efficient military operations based on discipline, which when all is said and done excludes the mass of combatants from the pleasure of transgressing the limits, has been caught up in a mechanism foreign to the impulses which set [archaic war] off in the first place; war today has only the remotest connections to [archaic, ritualized] war as I have described it; it is a dismal aberration geared to political ends" (Bataille, L'Erotisme).
Already weakened by the utilitarianism of industrial and fascist war, the transgressive character of archaic war is eclipsed definitively in the cool-headed, programmed, screened, techno-scientific Gulf War. Created in the age of the cool war, Marduk is nostalgic for war as a hot experience.
Listening to Panzer Division Marduk can be compared to watching a war movie. To paraphrase Bataille, these films "... are usually about the misfortunes of the hero and the violence which besieges him. Without his difficulties and his fears there would be nothing in his life to hold and excite the [moviegoer] and make him identify with the hero as he peruses his adventures. The gratuitous nature of the [movies] and the fact that the [moviegoer] is anyway safe from danger prevents him from seeing this very clearly, but we live vicariously in a way that our lack of energy forbids us in real life. Without too much personal discomfort we experience the feeling of losing or being in danger that somebody else's adventures supply." Like war movies, Panzer Division Marduk allows the listener to transgress his scruples and vicariously experience the warfare of the past. But it is not a realistic experience: on the contrary, Panzer Division Marduk aims for an artificial intensification of that experience through the Baroque repetition of childish clichés of warfare. Panzer Division Marduk promotes an aesthetic of the unbalanced and irregular, of the ostentatious and exaggerated, of the affected and theatrical.
This vicarious experience of intensified warfare resists simplistic reduction to the political in the limited sense of the word: Marduk band members have publicly said that Marduk has no political goal in their lyrics, and that the band has nothing to do with Nazi ideology. Marduk's warfare is, to quote Susan Sontag's essay on Jack Smith's film Flaming Creatures, "strictly a treat for the senses".
As his friend Theodor Adorno noted, Walter Benjamin was "drawn to the petrified, frozen or obsolete elements of civilization . . . Small glass balls containing a landscape upon which snow fell when shook were among his favorite things." Panzer Division Marduk is like a snow globe of war: the album is a trinket that allows us to contemplate a miniature version of industrialized archaic warfare. The nostalgic, almost kitsch relation of the album to contemporary information warfare gives it a souvenir-like quality. Sentimental in its bloodlust, the warfare Panzer Division Marduk presents is outdated, obsolete; it is a petrified, frozen exhibit, already covered with a ‘grey coating of dust’ at the time it came out. It is this ‘grey coating of dust’ which distances the album from pristine fascist aestheticizations of violence; the music's harshness on the other hand prevents assimilation to an frivolous, 'lite' Camp aesthetic.
Panzer Division Marduk is a bauble with para-oneiric powers, like the mysterious-looking World War I helmet André Breton found in 1934 in the flea markets of Paris. The album is both clichéd and profound, trivial, but also strangely marvelous.
Shake up Panzer Division Marduk's snow globe, and watch fire rain down from Heaven.