Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ghäst / Yoga - Split

The work of J.R.R. Tolkien has had an indelible influence on Black Metal culture. Many names of Black Metal bands have been derived form Tolkien's oeuvre. Christian 'Varg' Vikernes was a Tolkien aficionado, and named his one-man band Burzum, the word for "darkness" in the Black Speech of Mordor. Norwegian Black Metal band Gorgoroth is named after the plain of Gorgoroth within the mountains that cordon off Mordor from the rest of Middle-Earth. Isengard - named after the castle of evil sorcerer Saruman - is a solo project of Fenriz, the drummer of Darkthrone.

What does that mean? What does the choice of the Tolkien's oeuvre, of the literary genre of Fantasy reveal about Black Metal?

Science Fiction can be loosely defined as fiction which speculates about social effects of future technological advances. Fantasy as a genre is not oriented towards the future or technology. Fantasy constructs fictitious pre-modern (tribal or feudal) societies, and explores themes related to the history of religions, morality (good vs evil) and heterophobia (in the sense of: "fear of that which is different"). Because it is not oriented towards future societies and explores different themes, Fantasy has been compared negatively to Science Fiction. Fantasy has been called retrogressive. However, the mere fact that the fictitious societies of Science Fiction are technologically advanced and those of Fantasy are not, is in itself not enough to condemn the latter genre. Themes like the history of religions, morality and heterophobia are relevant to our society, and are highly likely to be relevant to societies of the future. Calling literature in which the drama takes place in pre-modern societies irrelevant is tantamount to calling the academic disciplines of history and anthropology irrelevant. Like all literature, good Fantasy novels can convey to us something about the human condition.

The themes of Fantasy novels are highly relevant to Black Metal. Black Metal themes such as Satanism, daemonology, paganism and black magic all indicate an interest in the history of religions. The musical genre's obsession with evil relates to questions of morality. Heterophobia finally is a hallmark of this ofttimes intolerant, hateful music.

One might say that without the Fantasy influence, Black Metal wouldn't be Black Metal but another genre entirely.

Nevertheless, I feel that such a statement is a little bit too facile. And anyway, it is interesting to speculate what Black Metal might have sounded like, if classic Norwegian Black Metal bands had not been influenced by Tolkien, but by other literature. What would it have sounded like if the work of William S. Burroughs had played the role that Tolkien's oeuvre played?

What if the landscape of Mordor was replaced by a landscape of "swamps and garbage heaps, alligators crawling around in broken bottles and tin cans, neon arabesques of motels, marooned pimps [screaming] obscenities at passing cars from islands of rubbish"?

What is orcs and elves and hobbits were replaced by "followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Harmaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states..."?

The music of two-man band Yoga might provide the beginning of an answer to those questions.

In an interview with the Hammer Smashed Jazz blog, one of Yoga's musicians describes the music as 1970s 'Berlin School' Kraut Rock Electronica (Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream) recorded with the fuzzed out, cold, hollow-sounding, thin, raw, completely blown out and in the red recording style prevalent in underground Black Metal. "The dirtier and [the more] desperate the sound, the more otherworldly and distant the sounds became."

I'm not at all a fan of the New Agey strains of Kraut Rock. Tangerine Dream's universally acclaimed classic, the 1974 album Phaedra, bores me: entirely conventional, soothing, feeble music. I enjoy Yoga's music exactly because it uses New Agey Kraut Rock in a way William S. Burroughs proposed to use the voice of Alabama pro-segregation politician George Wallace. Burrough's essay 'The Electronic Revolution' contained these instructions: "Take a recorded Wallace speech, cut in stammering coughs sneezes hiccups snarls pain screams fear wimperings apoplectic stutterings slobbering drooling idiot noises sex and animal sound effects and play it back in the streets subways stations parks political ralleys." Where Burroughs advises to garble Wallace's conservative harangues with the aural excretions of the human body, Yoga destructurates Kraut Rock's conservative side with sonic detritus, hellish wailing, ruinous distortion, tape hiss, drop outs, intense squalls of blackened noise, sinister drones, constant churning and warbling.

The resulting music evinces the hallucinatory quality of Burroughs work: a fantastic, nightmarish merging of the rectums of early Coil, Goblin and Xasthur, an unendurably ragged, malodorous delight.

Post scriptum

The split cd under review contains 8 tracks by Yoga and two by Quebecois Doom Metal band Ghäst. The Ghäst tracks earn sympathy by using samples from Amando de Ossorio's 1971 horror film La Noche Del Terror Ciego (aka Tombs of the Blind Dead), but are otherwise instantly forgettable. The Yoga tracks were released on an extremely limited cassette (only 50 copies!) before being released in its current form (limited to 250 copies)


wwinfrey said...

Thanks for the pointer -- I will definitely have to check this release out. That said, I was surprised to see a post that, at least in part, celebrated the link between black metal and Tolkein without a single mention of Summoning!

Besides being excellent, epic, symphonic black metal, Protector (one-half of Summoning) at one point released a drum sample library in Kontakt format, and has given extensive advice regarding electronic music production in the Summoning forums.

Most surprising (and welcome, to this reader) though, was to read Protector's rather progressive outlook on the issue of race and nationalism, as outlined here:

If you have yet to dig into Summoning, consider them highly recommended.

(Valter -- this comment is not too relevant, but I have no other way of communicating with you -- if you could please send me your email, I could then avoid posting barely-relevant comments and you could delete this comment)

valter said...

Thanks, Wwinfrey! I wasn't aware of Summoning, but I'll be sure to explore it.

As I've written a few posts back, I speak only through the blog. This means that communication through email does not take place. So please feel free to add all sorts of comments, even if they are not directly relevant to the post at hand. Your comments are greatly appreciated!

fishskull said...

Valter, if you find "Phaedra"-era Tangerine Dream too weak to bother with you might enjoy the band's earlier recordings a lot more. "Alpha Centauri" and "Atem" are a more visceral and textured than the all synth recordings that followed.

valter said...

Thanks for the tip, I'll check them out.

At the moment, I'm listening a lot to the excellent comp 'Bell Ringing In the Empty Sky' with Shakuhachi music (Japanese Zen flute). It was brought out as part of Nonesuch explorer series; Pelt's excellent album 'Empty bell ringing in the sky' was named after this album.

magick mike said...

thanks for turning me on to this-- got it from a friend and it's pretty great; you're dead on in both your comments invoking burroughs and about how the ghast tracks are utterly forgettable.

wwinfrey said...

Sorry, Valter, I guess I missed your post where you said you didn't do email.

If you haven't yet heard Summoning, you're missing arguably one of the greatest black metal bands to ever profane the sacred. I would suggest starting with Minas Morgul, then proceeding chronologically through their successive releases: Dol Goldur, Stronghold, Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame & Oath Bound. After digesting those releases, return to their debut album, Lugburz, and the EPs that came in between the full-lengths.

Also, if you can find it, a box set came out last year called "Sounds Of Middle Earth", and it's a gorgeous package, 5 picture discs and a beautiful booklet.

Just to talk a bit about Summoning themselves, I think really the work of Protector and Silenius are the archetype when people talk about "epic black metal". Absolutely definitive on so many levels, and they are determinedly NOT in love with lo-fi recording techniques nor proudly wearing their "passion" as a cover for a lack of musical skill.

They set a bar for black metal that very few have been able to even approach, much less meet or surpass. That Protector is such a thoughtful, intelligent person to boot (as evidenced through the essay I linked to above) is the proverbial icing on the cake.

When I think about the terms "black metal" and "Tolkein", the association I immediately make is Summoning. I read in an interview with Protector that, when he's designing his drum sounds, he thinks to himself "now what would an Orc war drum sound like?". To his credit, I think he gets it pretty close.

If you wind up worshipping the unhallowed ground they walk on as I do, I will appreciate reading your in-depth examination of them on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Hey!Thanx for the mention.Great piece!

Love your blog!



Hammer Smashed Jazz

Sebastien said...

too bad you didn't like the ghast portion of the split .. i found it to be pretty grim and full of atmosphere and i am glad that other blogs and reviewers share my opinion also

Van Damned said...

What a fantastic read!

I too found Yoga through Hammer Smashed Jazz (props, Beau!) and have been been mesmerized ever since.