Sunday, January 25, 2009

Night and Black Metal

From Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 1945 book Phenomenology of Perception:

"When [...] the world of clear and articulate objects is abolished, our perceptual being, cut off from its world, evolves a spatiality without things. This is what happens in the night.

Night is not an object before me; it enwraps me and infiltrates through all my senses, stifling my recollections and almost destroying my personal identity. I am no longer withdrawn into my perceptual look-out from which I watch the outlines of objects moving by at a distance. Night has no outlines; it is itself in contact with me and its unity is the mystical union of the mana. Even shouts or a distant light people it only vaguely, and then it comes to life in its entirety; it is pure depth without foreground or background, without surface and without any distance separating it from me.

If we interpret this text from a Bataillan perspective, Merleau-Ponty's night is a formlessness that is homogenous.

These last few days I've been thinking a lot about this extremely interesting text, and about how it relates to the trope of 'night' in Black Metal, and how that trope relates to the sense perception of Black Metal music itself. I've published this post fully aware that my thoughts on this subject still lack definite shape and form - but than again, in night "the world of clear and articulate objects is abolished".

'Night' is a fairly prominent trope in Black Metal. Just search for the word 'night' in blogs like 'Dunkelheit' and the search results will display dozens of albums which employ the word in its album or song titles. The way Black Metal uses the trope of 'night' can easily be related to Merleau-Ponty's text. Many titles relate night to destruction: "Cut, with the Night, into Mine Heart", "Night Of Retribution", "Night of Pagan Wrath", "Midnight Mutilation". Some even specifically relate night to the destruction of personal identity: "Black Night Of Soul". Where Merleau-Ponty relates night to the sacred (mana), so does Black Metal: "Night of Shadow Magic", "Satan, Eye of the Night", "Black Night Astral Projection", "Temple of Eternal Night". Some titles ascribe to night a life of its own, echoing Merleau-Ponty ("... it comes to life..."): "Summon The Night", "The Will of Night", "The Dark Spirit of the Night". Other titles link 'night' to depth: "Journey Into The Depths Of Night". I could go on and on, and I haven't even touched upon night-related tropes such as 'darkness', 'black', etc. The titles can be read as (often childish and clumsily formulated) metaphors for the embodied perception of night.

How does the perception of night as formulated by Merleau-Ponty relate to Black Metal production style?

Depth is rarely associated with Black Metal production. Depth in music is generally associated with bass: Dark Ambient and Dubstep are genres which are often described using tropes of 'depth'. Black Metal music distinguishes itself from other musics by the absence of bass's fathomless depths. I recall the production of French Black Metal Haemoth's excellent 2006 'Kontamination' album being called 'wafer thin': pure surface without foreground or background, without depth - the polar opposite of Merleau-Ponty's night.

Furthermore, Black Metal in the style of Mayhem, Darkthrone and Satyricon is a sharp object, an object which does not enwrap but which pierces, an object which does not infiltrate but which penetrates. From a review on the Invisible Oranges blog: "The music is plenty scathing, but the sound is an icepick in the ear. (...) This shit is painful." Despite the poor production of Black Metal, the riffs have relatively clear and articulate outlines.

Nevertheless, an album like Mayhem's 1994 classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is unremittingly dark. The only sensory perceptions that album provokes are those of touch and smell: the album is cold, and stinks of vomit and dust. Beyond these perceptions, only darkness. How does the music achieve the effect of darkness without mimicking the embodied perception of night? Or should one conclude that Merleau-Ponty's description of the experience of night is somehow flawed or lacking? Or did I not listen carefully enough to the music? Should I listen to what lies beyond the wafer thin surface?

Perhaps the clear and articulate outlines are only there to be subsumed in raw and primitive buzz, abolished by thick roiling blackness, destroyed by murky ambience that enwraps and infiltrates, smothered in guitardrone... "Even shouts or a distant light people it only vaguely..."


Anonymous said...

Those constant references to melodies "buried" in the guitar sound of black metal does reflect this idea of depth. This is one way the black metal production sound itself is related to the idea of depth in the earth, in the grave... only a small step to take this further into darkness or night generally...

Great blog here. Always enlightening.

valter said...

Thanks Joe!