Disassociation From an Orthodox Image: An Essay on Black Metal

author: jazznstuff1001 date: 06/17/2013 category: genres' battles
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Disassociation From an Orthodox Image: An Essay on Black Metal
Black metal has been a subgenre of music with its approach to songwriting, lyrical content, and public image set in stone for quite some time. Upon hearing the term "black metal," fans picture a Varg Vikernes infamously smiling upon being convicted for murder and arson, and then spending over two decades in prison recording ambient synthesizer music about mythology. Contemporary acts like Deafheaven and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's Liturgy are starting to change this aesthetic. These musicians dress like everyday people, void of corpsepaint or on-stage sacrifices, finding themselves lyrically celebrating the act of being alive. Their onstage performances rival their true black metal contemporaries in terms of energy, with members coming alive the second their performances start. What is becoming present is a dichotomy in today's metal scene between a current wave of American black metal musicians juxtaposed with "true" black metal inspired by the European wave artists such as Burzum, Bathory, or Mayhem. Starting as just the project of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Liturgy is a relatively recent American black metal act promoting the idea of "transcendental black metal." According to Hunt-Hendrix, who painstakingly took the time to write a manifesto on this genre and had it published in the 2010 compilation "Hideous Gnosis," which is a symposium on the ideology and sonic layout of black metal as a genre. Hunt-Hendrix gathered drummer Greg Fox, a musician he had played with before, confident that he could express the "burst beat," the predominantly jazz-influenced drumming reminiscent of players like Billy Cobham or Lenny White that appears in transcendental black metal. In relation to lyrical content, there is less of a focus on "true," or hyperborean, black metal's nihilistic tendencies, rather, this is exchanged for a celebration of life. Both of the band's LPs express vague lyric ideas, but this is an instance where lyrical predominance is traded for the poignancy of the instruments themselves, emoting through the instruments instead of using them to support the voice, as is the standard with many pop artists. In fact, arguably the best quality of this group is their intimacy as musicians. Instruments feel like they engage in conversation, also akin to older jazz records or even progressive rock groups. A Liturgy rehearsal is, in that sense, analogous to Dream Theater meeting up to record their classic "Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory," or Mahavishnu Orchestra during the "Birds of Fire" recording sessions. The band's second LP, "Aesthetica," luminously showcases the intimacy between experienced players. On "Returner," guitars function in tandem brilliantly as the burst beats accentuate where the guitars are moving harmonically. The cadences it reaches hit the listener in full force, and the band vigorously transitions through the technically-demanding song with what feels like ease. The instrumental "Generation" finds Greg Fox having the most fun. Distorted guitars and bass create a framework for Fox to showcase both the burst beat as a technique and play around with drum fills that would make Zack Hill proud. His polyrhythms feel as crisp and as well-executed as his frantic fills. "True Will" contains another a capella section, similar to the passages heard on Renihilation. This explodes into the band throwing themselves full-force into up-tempo black metal, redolent of the band's European roots. The end of the piece contains a bass feature that feels fitting, yet pleasantly unexpected. As an album, "Aesthetica" is easily one of the most refreshing takes on metal in a long time. The music is ensemble-oriented, with an intermittent degree of intimacy and communication between its players. Compositionally, many choices, from the a capella voices in "True Will" to the synth interlude "Helix Skull" will feel like a welcome surprise on the first listen, hopefully inspiring many more listens. Detractors of Liturgy and their contemporaries such as Deafheaven cite Hunt-Hendrix's lyrical philosophy on "transcendental black metal" as a reason to detest the music. Hunt-Hendrix is more than vocal in interviews about how he plays music to celebrate life, not mourn the lack of it. For these listeners, this presents a dilemma of detesting an artist for their image, calling them terms like "hipster black metal" or "untrue black metal," to whatever various swears appear at hand. The best way to enjoy Liturgy is not for their manifesto on music; the best way to enjoy this artist is for the music that appears live or on recording. The same concept is present with an artist like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Despite Godspeed's often political stance and an impression of intimidation towards mainstream press, the compositions found on their record achieve sublimity through instrumentation. For instance, the track "Moya" off 1998's "Slow Riot for Zero Kanada" EP contains the group building up to an empyrean of a crescendo after eight minutes of misery expressed through guitars and pitched percussion. For the last two minutes of that track, every members on the recording lines up. These men and women are happy to be alive, and in lieu of whatever misery or misfortune that they brought with them into the studio upon walking in, it all disappears for two beautiful minutes. A drumroll leads into a waltzing theme that exists in an echelon subjugated by instrumental felicity and tenacity. Manifestos and black metal rhetoric aside, that is Liturgy: an American black metal four piece rooted in post-rock and European black metal, using jazz-inspired drums and whatever sonic tools appear at their disposal to truly live. Looking to the future, many critics are already anticipating Deafhevaen's leaked, but not publically released, "Sunbather," as a potential album of the year candidate. This newer artist is taking Liturgy's reinvigorated black metal ideals as a starting point, and infusing it with elements of shoegaze and straight ambient at times. The harsh screams are reminiscent of Hunt-Hendrix's voice, but compositionally presented are grandiose soundscapes utilizing screams as another instrument, like piano or guitar. Heavily punk-influenced bass gathers with tremolo-picked guitar chords ala Emperor for pieces that are unlike anything else in music at this present time. If a listener ignores the Internet's notions of "hipster black metal" and manifestos on a metal that transcends all previous, the listener will in turn transcend through aural genius that is present in today's music world.
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