Fear and loathing of black metal in the 2010s

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 - 4:14pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

For better or for worse, black metal broke the mold in the 2010s. It was a long time coming, too. From its inception in the early ’80s until shortly before 2010, black metal, with regard to both its sound and its culture, had barely budged. In any other genre, this is a completely foreign idea — artists are supposed to live and breathe, experiment and develop. But not in black metal. In black metal, bands are supposed to live within the common sounds of the genre, nudging up against the boundaries but never pushing (or even breaking) them. Before, artists were supposed to look, sound and carry themselves a certain way, or else they were doomed to a lackluster, dead-end career. In the past 10 years, though, bands suddenly stopped caring and started doing their own thing, and some bands became very popular as a result. To some, this was a long time coming. To others, though, this was damn near the end of the world. 

You see, metal purists (especially black metal purists) want to be familiar with every piece of music they hear. They want to be surprised by how each artist bends the genre to meet their desired sound, but they don’t want any curveballs. They want what they know, and they don’t care about anything else. So when black metal began to turn outward in the early 2010s, heads from every corner of the music world turned. Critics began to find themselves drawn to new black metal musings. Casual music fans began to dip their toes into the subgenre. Notably, though, metal heads began to turn a blind eye to the progress that lay in front of them. As black metal began to turn to the sky, the heads began to look to the stagnant pond that is metal, pretending their world remained unaltered.

The first band to really break the mold was Liturgy, a group of Brooklyn hipsters (largely unversed in black metal) led by vocalist/guitarist/theorist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. In 2009, Hunt-Hendrix released a manifesto titled “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism” at a black metal theory conference. The manifesto explained the idea of transcendental (American) black metal, a subgenre of metal that could transcend the “Haptic Void,” the imaginary boundary that contains all other forms of metal, a task that Hyperborean (Scandinavian) black metal could never accomplish given its fixation on death, executed through its signature pummeling and lifeless drum technique, the blast beat. Transcendental black metal, focused instead on life and growth, was to be accomplished through the burst beat, a drum technique that lives and breathes as each song progresses. Don’t get it misconstrued, though: the music is still heavy, but it attempts to reach a higher plane. Given the radical ideas and rampant experimentation they fostered, Liturgy was met with some serious backlash. In fact, some claimed that they were nothing more than hipsters set out to ruin another good thing. Others claimed that they were too pretentious and didn’t carry the spirit of black metal.

Liturgy came close to realizing transcendental black metal with the release of 2009’s Renihilation (the opposite of annihilation), but it didn’t quite meet the mark. It was still heavily influenced by the so-called Hyperborean black metal, but moments like the chilling, evolving “Ecstatic Rite” show the potential of transcendental black metal. The band came even closer with 2012’s incredible (and incredibly polarizing) Aesthetica. The album broke the boundaries of black metal with songs like “Sun of Light” and “Red Crown,” but it didn’t quite transcend the Haptic Void. After 2015’s misstep The Ark Work, the electronic and hip hop influenced release that left fans flustered, it seemed that the band had run its course. The Ark Work simply was not metal, nor could anyone consider it to be metal. Liturgy, specifically Hunt-Hendrix, jumped too high and inevitably missed the mark. However, after an electronic release from Hunt-Hendrix and four years away from the genre, 2019’s surprise release, H.A.Q.Q., set Liturgy back on the right course, keeping things metal as hell but correctly introducing electronic and glitch elements. From heavy hitters brimming with life and humanity like “GOD OF LOVE” and “HAJJ” that utilize electronic stutter steps in lieu of sonic progressions to challenging yet palate-cleansing interludes like “EXACO I,” H.A.Q.Q. is evidence that even though it will not be easy, eventually, Liturgy will transcend the Haptic Void. Black metal purists be damned, the band has already begun to transform, and there’s no reason for them to stop in the next decade.

Similarly, the advent of atmospheric black metal has ruffled the feathers of many metalheads. Bands were creating rock and alternative-infused black metal that more resembled the Cure than it did Darkthrone. Expectedly, metalheads were largely unhappy, and no band made them more unhappy than San Francisco’s Deafheaven. Formed in 2010, the band released Roads to Judah in 2011. Musically, the album was typical black-metal fare, but with a twist. Rather than an onslaught of destruction, the violence was often broken up with glistening piano and acoustic guitar ballads. They are, like so many other boundary-pushing black metal acts, inspired by Japan’s Envy, one of the first bands to blend black metal with countless softer, more accessible genres. Lyrically, the album diverged from black metal’s typical depictions of the wilderness and critiques on various religious and governmental institutions, instead focusing on vocalist and lyricist George Clarke’s substance abuse and general tomfoolery. The album was generally a success, finding a home on several year-end lists, but it started to make purists grumble. Once again, the hipsters were dead-set on ruining yet another good thing.

Deafheaven didn’t stop there, though. Their next release, 2013’s Sunbather, blew the iron gates of black metal wide open. First of all, the album cover was vibrant peachy-pink. Never has this color ever been associated with black metal. Second, the music — it was beautiful, often crushingly so. Just listen to “Dream House,” far and away the band’s most popular song. Guitarist and songwriter Kerry McCoy introduced elements of shoegaze and new wave (two very un-black-metal genres) to the band’s sound (hence the Cure comparisons). Third, and finally, the lyrics. Similar to the idea of Transcendental black metal, Clarke writes about life. However, he writes about man’s never-ending pursuit of perfection and man’s accompanying, inevitable failure. Critics adored this album, which made black metal purists hate it even more than they already did. On top of this experimentation, the members of Deafheaven are conventionally normal looking and could potentially function normally within society, which is inherently not very metal. Worse yet, the members of Deafheaven like other genres of music, including hip hop, a genre generally disliked by metalheads for its materialism and supposed lack of lyrical depth. Despite their success, Deafheaven has not stopped experimenting, releasing the much more blackened, depressed New Bermuda in 2015 and the critical and commercial smash (in terms of metal) Ordinary Corrupt Human Love in 2018. However, by the time these albums were released, metalheads had moved on, largely ignoring both the return to black metal on New Bermuda and the introduction of a sound even brighter than that of Sunbather and influenced by Thin Lizzy and similar classic rock acts on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love.

Despite all the experimentation and delineation that occurred in black metal over the past ten years, there was still some logical progression of the genre. Austria’s Harakiri for the Sky is, in every facet, much more black metal. Black metal fans couldn’t help but pay attention when they first came onto the scene. The band looks like black metal (black clothing and long, stringy hair), carries themselves like black metal (the two members are known as MS, the multi instrumentalist, and JJ, the vocalist) and, most importantly, sounds like black metal (for the most part). Harakiri for the Sky practices within the realm of post-black metal. They stick to black metal-like ideas, but they point them towards the future. 

The music, like Deafheaven, is inspired by Envy and it’s still heavy, but it’s so much bigger than traditional black metal. It’s as if an instrumental post-rock act like Explosions in the Sky or This Will Destroy You transformed into a black metal band with hellish vocals and devastating lyrics. The sound is big, as if it were made to transfuse through the valleys and fjords of a distant land. It’s also uncompromising and, at times, emotional. Elements of shoegaze are incorporated, but that does not mean that the music is soft. In fact, it often pummels listeners and uses shoegaze and atmospheric elements as a brief respite. The lyrics, while not archetypal for black metal, are a logical progression upon the established themes. They focus largely on inner turmoil with regard to life’s everyday struggles, but they are written in a poetic, almost cryptic manner at times. What’s more, the music and lyrics continue to be nihilistic and death-centric (as black metal purists require), even though the focus is on the individual rather than the general.

In 2012, Harakiri for the Sky released their self-titled first album and have continued to release an album every two years, a nearly unprecedented pace for a black metal outfit. Remarkably, each album has been released to the acclaim of critics and metalheads alike. The band has even been nominated for the Hard & Heavy category of the Amadeus Austrian Music Awards, which is no small feat for any act. The band functions like a man on the inside, slowly infiltrating black metal and introducing new ideas, and they show no signs of slowing down.

What makes the experimentation of Harakiri for the Sky different from that of Deafheaven and Liturgy remains unclear. Maybe it’s the appearance of the product. Harakiri is black metal through and through, and Liturgy and Deafheaven are far more clean cut, but the products are no doubt similar. Maybe it’s how abruptly each band departs from the norms of black metal. Liturgy acts quickly to transcend the mother sound, and Deafheaven isn’t far behind in terms of departure speed. Harakiri for the Sky stays closer to home, moving a bit farther away with each release. What is clear is that these three bands, as well as a long list of bands like Alcest, Yellow Eyes, Wolves in the Throne Room, and the absolutely haunting and spectacular Zeal & Ardor, for better or for worse, defined black metal in the 2010s. They have brought experimentation to a genre known for its stagnation for the past decade. In the next decade, they are poised to continue making heavy metal waves, whether the metalheads like it or not.