… the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. … The condition of man … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone. (Hobbes, Leviathan)
[Update: The more I think about this post, the more compelled I am to preface it. The basic argument stands as a 'people are able to think critical about the media they like' approach, which isn't terribly new, complicated, or even an interesting point to make. I wanted to emphasize my own moral complications about the horror of his action versus being a fan of someone's music for several years. There was an attempt to highlight the ways in which black metal has been celebrated over the recent years for its artistic authenticity and to contrast that with the fact that it is still a rather violent, bleak, and problematic subculture. It complicates a lot of cultural perspectives about consumption and art. Some of the comments nail the complications better than I did, and I appreciate the fact that people have read the piece and have added to it. Leviathan was and still is a rather difficult topic to handle. He was eventually found guilty of some of his charges. Something certainly happened in his assault arrest, but it doesn't seem to be as horrendous as the original charge against him. Noisey also released their 3-part One Man Metal documentary series featuring Wrest. And he comes off much different than he does in interviews, particularly part 3.]
I am going to write about the new Leviathan album, even though I have not yet listened to it. In the context of this article, I do not think I need to – I am discussing True Traitor, True Whore as a cultural object, not as a piece of music. I have been a fan of Leviathan (and the various and entirely different projects of Wrest (aka Jef Whitehead) – Twilight, Lurker of Chalice) since I made a special order for The Tenth Sublevel of Suicide album at my local music shop in my first year of college. He is responsible for some of my favorite music, black metal or not. All of his albums are haunting and leave an impact on the listener in some way (if they listen to black metal, or are brave enough to try). His latest release is looking to be no exception, and has many people declaring it the album of the year (considering the releases so far, that is absolutely no easy task).
But, this article is not directly about this new album. I am insanely excited to hear it, but a review/deconstruction will have to come later.
Regardless of the name of this site, and the misconceptions of popular culture being entirely mainstream culture, it is not my intention to define black metal (or even metal) to a potentially unknowing audience. As a genre, black metal has been around (arguably) since the late 70s/early 80s and has been global since the mid-to-late 80s. It is notorious for murder, church burnings, upsetting politics, radical imagery, and for its sound alone. It is not appealing to a mass audience, and was never intended to be. However, it is a cultural trend that has existed for nearly 30 years, and someone should have some minimal exposure to it, even if it is just jokes from Adult Swim’s Metalacolypse or humorous internet lists. The genre has managed to escape a large portion of cultural exposure, but you can walk into a Hot Topic and buy tee-shirts from a number of more mainstream acts (Cradle of Filth, for example).
As a bit of a primer for any future posts on the topic of black metal, I am aware that many people may not be particularly aware about the historical, cultural, and musical developments of the genre. Black metal has made its way into academia, which means that it has some tangible amount of mainstream exposure. There are some fantastic academic sources on the topic (covering history, culture, philosophy, globalization, etc):
- Lords of Chaos – A good start at the history of black metal. It sometimes romanticizes intention and ideology, as well as some potentially problematic issues with the writers (in terms of being participants rather than objective historians), but it does a great job at discussing the genre’s roots.
- Extreme Metal – This is probably my favorite book on metal, as it deals with a holistic approach to multiple genres. It is constantly interesting and very well written.
- Hideous Gnosis – Notorious in the black metal scene for being full of shit (and it mostly is…), but an important work of philosophy that is at least trying to engage the essence of black metal in different ways. The collection suffers from being overly disjointed and non-applicable, but some pieces stand out.
- Metal Rules the Globe – This book is technically not out yet, but a good collection of essays about metal and how a genre and culture develops on a global and local scale. Metal is a global genre, and this volume offers a lot of great insight on perspectives that are not generally considered.
- Metal – A Headbangers Journey / Global Metal – Two important anthropological documentaries on the genre. Accessible and well worth the time. They strive to discuss the function and purpose of metal music in peoples’ lives.
But, I should get back to Leviathan and Wrest. His music has always had a big impact on me. While it is a one-man project (which is not all that rare in black metal), all the music is well constructed, atmospheric (even if that is a cliché description), and he develops his sound in an interesting way from album to album. Wrest’s voice is almost always indecipherable, but being able to understand lyrical content has never appealed to me. This is, in part, due to metal’s inherent way of being emotionally evocative rather than lyrically illuminative. This is not the genre of singer-songwriters spinning narratives of nostalgia, love, and ennui.
As I said above, I am here to talk about the upcoming album, and again, I have yet to hear it (though, if you would like to send me future advance copies of any upcoming music for the purpose of a similarly elaborate article, I’d be thrilled). So, this article is less about the album as a piece of music, and more about the album as a cultural object. This particular context is important to discuss because of the controversy of events leading to its creation and release, as well as the intense cultural capital surrounding its distribution.
Things get complicated from here.
In January of 2011, Wrest was arrested for allegedly choking his at-the-time girlfriend, and beating her unconscious. He allegedly sexually assaulted her with his tattooing equipment, and beat her unconscious again. The article linked above is quick to mention Wrest’s physical appearance, noting his beard and tattoos, and wearing all black. For any Foucault fans out there, this is a classic example of the panoptic gaze, declaring his guilt through the judgement of his character. The crimes are deplorable and it is not difficult to put guilt on someone accused for this sort of assault – especially when someone is a black metal musician. Black metal is not unfamiliar with artists and crime, and the rhetoric of Leviathan’s albums and song titles have always had an uncomfortable air of violence and sexual aggression – including “Fucking Her Ghost in Chains of Ice”, “Mouth Orifice Bizarre”, “The History of Rape” and others. So, it is increasingly difficult to separate Wrest’s work from his actions, considering his upcoming album is entitled True Traitor, True Whore and features album art prominently displaying the hand he allegedly used to assault the woman in question.
Black metal has also always capitalized on the actions of individuals – either in directly making Varg Virkernes one of the most recognizable names in the genre, or by bands simply building cachet from the sensationalized authenticity. But, generally speaking, the actions that have stood out by these musicians have been rare. Only a small handful of black metal musicians have done anything of questionable morality.
Colleagues and friends of Wrest have spoken out in his defense, stating that he didn’t do the crime of which he is accused. They claim they saw the woman hit herself, and that she has a history of falsely accusing people of rape. When Blake Judd speaks so candidly and honestly about his own life in the interview, it is hard to imagine he is making things up about Wrest. Though, it is also difficult to take everything as truth when speaking in defense about a friend and colleague. One should be aware of both sides of the story.
Ultimately, Wrest has not been convicted, and little more about the case has come to light. Wrest had time to record a new album and approached metal’s most prestigious record label to release it. Profound Lore consistently puts out amazing albums that gain serious critical acclaim, even from unlikely sources like NPR. Generally speaking, if PL releases it, it has to be good. Invisible Oranges and Pitchfork have released exclusive tracks from the upcoming release, and they sound incredible, different, and interesting. The album is pushing the genre down creative roads and each song is intensely fascinating. But, the aura of Wrest certainly helps to put the listener into a particular state of mind when listening. Guilt or innocence aside, the crime haunts the album and artist, and thus, haunts the mind of the listener. When metal is often about making the listener feel something, and when black metal is an extreme of that goal, it is difficult to consider that this affect on the listener is deliberate – either in the construction of the album or in the culture that surrounds it. In that context, is it not successful? Is it not an accomplishment? You are not supposed to necessarily like the feeling – and this goes for any art, in a general sense – but it is supposed to make consider it. While, I do not associate the songs I have heard so far to be evocative of violence (physical or sexual), there is something profound in these tracks, and that alone is both enjoyable and important.
Within the press for the upcoming album, there is also a certain amount of discomfort with journalists and reviewers. Due to the allegations against him, people have already stated their disavowal with Wrest and his work, or choosing to only discuss the album as a piece of music alone.
Obviously, alleged sexual assault is a serious issue– one that put Whitehead in the category of Burzum (the project of convicted murderer Varg Vikernes) as a band to boycott. As music writer Chris Weingarten Tweeted (and I Retweeted) at the time: “ATTN Metal fans, today is the day you throw your Leviathan and Twilight records in the trash.” I did feel that way. I was disgusted by the details of the alleged crime. And I still am.
[Though it should be noted that the writer of above (Brandon Stosuy) continued on to ignore this particular perspective and declares, "I'd prefer to confront controversial art instead of brushing it under the rug." There are people who do not share this point of view.]
For most of us, it is difficult to separate the life of the creator with the art they create. This is not necessarily bad or unthoughtful, but simply something that occurs. Keith Kahn-Harris, writer of Extreme Metal and MetalJew.com often discusses the work of Burzum and the conflicts he feels when listening to the music, both as a Jew and as a fan. He states:
[T]here’s no way of ignoring the context of which Burzum emerged – a violent, misanthropic world of church burnings, suicide and murder. Even if the history of the early 1990s Norwegian black metal is often romanticised, sensationalized and its extremity exaggerated, you cannot ignore the fact that Vikernes burned down several historic churches and murdered his erstwhile friend Euronymous of the band Mayhem. Nor can you ignore the fact that even before his imprisonment, Vikernes embraced pagan neo-Nazism and once even sent a letter bomb to the Israeli band Salem.
One may view this as a rant against Burzum, but he prefaces this acknowledgement of Burzum by review his latest album – “Vikernes produced something cold, sublime and ineffably beautiful.” Again, Kahn-Harris is a fan of Burzum. One might see potential conflict in this, but he concludes his piece with this particularly apt statement:
The acceptance of Burzum within much of the contemporary metal scene provides ample illustration of the ways in which an overriding love of music can cause people to overlook or collude in dangerous politics. The flipside of this though is that Burzum’s music can also undermine Vikernes dangerousness. It may be then that leftist Burzum fans should feel no guilt. The more albums Vikernes produces, the less he will be a threat to anyone or anything.
Justin Davisson goes on further to discuss this tenuous relationship between artist and audience in his essay “Extreme Politics and Extreme Metal: Strange Bedfellows or Fellow Travelers?” (which can be found in the amazing collection of essays in The Metal Void: First Gathering - a clear predecessor to Hideous Gnosis, but with actual intent, purpose, and application). He states:
Music from bands like Graveland, Absurd, Nokturnal Mortum and many other like-minded bands can easily be found in record stores in the traditionally liberal cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, California.
This is not really surprising or shocking in any way, but uses some interviews with shop keepers to help explain the point, stating that music buyers can be extremely conscious of the politics in the music they buy, but that this is not always the case.
[W]e have a couple of older Jewish guys, who both wrestled over Burzum to begin with but both eventually decided they love the music and have chosen to just ignore the politics. I think that stuff is abhorrent, but a lot of the music is amazing.
H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories warning America about the dangers of race mixing. Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist. We forgive a lot of these thoughts and actions because of their historical and cultural context. And, quite frankly, they are all amazing artists, worthy of our praise.
But, there are just as many artists today with questionable politics. Famed science fiction writer Orson Scott Card opposed gay rights (this is a particularly good article on how video game fans reacted to a highly-rated game for Xbox that was based off of a story of Card’s). Roman Polanski raped a child. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, posted some bizarre and extremely misogynist rants on his website. These actions always shock their unknowing fans, but Card is still a best-seller, Polanski is still making critically acclaimed films, and Dilbert is still in most newspapers.
You’ll have to excuse the divergence away from Leviathan here, but I’m going somewhere with it.
Chicago’s Nachtmystium, fronted by Blake Judd, is known for pushing their music into new directions. Their earlier albums represented a traditional form of black metal, but their music has been growing increasingly “psychedelic” in nature, pulling in clear influences from very non-metal genres. Nachtmystium embodies what Kahn-Harris (applying Foucault’s concept) describes as transgression, “implying a sense of testing and crossing boundaries and limits” (Kahn-Harris Extreme Metal, 28). Nachtmystium’s most recent album, Addicts: Black Meddle part II (the album name a plays on Pink Floyd), describes itself on the album’s cover as “[continuing] to blur the chopped lines of metal and psychedelia, only this time cutting in a little bit of dark wave to help bring you down.” This contrasts to the advertising of Swedish contemporaries, Watain, who released Lawless Darkness a week before Addicts. The album describes itself as “up-to-date Bathory worship,” implying a traditional black metal sound. Nachtmystium boldly transgresses away from the notion of an “authentic” black metal sound, and admits it right on the front of their albums. Judd states, “I just feel that those bands are marketed for what has happened outside of the music, not so much involving the music. There’s guys selling crack in Chicago that are scarier to me than [Gaahl of Gorgoroth],” Nachtmystium rejects the idea of marketing their albums based on the actions of past bands that made their genre notorious, and chooses to focus on their own music, transgressing away from the idea of marketing on the aura of the past, and of limiting their own creative output to the historical standard of music for the genre. Addicts is described as including “dance beats, juddery eighth-note alternative rock, psychedelia,” and is described as including influences from Neil Young, Joy Division, and Interpol as well as “[a cross] between extreme metal and music recognizable as ‘pop.’” This review emphasizes the way in which Nachtmystium has brought in outside influences and has created hybridic music away from the clichéd sound of tradition.
Black metal has traditionally been associated with “corpse paint” – white face paint and blackened eyes, Satanic symbols, and “infernal names” – referring to yourself as a demonic pseudonym (Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal, 38). These iconographic symbols, along with the particularly hateful worldview, are frequent throughout the culture, and particularly heavy among Scandinavian bands, and have become defining features of a black metal band. Judd formerly referred to himself as “Azentrius,” and subscribed to these symbols of black metal, but has removed all from his band, transgressing away from the traditional notions of what it means to be black metal.
These symbolic notions of black metal has haunted Judd’s recent career, particularly accusations of racism and bigotry. The band was dropped from the Scion Rock Fest in 2009, a large extreme metal festival, because Toyota Motor Corporation did not want a racist band on their tour. Judd has a long past in the black metal scene, starting when he was in his teens, and the actions of his youth have haunted his career. During an interview in 2005, Judd was fully encapsulated with the traditional black metal lifestyle, including using a pseudonym, wearing corpse paint, and subscribing to an aggressive view of the world. Judd was quoted in the interview discussing the talent of his influences versus, “something not found in 99% of TV-fed ‘bands’ through MTV and other Zionist means of demoralizing young American’s artistic standards.” In reaction to this, Judd states, “I probably didn’t realize exactly what I was saying. I made a stupid comment as a kid,” Judd admits to his words, but also is aware of the ideologies prevalent in black metal culture. In his youth, Judd subscribed to the notions of black metal, including many of the negative aspects of the genre. Though he is clearly aware of the boundaries and limits of the genre, particularly in the ways one must act to be an authentic member of the culture, Judd’s transgression away from these boundaries is embodied in his rejection of traditional black metal ideology, discourse and ultimately in the rejection of traditional black metal culture.
This is also combined with two early Nachtmystium albums being released on Vinland Winds and Unholy Records and Regimental Records, labels noted for connections to white supremacist organizations. Judd stats that the releases were not authorized, as Miles Raymer explains, “[the album] was a CD-R, and Vinland simply burned more copies without the band’s permission.” Judd claims he simply didn’t know Regimental Records was affiliated with racism, as it was a small D.I.Y. organization, and when he found out he demanded they stopped distribution. These controversies have been detrimental to Nachtmystium’s ability to tour, as promoters are unwilling to be associated with the band. Raymer is quick to counter these weak allegations of bigotry with several simple facts, “Judd collaborated with Robert Lowe of Lichens, who’s black…Bruce Finkelman, his [former] boss at the Empty Bottle [bar], is Jewish, as is Nachtmystium’s manager, Merrick Jarmulowicz.” (All quotes from this paragraph are from this article - it is particularly good).
Point being – Nachtmystium is not and should not be wholly represented by their actions, past, present, or future. Neither should Leviathan, or any other artist.
We are not your leaders
We are not your friends
We are thieves and cheaters
We live at the end
We don’t want your loyalty
We reject your trust
We ignore your sympathy
We do what we must
- High on Hate – Addicts: Black Meddle pt II
While black metal is worthy of our critical attention, it is also constantly there to remind us of this sometimes mortally troubling relationship between artist and audience. In the case of black metal, it is easy for us not involved to separate ourselves from the things we do not like and to celebrate what we do. For the artists, it is very much their entire lives condensed into their work, and one can not glorify and ignore parts of a life on a whim.
A friend of mine once described her thoughts on art to me, after she had read a book for a class. I can’t remember the title, but that is not important, her words stuck in my head. They are thoughtful, sincere, and powerfully apt (as she usually is).
I do like the way that this author describes the way that art works. It gives form to the immaterial, confronting the viewer with new interactions with the materials that surround us, thereby creating new thought processes rather than objects of knowledge.
I have always been drawn to more formalist approaches to things, as I like to work with processes of intent and purpose, and I think that this really nails down the purpose of art. Though I could certainly go into Benjamin or Adorno, I like the simplicity of this statement more and it focuses on the audience, rather than the artist. It gives the consumer agency in the artistic process.
The Tweet mentioned above is destructive for several reasons. It removes the idea that audience is able to think critically about what they are consuming. It strips the listener from being able to enjoy any type of art, and it revokes their ability to acknowledge and think critically about those responsible for the things they like. This is probably why the stance was later rejected by Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy. Keith Kahn-Harris can like Burzum, and I can continue to like Leviathan.
In a sense, Leviathan’s TTTW is a perfect example of why cultural literacy is important, and how badly it is ignored in contemporary education. Though we should be aware of the aura surrounding of a piece of art, never should it be able to overshadow the consumer’s ability to interpret, negotiate, criticize, or enjoy a piece of art. A piece of art is not attempting to convince us of any particular ideology, but only to make us think. Our ability to critically engage a piece of art is not entirely dependent on role of the artist and we should not allow the creator to have all the social and cultural power in this dynamic relationship. Negating the ability of the consumer to think critically is damningly destructive and ignores the purpose of art in the first place.
The ability to be critical is an ethical action. Geoffrey Harpham states in his book Shadows of Ethics that:
It is also the office of criticism to promote literature’s immediacy, concreteness, vitality, and affective richness, and so to assert the claims of literature as a way of understanding human life that is superior to philosophy. –Harpham, iiiiv
It is not unreasonable to replace “literature” with “art” or even “culture”. The study of culture, art, media, music, or any related concept is important, and these can all tell us something about the understanding of human life – even True Traitor, True Whore. Good art (and I use that phrase begrudgingly) should make us feel and think, but exactly what is up to the consumer. It is not unethical to consume art by seemingly unethical individuals as long as you are able to think critically about what you are consuming. One should not feel troubled about buying a Leviathan album, but one should be aware of the context in which it was created.
I can’t wait to buy this album and listen to it very loudly in my car.