Black Metal and Consumerism: A Holiday Lesson
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the foundational tenets of American society. Originally expostulated by John Locke as life, liberty, and property, these certain inalienable rights are written into the very being of the American capitalist machine. Each of these core values, taken on its own, is a beneficent, even essential, cornerstone for how our modern lives work. Without life and life abundant, we would become simple worker ants, droning around in our hives of industry, knowing neither pleasure nor pain but rather simple, blasé existence. Without liberty, we become prisoners shackled to the machine, confined to a set of mandates upon which we cannot agree and under which we cannot thrive. Without property, we are left to toil for the benefit of the few while barely even meeting our own material needs of shelter and comfort. Each of these rights is inextricably linked to the other, and the tri-fold union of all three is essential to the quality of life we’ve come to expect.
However, the system becomes perverted and distorted when any of the three aspects is given more prominence than the others. When life alone becomes the end-goal, the prized summit of the mountain of existence, we fail to actually live a life worth living. Simply seeking to preserve our own life and enjoyment of it leads to the sort of boring, catatonic gratification culture that has become so commonplace in the media today. If we live by the puerile mantra of “living life without regrets,” we will never know true challenge or the meaning of testing ourselves, never plumb the depths of our humanity and realize the heights to which we can truly rise if we are held down by concatenations of fleeting pursuits and trivial luxuries. In short, a life spent in pursuit of life will never enable the sort of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs because we will never test and stretch ourselves to reach that point. A life spent in pursuit of instant indulgence will only ever produce a dull and shallow existence.
Similarly, a prioritization of liberty above all else will only produce a meaningless freedom. Valuing freedom above all else can only come at the cost of eschewing all compromise. This can in turn lead to one of two paths. Either the pursuit of freedom leads to the loss of life, as evidenced by the countless martyrs of ages past, or it can result in a complete loss of all connection to other humans. To live in society is to compromise. Compromise is the mortar cementing the bricks of any relationship, and without it, no meaningful connections can be established. A life in total pursuit of liberty will contrastingly result in utter alienation.
Last, the pursuit of property may be one of the most poisonous of all deceptively magnanimous endeavors. Property, when it meets our basic needs and allows for the refinement of relationships and the construction of a common culture, is both good and enriching. Metal as a commodity is the commonality we here at this blog have used to construct our mutual understanding and our cooperative language. Our consumption of the art is a mutually enriching pursuit as we all share in the bounty, and this joint endeavor has in fact allowed us to develop a relationship with each other wherein we can each work for the benefit or the whole and to help individuals through difficult periods. However, a life spent in the pursuit of material goods can only lead to slavery to those same goods. One of the core tenets of Aristotelian ethics is temperance. All good things must be practiced in moderation, for even enviable values, such as courage, can lead to harmful actions, such as foolhardiness, when allowed to warp under a lack of restraint. Property, then, when pursued as an end rather than a means, is a cancer that only promotes gluttony. This in turn feeds both the self-indulgence and the self-alienation about which we have been warned and will never promote the sort of thriving and fulfilling life envisioned by Aristotle and promoted by ethicists throughout the ages.
The holiday season (especially Black Friday and Christmas), then, is the embodiment of all the evils and corruptions inherent within the warped fringes of our three inalienable rights. By seeking only our material goods over the health and safety of others (life) and in a slavish devotion to brands and products (liberty), we are essentially denying our own humanity and embracing the perverse greed that lurks within all of us. Therefore, as an alternative to the maelstrom of consumption and indulgence you’ll witness if you sally forth to the stores this week, we here at the Toilet would like to offer an alternative. Embrace the simplistic pursuit of a modest and refined life espoused by certain branches of the metal world. Metal as a form of art has often been about rebellion against the establishment and a rejection of the status quo. This is perhaps most evident in the structural elements of black metal, spanning from the very roots of the Norwegian black metal scene to the modern embodiments of an anti-establishment form of art. If the status quo is to consume and intake material, black metal then is a rejection of that greed and a pursuit of the more temperate and soulful pursuits of fulfilling life.
As the debauchery of the glam metal scene in America waxed towards its self-destructive zenith, an underground of bands that eschewed the glitz and the veneer emerged, embracing a more slipshod but aggressive form of art to attract those seeking greater substance than the gluttony of the norm. Bands like Hellhammer and Venom soon erected the pillars of modern black metal upon a foundation of rebellion. This rebellion continued under the second wave of black metal bands, but the spirit emerged in the form of vitriol against established religion and social norms. However, even in this scene, non-conformity reigned. Of particular note was Emperor, a band who, in attempting to embrace greater structure and grandeur within its craft, quickly alienated much of the core fanbase who decried anything non-necro as false. However, the spirit of swimming against the current prevailed, and it remains the driving force for modern black metal bands.
Today, the seeds of revolt against trends have germinated in various ways within the black metal scene. Deathspell Omega and their ilk reject the charade of false pagan beliefs in pursuit of true orthodoxy and infernal enlightenment. Wolves in the Throne Room and other practitioners within the Cascadian Black Metal scene dispel the illusion of consumption and its detrimental effect on our planet as a dangerous and environmentally self-destructive act of poor ecological stewardship. The Black Twilight Circle deny the dominance of modernity and globalization by extolling the virtues of past Native cultures. Others within the black metal scene simply reject the typical conventions of their own genre. Blut Aus Nord want nothing to do with the overtly Satanic buffoonery of the Norwegian scene. Antestor stand defiant against the infernal origins of the scene. Even more strangely, Spektr and Stagnant Waters simply rally against the expected.
In all its forms, pure black metal is a triumphant cry of defiance. Oddly enough, this defiance, if pitted against the norms of greed and hoarding coveted by our society, acts as a moral compass to guide us back to a more nominal, centered life. Strangely, many bands that claim to support evil and wicked deeds serve as a reminder of how to live a well-balanced and meaningful life. Make no mistake; burning historical institutions and murder are deplorable acts. The racist and fascist beliefs of many bands are beyond repugnant. Unfortunately, many black metal bands use their art as vehicles for hateful ideology. But perhaps those extremes are meant to turn the mirror back on ourselves and reflect the lack of balance within our own society. Perhaps it takes an act of extreme maliciousness to remind us how dulled we are to extreme valor and uprightness. Perhaps we can examine the corrupt tenets of some bands and acknowledge the roots of such disdain. Every system has feedback, and perhaps, for example, the overt rejection of modern American ideals can remind us of the evil and cowardly acts committed in the name of Manifest Destiny.
Therefore, as you go about your holiday season, remember the lessons taught by the music we love. As we bombard our ears with extremity, let’s reject extremity in our own lives and find a balanced center of modest living. Embrace a love for your countrymen and family. Value the giver more than the gift. Enjoy your freedoms without over-indulging. Battle the desires for outrageous consumption and narcissism. In all of it, stay centered.
(Many thanks to Joe, Masterlord, and Guacamole Jim for talking this through with me).