October 6, 2011

EDITORIAL: CRUSTCAKE VS. THE NEW YORKER


Pictured: Wolves in the Throne Room

By Andrew Wilhelm (Denver)

If The New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones was looking to stir the cauldron with his recent piece on U.S. Black Metal, he no doubt succeeded.

When one writes about a chronically misunderstood topic such as black metal in a nationally prominent publication, there is a delicate balance that will ensure volatility if upset. Most New Yorker readers are more than likely at least tangentially aware of heavy metal on the whole. Beyond that, the finer intricacies that separate black from death and psych from doom are probably outside their general purview. As such, writing about music at such subterranean depths presents an ontological struggle: you can't use cryptic "insider info" and jargon, but on the other hand, unless you really do your research, the devotees who know their stuff will eat you alive.

Frere-Jones, sadly, blew an opportunity to enlighten a substantial readership about the U.S.' contribution to black metal.

Frere-Jones immediately undermines his credibility by rehashing the look of the Norwegian black metal groups and the two points of Varg Vikernes' history that everyone who knows about him pounces on, and then has the gall to start the subsequent paragraph with "Until recently, it was a legacy that the genre couldn't shake."

Well, not when you keep bringing it up.

Almost no note is made of the musical innovations of the Second Wave of Black Metal. Nope, just the fact that inverted crosses and corpse paint were the armor du jour of Norway's blackened youth. Between Lords of Chaos and Until the Light Takes Us, the story of Stave church arson and snow-bound murder is pretty much settled. It's time to move on.

And while those initial macabre images have bounced around the collective zeitgeist for more than nearly two decades, the pioneering Norwegian bands -- and their individual members -- never stayed the same. To wit: Darkthrone, notably, moved towards a crust-black fusion; Mayhem flirted with the avant-garde (and Attila Csihar still does), Emperor got increasingly Wagnerian, and Vikernes has mellowed with age.

Josh Haun, of That's How Kids Die, wrote a great essay a few months ago on a trio of works from Thorns, Dødheimsgard and Satyricon that injected a futuristic perspective on black metal. While I'll leave the specifics to Mr. Haun, it's safe to say at least that some of black metal's original guard were interested in advancing the form.

You wouldn't know that from Frere-Jones' article though -- to the uninitiated, True Norwegian Black Metal was nothing more than a bunch of dudes who dressed up like KISS and burned churches and killed each other. "A self-sufficient, distinct subgenre that wasn’t looking to expand" my ass.

Having a bad lede sinks the ship from the very start, but it just gets worse.

Frere-Jones goes on to list a few of the American black metal bands making waves, and while the usual suspects show up -- Liturgy, Krallice, Wolves in the Throne Room -- he also lists Absu, Inquisition and Leviathan as part of this new movement.

Absu and Inquisition in particular are not young bucks, as both have been playing metal since the early '90s, and Leviathan has more than a few years on this most recent crop of U.S. black metal groups.

Is it because these groups have had spurts of recent attention -- Absu recently had a song premiere on Pitchfork, Leviathan's upcoming album is one of the most anticipated of the year, and Inquisition's latest record has garnered heaps of critical praise -- that Frere-Jones name-drops them? "Name-drops" is key, as the other references read like a checklist of "Gotta mention the popular band; gotta mention a kvlt band."

The only thing these bands have in common is that they formed and live in the U.S. Musically, they are worlds apart. Each band has its own take on the sound, and with a place as big as the United States, geographically and demographically, that alone does not a scene make.

Referencing Absu and Inquisition becomes more troublesome when Frere-Jones states, “The quickest way to understand the newest wave of black metal is to imagine that Satan did not score a visa and is still stuck in Norway." Inquisition is traditional in its getup and imagery, and Absu, while not Satanists, use the occult as a cornerstone of their overall presentation. Going back to the Norwegians, Burzum does not invoke Satan even slightly, and Immortal were more interested in the might of winter than of the fiery pits of hell.

Black metal cannot be divided neatly or cast by broad stereotypes, both of which Frere-Jones attempts to do in this piece.

Which two bands are focused on most in the article? If you guessed Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy, you are correct. I am not going to debate the merits of either's music. Rather, the fact that Frere-Jones does not challenge the narrative that for non-metal publications writing about black metal, Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy are the only bands worth covering. Both bands have distinguishing characteristics that are ready-made for journalistically lazy angles. "Oh, look, Wolves in the Throne Room live on a farm! And they eschew Satanism! Gee whiz, Liturgy look like art school students and get hated on metal dudes! Not only that, their singer wrote a whole manifesto!"

I am not against metal bands of any stripe being featured in mainstream outlets. Metal can't stay insular forever -- it has to attract new converts. Nobody was born with a genetic predisposition towards bowing to the Ross Bay Cult. But there's a difference between simplifying complex material for easy digestion and presenting incomplete -- or worse, incorrect -- material. It does a disservice to everyone.

While most mainstream writers fail to give metal the proper articulation it needs, the situation is not a total wasteland. NPR's Lars Gotrich, in particular, does a fantastic job of reversing the stereotype that public radio only cares about indie, folk, and classical. Since taking the helm at Pitchfork, Brandon Stosuy has given metal a much greater voice on the indie-dominated site. Five years ago -- hell, two years ago -- you think they would have premiered an Absu song or reviewed a Circle of Ouroboros record? As I mentioned earlier, it's a balance easily prone to failure and I congratulate Gotrich and Stosuy for their accomplishments.

Frere-Jones is a smart guy -- you have to have your wits about you to get in the door at The New Yorker -- but it's a shame he didn't thoroughly examine the genre he was paid to write about.

And to the editors of The New Yorker, if you ever need any consultation on metal in the future, please drop us a line.

23 comments:

Chase Macabre said...

Great job, Andy. I love this piece.

Carm said...

Whenever mainstream publications like The New Yorker try to cover a subculture that they have minimal understanding of, it feels like a bunch of James Taylor listening midtown Manhattan yuppies in Jos A. Bank outfits who just read the Cliff Notes version of Lords of Chaos slumming it at a Black Twilight Circle show at Death By Audio or something like that. The New Yorker might wanna start with kiddie black metal like Dimmu Borgir or Cradle Of Filth before even attempting to dig deeper underground for nothing more than shock value and a coffee shop conversation starter "So what is going on with those hardcore black metallers?" Great article, Andy.

Van Damned said...

This is rock crit at its finest. Bravo, Andy.

"Black metal cannot be divided neatly or cast by broad stereotypes, both of which Frere-Jones attempts to do in this piece."

^^^Also, nailed it.

Frankie Marin said...

I was grinning while reading this entire post. Awesome work!

The Path Less Traveled Records said...

Excellent work. You nailed it.

Andrew Wilhelm said...

Carm - I would love to see some business types at a BTC show. That would rule. BUT, my point in the article wasn't that mainstream pubs shouldn't cover black metal. It was just that they should get their shit traight.

Van - I'm still lightyears away from my "Lester Bangs on Metal Machine Music."

Not enough hate in the comments section!

Andrew Wilhelm said...

*straight

Errol said...

Brilliant critique Andrew. It turns the NYer article's decontruction on itself and lays bear the rarifed air of intellectual laziness masquerading a highbrow critique. Hipster skewered.

You folks should get this syndicated on other sites.

Victhor The Viking said...

Well Said Andrew, well said

The Swizard said...

#based

Foeglitarian said...

you sure told the new yorker what's up

Andrew Wilhelm said...

This is only the beginning, Foeg. I'm fighting a cage match with Malcolm Gladwell next week.

The Jackyl said...

You should have Frere-Jones's job. Great piece, man.

Michael said...

Great piece here man. unfortunatley this sort of journalism towards black metal is all to common. here in the u.k. and ireland, even within alternative music media, the focus is upon either the varg vikernes debacle or a kind of trendy yet cynical air of condescension towards the genre being mostly infantile minus a few good eggs. maybe its a victim of its own cult status. there's alot of musical history to undertake when writing about it which some mainstream editors dont want to spend the column inches on, but whatever it is its something, not only black metal has suffered over here for a long time. great wee site this.

Andrew Wilhelm said...

Jackyl: Thanks dude! One day, I shall.

Michael: I imagine it's worse on your side on the Atlantic - wasn't Kerrang one of the first bigger pubs to cover black metal? The funny thing is that pretty much any genre of music, metal or otherwise, is 99% shit and 1% fucking awesome, and yet somehow black metal gets that "trendy yet cynical air of condescension" worse than other genres for a variety of factors. "A victim of its own cult status" is a good way to putting it, and I think we here at Crustcake are trying to move beyond that, as others should. Thanks for commenting.

Bloody Kitten said...

I get it, Frere-Jones is rehashing old stuff for the edification of the non-kvlt and am cool with it. His problem starts even before he begins.
How to approach black metal?
Because any other type of metal is chopped liver? The funny thing is, right now almost every metal subgenre has at least one mainstream critic-friendly act (not a bad thing at all). When you ignore that diversity for the flavor of the month, it just confirms a metalhead's suspicion about a certain type of publication.

Rafferty said...

While I'm not enamoured with the piece, Wilhelm sounds like a 12 year-old whose Mother has found his secret hiding place and is bent she hasn't respected its sanctuary.

- You fail to point out the vocal misrepresentation of BM, but seem incessantly upset two bands that are du jour are covered by a mainstream magazine who are not exactly known for esoteric material.

- Your use of 'ontological' is suspect at best.

- Black Metal's history and mention in pop culture will always come with the preface of the violence surrounding the 2nd Wave - get over it.

Andrew Wilhelm said...

BK: Black metal is a very different and difficult beast from pretty much every other form of metal, so I see why SFJ focused on it, even if he didn't do a very good job.

Rafferty: Finally, some hate!

"Wilhelm sounds like a 12 year-old whose Mother has found his secret hiding place and is bent she hasn't respected its sanctuary."

I made it clear towards the end the article that I support mainstream coverage of metal when it's done right. I also am well aware of covering such a genre for a mainstream or otherwise non-specialist outlet does present a challenge of balancing accessibility vs. an informed point of view. SJF did not respect either side of that balance.

"You fail to point out the vocal misrepresentation of BM, but seem incessantly upset two bands that are du jour are covered by a mainstream magazine who are not exactly known for esoteric material."

See my previous response, but it's also worth pointing out that SFJ didn't create a solid bridge between the 2nd Wave and post-2000 USBM. The description of the 2nd wave in particular makes it seem like a mere footnote. Also, I have no problems with WITTR and Liturgy as bands, just the way they've been covered. And that's not the bulk of issue I take with SFJ's article.

"Your use of 'ontological' is suspect at best."

How, exactly? I'm curious.

"Black Metal's history and mention in pop culture will always come with the preface of the violence surrounding the 2nd Wave - get over it."

I am well aware that the 2nd Wave will never shake its past, but shouldn't we at least try to move the conversation forward? A lot's changed in 20 years. What exactly IS your point? That we shouldn't move on?

Rafferty said...

You apparently want it both ways: Metal to be covered by mainstream media, but not done in a fashion that you deem unworthy, which it will always be by a mainstream outlet. Had F-J plummed the 2nd Wave intricately, he'd have to have spent more time on the violent aspect. I assume you'd decry that, but do you expect such salacious material not to be a major point of interest of a non-musical rag?

I fail to see the inability of explaining sub-genres of Metal an 'ontological' struggle. The exclusion of sub-genres or their modifiers does not imply any quandary with their existence or their place in the music's pantheon. A problem of nomenclature perhaps, but nothing more serious.

Andrew Wilhelm said...

I have no idea why you're turning this into a "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" affair.

Rafferty said...

I'm not turning it into anything of the such. I merely claimed that the piece did not warrant the criticism you placed upon it. Blame your mate Vince over at Metalsucks, he seemed to think your piece was the "Ulysses" of literary criticism. It may be, I just didn't think so. Not that big a deal.

Full Metal Attorney said...

You've done a great job here. That NY article was an abortion, and your criticism is spot-on. I do think the 2nd wave controversy was probably necessary to the original article, but other than that it seems to jump around to a couple of different in-vogue topics without really providing context or flow.

Jack said...

While a great deal of this article has merit, unfortunately,the notion that we have to "move on" from the violence of the Second Wave rather dreadfully undermines your overall point. History doesn't work that way. The murders and church burnings are historically significant; the fact that the bands moved on musically and most likely the majority of people involved in this regret doing it doesn't erase that it happened. It will always taint the legacy of Norwegian black metal-and it should.

History demands that you tell it all. No matter how sordid or sad it is. The assumption that this article's mainstream audience is aware of these events is silly-odds are, they aren't. Metal fans are going to have to live with the fact that some of the Second Wave of black metal did some really damn stupid things. Because they did.