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.