Tuesday 7 February 2012

Listening to black metal in the dark

I've been listening to Watain recently. My journey into black metal had previously kept me on the melodic, viking metal end of the subgenre's spectrum (Falkenbach, Forefather). I knew Swedish bands were generally more melodic and polished than the Norwegian scene, so I decided to ease into a harsher, more chaotic style than I was used to with Lawless Darkness. To my considerable surprise, I loved it.

In Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Sam Dunn calls black metal 'raw, yet also epic and atmospheric'. Virtually all Hessians - outside grindcore, anyway - are drawn to the epic nature of metal, the liberation from the strictures of radio-friendly three-and-a-half minute songs musicians enjoy. A ten-minute metal composition twists and turns, it repeats itself, changes, evolves and comes full circle. The strength of Iron Maiden's albums since Brave New World, for example, is precisely that willingness to explore, to create vast soundscapes.

Extreme metal is set apart by extreme vocal and instrumental distortion. In effect, the musical landscapes metal creates become uncomfortable, alien. The music is many things, but never pleasant. A track like 'Wolves Curse' or the titular 'Lawless Darkness' creates a vast, hostile and alien wasteland musically; and the lyrics are an important part of that, as in 'Death's Cold Dark':
To dare what's lit sole by the friar's lantern
Through labyrinths so desolate and dark
to travel far in solitude and silence
'cross thornclad deserts vast
To witness the erection of a temple
At the place where order dies and chaos unfold
Its tower shall lean out over the precipice
O the wonders those that mount it shall behold
For there the waves of Absu smash the rocks of definition
And feast upon them with erosive force
Yes there the ancient giants of primordial waters
Are hunting in the twilight near the shores
No, I don't know what that means either. But that's unsurprising: this is surrealism, and the parallels to psychedelia like Pink Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets are worth noting. It's a dark version of apocalyptic literature like the Book of Revelation or - probably more accurately - the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter. Watain fancy themselves satanists, but Lawless Darkness doesn't exactly overflow with blasphemy. Instead, the lyrics' obsession with imaginary geography indicates the fascination with exploring strange landscapes that characterises so much metal, and if that exploration is harsh - there's a lot of shred guitar and blast beats - it's so much the more fascinating for it.

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