I follow exactly two record labels on Twitter: Thrill Jockey (known for intelligent indie rock and post-rock bands like the Sea and Cake, Tortoise, and Trans Am) and Southern Lord (known for crossover metal and post-metal bands like Boris, Om and Pelican, and for being founded by one of the guys from Sunn O))) …) . I’m not a rabid fan of either of these labels or anything, they just happened to be the first two that were suggested to me by Twitter’s Follow-O-Matic (before I realized that Twitter accounts for businesses never contain anything interesting).
Anyway, at some point about a month ago I started seeing a bunch of retweets of praise for a band called Liturgy. I gathered they were some kind of black metal band. Now, having just the information I’ve already given you, from which of the two labels mentioned above would you guess this praise had been coming? Southern Lord, of course. You know- the METAL guys?
Wrong. The Liturgy record came out on Thrill Jockey.
Oh and by the way here’s the text of one of the tweets: Hear LITURGY – AESTHETHICA on @nprmusic “First Listen”
So let me get this straight, I thought. There’s a new record by a black metal band, out on Thrill Jockey, that you can preview on NPR.
I don’t think you need to be familiar with the specifics of what black metal is- which I think most of us are anyway- to understand that this is weird, but just for perspective, black metal is the subgenre that was arguably founded by Venom:
and which gave rise to Bathory:
You could make the argument that black metal was largely responsible for the (ridiculous) popular conception in the U.S. of metal being such a bad influence on young people that it would cause them to murder each other, commit suicide and/or burn down some churches, because in a few very famous cases, musicians and fans in the European black metal scene actually did these things. That doesn’t mean there’s anything literally evil about the music, of course, but it does create an image of the genre as being, shall we say, out of the mainstream.
And quite frankly, and without judgment, that image is largely accurate even among black metal musicians and aficionados who aren’t going around committing acts of violence. Despite the extreme imagery favored within black metal, the overarching thematic concern, especially in recent years, has been a profound and irredeemable alienation from humanity and even the physical world itself, and an attitude toward that alienation that really is pretty hostile, rather than contemplative or even sad. One of the manifestations of this attitude among more ideologically committed musicians is a disdain or rejection of live performance and/or marketing their music. Along with this goes a penchant for lo-fi recording techniques, sometimes taken to the extent that they are basically making their music sound bad on purpose, with California auteur Xasthur being probably the best example2.
Given the combination of the imagery, which is either frightening and awesome or ridiculous (and awesome), depending on how you look at it, and a worldview that basically rejects meaningful engagement with civilization, it’s difficult to understand how music from this tradition could fit with the philosophy of an organization like NPR that is explicitly and aggressively committed to engagement with the world, that spends all of its time discussing and considering and basically celebrating humanity. Let me put it this way: if Marduk were to appear on Fresh Air3 to talk about their 1999 album Panzer Division Marduk, don’t you think Terry Gross would have to ask them to explain why the name of the album was a reference to Nazi tanks, and why they named one of their songs “Fistfucking God’s Planet?” How do you think that would go?
So how is it that a Liturgy can simultaneously be acceptable to an audience that values the humanistic journalism of NPR and “tr00ly” (sorry) represent the anti-humanistic worldview of black metal?
I think the answer is that they can’t. If you actually listen to the Liturgy album- which you can no longer do at NPR.com, but you can do at Thrill Jockey’s website- you’ll hear a lot of well-executed blastbeats and stuttering riffs that sound a bit like very loud, thick Morse code, a lot of double bass- some very aggressive, loud music, that uses some techniques that are characteristic of black metal, especially the use of slow-moving chord progressions with very fast strumming, used to create a sort of “sheeting” effect, over very, very fast blastbeats. But what you also hear is a lot of suspended chords and major-sounding harmonic progressions that are not characteristic of black metal, or any extreme metal really- that would be more common in something like shoegaze music or post-rock.
Occasionally you’ll hear something like this:
Which, structurally, is very similar to something like the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah:
(Meshuggah’s fifth album, by the way, is more or less that song for like 45 minutes)
But in contrast to Meshuggah’s menacing dissonance, Liturgy is just playing an octave, which is very consonant, and sounds more like something Pelican or some other rock-friendly post-metal band, or even a post-hardcore band, would do.
Then there’s this:
Which is essentially a Sleep tribute, and not something that I, in my admittedly limited experience, have heard any black metal band do, ever. It’s just not a very “extreme” thing to do.
In addition, the imagery and philosophy that are ascribed to Liturgy are worlds apart from black metal. Thrill Jockey’s band bio calls the record “a metaphorical exercise in affirmation.” NPR refers to their music as “disorienting yet exhilarating.” Stereogum characterizes the band as having “heart, forward motion, beauty, a strange power.”
What we’re looking at here is a style that uses some of the techniques of extreme metal, but which applies them to an aesthetic philosophy and a worldview that are basically the exact opposite of what you would find in extreme metal and especially in black metal. Given the skill and veracity with which those techniques are executed, I don’t think it’s an option to put Liturgy’s music in a category like “false metal.” And yet, again, there’s nothing black about this music at all.
So I really think we ought to call this something else. Unfortunately, the appellation “white metal” has already been claimed for Christian metal- which, when it imitates black metal specifically, has been tagged with the topsy-turvy name “unblack metal.” So what do we call what Liturgy does? Gray metal? Bright metal? Perhaps, following the diction of frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, “transcendental metal.” I think here we can see how the world of black (or “black-esque”) metal and the world of NPR come to intersect: as metal critic Stefan Raduta noted last year, other bands that do this type of thing (specifically Wolves In The Throne Room) “[are] giving [black metal] back its soul, its integrity.” This is an endeavor that is perfectly suited not just to the values of mainstream liberal humanism, but to humanism’s conception of art itself.
1. This title originally referred to the fact that NPR is now running sponsor announcements from fucking PBR, which pretty much makes a mockery of the whole public radio endeavor if you ask me, not that I want or have time to get into that which I don’t
2. I’ve heard- perhaps apocryphally- that the confrontational aesthetic choices of black metal musicians in the early ’90s were in part a reaction to the perceived overcommercialization of death metal. That’s the mindset we’re talking about here: one that thinks death metal is too commercial.
3. Another thing I ended up not having time to get into is the increasing disparity (at least in music coverage, the only thing I care about of course!) between what you can hear on NPR radio programs and what you can read about online. However well their values blend with those of NPR listeners, I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to be hearing Tuneyards or Tombs or fucking Odd Future on All Things Considered during your commute. Their music is just way too harsh for a mainstream radio audience, and that goes double for Liturgy. So I don’t really understand what NPR is doing here. Maybe I’ll chew it over some more later.