Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Authors on Artists: Leif Haven on Metal

Dreaming of A Non-Capitalistic World

by Leif Haven

“Carry me to my grave
When at long last my journey has ended
On the path that leads from here into oblivion
And no more sorrow can weigh me down.”
–Pallbearer, Given to the Grave

It’s got very little to do with being a human being, and showing yourself as a human being. 
–Striborg/Sin Nanna

Wearing the corpse paint takes away the human factor…
-Leviathan/Wrest/Jef Whitehead

The feeling I get from nature and from black metal is exactly the same thing.
-Xasthur/Malefic/Scott Conner

Blanchot compares the darkness of the image – its “elemental strangeness” – to a cadaver: “At first sight the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image.”… The cadaverous aspect of the image is the remains of the “world” after its negation by words: “What is left behind is precisely this cadaver, which is not of the world either – even though it is here – which is rather behind the world… which now affirms on the basis of this the possibility of a world behind, a return backwards.” The analogy of the corpse thus depicts the resistance to understanding – the backwardness – of the orphic measure and of things prior to the “world.”

-Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics

Metal has collided with theory. A genre of art that embraces the abject – gnawing on bats, burning churches, corpse paint, incoherent cookie monster vocals – is being addressed as a thing worthy of consideration by the institutions, the academy, the art world, and the popular critical apparatus. In a weird way poetry mirrors that moment – despite the efforts of many of the metastasizing schools of poetry and metal to labor on unnoticed in obscurity and abjection, both are getting some unexpected attention.

I feel like it’s fair to posit that a major feature of art is an attitude toward void. To oversimplify and propose oppositional attitudes, you could say that there are two types of work: that which dwells on void and that which is focused on things. From the same section of Infidel Poetics, Tiffany brings up Erich Auerbach’s supposition that poetic works derive from either Homer or The Old Testament. Auerbach frames the former is “externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression...” while the second genealogy is “dark and incomplete, mysterious, containing, second, unconcealed meaning.” I would argue with Auerbach that all art essentially carries second, concealed meaning, but that’s not the point. I think the distinction between the “illuminated” and the “obscure” is useful in this case and may help me answer one of the most important questions of our time:

What is metal?

What does it mean to ask, “Is this metal?” What does it mean to ask, “What is conceptualism?”  or “Is that art?”  or “Is this poetry?” The answer to all of these questions is obvious. Or it’s not obvious. You know it when you see it.

Metal has something in common with the performance art of Lady Gaga, or the Ramones, or Jay-Z and Marina Abramović.

It seems to have more in common with Abramović’s earliest performances like the Rhythm 10, than with her most current work.

Without having any ideas what I’m talking about I would slap a “that’s so metal” label onto Artaud’s theater of cruelty, the Viennese Actionists, or French existentialism. Samuel Beckett – retroactively metal. Edvard Munch – retroactively metal, etc.

Metal is the catharsis of tragedy; the counterpart to the laughter of comedy. Metal is the mourning song, the inchoate wailing and pulling out hair in response to death; Metal is the funeral song to harvest celebration in praise of fertility goddess Miley Cyrus:

Sorrow and Extinction

Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction isn’t just about personal mortality; it’s about catastrophic failure. It’s also not calling for destruction or apocalypse, because the apocalypse has already occurred, or is occurring. It’s not about wandering into a strange alien land, it’s about being alien, it’s about time, the world, and death, it’s about being metaphysically fucked. It’s about being abject in a catastrophic way. The foreigner is the other – it can be read however, but it’s also the being outside of the system of capitalism, the one that doesn’t bear currency. It’s to be outside the system of production and consumption – metal is about seeing past death; the final way out of circulation

The Scream of Munch, the Scream of Edmond Jabes, Scream by Wes Craven. 

The abject speech, a la Kristeva, the scream, while there may be words underneath the scream, it is limited by the physical, corrupted, and the meaning lies somewhere in the middle – the scream is just itself. Part of the connotation is that the intention is breaking down in the transmission – the Wittgensteinian problem – there’s no way to articulate effectively. Metal also takes on abjection – from corpse paint:

on it forsakes the living, the reproductive, the optimistic, and the transcendent to confront void. In Sorrow and Extinction, there are still words. Singer Brett Campbell flirts with legibility. While most metal vocalists that fall under the Doom, Black, or Death Metal labels offer only the most incoherent growls, Campbell feels just on the edge of meaning, like he’s conflicted about what side of the aisle to be on.

Incoherence, illegibility, abstraction, are all prime features in metal – distortion and noise take the place of high definition – death and decay take the place of vitality and youth, etc. Another useful way to think about metal is to think about how dumb it is a la Kenny Goldsmith’s How to Be Dumb.

“Dumb breaks things, doing things to things which common sense decrees to be simply wrong. When something is that wrong or that broken, it finds a new life: Thelonious Monk intentionally hitting the wrong notes on the piano…”

Goldsmith stipulates a difference between dumb dumb and smart dumb – the smart dumb metal response would just be a big fuck you.

The smart dumb thing about metal is that it takes on quick routes to disgust, fear, horror. There’s this merciless-ness about it, similar to the brutal conceptualism of Goldsmith; you feel like, “You’re not actually going to carry through with this, right,” and then the Internet is printed or person is incorporated. I think there’s something characteristically metal about the unflinching execution of something that could be a joke – it’s still a joke afterwards – a terrible joke. Or about something like Funny Games, or Medea, where you know horrible things are going to happen, and they just do. Metal is about acknowledging cataclysm and sitting with it for a while.

Metal is also incredibly scholarly – it’s full of citations to authorities in the field. Like a research paper there’s a language that is only accessible to other experts; the neophyte might catch the nod to Sabbath, just like you might vaguely understand the off-hand mention of the Hegelian Dialectic. Read the Pitchfork review of Sorrow and Extinction by Brandon Stosuy; it’s a veritable genealogy.

Sorrow and Extinction, the title of Pallbearer’s work, is an extended meditation on mortality – but extinction seems to indicate that this is not a navel gazing consciousness of one’s own mortality. This is a mourning song, like the one for Patroklos sung by Achilles, but this 45 minutes is not for an individual – it’s about species death, ecological cataclysm, There is no salvation in this work -- only oblivion. This is work that simply faces the void.  

But Sorrow and Extinction doesn’t see death as the only abjection; there’s also this recognition of the universe –

All along the dark and forbidden way
I can I can feel their eyes and see their arcane thrones
So between my steps I rest to gather up my strength
I must keep pushing onward
Under swirling moons and galaxies

Consider the caption Munch wrote for The Scream:

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

And these lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude

There in her mooring-place I left my bark,--
          And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
          And serious mood; but after I had seen                                                                   390
          That spectacle, for many days, my brain
          Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
          Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
          There hung a darkness, call it solitude
          Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
          Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
          Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
          But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
          Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
          By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.                                                              400

There’s anxiety, certainly, but also horror – the feeling that simply existing is monstrous, and that being in the world is always a state of abjection and lost-ness. Sorrow and Extinction, the music and the lyrics reach, but they don’t transcend – you’re not waiting for anything afterwards, they feel kind of #YOLO – there’s no Tintern Abbey here, it’s just sorrow staring into void. But that leads to practically uplifting music and lyrical content. Sure it’s dark, but it’s almost revelatory. The end of the third track, “The Legend” highlights this YOLO streak:

No more to breathe the air, to feel the warmth of summer
As I start to slip away
I know my time has come

Then later, in a Beckettian turn in “An Offering of Grief”, after a glorious four minutes of sludgy riffing, and a bee attack of two hand tapping, Campbell shouts in one of the least melodic passages of the record:

In the shadows I wander
A solitary man, fearing not the hidden
But searching
In this harsh world of deception, I will stand up once more
And find within myself the strength to stumble again.

Metal is full of mess, contradiction, paradox, as Timothy Morton says in Helvete, and barely controlled rage.  Like Achilles again, it’s more often born of anger and outrage. The rage, and that which motivates the violent sense-abusing abstractions are the hiccups in language – the language of music and language qua language – rather than appreciating the ambiguities and inefficiencies of a language system Metal rejects or breaks it; that characteristic seems important. It doesn’t completely abandon the form of music or the words themselves – but it distorts them to the point of illegibility.

Pallbearer ends Sorrow and Extinction with:

Carry me to my grave
When at long last my journey has ended
On the path that leads from here into oblivion
And no more sorrow can weigh me down


Leif Haven lives and writes in Oakland, CA. Other projects and writing can be found at