In some regards, the development of heavy metal over the last 40 years can be understood to chart key phases in pop-music consumption under late capitalism: from mass culture to subculture to individualized culture. This arc can be seen, first and most obviously, from the vantage point of heavy metal fandom.
As Will Straw has argued for the genre’s 70s origin, heavy metal’s audience originally came together around teen rituals based on corporate-label offerings; the genre lacked a “strong middle stratum between the listener and the fully professional group.” It took the rise of the new wave of British heavy metal in the late 70s and U.S. thrash metal in the 80s for this middle stratum to fully develop: specialist nightclubs, record stores, zines, tape-traders, amateur photographers, and other quintessentially urban/regional infrastructure for fans’ ‘productive consumption.’ By the 90s, the Internet-based diffusion of publicity, fan dialogue, and finally music itself hastened the globalization, generic splintering, and reappropriations of heavy metal into scores of sub-genres and fan constituencies.
Arguably, this trajectory can also be observed in heavy metal’s modes of lyrical address. Mass culture metal summoned and inspired its teenage audience with odes to collective strength and the outsider’s calling, as illustrated by “United,” the 1980 hit for classic metal icons Judas Priest. “So keep it up/Don’t give in/Make a stand/We’re gonna win.” The leather, the volume, the aggressive imagery and lyrics: all were signifying means to other ends, totems symbolizing the collective exuberance of the audience. The “we” in this first stage of lyrical address made clear the listener was included, if they wanted to be, in the larger group defended against an external “they” — most likely parents and authorities lurking outside the bedroom and the concert hall.
Subcultural metal raised the stakes of the genre’s aggression and by doing so began drawing lines between listeners, as exemplified by Metallica’s thrash anthem “Whiplash” from their 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All. “Adrenalin starts to flow/You’re thrashing all around/Acting like a maniac/Whiplash!” Entering violent moshpits required a special form of commitment, as does learning about metal shows by word of mouth. Still, unity shaped the collective — by this stage, a smaller circle who produced their music’s culture via direct (face-to-face and postal) contact with one another.
Perhaps no sub-genre of heavy metal has subverted the subcultural communion among the heavy metal fans better than black metal. So-called second-wave Scandinavian black metal groups from the 1990s made themselves up in corpse paint and wrote explicitly Satanic lyrics in order to strike fear in outsiders and disturb the subcultural fence-sitters. Consider the typically explicit paeans to Satan heard on, say, Emperor’s 1994 In the Nightside Eclipse: “Forever wilt I bleed for Thee/Forever will I praise Thy dreaded name/Forever will I serve Thee/Thou shalt forever prevail” (“Inno A Satana,” sung in a classic Gollum growl). A few groups backed up such lyrical tributes to “evil” with real evil deeds — church burnings and murder, most notoriously — that they either committed themselves or condoned in others.
As black metal has grown in popularity and come to “blacken” other extreme metal genres, particularly death and doom metal, the impulse toward lawlessness seems to have faded in the current era of third-wave black metal. Now, “evil” is expressed in the misanthropy that characterizes many extreme metal groups. I find it particularly interesting how some of these misanthropic expressions push hard against the traditional communion of the metal mass or subculture. Most obviously, the elitism implied by some groups’ allegiance to the “left hand path” (i.e., Satanism, blasphemy, other profane doctrines) draws deeper lines between musicians and listeners. It’s not clear in recent groups like Teitanblood or Negative Plane that these bands care for their audience at all, much less the impulse to “rock and roll all night and party everyday” with the music, so committed are these groups to a purism and authenticity of misanthropic expression and the “brutality” (another recurring modifier) of their musical assault.
Misanthropy has also yielded one of contemporary metal’s most unexpected developments: so-called bedroom black metal. This is the subject of a new Vice/Noisey documentary, “One Man Metal,” which focuses on three notable solo black metal projects. From the Bay Area, Leviathan is the vehicle for Jef Whitehead, who goes by the name Wrest. Out of the Los Angeles area, Scott Conner a.k.a. Malefic records as Xasthur. And deep in the island of Tasmania, off the Australian continent, Russell Menzies adopts the name Sin Nanna and records as Striborg. All three musicians have each recorded some 1-2 dozen albums and demos since the late 90s.
This astonishing level of prolificness is just one of the creative possibilities that results from the solo undertaking. With no bandmates to coordinate, and no live concerts to perform, these musicians write and record music on their own terms, whenever they want. In the documentary, interviews with Whitehead and Conner hint at the considerable price they’ve paid their livelihoods and relationships in order to create their music. Menzies quietly acknowledges he’s married with kid (not featured in the documentary), but he keeps his black metal life hidden from neighbors with no small effort. These sacrifices highlight the fierce artistic integrity of these musicians, each of whom has developed idiosyncratic styles of composition and playing that make their music particularly rewarding. But there’s another, more important factor at work here: in their own way, these guys just don’t like other people.
JEF WHITEHEAD: I don’t own a computer so I don’t answer my e-mail; I never look at them. I don’t have time for that, and I’m not into sharing… I don’t go out, I don’t go to bars, I don’t go to — I don’t even go to a lot of shows because I can’t fuckin’ stand being around a lot of people.
RUSSELL MENZIES: By moving here [to Tasmania], I could reflect on what it had been like living in a city and being around people all the time and all the rubbish I put up with.
“One Man Metal” is a fascinating glimpse into an idiosyncratic, innovative strain of black metal and the intense quality of the musicians who make it. The film’s drama comes from revelations and intimations of the frankly fucked-up lives led by Whitehead and Conner. (Troublingly, after the film’s completion Whitehead was convicted of a domestic assault on his girlfriend and released on probation.) Meanwhile, if Menzies comes across by contrast as a harmless quasi-wiccan hippie, his nighttime sojourn in corpsepaint and cowl into the Tasmanian forest provides the film’s creepiest moment.
There are other solo black metal performers besides these three. Most notoriously, Varg Vikernes recorded a handful of influential albums as Burzem while serving time in prison for murdering his bandmate Euronymous (in the second-wave black metal group Mayhem). He and other solo black metal musicians are likewise famous for their pursuit of a highly personal aesthetic that at times leads them far afield from the traditional themes and sounds of black metal. Solo black metal can often convey a palpable mood of sadness and solitude, particularly when it uses unexpected instrumentation, such as the “dark ambient” strains of acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and no drums. To such an end, Whitehead and Connor have both recently explored non-black metal music under the recording monikers of Lurker of Chalice and Nocturnal Poisoning, respectively.
Typical of many solo black metal units (and some non-solo acts, like the aforementioned Teitanblood), Leviathan, Striborg and Xasthur never perform live. “One Man Metal” explains the musicians’ decision not to play live in terms of the compromises that these artists would need to make to translate their solo creations into a proper live performance involving multiple musicians.
JEF WHITEHEAD: If I were to do Leviathan live, I would play drums, and somebody else would sing. It would be like a Leviathan cover band, you know; it would be weird. So, it’s kind of why that’s never happened. I never wanted to be the guy who, like, has to show somebody all the guitar parts and all that stuff.
SCOTT CONNER: I know what I put into it, and I know that that can’t exactly be recreated live. The only way it is I’d have to find session people, and I don’t really like doing that. It’s part of the — one of the things about metal, especially these days, black metal is just like a lot of bands and musicians, they just recycle the hell out of each other. And I’m not into that. It’s not the kind of band you go to see; it’s not like some rowdy, beer-drinking music. Another problem too is I do a lot of songs, and I don’t really remember how to play half the shit I write.
To my thinking, this is the most surprising, even jaw-dropping aspect of these solo metal projects. Having spent some time on the 80s thrash scene, I’ve always thought heavy metal to be a quintessentially social music — ideally listened to with other people present, preferably in as loud and uninhibited a setting as possible — so I find it almost inconceivable that a metal act would refuse to performance live. Live performance has traditionally been the emblematic setting of heavy metal, in terms of musical practice and fandom community. Honestly, it’s why so many of us put up with lots of poorly produced albums and low-fidelity demos. These recorded artifacts weren’t so much the end products to be left in the bedroom or on the car stereo so much as the playbooks we were supposed to study in order to properly appreciate and contribute to the collective gathering.
To bypass this live scene entirely because you “can’t fuckin’ stand being around a lot of people” is remarkable testimony to a misanthropy that extends beyond the usual target (outsiders) into the collective that traditionally gives heavy metal its meaning and exuberance. This refusal upends the genre’s implicit social contract in ways that are subculturally destabilizing and maybe creatively fruitful. Stay tuned, and in the meantime put on your headphones.