In Defense of Transcendental Black Metal: Rudo Kemper on Corpse Paint, Nihilism, and Anus

The taunt of poserdom -- that is, a self-proclaimed authority's suggestion that you just might be a wannabe -- is a stinger. And since punk, rock 'n' roll has suffered new standards of legitimacy (be it fashion, playlists, or diets) with every wave proclaiming itself to be the New Wave.

No genre strives for authenticity as much as black metal. And the mere mention of the increasingly popular extreme music form on a blog as un-kvlt (pronounced "cult", a black metal term denoting bm legitimacy) as Crossfade couldn't be further from the goal of the genre's founders.

Following the lead of '80s European Thrash metal acts like Venom and Bathory, a microscopic smattering of intense weirdos (Mayhem, Burzum, and Darkthrone, to name some big names) codified a minimal, raw, metal variant in protest of the aesthetic excesses of then-popular death metal. They burned churches and murdered each other along the way.

From its sub-subterranean origins, black metal's ascendance into popular consciousness has been rife with debate about generic purity and intention. Brooklyn-based black metal act Liturgy have become the latest lightning rod for the Kvlt Police, and much of the hubbub is centered around the group's self-proclaimed "transcendental black metal" ideology, and the locquacious musings of the group's frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, encapsulated in the following video interview:

Hunt-Hendrix, with his nasal cadence and mambsy pambsy academic mindset, annoys the purists to no end. They've even provoked responses equally as wordy. The crux of the case against Liturgy: (1) They claim to be breaking new ground when really all they've done is crossover to a more mainstream audience; (2) Their introduction of post-hardcore and other non-metal influences represent a diluting of the genre; and (3) Hunt-Hendrix is annoying as shit.

If you've made it this far, you probably realize there's a lot going on. Crossfade wanted to get an expert's opinion on the subject, so we dialed up Rudolf Theodoor Kemper, known to friends (and for the duration of this blog post) as Rudo.

Rudo has a B.A. in Philosophy himself, not to mention a Masters in International Politics. And more importantly, he's a bonafide Black Metal Archivist. In 2008, his paper entitled "A Wittgensteinian Analysis of the Role of Ideology in Black Metal" was accepted to the Heavy Fundamentalism: Music, Metal and Politics conference in Salzburg, Austria. So if anyone knows if Liturgy are posers or not, it's Rudo.

Crossfade: What about Liturgy can you get behind, and what do you critique?

Rudo: I appreciate any effort to take the genre into a different direction, even if I don't end up fully liking the end product. I think that black metal, from the very early Thorns demos and rehearsal tapes onward, has had a lot of hidden potential that is only now being tapped into. Many bands have gone into the direction of hybridity and experimentation and achieved interesting results, and I count Liturgy among them. And although I don't at all buy into what the band has to say about its own music (I hardly ever do with black metal), I appreciate that they're at least trying to push it beyond the usual sophomoric themes and aesthetics. On the other hand, the vision that they present about their music is overwrought and grandiloquent, and so I see in them a rather familiar black metal tendency to take themselves too seriously. I think the biggest challenge in black metal is to be able to come down from the self-constructed pedal upon which one stands and laugh at oneself.

How do you respond to charges against Liturgy as a hipster appropriation erroneously distinguishing itself?

Actually, I think what Hunt-Hendrix has to say about his own band and the genre of music they play, in terms of the degree of pomposity and ostentatious language, is actually quite within the boundaries of what many black metal musicians and pundits have had to say about the genre over the years. I recommend reading this interview with Deathspell Omega as one recent example.

Of course, one of the earliest places on the web to find black metal discussion was anus.com (anus standing for American Nihilist Underground Society). The editorials and message board discussions regularly described black metal as some kind of transcendent art or as uniquely chronicling the human condition today, and were rife with misinterpretations of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, and other unlikely sources of inspiration (at least, credit should be due to Hunt-Hendrix as being among a chosen few in black metal that comprehend that Nietzsche's philosophy is not one of the affirmation of nihilism).

Why do you think people are having such an intense reaction to this band? 

Black metal has, since the very beginning, defined itself in terms of what it is not. The early mouthpieces of black metal constantly juxtaposed what they were doing--which was marked by an authentic and true dedication to evil, Satanism, hatred, war, death, and later anti-Christian sentiment and a return to Paganism--with the trendy and fun-loving behavior and image of death metallers (who, can you imagine, wore sweat pants to shows!).

Since black metal as an actual distinctive musical style of composition was then still in its incipience, much of this differentiation focused on image and "ideology." So, Immortal, who we quite obviously consider to be a black metal band today and a rather representative one at that, was not considered to be black metal because the members of Immortal were not personally Satanists.

As the musical genre developed into its own, this focus on the extra-musical elements remained, and bands who attempted to deviate from the norm in this way were often decried as being posers; in this way, if the image or ideology was off, the music couldn't possibly be good either. I remember in the late 1990s, when the adorning of corpse-paint was still an essential feature of black metal bands, Ihsahn from Emperor was criticized for going on stage without the iconic make up.  This, of course, coincided with their burgeoning popularity as a result of touring with Cradle of Filth, which brings up another point: the dilettantes of most subgenres are miffed when their chosen bands become popular or are seen as "selling out," but this kind of thing straight up infuriates black metal fans.

Liturgy have the unfortunate combination of having both things going on. They're a Brooklyn-based band who look more like they've just come back from seeing Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti rather than Watain, their frontman waxes philosophical about the life-affirming qualities of black metal (read that twice), and they've been generating a lot of buzz on the internet. Granted, since Aesthetica, Liturgy has gone into a direction that at times strays rather far from the black metal sound, but so has a band like Deathspell Omega on recent releases, and they do not receive the same opprobrium. Deathspell Omega, however, have what is considered today to be a very purist black metal ideology and image. Another case in point is Wolves in the Throne Room, who have enjoyed a widespread popularity here in the states; their sound is not very unorthodox, but their lumberjack aesthetic and eco-feminist worldview is something else entirely, and so they are often lumped together with Liturgy and some others as 'poser black metal.

This addresses in part the response from within black metal. The reasons why people who don't otherwise have their taste influenced by black metal subculture heap such scorn on Liturgy may have to do with a broad distaste for anything that appears to be produced by 'hipsters.' As mentioned earlier, Liturgy seem to look the part, and the few unfortunate interview with Hunt-Hendrix where he particularly comes off as a pretentious asshole trying to pontificate about the value of his art doesn't help (although black metal musicians trying to ascribe some transcendent value to their music really isn't anything new at all). But what is more 'hipster' than sneering at somebody else for being a 'hipster'?

Black metal dialectics aside, how do you feel about the music?

I personally value a synthesis between traditional second-wave black metal and more creative, experimental and potentially genre-defying songwriting; I want my experimental black metal band to still sound black metal as they're melting my mind with droning atonality and noisy dissonance. In the canon of such bands, then, I tend to favor the album where an equal balance of the two is present, like Blut Aus Nord's The Work Which Transforms God (2003), Wold's Screech Owl  (2007)  and Deathspell Omega's Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice (2004). Veering too far into the direction of either progressive noodling and off-time signatures or hybridity and eclecticism ends up losing my attention. I liked the post-hardcore inspired high-octave riffing and unusual drumming on the first album, but with Aesthetica I  feel the music much less. I hope that Hunt-Hendrix's tendency to bibble-babble and write manifestos does not force the band to lose its inertia by, well, trying too hard.

Follow Crossfade on Facebook and Twitter @Crossfade_SFL.

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