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Why black metal will save you at the end of the world

Scott Wilson, editor of a new book on black metal's ecology ideas, take you into Apocalypse – and beyond

Scott Wilson is a writer and editor of a new book called Melanchology: Black Metal Theory and EcologyIn it, various writers scratch their brains about the links between the darkest musical genre ever and ideas on the environment. In this comment piece, commissioned for Halloween, Scott tells us why black metal could save us when all is lost:

Halloween is that special time of year dedicated to remembering the dead, those that wait for and beckon us from the point of extinction that is the sole certainty of existence, reminding us that we are already cold, meaningless corpses. It is precisely from this point that black metal erupts: ‘a place empty of life / Only dead trees ...’ (Mayhem, “Funeral Fog”) where ‘Our skies are forever black / Here is no signs of life at all’ (Deathspell Omega, “From Unknown Lands of Desolation”). In its evocation of a landscape that is already divested of nature, black metal could be described as a negative form of environmental writing bearing on a world that has become blackened, or perhaps bearing on an entirely other, black world heterogeneous to the green one that is the object of ecological concern. The least Apollonian of genres, black metal is both terrestrial and cosmic – indeed subterranean and infernal – inhabiting a dead forest that is at once both mythic and material, in which ‘darkness shows the way’(Mayhem, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”). 

"In its evocation of a landscape that is already divested of nature, black metal could be described as a negative form of environmental writing bearing on a world that has become blackened"

Wolves in the Throne Room are of course the band most associated with the ecological impulse in black metal, at least from a non right-wing perspective. WITTR’s own perspective is more anarchist than left wing, and is tied to nostalgia for a pre-modern existence, a fantasy that plagues environmentalism generally. It is no doubt one of the reasons – along with the fact that they also reject Satanism – why they are the band that true black metal ‘kvltists’ love to hate. Because Satanism and all the paradoxes that it involves are, of course, absolutely essential to black metal. Satan‘s role, as it has been handed down from romanticism, is to sustain a trace of the divine in the wake of the death of God. As such, the Prince of Darkness, in the playful gravity of his perpetual insurgency, is a negative support of modernity’s Enlightenment project, both as its defining obscurantist opposite and its very impulse as a mode of transgressive negativity. Satan, as the untenable metaphor for nonknowledge, marks the boundaries of being and nothingness, joy and the abyss, centre and margin, life and death, man and beast; as the demonic figure of paradox, possession and the impossible, Satan threatens the undoing of these distinctions, holding them both together and apart, the locus of desire and imagination in a Godforsaken universe.

“Halloween is that special time of year dedicated to remembering the dead, those that wait for and beckon us from the point of extinction that is the sole certainty of existence, reminding us that we are already cold, meaningless corpses” 

Black metal seems to inhabit an entirely spiritual, infernal realm populated by Satan, his rebel angels, and legions of the dead, damned or forgotten. And yet, this is also directly related to the materialists’ acknowledgement that the universe is ‘a cold, mechanical, meaningless trap’. An understandable response to this bleak, materialist conception of the universe is to reject it in an affirmation of a deeper, metaphysical realm or in nostalgia for an ancient, more enchanted past. And indeed this is the response of much pagan and folk metal. But it is not the response of black metal, or at least the black metal that concerns us in Melancology: Black Metal and Ecology (Zero Books, 2014). The melancholy that one should hear in the conjunction of black and ecology in ‘melancology’ does not at all concern regret about the apparent loss of natural immediacy, rather its response is to evoke through mytho-poetic means the full horror of the real and eternal desolation of the material universe.

What is essential to remember with regard to the black metal thematic is that the nightmarish, quasi-theological hell evoked in the lyrics of so many songs and the nature that is red in tooth and claw is exactly the same place. Moreover, the former does not imply a denial of the science, but on the contrary a full engagement with it in different terms. The black metal universe is atheological in the sense that it is paradoxically both Godless and evil, with the emphasis falling on the latter. For scientific materialism, however, the universe is merely Godless.

Life on earth is evil, and there is no need to grieve for it. These very black metal sentiments come from the character Justine in Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia that depicts the destruction of the earth through its impact with a rogue planet and the extinction of all life. Yet it has been acknowledged, not least by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, that Justine’s acknowledgement and acceptance of death and extinction is the condition of her ‘beautifully poetical attitude’ that she achieves at the end of the film, an attitude that ‘pushes her to strength and ethical activity’.

“Since, for black metal, just like von Trier’s Justine, the environment is a place of absolute evil, there are therefore no goods to distribute (or re-distribute) and hence no means of power and domination”

For black metal, it is the singularity and sovereignty of death (a death that is at once both intimate and absolutely exterior to oneself) that provides the touchstone for its melancological ethos since it marks the limit of scientific knowledge, rendering it zero, since all the latter can do is observe the transformation of matter. It is through this narrow aperture of death, science’s unthought, that black metal lyrics pour in speculations concerning a domain beyond strictly scientific concerns that is both intimate and absolutely exterior, speculations inspired by the horror and fascination of death in which the world is extinguished time after time. ‘Funeral Fog’, one of Mayhem’s most famous songs is such a figure for this unknown, intimate yet non-natural exteriority. It is a fog that does not descend from the sky but rises from the depths of the tomb, into a world in which ‘all natural life has for a long time ago gone’, a fog of darkness that is ‘thin and so beautiful / but also so dark and mysterious’ taking life and nurturing it in death (Mayhem, ”Funeral Fog”).

Since, for black metal, just like von Trier’s Justine, the environment is a place of absolute evil, there are therefore no goods to distribute (or re-distribute) and hence no means of power and domination. No 'good', that is, except for the sovereign good of the music itself that delineates the locus of desire upon which we do not give up, and from which everything can be questioned – including ecology and the environment. Black metal‘s undead sonic drive towards and beyond being provides the locus from which to question human intervention in and adaptation of ‘its’ environment, the starting point for the articulation of a melancological ethos that projects the question of the environment beyond the threshold of the human. In discovering death rather than its perpetual in-human deferral, Melancology aligns itself with modes of expenditure, assessing the various types of surplus, waste, dust and detritus with which to unravel and decay in mutual processes of unbinding that traverse the planet.

Buy Melancology here and check out Scott's playlist below

DARKNESS SHOWS THE WAY

“Nothing brings people together like melancholic solitude” – Drew Daniel

“Ecological death is a form of descent into the cosmic abyss" – Aspasia Stephanou

“Worms hungering for all the dimensions” – Nicola Masciandaro

“Music is the last enunciation of the universe" – (Eurgene Thacker)