Black: notes on the transcending cultural history of a colour in Metal music (and beyond)

In my last post I dealt with the role of Foucauldian thought in the cultural history of Metal music. I want to take up this perspective and apply it to another, rather ‘fuzzy’ subject of Metal music research. In 1998, the Dutch female-fronted group The Gathering, on their album ‘How to Measure a Planet?’,1 released a song called ‘Red Is a Slow Colour’. This title seems to be enigmatic, even paradoxical: how can a colour have a speed as one of its constituting, maybe metaphysical or ontological qualities? Yet, the song’s title, in its proper context, seemed to ‘work’. It was well received, the album critically acclaimed.

Thinking of this supposed paradox is my starting point. I want to focus on a fundamental element of Metal culture, since its historical origins: the colour black. I want to put forward the hypothesis that this colour (as an essential discursive quality in music, texts, aesthetics,  in all form of practical, mental and physical practices) had a constitutive and, later even transcending historical quality in Heavy Metal. This colour made Metal become Metal, and, later, it opened up discursive links to other fields of culture, in popular music, society, literature, everyday practices. From the view of cultural history, the colour black is a transcending historical force in Metal music’s past and present.2

Constructing the colour framework of Metal music

It is rather obvious that, since the late 1960s and early 1970s, black is the central optical quality (in terms of colour) in Metal music history. The ‘godfathers’ of Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath, made this colour, taking up the title of a 1963 horror movie directed by Mario Bava,3 a part of their name. Thus, since its ‘birth’ Heavy Metal was associated with blackness as a constitutive quality of its aesthetics, lyrics, musical qualities; its discursive culture of imagination.

Later in Metal history, in the 1980s and 1990s, Metal music took up inspiration from bands of the ‘New Wave’ and ‘Gothic Rock’ music genres – subcultures which are part of what is called ‘Die Schwarze Szene’ (literally: ‘the Black Scene’) in German language until today. In the 1990s, in Gothic, Death and Black Metal subcultures, black, again, was a central point of reference – in terms of mood, melancholy, identities and practices. That the latter subgenre even was called Black Metal is the most obvious hint at the central role of blackness in Metal music history.

And, on 12th August 1991, Thrash Metal pioneers Metallica released their eponymous album which commonly is simpley refered to as the ‘Black Album’.4 Its famous cover is painted in monochromical black, showing, rather hard to see, a snake and the band’s logo. Historically speaking, the colour framework of Metal  (in terms of aesthetics, narratives of mood, practices in concerts etc.) is the result of a process of over 47 years of discursive construction since arond 1970. It is the history of a cultural framework of interpretation which made black become a central quality of its discourse. Black, as a word, a narrative, a mood, a sheer mass of practices, encodes central aspects and facets of Metal.

Cultural history makes us aware that, following Foucauldian paradigms, this history did not happen ‘automatically’ or ‘by itself’; but was the history of ever and ever again constructing the black framework of Metal, in negation processes between artists, fans and all agents involved. Cultural and socological research in Metal Music Studies  is able to show this central sztructural quality of the colour black.5 But, only history and especially cultural history as a scientific mode of historical narration, really can show its deep historical roots in the 20th century and earlier epochs – by telling this history scientifically.

Black as a culturally transcending force in Metal music history

This is where my perspective as a cultural historian comes in. By applying this view, we can tell the history of the colour black in Metal as the history of a cultural element which has a special and own historical quality. Not only is the history of black in Metal the history of one of its constitutive codes of cultural logics; historically, seen from a view of longue durée, black was a historical force which broke boundaries and transcended from earlier and synchronical cultures into Metal, and diachronically, later, went past Metal.

Black Sabbath defined Metal and took their colour inspiration from a 1963 horror movie: here, black served as a tool to historically transfer moods of horror from movie and cinematic cultures into Metal – and beyond, until today. The ‘Black Album’ by Metallica, historically seen, was not only the record which made them burst into mainstream: here, in 1991, the aesthetics of the album, its cover and discourse of blackness, build the historical force that made possible the transgression into mainstream. From a historian’s view, for the band, stressing blackness was a cultural key move to wider acceptance, recognition and fame.

Concluding, this leads me to a cultural-historical hypothesis on the role of the colour black in Metal: since around 1970, black has not only been a constitutive cultural code for Metal identity itself. More than this, it has been a temporally, synchronically and diachronically, transcending force of culture. Historically speaking, the colour black drove Metal music history.


  1. Cf. The Gathering, How to Measure a Planet, released 9th November 1998, Century Media Records 

  2. For the discourse on colours, cf. Harald Braem, Die Macht der Farben, Munich 2003; Harald Küppers, Die Logik der Farbe. Theoretische Grundlagen der Farbenlehre. Callwey  and  Munich 1981; especially, on the colour of black, cf. Michael Pastoureau, Black: The History of a Colour, Princeton 2008. 

  3. Cf. Black Sabbath, original title: I tre volti della paura, directed by Mario Bava, released on August 17th 1963 by Emmepi Cinematografica e.a. 

  4. Cf. Metallica, Metallica, released 12th August 1991, Elektra/Vertigo Records 

  5. For instance, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History, New York 2015; Jeremy Wallach e.a, (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World, Durham 2011. 

A short conceptual note on ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought in Metal Music Studies

Today, Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), as a theorist of post-structuralism, is one of the most well-known sources of conceptual reflection in cultural history. In current cultural-historical debates, his notions of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’ are amongst the most freuently used ones.1 They are used to tell the ‘histories’ of very different subjects and topics, from a broad variety of  perspectives.

All those  seemingly Foucauldian macro-, meso- and microstories of historical reality share, despite their different narratological subjects and objects, the ontological background of post-structuralist theory. However, we have to be aware that today’s common understanding of a ‘Foucaldian’ methodology in cultural history,  is not exactly and ‘originary’ Foucauldian, strictly clinging to the philosopher’s intentions. Foucault claimed himself to be a ‘positivist’2 who examined discourses as positive and empirical formations of performative ‘speech acts’ in history.

In the context of current historical theorizing this seems to be an ironic or even awkward claim. We construct Foucault to be the main ‘hero’ of constructivist and deconstructivist cultural history. This, frequently projects an ontology of constructivism onto the discursive ‘screen’ of Foucauldian thought and concepts; yet, the French theorist himself , especially during the development of his core-framework of ‘discourse analysis’ int the late 1960s, saw his work as one of an empirical positivist.3

Thus, when telling cultural history by using Foucauldian concepts and methods, such as ‘discourse analysis’, ‘archeology’ or ‘genealogy’, we have to be aware – and honest to ourselves – that we use and re-use, hence modificate these notions, depending on our own specific interests of research. So, maybe it is unfortunate to speak and write of ‘Foucauldian’ thought in cultural history. Probably, to define current theorizing in cultural research as an ‘Neo-Foucauldian‘ framework would maybe be more accurate: we overworked Foucault’s theories by projecting our own historiographical demands upon his work.

Supposedly, Foucault himself, a strongly pragmatic and non-systemic thinker, would not mind. He wanted his theoretical notions and concepts to be seen as a ‘toolbox’, from which everyone should take the tools and notions she or he needed; adapting them to her or his needs in analysis.4 Exactly, this is the actual and strictly Foucauldian approach: it is not an approach that glorifies (de-)construcitivism but an endless play and re-play of rethinking theoretical terminologies.

The actual ‘constant’ (Foucault would strictly avoid this notion) in Foucauldian thought is a pragmatic and ontological one,  a specific ‘flexible’ perspectivism. All through his professional life, his work was an examination and cyclic re-examination of the theorectial notions he had used before. So, actual Foucauldian cultural theorism is one which puts terminoligical self-reflection into his main focus. It is a perspective which, again and again, returns to its core notions, re-works and over-works them, making them better suitable for its relevant empirical needs.

Hence, we could define actual Foucauldian thought in cultural-historical theorizing as one which has the endless modification, the constant critique of its own terminology as its conceptual core. To think in Foucauldian ways, therefore, means to lead a discourse of terminological critique. In Metal Music Studies, as a specific research field in cultural studies, Foucault is a frequent point of reference, too.5

Taking up my differentiation between ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought, could be a way of making theorizing in Metal Music Studies more accessible and clearer – by being more exact and self-reflexive, taking the self-critique of terminology as a more important point. When speaking of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’, we should exactly define how we use these notions; maybe giving an exact point of reference in Foucauld’s own texts, clarifying which phase of Foucauld’s own self-critique of theory we intend to operationalize.


  1. For an introduction to Foucault, cf. Leonard Lawlor/John Nale (eds.), The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon, Cambridge: University Press, 2014; Clare O’Farell, Michel Foucault,  London: Sage, 2005; Sara Mills, Michel Foucault, London: Routledge, 2003; Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 1988; for a broad introduction to Foucauldian thought in history, cf. Paul Veyne, Foucault. Sa pensée, sa personne, Paris: Albin Michel, 2008. 

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011;Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

Getting naive in Metal Music Studies: can (Metal) music change the world?

In my last post, I reflected upon cultural-historical tendencies and processes in the year of 2016. I tried to elaborate on the question how this year, with its seemingly fundamental political ruptures, in a global and European perspective, could be told in scientific historical storytelling. Already this essay, as I ‘dared’ to measure the relevancy of one year in history without the advantage of temporal distance (I wrote my post on January 1st 2017), did not lack a certain degree of naivety. In this post I want to take, so to speak, ‘naivety as an epistemic tool’ and reflect upon a seemingly highly naive question: can (Metal) music change the world?

Yet, I think this a question, if our theoretical and methodological  prerequisites of cultural history are presented and used self-reflexively, being aware of the fundamental limits  inherent to them, can be elaborated on in a scientifically serious way. I suggest, trying to think of a conceptual answer to this question might add ‘ontological awareness’ to the research agenda of Metal Music Studies.

Getting naive…

Our starting point is a very simple thought: in the year of 2017, having in mind the first weeks of the new Trump administration and its policies, the coming important elections in France and Germany, the overall global network-like atmosphere of tension, uncertainty, even fear and panic, we could want to live in a better world; culturally, socially, legally, politically and economically. All the frictions and tensions of discourse in early 2017 – i.e. terrorism, migration, political radicalization, war-like conflicts – could make us long for a better world. And, this  being the decisive fact, wanting concepts from science to get into such a world.

So, the question, leigitimized culturally and morally, we have to think about, in ontological and discursively structural terms, is: can science provide us with ways to get into this ‘better world’? And, for Metal Music Studies, and cultural history in this subfield of academie, that question is to be modified to its specific subject of research: can Metal music change the world?

As mentioned above, this question seems to be one of purest naivity, even if taking it as ‘innocent’ naivity. How should music, even Metal music as subcultural field of popular culture, be able to change the world for the better? I think, on the very contrary, this naivety could be a good starting point for ontological reflection in Metal research; namely suggesting this naivety as an epistemic tool which enables us to open up for fresh perspectives.

…in Metal Music Studies

When we see this question as a a legtitimized one, this opens up a series of questions which penetrate into the deepest layers of the discourse of Metal Music Studies, its ontological prereqisites . Asking whether Metal music can improve the world’s current historical condition, we ask for a new evaluation of the theoretical core notions of cultural history in Metal Music Studies. These questions include the following: (1) what is Metal music in cultural history?; (2) how does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?; (3) does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

What is Metal music?

I address these very serious ontological questions (they basically define the subject of cultural history in Metal Music Studies as a field of research)  in exactly the order mentioned. Ad (1): trying to give a definition of Metal music in cultural history, means to give a preliminary description of a conceptual and empirical field of global history, since at least the 1970s. Starting in the early 1970s (having roots in the decades before), bands like Black Sabbath created a new, ‘heavy’ sound. Since then, this ‘heavy’ discourse emerged as an own cultural discourse. It developed its own narratives, imaginaries, style of clothes, gesticulation and networks to institutionalize them.1.

So, from the broadest possible perspective, Metal music can be understood as an own and distinct cultural discourse of popular culture. Today, it has its own history (and self-narratives of  this history) since over four decades.2 It is a structural sphere of culture, having its own rules of creating meaning, in its styles of clothes, music, practices, marketing and performing. In a nutshell, for cultural history Metal music is a discourse which globally creates meaning in an own way – according its protocol of the new cultural style encoded as ‘heavyness’.

How does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?

Now, we can address the second question, again rather globally. Ad (2): The core argument of my ontological definition of Metal music is the adjective of ‘global’. This adjective, indeed, is of utmost importance for the second question. Here, we want to find an answer to the question how Metal music does interfere with global discourses of culture – the ones like politics, media, society etc. The adjective ‘global’ gives us the ontological key to find an cultural-historical answer.3.

This short word, ‘global’, implies that Metal music itself spans around the world. It is not only a product of this world, or a by-product of discoures lying hierarchally above it, but an own and, scale-wise and hierarchically, equal discourse. Metal music acts globally, therefore, it has the same and exactly equal rights as other discourses – such as politics, media, society etc. It may not have the same ‘discursive power’ but from a structural perspective it is global, and thus has the equal rights: to construct meaning, to construct the world. In a nutshell, aiming to formulate an answer to this second question: Metal music inteferes with global discourse of culture on an equally-righted base. Its demands of identity and narratives are no less important than any other – but not more important either.

Does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

Ad (3): our third and final analysis is, probably, the most important one. Taking Metal music in global history as an eually-righted one, this leads us to formulate an answer which is promising and disappointing at once. It is promising because, when conceptualizing Metal music as an equally-righted sphere of culture, that implicates that it is on same hierarchical level as other discourses; hence, it, logically and normatively, can influence the world. The disappointig aspect is that, because it is one discourse among myriads of others, is potential of influencing the world is limited.

So, our answer to the third point is: Yes, Metal music has the potential to change the world; to be more specifically: it has the potential of changing its world. As an emancipative discourse, it can create (and indeed does create)4 its own visions and utopias of a better world. To me as a cultural historian, the most challenging task of examining these questions is to reflect upon the limits of cultural history in Metal Music Studies: where does the influence of Metal discourse meet its imits? Which limits and boundaries are the ones, maybe imposed by other discourses, which restrain its influence? How are these limits and boundaries, identities and non-identities, negotiated and fixated?5

 


  1. Cf., for instance, Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011; also, cf.  Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.; and: Dietmar Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen: Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011; finally: Rolf Nohr and Herbert Schwaab (eds.), Metal Matters: Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Münster e.a.: Lit, 2012.  

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. cf. ibid. 

  5. Source of the title image of this post: http://s2.quickmeme.com/img/d2/d2c1e23ecee906584f0a6844db58aa2070bf0666afe7407a7df27caf07937087.jpg, retrieved 6.2.2017. 

Darkthrone, ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump: Was 2016 the Year of the Birth of ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’?

Recalling the past twelve months of 2016, trying to tell it as a history of an end-of-year review is not an easy task. 2016, as a remarkable year in recent history, globally, had in petto some tough ‘surprises’: first, here we can think of the ‘Brexit’-vote in Great Britain in June; then the election of Donald Trump for president in the USA in November. Always, it is very difficult to ‘judge’ historical events that still are very close to the present. Yet, I think there are certain cutural aspects and trends making the year of 2016 a remarkable one.

In this post, to be seen as a cultural historian’s end-of-the-year review in Metal Music Studies, I will try to highlight these trends and discuss their possible discursive meaning. To do so, I will start by discussing the cultural history of these two political events, the ‘Brexit’-vote and the election of Trump, then going on by contextualizing it with very similar discursive patterns in Metal Music discourse. Seeing those discourses together, should allow us to make sense of 2016 cultural-historically – at least for the moment.

‘Brexit’

On 23 June 2016, British voters decided, by 51.9% to 48.1%, to make the ‘Brexit’ become political reality. This historical event was new and different, therefore, a shock in several ways: (1) It was the first time a country decided to leave the European Union. (2) It was one of the first times that a political campaign, inspired by populism, harsh emotions, nationalism and conservatism, led to a big political success, sealing the further way of a whole country or nation. (3) It was one of the first events in which, on a macro-level of cultural discourses, the cultural trend called ‘postfactualism’ gave a highly important political process its central cultural features.

Taking these three points together, we can call this event of June 23 one in which the cultural discourse of conservativist populism became successful, politically. One central thing was really new about this discourse: it was not ‘common’ conservatism but conservatism that substituted its rational core in narrative by an emotional stream of passion. In Nigel Farage’s discourse, conservatism of a nationalist kind was painted in the colors of xenophobia, national pride, fear of the ‘other’ and guilt. In short: it was the real debut of ’emotional conservativism’ in Great Britain. Its structure as a historical event is to be found in the linkage of common conservativist topics and emotional language.

Dartkthrone’s new album ‘Arctic Thunder’

On 14 October 2016, Norwegian Black Metal-veterans Darkthrone released their new album ‘Arctic Thunder’. When Darkthrone, as an artistic collective consisting mostly of guitarist/vocalist Ted ‘Nocturno Culto’ Skjellum and drummer Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, started out to establish Black Metal in the early 1990s, this discourse was fresh, rebellious, ‘dangerous’ and new. But, that was more than twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Darkthrone are still releasing albums on a regular base but their music is not pure Black Metal anymore. It is a hybrid form of Rock’n’Roll, Crust Punk , Heavy and Black Metal.

Their 2016 album is, seen in the context of overall-cultural history of this year, a remarkable one. It still is that new style cultivated by Darkthrone since several but its aesthetics changed. This is the record’s cover:

index1

The music on the records is not an essential change but the aesthetics hark back to the band’s own history. The cover shows a campfire in the night, dark woods, the band’s classic logo and the record’s title. This composition, as a discursive move, takes up classical Black Metal aesthetics which Darkthrone were famous for in the 1990s. Dark forests, night, campfire are key symbol in this discourse’s conservative aesthetics. However, there is one central difference between 2016’s Darkthrone cover and the ones from the 1990s: they feature the very same symbolism but ‘Arctic Thunder’ is pictured in colour while the old ones were black and white.

This, from a cultural historian’s point of view, is a remarkable shift which appears to be a ‘logical’ event in 2016’s history: discourse stuck to its conservativism, politically with UKIP and Nigel Farage, musically with ‘Arctic Thunder’, but it was painted with colour – which stands for emotions, passion, more liveliness and an overall new discursive approach stressing the role of emotions in postfactualism. Hence, the political programme of the ‘Brexit’-campaign had the same cultural structure than Black Metal discourse. As an event, it brought the dawn of ’emotional conservativism’ which is in Darkthrone’s case some sort of ‘colourful Black Metal’

Donald Trump

On 8 November 2016, Donald J. Trump, American businessman and television star, was voted to become the United States’ 45th president. This was a political event, not predicted by mainstream media and discourses, which was called upon ‘historical’ from the very first minute. A former businessman and ‘celebrity’ who cultivated a highly emotional discourse of populism, taking up narratives of xenophobia, nationalism, misogynism, sometimes even racism, was elected to become president. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, predicted to become president, lost the battle.

I do not want to join the global debates on that event, being shocked or delighted, pleading for political ‘revenge’ on the ‘establishment’, but to examine this event’s discursive structure. At its core, Trump’s political campaign and discourse was highly conservative, often right-wing, being embedded in the traditional Republican Party’s programme. Yet, this discourse had, on its surface, a very different appearance: it was aggressive, passionate, always full of emotions. Trump’s election is yet another example of the linkage of conservative thought and emotional language in 2016.

The birth of ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’?

Recalling this three very different historical events of 2016, the ‘Brexit’-vote in June, the release of Darkthrone’s ‘Arctic Thunder’ in October and the American presidential elections in November, two political decisions and one artistic speech act, they feature the same structural characteristics. They are conservative ‘to the bone’ but on the surface, concerning language and symbolism, their discourse is emotional, aggressive fresh and passionate. All three of them are ’emotional conservativism’.

So, when summarizing my thoughts in this post, the year of 2016 seems to be indeed a remarkable one. Recently, cultural historian Wolfgang Schmale published a monograph2 which has the theoretical concept of ‘collective historical performative speech acts’ at its center. It theorizes identities and narratives innovatively as ‘collective performative speech acts’ (i.e. ‘Eurocentrism’, ‘European Identity’, ‘Enlightenment’) which become influential points of reference – and Schmale thinks of our recent period as a history of change towards ‘post-performativity’.

We can take up this thougt for a cultural-historical end-of-year review of 2016 in Metal Music Studies. Seeing the similar structures in discourses in politics and music, too, we can think of 2016 of a year in which a new ‘collective historical performative speech act’ entered the cultural stage. Satirically, this new figure of discourse may be called ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’: he is, most of all, white and male, gains attraction by yelling emotionally; yet he sticks to his conservative roots.


  1. Source: http://www.nuclearblast.de/static/articles/253/253324-1.jpg/1000×1000.jpg, retrieved 12/10/2016. 

  2. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. 

Paradox, Ambivalence and the Rise of the Unexpected: What Do the Presidency of Donald Trump and Metal Music Have In Common?

On November 8, 2016, former businessman and reality televison-star Donald J. Trump won the 45th presidency of the United States of America. Being a white male of the age of seventy years, from early 2017 on, for at least four years, he will be the oldest ever elected president of the country. Recently, German historian Wolfgang Schmale gave an analysis of what Trump’s unexpected success does mean for the European Union in its state of crisis.

Globally, there have been many different forms of commentaries on Trump’s success, from very different angles, a large part of them harshly critical, some ‘celebrating’ the event. However, virtually all of them share the opinion that it was unexpected. Political and cultural discourses call it a ‘surprise’, ‘shock’, even a ‘catastrophy’ or the ‘dawn of a new era’. All of these political and cultural speech acts1 share the cultural narrative and tendencies of superlatives and ‘extremisms’ in giving an account of this event. The main question that arises from this is: what does that the mean for our future?

In this post, I try to reflect on this question, framing a possible way to an answer from the perspective of cultural history – more precisely, from  the perspectives of the cultural history of Heavy Metal and European cultural history. (Of course) I have no definitive or concluding answer to this question; yet, I think comparing key cultural processes in Heavy Metaland the rise of Donald Trump offers us a view of striking structural similarities that are, somehow, the epitome of the early 21st century.

Paradox, ambivalence and the rise of the unexpected

At a first glance, it does not seem to make any sense to compare the Trump’s rise to presidency and the recent history of the culture of Heavy Metal. Yet, it does make sense, from a cultural-structural point of view. First,  Trump’s political discourse is a cultural one of populism, hence, he is a figure of popular culture. And: Heavy Metal, since the 1960s and 1970s, growing bigger and more ‘mainstream’ since the 1980s, is a discourse in post-modern popular culture. Therefore, we can compare them, diachronically and synchronically, as fields of the production of cultural meaning.

Second, and this is my key argument of framing a possible way to a cultural-historical answer to my above question, there are striking similarities, even parallel structures in both histories- the history of Trumps rise to presidency since June 2015 and the cultural history of Heavy Metal’s way into mainstream and to scientific attention since 2014. I try to compare them from this point of view, not wanting to give a clear answer, but a framework of possibly coming to such one in the time to come.

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced he would be running for president in 2016. In the primaries, he was one among sixteen other Republicans who wanted to become the United States’ new leader. Trump ‘celebrated’ and ‘conducted’ a very intense media campaign, and, by early 2016, the race became one between Trump and Ted Cruz, on the side of the republicans. Finally, in May 2016, the former businessman and reality television-star became the presumptive Republican canditate. All of this process, until the very event of hiselection, featured harsh debates, causing frictions in the candidate’s party and the country’s whole political culture.

Seen from a cultural historical point of view, this history between early summer of 2015 and fall of 2016, is strutured by two main features: (1) first, Trump’s rise to presidency has not been expected. (2) Second, the discourse revolving around the politician’s candidacy and final success, has been characterized (until this very day) by paradoxicalities and ambivalences. The United State’s cultural identy, stemming from the myths of its constitutional and overall history since the eigteenth century, sees liberalism, democracy, in short: the values of rational Enlightenment, as its core values.

Still, theses valuessuit the identity of U.S.-citizenship; however, Trumps campaigning and discourse turned this political upside down, too: his political style is one of focusing on emotions (patriotism, revenge on the ‘establishment’, xenophobia etc.), ‘machismo’ and the longing for the ‘the great leader’ solving the country’s suppossed problems. Despite this discourse, he was able to rise to presidency. So, America’s current political culture is one of paradoxes and ambivalence – and it became a popular culture, enshrining the medial axiomatics of populism.

Now, let us go to the history of Heavy Metal since 2014. As written in a previous post, the contemporary history of this subculture of music has been characterized by two main tendencies: first, since 2014, the history of Heavy Metal, and even its Extreme sub-genres like Death and Black Metal, more and more became part of cultural ‘mainstream’. It is, growingly, accepted as an own and ‘meritful’ way of perfoming art. Not only ‘big’ acts like Metallica are seen as key-figures of popculture, basically all of its culture is getting integrated into mainstream, as a form of the ‘current of tradition’. We only have to mention that German ‘Schlager‘ veteran ‘Heino’, before seen as an archetype of cultural conservatism, published a ‘Metal-style’ album in 2014.

Second, since 2014, Heavy Metal, and in many texts Extreme Metal, has gained a lot more of scientific attention. Since 2014, there is an own peer- reviewed journal, called ‘Metal Music Studies’ and, already established earlier, the ‘International Society for Metal Music Studies’. Not only, as had already been the case before, there are sparse monographs articel, but, as of today, there is a full-blown own discourse of Heavy Metal in science, Metal Music Studies. Growingly, it is seen as being ‘worth’ of scientific scholarship.

So, let us read this history of Metal Music since 2014 from a cultural-historical angle, focusing on its structural features. (1) First, its emancipation into mainstream, but, most of all, the full development of the discourse of an own scientific discipline of Metal Music Studies has not been expected. We did not see that come in science. (2) Second, these intertwining processes, Metal (and even Extreme Metal) getting integrated into the main currents of popculture and its identities produce structural paradoxicalities and ambivalences.

Up to 2014, Metal Music identiy was one of being a ‘rebel’, being critical of society or even of opposing society and its key discourses of popculture. This has changed fundamentally, being aware that even artists like ‘Heino’ enjoy Metal aesthetics. For ‘Metalheads’ this means essential paradoxes and ambivalence: they have to re-negotiate their cultural identity.

Framing the way to possible answers to today’s main questions: dealing with paradoxes and ambivalence as the result of the unexpected

Hence, suprisingly, the key question in American, European and global political (pop)culture and Metal Music is pretty much the same: we have to deal with the rise of the unexpected and to re-negotiate our identities in the light of new paradoxes and ambivalences. From a cultural historian’s point of view, the way to answer the question of how to deal with these unexpected histories could be the same: we have to find structural tactics, discursive strategies to perform new narratives and cultural texts that integrate the new ambiguity into a new identity. In a nutshell, Americans, maybe, coud learn a lesson from Metal Music and, vice versa, ‘Metalheads’ from American citizenship in a post-modern age.

 


  1. Cf. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Steiner, 2016. 

Narrations, narratives and emplotment: is Hayden White’s narratological theory of history a suitable source of research in Metal Music Studies?

American historian Hayden White (born 1928) is one of the most influential theorists of narratological theory and pilosophy of history since the 1970s. His widely read (and citicized) Magnum opus ‘Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe’ (1973)1 provided historical research with a thoroughly self-reflexive theoretical account of its subject, the classic European historiography of the 19th century.

Applying the theory of ‘tropology’ to history, White intended to show  that historiography is always a kind of narrative and linguistic discourse. According to him, historiography is at least as much art as science – it is a kind of ‘protoscience’ which gains its theoretical legitimization from only narrativism.2 Thus, he put the theory of ‘tropes’ and, most of all, ‘emplotment‘ (which means the narratological modelization of explanation in any historiographical narration)  into the centre of his book.3

In this theoretical framework, historiographers can use only four ‘archetypes’ of plot structures which White defines as the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy and satire.4 These types of plot construction correlate to four positions of ideological discouses which White defines as anarchism, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism.5 Alltogether, White’s theory can be summarized in a table which is the visualization of Metahistory’s analytical and descriptive of core:

table_hayden-white6

This visualization shows how Hayden White, as a somehow post-structuralist, somehow yet structuralist theorist of the historian’s language,7 imagined historiography to be:  the first place, according to him, it is a narratological structure, a narration. Hence, it is part of broader cultural discourses and contexts. It is part of contemporaray social, cultural and political life (i.e. ideologies such as anarchism, liberalism, conservatism or radicalism). White provided us with a deeply-grounded theoretical argumentation that historiography  is never ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ but has to be seen in the context of contemporary cultures.

However, this argument has become a commonplace in historico-theoretical debates8 but, still, discussion is open-ended – and, probably, cannot come to an end.9 At this point, our summary is (and this cannot be emphasized often enough) that history  is always a kind of narration. We do not have to follow White in his full implication, calling history a ‘protoscience’,10 but with Metahistory we gain a lot of theoretical ground in historical theory, concerning the nature of any historical narrative. In short, today, we also have to always ask for history as narration and narrative, too.11

Historical narrations, narratives and emplotment in Metal Music Studies: gaining more clarity

To deal with historical narrations and narratives is not new in Metal Music Studies: many recent works ask for narrations or narratological backgrounds of historic lyrical motives or aesthetics in Metal music.12 But, from a cultural historian’s point of view, current discourse lacks a sense of clarity: the terminology of ‘narration’ but, most of all, of ‘narrative’,  is usually used in more implicit than explicit ways.13

What I want to reflect upon in this post, is a mode of ‘going back to the roots‘ of White’s theory in Metahistory. The metaphor of ‘going back to the roots’ is a common topos in Metal culture, bringing to the fore associations of conservatism but also of going back to the authentic quality of excellent music. I intend to go back to White’s definitions of ‘narration’/’narrative’ and, in the first place, ’emplotment’, to gain more clarity in Metal Music Studies. I want to help to find out whether White’s theory is an atheoretical way of analyzing historical representation14 in Metal Music Studies.

To do so, we have to re-read his book. The core text of White’s theory is found in his introduction to Metahistory, his ‘poetics of history’.15 This barely more than fourty pages contain a theory of historical narrativism which became highly influential since the early 1970s,16 the era when Metal Music itself emerged in post-1968 Great Britain with bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Saxon amongst others.

White develops his theory in these introductory sections. The most important one among his theoretical notions is the one of ’emplotment’. Defining this notion, he describes the techniques historians use (in the case of Metahistory, the great historians of the 19th century) to construct the meaning of their narrations as part of their disciplinary discourse. And this is the key to understand this theory: to construct something means to perfom an act of composing, in more or less concious ways. Therefore, the first important parameter to read White’s book is to read it as theory of historical perfomance and agency. Historians act, poetically and concstructively, in their writing of history.17

The terms of ‘narration’ and ‘narrative’ depend on this parameter: they describe the result of the historians’ agency as writers of history. Narrations and narratives are the performative result, the way and form the construction of meaning  takes in history (i.e. in a text or other forms of statements, such as in a historically themed song in Metal Music) .

According to White, historical narrations and narratives are the cognitive form the production of meaning takes when historians (or other historical ‘storytellers’, like artists in Metal music) perform their acts of emplotment. Thus the second parameter to read this theory, is to see historical narrations and narratives as performative results of the agency of historians. They are contigent forms of coherence, constructed at a certain point in space and time, out of the contemporary world of culture. The author of Metahistory develops this theory in the mentioned introductory section but its most concise formulation is found in the book’s preface:

In this theory I treat the historical work as what it most manifestly is: a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse. Histories (and philosophies of history as well) combine a certain amount of ‘data’, theoretical concepts for ‘explaining’ these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation as an icon of set of events presumed to have occured in times past. In addition, I maintain, they contain a deep structural content which is generally poetic (…)18

This theoretical and ontological position enables White to characterize the historians’ agency in their performative acts of emplotment:

Explanation by Emplotment

Providing the ‘meaning’ of a story by identifying the kind of story that had been told is called explanation by emplotment. If, in the course of narrating his story, the historian provides it with the plot structure of a Tragedy, he has ‘explained’ it in one way; if he has structured it as a Comedy, he has ‘explained’ it in another way. Emplotment is the way which a sequence of events fashioned into a story is gradually revealed to be a story of a particular kind.19

This citation contains White’s definition of the historians’ work and task: they produce, as the results of acts of such ’emplotment’, a historical (hi)story whose ‘effect of explanation’ relates to its mode of plot structure. In short, a historical narrative’s form and meaning depend upon how it is told. Emplotment is the theory of a ‘performative speech act’ that describes this process.20 Going ‘back to the roots’ in Metahistory means to understand historical storytelling as an act of agency of performative emplotment. Now, we can the address the question whether this theory of historiography suits the demands of Metal Music Studies, and in particular those of a cultural history of Metal Music.

The questions of ‘materiality’ and modality: approaching historical emplotment in Metal Music Studies as a ‘sonic historical emplotment’

Dealing with historical storytelling in Metal means to deal with (hi)stories that take the shape of music. At a first theoretical stage, we can define this as a ‘sonic discourse’ – however neglective such a description should be. But, this first approximative argument already contains, in an implicit way, the characterization of a theory of historical emplotment in Metal Music. It consists in the modal question of the ‘materiality’ and the ways of the modalities the narratives are presented to the audience.

The audience of Metal Music consists of listeners. The ‘material’ form, the modality that is decisive, strucurally and cognitively, in Metal is its  sonic shape. The narratives the music contains may be a composite of visuals, lyrics, stage performance and the music itself, but the definition of this discourse is that it is a music discourse. Thus, we have to ask whether Hayden White’s theory of emplotment is suitable for the demands of a music discourse.

There are a number of monographs and articles which deal with the narratology of Metal Music.21 However meritorious these works are, they do, as a rule, approach narratives in Metal from a musicological perspective, combining it with a cultural perspective.

Asking for the suitability of Hayden White’s theory for Metal Music Studies, requires  us to concretize and specify this theoretical question: we have to go a step further  in theory by, first, shaping these narratives as historical narratives; and then, second, to go ahead by asking for these historical narratives as historical emplotment, perfomative acts of agency in the construction of meaning, that takes place in the ‘material’ form and modality of music.

For cultural history as a starand of interdiscliplinary Metal Music Studies, we can take up the discourse of the history of sound(s) that emerged in recent time.22 The theoretical foundations of ‘sound history’ enable us to approach the ‘materiality’ and modality of sonic discourses.

Now, we can answer the question whether Hayden White’s theory of history is suitable for research of cultural history in Metal Music Studies: yes, it enables us to understand historical storytelling in Metal music. However, we have to understand it as emplotment in a sonic discursive culture – we are required to develop a theory of ‘sonic historical emplotment‘ in Metal Music Studies.


  1. Cf. Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 3rd printing 1980. 

  2. Cf. ibid., most of all, pp. 1-42, 426-434. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. ibid.  

  6. Figurative table of Hayden White’s theory of narrativism in 19th century historiography; for the text in the book itself, cf. ibid.; especially White’s own figure, p. 29; table: Peter Pichler. 

  7. Cf. Frank Ankersmit, Narrative Logic. A Semantic Analysis of the Historian’s Language. The Hague: Martinus Niijhoff Publishers, 1983. 

  8. For instance, from the German discourse, most recently, cf. Jörn Rüsen, Historik. Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft, Köln e.a.: Böhlau, 2013; for recent debates, as the most read research journals, cf. History and Theory. Studies in the Philosophy of History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1960 ff; also, cf. Rethinkin History: The Journal of Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 1997 ff. 

  9. Cf. White, Metahistory, pp. 1-42, 426-434. 

  10. Cf. ibid. 

  11. Cf. ibid.; Ankersmit, Narrative Logic. 

  12. For topics of the research debate, most of all, cf. Metal Music Studies, Bristol: Intellect, 2014 ff; also, cf. Jeremy Wallach, Harris M. Berger and Paul D. Greene (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music around the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. 

  13. Cf. ibid.; for an ‘essay’ in this direction, also, cf. Peter Pichler, The Power of the Imagination of Historical Distance: Melechesh’ ‘Mesopotamian Metal’as a Musical Attempt of Solving Cultural Conflicts in the 21st Century. Metal Music Studies, forthcoming. 

  14. For the discourse on historical representation, cf. Frank Ankersmit, Historical Representation. Stanford, CA: Stanford Universoty Press, 2001. 

  15. Cf. White, Metahistory, pp. 1-42. 

  16. Discussing White’s reception, cf. Richard T. Vann, The Recption of Hayden White, in: History and Theory 37, 2 (1998), pp. 143-161; and, also, cf. Frank Ankersmit, Hayden White’s Appeal to the Historians, ibid., pp. 182-193. 

  17. Cf. ibid. 

  18. White, Metahistory, p. IX. Emphasis in the original. 

  19. Ibid., p. 7. Emphasis in the original. 

  20. Cf. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History. Stuttgart. Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 

  21. Cf. Méi-Ra St. Laurent, Finally Getting out of the Maze: Understanding the Narrative structure of Extreme Metal Through a Study of ‘Mad Architect’ by Septicflesh, in: Metal Music Studies 2, 1 (2016), pp. 87-108; and: Dietmar Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal. Bielefeld: Transcipt, 2010. 

  22. From the German discourse, cf. R. Murray Schafer, Die Ordnung der Klänge. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Hörens. Mainz: Schott, 2010; Gerhard Paul and Ralph Schock (eds.), Sound der Zeit. Geräusche, Töne, Stimmen – 1889 bis heute. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2014. 

‘Colourful Black Metal’: Darkthrone’s New Album ‘Arctic Thunder’

On 14th October 2016, Nowergian Black Metal veterans and pioneers Darkthrone will release their new full-length record ‘Arctic Thunder’. It is the follow-up to 2013’s ‘The Underground Resistance’. Having only two constant members, Gylve Fenris ‘Fenriz’ Nagell (born 1971, most of all known as the band’s drummer)  and Ted ‘Nocturno Culto’ Skjellum (born 1972, most of all acting as the group’s vocalist and lead guitarist), the band is considered to be one of the pioneering und most important acts of early 1990s’ Norwergian, then European and global Black Metal music and culture.1

Their early albums, such as ‘Panzerfaust’ (1995) or ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ (1994), clearly made references to fascist, Nazist and racist  ideologies. Still, there is a lot of dispute and discussion if this is to be seen as ‘provocation’ or as ‘authentic’ political statements. The latter album even had printed ‘Norsk Arisk Black Metal’ (‘Norwegian Aryan Black Metal’) on it. So, from my point of view, this aspect of the band’s cultural history is to be seen more than critically; it has to be rejected. In Black Metal discourse, as an artistic and ‘rebellious’, therefore, emancipative discourse, there can be no discursive space for racism.

This said, there is a an aspect in the band’s  cultural history of identity, taking a very clear form in the aesthetics of ‘Arctic Thunder’ (at this time, the promotional release of the album is available already). Darkthrone started out as a Death Metal outfit in 1986, turning to Black Metal aesthetics in 1991. The ‘blackish’ design of the band’s identity, claiming it to be a ‘true’ Black Metal group, was kept up to around the year of 2005; with the album ‘The Cult Is Alive’ (2006), the two artitsts decided to incorporate Punk, Rock and Classic Metal elements into their music. They became a ‘Black’n’Roll’-band which they can be seen to still be in 2016.

Yet, reflecting on the band’s history of identity, a ‘micro-macro-history’ of their cultural identity from 1986 until today, focusing on the ‘microscopic’ topic of the band’s identitary aesthetics, the new album is – in a certain way – an extraordinary one. The music heard on the record seems to be a progression of what the band is doing but the overall aesthetics hark back to the band’s classical black metal phase from 1991 to 1995. This is the record’s cover:

index2

This cover’s features are, in a cultural ‘micro-macro’ perspective of the band’s history of identity, very interesting – and, special. The cover shows dark woods, fire (I guess, a campfire), the band’s logo and the record’s title. This is a very straight codification of early 1990’s Black Metal aesthetics: the topics and metaphors of fire and woods have become standout topics of Black Metal in its cultural orthodoxy. But, when looking back at the band’s classical records from 1991 to 1995, they all had a black and white outfit. So, what is, in a certain way, the key move on ‘Arctic Thunder’ is to use a orthodox, very traditional and classical black metal identity but to paint it colourfully.

This move can be seen in both ways, literally and metaphorically: literally the band follows, now, a more colourful approach in their aesthetics of identity. Metaphorically, and this is from the mentioned ‘micro-macro’ perspective of history the more interesting one, the band breaks classical Black Metal monochromy and re-composes it in colour. Black Metal is – self-conciously, and, somehow, courageously – hybridized with Rock’n’Roll. The band did so since ten years but, in 2016, they start to do it more explicitly. So, from this allegorical perspective, we can see a new era beginning in the group’s cultural history of identity. In 2016, the band plays ‘colourful Black Metal’.

So, reflecting on it in a broad cultural historical perspective, this is a tempting move. In 1966, exactly fifty years ago, the Rolling Stones wanted to ‘paint it black‘, releasing a single of this title. In 2016, the seemingly most extreme one of popular music cultures, Black Metal, at least one of their key-players, wants to ‘paint it colourfully‘. I am eager to see and listen what kind of broader trends in cultural history this can be seen to represent metaphorically.


  1. For Black Metal and Extreme Metal cultural history, cf. Keith Kahn-Harris: Extreme Metal. Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford 2007; Dayal Patterson: Black Metal. Evolution of the Cult. New York 2013; also, cf. idem: Black Metal. Prelude to the Cult.  N.p. 2013; idem: Black Metal. The Cult Never Dies. N.p. 2015; idem: Black Metal. Into the Abyss. N.p. 2016. 

  2. Source: http://www.nuclearblast.de/static/articles/253/253324-1.jpg/1000×1000.jpg, retrieved 12/10/2016. 

Black Metal and a Medieval Castle: on Historical Sources and Historical Experience

In my last post, I tried to use the methodology of Clifford Geertz’ anthropological ‘thick description’ to deal with the historical experience of a cultural historian at an Extreme Metal festival, linking regional history and conservative as well as Extreme Metal culture. In this post, I want to go a step further: I want to reflect upon how historical experience is constructed, seen, spoken, written and – finally – experienced, thought and felt of, in our age of digital cultures.1

To do so, I will analyse the historical experience I had when visiting the medieval castle of Ruine Gösting2 and listening to Black Metal music during my visit there. It was an experience thas has to be linked with current culture of historiography, Metal Music Studies and Metal music itself at once. It combined two spheres of historical experience: (1) Black Metal music as a discourse and field of contemporary culture of art, music and imaginary, and, (2) the material remains of a medieval castle as stimuli of historical experience; a field of material objects, over nine hundred years old.

The context

For it was a sunny and warm day in Graz, Austria, on 2. September 2016, I decided to take a short hike to the medieval castle of Ruine Gösting.3 The castle (its remains) is a well-frequented point of  sigthseeing and hiking, located in the Northeast of Graz. It can be approached by a short hike of about half an hour from the city district of Gösting. The castle, or what is left of it today, was mentioned in local and regional historical sources for the first time in 1042.4

In the late Middle Ages, until the early modern period, the castle was an important fortress and ‘checkpoint’ in the Northeast of the city of Graz. Its location on a hill, situated about two hundred meters higher than the city itself, enabled then Stytrians to control and protect this area.5 Hence, the castle was an important building and institution of regional defense, control, organization, administration, and, therefore,  culture.6

Being used as the city’s gun powder storage until 1723, the castle was an important point and aspect of regional and local culture and narratives.7 Having its own history – material history of culture – since at least 1042, the remains of  Ruine Gösting are a field of intense historical experience.  For any visitors, its thick walls, towers, little caverns and ‘dungeons’, provoke feelings and thoughts which hint at its past. In fact, provoking feelings of visiting a place that was important in history, representing the past of Graz and Styria, makes the place nothing else than a material source of history. Yet, any experience of history via this source remains constructive and discursvively produced.8

Listening to Black Metal as historical experience

As I approached the castle, its remains lying on the top of the Göstinger Ruinenberg, I was listening to Black Metal music, using in-ear headphones. I decided to do so, because I felt – and thought – that listening to current Black Metal music, released in 2016, would produce a good ‘soundtrack’ or ‘auditive context’ when hiking up to the castle. I decided to listen to American Post Black Metal project Panopticon’s9 2016 release Revisions Of  The Past.10

Panopticon is a one-man Extreme Metal project, hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, USA.11 The band is, in a certain way, an exceptional project in Black Metal music. It promotes ‘left’ political ideas  of criticism and ideologies in music; it is not the only artistic groupto do so in Black Metal but many ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditional’ Black Metal bands choose to be ‘apolitical’ or to promote ideologies of anarchism, nihilism, satanism, destruction and other ‘blackisms’. Panopticon’s name comes from the metaphor of the cultural concept of the same name which Michel Foucault, in his path-breaking works of the 1960’s, stated to be the epitome of modern cultural history since the early modern period, of ‘governmentality’.12

I do not know exactly why I decided to specifically listen to Panopticon when approaching the castle of Ruine Gösting. But, and that being the decisive aspect, listening to Revisions Of The Past, in my thoughts and feeling, being open to later cognitive introspection, provoked an imaginary similar to, even matching the atmosphere of the historical source of the castle. Ancient castles, woods, knights, sorcerers, dungeons, monsters and so on, certainly are well-established stereotypes and clichés, even kitsch in Metal music. So, we have to see the connection between the imginary of current Black Metal discourse and material historical sources, as a field of historical experience, critically, in the mode of cultural deconstruction.13 A good way to do so, is to compare the visual imaginary Revisions Of The Past bears (most of all, its cover), the band’s overall imaginary as a ‘one-man-group’, and the images I took at Ruine Gösting:

Revisions of the past14

1376977_634967606523421_2002548683_n15

20160902_110624 16

20160902_11025617

20160902_11081718

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Comparing these images, (1) the cover of an Exreme Metal album from 2016, the self-presentation of the artist, and (2) fotographs of the remains of a medieval castle, we can conclude that both  form one historical portfolio of images, tropologies and semantics. Both fields of imaginaries represent history in the same way: the deal with forests, mysticism, old and ‘secret’ buildings; their mood and atmosphere is darkness, mysticism and getting away from today, disappearing into history, a sort of escapism. In a nutshell: in the empirical examples of Panopticon’s Revisions Of The Past and the castle of Ruine Gösting, the present and the past are not divided but form one semantic network of representations.

This is a rather suprising finding: it means that in this empirical case of Black Metal and conservative, ‘mainstream’ material culture of historical sightseeing, the imaginary of temporality is the same. When asking how the past is experienced in both cases, the Extreme Metal culture of Panopticon’s album and visiting Ruine Gösting, the answer leads to the same semantic network; that means, in current culture, also in this case, Extreme Metal music is not apart of society or mainstream historical culture but an integral part of it. So, what can we conclude from this for Metal Music Studies?

The epistemic apriori of the cultural history of Metal Music

When taking into account the experience I had on my hike to Ruine Gösting, seeing it retrospectively, using the method of introspection20 to deal with it self-reflexively, we see that – at least concerning these empirical examples – current historical experience (Black Metal music by Panopticon) and traditional material sources of history (the remains of Ruine Gösting) are not to be seen as divided (i.e. as contemporary and past culture) but as one historical network and discourse of meaning.

The present flows into the past, and, vice versa, the past flows into the present – both depend on each other, construct a liquid discourse. The conclusion from this argument needs further theoretical and empirical work of research but, at this point, it seems to be essential: we have to think of the cultural history of Metal music as a strictly ‘presentist’ phenomenon. Experiencing the past in Metal Music (Studies) means to describe the past as a shape of the present. This is a strong logical claim; but, too, an apt starting point for further theoretical and historical research in Metal Music Studies.


  1. The last broad discussion concerning historical experience evolved around Frank Ankersmits book ‘Sublime Historical Experience; cf. Frank R. Ankesmit: Sublime Historical Experience. Stanford/Cambridge 2005; on the debate, cf. Peter Icke: Frank Ankersmit’s Lost Historical Cause: A Journey from Language to Experience. London 2011. 

  2. Cf. https://www.graztourismus.at/de/sehen-und-erleben/sightseeing/sehenswuerdigkeiten/burgruine+g%C3%B6sting_sh-1204, retrieved 07.09.2016 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. For the history of the castle, cf. Robert Baravalle: Burgen und Schlösser der Steiermark. Eine enzyklopädische Sammlung der steirischen Wehrbauten und Liegenschaften, die mit den verschiedensten Privilegien ausgestattet waren. Mit 100 Darstellungen nach Vischer aus dem „Schlösserbuch“ von 1681. Graz 1995, pp. 9-13. 

  5. Cf. ibid. 

  6. Cf. ibid. 

  7. Cf. ibid. 

  8. Cf. Achim Landwehr: Historische Diskursanalyse. Frankfurt/Main 2008. 

  9. Cf. https://www.facebook.com/TheTruePanopticon/?fref=ts, retrieved 07.09.2016. 

  10. For a review in German language and information, cf. http://www.metal.de/reviews/panopticon-revisions-of-the-past-185985/, retrieved 07.09.2016. 

  11. Cf. https://www.facebook.com/TheTruePanopticon/?fref=ts, retrieved 07.09.2016. 

  12. Cf. Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York 1977; also, cf. idem: Security, Territory, Population. New York 2007; and, idem: The Birth of Biopolitics. New York 2008; broader, reflecting upon the origins of the metaphor in Jeremy Benthams thought, cf. Janet Semple: Bentham’s Prison. A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary. Oxford 1993. 

  13. Cf. Landwehr, Diskursanalyse. 

  14. Cover of Panopticon, Revions Of The Past, 2016; source: https://nordvis.bandcamp.com/album/revisions-of-the-past, retrieved 07.09.2016. 

  15. Picture of Panopticon as ‘one-man-group’; source: https://www.facebook.com/TheTruePanopticon/photos/a.157273827626137.28743.118131858207001/634967606523421/?type=3&theater, retrieved 07.09.2016. 

  16. The way up to Ruine Gösting; picture by Peter Pichler. 

  17. Approaching Ruine Gösting; picture by Peter Pichler. 

  18. Approaching Ruine Gösting; picture by Peter Pichler. 

  19. Inside Ruine Gösting; picture by Peter Pichler. 

  20. Cf. Timothy  Wilson: Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge 2002. 

‘Metal On The Hill 2016’: A ‘Thick Description’ of a Cultural Historian’s Imagination at an Extreme Metal Festival

The context

One week ago, on 13. August 2016, being a Metal music fan, I attended the ‘Metal On The Hill 2016’1 festival, a festival of Extreme Metal, organized by a Styrian Heavy Metal label, which took place on the ‘Schlossberg’ and its ‘Kasemattenbühne’ in the city centre of Graz. The location is an old vault with brick walls, which used to be the storage of the town’s castle since Renaissance days.2 It was re-functioned as a ‘Freilichtbühne’, an open-air arena under historical auspices, in recent time. There, at the historical centre of the regional area of Styria, for the first time, an Extreme Metal festival took place.

This is not only another indication that Metal reaches the cultural mainstream but it means that, spatially and metaphorically, the performance of Extreme Metal music reached the heart of an old – historical – Austrian and European city. Graz, being the second largest urban area of Austria, having about 250.000 inhabitants,3 is, thus, a kind of a cultural ‘avantgardian’ of Austria and Europe: it integrates Extreme Metal into its cultural narrative. For sure, that Napalm Records,4 the label which organized the festival, originates from Eisenerz, Styria, favoured this process.

What I want to reflect on in this article, is the imagination and experience of a cultural historian, at the same time a Metal music fan, attending this festival. I want to employ the theory of ‘thick description’, developed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the 1970s,5 on this imagination and experience. I want to do a thick description of a cultural historian’s imagination in Extreme Metal music, at a certain place, at a certain time of contemporary history.

Coming to the arena: a conservative experience

On the day of the festival, 13. August 2016, I arrived at the Kasemattenbühne at about 2 p.m. There was already a rather big crowd. My first impression was that it was going to be well received and well attended. The location was situated beneath a modern roof, but, actually, it was a place of history, of ‘old Graz’ which I grew up in:

IMG_20606

Like this, coming to the arena of Kasemattenbühne, I felt to be a part of Graz’ and Styria’s history and the imagined community of Metal music, at once . This is a rather peculiar and new, almost innovative finding of research: so far, Metal music and its cultural discourse has claimed to be emancipative; a transformative force of culture.7 Being at the Metal On The Hill festival, for me, was a conservative experience: it was an experience of Heavy Metal music happening within the ‘old’ framedwork of my regional belonging and history. It was a conservative experience – but still there was the imaginary and culture of rebellion, anarchy and ‘being against the establishment’ that forms the cultural core narrative of Metal music.

Experiencing conservative anarchism

The billing of the festival featured many long-standing successful bands  and ‘newcomers’ in Extreme Metal: Moonspell, Mantar, Satyricon and Arch Enemy were some of the main acts.8 Too, there were some bands which one could call Alternative Metal or Rock: And Then She Came  from Germany and Italian group Lacuna Coil were this side of the festival. The festival lasted from about 2 p.m. to 10:30 pm. Hence, it was  about eight hours of dense music and images of Metal culture, most of all Extreme Metal discourse:

IMG_20649

IMG_209610

IMG_217511

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Taking a look at these pictures, makes very clear that the festival, as experienced by myself as a ‘metalhead’ and cultural historian at once, but by many other people in the ‘crowd’, too, was a a classical Heavy Metal experience; in terms of sound, sphere and imaginary. It was loud, it was crowded, and it was full of symbolism of riot, of revolution, of satanism and anti-christianism (Satyricon), as well as mysticism (Moonspell). It was a mixture of brutality and mythology.

That was the feeling of the metalhead in me. But, the cultural historian in my head acknowleged something else. At Metal On The Hill 2016 festival, Extreme Metal (noise, brutality, satanism, mysticism, crowdedness, Extreme Metal identity) took place within the space of common Styrian history. Its discourse progressed to the heart of Styrian regional and local history, spatially embodied by the Kasemattenbühne on the Schlossberg, in the city centre of Graz. So, for me as a cultural historian, I imagine the festival to be a discourse of conservative anarchism.

A thick description of conservative anarchism

So, looking back at my personal and professional experience at this festival, it is a form of memorial and cultural imagination of the past which can be called a ‘thick description’ of conservative anarchism. We have to be aware of the very fact, also in the case of this festival, that Heavy Metal is marching into cultural mainstream. This process changes its identity and discourse. It makes its discourse become attached to conservatism but at the same time Heavy Metal and Extreme Metal stick to their imaginary of anarchism and other ‘blackisms’. Thus, when trying to give a cultural-historical description of the 2016 Graz  Metal On The Hill festival as a cultural event, it has to be seen as a play of conservative anarchism. It was an event where old and new, regional history and Heavy Metal culture met: what we do have to expect from that rendez-vous, I do not know. But, it is very likely that it will change both – conservatism and Metal culture.


  1. Cf. http://www.metal-on-the-hill.com/, retrieved 20.08.2016. 

  2. Cf.  www.graz.at., retrieved 20.08.2016. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. https://shop.napalmrecords.com/, retrieved 20.08.2016. 

  5. Cf. Clifford Geertz: Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York 1973, 3-30. 

  6. The Kasemattenbühne; photo: Peter Pichler.  

  7. Cf. Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.): Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music around the World. Durham & London 2012.  

  8. Cf. ibid. 

  9. And Then She Came; photo: Peter Pichler. 

  10. Mantar; photo: Peter Pichler. 

  11. Moonspell; photo: Peter Pichler. 

  12. Lacuna Coil; photo: Peter Pichler. 

  13. Satyricon; photo: Peter Pichler. 

The Cultural History of Black Metal Theory and Philosophy – Extreme Metal Music as a ‘Schrödinger’s Cat of Culture’?

Since 2013, with the online and print journal ‘Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory‘,1 there is an established or at least institutionalized discourse closely connected to  Metal Music Studies, which dedicates itself to only theorizing Black Metal. Already earlier publications on Extreme Metal focused, at least partially, on Black Metal2 but with this journal (and its analogous blog and accompanying conferences)3 theorizing Black Metal (and thus putting it into the framework of theoretical science with its identitary and cultural traditions) gained a whole new level. For cultural history of heavy music, as practiced in this blog, this is of great interest.

On the one hand, this means that not only Metal in general but especially one of its most extreme manifestations, Black Metal, is growingly being considered as a subject of reseach. It gets more scientific attention, progresses to the ‘mainstream’ of supposedly ‘bourgeois‘ humanities research and is considered ‘being worth’ of forming a subject of scientific attention.4

On the other hand, this trend of growing attention in the cultural mainstream, media and popular culture, means that Black Metal, as a distinct field of identitary and cutural practice of ‘subculture’, is transforming in it itself. It has to adapt its cultural concept to a new context, in which growing acceptance of its ‘being art’ becomes a threat to its self-fashioning; since its origins, it has emphasized rebellion, criticism of society, and, very often, nihilism, misanthropy or satanism. Now, this seems to be at stake.

This current situation of Black Metal, gaining acceptance and at once having to adapt itself to a new cultural situation, is the historical crossroads which I want to reflect on in this post. Being at this crossroads, Black Metal discourse in 2016 is a fascinating subject of research. I claim that looking precisely at 2016 Black Metal (theory) at this crosscroads could make us to have to differentiate our concepts of ‘reality’ in Metal Music Studies.

In Black Metal (theory) discourse of mid-2016, we find a cultural currentof theoretical thinking and identitary practice that is at the same time essentialist and ironically-deconstructive. It claims to be authentic but at the same time it radically questions every philosophy of essentialism. And, that being the important point, this seemingly fruitless contradiction – encouraging authenticity and being deconstructive at once – ‘works’ as a cultural discourse. Usually,  fans and musicians do not see any flaws in these supposed contradictions and paradoxes in Black Metal  – they even see it as its form of coherence.5

Like this, current Black Metal challenges our understanding of ‘reality’, our cultural philosophy of Wirklichkeit and réalité. We are facing a cultural current and strand of thought which has contradiction and paradoxicalities as its form of the production of coherence and meaning. Dealing with paradoxes and contradiction is as old as philosophy and science themselves.6 But in recent times, an own discourse of ‘Contradiction Studies’ emerged, most of all centered around the University of Bremen, Germany,7 which tries to deepen our understanding of contradiction in culture and cultural history.

This is where my thought comes in: I put forward the hypothesis that, given the ambivalent situation of Black Metal in 2016, facing acceptance and struggling with its own tradition of being ‘anti-establishment’ at once, it is a form of culture that, currently, is able to perform a mechanism of the production of reality and meaning, in which both is possible – stressing authenticity and performing deconstructive nihilism. In fact, empirically both seem to condition each other in mid-2016 Black Metal.

Thus, my point is that current Black Metal discourse could be seen as a ‘Schrödinger’s cat of culture’:8 being ‘dead’ and ‘alive’ at once, for Black Metal means to be capable of culturally being essentialistconstructive and ironicde(con)structive at once, in the same space and at the same time. This is the result of the current situation of Black Metal – a challenging thought for the New Cultural History, which claims every form of culture to be only deconstructively available. This is seriously questioned – and actually, dealing with current cultural history of Black Metal philosophy, it maybe has to be questioned.

Black Metal theory,  Black Metal philosophy

Black Metal theory (to be seen as the currently most elaborated and institutionalized discourse adhering to the ‘black’ culture of its subject, and seeking linkages to traditional theoretical-philosophical science at once) is the discursive field, in which the mentioned processes of culture are negotiated: in the discourse of Black Metal theory, we find the present ‘battlefield’ where the cultural concept of Black Metal (comprising nihilism, rebellion, misanthropy, satanism, and many other ‘blackisms’) and the tradition of classic ‘Western’ and occidental scientific thought meet.

There, they are negotiated, build forms of alliances but also contradictions and paradoxes which, nonetheless, function as a form of the production of coherent meaning. The discourse of Black Metal theory, its journal (online and print),9 its blog and its conferences,10 are, as a sphere of digital reality, a materialization of the current crossroads in Black Metal culture. In this respect, the mission statement of the Helvete-journal makes a clear point:

Helvete is a new open-access electronic and print journal of black metal theory.

Helvete is dedicated to continuing the mutual blackening of metal and theory inaugurated by the Black Metal Theory Symposia. Not to be confused with a metal studies, music criticism, ethnography, or sociology, black metal theory is a speculative and creative endeavor, one which seeks ways of thinking that ‘count’ as black metal events—and, indeed, to see how black metal might count as thinking. Theory of black metal, and black metal of theory. Mutual blackening. Therefore, we eschew any approach that treats theory and metal discretely, preferring to take the left-hand path by insisting on some kind of connaturality between the two, a shared capacity for nigredo.11

This quotation, a sort of welcome to scholars and Black Metal music fans alike, carries in itself a clear message: the journal is, by its initiators and editors, supposed to be a discourse of mutuality, where the cultures of Extreme Metal subculture and classical theoretical thought (philosophy) meet. At this crossroads of culture, we find the place in space and time where something new comes to life. Neither this new creature of culture is only theory and philisophy nor it is only Black Metal. And, too, it is not something in-between both of them, but a new breed of hybridization.12

To understand what is happening at this crossroads, we have to ask what is the subject of this new hybridization. I think we can best answer this question thinking of the mode of the production of meaning that is at work in both cases: in (1) traditional philosophical thought and (2) Black Metal culture. (1) Very schematically (I am aware of the conceptual roughness of this approach),13 we can ‘label’ conservative and traditional ‘Western’ philosophy to be a constructive, often idealist producer of meaning, and, thus, reality (of course, for instance Discourse Analysis, which is very relevant to cultural history, is not only ‘constructivist’).14 Seen in a perspective of longue durée, it produced reality constructively by imagining new spaces of knowledge.15

(2) In contrast to this, traditional Black Metal as a form of practice, encouraging another ‘style’ of thinking (which we actually should think of as another mode of thinking)16  refused to act as a cultural incubator of constructivism. Its intellectual and conceptual roots17 were to be against classical discourse of thought, philosophy, science and its ethics – in short, its production of meaning and reality.18

Traditional Black Metal discourse generates reality by trying to deconstruct, often even destroying conventional forms of meaning. Its meaning was, up till it came to the crossroads examined, an ‘anti-meaning’. Its traditional mode of the production of meaning has been ironic-decontstructivist.19 Hence, to write a cultural history of the theory and philosophy of Black Metal in mid-2016, thinking of its current discursive tajectory, means to ask for the ongoing changes in the production of reality at this crossroads.

A ‘Schrödinger’s Cat of Culture’?

So, looking at this crossroads in Black Metal (theory) discourse in mid-2016, we see the crossing of two before separated paths of culture. It is a crossroads of discourse, of practice and theory, where constructivist imaginations  and de(con)structive imaginations of realities give birth to a new and hybrid sphere of mutuality – its product, in terms of meaning and reality production, has to be a new form of a paradoxical métissage of constructive and deconstructive cultural text at once.

This peculiar situation, a birth of a discourse, where construction and destruction of meaning is possible in the same place and at the same time, changes the axiomatics of the production of reality. In this discourse, which is the epitome of the overall cultural-historical situation of Black Metal and its philosophical core in mid-2016, both is possible: to adhere to the orthodox ethics of nihilism, satanism, misanthropy and like ‘blackisms’ of Black Metal subculture, in a deconstructive way; and, at once, to practice the philosophical constructivism of Enlightenment thought, constructively imagining human history of progress, emancipation and solidarty.

The condition of discourse, which follows from this , is a very delicate one –  it could be summarized in the metaphor of a ‘Schrödinger’s cat of culture’: in Erwin Schrödinger’s classic thought experiment from the year of 1935, summarizing the then knowledge on quantum mechanics, a cat could be dead and alive at once. This metaphor, in a nutshell, allegorizes the seemingly impossible contradiction which is inherent to the current situation of Black Metal culture, in terms of its discursive production of reality and meaning. It is characterized by a seemingly irrational and paradox discursive structure, which enables us to have constructive-idealist and de(con)structive-ironic imaginations of reality at once.

Thus, Black Metal musicians and fans, and scholars of Black Metal theory (philosophy), may emphasize their harsh criticism of any positive attitude towards human culture and history; and, at once, in the same cultural text and narrative, they are capable of positively speaking of themselves as authentic cultural players, musicians, music-fans or intellectuals. Hence, the descisive question to ask, as the central result of my line of thought, is maybe important for the entire intellectual enterprise of Metal Music Studies: if Black Metal discourse could, currently, be defined metaphorically as such a ‘Schrödinger’s cat of culture’, what does that imply for the concept of reality in Heavy Metal, in general? Do we have to think of the cultural history of heavy music as a historical field of ‘Contradiction Studies’, in which even the concept of reality is contested?20

 

 

 


  1. Cf. https://helvetejournal.org/, retrieved 1/8/2016 

  2. Cf. Keith Kahn-Harris: Extreme Metal. Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford 2007; Dayal Patterson: Black Metal. Evolution of the Cult. New York 2013; also, cf. idem: Black Metal. Prelude to the Cult.  N.p. 2013; idem: Black Metal. The Cult Never Dies. N.p. 2015; idem: Black Metal. Into the Abyss. N.p. 2016. 

  3. Cf. ibid; http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 1/8/2016 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. ibid. 

  6. Cf. Roy Sorensens: A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind. Oxford 2005; Mark Sainsbury: Paradoxes. Cambridge 1988. 

  7. Cf. http://www.woc.uni-bremen.de/ 

  8. Originally, the thought experiment of the cat, that can be dead and alive at once, was published in 1935; cf. Erwin Schrödinger: Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik. In Naturwissenschaften 23 (1935), 812. 

  9. Cf. https://helvetejournal.org/, retrieved 1/8/2016. 

  10. Cf.  http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 1/8/2016. 

  11. https://helvetejournal.org/, retrieved 2/8/2016, emphasis in the original. 

  12. For an article employing a similar research interest, cf. Peter Pichler: The Power of the Imagination of Historical Distance: Melechesh’ ‘Mesopotamian Metal’ as a Musical Attempt of Solving Cultural Conflicts in the 21st Century. In: Metal Music Studies. Forthcoming. 

  13. For a recent thought of sociology of science, cf. Richard Schantz/Markus Seidel: The Problem of Relativism in the Sociology of (Scientific) Knowledge. Frankfurt 2011. 

  14. Cf. Achim Landwehr: Historische Diskursanalyse. Frankfurt/Main ²2009. 

  15. Cf. Helge Kragh: An Introduction to the Historiography of Science.Cambridge 1990; too, of great interest in this respect, cf. Olaf Breidbach: Bilder des Wissens: zur Kulturgeschichte der wissenschaftlichen Wahrnehmung. Munich 2005. 

  16. Cf. Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal; Patterson, Evolution. 

  17. Cf. ibid; Patterson, Prelude to the Cult. 

  18. Cf. ibid. 

  19. Cf. ibid. 

  20. Cf. http://www.woc.uni-bremen.de/.