‘Multilingual metal’: does metal have an own cultural-historical language?

Doubtless, metal music studies with its accelerating sequence of scholarly events, also its intensification of publication streams, is an emerging discourse in academia. Within these debates, an upcoming conference in London on 20th and 21st September 2018 will be devoted to the topic of ‘Multilingual Metal’.1 The information on the event states:

(…) the purpose of our multi-disciplinary conference is to explore further the textual analysis of heavy metal lyrics written in languages other than English. In cases where the primary language of the lyrics is English, loans or elements from other languages can be the topic of investigation.2

From a cultural-historical perspective, this is a very interesting approach to metal history. Seeing metal as a a multilingual discourse, at least in its lyrical and textual qualities, logically implies that this is a multilingual history. And, seeing metal as a multilingual history forces us to think of metal history as a transnational and transcultural history, whose defining character also is to be found in processes of translation. That said, historical research on metal has to apply a genuinely transnational approach, taking inspiration from discourses such as world history, entangled history, and – probably most important – postcolonial history.3

This need of thinking of metal history in a postcolonial perspective is urgent and reflected in current research.4 It leads to new, maybe fundamental questions on the history of metal. Conceptually, having to theorize metal as a discourse which hybridizes myriads of different, multilingual histories, narratives in their own languages, can we historically make sense of it in a single discourse in academia? Does metal have an own cultural-historical language? Something like a global cultural code which enables it to work in Birmingham and New York as well as in Borneo and  Malaysia?5

I guess, at this point of research we cannot seriously answer these questions definitely. But we have some serious hints in current research where we could go to better answer them. Already in 1991, Deena Weinstein identified metal as a cultural ‘bricolage’ having a more or less conservative ideology at its core.6 More recent research also stresses the transgressive traits of metal history.7 In 2010, Dietmar Elflein published his important book ‘Schwermetallanalysen. Zur musikalischen Sprache des Heavy Metal.‘, which already in its title hypothesizes that metal does have an own musical language.8 However, ironically the book was published in German language which does not work globally.

Concluding, asking for multilingual metal leads to a very important historical research perspective. It forces us to ask whether metal is a cultural phenomenon which developed its own historical language of a gobally working ‘bricolage’ of texts, riffs, music, sounds, practices, institutions, clothes, places, sites etc. To ask for the lyrical aspects can be just the beginning. Future research should strategically employ this conception of multilingual metal to get a better historical understanding of its subject.


  1. https://www.facebook.com/events/166129170755040/?active_tab=about, accessed 01/05/2018. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. J. H. Bentley (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011; D. Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives on Global History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; P. Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; K. Hock and G. Mackenthun (eds.), Entangled Knowledge. Scientific Discourses and Cultural Difference, Münster: Waxmann, 2012; J. McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. 

  4. J. Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Around the World, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011; A.R. Brown e.a (eds.), Global Metal Music and Culture: Current Directions in Metal Studies, New York and London: Routledge, 2016. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. D. Weinstein, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, New York: Lexington Books, 1991. 

  7. B. Gardenour Walter e.a. (eds.), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 

  8. D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Zur musikalischen Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

Homo ludens metallicus? On Huizinga, the historian’s gaze and sonic knowledge in Metal Music Studies

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) was one of the pioneers of modern and postmodern cultural history. His narratives, overflowing with colourful, metaphoric and anthropologic plots of history, still inspire today’s scientific historiography.1 Originally being a scholar of Indo-European languages and linguistics, he turned to history around 1900. He became a professor of General and Dutch history at Groningen University in 1905, and finally of General history at Leiden University in 1915 (until 1942).

There in Leiden, he was resistant to antisemitism during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Huizinga’s most famous work is ‘The Waning of The Middle Ages’, first published in Dutch in 1919.2 In this classic book, he described the 14th and 15th centuries as an age of decline, metaphorically expressed in the picture of the season of fall; for Huizinga, they were the ‘autumn of the middle ages’.3 Other famous and influential works are ‘Erasmus and the Age of Reformation’ (1924), ‘Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century’ (1941), and ‘Homo ludens: a Study of the Play-element in Culture’.4

Methodologically, all of those books were highly innovative. They focussed on art, theatrics and discourse – long before the dawn of the New Cultural History at the end of the 1980s.5 One could go as far as describing Huizinga’s cultural history as ‘proto-constructivist’ or ‘crypto-constructivist’, at least in his deep understanding of the metaphorical and aesthetic constitution of culture.

In this blog post, I want to take up the methodology and questions Huizinga treated in ‘Homo ludens’. In this study, the author states that basically all culture has a an element of play. Play and playful elements, elements of game, are present in knowledge and science, law, art, languages, warfare.6 He gives  a reading of Homo sapiens as Homo ludens. This is his operational definition of play:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.7

This definition of the plays Homo ludens is playing in constructing culture is (proto-)constructivist and relevant until today in several ways: it stresses the own space and time of plays which basically says that plays have their own discourses; it emphasizes that plays in culture follow fixed rules which is a core feature of discourses, according to Foucauldian theorizing, too.8

Finally, the closing remark on the formation of social collectives is nothing less than the thesis that plays have a fundamental role in cultural identity construction; by defining the differences between the collective ‘self’ and the ‘other’, in processes of ‘othering’.9

These are the kinds of plays which Homo ludens played and plays in the course of cultural history. Already Huizinga observed on several occasions in his book that music and its reproduction is play, too.10 Applying Huizinga’s key theorem of play on Metal culture, I want to ask whether in Metal Music Studies Homo ludens is to be defined as Homo ludens metallicus. In the following, I want to show that Huizinga’s perspective opens up the theoretical space of cultural history in Metal Music Studies.

Using the metaphor of Homo ludens metallicus, this post wants, on the one hand, to summarize my (so-far) results of research in this blog, in conceptual ways, showing that Metal Music Studies is a field on the brink of becoming an own discipline. Yet, Metal and Metal Music Studies are a culture and a scientific community which know that they have a past but which do not know this past in professional, scientific and cultural-historical ways – an argument to be proven.

As current discourse shows, there still is a lack of a self-reflexive theorizing of Metal and Metal Music Studies, as an emerging discipline, giving or at least aiming at giving answers to the question what Metal and Metal Studies are.11 This is where my current and future research comes in. It wants to help introducing the historian’s gaze to this flourishing discourse.

On the other hand, I also want to concretize this new perspective, already starting to apply it to Metal and research on Metal. I do so by introducing my theoretical notion of ‘sonic knowledge’.  Using this notion, I want to help starting a historian’s narrative of Metal music and its study. Directing the historian’s gaze to Metal and Metal Studies, the notion of sonic knowledge wants to give a genuinely historic reading of its object, connecting it to large- and small-scale historical processes of world history. In some cases, Metal harks back to the Age of Enlightenment since the 18th century, but also to 19th century Classicism and Historism. In other cases, Metal even takes up the roots of ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian and other oriental discourses of culture and knowlegde.

‘Sonic knowledge’ means that I tread Metal music and all its surrounding networks as a form of (sub-)cultural knowledge which emerges predominantly from acoustic communication: music. This takes up the perspective of the recent discourse of ‘sound history’ which asks for the role of acoustic phenomena in history.12 From my point of view, the rather neutral term of knowledge already describes the formation of a specific discourse of Heavy Metal (from c. 1970 until the mid-1980s) as something new; but also as something new which only was innovative in its ways of connecting the fresh aesthetics of the ‘heavy riff’13 with rather old historic elements of culture.

Just to mention some historic discourses being already there in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, until today, which were picked up by Metal history: dark lyrics and atmosphere (this can be traced back, for instance, to Gothic novels and many other forms of literature); rebellion and revolution (rebellion is a key topic of any broad history of Europe and the world, like the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the struggle for Scottish independence and many others; there are countless examples).

Other discourses would be: violence and war (the fascination with violence and violent behaviour, for example, is a key topic in the development of the modern state which should canalize and prevent not-justified violent force; history is, basically, in many cases structured by wars, like the 20th century as the ‘Age of Extremes’ of two world wars); satanism (satanism, i.e. embodied by figures such as Anton Szandor LaVey or Aleister Crowley, was long there before Metal); the virtuosity of the musician (a core topic in the 19th century and its cult of the ‘genius’); the cult of the male (which is there since Ancient times) …

Introducing the historian’s gaze

So, what’s that, the ‘historian’s gaze’? Since poststructuralist theorizing, we know that every scientific discipline has its own discursive strategies and framework, leading to an own construction of its subject, also in theory. This can be charaterized as a discipline’s gaze on its subject. This, of course, is true for history, too. The historian’s gaze is different from the sociologist’s perpective, also from the philosopher’s or the musicologist’s views. This is, must be the case in Metal Music Studies, too – so the historian’s gaze on Metal also should be fruitful for this emerging discourse, if applied conseqently.

What is particular of this view on Metal? When thinking of current research on Metal, in all introductory texts, the history of Metal and Metal Studies is of utmost importance. For instance, Andy R. Brown (a scholar in Media and Cultural Studies) wrote a genealogy of Metal Studies;14 Deena Weinstein (a sociologist) wrote a social and cultural history of Rock and Metal in America;15 Brian Hickam (being a librarian) described the emergence of Metal Studies as ‘amalgamated anectodes’;16 Nicola Masciandaro (a scholar in English studies) authored a ‘personal archeology of headbanging exegesis’;17 a group of social psychologists led by Nelson Varas-Díaz gave a social-psychological reading of the history of the Puerto Rican scene.18

There is nothing wrong with these histories, and also similar ones – yet, they are written by culturalists, sociologists, librarians, linguists, psychologists and so on. In a nutshell and put consciously provocatively: from a historian’s point of view, Metal and Metal Music Studies are a culture and its study which know that they have a history but which yet do not know this history in scientific and self-reflexive, in historic ways. This is where the historian’s gaze comes in.

‘Sonic knowledge’ as a cultural-historical notion

So, what is then ‘sonic knowledge’ and how does it bring in the historian’s gaze? In a pioneering text from 2011, Dominik Schrage (ironically a sociologist again) wrote in a special issue of Studies in Contemporary History on the sound history of the 20th century:

The musical mode of hearing enables us as subjects to comprehensibly experience the effects of sounds and rhythms, be it contemplatively or expressively – plunging into music or dancing to it. Like images sounds cannot be transfered to linguistic meaning without fractures; but, both are experienced as being in harmony with each other, and correspond with moods, affections, and emotions in the experiencing subject. Sounds, melodies, chords and rhythms share a fundament across cultures; but in different musical cultures they are encoded, systematized and linked to harmony theories in different ways.19

Linking this core statement of sound history to the genuine interest of a historian working in Metal Music Studies, implies we have to write a history of the sound of Metal – connecting it to the overall history of the world; to our current era of postmodernity, but also to other eras like the 20th before ‘1968’, the Age of Enlightenment since the French Revolution, the Early Modern period since about 1500, sometimes also to Medieval and Ancient epochs. The key is to see today’s Metal as a historically formed set of elements of cultural knowledge – formed predominantly in acoustic musical communication. We can start introducing the historian’s gaze to Metal Music Studies by seeing it as sonic knowlegde in that sense.

Using the notion of sonic knowledge, we can historically ask how the acoustic encodement of sadness, darkness and gloomy atmospheres in Gothic Metal music is linked to the history of the ‘Gothic’ culture of the Victorian Age of the 19th century.

We can historically ask how the identity of the metalhead as a rebel in a social revolution, acoustically encoded in Metal, is connected to historical narratives of revolutions, such as the French, American and Russian Revolutions in the 18th and 20th centuries, but also the cultural revolution of ‘1968’, or the history of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ – there are myriads of historic interferences.

We should historically research how the representation of and fascination with violence and war, especially with World War II and Nazi Atrocities, in Thrash and Extreme Metal music since the mid-1980, retells the history of the 20th century. Already the influential British historian Eric Hobsbawm called it ‘The Age of Extremes’.20 It do not think that the genre name of ‘Extreme Metal’, surfacing in the 1980s and 1990s, came out of the blue – rather this was part of the final phase of the ‘Age Of Extremes’.

Furthermore, historians should explore how the image of the ‘guitar wizard’ or even ‘guitar hero’, which is prominent in Metal culture, continues writing the history of the musical virtuoso of classical music in the 19th century, with figures such as ‘violin wizard’ Niccolò Paganini, or ‘piano heroes’ like Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. This is, as known, a thought already to be read in Robert Walser’s seminal book on Metal from 1993, but – again – this book was written a musicologist.21 The historian’s gaze would look for a deepeer historical contextualization in the overall history of the ‘Long 19th Century’ (1789-1914).22

Also, we ought to take a historic look at gender roles in Metal music. There is a lot of ongoing research on gender in Metal Studies.23 However, it also should be deeply connected to concepts like historian Wolfgang Schmale’s theory of ‘collective performative speech acts’, as developed in his recent book ‘Gender and Eurocentrism: a Conceptual Approach to European History’.24

This is what I imagine the notion of sonic knowledge to do and to be. It should approach Metal and Metal Studies historically, seeing it as a contingently formed set of elements of cultural knowledge, constructed in the sound history of Metal. In this understanding of the term, knowledge is not only seen as a purely cognitive phenomenon but also as a discursive, praxeological, physical and sensual, most of all acoustic phenomenon in history.

Finally, taking Metal as sonic knowlegde probably enables us to think new inter- and transdisciplinary research options in Metal Studies. So far, the most prominent disciplines in our field are social and cultural studies, philosophical reflections and musicology. Seeing Metal as such a form of knowledge opens up gateways to other discourses of knowledge, which are deeply linked to sociology, philosophy and musicology, for instance law and politology.

The perspective of law is especially important because the philosophical and sociological foundations of law are intrinsically linked to key topics of Metal such as rules, norms, rule-breaking and law-breaking. For instance, it would be extremely tempting to do a discourse analysis of the representation of law, human rights and the rule of law in Heavy Metal lyrics –  just think of Judas Priest’s classic anthem ‘Breaking The Law’ from 1980, which often is refered to as defining Priest’s identity. Another well known example is Metallica’s album ‘…And Justice For All’ from 1988, whose cover portrays the Roman figure of Justitia as a blindfolded statue.

In a nutshell, taking up the perspective stemming from Huizinga’s Homo ludens, we should use the historian’s gaze in the concept of sonic knowledge to ask whether Metal is a game historically played by a Homo ludens metallicus – a probably new figure in Metal Studies, playing all his way through history, creating new heaviness by combining it with quite old narratives of human history. This is what I want to do in my upcoming monograph on Metal history and also in a proposal for a four-years research project on the history of Metal in Graz, Styria and Austria, in a European and global context.25


  1. For a short portrait of Huizinga see C. Strupp, ‘Johan Huzinga’, in: L. Raphael (ed.), Klassiker der Geschichtswissenschaft, 1, Munich: Beck, 2006, 190-211.; also see W. Otterspeer, Reading Huizinga, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. 

  2. For the English version, first published in 1924 see J. Huizinga, The waning of the Middle Ages: a study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, London: Folio Society, 1999. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Idem, Erasmus and the age of Reformation: with a selection from the letters of Erasmus, New York, NY: Scribner, 1924;  idem, Dutch civilisation in the seventeenth century, and other essays, London: Collins, 1968; idem, Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, London e.a.: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949. 

  5. L. Hunt and A. Biersack (eds.), The New Cultural History, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989. 

  6. Idem, Homo ludens

  7. Ibid., 13. 

  8. A. Landwehr, Historische Diskursanalyse, Frankfurt: Campus, 2009. 

  9. For a recent example see M. Wintle, ‘Islam as Europe’s Other throughout History: some discontinuities, History , 101, 344 (2016), 42-61. 

  10. Huizinga, Homo ludens, 42, 158-162, 187-8. 

  11. See for introductory books and texts F. Hösch and A.-K. Höpflinger (eds.), Methoden der Heavy Metal Forschung, Münster: Waxmann, 2014; Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.) Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham, NC: Duke Universtiy Press, 2011; A. R. Brown e.a. (eds.), Global Metal Music and Culture. Current Directions in Metal Studies, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016;  B. Gardernour Walter e.a. (eds.), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016; also this special issue on ‘Metal Studies? Cultural Research in the Heavy Metal Scene’: Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011). 

  12. See for an introduction to the field, especially in German discourse D. Schrage, ‘Erleben, Verstehen, Vergleichen. Eine soziologische Perspektive auf die auditive Wahrnehmung im 20. Jahrhundert’, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, 2, 8 (2011), online, URL: http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/2-2011/id=4691. Accessed 26.02.2018; also see G, Paul and R. Schock (eds.) Sound der Zeit. Geräusche, Töne, Stimmen – 1889 bis heute, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013. 

  13. For an in-depth analysis see J.-P. Herbst, ‘Historical development, sound aesthetics and production techniques of the distorted electric guitar in metal music’, in Metal Music Studies, 3, 1 (2017), 23-46; idem, ‘Heaviness and the electric guitar: Considering the interaction between distortion and harmonic structures’, in Metal Music Studies, 4, 1 (2018), 95-113; also see D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

  14. A. R. Brown, ‘Heavy Genealogy: Mapping the Currents, Contraflows and Conflicts of the Emergent Field of Metal Studies, 1978-2010, in Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), 213-242. 

  15. D. Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

  16. B. Hickam, ‘Amalgamated anecdotes: Perspectives on the history of metal music and culture studies ‘, in Metal Music Studies 1, 1 (2014), 5-23. 

  17. N. Masciandaro, ‘Metal Studies and the Scission of the Word: A Personal Archaeology of Headbanging Exegesis’, in Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), 227-250. 

  18. N. Varas-Díaz e.a., ‘Metal at the fringe: a historical perspective on Puerto Rico’s underground Metal scene, in Gardenour Walter e.a, Heavy Metal Studies, 99-129. 

  19. Schrage, Erleben, Verstehen, Vergleichen. My translation. 

  20. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age Of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, London: Michael Joseph, 1994. 

  21. R. Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Hanover, NH: New England University Press, 1993, 57-107. 

  22. E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962; idem, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975; idem, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. 

  23. For example, see F. Heesch and N. Scott (eds.), Heavy Metal, Gender and Sexuality: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. 

  24. W. Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism: a Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. 

  25. P. Pichler,  Metal Music and Sonic Knowledge in Europe, 1970 to the Present: a Cultural History,  Emerald Publishers, forthcoming, 2019; the working title of this project is: ‘Sonic Knowledge in Heavy Metal Music. A Basic Research Project on the Cultural History of a Global Subculture in Styria, Austria and Europe, from the 1980s to the Present.’ 

A culture contested: is (or was) Metal a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’?

Usually, Metal is referred to as a discourse of popular culture for and/or of young people, called a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’.1 Historically, looking at the origins of Metal in the late 1960s and 1970s, then its spread and diversification in the 1980s, this seemed to be the case. Heavy Metal was established, following the discourse of ‘1968’, as a counter-culture.

Metal is supposed to have been ‘invented’, performed and mediated by young, angry and critical people. Most of all, white, young and male artists were seen as the stereotypical carriers of its aesthetics, imaginaries and narratives. However, even in these early days,  starting with the global success of artists like Black Sabbath, economic success would not have been possible if it had not been backed by organizational structures of the music industry, leisure industry and media – and these institutions of (Western) societies were governed by experienced, often older stakeholders.2

Thus, coining Metal a youth culture or subculture, even in its early cultural history, is an abridging hypothesis. Rather, this narrative of youthfulness and a critique of society should be seen as a construction of discourse – constructed by artists, fans, industry stakeholders, media and other instances. However,  until around 2000, this narrative seemed to prevail. Grunge and Alternative Rock as new forms contested Heavy Metal discourse but still it was seen as a realm of young fans and artists.3

Let us take a look at the state of this (self-)narrative in 2017. First of all, the artists who ‘invented’ and popularized Metal in the 1970s and 1980s cannot seriously be called young anymore: the members of Black Sabbath are approaching the eighth decade of their lives; the musicians in Iron Maiden are in their fifties or sixties; so are the members of Judas Priest (with the exception of guitarist Richie Faulker who is not a founding member); also Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the creative duo of Metallica, left behind their fiftieth birthdays. We can expect their fans, at least a part of them, to be of a similar age.

The other aspect – interpreting Metal as a critique of society in the shape of a musical subculture – is even more important. In several of my earlier postings, one of my main findings was that since about 2014 Heavy Metal is increasingly accepted as a ‘serious’ form of art. It is seen ‘worth’ being a subject of academic research. Among other processes, this is the context of the emergence of Metal Music Studies as an own discourse in academia. Also, today Metal is seen as integrally linked to a very fragmented and diverse mainstream.

From the point of view of cultural history, these three cultural processes – (1) the (self-)narration of Metal as a ‘youthful’ and ‘critical’ culture, (2) the acceptance of Metal in science and the emergence of Metal Music Studies, and (3) the spread of Heavy Metal music’s imaginary and aesthetics into mainstream – form an interdependent network: the narrative needs acceptance as a ‘serious’ subject of research; research needs the spread into mainstream to ‘prove’ Metal’s global relevance as a subject of scientific inquiry.

From my point of view, this threefold network results in one major cultural-historical consequence: the discourse in its entirety of narrations, imaginaries, aesthetics and sounds, is at a crossroads, where its initial cultural textures – the image of ‘a youth culture’ and ‘subculture’ – is being recoded in this parellelogram of cultural forces.


  1. Cf. Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal. The Music and its Culture. Boulder, Colorado, 2000; Rolf F. Nohr, Rolf/Herbert Schwaab, Herbert (eds.), Metal Matters. Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Berlin e.a. 2011; Jeremy Wallach e.a (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham 2011. 

  2. For an integral approach, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultura History. Toronto 2015. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

Gender in Black Metal: a cultural-historical note on Myrkur’s new album ‘Mareridt’

Myrkur is a one-woman Black Metal project from Denmark. It is the brainchild of songwriter/pianist/guitarist/singer Amalie Bruun. Bruun started out performing with her father and the band Ex Cops as a Rock, Pop and Alternative artist. In 2014, she published, now as Myrkur, an eponymous EP, followed by the debut album ‘M’ in 2015, and a live EP, ‘Mausoleum’, in 2016.1 All of these records gathered rather wide attention, were partially well acclaimed by critics. But also they were partially criticized as being ‘superficial’, ‘not real Black Metal’ or a ‘sell-out’.

All the way through these debates – as a cultural discourse of most recent history of European and global Extreme Metal – the fact that Myrkur is led and controlled by a woman was one of the most intensely discussed issues. Bruun even received death threats on her Facebook page. So, this discourse on Myrkur and her art, first and foremost, is a history of gender in Extreme Metal.

On 15th September 2017, Bruun as Myrkur released her second full-lenght record, ‘Mareridt’.2 From a musical point of view, this album is a progression of her work on the mentioned earlier records. However, aggressive parts of Extreme and Black Metal riffing, blastbeasts and guttural screaming (by Bruun) got fewer; and on two tracks (‘Funeral’, ‘Kvindelil’) the artist cooperates with singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. This new record, at least at its point of release, was well received.3 This is the videoclip to the track ‘Ulvinde’ which accompanied Mareridt’s release:

This videoclip, representing Myrkur’s current identity as an artist, features a combination of hybrid emotional aspects and strategies of narration which are rather unusual in Black Metal: Bruun is shown, on the one hand, as the classic female gender stereotype of a ‘soft woman’ in a bright dress; but then there also are sequences of female aggression where blood is dripping from the artist’s mouth and she is screaming furiously. Both styles and modes of female gender construction are shown alternating throughout the clip. Thus, Amalie Bruun as Myrkur is both: a ‘soft woman’ and a harshly screaming, seemingly suffering female.

From a cultural-historical point of view, especially this videoclip but also the mentioned records and the artist’s live shows are a remarkable strand of discourse. Here, the usual stereotype of male, Northern gutturally screaming Black Metal artists is trangressed, played with; in some ways (ie. the alternating strategies of softness and fury in the ‘Ulvinde’ clip), it even is dealt with and discussed, at least shown visually in a parodistic and ironic manner. The irony is – and remains – that Myrkur can be both: ‘tender’ woman and aggressive Black Metal frontwoman. The death threats sent to the artist by male fans give this cultural history of gender a bitter taste,  yet a transgressive and important quality too.


  1. Cf. Myrkur, Myrkur, released 12th September 2014, Relapse Records; idem, M, released  21st August 2015, Relapse Records; idem, Mausoleum,  released 19th August 2016, Relapse Records. 

  2. Cf. Myrkur, Mareridt, released 15th September 2017, Relapse Records 

  3. Cf., for instance, the review of the album on the German webzine www.metal.de, receiving a score of nine out of ten points; Url: http://www.metal.de/reviews/myrkur-mareridt-275140/, accessed 15/09/2017. 

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. 

‘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

20160902_11295919

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. 

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/.