By: Jobe Moakes
Beyond its aesthetic role, art functions in the realm of practical human development by projecting our imaginations into situations we may one-day face. By experiencing the thoughts, emotions and sensations this evokes, art fortifies us for what our futures may hold.
It is through this process that a great love song, for example, can prepare us for an upcoming romance; just as a horror film can help us deal with the appearance of a murderous figure in the depths of the night. It is by allowing our consciousness to be guided in this manner that we develop and grow as individuals, discover new paths of existence and enter into our own unique mode of being. Music is a particularly effective engineer of this process, since it not only has the ability to manipulate our cognition, but can also transform our emotions; a quality attested to by the utilisation of music to create tension and set atmospheric context in cinema.
The impact of art on the self is therefore profound. However, despite making a useful existential companion in the present, art ceases to provide this guiding light when it turns to matters of the hereafter. Death, in other words, lies beyond the reach of artistic communication. Art cannot show us what it is to die, or tell us how to die; it can only help us reflect on the inevitability of death and the finite nature of our existence.
The recognition of this finitude alongside the impotence of artistic conceptions of death has radical existential consequences. By recognising the terminable nature of existence we are able to transcend dominant prescriptions of how to live; providing ourselves with the opportunity to enter into a truly authentic mode of being. This liberation from ‘what one does’ is not singularly a result of the contingency of existence, a fact highlighted by the inevitability of our impending demise, but is also driven by the recognition that since nobody can properly communicate to us the nature of death and how we should die, neither should we allow them to profess the nature of life and how it should be lived.
Such existential consequences of death are a central concern in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who’s Being and Time arguably represents the foundational text of the existentialist tradition. In this work, Heidegger espouses a concept he terms Being-towards-death, which refers to a mode of being that refuses to flee from the anxiety caused by the finitude of existence, instead recognising its existential implications and adopting a life coloured by authenticity.
Such a relationship with death stands in contrast to that portrayed in hegemonic strands of culture; narratives which cause us to flee from death and adopt lives defined by convention and the acceptance of social norms. Such narratives tend to focus on the process of dying, what Heidegger terms our demise, rather than what it actually means to be dead. Heidegger suggests that we instead shift our focus from the triviality of our biological undoing to the most profound consequence of death: ‘the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all’. What this amounts to is an acceptance of the finitude of our existence; the fact that one day we will cease to be, our bodies will deteriorate and our lives will be consigned to the immense void of non-being. Recognising this consequence, Heidegger claims, ‘liberates [us] from possibilities that “count for nothing”, and lets [us] become free for those which are authentic’. But what does this authenticity entail? And how is it manifested in art?
It is hard to describe authenticity without falling prey to platitudes such as ‘doing your own thing’ and ‘being true to yourself’, that said authenticity can be understood in such terms. Essentially one can be considered authentic if they live life according to their own values, desires and ethical parameters; regardless of whether or not these fall within societies moral framework. Such authenticity is the foundation of truly progressive artwork, music and culture, which is marked by an integral commitment to the pursuit of art for art’s sake; regardless of the commercial consequences.
Examples of such authenticity often occur on the perimeters of the artistic sphere, located in subcultures often denounced as ‘extreme’ and ‘challenging’. An interesting example of this is black metal, a genre both lauded and derided for its extremity and controversial nature. As a genre black metal draws on the legacy of its, already fairly unyielding, metal cousins; taking its aural and visual aesthetic into altogether more ‘blackened’ realm. This realm is punctuated by a compelling soundtrack which is composed of a cacophony of seemingly disparate elements, equally brutal and atmospheric; both primal and sophisticated. The audial contents of this soundtrack combine to create a chilling ambience that evokes the alpine fecundity of an undisclosed northern wilderness, amongst which cloaked figures wander: eyes to the moon.
Such a scene is depicted on the cover of Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, in which a group of Tolkienesque creatures are depicted descending from the forested slopes of a mountainous landscape, seemingly in order to lay siege to a formidable castle-like structure. The whole scene is bathed in a lunar illuminance, a ghostly aura which not only pertains to the cover art but also permeates the music itself. And it is here, in the music of black metal, where Heidegger’s authenticity is truly manifest.
Adopting a sonic framework which falls far beyond the purview of how music ‘should sound’, black metal adopts a truly unique approach. Drawing on inspiration gleamed from the surrounding landscapes, whilst adopting a pagan and often atavistic worldview; not to mention a penchant for misanthropic Satanism. Black metal creates a soundscape both terrifying and compelling. Guitars are rapid and atonal, creating a primeval dissonance that reflects the brutal energy of its ecological muse. The drums are driving and primitive, demonstrating an undercurrent of furious dynamism. Punctuating this sinister foundation are the howls and screams that emanate from the darkest corners of the (sub)human psyche, roaring with cathartic intensity. Compounding this intensity is the often deliberately raw production, ideally making the finished tracks sound like they were recorded in a deep, dark cave.
It is arguably this evident disregard of stagnant musical norms that separates black metal from its more commercially acceptable cousins and ensures its status as a truly authentic genre. To paraphrase Heidegger, it is such a liberation from musical considerations that ‘count for nothing’: the pursuit of commercial gains and critical acceptance, that allows black metal to pursue truly authentic and compelling soundscapes.
Driving this authenticity is a constant reflection on death. Adopting it as its central motif, black metal constantly employs death as theme in both visual and musical contexts. This is demonstrated in live performances, often ritualistic in nature, in which musicians smear themselves with corpse paint and go to drastic lengths to appear as the embodiment of death. A famous example of this phenomena is Mayhem’s early vocalist Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin’s practice of burying his clothes prior to gigs, in order for him to appear like a corpse during performances. The motif of death is also often present on album covers and other visual mediums associated with the genre. If we return to the cover of In the Nightside Eclipse, it is possible to view the moon itself, which castes its ominous radiance on the mountains below, as signifying death through the subversion of the sun’s life-giving properties. Furthermore, the mythological figure of death as the forth horseman of the apocalypse is also featured on the cover, appearing in a manner akin to Gustave Dore’s Death on a Pale Horse.
Such a thematic obsession with death amongst black metal culture is a clear exemplification of Heidegger’s Being-towards-death; and existential condition that indicates a truly authentic mode of being, one that makes the creation of such fascinating and striking music possible. Such authenticity therefore has clearly positive consequences in realm of art, however despite this black metal demonstrates a further, more troubling side of authenticity.
Whilst Being-towards-death allows black metal to transcend artistic norms, it also allows it to transcend social norms. Whilst this itself is by no means and inherently bad quality, as societies dominant morality can often act as anathema to authentic existence, in the case of black metal it has amongst some circles of the scene led to indefensible instances of misanthropy, homophobia, sexism and fascistic political values. Whilst this clearly does not apply to black metal in its entirety, a point underlined by bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room espousal of radically progressive ecological perspectives, it is frequent enough to remain troubling to more egalitarian inclined listeners.
This caveat withstanding, the existential lessons we can extract from black metal are indeed profound. If we accept the genre’s often overwhelmingly intense musicality and allow it to guide out consciousness towards a reflection of death, we too can disregard dominant, often disingenuous prescriptions of how to live. Such an eschewal has the consequence of liberating us to choose a more authentic existence, allowing us to live with more immediacy and according to our own desires and values. Such an existence is anything but comfortable and can appear as a burden to the undisciplined. However according to such esteemed figures as Heidegger and a vast array of the black metal community, it is the only worthwhile way to live. A fact all the more pressing given the immanent nature of our annihilation: the possibility of the impossibility of any existence.