If black metal music ever had a chance to break into the cultural “mainstream,” some three decades after the events that crystallized it in the subcultural imagination, now would likely be the time. The first feature film based on the topic, Lords of Chaos, has made its way to streaming services and may yet generate some outsider sympathy for this defiant and corrosive subculture. The non-fiction book of the same name, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, was optioned as a film nearly a decade and a half ago (and the late Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, for his efforts, gets his last name spelled incorrectly during the film’s credits sequence). The book contains a considerable pre-history of what would become black metal, as well as a laudable effort at determining the reasons why theistic Satanists, romantic neo-pagans and non-aligned antisocial elements all manage to rally under the banner of this musical genre. In the process of documenting the more newsworthy crimes committed in the name of advancing this culture, Moynihan and Søderlind touched upon murder cases in Germany and France, and of course the full complement of murder, suicide and anti-Christian terror that gave Norway its notoriety.
With all this in mind, I feel compelled to take the rare step of abandoning my planned review for this movie, owing to the fact that I simply have nothing to say on this subject that hasn’t already been worked over by a.) other reviewers or b.) by myself in other musings on the subject of extreme music. For that reason, I’m reprising here some previously penned thoughts on the documentary film One Man Metal, another Vice-sponsored work which I think is a far better contemporary distillation and exposition of this music’s most enduring features.
Anyone who studies the culture of the “extreme” will very quickly find that it is rife with paradoxes. One of the most notable is how art with originally destructive intentions may usher in a new way of perceiving things, or a window onto a new way of articulating things, that ultimately increases the options for living a creative life rather than diminishing them. When a new form comes along that is surprisingly innovative, the ingenuity behind that innovation shines through clear enough that it can effectively negate the “dark”, “morbid” content of the artwork. I find something very reassuring and energizing in artwork that, even while painting lurid portraits of humanity’s greatest failures and tragedies, still evinces creative traits like a will to increase the amount of expressive differentiation.
Another of the great paradoxes of “extreme” culture is that so many of its adherents crave seclusion from the majority of human life, but a considerable subset of this misanthropic host still chooses to present their works publicly (in the process generating a staggering amount of individual works that effortlessly outpaces the number of works by more congenial peers). Several books into my own writing career, I still have very few definitive explanations from individual artists about this phenomenon, and I therefore can’t claim knowledge of any definitive consensus on it. Plenty of extant research verifies that the need to belong is a biological necessity, even for those who identify as anti-social: see for example MacDonald and Leary’s findings that “once the regulation of social behavior became a matter of life and death for social animals, social pain mechanisms may have piggybacked on the physical pain system, taking advantage of an already developed system to respond quickly to crucial threats to survival.”[i] Artistic fields that are imbued with a “left hand path” kind of spirituality, or with a firm belief in magic or parapsychology, offer a more interesting rationalization for this behavior: there is always the possibility that publicly exhibited / released works are meant to bend the universe to the creator’s will, and that social approval or recognition is just one of many secondary effects arising from this overall mastery.
Such considerations are not ignored by the producers of the Noisey documentary One Man Metal (Jordan Radaelli and Michelle Rabinowitz). The film’s host, J.R. Robinson, is sent out on a fact-finding mission that takes him deep into the cloistered realm of so-called “bedroom” black metal. This is an offshoot of its parent musical genre that is so emotionally unrestrained, so indifferent towards high-resolution output (i.e. professional studio recording) and so skeptical of intervention from outside influences, that the vast majority of its creators are isolated individuals rejecting the band or ensemble mode of playing. The genre takes a number of musical cues from Norway’s notorious Burzum: the intentionally anemic (yet richly atmospheric) production style, the enervating sense of tachycardia coming from “blast beat” percussion, and of course the keening screams which scythe through the air whether their verbal content is intelligible or not. There are plenty of other influences thrown into the mix, of course, with the queasy dissonance and unorthodox, meandering song structures (not so much emphasis on “verse-chorus-verse” here) hinting at a prodromal phase of mental confusion prior to a complete collapse. Individual works in this style may be maledictions, elegies, or hymns to a pantheon of trans-dimensional beings, but the music almost always stems from an uneasy combination of melancholic passages and roiling distorted chaos.
Though it never explicitly promises to offer a thorough unveiling of its subjects (the film is, after all, shot completely in black and white), the documentary’s content is firmly entrenched in “raises more questions than it answers” territory. The protagonists on hand are famously reluctant to even grant print interviews, and are consenting to be filmed “as is” for the first time in their creative histories. From that realization comes a number of burning questions that are never completely resolved: why now, for one? And what assurances or promises were made to the musicians beforehand?
Somewhere deep within Tasmania, Striborg’s Russell “Sin Nanna” Menzies immediately comes off as the most positive-minded (relatively speaking) of the three subjects, focusing more on his personal connectedness to the natural world than upon his distaste for other humans and their disconnectedness from it. Though even a quick scan of Striborg’s discography will reveal that Menzies isn’t merely a resigned and delicate soul retreating to his own private Walden, and seething hatred isn’t absent from his worldview, he is portrayed here as being more in awe of the immensity and complexity of untrammeled nature than he is obsessed with punishing those who perceive themselves as apart from or above nature. When he dons black robes and ‘corpse paint,’ then engages in a ritual of screamed glossolalia from within a torchlit cave, it is one of the most effective moments of this entire project: in less capable hands, this scene would just be played for cheap laughs, but Menzies’ apparent total conviction in the spiritual value of this act should shut up everyone but the most snarky among us. In an earlier interview granted to scene overlord Stephen O’Malley, Menzies expresses an anticipation for psychologically disturbing events that can’t be described as mere masochism, but as some desire for spiritual purification or ego dissolution not far removed from certain Tibetan ritual practices (after an alleged haunting experience, Menzies states “it was so long ago, I long for the feeling again…I think it caused nyctophobia for some time after…I would like my music to have the same effect on me and the listener”). Equally interesting is Menzies’ drive to create even when faced with technical challenges that practically guarantee a low-fidelity final product. His discussion of doing older recordings without a proper multi-tracking device (i.e. playing back previously recorded tracks from ‘stereo A’ while a virgin cassette in ‘stereo B’ picks up the ‘A’ stereo’s signal along with a fresh layer of sounds) recalls similar techniques used by the prolific home-taping artist Minóy, an individual who sent musical feelers out into the world partially as a means of battling agoraphobia.
The San Francisco-based Leviathan — a.k.a. Jef “Wrest” Whitehead — hailed by the documentary host as the “gold standard” of black metal in the United States, is similar to Striborg in some salient aspects. Like his Tasmanian counterpart, his music has been embraced and by an eclectic audiophile community outside of the more restrictive and guarded heavy metal culture (and it should be stressed here that I mean “audiophile” simply as “lover of all types of sound,” NOT “hi-fi enthusiast”). He also claims strange paranormal phenomena as a source of his creativity, taking Robinson by his former home and speaking with some trepidation about the dark events that stalked him there and eventually forced him to find alternate housing. It’s never made clear if Whitehead interprets these seizures of negativity as phantasms of his own mind or as actually existing entities, though he is quite open about earthly events profoundly altering the course of his music (for example, the meeting of his personal muse inspires his slightly more contemplative Lurker of Chalice project, and the premature death of the same immediately ends this brief period of experimentation).
The film’s host and producers clearly want us to be sympathetic to Whitehead, giving them plenty of time to discuss his troubled upbringing as a ward of the State, his early successes with skateboarding culture, and his love life. That said, the study of Whitehead also accounts for the film’s most glaring omissions: as much as it wants to portray him as the bearded and tattooed everyman who stands helpless in the face of geworfenheit or “thrown-ness,” his reality is more complex than a total lack of self-agency. One Man Metal makes no mention of his occasional poor choices of company, particularly Nachtmystium’s Blake “Azentrius” Judd who regularly faces allegations of theft and criminal fraud from close friends. Meanwhile, Whitehead’s 2011 conviction for aggravated domestic assault is a subject conveniently avoided until some on-screen text announces it prior to the closing credits. While this is understandable in a strategic sense (Robinson’s breaching this subject on camera would have likely resulted in the whole “Wrest” interview getting tabled), relegating this offense to footnote status nevertheless makes the film’s producers seem needlessly reverent or protective of their film’s stars.
Xasthur’s Scott “Malefic” Connor, based in Los Angeles, is the last exhibit here. If he achieves nothing else in his musical career, the trivia books may remember him for recording vocals from within a coffin for Sunn O)))’s album Black One (this in spite of, or maybe because of, his own admitted claustrophobia). With a calm attentiveness wrapped in a shaven-headed and wiry frame, he’s receptive enough to Robinson’s inquiries, but still fairly enigmatic: he abruptly cuts one conversation short after realizing he’s volunteered too much information, and at another point flees from his room during some sort of horrifying flashback (whether this is staged by Connor or not, the palpable sensation of fear etched on Robinson’s face at this point is another distinguishing moment of the movie). Of all the interviewees, Connor is the most forthcoming about the possible reasons for making a public statement while simultaneously wishing to be left alone by the vast majority of humankind: in one sequence, he hints that maybe his work will plant a seed of suicidal ideation in listeners’ minds, bringing all the possible reasons not to exist into starker relief than people in contemporary society might normally experience them (this isn’t an isolated sentiment in the extreme metal scene, as characters like Shining’s Niklas Kvarforth have previously claimed to be quite serious about their music’s potential to deliver the coup de grace to broken minds). However, even this is not conclusive — a conversation with Robinson closer to the film’s end reveals him to be enthusiastic, even joyful, about finding kindred spirits, thus not ruling out the possibility of his recordings having a kind of “message in a bottle” function. And so the thesis that his publicly released music is simply a lethal trap for unsuspecting listeners seems less compelling.
In an age where authenticity trumps most other technical concerns when evaluating art, viewers are within their rights to view docs like One Man Metal with a skeptical eye. One side effect of the information age has been that the image of the “broken loner” has taken on a more intriguing, even sexy cachet than it might have in societies without such a mania for total social connectivity (“Wrest” admits as much early on in the film). Yet the men behind Striborg, Leviathan, and Xasthur all seem — even in spite of Connor’s claims of unemployability — like very competent individuals who would choose some other means of expression if external circumstances hadn’t forced them into their current creative modes. At times, Connor and Whitehead both look as if they are already pondering what negative repercussions might come from their finally consenting to be filmed, and it becomes clear that all the participants view this film project as a compulsory exercise, another demon to be faced like Connor’s coffin ordeal. The final impression here is that they are just damned to create; that their public exegesis of deeply private nightmares is no longer, or maybe never was, a matter of free will. This compulsion to howl into the abyss may, in the end, be more rewarding for these individuals than the compulsion to belong — but this is a story that has yet to be told, and so I have a feeling that One Man Metal won’t be the final word on this subject.
[i] MacDonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why does social exclusion hurt?
The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychological Bulletin,