Last Thursday I traveled five hours to see Explosions in the Sky perform at the Congress Theater in Chicago. Katie and I arrived just in time to hear the crowd roar in applause as Explosions took the stage. Good timing. The band was great, and although there were plenty of distractions, the show was enjoyable (thankfully somebody told the bar off to the side of the theater that we knew they served Miller, so they could turn off their extremely vibrant neon sign). The crowd really got into the parts where Explosions started to rock out, making lots of noise while performing synchronized guitar bashing. I loved these parts too and although I appreciated some of the slow stuff I just wanted them to bash until they were bloody or their guitars broke. I looked around and saw that the crowd was pretty diverse and contained mostly young hipster kids, but also some older people and the occasional preteen.
This got me thinking.
Explosions in the Sky play a brand of music that is loud and atmospheric. It relies on buildup and letdown as well as precise timing. This made me think of another genre of music that contains those same qualities, yet almost none of these people would be caught dead at one of these concerts. What is this mysterious musical genre (that you can probably guess from the title of this article)?
(Photos from Peter Beste‘s great photography book True Norwegian Black Metal)
Black metal is a heavy metal subgenre that is best known for its sonically abrasive nature, Scandinavian church burnings, and ridiculous photoshoots. Even within the black metal subgenre there are subgenres (industrial, folk, Viking), but the one I am concerned with is atmospheric black metal.
Atmospheric black metal relies heavily on the creation of a dark ambience. Norwegian band Burzum is generally considered the architect of the first atmospheric black metal albums. Burzum is actually a one-man black metal outfit started by Varg Vikernes in the early 1990s. He was in prison from 1993-2009 for murdering one of the guitarists for black metal band Mayhem, and even released two albums from prison. There are plenty of bands that are following in the footsteps of Burzum and expanding the horizons of atmospheric black metal, creating beautifully dark masterpieces (Blut aus Nord from France and Wolves in the Throne Room from the United States are some of my new favorites).
So why does all this matter?
It matters because a lot of people have a stigma associated with all types of extreme heavy metal. I know because I used to have the same stigma, and I have spent the last three years trying to lead others past their initial reaction to death growls/screams and low-tuned guitars.
It matters because the same people that rock out when Explosions in the Sky starts mercilessly beating their instruments will generally not go anywhere near bands that dress up in corpse paint and play loud music for a full eight minutes instead of for a minute and a half of those eight minutes.
Luckily, not everybody in the American independent music scene ignores or discounts extreme metal. Phil Elverum of The Microphones/Mount Eerie, released an EP entitled Black Wooden Ceiling which sounds a lot like black metal to me (or maybe black two-by-fours and asbestos), and is planning on releasing a full black metal album this August, entitled Wind’s Poem. Elverum is more in line with the Burzum tradition of lo-fi ambience rather than a band like Blut aus Nord, who have slicker production values and create an atmosphere comparable, albeit darker, to post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai. Elverum foregoes the abrasive vocals and a lot of the loud guitar work, but it still feels like black metal.
The genius behind the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, is also a metal fan.
Also, Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett) wore a Mayhem t-shirt during his performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend. Maybe this was some sort of ironic “indie” move but I would hope that it was done in sincerity.
(Photos by Nolan Wells)
The American independent music scene is slowly incorporating elements from every genre of music, and metal is one of the walls that has not been completely torn down. Hopefully, more artists will find inspiration in these bands and expand on the musical legacy.
Explosions in the Sky put on a great show and seeing their brand of harnessed chaos live was a spectacular aural experience. The show left me with an itch that desperately needed scratching. Luckily, black metal could be my proverbial bamboo backscratcher.
P.S. Black metal is not as scary as it looks/seems. If you need proof just go over to Wikipedia’s black metal page and have some (dark) laughs.