In which a few thoughts are occasioned by the monumental new Enslaved album, Axioma Ethica Odini (which, if you’ve yet to hear it, is absolutely tremendous. Mountains quake, the skies weep, the soul straight-up yearns.).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was metal.
Which is to say, for myself, and perhaps for many of you out there, during the initial stages of my exploration of the multifarious wonders of heavy metal, the word ‘metal’ itself was all I required to feel a sense of, if not community, then at least identity. ‘Metal’ was a strident enough signifier to set this new world apart from previous musical interests (punk, hardcore, jazz, mainstream rock, and whatever else). No matter the variation between the usual ‘gateway’ suspects (Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Pantera, &c.), all that mattered then was their common genesis as metal.
I suspect that most metal fans out there have long since recognized the strength that inheres in feeling yourself part of heavy metal’s community. No matter if that engagement is a primarily solitary endeavor, one still feels a sense of empowerment by festooning one’s ears with this vast and revelatory music with the zeal of a novitiate.
Clocks spin, years pass, times change. It’s a natural inclination, the further one gets into exploring the minutiae of heavy metal genres, to begin the unending work of segregation, classification, ghettoization. These bands go over here, while those bands stay over here. The world of metal becomes a splintered landscape of conflicting and sometimes feuding tribes. What was once the unsurpassed breadth of the Roman Empire becomes the fiercely independent fiefdoms of 17th century Europe during the Wars of Religion. Any subsequent musical Peace of Westphalia would only solidify control over barriers to entry, reproducing in musical terms the political origins of modern state sovereignty. A Concert of Europe, indeed.
The entire impetus for these here rambling thoughts is nothing more fanciful than my increasing disdain for my own practice of genre labeling in iTunes. Which is to say, although there was no such thing as iTunes or mp3s when I started listening to metal, I feel confident that had I been importing those Metallica, Sabbath, Priest and Maiden records into iTunes those several years ago, they would have all comfortably been tagged ‘Metal’. Simple. Done.
Over time, though, words proliferate. Adjectives, qualifiers, slashes and hyphens. More detailed descriptions of musical genres are taken as proof of greater attentiveness, greater sophistication on the part of the o! so cultured listener. The pure, simple narrative of heavy metal jogs, tangles, snarls. Roots, branches, impurities.
This is just as much a critique of my own obsessive tendencies as it is of heavy metal in general. Still, I think the type of personality that is drawn to metal in the first place, and then further drawn to obsess over the micro-fractures between genres and subgenres, is an understandable beast. Where we move from more or less natural OCD-ism to manufactured opinion and a loss of communal feeling is when record labels, the metal ‘press’ (such as it is), and all manner of scene-policing malcontents buy into these perfectly real and legitimate musical differences not as a matter of the diversity of artistic expression, but as a marketable tool. Again, this is but an inevitable consequence of the imperatives of capitalism, but it still hurts.
To bring it back to my original inspiration: Enslaved’s new album is a massively impressive monument to the apparently illimitable wells of creativity drawn upon by these Norwegian gentlefolk. It is equal parts driving and aggressive, nimble and progressive, dense and spacious. In short, it will kick your ass twelve ways to Sunday. More to the point, though, rarely in recent times has an album compelled me so absolutely – so maniacally – to dispense altogether with genre classification.
I have other Enslaved albums labeled in iTunes in several combinations of “Viking/prog/psych/black metal.” Now, I ask you: What in the hell is accomplished by belching into the world such an ugly mouthful of nonsense? (Alternately, am I really doing myself any favors by labeling various Ulver records everything from ‘Black/Folk’ to ‘Avant-Garde’ to ‘Norwegian Folk’ to ‘Dark Electronica/Avant-Garde’? Have I ever, in recent memory, been compelled to sort my iTunes library by the urge to listen to nothing but ‘Dark Electronica/Avant-Garde’? Clearly, no.) Sure, each of those descriptions has some limited utility in describing various components of Enslaved’s sound, but FUCK. This new album is just pure metal. No need to qualify, or hesitate, or second-guess: this music demands only obedience to its mastery. To be held in its elemental thrall.
More generally, I think the best heavy metal is often that which essentially grabs me by the face, slaps me about and yells, “Hey, asshole, nobody gives a shit about all these words. This right here is heavy metal, and it is happening NOW. So shut the fuck up and LISTEN.”
Of course, the irony of only being able to express these ideas about music through words upon desperate words is not lost on me. But enough words: time for action. I’m off to blast the new Enslaved record for about the tenth time this week, and maybe go about the business of some serious genre-pruning. Let’s get out of these ghettos and step back out onto wide plains warmed by the churning, molten sun of heavy metal.