March 26, 2014

BLANK | Thoughts on Satanism in Music

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By PAUL BLANK

We’re only three months into 2014 and we have almost matched the number of excellent metal albums there were in all of 2013. You hear that 2013? You sucked. These four albums span a healthy swath of the most viable sects of the genre and represent the U.S. and northern, southern and central Europe. Two of them are valiant attempts to expand the genre, but the other two are explicit love letters to Satan. I’m not totally sure how I feel about this.

The fact that there’s metal music that glorifies Satan shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Because it’s loud, dark and often features inhuman vocals, the genre has often been associated with the darkest of them all. What’s interesting though is that it was never founded this way. While singing in the first metal band Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne actually professed faith and love for God and Jesus, expressing fear rather than affinity for the lumbering mammoths the rest of the bands were conjuring up. In his excellent book, 33 1/3, about the album Master of Reality, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats commented on this misconception of the band from the perspective of a teenager discovering them in the ’90s, frustrated that, rather than rejecting the notion of a God, Osbourne sought His guidance on issues like death and nuclear war. After all, a good way to stress the importance of something is to demonstrate what results without it.

Metal’s association with Satanism started in 1981 with Venom’s debut album Black Metal. Much like Led Zeppelin’s relationship with famed occultist Aleister Crowley, though, the use of its imagery was an attempt to create mystique. By the ’90s, though, bands that wore corpse paint and featured pentagrams on their album covers were becoming cliché, and so some bands looking to raise the stakes actually started to believe the voodoo and famously burned churches in Norway to express their distaste for religion. So metal’s association with Satanism started as a lazy heuristic but then developed into a valid and justifiable claim. And it continues to be a part of the genre that, as much as metal fans hate to admit it, is accepted enough to cause any reasonable person to feel uncomfortable.

But every genre has its dark side that fans are reluctant to address. Hip-hop has its sexism and homophobia and country music has its jingoism. Obviously all of it is art and is not meant to be taken too seriously, but there is a debate to be had about the social implications of accepting and praising these promoted antisocial behaviors and how we address them. Personally, I ignore them, not allowing them to sway my enjoyment of the music either way. But if the promotion of the bad behavior is handled in a particularly revelatory way, I praise it, even though I vehemently disagree with it. Take Danny Brown for example. His album XXX is one of my favorite rap albums of the past few years, and it is positively rank with graphic objectification of women. A particularly rough line in “Pac Blood” goes: “Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pick-up / Make Sarah Palin deep throat ‘til she hiccup.” I don’t have to tell you how many ways that line is horrendous, but I laugh every time I hear it, because Brown is creatively depicting this horribly misogynistic scenario in an incredibly memorable way.

The first of the two Lucifer-lovin’ albums I’ve enjoyed this year — Hail Spirit Noir’s Oi Magoi — fits comfortably with me this way. Through a cadre of psychedelic rock sounds, the Greek band gavanters about in praise of Satan in a way that makes the camp obvious, like we’re in on the joke. Even when the band stops mid-song to chant, “Satan is time!” in the aptly titled “Satan Is Time,” it’s a clear throwback to a time when teenagers tried to scare their friends in their basements, speculating about the sounds of a record playing backwards but knowing there isn’t actually anything there. The second of the two is a bit harder to justify. Behemoth is a Polish band that has been pumping out decent death metal albums for a few decades now, but out of nowhere this year they’ve released their masterwork, an album that has more than compensated for all the lameness 2013 had to offer and is currently one of the top-rated albums on Metacritic. Its title? The Satanist. Yeesh.

It’s about as bad as you think. The album is 40 minutes of Satan worship, and a well-paced one as that. And the subject matter isn’t just shoved into your face to dismiss outright; songs like “Ben Sahar” and the title track embrace deliberate crests and valleys to make the sonic onslaughts that much more harrowing. Singer Adam Darsky, bouncing back from a successful treatment for leukemia and not in a particularly repentant mood, describes his faith in frank, almost conversational terms. “I believe in Satan,” he snarls on “Messe Noir,” “Who rend both heavens and earth / And in the Antichrist / His dearly misbegotten.” He tells tales referencing specific pieces of folklore and Biblical stories that indicate that this is far from an attempt to shock. This is a guy calmly telling you he believes Abraham should have killed his son to “fuck and reset the world,” and by the end of the album, when Darsky is crying out to his savior in an apocalyptic heart to heart, it’s fucking terrifying.

It could very well be the case that Darsky is also playing a character, but The Satanist is so damn convincing, I’m not sure if it matters. That’s probably why I like it so much. Like on XXX, it’s a perspective I never could have dreamed to make me laugh or understand or just plain old cower in fear. Should I feel guilty that it’s so good at it’s job that someone could easily take it the wrong way? I don’t know, but it doesn’t satisfy me to completely ignore the issue. Music does need to be shocking to be vital, but I wonder when things get out of hand.

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