[[Sound Off]] ‘Hipster Black Metal’: A Crisis of Authenticity

By Bradley Bulch @Mnspector_Iorse

When Deafheaven released their sophomore record Sunbather in 2013, not many would have predicted quite how much attention it received. Achieving a rating of 92 on critical aggregate site Metacritic, Sunbather finished the year as it’s most highly regarded album [1]. Which was pretty much unheard of, considering the ‘black metal’ label many critics threw at it.

Deafheaven - Sunbather
The ‘Sunbather’ artwork hardly screams black metal, does it?

Sunbather was unlike anything many outside of the black metal community had heard or seen before. Deafheaven sidestepped the corpse paint and morbid lyrics for a bright pink cover and songs filled with nostalgia, romance and despair. The blast beats and tremolo picked guitar leads still forged ahead, but they were sandwiched between pretty post-rock sections comparable to some of Explosions in the Sky’s most poignant moments.

The guitars blared, but they also twinkled at times. The album bypassed all the stereotypes that most music consumers would affiliate with black metal artists. Deafheaven weren’t Burzum, Varg Vikernes didn’t spearhead their line up with tracks about ethnic cleansing and an all too real history of church burning and murder [2]. They didn’t parade themselves around forests in music videos carrying medieval flame torches [3]. They wore shirts and derby shoes, sported Hitler Youth haircuts and played music that appealed to Pitchfork readers more associated with indie rock and synth pop than extreme metal.

Sunbather didn’t mark a shift in the black metal landscape, the musical amalgamation present within it had already been explored in 2005 with Alcest’s ‘Le Secret’ EP. However, Alcest have slipped past the waves criticism from the die-hard black metal community that has been levelled at Deafheaven and their fans. Alcest have for many years been producing records that combine shoegaze and black metal that is both ferocious and beautiful. The one element missing from their music was the widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. Unlike Sunbather, ‘Le Secret’ didn’t find it’s cover gracing the new Apple iPhone advertisements [4].

Deafheaven and Gorgorth
Deafheaven’s George Clarke and Kerry McCoy (Left), and Norwegian black metal band Gorgorth (Right).

Criticism has been just as fierce toward Liturgy, another band carrying with them the ‘black metal’ tag without acceptance from it’s respective community. Perhaps this is more to do with frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s boastful claims of composing ‘Transcendental Black Metal’, complimented by his outlandish manifesto that tries so hard, yet misses the mark by such a distance it’s almost embarrassing [5]. Liturgy’s new album The Ark Work contained many elements which in theory fit the black metal bill; layered tremolo picked guitars and intense blast beats shape the most consuming moments of the album.

Liturgy - The Ark Work
Were Liturgy ‘trolling’ us with ‘The Ark Work’?

Throughout The Ark Work however are some interesting stylistic shifts; droned, glitching vocals, extensive midi trumpet sections and bagpipes galore. Hendrix is incessant in his attempt to ‘reinvent’ black metal, as evident by the unusual, yet enticing union of ideas within The Ark Work. It remains no surprise critics were perplexed by the release, to the point that one accused Liturgy of ‘trolling’ their fans [6]. While another rightfully questioned whether it was even black metal [7].

Battles for authenticity between those that consider themselves the cultural elite, and less concerned fans have been waged time and time again. During the 90s when artists such as Green Day and The Offspring broke the mainstream, accusations were made of them ‘selling out’ [8]. This backlash from punk rock purists didn’t prevent the success of either band, and neither will they stop Deafheaven’s apparent march to success.

Ghostbath’s ‘Moonlover’
Ghostbath’s ‘Moonlover’ album cover.

This case however is different in that there is so little commercial appeal here that any accusations of Deafheaven lacking authenticity is laughable. While they may have found a market for a genre of metal that is emotional, beautiful and brutish. The screamed vocals and harsh sonic landscapes littered throughout their releases aren’t exactly accessible. This music is still extreme, whatever genre you call it.

Try telling that to Ghostbath, a North Dakota based band whose latest album Moonlover received minor attention for bearing a stark sonic resemblance to Sunbather. This led to some disappointed comments from Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy, as he accused Ghostbath of ripping them off [9].

A channel appropriately called Hipster Black Metal has been lurking in the depths of YouTube over the past few years [10]. The aim of this channel appears to be calling out bands for appropriating a genre of music they have no business operating within. It’s content is filled with lengthy videos criticising bands such as Deafheaven, Liturgy, Wolves in the Throne Room, Ghostbath and Panopticon. Bands all given the black metal label by critics, without being welcomed by the black metal community. The videos make audible comparisons between ‘real’ black metal bands and the aforementioned ‘hipster’ variations [11]. These comparisons are convincing in making their case for the mislabelling of certain bands, though one major flaw remains in their argument.

Comments such as this are commonplace in videos and articles associated with Deafheaven or Liturgy.

The use of homophobic and derogatory slurs such as ‘faggot’ and ‘retard’ is a staple throughout this channel and of many black metal elitists in comments sections regarding these bands throughout the internet. Behaviour like this makes black metal purists appear foolish in their attempts to assert authority, it’s akin to children having a temper tantrum, preventing their argument from holding weight in a serious discussion. Sure, such bands may suit the ‘screamo’ tag more, but this is irrelevant to those enjoying their music, who aren’t going to be turned onto ‘true’ black metal because someone on the internet called them a ‘poser’.

It is undeniable that ‘blackgaze’ bands such as Deafheaven, Alcest and Ghostbath are far removed from the early Norwegian black metal outfits such as Darkthrone, Mayhem and Gorgoroth. The latter artists, who propelled the genre forward in the late 80s to early 90s, featured more abrasive production and a sharper guitar sound, while bathing in an air of pure malevolency that is impossible to find in the former groups. These modern US iterations with their cleaner production appear more emotionally frail, and open to experimentation with less affiliated genres. They tap into auras of despair, romance and hope, often within the same song.

Instead of perpetuating division, black metal fans should be wearily accepting of ‘blackgaze’ bands entering the relative mainstream. It’s not about the genre these bands operate in, it’s about what they offer to the musical repertoire of those who listen to them. Bands such as Deafheaven offer an easily digestible glimpse of black metal that may entice fans to delve deeper into the genre; one that is thoroughly rewarding when explored in full depth.

[[SOUND OFF]] is a series of student-written features on artists/albums/music worth checking out

You might like… Rock Transition

There’s a fascinating radio documentary on the old BBC dealing with the ways in which musicians played around with gender roles. You can find it here (where you can also download it via mp3). You can find the show notes below:

For centuries musicians have defied gender boundaries to create some of the most evocative and provocative art and music.

Journalist and culture critic Laura Snapes joins the dots of a fascinating musical history that encompasses musical icons such as Ma Rainey, Little Richard, Lou Reed, the Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones and Madonna, and looks at how today’s musicians use music and performance to express who their own gender and sexuality.

In recent years the issue of gender and identity has been a hot topic in the musical landscape and beyond. From niche publications to tabloids and political debate, issues surrounding gender identity and how it influences both personal and social life have been widely publicised.

Amid the deeply complex personal world of gender identity and the often ruthlessly myopic world of the music industry, a new generation of artists are using music for fearless expressions of their gender and sexuality that break beyond the archetypes set by their forebears.

Rock Transition speaks with artists such as garage maverick Ezra Furman, Canadian pop stars Tegan and Sara, musician and author CN Lester, and musician and activist Ryan Cassata to understand why music offers an exciting platform to express and explore gender identity and sexuality – and asks how these artists can resist being marginalised and commodified by an industry keen to capitalise on a hot topic.

Enjoy

You might like… Click: Music and Technology (Jan 2017)

If you have an interest in the ways in which music and digital technology are converging then you might want to check out the podcast below. It’s from the BBC World Service show, Click. Be warned, it can be a bit twee in place (very BBC), but it does touch on things like virtual reality and music video art, artificial intelligence identifying music stems and lyrics in order to help creators identify new potential. Here’s the spiel:

At the recent Music 4.5, The New Creative Tech event in London, academics, technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators in virtual, augmented and mixed realities and artificial intelligence came together to explore some of the opportunities and challenges for music opened up by technology.

There are countless examples of advances such as bands collaborating with companies to create Virtual Reality live concert experiences. Notably both Brian Eno and Björk are using Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence in their music videos. New technologies now also enable micro identification of stems of music that allow musicians to be better remunerated for their skill. Click is joined by a panel of experts including, Paul Crick from IBM, Rachel Falconer from Goldsmith College and Martin Gould from Sonalytic to discuss the potential new direction and developments for music.

You can stream the show here or download an mp3 version here

You might like … K-poparazzi

There’s a wonderful bit of radio here if you like your K-pop and controversy. Radiolab are the hosts and here is the spiel:

In the U.S., paparazzi are pretty much synonymous with invasion of privacy. But today we travel to a place where the prying press create something more like a prison break.

K-pop is a global juggernaut – with billions in sales and millions of fans hanging on every note, watching K-pop idols synchronize and strut. And that fame rests on a fantasy, K-pop stars have to be chaste and pure, but also … available. Until recently, Korean music agencies and K-pop fans held their pop stars to a strict set of rules designed to keep that fantasy alive. That is, until Dispatch showed up.

Taking a cue from American and British paparazzi, a group of South Korean reporters started hiding in their cars and snapping photos of stars on their secret dates. The first-ever paparazzi photos turned the world of K-pop upside down and introduced sort of a puzzle … how much do you want to know about the people you idolize, and when is enough enough?

Produced by Matthew Kielty and Alexandra Young. Reported by Alexandra Young with Brenna Farrell.

Special Thanks to Dispatch, Haeryun Kang, Joseph Kim, Charlie Cho, Hyena, Crayon Pop, Jeremy Bloom, The Kirukkiruk Guesthouse, Choi Baekseol, Jiin Choi, David Bevan, and The One Shots.

 

Week 11 Lecture A Digital disruption the music industry

Listen

Read

Jacques Attali (1977) Noise: The Political Economy of Music, University of Minnesota Press [link], [alt link]

IFPI (2016) Global Music Report 2016 [link]

Yngvat Kjus (2015) ‘Reclaiming the music: The power of local and physical music distribution in the age of global online services’, New Media & Society, pp.1-17 [link]

Mark Mulligan (2015) Awakening: The Music Industry in the Digital Age, MIDiA Research [link]

Jim Roger (2013) Death and Life of the Music Industry in the Digital Age, Bloomsbury Academic [link]

Stephen Witt (2015) How Music Got Free, Vintage Digital [link]

 

 

You might like… ‘How the Police Have Obliterated British Youth Subcultures”

Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ CANCELLED, Essex St, Chinatown, Boston

Vice have an article on how the police have ‘obliterated’ youth culture here.

Ignoring the hyperbole in the headline, there’s something to be said of the way in which public institutions like the police and judiciary have impacted upon the physical manifestation of youth cultures. There’s also a lot of other material factors (e.g. technology, access to economic/social capital, geography, etc) but this is quite an interesting (if light) read.

Paul Willis’s work (1978) on homology and subcultures comes to mind if anyone wants to explore this further

You might like… The longbox

This instalment of the ever popular 99% Invisible podcast deals with 99invisible-logo-square-for_prx_mediumthe longbox –  or the most important album in US political history (if you believe the presenter), namely: REM’s
Out of Time. They make the case that the music was less important than its packaging.

You can stream the show from here or download the mp3 here

Check out the show notes below and decide for yourself:

REM’s Out of Time is the most politically significant album in the history of the United States. Because of its packaging.

In 1985, the pop charts were full of Prince and Sheena Easton and the youth of America were being corrupted. Tipper Gore and other elite women of Washington formed the “Parents Music Resource Center” (PMRC) to put pressure on the creators and distributors of “objectionable” music.

There were Senate hearings, and eventually those little black and white Parental Advisory stickers started appearing on albums.

1280px-Parental_Advisory_label.svg

This set off a wave of censorship across the country.

In 1990, a Federal district judge in South Florida ruled that the rap group 2 Live Crew’s album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” was so obscene that it couldn’t be sold or performed within his jurisdiction in South Florida. Three days after the ruling, 2 Live Crew played a show in a county within his jurisdiction, and afterwards two members of the group got arrested.

When Jeff Ayeroff, an executive at Virgin Records, watched this all play out on TV, he felt offended. Not by the raunchy lyrics or the twerking on stage, but by the arrests and the blatant censorship of the artists’ work. Shortly thereafter, he got the idea for “Rock the Vote.”

The idea behind Rock the Vote was simple: get young people to vote for politicians who wouldn’t censor music. Ayeroff got about sixty people together in a Los Angeles hotel to talk about launching Rock The Vote. Frank Zappa was there, past and present California Governor Jerry Brown was there, as well as a bunch of record executives, including Jeff’s friend, a record executive at Warner Brothers named Jeff Gold. Gold’s major project at the time was trying to figure out how to package CDs.

Compact Disc packaging was the hot topic in the record world of the late 80s and early 90s. CDs had been around for a few years, but record stores still didn’t have a good way to display them, because their shelves were formatted to display 12” vinyl LPs. The solution was to package CD jewel cases inside of cardboard boxes that were just as tall as a vinyl album but half as wide. This allowed the shelves to fit two “longbox” CDs side-by-side on an LP rack.

REM_LONGBOX_PHOTO front
Front of R.E.M.’s Out of Time

Artists, however, objected to the wastefulness of the longbox. In 1991, R.E.M. had a record coming out, and they did not want millions of trees cut down just to create this extra packing. The Warner Brothers sales department knew that this album absolutely had to come out in a longbox if it was going to do well in retail, and that’s when Jeff Gold realized that he could merge the two projects he was working on. Jeff Gold realized that he could convince R.E.M. to use a longbox if they could use the CD longbox to advance the Rock the Vote campaign.

Jeff Gold needed a concrete political cause to connect it to, and Jeff Ayeroff brought him just the thing: the “Motor Voter” bill, which been bouncing around Congress since the 1970s. If passed, Motor Voter would allow people to register to vote at the DMV when they got a driver’s license. It also allowed citizens to register by mail, or when they applied for social services like welfare or unemployment. Basically, the Motor Voter bill would make it easier for lots of people, including young people, to register to vote. By 1991 a few states had already adopted it, but Congress had never been able to get it passed nationally.

REM_LONGBOX_PHOTO back
Back of R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, complete with Rock The Vote petition

R.E.M.’s longbox, printed with a petition in support of the Motor Voter Bill, became a piece of political machinery. When Out of Time hit the record stores on March 12th, 1991, the petitions started rolling in. After 3 weeks, they had received 10,000 petitions, 100 per senator, and they just kept coming in in droves.

About a month after R.E.M. released the album, Rock The Vote’s political director, along with members of the hip hop group KMD, wheeled a shopping cart full of the first 10,000 petitions into a senate hearing.

In May of 1992, after thousands of petitions and the Senate testimony, the Motor Voter bill passed Congress. Then President H. W. Bush, in the middle of his re-election campaign, vetoed it. Bush’s opponent, Bill Clinton, took up Motor Voter as a talking point, and after he won, he signed it into law as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The National Voter Registration Act went into effect in 1995. From that year to 2012, the percentage of the population that is registered to vote went from 69.5% to 79.9%, and over 150 million voter registrations have been filled out at the DMV.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why no album in the history of recorded music has had as large an effect on politics in the United States as R.E.M’s Out of Time.

 

Reporter Whitney Jones spoke with Jeff Ayeroff and Jeff Gold about the creation of Rock The Vote and the death of the longbox.


As an aside, 99% Invisible from PRX is a brilliant show about design, presented by Roman Mars. You should subscribe to this podcast feed and follow them – you won’t be disappointed.

You might like… The House of the Windy City – Dance Music’s Forgotten Heroes

Grammophone Records

The city of Chicago has a rich musical history starting with blues and jazz (Louis Armstrong was big with his Hot 5 and Hot 7 bands), through the soul era (home to the influential Motown and Memphis labels), spawning the Chi-Twon style of rap epitomised by Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West. It was also one of the birthplaces of house music – more specifically Chicago house.

British DJ and radio presenter has just put together a quick and accessible history of the influence of Chicago on electronic music, addressing the legacy of people like Frankie Knuckles and venues like the Warehouse. It was first broadcast on Saturday July 16th on BBC Radio 4 and can be streamed here.

Here’s the BBC spiel:

Presenter and DJ Dave Pearce travel to Chicago to hear how a country traditionally resistant to dance music finally got it. The US invented it and then ignored it. Today with electronic dance music estimated to be a $20 billion industry, what do those who started Chicago House in the early 1980s think of this new scene?

House music grew out of black gay clubs in Chicago in the early 1980s. We hear from Robert Williams who started the legendary Warehouse club where the scene got its name. He brought in Frankie Knuckles to DJ and Dave Pearce hears how he would create his own edits to keep the crowd dancing all night.

In Chicago we track down Rocky Jones, founder of DJ International, who put out some of the very first records. What was his reaction when he found out the few thousand records he put out were driving a cult scene in the UK? With contributions from The Pet Shop Boys, DJ Marshall Jefferson and DJ Pierre we hear how the sound of Chicago topped the charts in the UK.

But in America a lot of house music wasn’t played on the radio because it was viewed as gay music. As Hip Hop became the dominant musical form, Chicago House was pushed out to the suburbs. DJ Black Madonna takes us on a tour of one of the few remaining house music clubs. While here in the UK a new generation of house music artists like Disclosure have found an audience and a following. They tour the world playing their own interpretation of Chicago House.

A Tonic Media production for BBC Radio 4.

This is a great introduction to the genre. Pearce has also picked his 10 favourite Chicago house tracks which you can read about here. I think all of these were played in the documentary. Here’s a Spotify playlist link

You might like… Explore rave and club culture with these 6 essential documentaries

If you’ve ever had a passing interest in the origins of electronic music/rave/hip-hop, the  surrounding culture, or its legacy then you might enjoy the following documentaries:

  1. Rave: The Beat Goes On
  2. Witness: The Haçienda Nightclub
  3. Stories in Sound: The Roots of Rave [mp3 here]
  4. Behind the Level: Ram Records
  5. The Amen Break
  6. Stacey Dooley Investigates: Ecstacy Wars

They are all available on the link below (hosted by the BBC iPlayer so there may be regional limitations for non-UK visitors):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/articles/21da87fa-8a5f-4531-bd8b-2ce98cb4c33e

 

You might like… The Grace of Jeff Buckley

For those that don’t know the music of Jeff Buckley he wrote an elegantly haunting album (Grace, 1994) before coming to an untimely death in mysterious circumstances. The son of famous folk singer, Tim Buckley, Jeff possessed a spectral voice and an enchanting stage presence.

His solitary solo album is a glimpse at his talent and what he was capable of – something which has frustrated fans who have poured through his demos looking for insights and hidden gems. Standout tracks include the Leonard Cohen cover of ‘Hallelujah‘ that Buckley made his.

This radio documentary charts Buckley’s transition from relatively unknown artist into legend following a visit to London in March of 1994. This was originally aired on July 24th 2014 on BBC Radio 4 [play here] but has recently been rebroadcast by KCRW to coincide with the recent release of an album of previously unreleased covers (You and I).

Show notes:

An oral history of a day in the short life of musician Jeff Buckley… A day in London begins with a memorable photo shoot in the morning. In the afternoon, a radio performance stuns the DJ and her audience. Then, that night after two concerts, one planned and one improvised, his legend had begun to be written. It’s a story told by the people who were there, manager Dave Lory, booking agent Emma Banks, photographer Kevin Westenberg and tour manager Steve Abbott. Featuring exclusive interview and music recordings featuring Jeff Buckley.

Produced by Alan Hall, a Falling Tree production for BBC Radio Four.

Producers:
Bob Carlson
Alan Hall

The home of med332 – a module about popular music culture