[20 June 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
If you think [Why Do the Heathen Rage?] sucks, make your case. But don’t tell me that I’m not a real fan, or that I don’t have the right to touch the sacred kvlt heritage. After all: What does lip service to being Satanic amount to if you aren’t down for sacrilege?
—Drew Daniel, in an interview with Adrien Begrand for Decibel
In 2011, New York City label Thrill Jockey released Aesthethica, an album of “Transcendental Black Metal” by the Brooklyn band Liturgy. Amidst the blastbeats and shrill screams by frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Aesthethica has moments of oddity that made it a controversial release at its time. Metal is a key undercurrent of the album, but it didn’t stop the group from throwing minimalist experimentation (“Generation”), video game synths (“Helix Skull”), an religious chants (“Glass Earth”) into the mix. Liturgy’s tastes are far from homogenous, which is one of the many reasons why Aesthethica remains a compelling work of experimental music.
What is more bizarre about the record, however, is the manifesto that will forever be associated with it, Hunt-Hendrix’s “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism”. The essay, essentially a hodgepodge of Hegelian and post-Hegelian aesthetic philosophy (particularly the works of Friedrich Nietzsche), remains even to those who have read the document a bit of an oddity. Three years after Aesthethica, it doesn’t feel as if any movement like the one Hunt-Hendrix outlines has come to fruition. In retrospect, its staying power comes more from its provocation than its philosophical dictates. Nevertheless, in attempting to meld a particular philosophical ideal with an eclectic sonic, Liturgy caused a big splash in 2011, one that has not been replicated—until now.
The Soft Pink Truth is the name Drew Daniel (of Matmos fame) takes when recording experimental electronic music. Most memorably, with 2004’s Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth?, he spent a whole album covering hardcore punk tracks from the ‘70s and ‘80s, giving a jarring, defamiliarizing take on tunes from artists like Angry Samoans and Minor Threat. Ten years later, on the same Thrill Jockey label that caused a veritable frenzy in the metal scene but three years ago, Daniel has recorded a collection of covers of classic black metal tunes, pulling tracks from the discographies of Darkthrone, Beherit, and Mayhem. Entitled Why Do the Heathen Rage?, the record takes tracks from some of the darkest corners of the black metal world and transforms them into bizarrely catchy electronic covers. The notion of doing “danceable black metal” in the abstract is enough to send a legion of “kvlt” devotees with closets full of Burzum t-shirts to online forums the world over; in execution, it’s every bit as daring as it sounds. All Daniel had to do was conceptualize Why Do the Heathen Rage? and he would have already made one of 2014’s most innovative releases. But lo and behold, he went and made it, and the results—already the subject of numerous online debates—are invigorating.
Daniel’s aim with Why Do the Heathen Rage? is far from merely turning the kvlt into club bumpers, though at first pass that may seem the case. No matter how obvious Daniel’s creative touch is with these songs, there’s an inherent humor to hearing lyrics like “Black is the night, metal we fight!” over glitchy electronics. Some of the electronics on this record sound similar to the ones Flight of the Conchords used on their quirky comedy albums. For all of the serious points this LP makes, it’s also a goofy and wildly fun. Fans of metal may find Why Do the Heathen Rage‘s instrumentation to be too silly to take seriously, but here Daniel is making an important point. The notion that there is no comedy to be found in a genre wherein its members and fans dress in corpse paint and resurrect ancient pagan myths all the while playing metal riffs is, on its face, a bit off. (Some clever YouTube videos provide evidence for this.) The overseriousness of many black metal artists—see anything Burzum has done in recent years—undercuts the ethos that bands in the genre so often espouse: irreverence. The degree to which black metal artists and fans overreact negatively to records like Aesthethica or Deafheaven’s much-hyped Sunbather illustrates that out of irreverence can come the same degree of reverence that the genre was initially fighting against, namely traditional religions like Christianity. In response to this black metal fundamentalism, Daniel takes on the role of the merry prankster, one who both loves the music he is paying homage to but also wishes to see some of its longstanding flaws change.
Daniel couldn’t have picked a more attention-grabbing way to make his point. After opening with the aptly titled “Invocation for Strength”, wherein Daniel is joined by Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) in reading a “Radical Faery Poem” that sets the philosophical tone for the rest of the album. After this, Daniel never holds back, driving into a catchy cover of Venom’s “Black Metal”. His take on Sargeist’s “Satanic Black Devotion” begins with a clean guitar intro not unlike the kind one would find on a melodic doom record, but it is not long before the guitar is cut off and replaced by ominous synths and the screams of Locrian‘s Terence Hannum. The Euro house-indebted “Let There Be Ebola Frost” even adds a brief moment of emotional calm amidst the thudding and scraping electronics that make up most of Why Do the Heathen Rage?.
Musically, Daniel is on to something unique here; the metal world has never seen something so off-kilter as this. However, it’s in furthering an aesthetic and philosophical agenda where Daniel makes some serious steps forward. In his Decibel interview, he says that he is not interested “in being a sacred cow to politically sympathetic critics just because I’m a fag; being gay is not an achievement in 2014, it’s just a fact about who I am.” Sexuality is but one of the many reasons that motivated Daniel to take on this cover project, for black metal’s history is littered with heinous instances of homophobia, anti-Semitism, Nazism and other related racist nationalisms, church burnings, and murder. Why Do the Heathen Rage comes with a disclaimer:
Aesthetics and Politics are neither equivalent nor separable. Black metal fandom all too often entails a tacit endorsement or strategic looking-the-other-way with regards to the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic bullshit politics that (still) pervade the scene, on behalf of either escapist fantasy talk, shaky invocations of art as a crypto-religious path to transcendence, or—the oldest cop out in the book—the quietist declaration that “I just like how it sounds.” Just as blasphemy both affirms and assaults the sacred powers it invokes and inverts, so too this record celebrates black metal and offers queer critique / mockery / profanation of its ideological morass in equal measure.
One of the consequences of Daniel’s arrangements of these songs is that the lyrics, which are often obfuscated by black metal’s notoriously piercing screams, are almost always discernible. Daniel thus both underscores the suppressed comedic features of black metal and simultaneously lays out the philosophical content of its lyrics out in the open.
Though Daniel’s critics might think this an act of profaning, Why Do the Heathen Rage? proves the opposite. Good comedy and satire always comes from a place of respect and admiration. Both try to offer directives for social change; they do not hold that everything is merely a joke and can be done away with. When talking with Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork, Daniel concedes, “It’s not like art is only ever a symptom of politics. So while they’re always connected, they’re never the same.”
The conjoined nature of aesthetics and politics is one that Why Do the Heathen Rage? stresses above all else. Hunt-Hendrix may not have caused a scene change with his attempt to bring the Hegelian dialectic into the metal realm, but if there’s any philosophical argument that should be taken seriously, it’s Daniel’s. Not only does he make a point that fans, critics, and artists in the metal realm often brush aside, but he’s made a fine collection of danceable and inventive songs, to boot. If the unity of philosophy and performance was Daniel’s goal, then by most margins he has succeeded with aplomb. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Daniel’s philosophy, the one thing he cannot be accused of is being insincere. Daniel lives by his music and his ideas, without any arbitrary distinctions between the two. If nothing else, Why Do the Heathen Rage? is massively refreshing for that reason.