Rock’n’roll has always been public music. It shouts out loud, demanding to be played outdoors, or in steel-framed and cinder-blocked arenas seating multi-
thousands. What else do you expect of Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, Metallica or Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses or Rage Against the Machine, if not a call to action? As music, metal is born of the blues, its screams and tonic chords, its apocalyptic visions and craziness, its funky mix of rhythm and torment. In metal the sky is always crying falsetto tears. The blues has always been a stage music, a contrived declamation, a speech about morals and troubles.
But turn to the windowless world of “death rock” or “black metal” from Central Europe (mostly Scandinavia), and all your rock’n’roll expectations fall down. Here is speechless music for private people, just as much mood music as Ronnie Isley softing a ballad and just as meant to be heard behind closed doors. But what moods! Black metal dumps on itself. The voices don’t cry falsetto, they gurgle low, meekly and even comically ghoulish. (Comical but hardly funny; the temper here is always melancholy.) The lyrics of this lachrymose stuff read dense and often grammatically twisted, as sophomoric as the worst verses of Terence Trent D’Arby (and where’s he now?), except that D’Arby wants you to feel his pain, I suppose; whereas the pseudo-Elizabethan lyrics of Theater of Tragedy’s Aegis (Century Media, firstname.lastname@example.org), for example, put barriers between this Norwegian band and the casual compassion of a potential listener. You have to work hard to be admitted to Tragedy’s stiff beats and, yes, theatrical monologues, and even harder to probe their surface brocade.
You want to laugh at “Cassandra,” in which they go “Prophetess or Fond? Tho her parle of truth: I ken to-morrow— refell me if ya can!” but you can’t: a big boomy drum sticks in your throat. It stifles. Yet you certainly can’t take this false mourning seriously either. Which is likely why the most effective black-metal lyrics, f’r instance the language of Sweden-born Katatonia’s Discouraged Ones (Century Black, email@example.com), make no sense at all. Surrounded by guitars flailing helplessly and drum riffs heading in no direction, Jons Renske’s vocals seem to run backwards. Of course Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” and “Living Dead Girl” also don’t rise above catch phrases senselessly juxtaposed; but Zombie’s catch lines ride melodic funkish drumming directly to your senses, proceeding rationally forward. Which is why they hook ya. I defy you to listen to “Dragula” without finding yourself chanting “dig through the ditches and burn through the witches” over and over, and not because Zombie’s stuff means anything, because the only thing it means is dirty sex talked about in public and performed as outdoors as possible. Katatonia, on the other hand, sing the downcast moods of “i break” as wanly as that uncapitalized “i” forecasts. Renske seems to be hanging his head in shame (which is probably the true position of lines like “sounds of imbalance sleeps through the never. . . . I will never make another day defiant to what’s delivered”) as, in the aptly titled “Stalemate” and “Daedhouse,” Anders Nygstrom’s and Fred Norrman’s guitars fuzz unhurriedly and sourly above his dirge.
Katatonia are quiet boys who have a lot to be quiet about. And their downward murmurs and motionless chords at least work as music. Unhappily one can’t say as much for most of the 14 black-metal bands which contribute to the Beauty in Darkness Vol. 3 compilation on Nuclear Blast Records (firstname.lastname@example.org). Pursuing the sadly irrational backwards through time may reward the effort necessary to get intimate with Katatonia, even Theater of Tragedy; but 14 interpretations of the same narrow theme emphasize this music’s quirkiness more than its coloration. Compared to Cradle of Filth’s screech-mask vocals, the Z-movie glugging of God-
gory, the dry piano tones and difficult language of Therion, or the voluptuous pounding of Him and Darkseed, titles such as “Cruelty Brought the Orchids” (Cradle of Filth) promise too much. And “Your Sweet Six Six Six” (Him) and “Give Me Light” (Darkseed) don’t promise enough.
Perhaps the reverse promise of black metal simply isn’t there to fulfill. The songs of Johan Edlund’s Swedish band Tiamat (A Deeper Kind of Slumber, Century Media) and Fernando Ribeiro’s Portuguese Moonspell (Sin/Pecado, Century Media) swing usefully between supple rhythms and orchestral moodiness courtesy of genre auteur Waldemar Sorychta, but the more sweetly they swing, the less they propound black metal’s backdraft effect. Rhythmic hurt takes second place in Moonspell songs like “Second Skin,” for example, to glam guitar and sound props reminiscent of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s happy bursts.
Yet though the 16 bands which make up a second Nuclear Blast compilation, Call on the Dark 2, range more widely than those on Beauty in Darkness, the wider they range— into techno (London After Midnight’s “The Bondage Song”), lullaby (the Gathering’s “When the Sun Hits”), and Satanism (Christian Death’s “Die With You”), the more they demonstrate that melancholy rock has been done better before. No need to take this techno when Belgian boys in Lords of Acid and the Neon Judgment already mix sexual impatience, stress, and disillusionment with a limitless electronic complexity. No need to put aside one’s Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and Mylene Farmer (bittersweet rock begins at her 1988 French megahit Ainsi soit-je) CDs just because the Gathering’s Dutch chanteuse, Anneke Van Giersbergen, makes a convincing angel of twilight bliss. (Fans will find 14 tracks of Van Giersbergen and her cloudy-day band on their new Century Media disc How To Measure a Planet.)
And definitely no need to give up the Sisters of Mercy’s 1986 Floodland, whose introverted sexuality, Bowie-like vocals, and doomy bass riffs still dominate black–metal style, delving deeper into private fantasy than any of it. Even farther back in these bands’ time line lies the stunned, streaked, and blacklit music of Joy Division. It was Ian Curtis who invented private rock and wrote the style of such soul masters as the Moments, Delfonics, and Stylistics into far harsher shape. Curtis’s bottom octaves reversed the extremism of falsetto soul— and even intensified it— without compromising the genre’s privacy, thereby turning the expectations of dreamland into a negative. In his ad-lib-like songs you can hear him searching his way, groping from end to beginning. There may be interest in listening to Curtis’s successors, but in his own vocals there was discovery. And in discovery, pain and freedom.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 2, 1999