Black Metal

The concept of “abnormality” as it relates to psychology is not a particularly easy concept to grasp. While there are some legitimate definitions of abnormality (such as a requirement for psychological dysfunction, personal distress, and atypical behavior), the requirements are ultimately very vague when being considered by multiple people from different cultural backgrounds. The best definition of abnormal behavior would indicate that the behavior has the potential to not be deemed a psychological disorder simply because it is abnormal, yet still maintain that those individuals who adhere to the abnormal are, in the least, significantly different than their societal counterparts. My relatively active involvement in the underground black metal scene in the United States has the potential to be viewed as abnormal due to the themes expressed in the music (Satanism, anti-religion, anti-establishment, war, violence), the extreme sound of the music, and non-traditional feelings towards subjects related to human vitality.

            The abnormality of the black metal music scene is not strictly related to the audible music, rather the ideological ideas and theatrical imagery directly related to the scene; whether it be at live shows or in some other context, as they tend to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable, and therefore what is normal and abnormal. One specific example that I witnessed occurred in New Jersey at the Starland Ballroom where the band Behemoth played. In a room filled with fog machines and darkness, their front man (who goes by the stage name Nergal, a name associated with demons) came out and addressed the crowd with a Christian Bible in his hand. He had no reservations when he yelled into his microphone that the Bible “is a book of lies.” At the end of his speech, he tore pages out of the text, threw them at the crowd, and proceeded to scream the opening line of his next song. While it may be debatable as to whether or not it is abnormal for an individual to be non-religious, there is no doubt that the active expression of these beliefs in such a manner would be perceived as abnormal; particularly to those outside of the in group of fellow black metal fans and musicians. The imagery of ripping up a religious text, the incorporation of pentagrams and inverted crosses to stage sets, and the bodily adornments of leather clothing, chainmail, spikes, armor, and corpse paint (white paint on the body in similar fashion to rock band KISS, however utilized in such a way to make an individual appear to be dead) all add to the abnormal effect.

            In addition to the appearance and thematic elements of black metal, there is no denying that the music that is created is tonally offensive to those who are not adjusted to it. Black metal is created to sound extremely treble heavy (with little bass at all in many songs), forcing the songs to inevitably use more of the higher frequency tones which are very harsh on the ears; in comparison to music which is generally composed to utilize a lot of bass and rhythm mixed with some higher frequency tones. To add to this harshness, the instruments are generally played in a very dissonant manner so as disrupt any melodic phrase in the music. The pace of the music is frequently very fast, with the rhythm often coming in the form of sixteenth and thirty-second note bass drumming. Finally, the vocal style is typically that of a mid-ranged screamer. As an active black metal musician, I adhere very closely to these musical qualities so as to continue this underground music tradition. Many bands take a minimalistic approach to the music, myself included, which inadvertently functions in such a way that most songs sound very much alike. Ultimately, all of these abnormal musical elements combined form the antithesis of modern Western music.

            There is no denying that black metal intends to portray the darker aspects of the human condition. While for some individuals involvement in this music scene may be primarily due to angst, for myself and many others it is in very many ways a spiritual experience to be absorbed in the music and atmosphere present at many black metal concerts. An element of irony exists because anti-religion is frequently a subject often expressed through imagery and lyricism, yet the act of gathering together as fellow members of a relatively organized group has similar qualities to those religious institutions. The abnormality of this gathering is the purpose for coming together. In religious institutions people gather for the sake of socializing and worshipping god, however at a black metal concert many individuals are particularly introverted and removed from one another; but seemingly bound by the need to express feelings regarding negative life experiences. The abnormality lies in the fact that even if these feelings are natural and experienced by all human beings universally, the active expression in aggressive ways is frowned upon by normal society. Themes related to human vitality like depression, suicide, life and death, and deeply philosophical ideas are examined, and oftentimes the ability for musicians to be able to express their feelings regarding these topics allows them to channel their emotions into what could be deemed a “positive” form of expression, even if some may view their form of expression as abnormal or eccentric. For myself, the opportunity to sit down with my guitar and keyboard, compose music, and write meaningful lyrics is ultimately what assists in keeping me alive. There are very few other outlets available for an individual to express their most intimate feelings with others than as is provided by the black metal scene.  

            What constitutes a social “abnormality” is a fairly controversial subject. The psychological definition of abnormality gives a good starting point when we analyze other people, groups, cultures, and the like; however labeling a group as “abnormal” may inadvertently offend because many abnormalities are simply normality when viewed from the in group. As a member of a black metal band, I cannot help but feel at home when around other people with similar interests as myself. With that said, there is no denying that the black metal music scene is very abnormal in comparison to many other music scenes; much less other groups of people in general. Black metal consists of themes related to the darker aspects of life, sounds that are oftentimes tonally harsh, and general openness with regards to issues dealing with human vitality.