Friday, 3 January 2014

Black Metal Blues; the power of formula

                               "Black Metal" Jefferson & "Blind Lemon" Infernus; genre archetypes

Black metal and the blues; the parallel is not just colour-based whimsy; the blues started out as basic, primal, heartfelt music. Then it developed; went jazzy, electric, progressive, even psychedelic; but at heart there was still – ideally anyway - that unchanging core of feeling. With black metal, this near-century-long stylistic expansion and mutation has been telescoped to within just a couple of decades, and as with the blues, whatever the prefix, there remains an indefinable core of feeling. To buy into the cheesy platitudes of the genre, if the feeling isn’t there, it isn’t the blues (or BM)
early blues as both a lonely solo occupation and a joyous group activity (left:Charlie Patton, right: Mamie Smith & her Jazz Hounds)

                      Black metal in its angry, solemn and solitary forms (Gorgoroth, Ulver, Striborg)

The style of the music – easily imitated – is just that – style. The 12 bar blues is basically a formula – and, as cliché would have it, easily learned but rarely mastered. Black metal is surprisingly similar in that respect. Certain chord sequences, scales, methods (above all tremolo-picking on guitar and blastbeats on drums) mean that any technically-able musician can learn the rudiments of black metal playing ( for instance, and - see?).

Genre clichés a-go-go. No criticism intended, I love these clichés.
And yet, although to all intents and purposes, the latest album by “Funeral Blizzard” (seriously, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to make up a generic black metal band name that isn’t already an actual black metal band) may be a carbon-copy of one of the all-time classic black metal albums (or even more likely, a really strong 2nd division album like Incipit Satan or Panzer Division Marduk), the difference is as immediately obvious as that between Blues Hammer’s  classic Picking Cotton Blues (from Ghost World - and any song by Charlie Patton. ‘Authenticity’ is a troublesome term, but it feels like the difference between authenticity and pastiche, truth and fakery, substance and style.

And speaking of style; the corpsepaint worn by the ‘false’ black metal horde in comparison with their ‘true’ progenitors is only slightly more contrived than the self-conscious ‘bluesman’ trappings of John Lee Hooker in his wealthy successful heyday compared to a pioneer like Blind Willie McTell, whose clothes were probably the best he could afford and were pretty much in the mainstream fashion of the day. At some point the image of genre cornerstones becomes a kind of uniform embodying the values (and 'authenticity') of the founding fathers/mothers of the genre; it's an easy identifier for audiences but if anything it puts more pressure on the performer to produce something worthwhile - a young man in a 'bluesman' outfit (or spikes and corpsepaint) sets up an expectation, good or bad. They need to not suck or they will automatically be twice as bad as the bad performer with no readymade image.

Which is not to say there is only one ‘authentic’ style: in the 20s alone, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton worked alone, while artists like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith sang with pianists, jazz bands and orchestras, later artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf spanned many styles over the course of their long careers, while Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and BB King could barely be more different from each other, but all are true blues legends. Similarly, Venom and Bathory were as different as they were similar; Mayhem, Darkthrone and Emperor have only the most superficial similarities while being key bands in the genre, solo acts like Xasthur and Striborg have carved their own niches, while bands as diverse as Immortal, Gorgoroth and even the sometimes-maligned Dimmu Borgir all have the feel of true black metal running through the grooves of (most of) their very different records.

None of this is to say that fake black metal or fake blues records can’t be enjoyable for what they are. If what you want is to hear songs, in a style you already like, about worshipping goats or people being deserted by their partners then the pastiche will be fine.
                                             "Blues Hammer"

Originality in music is – rightly – valued. Without innovation music devolves into a kind of lifeless muzak; but at the same time, if the bones, the basic skeleton is strong enough – as it clearly in the blues, and as I think it is in black metal – it can serve as the framework for endless variations and repetitions without losing its validity and vitality as a form.

And Carpathian Forest are the fundamental, elemental, eternally valid John Lee Hooker of black metal.




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