Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Sex and Metal (NSFW)


"Passion is a poison laced with pleasure bitter sweet
One of many faces that hide deep beneath
It will take you in / It will spit you out
Behold the flesh and the power it holds
Touch, taste, breathe, consumed"







Death: "Flesh and the Power It Holds"

While doing some self-directed internet...research, I stumbled across a series of photos of pornstar Liz Vicious, posing with Ohio black metal band Dark Monarchy (now known as Strigoi VII). The above image is one of the more conservative from the gallery. What struck me wasn't so much the nudity itself, but how alien the idea of a seductive woman seems in the context of a bunch of dudes wearing corpsepaint and Marduk t-shirts. It got me thinking about how extreme metal deals with sex, hedonism and carnality. My conclusion: extreme metal is asexual.

Despite increasing numbers of women getting into metal as both band and audience members, extreme metal is still dominated by men. You'd think that such a boys club would engage sex from a male, hetero and hedonistic perspective. Certainly there was plenty of that in the straightforward hedonism of 80s glam metal (which has its own complicated relationship with gender and sex). But the picture isn't so clear when you move into death, black, grind and the more extreme end of the metal spectrum.

Check out the above picture, from the liner notes to Diadem of 12 Stars, the debut album by black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room. A naked woman in the forest stands in an idealized pose, surrounded by a ring of fire. She's not just an object of desire. She's a goddess, perhaps an incarnation of fertility, taking part in a pagan ritual. Witchcraft rites would often involve nudity and/or symbolic union with the divine, manifested as sexual intercourse. Aleister Crowley emphasized libido as the most potent force available to us humans, and many of the occult rites that he invented involved intercourse, masturbation or orgasm.

To the extent that many black metal bands invoke pre-Christian religions, one could say that black metal embraces sex and sexual desire as natural, important, and charged with power. At the same time, you don't find a lot of black metal bands that actually write songs about sex. Destruction and rebirth cycle throughout the black metal worldview, but black metal bands tend to dwell on the former, without addressing the human productivity necessary for the latter. In both musical and visual aesthetic, black metal literally masks the individual and shuns the social, and adopts a more "feminized" or "softer" approach than in-your-face death metal. Perhaps there isn't room for something as interpersonal as sex when your music largely critiques man's relationship with forces beyond himself (reality, the divine, etc.) or within himself (despair, hatred). In fact, I wonder if some of the nihilism in black metal stems from lack of love and sex. Is it going too far to say that the long-term preservation of black metal thrives on the sexual frustration of a generation of pimply teenagers?

"Show yourself unto me
Believe in what you know / Believe in what you can touch
Legs agape / Stretching slow
Show yourself unto me
The soft wet kisses / To the mouth of the vagina
Taste exquisite to me"







-Akercocke, "Axiom"

With the notable exception of Akercocke, who write about tits and Satan with equal gusto, death metal also has little to tell us about human sexuality. This despite what is arguably the most bluntly physical, thrusting musical style of any of metal's sub-genres (who hasn't gotten it on to Morbid Angel's "Where the Slime Live?"). Death metal feels more populist and socially-oriented than black metal -- there's more camaraderie, more opportunities for communal experiences like headbanging and moshing -- and this probably goes hand in hand with the lyrical concerns of death metal, which can run towards more worldly, less esoteric subjects than its black metal counterpart. War. Violence. Conformity. Political commentary. You'd think that sex could be one of those topics, but sex involves vulnerability, and there's not much of that in death metal; there's an aura of impenetrability to double-kick drumming, palm-muted guitars and monotone death growls.

Probably the most explicit (in both senses of the word) convergence of sex and metal comes with the graphic, violent lyrics of Cannibal Corpse and the entire pornogrind genre (see XXX Maniak, Cock and Ball Torture). I'd argue that their psychosexual diatribes aren't really about sex per se, rather about violating as many taboos as possible in one fell swoop. As a teenager, I would print out the lyrics to Tomb of the Mutilated to freak out my mom and impress my friends with my cutting edge depravity, not because I empathized with the narrator of "I Cum Blood." In the same way, I'd assume (hope?) that Cannibal Corpse never intended to offer serious commentary or air actual sexual fantasies. Their sickness was offered for its own sake.

Liz Vicious and Dark Monarchy in happier times

Maybe there's a much simpler explanation for my impression that extreme metal is asexual. Sex is great, and who wants to write a death metal song about something positive? Chuck Schuldiner got away with the didactic "Flesh and the Power It Holds" (see the top of this entry) because it's a critical, admonishing lyric. Imagine if he actually wrote "Flesh and How Much I Love It." On a Death album, that would stick out like a sore phallus.

The question keeps me up at night: who is gonna be turned on by a naked chick hanging out with an ugly-ass black metal band in corpsepaint? I get the light fetish angle, but this Liz Vicious shoot goes way beyond BDSM. Sexy and un-sexy nullify each other, amplified by a far-too-well-lit practice space, leaving the softcore viewer flaccid and confused. Thank Baphomet that Liz is the only naked one in the shoot.

So now it's your turn. Do you agree that metal is asexual? What are some other metal bands that deal with sex and sexuality in interesting ways?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

At least black metal winds up being less sexist, if it's asexual.

Lavinia Jones Wright said...

all my metalhead boyfriend ever wants to do is tie me up in an elaborate sacrificial scene we have set up in the basement, run around me in circles, then take me down so we can watch 30 rock. it's weird.

sore phallus was never so witty.

Andrew Childers said...

i can't think of a single metal band that's ever taken a serious approach to metal. we either get steve austin-style power trips ("i fucked your wife in the ass") or the deliberately demented (prosthetic cunt's "fucking your daughter with a frozen fuck stick").
i'm sure there's gotta be some frilly shirted, wine sipping doom band that's droned on about their romantic lives or lack thereof. but that's not really my area of expertise.
but now you've really got me thinking.

Ashley said...

Interesting you say that. I think black metal has more of an a-sexual tone, but I've always felt like metal is in general a huge glorification of masculinity (which is why I like it so much). The black metal guys tend to be pretty wafer-thin & pale, but any look at a Sodom cover or a thrash band in tight leather pants from the 80s is one big old appreciation of men and war. The documentary "A Metalhead's Journey" does a great job talking about this.

Helm said...

Interesting read.

The 'black metal is feminine/death metal is masculie' approach that is often repeated I find misses the mark. Your idea about (both black and death metal) pimply teenagers is much more on track.

Black (and to degrees romantic doom, death and other extremities) metal isn't feminine. It's not asexual either. It's frustrated. It's a reclusive teenage shut-in or a genre, though I say this with understanding and fondness because I too was a frustrated reclusive teenage shut-in and those years were some of the most creative in my life so far.

I remember reading this thread on one of those black metal flame-friendly forums and people were making fun of the Profanatica dude because apparently, he uses his music to get girls to have sex with him. There was much ridicule of the man for this (and other various allegedly disreputable acts) until some people stood up for him and said 'what's wrong with fucking chicks (and drinking beer), then?'. In that conversation the essence of what you're touching on was captured, especially when some 35 year old black metal enthusiast replied something to the effect (excuse the paraphrasing, I don't have the link to the conversation) "that sort of carnal debauchery has no place in black metal, it's only for music inspired by deep occult studies". Now, I'm sure that guy liked Samael

Oh! Bulged tummy women
Oh! Deformed body women
From your filthy womb
It's death to whom you give birth


or early My Dying Bride

Love is a game where both players cheat
Gone is the tale of Hero and Leander
Women are angels yet wedlock's the devil
To have and to hold but death no longer parts
Harlots and sluts, whores of our world
Expose their stinking vaginas


or whatever, and they do give off an occult vibe for sure that I also enjoy. But they're not occultists at all. They were introverted teenagers fascinated with the idea of a darker side of life that provides a meaning where distant fantasies of normalcy would not. Women were not an immediate reality for them, they were a symbol (and the only sexuality allowed in occult metal is of the symbolic kind, as seen in the above lyrical fragments).

Helm said...

In fact a lot of heavy metal isn't about sex directly because the people making it weren't getting any but it's very much about the frustrations of someone who isn't getting any. A lot of songs about death seem more about sex to me. Almost all of the brutal death metal that touches on the sexual just screams "frustration!!" to me.

Now that the various forms of HM are established, people that might not be as unsuccessful with the opposite sex as the teenagers that started the genres, they still carry the symbolist representation of women in extreme metal (like your Wolves In the Throne Room picture of example) because that's how this music has been experienced and that's what they want to keep it achieving. The propagation of the form is to glorify the early emotion one gets from this music, regardless how old they are now and if they have a family and kids or whatever. If you aren't exposed to extreme metal as a teenager, you will never understand this (this is why a lot of hipster-friendly black metal really is just abstract and doesn't indulge in any frustration... compare the naked scream of Burzum to the emotional nothing that is Wrath of the Weak)

There are very sexual extreme metal bands (a lot from Australia, I find!) and you'll notice that people that enjoy the more introverted stuff will react very harshly to it. Think of Jocks versus Nerds. When it comes to their Heavy Metal experience they both - understandably - revert to their teenage psyche. For some the artifacts of the process were listening to records alone in your bedroom after playing dungeons and dragons with your 3 only friends, while pushing away a misunderstanding and critical reality. What place do women (or in the case of women HM enthusiasts, men) have in this process? It's an ingressive journey that might have pathologic sides but it is also empowering in various ways. For others, their Heavy Metal experience links back to listening to Dokken blast out of their car, drinking beer in a parking lot and grabbing the asses of the girls that were waiting to go in for the show.

So yes, while black metal (and doom/death to a degree) appears to be a romantic form of art (in the art history sense of romantic, not 'I bring flowers for you my love') it is a strangely neutered ideal world that it's pursuing (Byron would disapprove!). This is one of the reasons that listeners of HM, when they feel compelled to self-define as 'grown-up' at some point, they have trouble with their long-lived musical taste because it reflects harshly on them on some shallow level. What does it tell about you when your favorite artists were a bunch of social losers? Rejects and nerds, unloved and generally unstable?

"At least black metal winds up being less sexist, if it's asexual" said Anyonymous. Most black metal is very afraid and biased and even hateful against the whole of 'reality', that includes symbolic representations of women. Harlots and sluts, whores of our world. I don't know if that's should make you feel any more comfortable than the Motley Crue-type objectification of women. The whole 'art that is sexist/not sexist' approach I find very politically correct and a troubling method to approach art. Let it be all it can and should be, horrible, hateful, despicable, let it also be human. You don't have to agree with it, you just have to understand it.

Etan said...

Thanks for your comments, Helm -- plenty of food for thought. I'm drawn to your idea of the symbolist approach to sexuality that underpins much metal and comes, necessarily, from sexual frustration. So I'm trying to unpack the jarringness of seeing that naked chick surrounded by dudes in corpsepaint. Obviously this was my own reaction, subject to my own sexual/metallic history. But if you had to hazard a guess, would you say that I'm reacting to the awkward setting of this particular round of sexual symbolism?

The portfolio probably would have felt different if it was presented in Dark Monarchy's CD booklet, rather than on a porn website. In the former, we'd know that we're meant to access the band's symbolic realm; in the latter, it's the pornstar involving the black metal band in her symbolic realm. Which probably becomes ours, if we're watching her.

By the way, "Anonymous," in this instance, is my dear mother. I love it that the line "Harlots and sluts, whores of our world" was directed at her :-)

Helm said...

It wasn't directed at your mother (hi from Greece, Etan's mother!), it as a reminder of how these 'not as chauvinist' musicians treat the subject in their art. I'm not of the opinion that women are whores of our world, or that we should expose their stinking vaginas, personally.

I think most of all you reacted as you did with that photoset (as I think I reacted as well) because the dudes look lame. If they looked into it at all you might have been more ok with it. Look at the dudes, they're barely holding her. The emotion I get from that image is 'uh, I don't really want to do this, dude... are you sure it's going to sell a few cds more?'. At least the Profanatica picture with the cocks hanging out is committed and brave (well, besides the dude that kept his undies on) and you can see it in their postures. These dudes are just what... hanging flaccidly with a pornstar?

It's awful because it just reminds us of our teenage impotence. When I see this picture I can't help but think of that picture of the fat black metal corpsepainted kid that sits in the highschool cafeteria and there's a wide circle of empty tables with him at the center. And I can't help but put myself in his place.