Black Weddingby Aliza Shvarts
Metal is an overwhelmingly white and heteromasculinist subculture. Yet as such, it offers something useful to a prurient queer feminist interest. Let me be clear: there are a lot of different people who make metal and different people who listen to it. But what interests me more than metal’s arguable diversity is the way it creates a rich aesthetic world from the discourses of degradation, brutality, degeneracy, and wayward flesh that have historically disciplined racial and sexual difference. To put it more simply: metal is a relevant site to dark radical queers and feminists precisely because it is usually not for us but about us. Its corporeal excess, occult allegiances, and bestial imaginary were first ours—marks assigned to the dark queer effeminate deviations from the universal subject’s cohesive form. I listen to metal from behind, from the shadows of a stowaway’s hideout, a parasitical perspective. And I like metal because I recognize myself as its material substrate.
Take, for example, the drone metal band Sunn O)))’s song “Black Wedding (Lament For A Nordic Vision Buried by Time and Dust).” An early composition from their first recorded album, GrimmRobe Demos (1998), it’s just over 19-minutes long and consists almost entirely of low guitar and bass notes. Slow, heavy, and long, the song becomes intense through its duration. Lacking metal’s characteristic hard fast rhythms, it makes metal of soft extremity. The way the elongated tail of each held note blends into a new one feels cyclical, exhausting, doomed. The song is elegiac not just in its title but in its general tonality, making audible the circular temporality of mourning. Every now and then, you can hear higher fleeting electronic sounds, which are like brief interludes of individual interest against the unending background sound of something being lost. You can also hear the sound of wind—the enormity of time itself.1
While Sunn O))) is usually discussed in relation to another drone metal band, Earth, by whom they were deeply influenced, the title of “Black Wedding” suggests that they also have a more unlikely bedfellow: Norwegian black metal. An extreme sub-genre that emerged in Oslo in the early 1990s, black metal is characterized by rapid rhythms, shrieking vocals, distinctive “corpse paint” make-up, and harsh (sometimes blood-letting) performances. Often called “satanic metal” in the press, the early scene was associated in Norway with numerous church burnings and several murders.2 Sunn O))) has acknowledged their indebtedness to black metal in multiple interviews, including one for the black metal fanzine Slayer.3 Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley even used to make a black metal fanzine himself.4 Though most of their work sounds nothing like black metal, their fifth album Black One (2005) uses clear black metal tremolos and features singer Malefic from black metal band Xasthur. Moreover, Atilla Csihar, vocalist for the black metal band Mayhem, is a frequent collaborator. For these reasons, I understand “Black Wedding” as an announcement of an underlying consanguinity. The first song on the first album, it is a promise of what is to come: of the musical innovations that Sunn O))) will later become so well known for in both metal and avant-garde music circles. It is, as the title tells us, a wedding: a promise that forges a relation, an act that conjures a familial bond in order to imagine a future.
A wedding is a very specific type of act in our Western context. As speech act theorist J.L. Austin famously asserted, a wedding is a performative instance par excellance, as the marriage vow “I do” is a powerful example of when saying something is literally to do it.5 As queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick later elaborated, the wedding scene and the contractual consent of the marriage vow are historically conditioned by structural formations of power: by heterosexuality (or as we might now further specify in the age of gay marriage, a hetero- and homo-normativity premised on the nuclear family unit that is the reproducing agent of good citizenship as recognized by the State) and the noncontractual and nonconsensual legacy of chattel slavery against which contracts and consent between emancipated citizen-subjects can take shape.6 Yet listen to the song as a wedding, and otherwise unasked questions form: What does its soundscape bring together? What lineage does its unique droning composition recall? To my ear, it is clear that “Black Wedding” calls on the historical structures of power that are its condition of possibility. It sounds the genealogical formations and reproductive labors that suture the rights of subjecthood to the inheritance of citizenship and property.7 Like the low cyclical guitar sounds, these reproductive relations are immersive, miasmatic, perpetuating, and unending, imagined as an endless ecological resource. They are not remunerated as work, but vitally prepare a capacity to work—maintaining the body, the labor force, the system of commodity production and property itself.8
The horror of this reproductive labor—of its formation through primitive accumulation, colonial expropriation, and dispossession—has always been the subject of black metal, as imagined from the subject position of the white European. The “satanic” elements of black metal—its anti-Christianity, demon-worship, and occult iconography—are a form of anti-coloniality; after all, buried beneath the nihilism and will to destruction is an imagination of and longing for a lost Pagan past. Without a doubt, a lot of black metal is misogynist, racist, homophobic, and has in the past decades become more and more aligned with fascistic right-wing movements; yet these virulent outgrowths might be better understood as symptomatic of black metal’s traumatic attachment to historical wounds that continue to fester. Black metal makes putrescent what mainstream culture has sanitized. It unearths the bodies buried by enlightened rational thought. This exhumation is quite literal insofar as black metal’s occult imagery invokes narratives of witchcraft forged in the mass gynocides following the Protestant Reformation. In the 16th century, a witch was a woman who exerted intention and control over her reproductive capacity, which posed a threat to social reproduction at large. A midwife, spinster, or abortionist. And with the European imperialist expansion of the 16th – 20th centuries, witchcraft became a cipher for race, comingling ideas of darkness, blackness, femaleness, and beastliness, creating a specter of the occult served to legitimate enslavement and domestic servitude.9 To this end, black metal’s demon-worship is a necromancy that revivifies the horror of very real historical crimes too-often forgotten.
Despite the recent theoretical attention, scholars have thus far overlooked precisely what is “black” about black metal. Media theorists such as Eugene Thacker have turned to black metal as a provocation for philosophy, using it to think through broader questions about being and nothingness, meaning and its negation.10 Importantly, for these scholars, blackness is absence, void. And it is in relation to this point that Sunn O)))’s sonically saturated “Black Wedding” sounds what the theorists cannot think to say. Blackness—even as abstraction—is not nothing but something. The idea of blackness cannot be separated from blackness as a historically lived position.11 The armed conflict and enslavement that enabled trans-Atlantic and eventually global trade produced two types of life: one that could legally own and inherit property, and the other that was reproduced as property able to be owned. The chromatic abstraction of blackness as nothing correlates to the historical production of whiteness as the legal prerogative to own something. Black metal is not merely an aesthetic premised on negation, on the annihilation of the human subject, but is more specifically, a revolt against the humanism forged in the crucible of colonial conquest that selectively produced bodies as subjects under the law. Black metal can thus be useful for philosophical and political inquiry precisely because it is a hysterical and reactionary recognition of the normalized racism and misogyny upon which the West’s cultural hegemony depends—useful not so much for its primary producers and consumers, but for an umbral audience.
In Sunn O))) I hear amplified this lineage, this project, this use. As a performative coupling between two metal practices, “Black Wedding” distills the extreme propositions of black metal into an extended sonic drone. Music critics have long pointed out that metal bears a relation to the sound of industry: the cacophony of the machine, the clamor of the factory, the noisy labor of waged work. And while Black metal explores the roots of this sonic economy—the originary thefts that made industrialization possible—bands such as Sunn O))) shift metal’s focus to the murmur of reproductive and affective work which has always enabled productive industry and has come to new prominence in service economies. It is in this connection to black metal, this connection to the extremity and extension of reproductive labor—its magic, horror, and drone—that “Black Wedding” sounds questions of feminism that we struggle to ask in more mainstreamed conversations. It is not only that feminism as a practical politics need be inclusive; it is not that feminism needs to be less white, less straight; it is that there can be no straight white feminism. As a radical philosophy, feminism can be nothing else than a critique of that able-bodied, legally-endowed subject against which blackness, queerness, femininity, deviancy, and debility have been historically defined. These might be big claims to make in relation to metal, but they are not for metal: they are about us. And what I am suggesting is that when we listen, we can hear clearly our common material stake.
- For more of my writing on Sunn O))), see “Troubled Air: The Drone and Doom of Reproduction in Sunn O)))’s Metal Maieutic” in Women & Performance, 24:2 (January 2015).
- For more a more in-depth history of black metal, see Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s comprehensive though controversial Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 1998).
- See Slayer XX: BLOOD FIRE DEATH (2010).
- See Descent (1994-1999).
- J.L.Austin, How to Do Things With Words, ed. J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,  1975).
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
- For a more on the relationship between marriage, sexual assault, property, and enslavement, see Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
- For more on reproductive labor in relation to a labor theory of value, see Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, trans. Hillary Creek, ed. Jim Fleming (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia: 1995).
- For more on the witchcraft and reproductive labor in the context of Western European gynocide and colonial encounter, see Silvia Federici’s excellent Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia 2004).
- See Eugene Thacker’s “Occultural Studies 1.0: Black Metal” in Mute Magazine (metamute.org, 2010). See also Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium 1, ed. Nicola Masciandaro (CreativeSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010).
- See Fred Moten’s “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism, 20:2 (Spring 2008).
ALIZA SHVARTS is an artist and scholar, finishing her PhD in Performance Studies at New York University, and is currently on the editorial board of Women & Performance, a journal of feminist theory.