In my previous post I wrote a speculative manifesto of sorts pining for a way out of our presently debilitating puritan-inflected culture wars and towards something new that drew more on a much neglected pre-christian, indigenous, and ecological cultural heritage of the the North American Continent. This was a plea to start something that has barely begun-if at all. A statement of future intent that is ambitious merely because of the many odds and long time scales of needed events it would need to even become viable as an underground movement.
But upon further review of this seemingly impossible but highly needed direction of cultural dialogue I did realize there is one field where the culture is already moving in this direction: Atmospheric Black Metal. And, surprisingly considering the majority of metal output in my lifetime, its core region seems to be North America. In particular the Cascadian region of the Pacific Northwest and the Applachians.
I am somewhat atypical to the story of how people get into heavy metal. For most it enters their life in the early teens and then captures their primary interests from them onwards or until they ‘grow out of it’. Often, as they age they like it a bit less and stop experimenting with new stuff. My appreciation, on the other hand, has only grown with time.
I liked heavier forms of music than average, but my teens were largely taken up by hip hop and the weirder side of alternative rock as well as (like now, still) 80s music. This was the late 90s and early oughts and metal was at its lowest point ever (as was popular culture in general imo). Both in exposure and in terms of quality, it was not a genre that was interesting in that time. Whatever I heard then turned me off and I gave little thought to it beyond that.
In college everything changed. I knew I needed more new music and the internet was finally becoming fast enough that you could really search on there with keywords and without any prior knowledge about the specifics of what you were trying to find. I had already slipped into the classics such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden by this point, but I wanted more, harder and weirder. This was around the time Lordi was making headlines for unexpectedly winning Eurovision, and that started me out looking more and more at Europe and away from my own culturally metal deficient country. It was the right call to make. Starting with Fintroll and expanding outwards I found a plethora of unique original and genre busting bands that took the best lessons of Norwegian black metal and left most of the cringier aspects behind for new and experimental places involving folkish paganism and historical eras. Right after this time I moved to UK (not a music related move) and got really into the thick of it. This coincided with some of the best releases for the new bands I liked across Scandinavia , Russia, Mongolia and the like. It also happened that right when I was living in Scotland I came across the truly exceptional Scottish band Saor that combined the hard hitting intensity of black metal, the traditional instruments of folk metal, and the atmosphere of post-rock and experimental bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Saor instantly clicked for me as that right combination I didn’t know I needed but had unintentionally been searching for all along.
It was at this same time that my general interests were combining to make me extremely receptive to Agalloch-a band that had been around since the late 90s but only started to leak into my life halfway through my time in the UK. The thing was-and at the time this was freakish to me-Agalloch was an American band. Indeed, a common thing heard when I introduced them to my friends in Scotland was ‘this doesn’t sound like an American band at all.’ Of course, it didn’t really sound like any European bands either.
It usually takes awhile for a new band I like to climb the latter of my musical hierarchy. But somehow, Agalloch shot up to about 2nd place band for me within about a month or two of discovery. I had a large-windowed city-center adjacent apartment in Edinburgh that I loved cooking and hosting people for whisky tasting sessions and it just seemed the perfect soundtrack for that. At this time I was also giving painting a go and nothing worked quite like Agalloch while I worked the canvas by the window with the inevitable Scottish rain just outside. No band I ever heard quite captured the moody numinous atmosphere of primeval forests and fog shrouded mountains, or sleeping gods just below the surface. Eventually, towards the end of my time in the UK, I moved towards giving music made in America another chance.
At first, it seemed like Agalloch was the outlier. But it was also an inspiration. While I broadened my horizons to all the cool new things happening with contemporary bluegrass music back in the states, it seemed that many new bands were coming online in Agalloch’s wake. Gradually, and a bit late to the party, I started discovering them. Right on time too, as it turned out Agalloch would end up breaking up a few years later.
Panopticon was my first big discovery. A Kentucky-based project with a variety of themed albums, a bluegrass tinge, and a focus on left wing environmentalism and labor activism (particularly in the Appalachian coal mining industry-the entire album Kentucky is about this). This was followed soon after by finding Appalachian Winter, another one man project of love, but this time from the mountain country of my own home state of Pennsylvania. At this point my particular historical interests led me to wonder if such a similar band existed but with Native American themes, and shortly thereafter I found Nechochwen, whose music I have posted in this blog at least once before if not more. Rounding out this select list of more recent discoveries is Alda, a band that seems to be flying under most people’s radar which quite possibly has already reached the point of being my second favorite band after Agalloch.
These and many other related bands are not all the same by any means. Still, there are certain soundscapes that are held in common, even with the clusters of bands tending towards regions almost on the opposite sides of the continent from each other. The dominance of forest and mountains in the lyrical composition, the sounds of wind in musical interludes, and the distant thrum of large groups of animals be it wolves, tree frogs, or flocks of birds comes through in many albums. The sky as a thematic topic comes up almost as much as it does in Mongolian music (contemporary or otherwise) and rivers seem a much larger focus than they would be in comparable European bands. The big and often still wild nature of North America is a perfect match for atmospheric black metal. It becomes almost shocking in retrospect that it took this long such a subgenre to take off here. And looming over all of it is the precarious danger of loss-that in our unregulated hyper-capitalist society all of this natural splendor and musical muse just a few steps away from being turned into a sterile clear cut with poisoned rivers.
The good black metal bands, and many of the good folk metal bands for that matter, and for the first time in history, seem to have migrated west. To the point that when I listen to Saor (still one of my top favorites today) I now say the inverse about what I used to about Agalloch when I was in Scotland, ‘Can you believe this band isn’t American? This is a state of affairs that would have been unimaginable a decade or more ago.
So, while the greater cultural project I would like to work on in North American discourse couldn’t be further from being relevant yet, and will probably require decades of work to even become a subculture, there is one field where this is already happening and it is growing. Atmospheric Black Metal is now entering a North American renaissance, and in so doing it is giving us a sound and aesthetic for seeing past our present quagmire of puritan culture war and decaying civil society.