Kevin Hoffin - Decay as a Black Metal Symbol

Decay as a Black Metal Symbol News Image 350x263 - Black Metal group on stage

Criminology Lecturer Kevin Hoffin offers a small insight into his research into Black Metal Theory, this time exploring the theme of "decay" as a symbol of the music movement.

A life in the black metal subculture is one of symbols. Heavily reliant on symbolism in every aspect. From the music itself which can arguably be derided as noise, while concealing hidden chambers of depth that fold over on top of themselves; saturating the sonic terrorism with meaning that revels in its own confusion, to the rituals and tropes that bleed from within the audio into the lives of the members, their performance and their collective identities.

A theme that constantly appears within the subculture is that of decay. The article ‘Decay as a black metal symbol’ (Hoffin, 2018) attempts to dissect the twisted metaphors that choke the genre; offering explanation and portraying the rationale in their placement and construction.  My research, as a whole ,aims to fill the aetiological (the study of cause) gap between the study of the black metal subcultural experience by writers such Kahn-Harris (2007) and the oeuvre of ‘Black Metal Theory’ exemplified in the works of Masciandaro (2010) and Wilson (2014). Black Metal Theory being the philosophical body of work that studies black metal as a genre. Thus placing the semiotics (the study of symbols) of the culture front and centre.

Decay is said to appear in three forms: physical decay, that is to say, descriptions of decay as we understand it literally; societal decay, where the breakdown of society becomes the central focal point and ‘effectual decay’, weaponised atrophy that the artist wields, willing it onto those they stand in opposition to.  Through these three (or a combination of) black metal artists push forward their misanthropic narrative. A profoundly negative genre, it has become notorious due to the associated deviant acts principally committed in Norway throughout the 1990s (murders, suicides, church burnings), although in truth, such black metal transgressions are beyond-rare today- the genre is still stuck in the shadows of atrocities from over twenty years ago. Black metal artists create a musical gateway into the darkest depths, with consistent sickening references to the abyss, death and evil, one that is clouded by thick impenetrable fog. Guitars are used to tear holes in the atmosphere, drums pound in patterns known as ‘blast beats’ due to their incredible speed, and vocals scream incomprehensively. Whereas the majority of popular music, instruments work in tandem to produce hooks and recognisable patterns; here, this can be wholly absent. The soundscape resembles war, violence death and atrophy.

The symbolic presence of decay hangs over the cacophony; references to rotting, biomass being consumed exponentially (Hoffin, 2018: 93), furnishes the scene with extremes. Due to the relative niche appeal of this music leading to a lack of  commercial availability; originally, self-recorded tapes were traded overseas by fans and artists through fan-created ‘zines (Kristiansen, 2011). The bands themselves recorded their music in the cheapest methods possible, as studio support for this filth was unforthcoming. It was not uncommon for young artists to ‘dial’ a high-pitched buzzing tone into an amp, producing a sound verging on collapse and self-destruction, and record in their rehearsal room on a cassette player. The resulting music was messy and would degenerate with each subsequent cloning of the tape; alongside the photocopied hand-drawn covers. This particular example of decay gives rise to an interesting perspective, the ‘goal’ of decay in black metal is to fully consume the recording in confusion; thus after each generation of tape is made, the sound quality atrophies further, implying that black metal continues to strive towards completion long after the music itself is originally committed to tape. This is exponential reduction, charging towards becoming whole (Hoffin 2018: 84).

As in the above example, the reach of decay in black metal is far more than a lyrical phenomenon; it is encapsulated in every corner of the subculture. This is an incredibly interesting feature of the genre, here, the both the content AND the medium are the message. An analysis of any single factor is doomed to fail, the music must be addressed holistically for effective results, hence why analysis here is rendered more difficult that similar exploits towards other genres. Variants of black metal, for instance, the ecologically-minded ‘Cascadian Black Metal’ moves its focus away from a failing human society and gazes towards nature. In this iteration, decay takes on a new perspective. A decay shrouded in a twisted version of positivity. In ‘I will lay down my bones among the rocks and the roots’, the performers: Wolves in the Throne Room produce the following.

I will lay down my bones among the rocks and the roots of the deepest

hollow next to the streambed

The quiet hum of the earth’s dreaming is my new song

When I awake, the world will be born anew.

Here we see decay as a process towards the continuousness of life. Continuous life which has been denied humanity, as we exist outside the lifecycle of the Earth; the quiet hum of the earth’s dreaming. Humans are effectively discontinuous is that death is our end. For the Weaver brothers who make up Wolves…, they feel that by returning to nature; burying their remains in dense forest, they can transgress that line separating us from nature. The closing line reminds us of this continuousness and that in order to achieve it- nature and the ‘elan vital’ must be submitted to.

This research is just a part of a wider theme analysis of black metal as a genre and a culture. Other themes will be analysed in articles appearing in the near future. If the content of this blog has intrigued you, feel free to get in contact with me for further information and discussion. I welcome any contribution to this discourse. If the music itself sounds like it would be on interest to you, I would be happy to share some recommendations.

‘Decay as a black metal symbol’, is available in full in the latest issue of Metal Music Studies (4.1) published by Intellect Publications and distributed bt Turpin. To follow Kevin Hoffin on Twitter: @KHriminology. To contact him by email:  

The content above is the opinion of the author(s), and does not represent the views or opinions of Birmingham City University.

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