Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Satan Laughing Spreads His Wings

So long as we're talking music and medievalists, I want to point out an astonishing bit of music and medievalism by Brooklyn College's Nicola Masciandaro. Check this out: "Black Sabbath's 'Black Sabbath': A Gloss on Metal's Originary Song" and download the pdf if you have the courage to, um, face the darkness.

For those of you not in the know, Black Sabbath is, as Masciandaro points out, arguably the original metal band, and their 1970 song 'Black Sabbath' ("what is this that stands before me? / figure in black that looks at me / turn around quick and start to run / find out I'm the chosen one"), being the first song on their first, eponymous album (i.e., 'Black Sabbath' by Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath: it's not easy to come by such triplings) is the first metal song. The very beginning. Given that the most characteristic elements of metal derived from horror movies and the occult and the darker side of the 1960s "Frodo Lives" schmaltz (see this or pages 368-69 in A. S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman), which themselves derived from Gothic literature and fairy tales, which themselves derived from "The Wanderer" (why not?), there's always necessarily been a strong element of medievalism in metal. You've no doubt seen this parodied in Spinal Tap's Stonehenge number, but if you want your parody done sincerely, you just have to turn to Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" ("Misty morning, clouds in the sky / Without warning, the wizard walks by / Casting his shadow, weaving his spell / Funny clothes, tinkling bell") or, ages later, "Metal Church" ("Many, many years ago on a distant shore / Men did gather secretly beyond a hidden door / They travelled long and travelled far / Dark into the night / Yes, this is the place they've chosen / To build the Metal site" (NB: "Metal Church" by Metal Church on Metal Church) or, perhaps most astonishingly, brilliantly ridiculous, any of the work by Manowar, e.g., "The Triumph of Steel:
Lord of battle I pray on bended knee conquest by the rising sun
I'll wait for thy command with flame and blood at hand
glory and a broken sword.

I'm the master of the world I have no fear of man or beast
Born inside the soul of the world
Riding hard breaking bone with steel and stone
Eternal might I was born to wield.

Let us drink to the battles we've lived and we've fought
Celebrate the pain and havoc we have wrought
Great heroes charge into the fight
From the north to the south in the black of night

The clash of honor calls to stand when others fall
Gods of war feel the power of my sword
No more preliminaries. Masciandaro has given the Middle Ages back to metal with his gloss (no, I don't know what I mean by that: I just like the way it sounds). I've spent a few moments trying to determine what kind of gloss it is. It certainly doesn't feel like the Historia Scholastica. I suppose if I were pushed I'd say, reluctantly, inaccurately, the Glossa Ordinaria, with its sinuous, continual movement from verse to verse, punctuated only by auctoritates from other metal (generally Slayer, Metallica, and Bolt Thrower), from Augustine and Jean de Meun, from Meher Baba, and Agamben and Gadamer. I can't do it justice except by quoting. Here he is on the opening bells and the song's first three notes:
Thunder calls forth bells, nature art, answering the storm’s question by repeating it, setting off a reverberation through AC/DC, Metallica, and beyond. Medieval church bells drove off storms and the demons who stirred them. “And this is the cause why the bells be rung when it thundereth, and when great tempests and outrages of weather happen, to the end that the fiends and the evil spirits should be abashed and flee, and cease of the moving of tempests” (Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, LXX). Heavy Metal bells stir men to dance with summoned demons, to sacrifice the sacred and perfect the profane, to feast on the corpses of dead values and drink the dawning of the real. “Come Centaur / Those who prance to the Hymns of Truth / Come join us” (Morbid Angel, “Invocation of the Continual One,” Formulas Fatal to the Flesh). The peal of the origin touches the end of time. Ouroboros. The judgement of apocalypse invites the jubilation of apocatastasis! THREE NOTES: low, high, and the tertium quid. Verba, res, and significatio (“there am I in the midst of them” Matt 18:20). Earth, heaven, and what joins them. Lightning. Yggdrasil. Axis Mundi. Skambha. The Epic Monolith. You know it when you hear it.

On the moment when Ozzy's voice breaks with fear:
This conjunction of terrified apophatic speaking and psychic infant sacrifice produces, through a kind of logospasmic birth-pang, the real presence of the true I, the present-tense being that resolves and transcends the distinction between God and me. The horrible, the unimaginable, the impossible happens, keeps on happening, and I am there to see it, to speak it. Watching what cannot happen, what ends all happening, happen, awakens the one who sleeps on the other side of happening. “At the point you perceive the irreparability of the world, at that point it is transcendent” (Agamben, The Coming Community, 104). THE FINAL REPETITION of the tripartite riff consolidates the transcendence of this encounter. On the one hand it means that nothing has happened. We are burned alive and everything is as it was before. On the other hand, it means that everything has happened, that we have stepped into the reality of what has always already happened. What is this reality? Nothing!

One more, on the lines "Is this the end my friend / Satan's coming round the bend":
The “secret power” of Heavy Metal is that it transforms the inevitable, the essence of necessity (you must run or you will die), into an aesthetic necessity and so enacts power over it, in short, over death. A Metal band that does not deliver the inevitable, and consequently creates no panic, is impotent. The rhetorical equivalent of Heavy Metal acceleration is the historical present, the shift to present tense discourse, classically, within battle scenes in epic poetry. Acceleration is Metal’s musical tense, a sonic intensification that produces the presence of the present. Like the historical present, it not merely a matter of lending vividness or verisimilitude to a represented event. It is about reentering the presentness, the presence of happening, slaying the distinction between representation and represented so that it dies in the reality of the actual and only present, the now. This is a fulfillment of art’s promise of being, that “the work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there” (Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 35).

Extraordinary stuff. Can't wait to see the whole book.

Caveat: Now, if you know your metal from Kiss or Mötley Crüe or Judas Priest or glam whatever, know this: they're basically rock bands. We all know, at least by title, Hugh Magennis's " No Sex Please, We're Anglo-Saxons"? Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry': well, the same's true for metal. By and large, metal is the work of very serious men who will brook no sex unless it's sex with goats. To be fair, the aforementioned bands did produce some metal work (e.g., respectively, God of Thunder, Shout at the Devil, and Green Manalishi). But if the song you're hearing is primarily about the singer's sexual prowess or his inability to drive slowly rather than, say, the robotic uncanny or not sexy but scary vampires or loitering outside Jesus's tomb to kill him (again) when he resurrects (nb: "Deicide" by Deicide on Deicide) or the robotic uncanny in the era of transnational capitalism, then you're listening to hard rock, not metal. Now, this isn't to say that rock music isn't worth glossing: Adam Roberts really did a number on AC/DC.


Anonymous said...

I have been waiting and waiting for this blog to delve into heavy metal. J'adore. Now, we need to segue to hardcore rap and I'd be forever happy.

thanks, karl.

p.s. Peggy McCracken's book on blood has a lovely little riff on KISS in her introduction. Also, on the absurd sincerity of "histories" of rock: check out the table of contents in the wikipedia entry for "pantera."

Nicola Masciandaro said...

"Masciandaro has given the Middle Ages back to metal with his gloss (no, I don't know what I mean by that: I just like the way it sounds)"

Liking the way it sounds without knowing what is meant is very metal, more metal I think than giving metal back to the Middle Ages, which of course is being done, most rigorously by Rondellus whose "Sabbatum" may sampled at www.sabbatum.com. As the site explains: "“Sabbatum” takes You on a trip. It acts like a time machine. In a single moment You will find Yourself attending a Black Sabbath show during the 14th century. You will be in a medieval cathedral where time stands still. Just You and thousands of fellow kings and queens, knights and ladies."!

Karma said...

Fascinating! I almost laughed out loud when I was reading this instead of paying attention the reference librarian who was trying to get my students to understand boolean operators.

I find the "no sex, please, we're the Booming Voice of the Dawning of the Real" discussion provocative -- among the now retired-punks-and-goths I spent the eighties with, there was much discussion of the parody at work with a band called Type O Negative, whose lead singer went so far as to pose for Playgirl wearing eyeliner and lounging around on a bed of roses. This 'feminization' was fascinating from a band who had some of the Biggest, Growliest, Most Masculine Voices heard outside the Metal bar circuits. But you had to listen carefully to pick up on the joke.

I have to read this when I've survived this semester.

Buddy McCue said...

I've noticed that medieval music and heavy metal have this in common: the use of the parallel fifth.

The parallel fifth became the very thing to be avoided in classical music. Lessons in counterpoint, like you find in the the Gradus Ad Parnassum, are studies on how to avoid the direct motion to the perfect consonances, the octave and the fifth.

Before the development of modern harmony, people sung in organum. The power chords used in heavy metal use the same musical technique.