K-Punk on Black Metal Hauntologies

Any excuse to highlight some old K-Punk gems, especially in light of my recent Black Metal mood. I’m currently trying to put a Halloween mix together for the next episode of Xenogothic Radio and it is heavy.

The first two episodes of Xenogothic Radio have both spread out from Xasthur’s music, particularly the track “Prison of Mirror” from his 2006 album Subliminal Genocide — the one black metal album that I frequently listened to even prior to being really into black metal. Its atmosphere is second to none.

I had no idea Mark had written on or spent any time listening to metal but I guess his Goth sensibilities must have meant he dipped his toe on at least a few occasions and so imagine my glee and excitement when, on a K-Punk dive, I find a bunch of posts talking specifically about Xasthur alongside Burial, somewhat vindicating the tangents that Xenogothic Radio #2 took from black metal to hip hop and dub.

Mark begins by riffing on Xasthur, following a string of (now dead) posts from Dominic Fox — Dominic, if you ever see this, are these posts resurrectable? — and one by Documents. As is customary of these sorts of blogosphere discussions, the map become a labyrinth but I want to try and chart this discussion as best I can because it’s one that I think I might pick up in a future radio show.

Following a ‘Best Of’ breakdown of metal albums from 2006 on Phil Freeman’s Running The Voodoo Down blog — in which Xasthur’s Subliminal Genocide prompts the comment: “Xasthur is pretty much metal’s own Burial; if you want hauntology, check out his cryptic wailing” — Documents asks:

Does Freeman misread ‘hauntology’ as spookiness? As K-Punk writes: “Hauntology isn’t about hoky atmospherics or ‘spookiness’…”. The fact that Xasthur’s wailing can make your hairs stand on end, does not make his music hauntological.

On Dissensus, ‘ hauntology’ is described as a concept that “… is deployed towards a music that employs certain strategies of disinternment — a disinternment of styles, sounds, even techniques and modes of production now abandoned, forgotten or erased by history”. “Yet,” writes K-Punk, “…in sonic hauntology, disinterment goes alongside internment, the deliberate burial of signal behind noise”. Hauntological music is music in which surface noise is foregrounded instead of repressed: “There is no attempt to smooth away the textural discrepancy between the crackly sample and the rest of the recording”.

Can these concepts be applied succesfully to Xasthur’s music?

Certainly, the unusual sound of Xasthur’s music foregrounds it’s technological production, foregrounds ‘layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise’. As the Aquarius Records review of his Subliminal Genocide writes on Xasthur’s debut album Nocturnal Poisoning: “… the sound was murky and muddy and fuzzy, but above it, were delicate melodies, dreamlike minor key filigree over a bottomless black pit. (…) You could see the texture of the canvas and the individual brushstrokes beneath the art”.

In foregrounding technological production, Xasthur’s music is not very different from much of Black Metal, a genre whose deliberate low-quality sound recording serves to introduce ” … the technical frame, the unheard material pre-condition of the recording, on the level of content” (to quote K-Punk again). Perhaps this is the third meaning of the lo-fi Black Metal production mode explored in the previous post.

On the blackened laments of Subliminal Genocide, the Aquarius Records review writes: “Taken out of a black metal context, they’d sound like some sort of super emotional epic post rock, but as they are, buried under thick layers of blackened buzz and wrapped in huge swaths of fuzzy sonic fog, they become even darker and more desolate, lonely and mournful”. Thus, Xasthur is both interment in noise and disinterment of the Postrock genre. Postrock, the disinterred style, sound, musical technique … Postrock, now abandoned, forgotten and erased by history … Postrock, a genre that died in its infancy … Postrock, already haunting us, like the red-cloaked child of Nicholas Roeg’s tale of haunted Venice, Don’t Look Now.

Mark responds:

Fascinating as Documents’ take on Xasthur-as-metal-hauntology is, I’m inclined to agree with Dominic that Xasthur are better described as “Doomgazer”. Xasthur are like Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine with all the oestrogen removed — nihilism as jouissance. As Dominic suggests, there is no temporal discrepancy in Xasthur. Xasthur may have “blackened buzz … wrapped in huge swaths of fuzzy sonic fog” but their textures aren’t slices of time, if only because time has ended in their run-down cosmos: “Black metal is relentlessly entropic, committed to a one-way temporality in which intensities run inexorably down to zero and stay there, forever”. It is like the fantasy of being present at your own funeral, but on a much grander, more epic, scale. “The state of mind suggested by Subliminal Genocide is one of trancelike contemplation of the ashes of the cosmos — the logical end-point of Xasthur’s misanthropic individualism.” Dominic argue that Xasthur’s “is a universe of perpetual suspension, in which resolution can never arrive” but it might almost be the reverse: a universe in which resolution has been finally achieved, and the tension that accompanies all vital processes — or rather, the tension that is all vital processes — has been extinguished. Death, but no death drive.

Mark picks up this thread again in two follow-up posts, seemingly prompted by now-buried blog comments.

In “Po-Faced Versus PoMo“, Mark starts by quoting a long comment from Alex Williams on Sunn O))) and hauntology:

Structurally the real black metal hauntologists/doom-gazers are Sunn0))), their last album (Black one) liberally quoting (but in almost unrecognizable, expanded forms) classic black metal riffs, their live show almost a crystallization of the ghost of metal (in its most evil/ceremonial forms and equally its camp ludicrousness)… but a metal reduced, boiled down, vaporised in some hellish longhair’s bong — a single gesture remaining, (a raised satanic salute, as a guitar chord drones on and on…) Whilst they have begun to quote from black metal (whose hallmark is tinny atmosphere, and in its modern non-fascist form depressive nihilism let us remember) the form remains distinctly that of doom metal (hallmark: massive tritone drone) but again a doom metal divested of its “rockingness” (i.e. — rhythm and blues, percussion, climax) and purified into a form which has almost nothing to do with metal at all, for all its signifiers and quotations… but at the same time, whilst in some respects it works in a similar fashion to Burial, the analogy fails because even as it is a sonic ghost-image of metal, (nothing but reverberating amp hum and ritualistic imagery remains) it is not an elegy (is an elegy even possible in the culture of metal — the genre itself kept in eternal forward aesthetic motion so nothing to mourn, alive, yet death/doom fixated — indeed revelling in jouissance, as you say, at the terminal?)

To which Mark adds:

In that case, Black Metal could be lined up more with what we might call the “mainstream” of Dubstep (with which Burial has very little in common). Dubstep’s relationship to jungle doubles Sunn0))’s relationship to Metal. Like Sunn0))), Dubstep has produced a non-elegiac “ghost-image” of its source-inspiration (which in the case of Dubstep is Jungle). At one level, Dubstep and Sunn0))) could be heard as a (literal) continuation of their inspirations: a sound constructed entirely out of a distending of the after-effects, the traces (echoes, reverberations) of a departed sonic body.

What Metal and Dubstep (and Noise, for the matter) have in common is a philosophy, a metaphysics. At one step back, what they share is a commitment to the idea that music should come out of a philosophy. What is absolutely refused is the hegemonic Indie-endorsed ratification of commonsense, with its — usually implicit — insistence on the smallness of music, its ultimate irrelevance. Irony is repudiated. Music is not ‘just music’. It to be taken extremely seriously, even at the risk of seeming absurd. It is perhaps the absence of any fear of ridicule that is most to be treasured in (Doom and Black) Metal. Xasthur’s nihilism, which bleeds out through all their titles (“Arcane and Misanthropic Projection”, “Through A Trance Of Despondency”) is unrelenting, unrelieved by any raised eyebrows, while Sunn0)))’s return to costume and performance in the most po-faced, ritualistic sense are a repudiation of the dressed-down Indie assertion of an continuity between everyday life and the stage.

Later, in “Ecclesiastical Nihilism“, Mark goes deeper into Sunn O)))’s on-stage practices, first quoting, at length, another comment from one of his readers, Matthew Jones. Jones writes:

Two points on Alex’s recent thoughts:

1) As he quite rightly points out, sonically Sunn-O are removed from much of metal, but he should also have noted the affect it has on the listener in an emotional/spiritual sense, particularly when experienced live. The ceremonial nature of their performance is actually, unlike the relentless grind of every other doom metal act (e.g Khanate, recent Celtic Frost material) that I’ve ever heard, an uplifting and joyous experience; a total embracing of the darkness they (largely wordlessly) articulate, without the aggression and violence that characterises their peers.

In many ways, Sunn-O’s closet relatives are not within metal, but in spiritual/religious music, such as qawili. Compare and contrast Sunn-O with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; lengthy pieces of music (where something clocking in at about 10 minutes could be considered brief), which cycle through seemingly endless repetitions, leaving the listener either in a total tranced-out state or sending them into a state of pure rapture (if you ever see Sunn-O live, take a few moments to cast yr eye around the audience and you’ll see what I mean.) In the case of Nusrat, he frequently dispensed with actual words and uses a series of vocal sounds that in many ways express the intense religious love/ecstasy far better than words ever could (even if one does understand Urdu); Sunn-O’s vocals, when they are present, are so ridiculously distorted and echo-plexed that even when they sound like words you couldn’t possibly make out more than the briefest of snippets (and like Nusrat, would probably weaken the effect). Both artists share the ability to command yr attention without leaving you the actual choice of where to direct it; yr drawn in to their world inexorably; compare that to other doom metallers, where unless you are really on it trying to pay attention becomes something of a chore fairly quickly.

Sunn-O’s sound, and fundamentally their philosophy, is one of ecclesiastical nihilism. It goes deeper than “revelling in the jouissance of the terminal” (the words ‘revel’ and ‘jouissance’ themselves suggest a level of indulgence and frivolity absent in their sound), but to some sort of religious ecstasy induced through distortion and sub bass. And it is PURE, in a way their peers could never hope to be. Anderson and O’Malley don’t refer to their live shows as “sub-sonic rituals” and didn’t call the last tour “autumnal bass communion” for nothing.

2) On the subject of Burial, it surprises me that no one has linked his post-rave south London with Joy Division’s Manchester as etched out in Unknown Pleasures, [k-punk interjection. They have — Jon Wozencroft was also very quick to insist on the parallel…] which to my ears sounds like it should immediately be added to the hauntological canon (if such a thing really exists).

Sonic superficiliaties such as minimalism, echoes and found sounds in the mix? Check. A sense of mourning infusing both records? Check (“Me and him, we’re from different, ancient tribes, now… we’re both almost extinct… dreams don’t rise up they descend / but I remember / when we were young.”). Temporal disturbances? Check. (Joy Division and Hanett’s gutting+spectralising of rock* tunes, e.g war pigs, maps almost perfectly onto Burial’s faded 2-step beats and rave synths. Not to mention Wilderness’ “I travelled far and wide through many different times” line, which in many ways strikes me now as [Unknown Pleasures]’s key lyric; the isolation and despair expressed by Ian Curtis stemming from knowing that which others do not remember and cannot know).

Both records create seemingly accurate yet entirely mythical representations of the areas most closely associated with the two artists; a kind of map to orientate yrself with if you’ve no previous knowledge of the area, which you’ll find shows landmarks that no longer exist upon arrival; just rubble, boarded up windows and flyers from over a decade ago peeling of the walls. Also, they are both associated with scenes (post-punk and dubstep) that they both still seem so far removed from; even the core proto goth groups like The Cure and The Banshees don’t really fit neatly with JD; whereas they sound tortured but alive, JD and in particular Ian Curtis (as you’ve noted before) already sound dead, and Burial clearly operates in a different space to his dubstep peers, as previously discussed by pretty much everyone who has voiced an opinion on the subject. Perhaps the strongest link between JD and Burial is this sense of being alone, falling through the little gaps and cracks in time into a place where they’ve always been and always will be, totally separate from their contemporaries and their successors (I imagine that like Joy Division no one will be able to go anywhere near Burial’s musical terrain, both sounding like the aural equivalent of those little time capsule things with artifacts of today’s world that get buried for school projects and such like; despite being reflections on the past, they’ve also exhausted the final alternatives for their particular musical format).

* Kevin Shields described MBV’s sound as rock minus its guts, “the remnants”. Whilst I’ve never been convinced about this as a description of MBV, I can’t imagine a better description of JD exists.

Mark adds:

Matthew’s remarks serve as the perfect riposte to Simon’s scepticism as to whether “Sunn O))) have really escaped the irony/standing-slightly-outside-what-they-do syndrome”. When I saw Sunn O))) last year, there was absolutely no sense of irony, and much of the crowd was, as Matthew says, enraptured, entranced. Of course, I found it difficult to fully submit to the group, to take them at (po)face value, but I had to recognize that this was my problem, my sceptical ‘good sense’ insisting that “surely they cannot be serious…” Any ceremony looks ridiculous to those not properly initiated (which is why I’ve always thought that snorting about the absurdity and silliness of the ritual sex scenes in Eyes Wide Shut entirely missed the point). (It could be that Sunn O))) are like Laibach, and that the irony consists precisely in their very straight-faced identification with their role…)

I find Simon’s comparisons of Sunn O))) with KLF and intelligent drum and bass unconvincing. Surely grinning ape japesters and arch-scamsters KLF were PoMo incarnate, PoMo in excelsis in fact, and their robe-wearing was nothing else but an empty citation rather a serious attempt to be the impersonal focus of a ritual. The supposed “intelligence” of intelligent drum and bass, meanwhile, was achieved by downplaying rave’s “silliness”; Sunn O))), by contrast, amp up metal’s absurdities. It is as if they want to produce a sound that will finally match the ridiculous excesses of metal’s rhetoric and imagery. And whereas intelligent drum and bass suppressed jungle’s impersonal intensities by introducing tasteful Weather Report-ish musical affectations, Sunn O))) move in exactly the opposite direction, subtracting metal’s residual rock and roll dynamics and sonic pallette in favour of an exploration of forbiddingly featureless anti-climactic drone-plateaus. (That is why the comparison with Loop does strike a chord; when I first heard Sunn O))), the reference point I reached for was Loop.)

Another parallel with Dubstep springs to mind at this point. Both are about the significance of the minimal difference. Sunn O)))’s portentous repetitions slow down your nervous system so that a single chord change becomes a moment of enormous drama. (In this respect, they couldn’t be further from Trad Metal, which aims to vacuum pack as much baroque detail into every second of sound.)

The devotional aspect of Sunn O)))’s sound raises interesting questions. Like Dubstep, Sunn O))) live are lullling, enwombing, rather than oppressive. (Almost the reverse of MBV who, could reputedly be a violent and visceral live.) But then again, Xasthur are curiously calming, too, if you play them at an ambient volume. (The lack of tension-release, the swampy viscosity, make Xasthur excellent background music, really good to work to.) Which poses the question: how much of Xasthur’s nihilism comes from the sound, and how much from the words – or more precisely (since the lyrics are all but inaudible), the titles?

Nothing to add here — just disinterning a 10+ year old conversation from the blogosphere for posterity — but this will no doubt be something to refer back to in future.


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