The Strange and Fruitful Relationship Between Literature and Metal

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Wolves in the Throne Room

Judging by the 4.7 rating it got from Pitchfork, Celestite — the latest album by the Olympia band Wolves in the Throne Room — is something of a disappointment, especially considering that Pitchfork’s own Brandon Stosuy considered the band’s last album one of the best of 2011. The band has been critically lauded for a few years now, even going beyond the music blogosphere, getting attention from Sasha Frere-Jones in the pages of The New Yorker. Admittedly, the new album is a big departure for the band — whereas in the past it was all the double-bass drumming, shredding guitars, and possessed-by-Satan-vocals, Celestite sounds more like a Popol Vuh score for a Werner Herzog film, all icy and atmospheric. For me, it works perfectly with a long-running playlist I’ve been putting together filled with music that totally lacks or has very minimal vocals (including Eno’s Music for Airports, Rachel’s Music for Egon Schiele, John Fahey, Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting Mozart, etc.), and I find the band’s move to a more ambient sound interesting, but not totally strange; it’s almost as if Celestite exists to cleanse the palate, hardly a permanent thing.

Their latest might go on one playlist, but Wolves in the Throne Room’s black metal albums have served a similar purpose when it comes to my writing. This is because I tend to find black metal to be one of the only things I can play while thinking and working. Be it the Norwegian stuff or newer bands like Liturgy, I just find black metal incredibly easy to both tune out and be relaxed by.

Liturgy

But I’m starting to think that an explanation might not be so necessary, since more and more writers are coming out and writing about their own interest in metal — and as shown by an Electric Literature list this past week, or Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix calling his music “transcendental black metal,” the feeling from metalheads is sometimes mutual.

Although they can spoon in the sack, it’s safe to say that metal and literature do make strange bedfellows. There isn’t much interest in annotating lyrics from Celtic Frost songs (although that might be really fun), hence the lack of a metal version of Rap Genius, and corpse paint and metal spikes wouldn’t fit in all too well at a reading series. What literature and metal have in common is they are both art forms that, at their best, challenge people who experience the art.

“Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction,” Michael Robbins wrote in his May article for Harper’s, “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives.” Robbins’ idea of breaking down the connection between William Blake and the Norwegian black-metal band Immortal was the latest (and one of the best) attempts at connecting the worlds of literature and heavy metal, but there’s also Matthew Simmons’s book The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge or Lowboy author John Wray’s 2006 New York Times article on Sunn O))), and plenty more.

Metal and reading can both be experiences that can be just as rewarding as they are sometimes difficult.You can listen to a Converge album, for instance, or you can really immerse yourself in it, soaking up every one of Jacob Bannon’s howls that echoes out of the perfect storm of noise his band creates. Similarly, you can read a novel or a poem, or you can push yourself to not miss a word or sentence, and search for the deeper meanings and themes.

Reading at black words on white paper isn’t aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, just like metal isn’t flashy or stylish like rock and roll or hip hop. They are both challenging mediums, and both rewarding ones. I’m not the only one making the connection between listening to a Kylesa album and reading a handful of short stories by Borges. It’s a more natural transition than most people would expect.