The ninth, (as time of writing) most recent and perhaps most successful of their seemingly annual collaborative releases thus far, Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke and Oren Ambarchi’s In the Past Only Geniuses Were Capable of Staging the Perfect Crime (Also Known as a Revolution) Today Anybody Can Accomplish Their Aims with the Push of a Button feels like something of a throwback, in the best possible way.
The comfort the three artists clearly now feel with one another allows for the dynamic to depart from the typical mode in which Haino-san forever appears as the master, supported by artists who in any other context would be top-billed as giants in their field, now dwarfed by his singular presence (indeed, the only time this dynamic has ever felt reversed was in Haino-san’s collaboration with Derek Bailey). This is not to caste Haino-san as an ungenerous improvisational partner, but to acknowledge the extent to which co-conspirators, particularly those playing instruments that qualify as the typical rhythm section can find themselves naturally aiming toward the subordinate position, especially when faced with such an icon as Keiji Haino.
Nevertheless, here, the degrees of space and engagement afforded to and between each musician feels to be of the utmost equity. The often grippingly pensive ambiance effected by the piano skittering of Ambarchi’s cymbals and the deliberate yet restrained sporadic chords on O’Rourke’s six-string bass / Hammond organ don’t simply leave a gap that is forcefully pervaded by noise emanating from Haino-san’s guitar, electronics or vocals. Rather, there remains for the grand majority of this ~90 minute piece a tangible lacuna, a great unsaid. At certain points, above all in the second track “Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously Decorously To Make Something Beautiful And Then Smash It Decorously,” this takes on an element of blues and jazz-fusion, with a generative bass hook on the part of O’Rourke that may only be rivaled by Michael Henderson’s on Miles Davis’ “Sivad” in terms of cool, that feels entirely reminiscent of the greater degree of rock’n’roll orientation in 不失者’s first eponymous release, not least of all とどかない. At others, it achieves the manifestation of Schopenhaueran nihil negativum with which Eugene Thacker attributes such solo Keiji Haino records as So, Black is Myself (I would personally profferI Said, This is the Son of Nihilism).
In the latter half of In the Past…, we do, slowly and with great trepidation, build to a crescendo. Haino-san’s reverb-drenched guitar, in conjunction with his vocals, deliver an oneiric quality that is both sonically and affectively reminiscent of Kevin Shields and Patti Smith’s performance of The Coral Sea. Similarly, the only impression we really have of the build here is for it to become subject to absolute entropy and dissipation. That the accompanying video Black Truffle Records have released for the YouTube promotion of the second part of the titular track is compiled stock stills and footage of domestic vignettes, giving way to imagery of apocalyptic planes, subject to the Push of a Button to which the title alludes is entirely apposite. Throughout his decades of unchallenged avant-garde oscillations between precision and chaos, Keiji Haino has forever manifested as the paradox of the being so detached from the world, that he feels and expresses all its emotions at once. Such a phenomenon has the effect of flattening time to a degree that each record in which he is involved is a uniquely world-creating-and-destroying experience. And yet, though there (gratifyingly) appears to be no indication of Haino-san stopping any time soon, In the Past… has a peculiar sense of the ultimate in its finality, and therein lies its remarkable success.
(Given at the International Black Metal Theory Symposium, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana 19/4/19. Contains modified excerpt from “Bathing in the Horror That the Blood of Time Carries.”)
Throughout his essay “The Corpse Bride: Thinking With Nigredo,” Reza Negarestani posits as the foundation for the Western philosophical tradition of reason, the titular Etruscan method of torturous execution:
A living man or woman was tied to a rotting corpse, face to face, mouth to mouth, limb to limb, with an obsessive exactitude in which each part of the body corresponded with its matching putrefying counterpart. Shackled to their rotting double, the man or woman was left to decay…Only once the superficial difference between the corpse and the living body started to rot away through the agency of worms, which bridged the two bodies, establishing a differential continuity between them, did the Etruscans stop feeding the living. Once both the living and the dead had turned black through putrefaction, the Etruscans deemed it appropriate to unshackle the bodies, by now combined together, albeit on an infinitesimal, vermicular level. (TCB, 131)
The “superficial blackening” of necrosis is what is known in alchemical – and also Jungian psychological – terms as nigredo. For the Etruscan executioners, it is the discursive medium through which the interior and exterior communicate: the surface indicating the foundation, now rendered undifferentiated through this process of mutual decomposition. “Explicit or ontologically registered decay was merely a superficial symptom of an already founded decay, decay as a pre-established universal chemistry,” (ibid), upon whose ultimate revelation depends the unshackling.
Though the original text is presumed lost, Negarestani, and Brunschwig before him, assert that Aristotle proposed the corpse bride as a fitting analogy for the soul’s relation to the self, with the soul acting as the living, and the body acting as the dead. The soul’s need for the body to perform actions in and on the world that would create or promulgate reason, and the body’s need for the soul to give reason to its actions reveal a symbiotic, cyclical implication that is at once equally perfectly reflected and very much troubled by the concept of putrefying, anti-differentiating nigredo. The “problematic collusion” of this “necrophilic intimacy” is – not only for Aristotle but the aphophatic theologians of the Middle Ages such as Plotinus – resolved, aptly enough, with further paradox: aphairesis, or subtraction.
The soul, debased by its necessary relation to the impure body to approach being qua being must remain in itself, whilst simultaneously remaining less. In so doing, the foundational, fundamental Ideal, the Divine, the One is revealed:
Both…formulations of aphairesis are grounded on one precondition, which can be summarised in terms of conservation after subtraction: despite being chained to the festering corpse or being subtracted, the soul is able to conserve some of itself and render the body intelligible. In the same vein, no matter what is taken away from the Divine, it will continue to remain as the One already there. (TCB, 138).
Negarestani, in noting the face-to-face bondage between the living/soul and the dead/body, acknowledges the Greco-Roman “mirror” motif, and the horror of identification under such circumstances, but surely we must also consider the arrangement a conscious inversion of the Greco-Roman motifs relating to bicephalous bodies fused back-to-back, such as the creatures of Aristophanes’ myth of creation, or the Roman god Janus. By rotating the two outward-looking faces that were viewing the past and future inward, the unilaterality of vitalism and linearity of time is undone: a feedback loop generates, in which distortion is the aphairetic mode of putrefaction, and volume is the usurping avatar for intelligibility.
But, what does this – other than having a similar emphasis on the macabre – have to do with black metal?
Many essays in Black Metal Theory have launched investigations into the “black” of black metal, beyond simply being a referent to Venom’s song and album of the same name, itself a pun on “black magic.” When discussing metal fusion genres, one typically either results in a mundane product of hyphenation (for example, death-doom) or in dialectically synthetical creation, such as the combination of doom and hardcore to create sludge. However, when black metal is one of the ingredients, we get instead “blackened death metal,” “blackened doom.” Not just a musical approach, not even just an aesthetic, black metal is a blackening metal: a process, an infection, a degradation. In this essay, I suggest the “black” of black metal is the “blackening” of nigredo, and quite specifically the nigredo attained in the context of the corpse bride. This blackening is the process by which the trueness of “True Norwegian Black Metal” or, more recently, “trve kvlt” status may be achieved: rather than this being necessarily a process of attaining a simple clarity, a disavowal of noise and chatter that would distract from a classical “true Norwegian” message, aphairetic distortion and para-intelligible volume to which we have already alluded is, in fact, the desired goal. Clearly, black metal’s understanding of and relationship with the notions of time and history is a strikingly nuanced and esoteric one.
Rarely does a genre or subgenre seem quite so reverent to its forebears, but black metal is so much so that the universally undisputed founders of the movement – Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, etc – are nevertheless known as the “second wave,” whilst older death, speed and thrash bands like Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are afforded the “first wave” honorific. Indeed, one notable aspect of black metal’s relationship with its own past is the speed with which it establishes itself as having a “past” at all: less than one year after the release of Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, featuring already deceased vocalist Dead on the front, brandishing a candelabrum in a chiaroscuro backdrop, Darkthrone released Transilvanian Hunger, with Fenriz replicating the image, screaming and in a considerably harsher contrast, as though in tribute. One may consider a parallel in these two respective images with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Accordingly, there are two aspects to this replication worthy of comment: first, the idea that a timeframe of less than a year is anywhere near long enough to justify a tribute that wouldn’t be written off as shamelessly derivative (which Transilvanian Hunger’s cover never has been; in fact, it is one of the most iconic images of black metal to this day). We may contrast this with the 40+ years between Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and Electric Wizard’s Legalise Drugs & Murder. The other is the aforementioned distortion of the temporal feedback: even the originators of black metal can be blackened.
In relation to itself, black metal’s corpse bride existence renders it an inverted palimpsest, whereupon the erasure – decay, distortion, blackening – of one text reveals another. There is, not for nothing, a reflection of various postmodern counter-historical techniques at play, here. To name three: Foucault’s genealogy, Deleuze’s difference and repetition, and Derrida’s hauntology. With regard the latter, we return to Mayhem and the figure of Dead, so emblematic of the trueness of True Norwegian Black Metal status’ dependence upon destructive – crucially, self-destructive – behaviour. Indeed, as Evan Calder Williams begins discussing Mayhem’s first demo, Pure Fucking Armageddon, in the first Black Metal Theory Symposium, Hideous Gnosis, he invokes the Shakespearean phrase that catalyses Spectres of Marx: “Of course, black metal never really begins. It’s always been out of time, eternally out of joint with a world it hates, even as it cannot leave that world behind.” (HG, 129). Similarly may we consider Dead as embodiment of this assertion. Never afforded an official studio release, Dead became the mascot of Mayhem, “the band so extreme the singer committed suicide,” long after his reign as the band’s singer, definitively ended by his suicide. His influence on the image of the band, however, may be understood to remain entirely consistent with that when he was alive, performing multiple rituals – use of corpse paint, burying and re-earthing of clothing, insufflation of carion – to render him a walking corpse, reflective of his name, that he has widely been speculated to have suffered from Cotard delusion. Accordingly, there is established within black metal a dynamic of verticality to its temporal state, a xenochronic positioning where nothing quite has an origin, and even the dead cannot quite leave the world behind. On this last point, Negarestani speaks of the oft-neglected aspect of the corpse bride’s mirroring status:
It is indeed ghastly for the living to see itself as dead; but it is true horror for the dead to be forced to look at the supposedly living, and to see itself as the living dead, the dead animated by the spurious living. Neither Aristotle nor Augustine tell us about this infliction upon the dead of the burden of the living, this molesting of the dead with the animism of the living. (TCB, 135-6)
Cotard delusion, the mental fixation on being already dead, or that one’s internal organs are dissolving, typically results in several other psychological anomalies: one, that the patient’s belief she will, in essence, “live” – or at least “continue” – forever; and also a common prevalence of facial misrecognition to a point of belief in all others as imposters, often resulting in dual diagnosis with Capgras’ syndrome. We must consider Negarestani’s speculations on the horror felt supposedly by the dead themselves, as they gaze into a face of the living, a reflective image they simultaneously do and do not recognise. The living dead aesthetic of black metal may also be understood as symbolic in itself of the xenochronic relation it holds to a predominantly fictional timeline in which Scandinavian folkloric mythology and theistic Satanism were supposedly unified as one consistent ideology. Of course more than simply a genre of music, the second-wave inner circle manifested this xenochronic relation through hyperstitional praxis (that is to say, materialisation of thought or belief). Specifically, this praxis was the burning of Norwegian stave churches as retaliation for their alleged usurping of the true Scandinavian ethno-spiritual way of life. Of hyperstition, Nick Land demarcates four characteristics:
They function as (1) an “element of effective culture that makes itself real,” (2) as a “fictional quality functional as a time-travelling device,” (3) as “coincidence intensifiers,” and (4) as a “call to the Old Ones”. The first three characteristics describe how hyperstions like the ‘ideology of progress’ or the religious conception of apocalypse enact their subversive influences in the cultural arena, becoming transmuted into perceived ‘truths,’ that influence the outcome of history. Finally, as Land indicates, a hyperstition signals the return of the irrational or the monstrous ‘other’ into the cultural arena. (Delphi Carstens – Hyperstition)
Certainly, by these characteristics may we understand black metal as an ultimate hyperstitional medium: content, form and exogenous context, materialising points in a semi-fictional temporality, whose recurrence is manifested through a process of continuous putrefaction. As one example, let us look at “Báthory Erzsébet” by Sunn O))). Guest singer Malefic (Scott Conner) of Xasthur and Twilight, an apparently severe claustrophobe, was locked inside a casket, loaded into a hearse, and from there recorded his vocals, beginning: “Here / decompose forever / aware and unholy / encased in marble and honey from the swarm / a thin coat of infernal whispering that bleaches from within / a darkness that defiles thought.” With regard to “Báthory Erzsébet”’s sound, Stephen Graham speaks of its disarmingly quantum state: “It’s chromatic and pitch-centred, riff-based and ambiguously discursive. The music’s complication of conventional codes of musical organisation means that it impacts in the register of confusing and unstable jouissance as opposed to that of clear discernment.” Malefic’s vocal performance also operates in kind. Employing a traditional black metal “wretched vocals” technique, Malefic would, by most accounts, sound “scary.” However, what renders the sound of “Báthory Erzsébet” so unique is the extent to which Malefic in reality sounds petrified in his delivery. Graham’s description of the ways in which the instrumentation “wobbles” and “flickers” are wholly matched by Malefic’s involuntary wavering, whilst the punctuation of gasps between roars speak entirely to the sense of flickering; the listener’s mental image of Malefic is disturbed by the flickering, irrepressible intrusions of Scott Conner’s chronic fear of enclosed spaces.
As with many extreme metal – and particularly black metal – song structures, there is no verse-chorus division in the lyrics and the unclarity of the vocals strips away any need for rhyme or avoidance of enjambment. Thus, Malefic’s delivery is an effectively unbroken account of the corporeal putrefaction and spiritual desolation of titular Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory. Within such lines as “Stolen by the wingless harpies whose memories lay waste the valley of diamonds … / a thick viscous cloud smothering hope … / the begotten mistress of eternal hunger … / worship in the torment of a million wasted lives / bathe in the horror that the blood of time carries,” in conjunction with the aforementioned opening, “Báthory Erzsébet” is a poignant reflection on Bathory’s legendary vampiric status as one who retained her beauty by bathing in the blood of young maidens, ultimately succumbing to a most brutal realisation of the way of all flesh. Thus, at the heart of this song is an unmistakable tension between preservation and entropy, made manifest as imagery of claustrophobia and isolation, as reflective of Bathory’s death in solitary confinement, represented here as immurement / premature burial. One may naturally assume that, of all lyrics a claustrophobe might wish to find oneself singing, from the confines of a casket, these are absolutely not they. Thus, just as the (in this instance, both bass) guitars of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley are drenched in feedback distortion, so too in another sense are Malefic’s vocals: every element of his performance having an amplifying and, indeed, distorting effect on every other.
Within the context of musical production and performance, “Báthory Erzsébet” perhaps stands alone as the most effective sadomasochistic genealogical exercise, whose hellish iconography of eternal entropy acts as acute representation of the perpetual disintegration to which the body is subjected by history, as described by Foucault. nietzsche considered the suffering experienced through dramatic performance as first and foremost an experience of “compassion,” that would imply sympathy. However, there most certainly is a physical, sensorial component to this performance which acts as the repetitious festivals of Deleuze’s description: “repeating an ‘unrepeatable,’ they do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorises and thereby reverses itself.” We the listener and Sunn O))) the performers – not least of all Malefic – are united and unified by the shared experience of the repetition of Bathory’s death, even or especially considering the fictional quality of this account of it which, for Land, is the xenochronic catalyst. Immobile, sharing his casket with the hyperstitional spectre of Elizabeth Bathory, Malefic creates and undergoes the black metal corpse bride first hand.
For all of black metal’s ostensible anxieties surrounding the question of authenticity, it is perhaps one of the most successful metal movements when it comes to evolution and hybridisation. The circumstances of black metal authorship and production bear such relevance as to create new subgenres, almost solely on the basis of lyrical content (i.e the somewhat tautological “depressive suicidal black metal”), or it can bear essentially zero sonic qualities with the canon characteristics, such as the prison-era Burzum releases or the work of acousmatic collective Tele.S.Therion, and still be included within the oeuvre. My use of the term xenochrony throughout the paper has been partially dependent on a definition of my own invention: that relating to an alien time, a historical-present that implies a forward-looking ideology, albeit rooted in a prohibitively self-destructive praxis. Meanwhile, the original use of the term relates specifically to the extraction or transposition of one or more musical parts and introducing them to another movement: studio-based dialectics. This can nevertheless be directly related to Tele.S.Therion’s production, based upon Pythagorean akousmatikoi, in which all musicians record their parts in isolation, only ever hearing the bass as a prompt. It is here where we may sense the connection to black metal, perhaps the only non-electronic genre to be so associated with entirely studio-based projects of one and two-man bands, including Burzum, Xasthur, Gnaw Their Tongues and Silencer: a collective of isolationists, extracting various ideologies, religious persuasions and musical practices and introducing them to a profound and unending process of negation. As Brian Massumi asserts, “a paradox is not contradiction; [it] abolishes contradiction.”
The journey to a position of truth is a journey dependent on a fiction, and must destroy the traveller, forever. The reverberating distortion of paradox vibrates in the tremolo picks of the Phrygian and Locrian modes, binding the future and past into a congealed, black, mass. Putrified, petrified, amorphous in rupture, black metal is rendered an intelligible body, but only in a language of an alien time.
It is by no mere coincidence that a quick online search of any band or artist known for high volume and even the most casual relationship with noise, and the word “punishing” will almost inevitably yield multiple results – in particular, reviews of records and, even more so, live shows from mainstream publications. But who is being punished, and who is the punisher? Certainly, if we understand performance style as a type of language, we may turn to Bataille and Deleuze for rather surprising answers: “The torturer does not use the language of the violence exerted by him…In this way [the Marquis de Sade’s characters] fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence.” Consequently, de Sade’s gratuitous revelry in humiliation and degradation is in fact the “language…of a victim.” By contrast, Andrija Filipović reflects, Masami Akita’s “inexpressive performance is colder and crueler, as the title of Deleuze’s book on masochism reads.” One could imagine the performers of Hijokaidan, expressing through their corporeal linguistics their victimhood and desire for the cold and cruel discipline and punishment of the inexpressive, impassive sonic masters. The under-documented variance and perhaps even precarity of Merzbow’s cold distance from the audience will be discussed here later, nevertheless, it is an incontrovertible truth that, despite the many hypermanic noise performances in which an audience may be held captive in stunned silence, there are many others in which an audience will (at the very least strive to) meet the energy of the performers, particularly in the case of noisecore and grindcore artists such as Melt-Banana or Sissy Spacek; or potentially surpass it, in the case of those who would strive to headbang to the drone doom of Sunn O))), and above all to dancers in contrast to almost all techno or beats-based performances, such as that of Surgeon, Muslimgauze or Demdike Stare. However, no matter the levels of energy typically returned by the audience, we may still interpret their motion and especially their shift in consciousness as a purely reactive force, and thus evidence of a degree of subordination to the active force of noise. Nietzsche and Deleuze would affirm this position:
In Nietzsche, consciousness is always the consciousness of an inferior in relation to a superior to which he is subordinated or into which he is “incorporated.” Consciousness is never self-consciousness, but the consciousness of an ego in relation to a self which is not itself conscious. It is not the master’s consciousness but the slave’s consciousness in relation to the master who is not himself conscious.
Friedl’s acknowledgement of the sadomasochistic contract between artist and spectator is lacking, on account of its non-acknowledgement of the fluidity or versatility of the contract; instead, he believes “the agreement between the audience and the performer…defines the roles of activity and passivity” to an extent with which neither I nor Foucault would agree. Nevertheless, he does account for the sphere of music, from its composition to its reception, being a matrix of power relations, in which a subject may be master to one, and slave to another. In such a vein, the modern, avant-garde classical composer plays the role of the interpreter’s sadist, “exaggerating the technical difficulties of their scores to the point where they are impossible for any interpreter to play. The interpreter[‘s]…ever-losing fight…gains a very emotional dimension: Sisyphus onstage, performing his masochistic pleasure, only to fail every time.”
Aptly enough, the score-sheet’s ever-increasing rendering as “a set of technical instructions” moves it ever closer to Deleuze’s conception of pornography as “literature reduced to…imperatives (do this, do that) followed by obscene descriptions.” We should, of course, consider that – more often than not in relation to records than performances – the listener too may be given a set of imperatives as part of the listening process: recall the need for the listener to move the needle each time she wishes to hear the next track in From Here to Infinity, or the increased labour demanded of the listener for the playing records by post-rock/noise rock/drone band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This reached its culmination with ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, whose vinyl release was as four tracks, on two records – one 12” (“A”) played at 33 1/3rpm and one 7” (“B”) played at 45rpm. The liner notes instruct the listener to listen to ‘Allelujah in the order A1-B1-A2-B2, requiring the records to be exchanged and the speed of the player to be changed between each track.
Friedl suggests that the contract between artist and audience “does not obviously include the idea of suffering from the performance,” which suggests a difference between pain and suffering, at least within a sadomasochistic context, dependent on the theme of tension and release. In this case, pain may be understood as a singular phenomenon, which may be interpreted in multiple ways – including as a source of pleasure – during its increment and at the time of/just following its release. Meanwhile, suffering acts more as an existential condition of relative consistency, on account of chronic sustain or lasting, even permanent, damage. Accordingly, there appears to be a temporal component to the pain / suffering distinction. One perspective on a macro level might be to understand the sensuous echoes of power, as revealed as pain within the sadomasochistic theatre, as foldings of the planes of suffering experienced at a chronic level from the descendants of atrocities. Indeed, from a Foucauldian perspective, the sadomasochistic encounter may be understood as a certain genealogical praxis:
“The body manifests the stigmata of past experience and also gives rise to desires, failings and errors. These elements may join in a body where they achieve a sudden expression, but as often, their encounter is an engagement in which they efface each other, where the body becomes the pretext of their insurmountable conflict. The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.”
In this sense, we may understand suffering as being – or at least as being directly related to – the perpetual disintegration experienced as a result of the process of history’s destruction of the body. Pain experienced during the sadomasochistic encounter is the genealogical articulation of the body and history. This is reflected within the noise performance, and yet the suffering also remains extant; it is, however, almost invariably experienced not by the crowd, but by the performer. Friedl ends his essay by mentioning “how Schumann’s fourth finger on his right hand became crippled because he tied it up to improve his playing.” Similarly may we consider the tinnitus and perforated eardrum My Bloody Valentine guitarists/vocalists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher have sustained, due to the extreme volume of their shows (most infamously, the extended climax to “You Made Me Realise,” known to fans as “The Holocaust”), the potentially self-injurious results of harsh vocals of artists like Masonna, or the neck and back injuries caused by headbanging.
Aside from suffering-as-side-effect, the noise aesthetic invites, more than any other, suffering as an integral fabric to the creation process; one of the most remarkable examples being the production of “Báthory Erzsébet” by Sunn O))). Guest singer Malefic (Scott Conner) of Xasthur and Twilight, an apparently severe claustrophobe, was locked inside a casket, loaded into a hearse, and from there recorded his vocals, beginning: “Here / decompose forever / aware and unholy / encased in marble and honey from the swarm / a thin coat of infernal whispering that bleaches from within / a darkness that defiles thought.” With regard to “Báthory Erzsébet”’s sound, Graham speaks of its disarmingly quantum state: “It’s chromatic and pitch-centred, riff-based and ambiguously discursive. The music’s complication of conventional codes of musical organisation means that it impacts in the register of confusing and unstable jouissance as opposed to that of clear discernment.” Malefic’s vocal performance also operates in kind. Employing a traditional black metal “wretched vocals” technique, Malefic would, by most accounts, sound “scary.” However, what renders the sound of “Báthory Erzsébet” so unique is the extent to which Malefic in reality sounds petrified in his delivery. Graham’s description of the ways in which the instrumentation “wobbles” and “flickers” are wholly matched by Malefic’s involuntary wavering, whilst the punctuation of gasps between roars speak entirely to the sense of flickering; the listener’s mental image of Malefic is disturbed by the flickering, irrepressible intrusions of Scott Conner’s chronic fear of enclosed spaces.
As with many extreme metal – and particularly black metal – song structures, there is no verse-chorus division in the lyrics and the unclarity of the vocals strips away any need for rhyme or avoidance of enjambment. Thus, Malefic’s delivery is an effectively unbroken account of the corporeal putrefaction and spiritual desolation of titular Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory. Within such lines as “Stolen by the wingless harpies whose memories lay waste the valley of diamonds … / a thick viscous cloud smothering hope … / the begotten mistress of eternal hunger … / worship in the torment of a million wasted lives / bathe in the horror that the blood of time carries,” in conjunction with the aforementioned opening, “Báthory Erzsébet” is a poignant reflection on Bathory’s legendary vampiric status as one who retained her beauty by bathing in the blood of young maidens, ultimately succumbing to a most brutal realisation of the way of all flesh. Thus, at the heart of this song is an unmistakeable tension between preservation and entropy, made manifest as imagery of claustrophobia and isolation, as reflective of Bathory’s death in a condition of solitary confinement tantamount to immurement. One may naturally assume that, of all lyrics a claustrophobe might wish to find oneself singing, from the confines of a casket, these are absolutely not they. Thus, just as the (in this instance, both bass) guitars of founding Sunn O))) members Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley – credited in this instance as Mystik Fogg Invokator and Drone Slut, respectively – are drenched in feedback distortion, so too in another sense are Malefic’s vocals: every element of his performance having an amplifying and, indeed, distorting effect on every other.
Within the context of musical production and performance, “Báthory Erzsébet” perhaps stands alone as the most effective sadomasochistic genealogical exercise, whose hellish iconography of eternal entropy acts of course as acute representation of the perpetual disintegration to which the body is subjected by history, as described by Foucault. Amplified by the creative process, stemming not merely from an artist’s pain, but his suffering, on account of the chronic and seemingly lifelong condition of his claustrophobia, even when not trapped in a casket, the song through its crushing loudness transfers the pain to the listener. Friedl reminds us that Nietzsche considered the suffering experienced through dramatic performance as first and foremost an experience of “compassion,” that would imply sympathy. However, there most certainly is a physical, sensorial component to sadomasochism, to noise, and most assuredly to this particular instance. In such a way, the sadomasochistic theatre and the Sunn O))) performance – both of which revel in their paradoxically timelessly historical costumes – act as the repetitious festivals of Deleuze’s description: “they repeat an ‘unrepeatable.’ They do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorises and thereby reverses itself.” We the listener and Sunn O))) the performers – not least of all Malefic – are united and unified by the shared experience of the repetition of Bathory’s death.
What this unification between musician and listener in sensuous relation to the repetition of unique events as expressed in noise reveals is that, although the listener/spectator is only able to respond in this situation via – by definition – reactive force, the musician/artist also does not seem necessarily – and perhaps is not at all – capable of holding the active position, either. As Nietzsche and Deleuze already established, the active position is dependent on a level of unconsciousness that, if present in the scenario of noise-creation, would by even the most liberal standards, likely preclude someone from the ability to self-identify as an artist. Thus, it would appear, the noise itself behaves and exists as an active agent