Part 1 of a 2-part article
The significance of environmentalism, and the value of Earth and science, has been a core part of music since the 60's. Pete Seeger related the need for environmental initiative to working class people, John Denver sang about the placidity of the Colorado wilderness, and Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" delivered green and animal welfare messages to the next generation. Today, new and aggressive underground genres are re-connecting with environmental activism, and metal - and its most abrasive subgenres - is no exception.
Metal itself is a countercultural form of music, often steeped in dark imagery and lyrical content that differs strongly from the everyday themes of modern rock and pop music. Black metal in particular consists of traits that may be altogether foreign to mainstream audiences: shrieked vocals, purposefully distorted guitar with heavy feedback, an almost militant drum beat, and unorthodox song structures and time signatures. It might be the last subgenre one would associate with environmentalism, and yet, over the past few years, more than a few black metallers are indeed screaming about saving the world.
Pioneers of what was to come
Looking back on black metal's inception in Scandinavia during the late 80's, the lyricism was not initially connected with progressive activism; it more or less centered on themes of morbidity or vehement criticism of religion, the latter of which remains a focal point of the music to this day. Fitting such messages was the imagery - still used at concerts to this day - known as "corpsepaint" - gruesome black-and-white facepaint that is often both tribal and carnivalesque.
Unfortunately, connections with arsons and other criminal activities plagued black metal for nearly two decades, and hindered its ability to develop a positive reputation with outside audiences. The association, albeit unintentional, with destructive behavior is not an element often associated with sympathy for the environment.
But even then, some black metal presented listeners with a focus on nature: bands like Immortal had contemplative lyrics about winter landscapes, glacial valleys, and dark forests. Their album artwork, too, espoused such atmospheric concepts, as can be seen on works like At the Heart of Winter.
Then there was Norway's Satyricon, with song titles like "My Tribute to the Winterland" and "Into the Mighty Forest." And in Poland, Behemoth wrote songs like "Thy Winter Kingdom" and "Transylvanian Forest."
Those bands that developed adoration for the environment were pioneers of what was to come.
A push to actually do something
Enter the current roster of black metal artists; by this time, the music has spread across the world. There are healthy scenes for this music everywhere from Argentina to Lithuania to the U.S. At some point, the lyricism shifted from a simple sense of oneness with bucolic landscapes, and was fine-tuned into a push to actually do something to preserve it - and a sense of outrage over the damage that is being done to the world.
Some such artists have burst onto the scene right here in the U.S., in the midst, ironically, of absolute environmental havoc (including such recent tragedies as the BP oil spill in New Orleans and ongoing water-tainting natural gas drilling throughout the country).
"Green" black metal bands include Wolves in the Throne Room, from Washington; Velvet Cacoon and Agalloch, both from Oregon; self-declared "eco-metal" band Avakr, from Indiana; and Panopticon, from Kentucky. And they feel they have more than enough reason to mourn the slow death of our environment at the hands of profit-driven interests.
The modern worldview is missing something
Wolves in the Throne Room drummer Aaron Weaver attempted to explain the complex ecological messages behind their music, remarking, "I think that [in terms of the environment] black metal is an artistic movement that is critiquing modernity on a fundamental level, saying that the modern worldview is missing something." Weaver seemed to observe a troubling phenomenon in which American people feel increasingly estranged from environmental concerns. What Wolves tries to do, he said, "is to essentially take that sadness and alienation and transform it into something that is positive and life affirming ... I view it as a Shamanic journey of sorts; a harrowing journey to come back to some sort of forgotten knowledge."
The next logical question is, once an artist has a knowledge and understanding of ecological problems, what might the next step be?
One approach is taking personal environmental responsibility in one's own life, and that is what Weaver does. "I'm interested in farming," he said. "Me and my partner Megan maintain a working organic farm, as well as some other people who live on our piece of land. Megan grows maybe a hundred different varieties of vegetables over the course of the year. We raise chickens and ducks. There's talk of trying to expand into growing a subsistence amount of grain, though it's difficult to do in our wet and rainy climate." In his daily life, Weaver tries to live in direct opposition to chemical fertilizers and mechanized agriculture, avoiding monster corporations that sell crop-poisoning pesticides, for instance.
"To us," Weaver continued, "the driving impulse behind black metal is more about deep ecology than anything else, and can be best understood through the application of eco-psychology. Why are we sad and miserable [in much of this music]? Because our modern culture has failed." The modern world is failing to sustain our environment, he stressed, and there is a fear - which the music elaborates on - that, "we can never return to that mythic, pastoral world that some of us crave on a deep subconscious level."
But black metal's ecological messages are by no means dejected or destructive in message or intent. "Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives," said Weaver. Black metal, he added, is very expressive of that.
This article is continued in Part 2.
Photo: Wolves in the Throne Room band members Nathan and Aaron Weaver. Alison Scarpulla/Wolves in the Throne Room official Facebook.