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GastiR – Ghosts Invited: A Review

[1]2,551 words

Gaahls Wyrd
GastiR – Ghosts Invited [2]
Season of Mist, 2019

It is necessary to begin this review by examining the notion that Black Metal is a uniquely heterogeneous genre of music. This was a belief I once held, and what I understood this to mean was that Black Metal seemed – in its aural and ideological essence – to resist the commercial forces that might intend to co-opt it.

What isn’t necessary, however, is to delve into the salacious history of Black Metal, because everyone knows about Varg Vikernes’ murder of Euronymous, as well as the various church burnings that occurred in Norway during the early 1990s. It’s safe to say that had not such sensational events erupted around the creation of this genre, it most likely would have flown under the cultural radar indefinitely.

Looking back, there was a certain nihilism in the 1990s that both Grunge and Black Metal tapped into. If you consider the suicides of Kurt Cobain and Dead (one of Mayhem’s early singers) objectively, there was a fateful quality to their deaths. Cobain’s death in particular seems to place a seal of finality on the zeitgeist of the 1990s, musically and culturally – I, like many members of my generation, remember where we were when we heard he had died, much like Boomers remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The death of Dead, which was barely publicized at the time, did not mark a point of closure for the genre he was pioneering like Cobain’s had; instead, his suicide marked its coming into actuality, its seriousness and gravity – as well as the seriousness and gravity the genre itself would evince in the coming decades.

This severity was best documented in Gavin Baddeley’s 1999 book, Lucifer Rising. Baddeley had conducted extensive interviews with Euronymous about his complex – and often contradictory – attempts to be as evil as humanly possible. He also spoke with Vikernes about his political and racial views. The combination of this book with the 2008 documentary Until the Light Takes Us gives the impression that the animating spirit at the center of the Black Metal phenomenon was atavistically Satanic, anti-democratic, anti-consumerist, and pagan. These aspects are essential to Black Metal as a genre, and seemed like impenetrable bulwarks to consumerist assimilation, hence my belief about Black Metal’s heterogeneity to the mainstream.

Obviously, I was wrong about the co-option of Black Metal; there are Black Metal-themed coffee mugs and greeting cards, for Christ’s sake – I mean, Anti-Christ’s sake. But in my defense, I did not see Black Metal as heterogeneous to the mainstream primarily because the music is so harsh and abrasive. Granted, that was a part of my consideration, but I was focused primarily on the ideological underpinnings which were part and parcel of the genre. Greeting cards, mugs, and T-shirts that poke fun at the genre represent an ironic attempt to mitigate this ideological component and are therefore not a wholehearted co-option.

A more intriguing attempt at co-option, however, which has occurred over the last ten years has come not from the commercialization of its aesthetic, but from within the music itself. I am referring to hipster Black Metal, a subgenre that was initiated primarily by one guy: Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who in 2009 presented his essay “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism” at Hideous Gnosis, a Black Metal symposium.

There are probably a lot of deep theoretical points that Hunt-Hendrix attempts to make in his essay, but I can’t really dig into it at that level because the philosophical terminology he employs is pretty much identical to the kind mocked by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their takedown of postmodernist lingo in 1999’s Fashionable Nonsense. What I can do, however, is give a brief synopsis of Hunt-Hendrix’s thesis:

  1. Traditional Black Metal is Hyperborean and was “born in the Arctic Circle, which is traditionally known as the Hyperborean realm. The Hyperborean realm is a land that is fallow because it lacks periodicity. There is no birth or death there because the sun neither rises nor sets.” The sound of this brand of Black Metal is the aesthetic equivalent of freezing to death, and represents nihilism. Associated with it are concepts of atrophy, depravity, infinity and purity.[1] [3]
  2. In contrast – or moving beyond the stagnant nihilism of Hyperborean Black Metal – is Transcendental Black Metal, which “is in fact nihilism, however it is a double nihilism and a final nihilism, a once and for all negation of the entire series of negations. With this final ‘No’ we arrive at a sort of vertiginous Affirmation.” Associated with this brand of Black Metal are concepts of courage, finality, and penultimacy.[2] [4]

In a way, Hunt-Hendrix is following the path of French post-Structuralist Gilles Deleuze, who posited a philosophy of Affirmation in the face of the nihilism and banal relativism he saw throughout academia during the 1960s and ‘70s. Needless to say, Deleuze’s idea of Affirmation was much more hard-fought (intellectually substantiated) than Hunt-Hendrix’s, but they share the same insight: one has to push all the way through nihilism, to its very end, in order to reach a state of Affirmation. In contrast to this similarity, there is the distinction between these two attempts at Affirmation, and that has to do with systemic totality. For Deleuze, the concept of Affirmation was ingrained within life itself, and had to be accessed through careful and deliberate study. For Hunt-Hendrix, Affirmation is merely a lens through which we can view and then classify a particular genre of music.[3] [5]

Hunt-Hendrix doesn’t tell us which bands conform to which brand of Black Metal. Instead, he intimates that the groups who represent Hyperborean Black Metal are the ones that carry on with the same old aesthetic trappings consisting of corpse paint, upside-down crosses, references to Satan in the lyrics, and so on. In contrast, the Transcendental practitioners will have to create music that sounds like what Black Metal generically sounds like; they just have to present themselves differently – more Americanly, if you will.

Hence, we have hipster Black Metal bands like Liturgy, Wolves in the Throneroom, and Deafheaven. They all dress like they live in Brooklyn, Echo Park, or Portland, but more importantly they espouse the progressive values endemic to Americanism and modernity. Musically I don’t condemn these bands; in fact, I don’t condemn them in any way, but I am curious as to whether this “transcendental” move is anything more than an attempt to mitigate the atavistic ghost in the machine.

What Hunt-Hendrix’s essay – as well as the Lords of Chaos movie and ironic Black Metal greeting cards and coffee mugs – reveals is that Black Metal, and basically any other artistic movement, can be aesthetically co-opted.[4] [6] Conversely, the thing that cannot really be co-opted in a meaningful way is the ideology.

This brings us to the album under consideration, GastiR – Ghosts Invited by Gaahls Wyrd (out now on Season of Mist [2]). Most non-metal fans know Gaahl (whose real name is Kristian Eivind Espedal) from his ominous appearance in VICE’s short documentary, True Norwegian Black Metal (2007), or for his coming out as a homosexual in 2010. Church burnings (which Gaahl supports) and homosexuality are most likely deal-breakers for a large portion of the Dissident Right in America, and ironically, the homosexual issue should in theory bring Gaahl closer to the hipster/Transcendental Black Metal trope – yet it does not. What I’m listening to and for in Gaahl’s music is not his persona, but his ideology, and yes, whether or not it is enjoyable.

What most people don’t know about Gaahl is that the band he has fronted off and on since 1992, Trelldom, writes music that is almost exclusively related to paganism and ancestor worship. Gaahl identifies as a practitioner of Norse Shamanism and most likely saw the Satanism and anti-Christian symbolism of his most commercial work with the band Gorgoroth as a dissimulation of these beliefs to appease the genre-stipulations made by his then bandmates. Comments he made in an interview with Tartarean Desire in 2004 [7] substantiate this:

The word Satan is from Hebrew religions and has nothing to do with my blood. I deny everything that comes from this Semitic root. God has nothing to do with our race in any way. We use the word ‘Satanist’ because it is a Christian world and we have to speak their language. To the world I am a Satanist, which means resistance to everything that holds you down . . . When I use the word ‘Satan’ it means the natural order, the will of a man, the will to grow, the will to become the superman and not to be oppressed by any law such as the church, which is only a way to control the masses.

The opening track of GastiR, “Ek Erilar” (translation: “I am a rune master”) is sung in English. The drums play a traditional blastbeat while Gaahl ominously intones the words, “Remember the outside, remember the cold.” A shimmering guitar plays an arpeggio as a voice lower in the mix yells inchoately. Unlike with bands such as Graveland or Enslaved, this is not Viking Metal: music that tries to viscerally recapture a sense of battle and adventure through aural simulation. Instead, there is a deeper sense of awareness at work here. For Gaahl it seems as if the runes are signs that we carry in our blood-consciousness, and these signs act as keys to evoke the hidden world of our ancestors in an idealistic way; that is, in a way in which the world eluded their immediate cognitive grasp (in the same way it does for us), yet, for them, this elusiveness prompted a feeling of reverence or enchantment. This sense of reverence can be regained through art, specifically through an aesthetic that emphasizes both the antiquity of Europe as well as the timeless quality of the communities that originated there. That sense of the archaic is what Gaahl is emphasizing on this album.

The tracks “Ghosts Invited” and “Carving the Voices” really do the most work in substantiating this interpretation. At the beginning of “Ghosts Invited,” Gaahl sings, “Out there in the distance, faces the light and the growing mountain . . . harvesting hope and dreams, a grey shade appears,” and reminds me of Spengler’s description of how the Faustian man saw the world in contrast to how the Hellenics saw it:

The basis of the Apollinian and Faustian Nature-images respectively are in all contexts the two opposite symbols individual thing and unitary space. Olympus and Hades are perfectly sense-definite places, while the Kingdom of Dwarves, elves and goblins, and Valhalla and Niflheim, are all somewhere or other in the universe of space.[5] [8]

The recurring themes of runes, ghosts, carving, and silence, which have been used before (notably on Gorgoroth’s 2006 Carving A Giant), are more fully explored here. By this I do not mean that Gaahl gives us anything explicit or literal. No; what he has done on GastiR is to give the appropriate context for these atavistic and völkisch themes. The entire work is a vehicle for his aesthetic vision, and what these themes signify is that his music, both aesthetically and ideologically, is shaped by the collective memory of his community. The ghosts and the runes are not threatening in a modern or cinematic way; they are individuals and traditions that need to be carved out of our lives in contemporary society and made real again.

These themes are at the forefront of the fourth track, “Carving the Voices,” which as the single from the album I had initially found a little underwhelming. However, within the context of the whole work and upon repeated listenings, I now find it enchanting. The lyric “upon these mountains carved out in dreams” gives the impression that the people and situations to which he is obliquely referring have fallen into the literal past, but are in a sense eternally preserved so long as we have access to them in art and song.

In his essay “The Weird and the Eerie,” Mark Fisher writes that “one of the archaic meanings of ‘weird’ is ‘fate’,” and he presents the notion that experiences or art that we deem “weird’ shake us out of our everyday conceptions and concepts and push us into a realm that is exterior to us. These experiences essentially make the reality of exteriority known to us in an oblique way. Since Fisher is looking at this from a fateful perspective, he defines this exteriority in terms of the future:

The weird and the eerie . . . allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside. As we shall see, the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation).[6] [9]

With this interpretation in mind, the name “Gaahls Wyrd” is significant, especially since the band’s logo substitutes an Algiz, or life rune, for the “y” in Wyrd. In this respect, Wyrd is analogous to the use of the upside-down cross in Black Metal: It is the inversion of the norm. In a way, the blatant völkischness of the symbolism contained within the neologism “Wyrd” represents a Hyperborean retort to the future-oriented, Transcendental style of Black Metal.

In an essay on Lovecraft from the same book, Fisher distinguishes the weird from horror this way: horror merely repulses, the weird fascinates.[7] [10] This is the aspect of Fisher’s interpretation of the weird that jives with both Gaahl’s inversion of the concept of the weird back towards the past (the “Wyrd”) through the incorporation of the Algiz in the logo, as well as the invocation of ghosts in a sense that conveys mystery, not fear. This move away from repulsion towards fascination is also evident in the Nordic chanting that builds up in presence throughout the album’s progression. Listening to the choral singing on the album’s final track, “Within the Voice of Existence,” I am reminded of how bands like Craft, Taake, or Carpathian Forest have closed out albums they recorded decades ago with a similar swirl of voices; the only difference is that the voices on those albums were shrieking, whereas the ones here sound deep and reverential.

I see what Gaahl is doing here as being sympathetic to what Varg Vikernes did on Burzum’s 2014 album, The Ways of Yore, which is the opposite of Transcendental Black Metal insofar as it is wholly ideological. Gaahls Wyrd, as I think I’ve established, marries this ideology to the aural aesthetic that is under threat of co-option by the hipster contingent, and it does so in a graceful way. If the transcendental aesthetic sees ghost imagery as a signifier of regressive rhetoric, and ignores it for this reason, Gaahl is giving us back the ghosts – not loaded with a sense of fear, but of spectral wonderment.

Notes

[1] [11] Published in Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium 1 (2010), p. 57.

[2] [12] Ibid, p. 61.

[3] [13] The fact that Hunt-Hendrix does not substantiate his thesis with any other authors indicates that his approach is less scholarly than it is visceral.

[4] [14] As a side-note, look at the co-opting that almost occurred with the Alt Right during 2016. It was the memes and Pepe that got the most attention in popular culture.

[5] [15] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

[6] [16] Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2016), pp. 10-11.

[7] [17] Ibid, p. 17.