Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Very Metal Creation Story

I've written about the Metal Gods a whole bunch of times already, but recent thoughts and readings about cultural production spurred me to put together a... well... I guess a theology is the thing I mean. So, here, I lay out a theology of the Metal Gods. But first some things about culture.

Metal Gods Are a Product of Culture

I will begin with a pretty simple idea: That Metal, as such, is cultural. This means a variety of very complicated things, most of which are irrelevant to this post. Still, culture and its pursuit give rise to a variety of passions, one of which is music.

Culture Is Both Product and Process
First, culture is the set of things that people make through their actions on the empirical (and obdurate) world around them. This expression may be ephemeral (e.g. live music or conversations about music) or it make be more durable (e.g. a musical instrument or a recording).

Cultural production, as a process, creates groupings, patterns, and regularities, not just chaos. We get genres of music, for example, and material culture that surrounds those genres. But time also passes, and some cultural products and processes are abandoned or forgotten, and some are reimagined in new ways. The regularities break down again, and some are remade. Sometimes this happens in recursive cycles. Doom metal, for example, is a rearticulation of older rock/metal genres, but in new ways; as a genre it both repeats and creates cultural patterns.

Those cultural patterns are objects of human attention and affiliation. We like some kinds of music, so we listen to them, evangelize about them, and so forth. We pass on musical culture to others. We receive it from them, also. We do this just by living life. Richard Dawkins used the term "meme" to express how relatively ephemeral culture gets propagated socially, using an infectious disease metaphor to express that idea.

Culture is Unevenly Distributed in Time and Space

A person lives at a particular time, in particular material and symbolic environments. Those things shape him or her, and provide both means and patterns of expressing culture. For example, by being a consumer of particular products, I am interacting with the world. But those products and process I am a part of are not everywhere and ripped from the moorings of time itself A kid growing up in suburban New Jersey or rural Georgia does not experience the same things in the same ways, and those make both experiences and expressions of music culture variable from scene to scene, creating differences among people calling themselves metalheads. Nonetheless, metalheads probably can spot other metalheads in a crowd--like maybe walking across the mall and seeing one of My People out among The Straights, or not being able to find a single other person like you in other, more rarified climes for whatever your particular subculture might be.

There's also the power issue.

Culture Expresses Power Relations

The conditions under which you live, material and symbolic, are historically rooted in your particular cultural space. You live an inherited culture. And not all of the roots of that culture will be oriented toward you and your interests. Power relations are a part of that.

Not all cultures are valued equally. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, there was a shift during the Reagan years toward the demonization of punk and metal. I was a punk for the most part, but we sort of got lumped into the same crowd by the religious types. We were all just into that Devil Music, don't you know. And the religious Right came after us. They also instituted the Satanic Panic about gaming, so there's that as well. The fact that gaming and metal are sometimes the passions of the same folk, of course, means that sometimes we were doubly targeted, both by adults and by Straights in general.

So, cultural difference led to cultural conflict, and there were asymmetric powers at work. Teenagers have less influence than adults. The religious Right at that time was ascendant (not that they've left since), and able to be influential in significant ways, using mediated social activism in reaction to the bugaboo living in their brains. This didn't make life easy for teenagers at the time (with some exceptions), but it did create a sense of some degree of solidarity, at least in relation to Straight culture. Eventually, though, some Outsider cultures get appropriated in the mainstream (whence we got hair metal and New Wave).

But enough about culture. What does it have to do with the Metal Gods?

The Kids in the Basement

Somewhere, somewhen, there are some kids in a basement. They're listening to Metal. They're listening to it a lot, an they're listening to it LOUD. They're listening to it with their friends. They're expressing the "Metal-ness" in various ways, some of them frightening to adults. Many of them are really, really passionate about it. Here's where the theology comes in.

That passion feeds across all the planes of existence, calling into being and making real a particular version of Creation: Planet Ore, and Golden Ur-Hadad, the First City of Men.

Every song calls Planet Ore into being. Every chord brings forth the land and the seas, and the people and the creatures that dwell thereon and therein. The crash of the drums upon the warp and weft of Chaos sends out ripples, causes effects. The cities and rise and fall. Empires wax and wane. The moon is broken and the floating city crashes into the Thunderlands. A thousand years pass, and with them the rises the culture of Men, and the forging of Metal.

The act of playing raises the creators of the songs to the status of Creators of the World. They find themselves among the gods of that place, authors of the Lost Hymns. And the Lost Hymns still echo across Creation, making and unmaking it simultaneously. Here's how it works on Planet Ore.

  • A kid in New Haven blasts some High on Fire. On the Planet Ore, near Ur-Hadad, Graki Deathstalker takes up the Frosthammer in a futile quest to destroy the Serpent-Men and their minions.
  • An old fart in Augusta cranks Deaf Forever up to 13, and war sweeps the land, only a hardy few winning their lives (and riches and glory, but who's counting?). He speaks the name of Lemmy in praise, and on Ore rises the Cult of Lemm the Killmaster, whose aspect is the Steel Boar called Snaggletooth.
  • A teenager in Finland does what teenagers in Finland do, what with their black metal and whatnot, and a ravening horde descends upon a slumbering town. The survivors are your zero-level party.
  • A certain artist who shall not be named quests afar to create a shrine, a Wizard Van driven by an actual wizard (I've seen the hat and robes, y'all. He's a wizard.). The painted image on that van creates some aspect of the land and its peoples. The paint forms a substrate for the image in one universe, laying the foundations of existence in another.

The very expression of this culture is a profound act of creation, making from the Void, a land, people, situations in which the people live, and a sense both of urgency and of destiny. For the language in which this reality is expressed is not a thing of sense and metrics, but of possibility and passion, at once crying, "What if?" and also, "Fuck yeah!" Oh... and probably, "Fuck you!" as well.

It happens in the art on every album cover, in the notes and chords of every song, in every backpatch on a denim jacket, with each bang of every head, and in every basement where some kid, somewhere, has found The Music and The Music has found that kid.

And lo! Lemm played the first note upon the Rickenbastard, and the seas parted to form the land. Robhal chanted the Purest Note, and there came into being all of the creature that ride upon the winds, and the Greater Moon was broken. Each of the Metal Gods, given life by the Outsiders From Beyond Space and Time, became real. Each added its particular alloy of Metal to create Ore. Men once were slaves on Ore, but they would be slaves no more. Metal had been forged and it would see good use. The Metal Gods called upon their people to rise and take Ur-Hadad for themselves. And so they did. And thus, also, was born the Cult of the Metal Gods. 
                    ~Kormaki Lemmisson, Zealot of the Metal Gods)