Category Archives: Music

Being a Black Metal Fan is Hard

I’ve been going through a serious ALCEST phase right now, listening to Neige’s records all the way through a couple of times in the last few days. Alcest is (primarily) a one-man French project by Neige, who’s been active in the underground European metal scene for almost two decades now.
There’s something about his music that speaks to me. Even though he sings in French, I empathize with it so much. His guttural and clean vocals build an atmosphere of conflicting extremes and the Shoegazey wall of sound and ringing clean arpeggios sit on top of Black Metal influences between long stretches of staid rhythms. The hints about the content of the songs and his intent come from his tone, his melody, the mood of the music, and the covers of albums like Les voyages de l’âme and Écailles de lune. There is something old-fashioned about this music, the obscure lyrics, the indecipherable music, the underground nature of it all.
But for me, Alcest is more than the sum of its musical components. It’s like Neige is translating my thoughts and feelings into music, there are moments of clarity, dramatic shifts of tone, evocative mood and texture, and he obviously cares about every measure of music that makes the cut. It’s the kind of care and love that speaks volumes about the empathy of the person building the piece.
It’s the kind of music that I adore – made without any considerations made to the listener, a pure expression of the artist’s feelings. And the feelings are a combination of wonder and loss, a melancholy tribute to lost dreams or a simple exploration of beauty through a haze of wispy fog sitting on Alsatian hills in a French spring. It’s music intending to portray something positive, a love-letter to something better than the here and now, despite the layers of sadness hovering underneath.
Anyway, I spent some time reading about Neige recently and noticed he’d played on some early PESTE NOIRE albums. While a lot of ink has been spilled on it, essentially, PN at least has a national socialist bent and Famine, the man behind the band, seems like a pro-fascist right-wing person who recorded a track called “Aryan Supremacy.” Neige has a drums credit on that track.
It’s not easy to track down responses to this. Black Metal fans like to cultivate a real “Tru Kult” feeling of outsiderness to it, with the National Socialist Black Metal being an active genre within the scope. Some people ignore the Nationalist elements to embrace bands that keep the scene feeling far more extreme and underground when political stances make up for what can’t be attained through musical extremism alone when a reasonably mainstream band like Deafhaven can release a Depressive Black Metal album in America and get lauded for it.
I get it. Maybe they really believe this shit, maybe they don’t and are just using it as a way to make themselves more shocking or underground. But I have to deal with musicians I adore who played with these guys, and there’s no way to talk to people online about it, it’s either “Burn all your Alcest records immediately,” or, “Go back to your mom’s basement, SJW!”
Happily, I was able to find an interview in a German magazine which had an English quote wherein Neige says he was 15, and playing for the band as a session musician and he certainly isn’t a racist and didn’t consider the implications of playing on the record as a teenager. The very short article itself is worth a Google translate, as it wrestles with the exact same issue I’m faced with – what do you do when you find out that musicians you love have a spotted past?
And I mean, that makes sense. Alcest has an Indian bassist, their last album was inspired by Japanese spiritualism which they encountered playing live dates in Buddhist temples on a tour of Japan… it seems like Neige is a multicultural and modern person with modern sensibilities who made a mistake as a kid. And also, what am I going to do, criticize a 15-year-old kid for playing in a Black Metal band? I was scared of feminism at 21 and worried about my own rights as a man. What did I know?
I suppose I’m glad that Alcest doesn’t fall into one of these bands that I just can’t listen to anymore, like Burzum or Emperor, who’ve committed actual hate crimes or hold ideologies that I just can’t condone, no matter how good the music is. While Alcest holds a niche spot in Black Metal, and the band transcends genre, it’s where Neige came from.
It’d be easy to just throw out all my Black Metal and tar it all with one brush, but I can’t. There is some truly wonderful and beautiful and important art here, but it comes with baggage. There are conflicting, important, complicated stories here. Whether it’s the silent homosexuality of Gaahl who remained in the closet while playing in the controversial Gorgoroth or the property crimes against churches by second wave bands in the nineties, the suicides and deaths of prominent members of Mayhem, the Nationalist scene active across Europe and in the UK – Black Metal isn’t a safe scene, it never has been. Even going to see a band like Opeth or Enslaved can cause run-ins with people wearing Nazi symbols, and those bands have never had anything to do with Nationalism.
A casual fan like me has to step carefully. I need to do my research, and it isn’t easy trying to find primary sources or quotes when most of the press coverage is in Europe and the community is polar extremes. The scene barely exists in America, and most American sources don’t seem to cover the controversy, gushing fanboyishly at bands that that do come over.
Coming back to Alcest, I’m glad I was able to find that quote. Neige’s music is very important to me, and I don’t want to lose it.

Old Man at a Metal Show

I enjoy live music, so much so that before my son was born, it wasn’t unusual for me to see maybe as many as 2 or 3 shows in certain months. Many of the shows I attended were small, relatively underground metal bands in small venues. As a man in my mid twenties, the shows were ideally suited for the sort of intellectual pleasure one can take in supporting a hobby that feels like it’s well-south of mainstream media and well-north of the line between commercialism and art.

In other words, seeing what I called then (and I suppose, what I still call) serious, underground metal, noise and post-hardcore bands gave me a feeling of inclusion in a small yet important art scene. The audience was primarily made up of a mixture of mature metal fans, hipsters, and even some older people with seriously broad musical taste.

As the years rolled on, I found the gap between my age and the audience attending the shows widen to a point where the twenty-four year old version of me who first saw Isis play Panopticon at the now-defunct Avalon back in 2004 would call me The Old Guy standing in the back, still wearing work clothes, sipping a cocktail and talking to his friend instead of standing pressed against the front of the stage soaking up every note of music. I would wonder why he was even there, if he wasn’t really interested in the music. Maybe he was trying to relive his youth or something. A mild irritation would flood me at the moment, as if his presence was diluting the sanctity of the scene.

But time changes perspective, and my transition from the front of the venue toward the back has been a subtle one – I remember the first time I saw a band and thought – well, maybe I’d better just stand to one side tonight, because it’s going to get pretty rough. When the prospect of injury caused me to stay further back or to the side and miss out on the frontal-assault of bass-drum-thump that pummels the chest. I also remember when I went from being excited that a band was continuing to play past 2am to irritably checking my watch as the hour ticked closer to midnight, wondering when the show will finish as I do have to be up at 6:30am with my son, and I do have a meeting at 9:30am that I still need to prep in the morning. Now, the best shows are when the band finishes up by eleven.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the time in spend inside the venue – most shows have at least a couple of openers and a decade ago, I showed up to see every band, I didn’t relinquish my position and I certainly didn’t drink at the venue – for one, I was too poor to afford Manhattan prices at the time, but for another, drinking would require a biological function and that meant you would give up the choice spot earned through early attendance. Also, the four, five, and on some occasions even six or seven hours of standing through all the bands required a stamina I no longer have. I once stood for 7 straight hours in the Brooklyn Masonic Temple to see Iron EaglePelican, Earth, and Sunn O))) play from 8pm till 3am. One of the best nights of my life but I doubt I could ever duplicate that feat again. My feet begin to ache after three or four hours, and I begin to wonder if a taxi might be a better option than the walk to the subway and then the walk home from there. And really, I’d rather miss the first opener (unless it’s someone really good, like, say, Decapitated who opened for Meshuggah), just hang out at a bar and get a late dinner before getting to the show just in time for the main act or the second opener.

Now, when I see the twenty-three year old with a four days of scruff, bleary eyes from sleepless nights spent chasing other shows this week, wearing clothes that are wrinkled, scowling at the stage as the band wraps up early, I think, yes, that was me eleven years ago. And maybe one day, if I’m lucky, my kids will come with me to a show like this, standing embarrassed by my presence, just a few feet away to put some distance so my age won’t reflect badly on them.

Last night, as we left a sweaty and body-odor filled space of packed bodies and crossed a urine-soaked hallway from overflowing toilets after a Mastodon show, I looked at my friend and said, “What was the last time we saw someone quiet?” He couldn’t remember, and we thought, well, maybe Mazzy Star was touring again. Slowdive is on tour across Europe, and didn’t Mogwai just play the city a few weeks ago? We must have missed it. Will have to keep our eyes open.

For now, I’m still there, once every couple of months, watching bands new and old, tear up the stage with immense riffs and pummeling the audience with massive beats. Except I’m just the guy standing further back, out of the crowds, checking my phone and hoping for an early night.

And that’s okay.

Rock Bands

Despite my love of fairly obscure, fringe genres of music, and the fact that I always feel most at home at concerts of a couple of hundred people in small, dingy bars or basement clubs where the volume is far too loud, and the pit far from safe, I also harbor an enormous affection for popular music.

Especially popular rock bands that communicate across genre and language. I’m thinking of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Guns and Roses, Stone Roses, Waterboys… but there hasn’t been a band like that since the early 90s. Blur, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Queens of the Stone Age, Killers, and some of the post-grunge bands have tried hard to pick up the mantle, they never quite hit that 50,000 people screaming their name in a stadium level. Even today, I can’t think of a rock band that can hold an entire stadium in the palm of their hand with epic, soaring guitars and vocals.

However, in the 90s, there was exactly such a band in Japan, playing to sold-out stadiums and living as gods among men. I discovered X-Japan through anime during college, and they remain one of my favorite bands despite the fact that they broke up in the late 90s.

They’re very similar to a Guns and Roses sound, ranging from double guitar attack and soaring solos to rock-piano ballads and all the excess of the genre. Every cliche of late 80s hard-rock band can be found here, right down to guitarist Hide’s huge bright-pink hair. It certainly helped that the band was made up of downright gorgeous boys who were all accomplished musicians. They ooze rock-star charisma and saunter with the confidence of young men who know exactly who they are.

Of course, they broke up in 97 and have had a number of ill-advised reunions since then, but since Hide death after the break-up, it’s never really been the same band.

The ultimate experience of the band, I think, is their last concert, a 3.5 hour long feast for the senses called “The Last Live”. The full experience can be found on YouTube and is well worth a listen. From the explosive opening set to the melancholy ballads in the middle, and the hyperbolic melodrama of the weeping band-mates at the end as they play farewell songs – it’s a signature performance.

What makes it especially poignant I think is that the  band isn’t winking at any point. They mean it, with every drop of energy and emotion, they aren’t cynical and this isn’t a show, it’s really an earnest effort, and that shines through the language barrier

If this band wrote English songs, I think they might have taken over the world, at a time when western music lacked any focus or direction. No, nu-metal, rap-metal and boy-bands were not a direction despite what the charts might tell you about the late 90s.

Rather than regret the lack of good music or muse over what might have been, just have a listen to what was, because it was pretty damned good. And we’re lucky to have a record.