A Canadian artist called Jeremy Shaw has a work at Dark Mofo that helped me understand the redemptive power of black metal. It’s called Liminals, and it’s been installed in a little Mission Church that was built in 1885 from red bricks. This was a place where seafarers used to go worship before the turn of the 20th century. You walk in and see the spot where the pulpit used to be, probably the spot where the pastor would’ve stood and assured his congregation that all those scurvy-rotted months at sea were guided by the benevolent hand of god. For this Liminals thing, the pulpit has been replaced by a documentary. The documentary is set in the future, a time when human extinction has become a quantifiable reality. And it turns out that once it’s been scientifically proven that we’re all going to die, we lose the evolutionary potential to survive. This is because once death stops being a primal mystery, our fascination with the afterlife dies too. And once that happens, apathy sets in. This apathy is so all-consuming that it’s pretty much the same as extinction. But there’s a small cult who call themselves ‘Liminals’, who are fighting apathy by embracing hedonistic subcultures from the past. They writhe, they chant, they spin, they sit in a circle and gaze into a mirror ball hoping to transcend. With the Earth on life-support, transcendence means travelling into a safe new paraspace. To get there, the Liminals hope to meld their consciousness with machine DNA––kinda like uploading the entire human race into the cloud. The final scene of the documentary is slow-motion footage of the Liminals twisting and squirming around what looks like a dilapidated old yoga studio. At times it looks like they’re headbanging. They work themselves into a total frenzy until––spoiler alert––their bodies and minds explode into pixelated lava. The lava bursts out of the screen and melts your senses. This bit was so intense and immersive that I actually gasped.
But after attending last night’s Hymns to the Dead, Dark Mofo’s annual metal showcase, I also feel like Jeremy Shaw needs to shut the fuck up and go to a serious metal show or two. Because these people aren’t going to stop being fascinated by death. Ever. They’re kind of like Christians. But unlike Christians, metal fans have no missionary zeal. They don’t want the good word spread too far. They never want to wander through a supermarket aisle, trying to find where the bread’s hidden, only to hear their favourite song embalmed on an easy-listening playlist. From what I can tell, the music must remain alive and bleeding, above all else. Besides that, the only moral code seems to be that you help someone up if they fall down in the mosh pit, and while metal fans might be known to be lax about certain things (washing their hair, darning their socks, advancing the retail sector through the embrace of fast-fashion, etc) I’m starting to feel like the human race is safe from all-consuming apathy as long as the scene exists.
This is because the genre demands commitment on every level. Have you ever tried to work a double kick pedal? It’s like learning to tap-dance a marathon. Then there’s the atonal speed shredding; the nodule-inducing wailing and growling; the sheer, floor-shaking loudness; the encyclopaedic knowledge of genres and subgenres and histories of regional scenes, which all the true metalheads must become fluent in (which, because I’m just an entry-level fan, I am not.)
The most committed band at Hymns to the Dead had to be Butushka. Not only because they travelled from Poland to be there, but because they brought their own pulpit and candelabra set up (that looked straight out of Heroquest, complete with a human skull that would’ve had to go through several international customs check points to reach us). They were so committed that, before taking the stage, they built suspense with an actual funeral dirge that lasted around 25 minutes (to the point where some disgruntled metal heads started yelling “play a fucking song”.) But these Polish dudes are apparently chess fans. I can’t play chess but I know it’s supposed to require patience. And when they finally arrived looking like archbishops of doom and bludgeoned us with riffs, the patient were well and truly blessed (as in literally blessed because they also brought their thurible too, which they swayed about the stage so incense filled the room and, I have to say, blended quite agreeably with the sweat musk building in the pit.)
Once the Batushka precession had left (presumably to go sacrifice a goat) it was time for Portal. They entered through a smoke haze and someone weaved through the crowd past us remarking “I feel like, with Batushka, we were just in 800 B.C. being blessed by the dark lord. Now we’ve jumped forward to 3000 A.D,” then she trailed off, pushing her way towards the front. I can’t really put it better than that. The Brisbane death/black metal legends really did look and sound like they’d been trapped in the future, enduring a thousand year-long military briefing with the many-faced god and the Babadook, and needed to let off some steam.
Headliners Blasphemy were faster, louder, and more punishing than anything before (or probably since.) They were obviously time travellers too, because their front man (whose name is Nocturnal Grave Desecrator, or Black Winds for short) looked like Hank from Breaking Bad, if Hank broke bad, then broke bad again, then broke even worse, then acquired some skull tattoos and formed the baddest biker gang in the Mad Max universe.
Numenorean were one of my faves. They had doomy ambient breakdowns and emo-style build-ups that most people I spoke to afterwards hated. But, to an entry-level metal fan like myself, these passages provided some melodic scaffolding to stand on before diving into the really wild stuff. They also had more of a Detroit Rock City sense of style. So you felt a bit like you were hanging with the dweebs in the basement playing D&D, before getting sucked into the actual underworld with the rest of the line up.
Sadly I missed the start of Spire, but from what I did see I could tell they were doing their bit for all the malevolent druids in the room. And like all the true metalheads in the Odeon that night, they were clearly driven by a visceral compulsion that gives me hope for the future. It fills me with optimism a) because metal requires passion that’s the antithesis of apathy and b) because severe versions of the genre are way too nerdy and aurally extreme to be ever be fully co-opted by the corporate rock machine (man), which means fans will always need to form small community-minded scenes to survive. They’ll need to pick each other up if they fall down, so to speak. And since God died ages ago and everything else seems to get distorted by the consumer logic of a dying planet, that’s maybe the best kind of ethos we can hope for. The best bit is, there’s no need for an injection of machine DNA: you can transcend to paraspace by headbanging with your friends. It just takes commitment.
Sam West is a writer and editor from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter.