A few months ago, I wandered into a bar in Brooklyn. It wasn't super crowded and a friend and I wanted to grab a drink. He happened to be wearing a Krisiun shirt and we struck up a conversation about metal with two of the bartenders. They were also fans and the trio started discussing a bunch of Swedish acts with unpronounceable names that they all loved. I sat quietly and listened before chiming in that Deafheaven were performing at Saint Vitus in a couple of weeks but instead of being met with mutual appreciation, I received a glare usually reserved for admitting when you killed someone's beloved pet. Then had sex with it.
Both bartenders scoffed, crossed their arms, and went on to explain that Deafheaven did not fall under the black metal category in any way. Instead they were "hipster metal" as apparently evidenced by singer George Clarke's “hairstyle.” I didn't take it personally as I was just trying to make small talk as I waited for my Maker's Mark, but it still struck me as a little odd that these guys would be so offended by lumping a band with blast beats and screamed vocals into a subgenre happened to identify with. Over the next few weeks, I learned that a lot of black metal purists share that opinion—and when Deafheaven got to town I discussed the topic extensively with Clarke as well as the band's guitarist Kerry McCoy and drummer Daniel Tracy on my podcast Going Off Track alongside guest host, Brian Cook from Russian Circles.
As a kid who grew up on the 90s Epitaph and Victory Records' rosters, I completely understand the feeling of wanting to belong somewhere. This type of elitism defined my teenage years in a way that's hard to objectively describe if you’ve never tripped and fallen on your face thanks to your JNCOs. That said, what I found so odd about the black metal version of this paradigm was the fact that the people who seemed most embittered about the idea of their musical culture getting co-opted were grown adults with (presumably) wives, mortgages and real problems. Furthermore, following the Deafheaven show, blogs like BrooklynVegan were flooded with comments like, "Doing for Black Metal what Fred Durst did for rap" from user "SHITBATHER" (a super clever play on the band's album Sunbather) while anonymous shittalkers focused on aesthetics, quipping, "deafheaven sucks, live, recorded, whatever. nice black gloves btw. can't wait until that guy starts a project like cold cave in 2 years. kill yourself."
Admittedly, internet criticism is nothing new and comment sections routinely mine deepest levels of human ignorance and depravity regardless of the topic. Still, for a culture that celebrates theatric elements like corpse paint, fire, and King Diamond, black metal fans seem to take themselves pretty seriously—and if you took offense by me associating King Diamond with black metal, you probably also lost your shit when The Simpsons mislabeled Judas Priest as death metal. (It's worth mentioning that I'm referring primarily to American metal fans who were born in the suburbs here, not the guy who recently murdered the frontman of Surrender Of Divinity in Thailand for “not being a true Satanist.”) Luckily, I'm friends with Paul Delaney from Black Anvil, an act who routinely douse themselves in animal blood. However,, when I broached this topic he replied, "I don't give a shit what elitists think." That said, Delaney is in the minority and it seems like the culture perpetrates this attitude through their repeated condemning of any band with any sonic connection the genre who receives outside acclaim, whether that's Deafheaven or, say, Liturgy.
Since I couldn't find another expert who wanted to elaborate on this in my iPhone contacts, I decided to try the next best thing: Yahoo! Answers. Two years ago a user named “Iusedtobreakwindows” asked, "Why are metalhead purists/elitists so stupid and irrelevant on youtube and outside youtube?" The voter's choice for best answer came from “Irate Earwig” who explained, "I think anyone who is that extreme in their views is ignorant to the extreme. If you only like metal then fine, but there's no reason to hate on others for being more open minded when it comes to music. I hate all forms of purism and extremism, so stupid. You get it in all genres of music and elsewhere in sports etc. Just douche bags!" While this person is not only shockingly articulate for a website were people routinely go to ask strangers if it's OK to be attracted to your cousin, he or she made a pretty good point. Or as salient of a point you can make when your closer involves feminine hygiene products.
Ultimately, Irate Earwig is right. There is a level of inherent elitism in every special interest group. It's just maybe more pronounced and ingrained in something as fringe as black metal is today. This is probably the same way Sex Pistols fans felt when Green Day and the Offspring blew up in the nineties. However, at some point you need to just accept that the thing that you love may get more popular or have elements of it co-opted by other genres—and if you take a step back, that's part of what makes music or any other art form valuable to the culture. The conflict occurs when you overlook the fact that nothing exists in a vacuum and in order for anything to thrive it has to be identifiable to people on some level, otherwise it's just an abstract mass floating aimlessly through the conceptual ether.
Here's what you're defending, black metal purists. THIS.
Writing this article reminded me of a conversation I had last year with (prepare for namedropping) Fred Armisen (who as it happens is also a huge Deafheaven and Liturgy fan) about a similar topic for an online magazine about creativity called The Fire Theft Project. "The idea that something has been done before I don’t see as a negative thing," the Portlandia star explained. "That’s been going on forever and I think it’s cool that something has existed before. You could look at any band and go, 'Actually, that’s just a version of this,' and that probably goes back to caveman times, it’s just a version of something else. And that’s great. It’s how it should be. It’s passing things along through the ages, and what’s better than that?"
Not even Irate Earwig could have said it better.
It's Jonah Bayer's job to keep black metal elite. Follow him on Twitter - @mynameisjonah