Hell for Leather – Metal as Art

by Colin Lang

Imagine standing outside of a gallery and hearing loud music bellowing out onto the courtyard of a commercial space in London. You’d want to go in and see who’s making this racket, have a look for yourself to connect the vibrations with its source. It sounds like a concert, but those gathering around to listen are not permitted to enter, to see the musicians and instruments that are creating a rumble that shakes the windows and enters the body as pure tremor, for frequencies travelling at the lower-end of the sonic spectrum – sub-bass between 20-60hz – are mostly inaudible. However, if played at a volume that reaches nearly 130 db, the drone metal band Sunn O))), who was performing on the night in question in June 2006, is able to produce sounds that are registered not acoustically but somatically, effectively turning their listeners into resonance chambers, vibrating, like the inner cavities of the ear.

The “concert” occurred at Maureen Paley’s gallery, and once the music was over, the audience was invited into the space to witness all of Sunn O)))’s speakers, instruments, and assorted gear encrusted in salt by the American artist Banks Violette. In the middle lay a collapsed black form (apparently the co-founder of the band, Stephen O’Malley, was in a black coffin during the performance), all of which looked like the elements of a crime scene, no blood, no witnesses, and amps that were no longer playable due to their salted state. Salt is of course a preservative, trapping things in a condition that could be used at a later time, but in this case, the preservation was not intended for future use, but stood as a reminder of the pastness of the music that was created with these objects. The collapsed black form in the centre of this constellation appeared like a cape or curtain that had been cut down from a once-hanging position.

Banks Violette, SunnO))) / (Repeater) Decay / Coma Mirror Steel, hardware, plywood, paint, fibreglass, tinted epoxy, salt, resin, dimensions variable, 2006 © Banks Violette, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The curtain might be thought of as a nod to the ancient tale of Pythagoras, who believed shielding his students from his body allowed them to achieve a greater concentration on the words that were being spoken. Was the same true for Sunn O)))’s performance? It would make more sense that the dark lord was presiding over the concert on that evening, not the ancient mathematician Pythagoras, but the conditions were nevertheless there to make such connections possible, likely, even. Within the more recent history of sound is Pierre Schaeffer’s employment of the Pythagorean curtain to explain what he called “acousmatics”: the intentional divorcement of a sound from its source. Schaeffer’s philosophy of listening and musical production, Musique Concrète, used the curtain as a metaphor more auditory than visual, for Pythagoras’ idea was that by shielding his body from his students, they would not be distracted by his movements and gestures, concentrating more closely on the voice. For Schaeffer, acousmatics was something like “pure listening”, influenced as he was by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Tape music, spliced together, would emerge on its own, a kind of autonomous sonic being that would put its listeners into a state of unencumbered hearing, freed from the associative impulse to match sound to source. But how would Husserl, Pythagoras, and Schaeffer be summoned to this dance of the dead, an abstract droning noise that could enter into a relationship to its signifier only through the most bizarre connections? Why keep us from seeing what’s going on? Is this a nerdy metal that is constructing its own brand of phenomenology?  

Postwar Paris is a long way from drone metal, but the links are not altogether unfounded, evidenced by the fact that O’Malley, who also works as a graphic designer, has been creating album art for records that have been rereleased from the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM), founded in 1958 as a research center into acousmatics at the studios in Paris where Schaeffer pioneered his art of remixing and sonic collage. O’Malley has since moved to Paris, another world entirely from Seattle, where Sunn O))) first started. It seems almost perverse to grant Sunn O))) this level of sonic inquiry, but I would suggest that like Schaeffer, for whom listening was the beginning and end of the acousmatic experience, there is a line of formalism in metal that sits quite productively alongside the more temperate climes of tape music and collage. Formalist, because Schaeffer wanted to expunge the very idea of content from the music he mixed, disrupt the chain of signification in which so much music traffics, from live performances to the imitation of sounds from nature to industrial machines. There are countless musings on the abstract nature of sound, its non-representational effects, but Schaeffer was the first to ground this abstraction in something concrete. For Sunn O))), whose name is derived from the amplifiers they use, a similar attack on representation is at play, and burying their music in a performance where one cannot fetishize the musicians and its drama – simply because they are hidden from view – is itself potentially revealing for the overlaps between the legacy of heavy metal and the arts.

Violette’s encrustations were the product of a collaboration between metal and sculpture, both of which operate within a horizon of temporality, each at extreme ends of the temporal spectrum of duration and stasis. This axis defines the field in which both Sunn O))) and Violette function. Sculpture enfolds the time of its experience within itself, as object, as that which is, but no longer continues to become. Violette’s awareness of this condition is what allowed him to reach an aesthetic extreme with his salted instruments and gear, making explicit, concrete really, the formal structure of time in which sculpture operates. It’s there, but it is not active, always the remnant of some prior act or intention that created it. Salting adds to this effect, making hyperbolic what is always already the case for the sculptural object. Unlike painting, or photography, sculpture plays within the realm of the spaces that we occupy, three-dimensionally, and thus reflects the temporal limitations of our own experiences – always shadowed by the horizon of death. At the risk of total perversion, is it too much to put think of phenomenological death and death metal together?

On the other side of the coin is the performance of live music, which always engages with the present and stretches its temporality horizontally as act. Sunn O)))’s marked separation between the live act of playing and witnessing is evidence of this fact, an acknowledgment that each second that one hears is always surrounded by the possibility of not hearing, and in this case, not seeing. And then, on that evening at Maureen Paley’s gallery, you could see something, but only the remnants of what had transpired, the trappings of a musical event, its ashes, much like the salt that encased Sunn O)))’s gear. There are of course everyday conditions that are at stake too, like the fact that in encrusting the instruments and amplifiers, Violette made it impossible for them to ever be played again. What’s past is past, what’s done is done.

In the course of popular music since the 1980s, when heavy metal first appeared, the genre has managed to continue to expand, both internally, within its basic musical forms and paradigms, and externally, out into the fields of art, theatre, performance, and even venues for classical music. Why has the same not been true for genres like hardcore punk, whose afterlives in the present feel more like parroting inside of a hermetic echo chamber? So, what is it about metal that has proved so elastic and adaptable? A brief look at the relationship of the progenitors use of the genre to more traditional song structure is perhaps the best place to begin. In the mid-90s a metal band popped up in more traditional indie rock circles. At first called The Champs (they later changed the name because of the existence of an earlier The Champs form the 60s), are now known as The Fucking Champs, and continue to make shredding, riff-heavy, mostly instrumental songs. One of the co-founders of The Fucking Champs, Josh Smith, was once interviewed backstage at a festival that featured mostly non-metal acts, and he referenced the influence for his music of what in the British press was called NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) in the 80s.

There is considerable variation within the acts associated with this moniker, but one fact stood out to Smith above all. He quipped, “They (NWOBHM) set out to destroy songs, song structure. Linear riffs shattered the traditional cyclical structure of pop songs, which move from melody to chorus to breakdowns to melody/chorus, ad nauseam.” For Smith, the important structural element to be retained from NWOBHM was its linearity, where time changes took over the predictable patterns of rhythm and chorus. Each riff could go on seemingly forever, autonomously, without ever needing to fall back into a melodic, cyclical pattern. Lines would destroy the circle, opens its contours to the speeding patterns of riffing. Metal, then, meant something more technical than the attitude and ethos of metal heads, it was intended to do violence on a formal level to the predictable patterns of most popular music. The Fucking Champs named some of their early songs “NWOBHM” and “NWOBHM 2”, wearing their influences on their sleeves.

Sunn O))) and other drone acts, still make use of the linearity of metal’s progenitors, with two very crucial differences: tempo and subharmonic frequencies. Songs, if one can call them such, are stretched-out into the gaps and spaces that would normally occur between the notes of earlier metal. Take the flagship record, Earth 2 (subtitled “Special Low Frequency Version”, by the widely-acknowledged pioneers of drone, Earth.  Although there are indeed clear chord structures and even a blip or two of harmony (it sounds at first like the recorded tape has been slowed down considerably), the music slides deeper and deeper into a dark ambience of feedback and crunch. It’s moody and downbeat, without ever uttering a word, or thematising darkness as such. Like any good formalist sculptor, it’s the limitations of the medium of the guitar and its amplification that are the content of work, not what’s sung about or hinted to. The songs’ pacing is glacial, marching to a different beat, or no beat at all, and that means very long (the 73 min Earth 2 features just three “songs”). It’s darkness as such, an acousmatics of evil, to borrow Schaeffer’s neologism, which reaches the subterranean, the eternal hell of temporality and its extermination of lived experience. It’s enough to make you lose your religion.

Banks Violette, SunnO))) - (black stage/coma mirror) Steel fittings, plywood, paint, fibreglass, tinted epoxy, dimensions variable, 2006 © Banks Violette, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Sunn O))) use baritone guitars, often tuned to A, to create their acoustic damage. This works only part of the time, though, since recording and playback devices can rarely capture the full range of the music played for the home listener. To see this music, or to not see it like in London, is something very different, for there the entire concert walls and floors rumble with bass frequencies that are uni(or non)-directional, and thus all around you. The literal underworld (the one beneath your feet) is summoned, not associatively, but literally, concretely. At their last concert in Berlin in July 2019, the Festsaal was turned into a thunderous chamber, swelteringly hot, complete with light show and smoke machines. Behind the clouds of demons hovering from the smoke generators, and the light casting an eerie glow, it was almost impossible to see anyone on stage, just like Pythagoras. When moments between puffs cleared, one could make out two robbed giants, like druids, who occasionally thrust their guitars through the smoky plumes, like ritual acts of sorcery or magic. I remarked to a friend after the show (no one could talk or hear anyone during the performance, which had no pauses for over 90 minutes!), that we took a trip to hell together. It was the best theatre I had seen in years, completely consistent from light to effects to smoke to bass frequencies that literally rattled my chest, causing puffs of air to travel out of my mouth. Life Metal was the name of the album they were touring in support of, a playful, ironic take on “death meal”, and a not-so-subtle nod to the significance of the idea of a lived experience on that evening.

As a set of formal principles, metal has entered the haute climes of classical and new music composition as well, with figures like Bernhard Gander, who mashes carnivalesque, atonal pieces with classically-trained vocalists, also hell bent on fucking with the internal codes of music with works like “Take Death.” Metal’s new music future is bright (dark?), with younger composers like Jeanne Artemis Strieder and the collective Coma Cluster Void, who churn out punishing death metal, with complex time signatures and noisy breaks. What does all of this have to say about metal’s arty sides? Well, very little if the thread that is followed is one that operates at the level of the sign and its various meanings – metal’s attitude, long hair, and tight jeans, for example. No, metal today is not a structuralist revolution of the sign, that’s for the hippies. Metal now is something like the death of the sign, a slow, agonizing, and darkly ambient soundtrack on the road to hell, where the self is obliviated and overwhelmed by sonic extremes. Eat your heart out, Pythagoras!  

The german translation of this essay you can find in Positionen issue #125

Colin Lang
Colin Lang is an independent scholar based in Berlin who teaches, lectures, and writes about sound in the visual arts, among other things. He’s not much of a metal head, but he sneaks into anything doom-related when he can. He makes his daily bread as Senior Editor of Spike Art Magazine.