The Midwest is the perfect breeding ground for black metal. Frankly, I’m surprised the region isn’t spawning new black metal bands every day.
Before you read any more, go to the bottom of the post and hit play. Then continue reading to the music. Trust me.
It sounds strange, but places like southern Indiana, southern Illinois and western Kentucky have a lot in common with Norway. No, not mountains: There are no mountains here (the closest real mountains are the Appalachians, about five hours away by car in eastern Kentucky). But what this part of the country — the border of the Midwest and the south — has in common with Norway is an abundance of nature.
And that nature is systematically being destroyed, one power plant and highway at a time.
Many of the early Norwegian bands revered nature, and the environment played a large role in their songwriting. Emperor and Immortal, in particular, wrote extensively about nature. That legacy has been passed on to at least a few of the U.S black metal bands, particularly Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch, who both hail from the Pacific Northwest.
Again, there’s quite a difference on the surface between the mountains of Washington and Oregon and the forests and flat fields on this portion of the Midwest — but the key similarity is that both areas have, for now, an abundance of undeveloped areas.
Of course, it’s difficult to build a convenience store or a strip mall on a mountain. But here, environmental destruction is daily business.
On my drive to work, I pass the long stretch of scraped earth, where dozers recently ripped up acres of trees to build a four-lane highway. The highway is needed, because, well, the governor of the great state of Indiana wants to get reelected this year, and he hopes road projects will pave his way to victory. And if new highway doesn’t serve any grander purpose than helping secure some votes, I’m sure he sees that as justification enough.
Meanwhile, at least three new power plants are planned for the region, and a fourth is already under construction in southern Illinois. Most of the new plants are what are called “merchant plants,” because they sell the power they generate to other parts of the country. In other words, New York gets the power and Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois get the smog.
The east coast, with more money and political clout, doesn’t want sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, fine particular matter or ozone that come with even the most advanced power plants that rely on coal. In this region, however, where wages are stagnant, the mention of construction jobs (and a lesser number of permanent power plant jobs) makes politicians jump. Trading environmental quality for economic development is more common than it should be here.
And all that gets me thinking about black metal.
The early Norwegian black metal bands essentially had two goals: To praise nature and to rail against Christianity, which they saw as being guilty of destroying the country’s viking heritage. The Christianity rant doesn’t really apply (you’d be hard-pressed to find a region more religious than here) … but there’s certainly enough nature to praise, and there’s definitely an “enemy” (industry) to combat.
The fight for the future of the planet is taking place here, where the sky is heavy with pollution all summer long, where environmental regulation is seen as an inconvenience – and where demonstrators protesting a new highway to Indianapolis are met at the “groundbreaking ceremony” with riot police, rooftop snipers and a “free speech zone” cordoned off with a metal fence. Wasn’t the entire country a “free speech zone” at one time? Only if you say the “right” things, apparently.
Having covered environmental issues for years, I’ve seen officials regularly disregard public outcry about environmental damage. Protest is considered practically un-American. At the very least, the environmentalists are regarded as “no friend to free enterprise.” That’s almost considered a crime.
In a region where government doesn’t listen and nature is something to simply be paved over, perhaps art is the only real form of protest left.
Black metal is the music of protest. The genre was conceived as a scream against the status quo and a blazing torch of anger tossed toward those who were comfortable with the way things existed. I don’t condone the violent offshoot of Norwegian black metal: The church arsons were indefensible and immature and the murders (committed by Varg and Faust) were pointless, seemingly done with little or no thought. No good came of those acts
But as a form of protest, the Norwegians created a form of art that still resonates. That’s black metal’s legacy, and part of the reason why it’s still valid today. American eco-black metal could play that role, by helping change the way we look at nature, and altering what we consider “progress.”
I included a link to the Agalloch song “Odal” because much of the band’s music contains a mournful quality. “Odal” is almost impressionistic in its sadness, as if it were written while looking at a forest on the verge of being ripped down to make way for an interstate. As a eulogy for a dying landscape, black metal would serve us well.
If it’s truly impossible to save nature, the least we can do is write a song to lament its passing.