When I was a kid, when I was a kid
I got weird, so you know what I did?
What I did was I hid in the folds of a black hoodie
– Extra Life, “Black Hoodie”
In Shane Jones’s novel Light Boxes, there appears a list of authors “Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try to Cure Bouts of Sadness.” Among the writers are Calvino, Garcia Marquez, and Brautigan, the latter whom strikes me as most resonant—a writer who never felt comfortable in his own skin. Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was a hero of the psychedelic sixties, a flame that went out as quickly as his was lit. Electroshock therapy didn’t help much, but neither did his alcoholism. After falling from brief literary stardom, he became secluded in his Montanan irrelevance. Eventually, he killed himself: suicide by gunshot. He threw a brick through a police window in a fit of lonesome desperation and had the madness shocked out of him in kind. However, that didn’t keep him mentally stable enough. By 1968, he wrote In Watermelon Sugar, one of the most quietly sad books anyone can read. In Watermelon Sugar is to me his most aesthetically enduring novel. It is a short, pastoral rumination on hippie utopia. I think of the tiger scene as the most poignant in this manner. The protagonist is having a flashback to his one personal experience with the tigers, godlike creatures which now lay dead as statutes under a high bridge. He recalls coming back to the family house as a little boy, watching the tiger-gods as they ate his parents. After finishing their dark deed, they have a weird, sad philosophical conversation on why they did what they did; then the tigers leave. The protagonist as a child has little to no affect at the time, and the minimalistic style of Brautigan’s writing makes the scene all the more tragic.
What is the connection between magic and sadness? It keeps making itself clear through post-modern fabulists like the ones Shane Jones describes and joins the lineage of. There is also the connection between anger and catharsis, and often sadness and anger find themselves in the same body, comorbid. By my experience, these aspects are manifested in many through heavy metal and gothic music, especially during one’s youth.
Sadness comes from feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling alone while also surrounded by others. Past experiences. Present disappointments. Sadness is like sitting in a still classroom; often, it is, or it starts that way. Not finding others you click with at a young age—maybe because you are ahead of the other kids, maybe because you are just strange—leads to acting out, in my experience, and estranging oneself further while one simply wants to connect with others. There are many ways out of this, ways which in many ways compound the problems. You can become solipsistic. Relatedly, you can, if of particular abilities and skill sets, create friends and exciting worlds through imagination. Look at Margaret Cavendish, who wrote “The Blazing World,” an early sci-fi set piece in a time way before women were given externally validated rights of expression. The Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was very imaginative, in a time before women’s writing was muddled with books of manners. She imagines herself as finding a wormhole into a mirror universe, populated by talking animals and fish men. She ends up coming back and conquering the old world, the one she was from, with a world of imagination and ultimately, liberation. It is a liberation fantasy, for herself and those similarly situated in oppressive societal circumstances, and it is priceless. Creatives have a tendency to embark on flights of fancy because the spark of creation fills in the blanks in one’s life. As a result, those who are sad often have more creative propensities than those who are not. On the flip side of solipsism, there is a renewed spark of life-giving.
Many moons ago, I fancied myself a musician. Like Charlie Looker of Extra Life, I found myself hidden in the folds of a black hoodie. I was a weird kid who didn’t realize it until the kids around me declared me a weird kid; in response, I became even weirder. I embarked on a delusional internal quest of heavy metal. While my peers were watching MTV and starting to experiment with alcohol, I started ruminating—no, obsessing—with my one true friend at the time over metal music that would have made our parents blush with terror if they even began to understand. My favorite thing was black metal. The music was beautiful in a scary and sad way, yet the people involved were tragic, often disgusting. There were Neo-Nazis (the whole “National Socialist Black Metal” scene, really: if the band is from Eastern Europe, they are in danger of this), necrophiliacs (see Ordo Templi Aeternae Lucis) murderers (most notably, Varg Vikernes of Burzum); yet I had no violent impulses, ever. At the same time, the extreme contrast and cognitive dissonance present in both the musicians, and the music itself, fascinated me. Beautiful acoustic stringed instruments transition to pounding military fervor of the blast beat drums. And the screeches! God damn it, the growing, the ear-hole-searing vocal stylings—that is why most people cannot stand to listen to this stuff for one second. Yet I found it soothing, and special. The beauty of metal is buried in a black tar pit of ugliness, bringing it close to the occult, the esoteric, in both sound and meaning, and it becomes no stretch of the imagination that the metal musicians are interested in those things too, the Crowleys and P-Orridges of the world, as well as the Satans, which unfortunately become boring in their simplicity. As David Tibet of Current 93 (a non-metal favorite) raves in “Lucifer Over London,” “And six six six / It makes us sick / We’re sicksicksick / of six six six.”
Here are some albums that still amaze me today, and what they mean to me now, as I wear business suits:
1. Wolves in the Throne Room, Diadem of 12 Stars
The first chords churn around like a rocking boat in nighttime. The screams are soothing despite their throat-scorching. The soft matronly croons have something to do with it.
The first track, “Queen of the Borrowed Light,” sounds exactly like what I imagine Washington State’s wilderness to be like.
The thing is an isolationist hug box for young misanthropes.
(Especially those who have wet dreams about forests, in the best possible way.)
Most of the lyrics are impossible and inaudible, but occasionally a line breaks out of the mix. It’s always something like “as darkness covers the land,” or “the flaming of the forest,” which here feels archetypal instead of generic. It feels like they mean it.
2. Warning, Watching from a Distance
This album is anguish in slow motion (the speed at which it always travels). It is the saddest thing you have experienced, but at a distance. As a result, it does not feel real.
The spare notes just drip.
Both lyrically and musically, Warning reminds me of European bards, particularly the English. They drip with romantic love deified to almost Christian proportions. Is it a love song to God or man, you have to wonder? Either way, these songs lament for the unattainable.
3. maudlin of the Well, Leaving Your Body Map
maudlin of the Well are masters of the escapist journey. Part of their project is to write music of the astral plane, which may lead some to raise eyebrows. However, listening to this album is undeniable. Not only is the flow dreamlike, it is gloomily sincere.
There is not one trace of skepticism in the whole listen—only freeform vulnerability.
Stinging guitars creep along like a poison spider; you are only inoculated by church bells. More accidental, subliminal religiosity. This experience beckons you toward to chapel, or altar, of transcendent experience, outside of known prescriptions. The whole album is a toxic mist. Hear the screams. You forget everything. This is what we demand: for music to be therapy, and memorable.
4. Alcest, Le Secret
Alcest’s Le Secret shimmers with acoustic arpeggios. It is Arthur’s shimmering lake where he first comes to know his powers with the help of King Arthur. Faeries dance and sing all the while. Later, it is the home of Grendel’s mother, where Beowulf sinks into the depths to find a legendary sword on his adversary’s wall, the only sword on the planet which can pierce Grendel’s mother’s dark heart.
The album is elemental, the contrast between forests and the fires that burn them, and the blurry, muddy voices which give birth to flower buds. The second track, “Élévation,” is the birds flying above it all, screeching in ecstasy as they fly toward the sun, forever in danger of being burned.
5. Paysage d’Hiver, Paysage d’Hiver
Uncompromising, isolationist terror. Tremelo-picked dissonance sliding more than plucking across the folds of your brain. You are as lonely when you listen to this album as the dark silhouette of the witch-like figure on the cover. The vocals do not sound human, but like creaking noises coming from God’s abandoned house. This is what Hell sounds like. Devils and the damned should petitioner their lord with the droning, out-of-tune violin melody that loops on the first track. When the utterances of a goddess character come later, that is the Siren coming to eat your flesh.
Why would I or anyone listen to this? It comforts and soothes me to become aware of my own death, in the sense that it illuminates my meaning. I need it to remind me of temporality. An immature metalhead wallows in grimness, but a mature one learns to affirm life through darkness—that is the true power of the metal world’s music.