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The skies rumble. A heavy rain pours down. A bell tolls as if announcing something, something soon to arrive, or perhaps something that has passed. This ominous introduction to the first heavy metal song, Black Sabbath’s eponymous work of tritonal doom, adroitly uses weather as a gothic-inspired portent of encroaching evil. Here, right the way back at metal’s supernova moment, we see the earthly elements used in metaphorical relation to despair, ruin and all the sublime darkness that the genre would go on to become so fascinated with.
Today, at the dawn of 2021, the concepts of weather and climate have taken on decidedly un-metaphorical connotations. The onset of human-caused climate change (the “figure in black”) is standing before us, and we are all its chosen ones. In the two-hundred and fifty years since the dawn of the industrial revolution, humans have altered the planet with a speed only surpassed by a handful of extinction events. If the history of Earth was a day, the industrial revolution began just two thousandths of a second ago, and in that time we have doubled the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, risen the acidity of the oceans by 26% and increased the natural rate that species go extinct by 1000%.
We’ve gotten ourselves in a hell of a mess and, understandably, it’s easy to get weighed down with the complexities of this all-encompassing threat. Culturally, we’ve barely woken up to the threat we face. However, intriguingly, certain corners of heavy music have begun stepping up to help guide us through this ever-shifting maze. Offering a nuanced and human response that stands in stark contrast to the perceived nihilism of the genre, it’s as though the traditional howl from the void of heavy music has been recontextualised by the truth of its origins, and now comes across as a requiem for the worlds we are losing, and the ones we are not creating.
Through the lens of three albums released in 2020, we can see how metal has much to teach us about humanity in the age of the anthropocene. Subterraen’s Rotten Human Kingdom, Respire’s Black Line and Botanist’s Photosynthesis each paint complicated and differing portraits of the ecological crisis. However, all, in their own ways, also offer some sort of redemption. They are works of deep feeling, albums created with a purpose and piercing clarity of vision. To rephrase a line from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome; they have a philosophy, and that makes them dangerous.
Subterraen describe Rotten Human Kingdom’s focus as on “narrating epic, anguish-ridden tales of the slow destruction of the planet.” The four tracks of the French trio’s debut album are certainly leaden with anguish, with titles like ‘Oceans Are Rising’, ‘For A Fistful Of Silver’ and ‘Wrath Of A Downtrodden Planet’ perfect approximations of Subterraen’s melancholic style of blackened doom. Likewise, they are also sufficiently epic, with just three tracks making up the majority of Rotten Human Kingdom’s forty-nine minute runtime. The longest, closer ‘Wrath Of A Downtrodden Planet’, clocks in at an monolithic eighteen and a half minutes.
While neither of these qualities is strictly new territory for the genre of doom metal (check out recent releases by Sūrya, Bismuth and Hippie Death Cult for more ecologically-minded gloom), Rotten Human Kingdom is an ideal lens through which we can view how the genre mirrors the qualities of what eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has termed ‘hyperobjects’. To clarify, Morton’s hyperobjects are “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place”. A hyperobject could be a local climate, an oil field, the sum of all nuclear material on Earth, or a black hole. They are “anything that is massively distributed in space and time relative to humans.”
Doom metal is the genre that best approximates the qualities of a hyperobject, according to several descriptions Morton has coined. The music is “viscous”, in that it sticks to and envelops the listener with its sheer weight and mass. It strives to become “non-local”, as it tends to be epic in scope and grand in its sprawl. And, perhaps most crucially, it seems to exist “in a different temporality” through its drawn-out, droning construction, almost generating its own dimensions and relativity.
As an example of how hyperobjects obfuscate our thinking about the planet and its ecology, we can look to the phrase ‘the end of the world’. Our understanding of ‘world’ here refers to the background effects of a succession of hyperobjects such as climate, biosphere and capitalism. Our language and ontological awareness does not allow us to truly grasp the scale and effects of these qualities, so we seek alternative routes. This sense of unknowability is shared with doom metal’s air of intense eeriness, because though a hyperobject such as the climate can be experienced through local manifestations or scientific data, their very scale renders them ultimately, worryingly unknowable.
Subterraen’s murky doom brilliantly emulates these complex, shifting structures. The colossal magnitude of the tracks on Rotten Human Kingdom matches the incomprehensibility of a hyperobject as they move from peaks to crevasses, calving like ice shelves, throwing in black metal blasts that whip with the force of a tropical hurricane. The album is both a warning and a manifestation, a vision of a downtrodden planet that is uniquely troubling, perhaps most so for reminding us that there are forces of dark ecology that exist far beyond our human comprehension.
“The future is an infinite succession of presents,” decrees socialist theorist Howard Zinn’s famous maxim. This quote and subsequent speech opens ‘Lost Virtue’, the fourth track of Respire’s Black Line. Backed by folk-inflected strings which swell and build into the band’s trademark impassioned screamo, that iconic line encapsulates the ideological perspective of the Toronto group’s newest album. They envisage a world where progress can be made and redemption earned, like a recovering addict, one step at a time.
“The main theme or goal of Black Line centres around self-empowerment and recovery in an otherwise un-recovering world,” the band told me last December. “It’s easy to fall victim to mass scale pessimism, defeatism, depression and a sense of constant impending loss in 2020. The record is first and foremost about trying to find a redemptive way forward in such an overwhelmingly negative time.” It’s undoubtedly true that the emotional tenor of our current social climate is one marked by widespread despair and defeatism. The triple-pronged threat of political instability, a global pandemic and encroaching climate change means there’s a lot weighing on humanity’s shoulders, so pessimism is increasingly becoming an attractive ideological option.
Respire’s approach to taking on these enormous issues is one defined by collective action. A tangible sense of unity surrounds Black Line, whether it’s the use of gang vocals, the cathartic builds and releases or the celebratory orchestral flourishes. This formal mode of collectivity is in itself a progressive approach for the band to take. Respire’s musical language is one of union, and reminds us that to combat the myriad ills that our planet is facing, our ability to work as so will be crucial.
The album is given an extra dimension of poignancy through small adornments of visceral, elemental physicality. From the birdsong that closes ‘Lost Virtues’ to the stunning, sun-swept interlude ‘Kinderling’, Black Line is marked by a tactile level of organic realism, the sense that the music has the dirt of the forest under its fingernails, or that it has escaped from a fissure deep within the Earth. It’s no surprise then that the album “was conceived by the six core members near the shores of Lake Erie over a cold April long weekend.” Like spring, Black Line is the sound of something thawing.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness,” goes another Howard Zinn quote. Respire are ardent students of this historical perspective, taking an open-hearted and optimistic approach to the capacity for humans to enact meaningful change. Whether or not the worst effects of the anthropocene can be avoided, the least we can do, according to Zinn and Respire, is take each challenge one at a time.
One of the most unique albums released in any genre in 2020, The Botanist’s Photosynthesis is a remarkably bold vision. An avant-garde metal project that utilises a lush, bright Dulcimer in place of guitars, headed by Roberto ‘Otrebor’ Martinelli, The Botanist is based upon a rich lore and mythos, centring on “a crazed man of science who lives in self-imposed exile, as far away from Humanity and its crimes against Nature as possible.”
For Martinelli, The Botanist character is a cipher through whom he channels his horror at mankind’s treatment of the planet and its delicate ecological balance; “Botanist believes that although mankind is destroying the Earth’s natural environment, humanity cannot destroy Nature permanently. Humanity can destroy Nature only for humanity, meaning that even if all life, including humanity, has been eradicated, Nature will bounce back.” This logic reflects a middle ground somewhere between Subterraen’s and Respire’s. It’s far from the latter’s optimistic vision of humanity’s capacity to turn the tide of ecological destruction, however it’s as equally unlike Subterraen’s disturbing vision of a planet beset by advancing and fundamentally unknowable forces.
Rather, The Botanist’s philosophy is more a reflection of a problem raised by our attempts to reckon with the concept of the anthropocene. In Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz’s 2016 book The Shock Of The Anthropocene, the authors attempt to plot a history of the term and get to the heart of how its application has ramifications for whole swathes of differing schools of thought. They highlight a point similar to The Botanist’s theory of a Nature without Humanity, one concerned with our human-centric comprehension of the progression of history.
Our understanding of history is primarily viewed as a history of human affairs. Whenever it has been framed to include Nature, Nature has still been categorised as something different, as highlighted by historian Fernand Braudel’s three temporalities of history; the immobility of nature and climate, the slow temporality of economic and social facts, and the rapid temporality of events i.e. battles, diplomacy, politics. This separation of domains and time frames has, according to Bonneuil and Fressoz, had “profound consequences for the writing of history.” It has been rare, in mainstream intellectual circles, for historians to “narrate history from the point of view of animals, ecosystems and other non-human entities.”
The philosophy of The Botanist can likewise remind us that there are whole other temporalities of existence beyond humanity’s, and that in order to overcome the threat of the anthropocene we must learn to “think like a mountain.” William Bateson, the scientist who first coined the term ‘genetics’, raised the point that “though we think of animals and plants as matter, they are better described as systems through which matter is continuously passing.” Our human existence is merely one system within an infinite scope of time and space that does not think in terms of us. Once we are gone, no matter what we do to this planet, history will continue, and instead be understood by the bacteria, fossils, oil, glaciers and rain.
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Words: Tom Morgan