Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits By Michelle Phillpot – A Review

The listening pleasures of death metal are multiple and complex, and are not well accounted for by an approach which sees pleasure as a diversion from music’s “real work” of political engagement. In assuming that clear lines can be drawn between the “politically god” and “politically bad” text (see Hills 2007, 39), popular music studies has tended to subordinate pleasure to political concerns in ways that evaluate, rather than explain, the meaning and significance of popular music forms. The political implications of music are obviously important, but what else music might be about is equally important. A productive way forward, then, may be one that acknowledges and explores the specificities of musical genres and their listening pleasures, rather than one that evaluates musical genres according to “how political” they are. – Michelle Phillipov, Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, p. 133

—–

Oral eruption, rectal extroversion
Your vagus implodes as nausea strikes
Savaging your body in terminal retch
Violent spasms and decaying enzymes

Engulf your throat as you belch
Intestinal disturbance, your ileum turns inside-out
Your duodenum is thrust up towards your mouth
Your pancreas excretes stale septic pus

Your whole digestive system is now a sticky mush
Rectal vomit in your thorax wretch your anal tract
Liquidized esophagus mixes with bloodied excretion
As you pathetically gasp for breath

The stench of hot feces scorch your nose
As you violently vomit to death
Your intestines are rising up towards your throat
Stale bile escaping through your bloodied nose – Carcass, “Vomited Anal Tract”

—–

Cannibal Corpse in concert

Cannibal Corpse in concert

All art offers itself to the world on its own terms. Once free of its creator’s grasp, however, we are free to interrogate it on any number of levels: the aesthetic question is usually, although not necessarily primary; in the west, very often matters of a religious nature rush to the foreground; in recent decades, the “political” – never clearly defined, yet ever-present – has become the favorite entry-point for understanding American pop culture, popular music in particular. It is therefore, perhaps, understandable that a genre of music that seems at odds with traditional notions of beauty; antithetical to the western Christian religious tradition; and in a phrase oft-repeated in Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal and Music Criticism, “reflexively anti-reflexive” when it comes to political and social questions would therefore be looked at askance by music analysts. Reveling in moral iconoclasm, death metal might well seem the perfect locus for a radical political hermeneutic of pop culture. Precisely because it eschews any of our traditional categories for analyzing and interrogating art, however, most critics dismiss it as either banally or perhaps dangerously apolitical.

Spending the first half of her book on the political hermeneutics of punk, hip-hop, and electronic dance music, Phillipov both correctly questions the primacy of these questions  by critics as well as leave unasked the question that becomes the centerpiece of her analysis of death metal: why are these musics not taken on their own terms, but rather become vehicles for one or another political agenda? Which is not to say that political interrogations of art are irrelevant; on the contrary, they are part of and parcel of how we understand art. Doesn’t a political analysis, say, of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony enhance our listening pleasure? What about the detailed political exegesis done to many of Shastakovich’s works composed under Stalinism? Quite apart from the allegedly simple pleasures of listening to music, political criticism keeps us from being complacent in our listening habits. We become engaged listeners.

All the same, why prioritize a political analysis? Certainly punk and hip-hop invite both listeners and critics to bring up questions of power, race relations, and capitalist and racist exploitation without too much effort. In regards electronic dance music (EDM), it is the communities created by the shared experiences of rave culture and house music and their alternative politics that become the focal point of (largely positive) analysis. Questions of the aesthetics of these musical styles, however, often sit unanswered, however. Why is The Clash far more satisfying to listen to than Green Day? What are the differences and similarities between A Tribe Called Quest and NWA? Are the London underground and Goa beach scene socially effective because the DJs offer socially affective compositions (often enhanced by psychedelics)?

There seems to be a breath of fresh air released when, without ever saying so explicitly, Phillipov places the aesthetic question as the forefront of any analysis of death metal:

[T]he focus on the political implications and effects of metal music and culture has circumscribed opportunities for a more nuanced understanding of the music’s pleasures. What might these pleasures look like, when they are considered outside of the currently dominant frameworks of political criticism? What might metal look like when political questions are no longer foregrounded? . . .

Death metal offers a productive starting point for such analysis, because an approach better attuned to the specificity of death metal will help to expand the critical vocabulary through which musical pleasure is talked about and understood. (p. 73)

The very nature of the style forces matters of aesthetics to the foreground, because before any other questions can be asked, the music calls to be interrogated on its own terms. Loud, abrasive, often disharmonic or using alternate harmonic structures, with a vocal style that denies the normal pleasures of listening to the human voice, and a rhythmic structure that is usually described as “brutal”, death metal invites analysts to come to terms with the musical sounds on their own terms qua possibly pleasurable musical sounds before any other matters can be addressed. It is here that Phillipov answers the challenge by using two among the most extreme bands as the loci of her analysis. Both bands revel in gore, violence, and – in the case of Cannibal Corpse – a complete rejection of the recognizable human voice. Both bands also feature complex musical structures, structures that Phillipov analyzes in detail (including a few transcriptions as aides) toward the end of offering the possibility of a technical enjoyment as part of the pleasure of listening to Death Metal.

Phillipov is cognizant this is an oft-cited element for the style’s popularity among particular groups; critics also note this is also a target of specifically political questions, precisely because reveling in technical mastery foregrounds particular forms of masculine hegemony. That Cannibal Corpse in particular revels in scenes of misogynistic violence (“Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt” is an oft-cited song title of theirs), is another important question that is and should be front and center of any analysis of death metal’s extremes. While it certainly helps to consider the human enjoyment of horror and grotesquerie as part of the appeal of Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, I think setting the political questions aside to focus solely on the aesthetic matters of playfulness, the dissolution of the self, and technical proficiency does her larger thesis an injustice, especially since Cannibal Corpse in particular is both relentless in its scenes of misogynist violence and unapologetic about it as well.

Which does not mean her overall thesis, i.e., the need to move beyond political analyses of popular musical styles in order to understand them, is wrong. On the contrary; by offering detailed looks at two extreme examples from death metal and showing how their appeal to particular audiences might be understood apart from political questions, Phillipov offers a much-needed corrective to the now far-too-facile political hermeneutics that too often leaves questions of aesthetic enjoyment secondary, or even tertiary. All the same, while she notes in an addendum at the end of the conclusion of her book the politically volatile nature of support for Cannibal Corpse by female fans during a 2004 tour of Australia, I think it is long past time for fans of various forms of extreme metal, including death metal and black metal, to admit the politically questionable nature of the music itself; the prevalence of rightist and even fascist elements in black metal; the reactionary nature of a music whose primary attraction is its use as a protest among disaffected white youth in the US and in northern Europe; despite the spread of metal beyond the bounds of North America and northern Europe to non-white populations in Africa, the Middle East, and Japan, the nature of the attraction of the music, i.e., as a protest among disaffected youth; all these lend credence to critics who hear in metal (and in death metal in particular) a dangerous form of apolitical reflexive anti-reflection that can lend itself to manipulation by non-progressive political forces.

This is an excellent study overall, and Phillipov is to be commended for forcing critics, again, to face music on its own terms rather than a set of terms that render little if anything of value in understanding the attraction of death metal. It might well perhaps offer new ways to understand punk, hip-hop, and EDM, as well, by asking critics to take the music on its own terms first, i.e., as forms of art prior to any question of the music being a vehicle for political organization or agitation.

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