Hideous Gnosis – Nicola Masciandro et al.

On December 12th 2009, a symposium took place in Brooklyn NY to discuss the philosophy behind the music genre Black Metal. This book is a collection of essays and other documents from the event.

Unlike some who have criticised this book, I do think analysis of Black Metal is worthwhile from a psychological standpoint. Black Metal is dark, atmospheric, extreme, visceral and controversial. It provokes reaction. And that, to me, is an interesting phenomenon to explore in terms of what it says about us as cognitive beings who create and enjoy (or repel) such a sound.

The first problem I had with the book however, is that it’s a struggle to understand who it is for. I am an avid listener of the genre in question, and am fairly well read in philosophy. And yet, I could not grasp the point of most of these essays. There is no introduction to explain what the symposium was about, or who the speakers/essay writers are. There is little in the way of building up ideas and making clear cut arguments, and the writing mostly comes across as incoherent and bombastic. It is very heavy on quotes, from both black metal lyrics and philosophical works, but often without explanation as to the relevance, or else used out of context. One or two of the essays are also excessive with footnotes, to the point that the addenda take up more of the page than the article itself, which makes for unnecessarily difficult reading.

I was close to giving up on this entirely when I got about halfway through, but I’m glad I didn’t. Here are a couple of quotes that made me glad I stuck with it:

Over excitation and exhaustion, intense hot and intense cold. Polarities at their utmost extremities. Peripheral markers of outermost sensory tolerance that are contingent with the immediate threat of destabilisation and breakdown which must be responded to. Either by retreating and escaping to more hospitable and equilibrious grounds, or remaining and allowing oneself to be driven beyond all thresholds of tolerability, to a point where fundamental change of state is inevitable.’ Sciscione

‘A concept of the demonic that is fully immanent, and yet never fully present. This kind of demon is at once pure force and flow, but, not being a discrete thing in itself, it is also pure nothingness.’ Thacker

Through Peste Noir I created an ideal and less fragile ego’ – Famine.

These ideas made me think, and did represent the essence of the philosophy behind the music, I thought. But there are several distinct ideas within this genre. Some want to make a spiritual, aural offering to their dark deity, such as in the case of the misanthropic followers of the Temple of the Black Light. Some want to express nihilistic frustration and despair. Some want to demonstrate the harshness of nature’s extremities, exposing it as a juxtaposition to human-built technology and modernity. Some just want to sell and tour. Although all of these motivations are discussed in Hideous Gnosis, they are often mixed up in an apparent attempt to make ‘one theory to rule them all’.

Here is an extract from a blog post I read whilst writing this, by Buddha in the Mud. ‘Most of the time, we only hear about the peaceful approach to spirituality: love compassion, the beauty of Earth and how everyone has a heart of gold. This is the safest route but may not work for everyone. Fear focuses all our attention, producing the shock needed to heighten our awareness, achieving clarity and freedom.’ Although this was in relation to a different topic, for me it says far more about the psychology of black metal than any one of the essays in Hideous Gnosis.

I still back my initial feelings about the book, despite finding some unpolished gems. It is dense, obscure and at times impenetrable; much like the black metal genre itself though I don’t believe that was intentional.

I’d like to finish with a quote from the book which inadvertently explains why elaborate words that over complicate the experience are in fact unnecessary: ‘It is possible to be blunt, nuanced, poetic and political at the same time. I think this complexity of viewpoint is what opens the door for music to be really rewarding for the listener, who can then find multiple ways to interpret what’s going on for himself’ Wrmlrd.

2 thoughts on “Hideous Gnosis – Nicola Masciandro et al.

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  1. If nothing else, this post did motivate me to go home and throw some Mayhem and Gorgoroth onto the stereo. For that, I thank you and my neighbors curse you. Black metal might be the last aural outpost for what might reasonably be called “music” to reach its extreme. However, there are other adventurous (and surely dirt poor) artists who have attempted to bring the listener to even scarier places in the mind, outside the realm of the normal consciousness, creating the sonic equivalent of a plot-less nightmare that embeds itself in the subconscious perhaps more than it is given direct attention. They pay little or no attention to song structure. Some of these are Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Non, Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Legendary Pink Dots, Skinny Puppy, etc. Generally relegated to the category of “industrial” music, these are perhaps the only artists about which a teenager’s parents should be concerned were they to find it among their progeny’s possessions. The idea is to immerse oneself in sounds that may be deemed “evil” to the untrained ear until this immersion causes absorption and finally, a sort of comfort in the knowledge that it was, after all, only sound and sound dissipates and you, the listener, are still intact.

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