Breaking Down Black Metal's Barriers with Bandcamp, Deafheaven, and Mgla
Two of the best-selling albums on Bandcamp come from two bands with very different ideas on what black metal is in 2015.
Photo by Maciej Mutwil / courtesy of Mgla
This morning, I spent some time poking around Bandcamp’s metal section, and as usual, checked in on the “newly arrived” and “best selling” categories to see what I might’ve been missing. That rabbit hole led me to a new dark ambient EP from Ancst and an unexpected number of Fates Warning reissues; I scrolled past a clutch of messy pornogrind, and just as I noticed how well Perturbator’s remastered EP was doing, something else caught my eye. Two of the four best-selling metal albums on Bandcamp right now come from black metal bands, which is surprising enough, but the most interesting thing about that is which bands recorded them: shoegaze-infused critical darlings Deafheaven—and orthodox Polish cult Mgla.
On paper, it makes perfect sense. Both Deafheaven’s New Bermuda and Mgla’s Exercises in Futility are certified successes, and have already drawn rave responses from their respective target audiences. Both albums were highly anticipated by fans and media alike, and come as follow-ups to immensely well-received sophomore albums—Deafheaven’s Sunbather, Mgla’s With Hearts Towards None. Both bands are arguably at the top of their respective games, and it’s sensible to assume that digital sales would be moving briskly for their new records.
The reason that this juxtaposition made me pause is that, simply, it shocked me to see a band like Mgla lined up next to a band like Deafheaven, whose name has largely replaced Liturgy’s in some circles as shorthand for “false hipster black metal.” Mgla’s, on the other hand, stands for orthodoxy, and tradition. It stands for purity, one of black metal’s most sacred concepts. One of these bands is incontestably, unabashedly, and uncompromisingly black metal; the other veers sharply off the beaten path—more Godspeed You! Black Emperor than Gorgoroth—and is dogged by hair-splitting genre purists and clueless media dilettantes. Seeing those two names stacked neatly besides one another in a best-selling list on a massive music distribution platform really hammers home the inescapable truth that, like it or not, black metal really has changed,
The past five years in particular have seen the formerly steel-reinforced barriers between true black metal and false black metal tumble down like the Berlin Wall. Deafheaven—a band made up of extreme metal fans, whose music is rife with significant black metal elements if not full-fledged black metal—is worshipped by huge global publications, gathering praise from indie music blogs like Pitchfork and Stereogum even as they’re glowingly reviewed by behemoths like the Guardian, NPR, and Rolling Stone. The metal press is still divided, but at this point, most New Bermuda reviews I’ve seen from even the most fist-clenchingly metal sites spend half of their intro grafs musing over just why so many people love to hate on Deafheaven before arriving at the occasionally grudging conclusion that they really are a pretty decent—or maybe even great?—band, short hair and all.
Conversely, Mgla have been elevated to godlike status by the denizens of underground forums like Nuclear War Now, and judiciously fellated by the metal press. Exercises in Futility saw its release via Northern Heritage, a fairly obscure Finnish label. There’s been no press campaign; the band themselves posted the entire new album on Youtube after it was unexpectedly leaked. Exercises in Futility has been covered only sparingly by the mainstream media; of course Noisey had you covered, and they did make surprise appearances on Pitchfork and the Needle Drop, but that’s a far cry from the level of attention New Bermuda has reaped. I sincerely doubt that Mgla cares about what the media has to say, but it’s an interesting footnote in the greater shift in the public’s perceptions about heavy metal, and especially black metal.
It’s an uneven distribution of power and influence, one that’s still to be expected. However, now more than ever, Bandcamp assumes the role of great equalizer. Its platform offers one of the few ways to accurately reflect not only what the music-consuming public wants, but what they’re actually shilling out cold, hard cash in order to own. I’m quite sure that this particular positioning means that a lot of the same people who bought New Bermuda checked out Exercises in Futility, and perhaps vice versa. While the oceans of differences between them may seem obvious to longtime metalheads (or longtime non-metalheads), it’s still going to be hard for an unbiased listener who stumbles across them to clock any massive difference between the two.
It may be heresy to say as much, but these are the people we need to draw in in order for the genre to survive. This kind of digital crate-digging has replaced tape-trading and the CD-R trading that kept me flush with new tunes in high school, but the result is the same: curious music fans are exposed to new bands and new sounds. With a bit of luck, they get to fall in love, and a solid independent band gets to make a little money for gas, or bills, or to put towards their next recording. As deeply as I understand and appreciate black metal’s reverence for isolation and exclusivity—reserved for those whose knowledge and dedication earn them the privilege of inclusion—only a fool would believe that it can stay that way forever. At this point, the walls have come down, and now even falses may entry. Thanks to that influx of new blood (and new money), the state of black metal is stronger than ever, so for now, let's hold off on burned and died-ing them.
Kim Kelly is swimming in black vomit and imperial blood on Twitter.