“The Forest Is Haunted!”: An Ecocultural Approach to American Black Metal
I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity.
-Marco Del Rio, “Meaningful Leaning Mess”
The anachronistic and romanticized idea of nature as a pure wilderness that stands diametrically opposed to culture and the humane is an idea that no longer holds any real weight. Ashton Nichols, in his book-length critique of this binary called Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism, coins the term urbanature as a nonce term to help us escape the trap of romanticising a specific landscape implicated in a number of problematic tropes. For example, the use of primitivism to idealize so called primitive peoples as balanced and somehow closer to nature not only erases native histories replacing them with caricatures, but also places them on an imaginary human progression from savage to civilized. With that being said, as Nichols and Rio point out, a more accurate understanding of nature is one that sees humanity as intimately linked with it. It is here that we turn to American Black Metal and its role as a contemporary form of the American nature writing tradition.
In Kathleen Wallace and Karla Armbruster’s collection of essays titled Beyond Nature Writing they argue that the ecocritical field needs to expand beyond the traditional nature writing canon. This expansion aims to explore “genres that may reach a wider audience than traditional nature writing” (15). I interpret this impetus as wanting to redefine what it is we consider nature writing. It is in response to this call that I turn my critical attention to American black metal and the unique perspective it brings to environmental studies. As the avenues through which we can enter this topic are many, I will focus this essay on the band Panopticon and the role the forest has played in their work. Examining the album Kentucky alongside interviews with Austin Lunn, the creative force behind Panopticon, it becomes clear that he uses American black metal as a vehicle through which he grapples with ecocultural issues in relation to the muse that inspires all of his music: the forest.
Lunn is very explicit about the important role the forest plays in creating his music. In an interview with the online publication Invisible Oranges, Lunn articulates how environment is important not just for him, but for black metal in general, stating:
Look at Falls of Rauros: their music is drenched in the Maine woods, their music smells of ocean breeze. It is, to me, the soundtrack to New England. Forteresse, for example: their music is the sound of brutal northern winters and snow laden pine and spruce, a frigid homage to their surroundings. Ulver’s Bergtatt album brings me these visions of the mountains and hills I hiked when I was working in Norway. . . Vaiya from Australia. . . even though I have never been there, knowing Rob and seeing many pictures of his homeland provides all the visuals I need to associate the deep, spiritual atmosphere of his music the with lush, vibrant landscapes he worships. Fauna, Blood of the Black Owl, and Skagos: their music sings the praise of the Cascadian mountains and coastal pacific, evoking similar feelings that Vaiya does. Waldgeflüster writes love songs to the lands Jan has traveled to, the forests and mountains he has tread upon. . . his music is soaked with the memories of those places. To me, Panopticon has become the same. (Lunn)
Clearly, there is a strong connection between environment and black metal. As Lunn expertly identifies, black metal bands draw inspiration from the regions where their music is produced, infusing elements into their lyrics and musical stylings. While some bands are very much reliant on Romantic ideas of nature, Lunn’s portrayal of the Appalachian wilderness in Kentucky is one that acknowledges the human elements as well.
Kentucky represents an advanced movement in nature writing that acknowledges the best and worst aspects of the forest we idealize. In a review of the album written by Rhys Williams, he argues that Kentucky “is the full spectrum . . . coal mines, poverty, and dead-end meth-blighted towns mixing with hardwood forests, rolling pastures, and hidden beauty, alongside a glorious history and a culture equally innocent and bloody” (Williams). This complex understanding of nature is exemplified in the track “Bodies Under The Falls.” Williams points out that this song offers both a tribute to the beauty of the forest but also acknowledges the atrocity that took place there, the Ywahoo Native American massacre. The song begins “As the water passes over the rock bed, so gentle and quiet,/ You can hear their cries in the crashing water” (Panopticon). The beauty of the scene is inextricably linked to the human element from the very beginning. There is no erasure of history in Lunn’s depiction of the forest, “Where only trees now know of the horrors seen here” (Panopticon). His explication on the beauty of the scene juxtaposed with the horrors of the massacre culminate in the shrieking declaration that “THE FOREST IS HAUNTED” (Panopticon). This text is clearly not the traditional nature writing narrative that exalts the pristine wilderness at the expense of erasing the former occupants’ long history there. Lunn refuses to portray the serenity of the Appalachian landscape without recognizing the painful human interactions that took place within that same space.
Lunn’s lament about Kentucky’s sordid history with Native Americans and love for that same landscape, however, are not mutually exclusive. As he explains in his interview with Invisible Oranges, “Kentucky wasn’t a planned record. It was inspired by a hike in the woods with Bek [Lunn’s wife]” (Lunn). Very much in the tradition of nature writing that came before him, Lunn’s inspiration is drawn directly from his interaction with the forest and the natural world that surrounds him. As he explains further, “there is a distinct connection with music and nature from me, as hokey as that sounds” (Lunn). Black metal, for Lunn, is a contemporary form of nature writing which expands on canonical works by authors such as Thoreau, Muir, and Emerson. In a Pitchfork review of Autumn Eternal, Saby Reyes-Kulkarni writes, “Panopticon’s music isn’t motivated by hate or nihilism,” a hallmark of black metal, “and one can easily imagine a Henry David Thoreau-like figure retreating to the woods to contemplate personal, spiritual, and environmental concerns” (Reyes-Kulkarni). I agree with this sentiment with the added caveat that Lunn’s understanding of his environment is through the ecocultural lens that critically engages with how humanity and nature are linked in terms of problematic resource consumption and cultural atrocities. As Rio states, American black metal recognizes and grapples with the role humanity plays in natural environments. The forest is very much haunted, the ghostly presence of humans lingering in Romantic landscapes that attempt to erase that very connection. It is imperative however, that like American black metal, we grapple with that history in order to move towards a more ethical conception of the forest and humanity embedded within it.
Armbruster, Karla and Wallace, Kathleen, eds. Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 2001. Print.
Lunn, Austin. Interview by Invisible Orange Staff. “Interview: Austin Lunn (Panopticon).” Invisible Oranges, 27 Aug. 2014. http://www.invisibleoranges.com/interview-austin-lunn-panopticon/ Accessed October 2017.
Panopticon. “Bodies Under the Falls.” Kentucky. Pagan Flames, 2012, https://thetruepanopticon.bandcamp.com/album/kentucky.
Reyes-Kulkarni, Saby. “Panopticon - Autumn Eternal.” Pitchfork, 20 Oct. 2015. https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/21200-autumn-eternal/. Accessed October 2017.
Stosuy, Brandon. “Meaningful Leaning Mess.” Hideous Gnosis. Lexington, 2012, pp. 143-156.
Williams, Rhys. “Panopticon - Kentucky.” Invisible Oranges, 13 Aug. 2012. http://www.invisibleoranges.com/panopticon-kentucky/. Accessed October 2017.