Structure and Unity in Norwegian Black Metal: An Analytical Case Study. Mark Johnson (Australian National University)
[abstract] The Norwegian Black Metal scene of the early 1990s has, to date, been primarily considered by scholars as a violent and subversive subcultural movement. The relative lack of detailed musical discussion of the genre is perhaps partly due to its own deliberate cultivation of an obscure and alienating aesthetic; as if to repel outsiders and allow access only to an exclusive inner circle of bands and fans. This paper goes beyond the aural DO NOT ENTER sign through a close musical analysis of an exemplary album of the genre, Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger (1994). The album’s lo-fi production and sonic texture seem particularly inscrutable, monochrome and minimalistic, even by the standards of previous Black Metal.
However, by adapting analytical tools drawn from classical repertoire, such as voice-leading analysis and Schoenberg s concept of Grundgestalt, it is possible to understand the complex approach to melody and form which lies beneath the music’s harsh and homogenous exterior. Extensive motivic development and structural relationships between riffs contribute to a sense of musical unity, both within individual tracks, and across the album as a whole.
Through a case study of an emblematic album, this paper moves towards an analytical framework for Norwegian Black Metal more generally. By approaching the genre from an analytical perspective, we can begin to understand the ’inner circle’ from which we have been barred, and in doing so, speak back to current sociological understandings of this subculture.
Mark Johnson is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University (ANU). Mark completed a Bachelor of Music in 2009, majoring in Musicology and also studying piano and fortepiano. In 2010, Mark was awarded the Bernhard Neumann Memorial Prize for best fourth year student at the ANU School of Music for his Honours theses on rhetoric and didacticism in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and on elements of mysticism in Scriabin’s late musical language. Mark’s research interests include rhetoric, narrative, aesthetics and esotericism in music.
Mark’s PhD research is centred on a musical analysis and interpretation of Norwegian Black Metal, which allows him to explore his research interests in a new context of popular music.
[With apologies to Mark for missing the first couple of minutes]
The first Darkthrone example we (I) hear is from As Flittermice as Satans Spies, and Mark notes the relentlessness of some of the musical characteristics (tremolando picking etc), stating that he intends to filter them out for analytical purposes – we will see why shortly.
David Epstein – beyond Orpheous (1979) – defining Schoenberg’s Grundegestalt or ‘Basic Shape’ and contextualising it by contour, melody/rhythm, pattern,consistency and recurrence, degree potion of pitches within a key, and harmonic context. We now look at the riff from the title track Transilvanian Hunger, with the tremolando stripped out from the notation.
The contour of the riff is described, noting the tied-quaver suspension across bars 2-3 being the only rhythmically specific, or less metric, information in the riff. He notes that, being a riff, the harmonic context is incomplete, because the riff simply moves with the underlying root. Inevitably, this being metal, we get into tritone movements, and Mark notes these changes and the ambivalence of the return to the first riff.
Mark now talks us through the harmonic (and implicit harmonic) osciallations between the riffs, analysing arguable progressions where he hears them, but consistently acknowledging [intentional?] ambiguity wherever it occurs.
Track 2 is ‘Over Fjell Og Gjennom Torner’;
Here we look at the characteristics of these four riffs, and Mark notes how the final riff (his example 2C) is implicitly derived from the other preceding ones. The bass progression of the song is key to revealing the relationship between the riffs, creating a macro level intervallic structure. This track is also important because it establishes some harmonic/form characteristics [what I would call deliberate creative constraints] that define the album as a whole work. Track three illustrates these in practice – Skald
Mark playfully cites Schoenberg again, and speculates how the latter would have reacted to Darkthrone’s ‘obviously Norwegian behaviour’. He concludes by contending that Transilvanian Hunger is a whole and unified work, yielding, to its fans, something deeper and more profound than its outward harshness and monotony might suggest to the casual listener. He calls for a modification of analytical tools to account for the detailed and subtle musical gestures that occur below the surface sonic appearance of the work, and of Black Metal more generally.