Black metal is coming to Montreal with a double event.
First is the Canadian premiere soundscape performance of Norwegian composer / Enslaved Ivar Bjørnson’s Bardspec project. Next is the premiere/ screening of Blekkmetal. Rampage had the chance to speak to one of the main organizers Vivek Venkatesh and the director of Blekkmetal David Hall for a chat.
Karan Sinj (KS): Can you speak to the uninitiated of how Black Metal became this thriving sub-genre within metal music?
David Hall (DH): Do we have a few days? Seriously though, I think the driving force behind Black Metal – both waves – is the will of the musicians to not conform, to not give in to trends, and to be true to one’s artistic and musical vision. It’s more punk than punk rock ever was. The Bergen scene, for me, represents a unique time and place where a group of musicians and friends aligned themselves with art, film, music and culture they were passionate about. In Bergen they were able to live in a creative bubble unfettered by commercial or outside interest and make real music. It’s hard not to be inspired by that.
Vivek Venkatesh (VV): Black metal thrives because it appeals to the – sometimes reluctant – misanthrope in us. The idea of creating an audio-visual documentary that would re-imagine, re-focus and re-orient the gaze of the global extreme metal scene towards Norwegian black metal, and specifically, Bergen-based black metal, has always been one I have entertained, which is why I think the story of the Blekkmetal festival is concomitant with the story that helps us understand the genre of black metal. While its past has been checkered by violent events, I have always felt that the music and visual aesthetic that the Bergen black metal scene has produced over the years bear a unique characteristic in that it evokes feelings of loneliness and despair which draws on the misery of the human condition, mirrored in the unique climate and topography of the seven mountains surrounding the city of Bergen. And yet, it bristles with a sense of renewal, drawing from global spiritual references, linking to Nordic culture and rituals, as well as providing a clarion call to hasten the coming of a futuristic post-capitalist society. Norwegian black metal is one of those rare genres of extreme metal that weaves together a captivating human and post-human narrative. It provides a creative space for reflecting on the political realities of our modern era, and encourages its listeners to think critically about social issues of current import.
KS: What was the artistic vision behind Grimposium and specifically Blekkmetal?
DH: I think the vision with any Grimposium event is to present unique and relevant voices to people who want to celebrate and learn about niche groups and subcultures, and to hopefully create events that will never be reproduced and feature performances and screenings that don’t come around every day.
The artistic vision behind the Blekkmetal film was honesty — to film as much as we could, as unobtrusively as we could, to speak to and interview as many people as we could, and to gather all these assets with as much technical skill, respect and passion we could bring. We went in with no expectations or agenda and just kept the cameras rolling.
VV: Grimposium started in 2014 as a two-day, interdisciplinary para-academic event at Concordia University focused on extreme metal music, with a mixture of industry-related panels, academic talks, art exhibitions, documentaries, experimental film screenings and a now infamous school-bus trip to Joliette in the Québec countryside to watch local progressive metal stalwarts Voivod play a show. Since then, with research funding I obtained as well as financial and in-kind support from several sources including agencies at federal, provincial and at the municipal level, and partnerships with entertainment promoters like Evenko and All-Independent Service Alliance, concert venues like cooperative Katacombes in Montreal and the Garage venue in Bergen, as well as the support of publications like Decibel magazine, Grimposium has seen a rapid expansion into the United States and Norway. We are now a niche, and well-established international touring festival and conference, bringing together musicians, visual artists, journalists, writers, filmmakers and record label executives in the global extreme metal scene. Grimposium has now hosted editions of its festival in Montréal, Canada (April 2014, August 2015, April 2016), Bergen, Norway (November 2015), the Bay Area, California (January 2016), Brooklyn, New York (April 2016) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (April 2016), with two more events confirmed in Montreal in July 2016 (The Norwegian Invasion which includes a Bardspec performance and Blekkmetal film screening) and August 2016 (Doomed to Death). Our events are squarely focused on local scenes, and always include a performance component – be it in the extreme metal genre or experimental, electronic sound-scape production both of which are an integral part of my research program.
Specifically, with regards to Blekkmetal, I think it is worth recounting how I managed to gain access to the scene and its major players in the lead up to the titular November 2015 festival. I spent several days, in the Spring of 2015, in Oslo and Bergen – during and after the Inferno Festival, as well as in Tilburg in the Netherlands during the Roadburn festival, with the organizers of the Blekkmetal festival, and members of the bands Enslaved, Taake, Hades Almighty and Gaahls Wyrd, to get a first-hand sense of the different essences that comprise the Norwegian black metal scene. Before leaving Bergen that spring, on a misty and rainy morning, I purchased my tickets for the Blekkmetal festival, determined to attend this “one-off” tattoo, music and art event, simply to be able to soak in the ethos of this esoteric scene. Later on in the year, when the opportunity arose to discuss the possibility of filming the performances the festival, I contacted my friend and filmmaker-collaborator, David Hall, to gauge his interest and availability in making a documentary feature about Blekkmetal. David’s enthusiasm was only matched by my own shrieks of joy at this unique occasion, and we set about assembling our crew which included my colleagues – artist, philosopher and metal studies researcher Jason Wallin, and mobile media scholar and soundscape artist Owen Chapman. As a group, we relied on David’s expertise and extensive experience in filmmaking, and his approach was fairly guerrilla-style. Thanks to the organizers of Blekkmetal, Jannicke Wiese-Hansen, Kirsti Rosseland and Ivar Bjørnson, we were able to secure unprecedented access to not only the famed United Sardine Factory premises for the Blekkmetal festival, but also the National Theater, as well as the Grieghallen Opera House. We interviewed members of the arts and culture scene in Bergen to get a first-hand account of what characterizes the city, its people and the culture that permeates its fabric. We then interviewed fans, tattoo artists, musicians and stalwarts of the Norwegian black metal scene including label owners and record producers to weave a narrative that best represented the artistic qualities of both the city and this unique festival. Finally, we had exclusive access to film all the band performances, and record the audio directly from the soundboard. David’s vision for this film is unique – it relies not only on the voices of the scene that we hope to represent, but it also draws upon a collective Northern imagination that our respective Canadian and Norwegian contingencies seem to share – our landscapes, our peoples, our visions for the Great North that we inhabit, and the artforms like black metal which are so unique to our respective territories. We hope that the Blekkmetal film can offer a contribution to the framework of public conversations that encourage the propagation of extreme metal music.
KS: Blekkmetal focuses on the scene in Norway. Did you find similarities of the metal cultural/music tradition that has resonance to what has happened/is happening in Norway, to its counterparts say in North America?
DH: Personally, I found the metal scene in Bergen to be very refreshing. It’s not about who has the coolest shirt or the wackiest hat. It’s not about “you”. It’s not about hashtags and forced community and somehow defining yourself by the music you like. It seems like people there don’t find novelty in themselves just because they happen to like metal. It was real and amazing. People are not obsessed with smearing their own identity politics all over the scene, like what is presently happening in certain metal scenes in North America. Attending Blekkmetal was amazing because it was a group of people, from various walks of life, who were really only interested in a few things: to witness amazing bands live, to get some killer tattoos, and to celebrate an artistic movement they unwittingly unleashed upon the world. I would compare it to what it was like going to “indie/alternative/grunge” in the late 80s/early 90s before Nirvana came along and commodified and therefore destroyed what was real about that scene… people who just like good music.
VV: I think I can speak to some of the similarities between Québec’s and Norway’s respective extreme metal ethos. Québec is considered the mecca of metal in North America. What makes it special is that is has managed to maintain a firm footing in creating, fostering and promoting the complex ethos associated with the underground metal scene, especially in negotiating the opaque borders between producers and consumers of extreme metal. Bands like Gorguts, Voivod and Forteresse have been instrumental in creating the blueprint for specialized genres like technical death metal, progressive metal and Quebecois black metal respectively, without succumbing to the brash modernisation, commercialisation and exploitation that has invaded music scenes, metal notwithstanding. Norway is the birthplace for the second wave of black metal – and like Quebec, they have continued to reinvent, reimagine and refocus the attention of the global extreme metal scene to a modern interpretation of black metal, with their hooves firmly planted in the unique amalgamation of blasphemy, anti-communality and political tension. Norwegian extreme metal artists, much like their Québecois counterparts, rely on their unforgiving climate and harsh topography – two True Great Cold Norths, so to speak – and an elusive sense of dystopia which reflects socio-cultural realities of the post–modern world as themes to explore in their extreme metal music scenes. Grimposium presenting The Norwegian Invasion is a reflection of the fierce individuality that Quebec and Norway metal scenes share and an opportunity to engage in a unique cultural exchange.
KS: Vivek, what brought you to study metal music as a research discipline? Can you broadly share your scholarly and artistic learnings from your engagement with this genre?
VV: I study extreme metal and heavy metal from a communal, socio-psychological and cultural standpoint. I look at how scene members are empowered to use mobile and digital media to communicate ideals and create rhetoric about the scene itself, and look at how the art form itself is consumed, from a visual, aural and performative standpoint. I am fortunate and privileged enough to be able to produce research publications that straddle the fields of consumer culture, social psychology and philosophy, but I remain firmly convinced that this research must be able to speak to members of the niche scenes that are represented therein. To this end, I produce multimedia to reach out to local scenes and begin discussions that are of particular cultural, political and social import within extreme music scenes. I am also interested in understanding the mechanisms that help bridge the gap between consumers and producers within the scene. To that end, with each new Grimposium event I have created, I try to get a new band, or an established act who is experimenting with a new area in music, to reach a new public and get this public to interact with key players in the scene. I am also very interested in investigating how criticality and reflexivity is developed in the scene for issues of societal import. My public engagement events look at how to develop more critical ways of discussing racism, misogyny, discrimination, transphobia, and homophobia within the scene. These messages do get transmitted regardless of the music you listen to, you find it across different scenes; but metal is special because you can actually rub shoulders with musicians very easily at festivals. Both the Grimposium and the SOMEONE initiative (http://projectsomeone.ca) have allowed me build some social pedagogical exercises to answer, for example, questions like: how has the engagement between the general public and an art form like heavy metal developed in a postmodern era? How can an anti-community, solipsistic individuality which is focused on the dark arts and themes such as dystopia, depression, solitude and the apocalypse contribute to the development of society in a post-capitalist and post-web 2.0 era? Heavy metal music as a genre addresses, in its more extreme forms, issues around how we can move away from societal norms such as discussions about death, dystopia, religion and those are very important things for us to be able to deliberate in public forums.
KS: David, can you speak to your inspiration behind Blakkmetal? As opposed to fiction, I have always seen documentaries are revelatory. What did you want to reveal to your audiences through this film?
DH: Going in, I mainly wanted to reveal that I know what I am doing as a filmmaker – my focus was on making sure we had the proper gear and means by which to gather all the assets we’d need to present the story we’d ultimately be telling. Just as a good documentary will reveal things to the audience, I believe a good documentarian will allow the truth of the moments they are filming to reveal themselves during the process of filming and in post production. For this to happen, I firmly believe in the cinema verite approach – which is to jump in feet first and never stop filming and as much as possible, not to separate yourself from the subject you are filming. When we were done filming, I realized that the story we were going to tell was going to be a story about artists and musicians who unwittingly created an artistic and cultural revolution.
KS: Do you still see this genre as niche or has your experience seen an evolution of black metal to more of a mainstream audience? If not, why not?
DH: Mainstream audiences will always flock to fake and commercialized versions of true art and Black Metal is no exception. Just because you put on corpse paint and fling fake blood around at your concerts and have a specific guitar tone and riff style doesn’t make you Black Metal; it makes you a poser and a conformist. I never used to get the anger people directed at Black Metal bands they felt weren’t ‘trve’ or ‘kvlt’ but I get it now. It’s not elitism, it’s respect for a culture. Real Black Metal is too real, too awesome, too true for any resemblance of a mainstream audience. If real Black Metal was being consumed by a mainstream audience, the canon of Black Metal would be uber popular, and selling tons of records, but it isn’t. The facsimiles are.
VV: I think black metal is even more niche than it has been in the past, but at the same time, it has reached out to a wider public without compromising its ideals. I’ve always felt that the black metal scene in Norway has been unfairly caricaturized, with documentaries and journalists mainly focusing on their violent pasts, and pandering to the rhetoric of evil, without necessarily digging deeper and allowing first-person narratives to take centre stage. When you talk to the members of the scene who’ve been involved in those issues, there’s a lot of reflexivity and criticality when they speak about what happened, and a willingness to engage with the broader public about uncovering the economic, political, religious and socio-cultural aspects of how the scene came in to existence and how the music is closely tied to Nordic mysticism and its topography. As David Hall has explained to Decibel magazine, our documentary will help the audience experience Norwegian black metal in three unique ways: “One, we have full-song performances from bands so the music can speak for itself. Two, we don’t focus on lame shit like worshipping Satan and burning churches and tired old tropes that other filmmakers and the mainstream media slap onto black metal. Our film is about a festival — Blekkmetal — created to briefly celebrate a specific window of time in Bergen, Norway when magic happened: art untouched by corporate or untrue agenda was allowed to flourish. And, three, there is no narration or attempt to tell a story about the filmmakers or some preconceived notion. It is verité, guerrilla filmmaking that allows the subjects and the action to tell the story.”
KS: What are your hopes from Grimposium?
DH: To get people really excited about art.
VV: To keep creating events that are small in size and niche. In an era when everyone has access to everything via mobile and digital media, it’s really important for me to create something that I can keep for as long as possible in my back pocket.
The Canadian premiere soundscape performance of Norwegian composer / Enslaved Ivar Bjørnson’s Bardspec project takes place July 2 at Les Katacombes. $15. 9 p.m. Tickets HERE. The screening of Blekkmetal is free to the public and will takes place at the VA 114 cinema at Concordia University, Visual Arts Building VA-114, 1395 René Lévesque West, Montreal on July 3. Free. Film 7:30 p.m, panel 9 p.m. Please see grimposium.com/the-norwegian-invasion for all information about the tickets and grimposium.com/blekkmetal for trailers, extended trailers and video clips from the Blekkmetal film.