Welcome to part four of my examination of psychedelia in heavy metal, and the occult implications of this. In the prior three installments, which can be found here, here, and here, I've chronicled metal's origins in 1960s acid rock, the gradual loss of psychedelia in metal as the 1980s set in, and its triumphant return beginning in the 1990s. Part three concluded with an examination of sludge metal, one of the key gernes that helped bring back psychedelia, which I felt was pretty complete. But then I remembered two groups roughly associated with sludge that I must address before moving any further.
First of these two groups, Down, is from New Orleans, as were many of the early sludge bands. In point of fact, Down is a kind of sludge metal super group, featuring Eyehategod's Jimmy Bower on drums, guitarists Kirk Windstein of Crowbar and Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity, and singer Phil Anselmo, formerly of Pantera (bass has been something of a revolving door for the group). Synchro-junkies should immediately be familiar with Phil Anselmo and Pantera due to the truly bizarre murder ex-Pantera guitarist 'Dimebag' Darrell Abbott.
|Phil Anselmo (top) and Dimebag Darrell (bottom)|
Pantera, one of the most influential underground metal bands of the 1990s, disbanded in 2003 after several years of growing tension between Anselmo and the Abbott brothers (Dimebag and his brother Vinnie Paul, Pantera's drummer). This developed into a very public feud over the blame for Pantera's demise, which ended abruptly on December 8, 2004, when an ex-Marine known as Nathan Gale gunned Dimebag down on stage while performing with his new band, Damageplan, at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. Dimebag's murder occurred 24 years to the day that Beatles founder John Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman.
|Nathan Gale, Dimebag's killer|
Down was formed in 1991 as a side project for Anselmo and other local musicians involved in the New Orleans sludge scene. Down is not as heavy as many sludge groups, incorporating ample elements of stoner rock, as well as blues, southern rock, and other classic rock-type influences. They've had a psychedelic side since the debut album, NOLA, but it only became more pronounced with their most recent offering, 2007's Over the Under, which was Anselmo's first major artistic statement since Dimebag's death. It's also the first Down album to be littered with occult references.
The cover depicts the alchemical green lion consuming the sun, a symbol of spiritual purification. The inner CD case displays an image of the Eye of Providence appearing against the back drop of the sun, the rays of which list the album's tracks. The cover of the inner CD case and booklet features the image of two hands engaged in what appears to be a Masonic handshake. The two hands are held above flames, and appear to be coming out of two pillars of smoke hailing from the flames. The whole image is surrounded by an ouroboros. Of it, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant's Dictionary of Symbols notes "As one condemned never to escape its own cycle and raise itself to a higher plane, the ouroboros symbolizes eternal return, the endless cycle of rebirth and a continual repetition which betrays the dominance of a basic death-wish" (pg. 729).
|Over the Under album cover and booklet (top), alchemical green lion (bottom)|
The opening track, "Three Suns and One Star," showcases Down's more overt psychedelic and occult allusions. The concept of three suns is especially important in the occult. Of it, thirty-third degree Freemason Manly P. Hall writes:
"The solar orb, like the nature of man, was divided by the ancient sages into three separate bodies. According to the mystics, there are three suns in each solar system, analogous to three centers of life in each individual constitution. These are called three lights: the spiritual sun, the intellectual sun or soular sun, and the material sun (now symbolized in Freemasonry by three candles)."The one star alluded to in the title and lyrics is likely Sirius, the dog star, which is highly significant in the occult as I've chronicled before here and here. The song opens with a trippy spoken word bit where Anselmo drops lines like "Dissuade your charge/Arrive in commonplace with the elect." During the first chorus he proclaims:
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pg. 141)
The notion of a square within a circle is also highly symbolic. The square and circle are two of the four fundamental symbols (the centre and the cross are the other two). A square, with its four points, is usually symbolic of the earth, specifically the four elements. The circle, by contrast, is a symbol of perfection, and of the Heavens themselves. Together they represent a kind of merger of heaven and earth. For this reason, temples have often employed both in their designs."Desire...Haunt me longThe light of three stones and one starWatch over me...A square will never fit a circleNo hope no joke
Both bookends burned"
"Many areas set apart for religious or other special reasons --altars, temples, cities, military camps --adopt a quadrangular form. Often this takes the shape of a square within a circle, like camps or temples or hill-tops, or like the city of Rome within a circle of hills."(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 912)Curiously, many nomadic peoples often build their shrines in circular shape, while settled societies typically build their temples in the shape of squares. This leads me to believe that the general cusp of the song deals with the failure of mainstream religion to inspire spirituality within their followers while at the same time displaying a yearning for something more primal and direct. Phil no longer concerns himself with fitting squares into circles so long as he has three suns and one star watching over him.
But enough on Down, who probably deserve their own blog. The next group I wish to consider formed in 1985 in Oakland, CA. Called Neurosis, they began as a power trio with a sound mixing elements of hardcore and thrash, as were many other extreme bands in California at the time. By the time the 1990s rolled around Neurosis had changed dramatically. As a band they had expanded to a five piece, taking on an extra guitarist and keyboardist. Sound wise, Neurosis had all but abandoned hardcore and thrash while embracing doom and sludge metal. They slowed their tempos down to a snail's crawl and jettisoned conventional song structures. Massively detuned, feedback-ridden guitars and guttural vocals were merged with disturbing voice samples (typically taken from the news), ambient keyboard parts, hypnotic tribal drumming and truly hideous guitar noises.
Neurosis is a thoroughly occult group. The artwork of all their albums since 1992's Souls at Zero (which features an image of a wicker man inside an ouroboros) are littered with occult symbols. Neurosis' lyrics are highly enigmatic, but with frequent allusions to a search for spirituality and a higher state of being. Two of the most striking examples of this are the 1994's album Enemy of the Sun and 2001's A Sun That Never Sets. I see both albums as loose companion pieces. Enemy seems to be conceptually based around Aleister Crowley's theories of stellar, lunar, and solar worship.
|Souls at Zero album cover (top), back of Enemy of the Sun album (middle) and Time of Grace cover (bottom)|
Essentially, Crowley believed that the ways humanity reckoned time had influenced the development of religion. Originally humanity reckoned time by the stars when stellar worship reigned supreme. Later, the moon was used to measure time and lunar worship rose to prominence. Finally came our present state of solar time keeping. Crowley disciple Kenneth Grant writes:
"The Cult of Sumer represents the initiated Stellar Tradition as it was carried out of Egypt, where the pre-eval Cult Set characterized the religious modes of the dark dynasties. These were the dynasties whose monuments were mutilated and sacrificed by the adherents of the later Solar cults who abhorred all reminders of the sabean origins of their theology.
"The desecrators of the Star and Moon cults were the Osirians, later represented by the Christians, who, in their fierce persecution of the Gnostic, played a role analogous to that of the Solarites against the Draconians."Enemy's title track echoes these sentiments:
(The Magical Revival, pg. 70-71)
A Sun That Never Sets uses the sun in an entirely different way symbolically. Here Neurosis seems to be channeling Crowley's notion of 'solar consciousness.'"Suffering for wisdom long forgottenThe sound of bloodletting echoes on the windThe suicide of drought for a faith destroyedWe strive with pride and glass in our throatsHarvest their returnThose who drive away the sunThe masks lay fallen, sheltered in the dustTearing our flesh amongst wolvesSee how they run as we laughIn lunar horizons there is understandingHarvest their returnCarry my soul to the sun"
"According to Crowley, the New Aeon will establish full Solar Consciousness in mankind, thus connecting it directly with its true centre by uniting Nuit and Hadit.
"At present, man is a separate, isolated unit; he requires the use of speech, etc. to communicate with others like himself. When Solar Consciousness is fully established, Silence will take the place of Speech. Not the absence of noise we know as silence, but a positive vibrant menstruum of direct intuitive understanding."On Sets, the sun is used in this fashion, as well as a symbol of knowledge and illumination. The trippy title track eloquently addresses these notions, cleverly working blood into the symbolism in the process. "Blood symbolizes all the integral qualities of fire and the heat and vitality inherent in the sun" (Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 100). Now, consider Steve von Till's praise of 'the blood' as the track winds down:
(ibid, pg. 20)
"The blood that flows through me is not my own
The blood is from the past and not my own
The blood that leads my life is not my own
The blood is my strength, I'm not alone."
Live, Neurosis developed an elaborate light show heavy on disturbing visuals and psychedelic colors that made their shows something more than mere entertainment. All of this has given the group a highly spiritual element, something that is not lost on the band. In an interview with The Guardian Neurosis guitarist and singer Steve von Till stated:
"We always knew there was something deep to Neurosis's music, but in the early days we couldn't possibly imagine what that was. We just played what we could at the time... I think [1992 album] Souls at Zero was when the music became something else. It was taking that material out on the road and losing ourself in the trance states induced by playing hypnotic, super-heavy loud music that we really figured out how to surrender to it. Then we said, OK – this is going to take us to where we wanna go: somewhere deeper, somewhere more emotional, somewhere elemental."
Neurosis, much like the prog metal outfit Tool (of whom I've written much on here), have endowed their concerts with a spiritual component taken directly from the Mystery religions of old. Many of the rituals of these faiths were performed in caves, or other confined quarters, not unlike clubs and concert halls. They involved fast and wild songs and dance complete with crashing percussion (I've often wandered if Neurosis' use of tribal drumming isn't meant as an allusion to this). Simple pyrotechnics were often employed, sometimes in conjunction with public sex and psychedelic drug use.
Few modern bands have come closer to recreating this state live than Neurosis. For this reason, their live shows have become legendary. Many fans have described Neurosis shows as transcendental and life-changing experiences over the years.
But enough on sludge metal for now. Before we can get to the newer wave of sludge bands we must first consider a subgerne that emerged from the sludge scene in the early 1990s. It has been dubbed 'stoner metal' and is the most overtly psychedelic of modern metal subgernes. In many ways, stoner metal took metal back to its very origins in acid rock. Many of the early stoner bands attempted to update the druggy sound of proto-metal outfits such as Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer and Hawkwind as well as the fuzzy riffs of early metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult. Lyrics centering around the use of illicit substances were the order of the day, but many stoner bands also unabashedly embraced the fantasy and mythology-centric lyrics of early heavy metal, frequently merging the two strands. This psychedelic approach to fantasy was also something that hadn't been seen much since the 1970s.
Stoner metal has its origins in California, with a few notable exceptions such as New Jersey's Monster Magnet, where it experienced a suitably mythic birth. The Palm Desert scene, which produced the pioneering Kyuss as well as the Queens of the Stone Age, has become legendary in rock 'n' roll lore in no small part due to the scene's 'generator parties.' Local bands struggled to find venues that they could play at for various reasons, so several groups began performing shows deep in the nearby deserts. Makeshift shapes were erected and gas-powered generator (hence the name generator party) were used to power the band amps and lighting. As sun set, the party began. Local kids would consume large amounts of alcohol, marijuana, magic mushrooms, and LSD while the bands would play for hours into the night. The UK Guardian notes:
"...at the generator parties in the desert around Joshua Tree, organised by Mario Lalli of beloved local band Yawning Man, whom Bjork once described as "the sickest desert band of all time". Lalli supplied the generator; others provided beer, barbecue and hallucinogens. There would be bonfires, occasional nudity and long, intense sets that wound on through the night. The sand got everywhere – in your amp, in your drink, in your eyes – but it was worth it for the freedom."
The locations of these parties, which the articles describes as being around Joshua Tree, is most significant. The nearby Joshua Tree National Park had already achieved a mythical status among rock fans for its ties to the death ex-Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member Gram Parsons over a decade before the generator parties began.
"Joshua Tree National Monument Cap Rock, a hundred-foot mound of quartzite with a huge beretlike boulder perched precariously on its apex, has become a big cult site for showbiz types and hangers-on from L.A. An artist named Bernie Leadon has been widely quoted, Castaneda-style: 'Joshua Tree is everybody's power spot.' The mystique of the place was enormously enhanced after September 19, 1973, when the body of country-western star Gram Parsons was burned alongside Cap Rock in a macabre cremation ceremony staged by certain of his friends, apparently as part of a whoever-goes-first pact. Parsons died at age 26 on September 19 while on a retreat of sorts in the Joshua Tree Motel in the town of that name. Although the official cause of death was given as heart failure, it is widely believed among those who knew him that Parsons had OD'd on morphine.
"The body was removed to Los Angeles for return to Parsons's parents in New Orleans. As the coffin waited on a freight ramp at Los Angeles International Airport, two of Gram's buddies drove up and loaded it into an aged hearse, as unsuspecting police looked on. The driver, Philip Clark Kaufman, was a chap who had once produced a record album titled Lie for one Charles Manson. Kaufman and his helper were arrested a week after the cremation, but were released when it was found that there are no laws in California pertaining to body snatching or burning. The flaming corpse was discovered at Joshua Tree at night when campers reported to officials that 'a log was burning near the monument.' The site is marked with a plaque."
(Weird America, William Grimstad, pg. 31)
Joshua Tree National Park and Palm Desert are also along the notorious 33rd parallel north. Conspiracy researchers have paid keen interest to this latitude line since the late 1970s when the theories of James Shelby Downard first begun to make the rounds via Robert Anton Wilson's The Cosmic Trigger Volume I. Essentially, one of Downard's theories involved the 33rd parallel as a kind of 'death line' where powerful occult rituals were performed.
"Other occult rituals for the Creation and Destruction of Primordial Matter were played out in the general area of the 33rd degree of north parallel latitude in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, near the Trinity Site.
"There are 33 segments in the human spinal column which according to occult lore is the vehicle of the fiery ascent of the Kundalini serpent force which resides in the human body. 33 is the highest degree of Scottish Rite Freemasonry... The Creation and Destruction of Primordial Matter occurred exactly on the Trinity Site, the 'Place of Fire,' with the explosion of the first atomic bomb, culminating untold thousands of years of alchemical speculation and practice.
"The Killing of the King rite was accomplished at another Trinity site located approximately ten miles south of the 33rd degree of north latitude between the Trinity River and the Triple Underpass at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Dealey Plaza was the site of the first masonic temple in Dallas. In this spot, which had been known during the 19th century cowboy era as 'Bloody Elm Street,' the world leader who had become known as the 'King of Camelot,' President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot to death."
(Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, Michael A. Hoffman, pg. 83)
This is only scratching the surface --I've written much more on the 33rd parallel north and the unusual happenings there here. That rock 'n' roll would have its own curious tie to the 33rd parallel, with the death of Parsons and the birth of stoner metal there, seems almost inevitable. The highly ritualistic nature of the generator parties are akin to some of the wilder Mystery festivals, such as those of Dionysus. Kyuss guitarist and Queens of the Stone Age mastermind Josh Homme has seemingly never been able to shake the power of the 33rd parallel north as he continues to record there regularly for his legendary Desert Sessions, using a studio called Rancho De La Luna located on the outskirts of Joshua Tree.
|Rancho De La Luna|
Over the course of the 1990s stoner metal would travel a strange path, from its humble origins as a DIY gerne largely spread by word-of-mouth and a few dedicated websites such as All That's Heavy to nearly becoming the Next-Big-Thing. Following the emergence of the pioneering trinity of stoner metal --Kyuss, Monster Magnet and Sleep --a whole slew of bands would spring up in both the United States and Britain. They included Fu Manchu, Clutch (a highly subversive group of whom I've written more on here), Acid King, Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, and the Queens of the Stone Age (founded by ex-members of Kyuss after that band's breakup in 1995), among others.
Few of these bands would be able to capture the raw mysticism of Kyuss, including the Queens. All three of their major albums --Blues for the Red Sun, Sky Valley, and ... And the Circus Leaves Town, are experiences in the purest sense. They create an atmosphere as few albums I've ever heard can, taking you to a primal place when humanity wandered the deserts in search of their gods. The members of Kyuss were able to perfectly channel the primal experience of those desert generator parties into music and in the process, captured the essence of the Dionysian rites and other such Mystery festivals.
As the 90s progressed, two distinct brands of stoner metal began to emerge. One, spearheaded by Sleep, sonically followed the formula set forth by Black Sabbath and numerous doom bands of massive, heavy riffs set against a subtly grooving beat. Followers of this brand included the after mentioned groups such as Acid King and Electric Wizard, as well as later groups such as Bongzilla, Weedeater, Church of Misery and so on. The other strand was far more psychedelic, fully embracing metal's acid rock origins. Kyuss was naturally the pioneer of this strand, though Monster Magnet also deserves major props. Early Fu Manchu, Nebula, Atomic Bitchwax, Valis, and others follow this strand. That being said, there's plenty overlap between the two --early Orange Goblin for instance, or more recently, Zoroaster.
By the late 90s, stoner metal had begun to gain some mainstream exposure --Fu Manchu's music was used in the 1996 indie comedy Citizen Ruth as well as compilations put out by skater Tony Hawk. Monster Magnet went gold with their 1998 album Powertrip while Queens of the Stone Age would go silver with 2000's Rated R. Unfortunately, the rise of stoner metal coincided with the rise of nu metal. As the 1990s came to an end, the kids had to make a choice and choose they did. Despite the mega success the Queens would have with their next album, 2002's Songs for the Deaf, the gerne would begin to peter out in the early 00s. Part of this was inevitably due to the change in climate --as the feel good Clinton years gave way to Bush II's imperialism a new found since of nihilism entered mainstream metal. Stoner metal, with its genealogy steeped in the ancient Mysteries, was far more subversive, but it couldn't capture teenage angst in the same way that outfits like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park could.
So while stoner metal did not become the Next Big Thing, it did manage to survive as a gerne and even make a solid comeback in recent years. What's more, it would have an enormous influence on the 00s wave of sludge bands that would embrace psychedelia and the occult as few had since the 1960s. It all began with the Atlanta, Georgia-based group Mastadon.
Mastodon's 2002 debut, Remission, was a relatively conventional slab of sludge metal. It was 2004's Leviathan that made people stand up and take notice. Sonically, it took elements of sludge, prog, Southern, and stoner metal and merged them to a concept revolving around Herman Melville legendary novel Moby Dick. This album gained the band massive commercial and critical success though frankly Recluse has always found it to be massively overrated. It was with the next album, 2006's Blood Mountain, that Mastadon really began to become something special.
With water being a reoccurring theme in Leviathan the band hit on the notion of using the four elements as a conceptual basis for their albums. Remission was thus dubbed the fire element, while Mountain represented earth. The following album, 2009's Crack the Skye, was air. It was with Mountain that psychedelic and occultic elements were introduced, especially the latter. The title itself puts us on notice --Blood Mountain is seemingly a play on the Chaldean tradition that the blood of the godhead mingled with the earth brought beings to life.
The album roughly revolves around a plot line involving a hero in search of the Crystal Skull, which he hopes to place on top of the mountain to appease the gods. Along the way he encounters various mythological-like beings such as the 'Cysquatch' and the 'Birchmen.' However, a much deeper message is being sent, as the opening track, "The Wolf is Loose," makes clear. Some of the lyrics in this song are taken directly from chapter names and themes in mythologist Joseph Campbell's classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This continues throughout the album, such as the "A call to adventure" line in "Sleeping Giant."
Several of the ancient Mysteries used heroic myths in their teachings. Many of these Mysteries were based around concepts of death and rebirth --a god died, journeyed into the underworld, and was reborn again. Several of the most noted heroic myths of Greece and Rome --such as Theseus's descent into the labyrinth --deal in similar themes. The Mysteries sought to guide their initiates along such a journey in which their old self would die and be reborn with a new sense of illumination. Some of them even attempted to create a journey into the underworld, at times with the aid of psychedelic drugs, for their initiates.
On Blood Mountain, Mastodon guides the listener through the underworld with ample psychedelic flourishes. Their next album, Crack the Skye, would feature even more esoteric elements as well as more overt psychedelic flourishes. The concept revolved around astral travel, wormholes, divination and even Rasputin and Tsarist Russia. Their most recent album, 2011's The Hunter, was supposed to be more of a conventional metal album yet tracks like "Stargasm" show Mastodon at their most trippy and occultic.
Mastodon would become one of the biggest metal bands of the 00s, inspiring a whole slew of sludge bands, many of them also from Georgia (especially Savannah), that would also incorporate elements of psychedelia and the occult (as opposed to satanism) into metal. As interesting side not, the two principal hubs of Georgia sludge, Atlanta and Savannah, are near the 33rd parallel north --Atlanta in fact falls along it, while Savannah resides along the 32nd parallel north. I find it most curious yet another one of the most prominent psychedelic scenes of recent years also developed near the 33rd parallel, especially one so steeped in esoterica.
Some of the most notable acts include Baroness and Kylesa, both of Savannah, as well as the after mentioned Zoroaster, who hails from Atlanta. Other noteworthy acts include Florida's very own Dark Castle and Salt Lake City's uber-heavy Gaza They join a new wave stoner metal groups such as Torche, the Ancestors and Sweden's Truckfighters along the psychedelic path that is becoming increasingly crowded. What's more, the line between stoner and sludge is becoming permanently blurred as more and more bands develop an obsession for the contrast between bludgeoning, hypnotic riffs and cosmic flights into innerspace.
|Album covers by Kylesa (top), Zoroaster (middle), and the Ancestors (bottom)|
In part one of this series I examined rock 'n' rolls ties to the ancient Mystery religions. I shall again quote 33rd degree Freemason Manly P. Hall's definition of the Mysteries for our purposes here:
"In all cities of the ancient world were temples for public worship and offering. In every community also were philosophers and mystics, deeply versed in Nature's lore. These individuals were usually banded together, forming seclusive philosophic and religious schools. The more important of these groups were known as Mysteries. Many of the great minds of antiquity were initiated into these secret fraternities by strange and mysterious rites, some of which were extremely cruel. Alexander Wilder defines the Mysteries as 'Sacred dramas performed at stated periods. The most celebrated were those of Isis, Sabazius, Cybele, and Eleusis.' After being admitted, the initiates were instructed in the secret wisdom which had been preserved for ages. Plato, an initiate of one of these sacred orders, was severely criticized because in his writings he revealed to the public many of the secret philosophic principles of the Mysteries."Many of these Mystery religions had rituals and festivals that closely resembled rock concerts, featuring loud music, primitive pyrotechnics and other trippy visuals, drink, and occasional sex and drugs. They sought to bring a sense of transcendence to their initiates, a feeling that the best rock concerts inspire in their attendees. Rock music in the 1960s, during the height of the first psychedelic era, most closely resembled the Mysteries. Rock music in that era was more than a consumer product --it was a way of life and state of mind. It is for this reason that certain reactionary factions even feared that it would become a new religion at one time.
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pg. 40)
|The Trips Festival, one of Ken Kesey's acid tests|
Of course this all must have seemed rather absurd even by the early 1970s when rock was well on its way to becoming yet another consumer product to server as background music at the prom. Still, certain gernes of rock 'n' roll clung to the deeper implications of the music, most notably the punk and metal factions.
As I noted in part one, metal is in many ways a kind of open secret society, with distinct forms of dress, speech, and even hand signs and gestures for initiates to distinguish one another from straight society. Metalheads often refer to their community as a brotherhood and for good reason. Despite ample attempts to commercialize metal over the years via glam metal, nu metal, metalcore and the more recent deathcore, a large segment of metal has still survived as vibrant underground community, complete with its own press and, increasing, record labels (i.e. the stoner label MeteorCity, which rose out of the energetic stoner website All That Is Heavy). Metal is a select community with its own heroes, its own rites of passage and its own inner truths, not unlike the Mysteries of old.
Recluse experiences this first hand on a daily basis during the walks I take through my neighborhood. My shoulder length hair, unruly beard and band T-shirts ensure that kids are constantly flashing me the Sign of the Horns and screaming "Metal!!!" from their cars as they pass me by. The middle-aged lawn crews, featuring ample dudes with long, graying hair are always down for a chat as well. Even in the midst of hardcore suburbia the Metal Mysteries prevail.
Metal's appeal is difficult for outsiders to fathom, but is increasingly self evident to me: It is a culture outside of the mainstream, largely uncontaminated by corporate America and Yuppiedom. I myself have never felt as though I am a 'true' metalhead, but I'll always felt a strong kinship with the movement because of the outsider mentality of most involved in underground metal. Metalheads often have a strong desire for something beyond the material, something that few could put into words, something which they experience amidst the mosh pits of their shows and the deep reveries experienced while listening to their music on headphones. It is a feeling of transcendentalism, the key objective of the Mysteries, and the crowning experience of metal.
The main thing metal was missing from the Mysteries of old was the psychedelic component, which was very likely far more important to the transcendental experience of the Mysteries than scholars have been willing to acknowledge. 1960s rock 'n' roll was riddled with psychedelics, but the most Mystery-like gernes to evolve since then, punk and metal, have had an uneasy relationship with them for various reasons. But in metal's case, that has been changing gradually since the early 1990s.
Now we are witnessing a full on rebirth of psychedelia in metal. And with it is coming a full on esoteric philosophy with much closer ties to the ancient Mysteries and modern mystical orders such as the Freemasons than the comic book-laced satanism embraced by metal groups in the 1980s and beyond. In the case of some groups examined here such as Tool and Neurosis, as well as the Palm Desert generator parties, rock concerts have become full on rituals with all the esoteric symbols and psychedelic sacraments of old present. A whole subculture has been building up around the psychedelic movement in metal for the past two decades to the point that it can no longer remain in the underground.
In The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll Christopher Knowles brilliantly outlined rock's ties to the ancient Mysteries, but was less enthusiastic about rock 'n' roll deriving from the post-grunge years (around 1994). He suggest that part of the reason rock no longer has the power that it once did is because bands are no longer taping into the archetypal streams like they once did. Knowles also notes a sense of nihilism that has dominated rock since the early 1990s, replacing the escapist tendencies of earlier eras.
I think that these are valid point, especially the latter. Metal is a chief offender of nihilism, with both the mainstream and the underground adopting it in full by the 1990s. Yet even when newer movements, i.e. stoner metal and power metal, have developed that have fully embraced the escapism of earlier metal they rarely generated more than cult followings. The lack of commercial success for stoner metal in particular has always baffled me --much of the music features clean vocals and actual hooks, in addition to party-oriented lyrics typically revolving around illicit substances. Were the occasional flights into fantasy and sci-fi that stoner metal takes from time to time to much for the kids that ultimately gravitated toward pop punk and Sublime? Or is Knowles right, and modern rockers simply can't channel the archetypes as their predecessors could?
I hesitantly agree, but I think that things may be changing. As outlined in this series of blogs, there are a whole slew of newer bands following the paths of Mysteries, and probably more of them doing this self consciously than ever before. When some of these bands have gained mainstream exposure --such as Mastodon, they have gained surprising popularity. Personally, I think a big part of Mastodon's success has been their unabashed love of fantasy and mythology that is on full display on virtually all of their albums. Critics have of course ridiculed them, but that comes with the territory. The important thing is that audiences have responded.
Both fantasy and psychedelia have been experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years. Fantasy's return to hipdom has been ongoing for much of the past decade while psychedelia has only started to come back in recent years. That being said, the latter is seemingly picking up steam. Not only is the stoner rock scene revitalized and having a major influence on sludge, but a whole slew of new neo-psychedelic outfits such as Canada's Black Mountain and Australia's Tame Impala have been popping up in recent years. Even the Flaming Lips, stalwarts of psychedelia for years before going adult contemporary in the late 90s (Sorry, but I hate Soft Bulletin), have released two of their trippiest albums in years with 2009's Embryonic and 2012's The Flaming Lips and Hewdy Friends.
|Black Mountain (top) and Tame Impala (bottom)|
This, combined with the resurgence of fantasy, hopefully bodes well for the future of rock. For too long has music remained irrelevant, reduced to occasional background noise on MTV. Whenever I ponder the effect music, and rock 'n' roll specially, had on the 1960s counterculture I am always reminded of the gaping hole in our current era. In many ways, rock 'n' roll was the soul of that era --an era that briefly threatened an alternative to corporatism, imperialism, and repression. It is likely for this reason that the Cryptocracy has gone to great lengths to declaw rock 'n' roll --Just consider the steps taken to build the talentless Limp Bizkit an audience.
Will the genie again slip out of the bottle with a resurgence in fantasy and psychedelia-laced rock? Will heavy metal fandom finally live up to their full potential? Is another, true counterculture on the way? Will I at least have some decent music to look forward to again?
Only Dio knows.