I’m Listening to Death Metal #5: Tribulation’s “The Children of the Night”
Spirituality is a strange matter, critically speaking. Obviously we all have a relation to the spiritual, whether that relation is one of embrace or spurning, theism or atheism, and any of the myriad approaches to navigating that negative space that effervesces off the material reality of the world. But when it comes to discussing those matters in a critical space, things often turn thorny and complicated. This is not undue, certainly: in a world of rampant anti-semitism and islamophobia -- not to mention the cultural distorting lenses of regionality and how that affects our ability to grasp spiritual matters and spiritual thoughts to a degree that would allow constructive criticism rather than pedantic sectarian sniping -- it’s certainly more reasonable to be conservative and self-limiting in our approach to the faith and spirituality of others. This wariness to critically engage with spiritual matters, though, renders us often unable to satisfactorily engage with art critically, especially art that grapples with spirituality and its matters most directly.
Part of the critical wariness, aside from a haunting suspicion that most would use their position in bad faith and effect a pulpit to stump against faiths they perceive as verminous (this is as eugenic, racist, and fascistic an approach to faith and spirituality as one can assume), is that often critics, especially art critics, simply aren’t well-versed in those matters. We may know our own spirituality or lack thereof; when it comes to having a sufficiently broad knowledge base to engage with the works of others that reach back into those same spaces, though, we often come up short. This, of course, is partly due to the fact that its considered poor taste to critique the spirituality of another, a matter of decorum that is honestly more useful than not. But this same wariness, when extended into the realm of art, allows people to say/do things or act in certain manners that -- in any other context outside of art -- would at least be engageable, or able to be critiqued and examined and valued as opposed to merely noted.
Now, I am not calling for a lack of tact when engaging in spiritual matters in the work of another. What comes up again as yet another fact within the matter of critical engagement in general: we don’t often hold critics to a high enough standard of general knowledge for them to be trustworthy to produce worthwhile critique in those positions. We’ve seen recently a resurgence in calls for more racially and sexually aware critics to engage non-white and queer art more thoroughly, and in a manner that white or cishet critiques would, at best, have significant hurdles to comprehending. It's nothing that can't be addressed through time and effort and learning, but many times we don’t see worthwhile (for reasons both good and awful) to take that route. We’ve likewise learned decent and effective ways to interrogate personal experience, psychology, and sociology, and one's position(s) in relation to all three, in the creation and curation of art, whether we’ve always demanded our critics (myself included) demonstrate deep understanding in those spaces.
This is particularly necessary when critiquing extreme metal, which often finds itself directly engaged in spiritual exercises, be they Satanic/Luciferian, various stripes of pagan or heathenry, any of the number of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim groups which engage with their faith through their music, or the growing (and growingly visible) international scenes which grapple with their own indigenous faiths. Regardless of how we may feel about faith as aesthetic -- and metal is certainly a deeply aesthetically driven world within music -- it still feels flippant and ultimately a sign of lack of seriousness on a critical level to not engage with those elements in extreme metal whatsoever.
When we do so, we relegate them to only be picked up as serious matters by the most cringy of our community; because these threads, which are so important to the artists in the musical world we care about, do still get picked up, whether by decently trained and intended critiquers or others.
We bear witness to the Other
To the embrace of the great mother
To the burning in man
Open the floodgates in the womb of the world
To the dreams of the dead
"In the Dreams of the Dead"
It will come as no surprise, following the above brief polemic about a generalized shortcoming in music criticism at large, that spirituality has been a major concern of mine since I was very little. I don’t presume myself to be an expert: my knowledge base in the world of spirituality is driven largely by my own self-guided explorations, first as a person of explicit Christian faith, then someone of undefined generalized faith, and then in a broader literary/anthropological but non-religious manner. Certainly by my own rubric outlined above, it would take someone more qualified than me to engage with the spiritual components of extreme metal. But regardless of a lack of true expertise in the area, it is still an area of interest and, lacking someone better at hand, I am left to investigate on my own.
Generally speaking, I don’t think I’m alone in this position. It’s how so often we can be presented with, say, the ecstatic and inwardly-driven positive pagan spirituality of Enslaved, which uses the symbological component of futhark runes as a means of occult self-exploration, alongside the fascist-adjacent ethno-nationalist mythicism of Drudkh. It is partly because we have little to no effective critical praxis for engaging in the spiritual within music, or at least to do so seriously and with thoroughness and vigor instead of fanboyish theatrical stumping and absurdist hyperbolic prose, that we have spiritualities both of benign and ill intent sitting side-by-side.
This is further complicated, of course, by certain thematic fixations within metal in general. It is hard to focus on Satan, global native faiths, witchcraft, and more in those realms without begging the question of how we should engage with these aspects of the artist’s work. We would not second-guess the notion of engaging with, say, the intersection of real-life action with lyrics and imagery in emo groups (something that has revealed a hot streak of problematic behavior as much as it’s reaffirmed the more healing catharsis of the genre). Likewise, the relation of lived experience and social relation in hip-hop -- and why certain white rappers taking on certain affectations bothers us so much -- is not really a social or critical question anymore: we know that we must interrogate those things, and in moments of goodness, we elevate those whose voices should be the ones critiquing those figures.
Metal not only gets away with certain problematic fixations by obscuring them in spiritual images and motifs, but we also lose some of the more interesting spiritual and religious thoughts from groups in this shuffle. Groups like Schammasch with their Triangle album are producing thoughtful and rich spiritual works in the medium of extreme metal, and the aforementioned Enslaved are producing viable and strong work connecting the abstract spiritual lensing of runes and runic symbolism to the interior experience of daily average life. When we discard all of these matters, we risk losing the good with the bad, as well as losing the tools to adequately address the ill-conceived and destructive spiritual thoughts embodied at times in heavy metal.
Keeping in mind, of course, that horror is a cornerstone of metal, and as such sometimes destructive or clearly evil elements are embodied in metal as a means of evocation and exploration and not solely for edgelordy "Dark Master of Blood and Satan" posturing. Unraveling methodologies for engaging with the spiritual component of extreme metal is an endeavor worth its own article, one not so deeply tied to personal matters like this one, but is a fitting and necessary predicate before discussing my own relation to the spiritual element in the work of none other than Tribulation.
My relation to the spiritual is a strange one but not an altogether uncommon one. When I was younger, I was brought up as a Christian, although of no specific denomination. My mother was Catholic, my aunts on my father’s side were Methodist, my babysitters largely Baptist, and the friends of my brother were Pentecostals. We attended services with all of them. This alone was a bit of a head-scratcher as a kid, experiencing at times deeply oppositional approaches to Christian theology played out against one another in my head. I was too young to imagine them as fully irreconcilable, and this bled into my approach to my young Christian faith which attempted to bridge the impossible quandaries of, say, "God alone" versus "His mobile of angels and anointed saints."
Death entered my life young, with my step-grandfather passing in his 80s with my maternal grandmother passing shortly after. What followed was a fixation on my young body, its relation to death and dying, its inescapability, and, of course, what might come after. Church transformed from merely a place I would go to make adults happy into a place that offered answers to my existential terrors. As much as the existential terror of adults is a fairly boring thing, just another of life’s grim realities we have to reconcile ourselves against (and too often the bad excuse for mostly cishet men to carry out acts of maladjusted malice against those that surround them), its presence in children is especially troubling. What marks a child compared to an adult is not age as much as a relative lack of coping and processing mechanisms. This is the more significant reason why heavier emotional topics -- from violence to sex to war to the complex inter-relations of families, legacies, and time -- are typically forbidden to children. It's not out of some abstract argument about time but a practical one based on the development of bodies, brains, psychologies, and the mechanisms to make sense of these fairly complex structures which so often flummox even adults. (See our existentially threatening incapability to comprehensively grapple with global climate change for one example of decades of adult failure to grapple with these concepts.)
My fixation became death and hell. Heaven was far from my mind; not for fear that I would not reach it, but of an abstract fear of it in its entirety. Death and hell seemed like twinned elements of the same terrifying but ultimately understandable terror, that of pain and powerlessness. Heaven seemed a greater terror to me still, even as a Christian. I knew I was supposed to rejoice in the notion of union with God, and the promise of heaven -- that I would be bound in glory and love with my lord for eternity -- was supposed to bring ease to my spirit. But even in the greatest midst of my Christian faith, I found this terrifying. Angels and their wicked wings and millionfold eyes, bodies with no center, disintegrated but not in disunion, disjunct but not dispirited, whirling devilishly about some great being center from which emerged a light that eradicated all consciousness that was not God. This was terror to me, the terror of the unknowable and unconquerable. The Bible speaks frequently of a fear of Lord; this I possessed in great quantity.
Death and hell seemed minor in comparison.
Hell almost seemed comforting, even to me as a Christian. I did not want to go there, of course, but this sensation was only really because I was told it was wrong and that I would be far from God. The presence of hell naturally affirmed two things: first, that there was a grand celestial order to the world, a fact that would bring an amount of succor to me even if I were to be tortured forever in its depths, and second, the preservation of the consciousness beyond the veil of death. Ironically, despite the public image that heaven would be a place of reunion with our loved ones, the descriptions by theologians and within the Bible itself seem to point toward a great psychic obliteration where the self is destroyed utterly, sacrificed at last as the final veil keeping the inner pre-“I” self from union with God. Hell, meanwhile, is a bit more ambiguous. The least terrifying depictions were the ones filled with devils and demons and pitchforks and flames. In those, my selfhood would be preserved and thus also a hope that the selfhoods of my loved ones would survive the terrible scourging of death. The more terrifying were the theological notions that hell was better translated as “the grave,” and that only heaven was real; those damned to hell would simply cease to exist, erased from reality, and all others would have their selfhoods destroyed by the scourging light of God drawing them into perfect perennial union.
Blessed be a death that takes you higher
In awe we stand of the motherhood of God!
"The Motherhood of God"
For a child terrified of death and the finality it symbolized, reckoning the non-consensual nature of my birth and my fated death, which seemed so terrifying, so unstoppable, and so complete, these notions haunted me. My deep theological questions drove me away from my pastors, who told me to stop asking such things for fear of confusing the congregation, and into the Bible and adjoining theological texts. I was obsessive: this was not an idle curiosity for me but a quest -- a quest to defeat death, be it through heaven or hell. I was a morbid little fucker, and the sense of an inverted negative worship of death was firm in me already then. (It was, ironically, precisely this darkening negative worship that made heavy metal so immediately attractive to me when I first ran into Alice in Chains and Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse around the same time, musical work that seemed to at least grapple directly with these phantoms that danced in the shadows of my obsession-wracked child-mind.) These scouring of theological passages eventually drove me from the Christian god; the more I read, the more I found issues I could not morally overlook. I was a child, and so the notion that it would be better to be damned for standing firm to my moral ground than enter heaven in self-compromise seemed fair and fitting.
Teenagers do not know well how or when to kneel; granted, adults grow too accustomed to either the feeling of their foreheads in the dirt or childish rebellious tantrums, so navigating those impulses isn’t something that necessarily becomes easier in time for everyone.
Eventually, I would be driven from Christianity into the broader sea of spirituality. I read wide; again, this was a quest for my soul and freedom from the terror of death. The same thing that drives people to seek holistic cancer treatments in small Mexico clinics with untested folk medicine was what compelled me to tear through collections of the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, the Quran, the Tao te Ching, and others. I had a general interest in world mythologies as a child, as every future literature major does, and that reawakened in me in this fervent search. My heart found no purchase in these spaces, however. The more I read, the more beauty I saw in the faith and spirit in man in the world, but so too I saw repeating structures that seemed to be signs not of an underlying truth but instead an underlying human will and mind questioning and evaluating the world through the lenses it had available.
Secular philosophy felt to me to be more a parallel than an antithesis to theology, often grappling with the same questions and using the same processes and even roughly approximating the same acausal issue that arises from citing either God, or a desire for universal precepts, or truth that seems not to exist in the world at large. This search of mine eventually turned to a more banal taste for theology and philosophy texts, which would in turn flower into study of them in an academic context. None really answered though, and I’ve detailed in previous installments of this column how this set of questions throttled me and propelled me to everything from a mental breakdown to an obsessive relationship with art both in consumption and production.
There were a few fruitful stop-offs. One was in Buddhism (and somewhat in Hinduism and Sikhism as well), which seemed to have a touch of forlorn stellar beauty to them… and a bowing to the final power of death which felt more honest to me than the idle fantasies of transcending death and seeing some kind of order to reality that preoccupied the others. Another was Nietzsche, who I felt skewered both the religious and secular/Hegelian ordering of reality, fixing firm on the notion that if there was an order beyond humanity then it was too beyond our comprehension, and that what moved this world was not truth or order but power. The question of whether that power and will be used for good, evil, or indefinable means struck me as tragic and true in an undeniable way, one in which we were handed the keys to an impossible and impossibly large engine and not told how it would work, but one where ultimately we as a society and collection of societies and individuals were responsible for the shape the earth took.
My last fruitful stop was in occultism.
The contemporary occult, from about the 1700s forward (but with brief if sometimes extra-textual and suprahistorical ties to history beyond) is preoccupied less with a fundamental reality to devils, demons, spirits, aeons, angels, gods, magic, and spells than to their psychological formation, using ritual more so as a means of tapping into the sense that we work best psychologically in that context. It is theater, in brief, and though theater may not be explicitly real in the sense that the characters in a play are not "real" people, the theatrical performance itself is real, and the subjects it invokes are real, and the effect that giving ourselves over to this performance is also real. It is this same fundamental process that religion is founded on, a force that has undeniable real effect on the world and its people whether the gods those rites represent exist out in the aether somewhere or not. Likewise, in a far closer relation than we sometimes present, art and culture/socialization also work on this axis of theater, dramatization, and living within performance. There are plenty of papers, too, that race, gender, and sexuality (as they are formulated especially in the West) function the same, with cultural boundaries and appropriations mapping well to the notion of edges of theaters of reality with the extra element of acknowledging the social power dynamics of the world and seeking to minimize exploitation of those less empowered.
In this context, finding first Aleister Crowley and then spinning downward into darker territory, exploring the Kabbalah and the mystic end of Christianity and eventually to a conjoined Satan and Lucifer worship, filled out my spiritual needs in a way my more fundamental and unshakeable newfound atheism did not. I didn’t believe these gods or spirits I was engaging with were real; not really, and not in the sense that the earth beneath me was real, or the blood in my veins was real, or the other people that filled the world were real. They were, as Alan Moore put it well, psychic entities, memetic lifeforms, ones that lived in the world of culture and psyche rather than the air and earth. This maps well to how sociologists and anthropologists discuss social images, be they of gender or of historical figures or of social mores. And to replicate an argument of Hegel, there is the idea of God or whatever supernatural entity we are engaged with for-itself and in-itself, two tightly bound but unreachable spaces within an idea; Kant refers to this as the "noumenon" of the object, or the interior identity. A way to conceptualize this is your own image of yourself, divorced from how others see you, sitting alongside who you are in the matrix of history outside of your conception of yourself.
From the core of those two in relation emerges the object-for-others, which is both the appearance of an object, then its quietly agreed social image, and finally its specific personal image. God and aspects of god and the devil exist in this manner as much as Spider-Man does; not as a diminishment of one or an empowerment of the other, but a bare fact. Magic, then, is our ritualization and, as Deleuze would put it, dramatization of some inner kernel of a thought, taking that little half-formed or half-felt psychically buried notion and planting in the fertile ground of a god or a ritual so that in worship, ecstasy, and meditative practice, it might flourish with drama into what it was we were trying to feel or explore or witness inside of ourselves.
In silence I hear their cries
The newly born and those who die
This is the end of time
Here, where all is frightening and sublime
"Music From the Other"
It is this notion of the occult which guided the furthering of what I came to acknowledge to be a kind of unshakeable death worship inside myself. Not so much for the edgelord posturing; the notion of the finality and permanence of death terrifies me, does not thrill me, and the idea that it is the perfect cessation of being and thought for all mortal beings is what drove me to become more politically active and embrace more and more strident leftisms, be they radical anti-racism, radical queer acceptance, ecosocialism, etc. The worship instead takes on an older more Nietzschean notion -- acknowledging a power beyond myself that cannot be overcome and hoping in some manner through ecstasy and worship through the medium of art, both making art and indulging in it, as well as guided meditations on death, dying, decay, and my body, that I might find some kind of equilibrium or peace with the idea. Likewise, my relation to Satan became one of resistance, albeit a politically abstract one, but one that I nevertheless applied to abuse and political structures that caused violence to the oppressed: Lucifer became light, or the pursuit of wisdom over the pursuit of wealth or power, Christ became love or compassion, being in the world and of the world and suffering with the world; Jehovah became law or the structures and relations of the world that bind us even when we despise them, for better and for worse.
There are other entities for me, but discussing them is, admittedly, silly and corny as hell. These things to me are not like Christ to a Christian; they do not translate well to discussion, partly because I don’t give them the same sense of belief that someone of faith might traditionally, and partly because even a moderate amount of self-awareness makes these things seem, to be frank, stupid in the mouth in a way they aren’t necessarily in the hand. But it also guides partly my love of heavy metal, and of death metal in particular. Black metal, obviously, deals with this subject matter more explicitly more often and can produce great work grappling with those spaces; Mare Cognitum and the aforementioned Schammasch come to mind, as does Wolves in the Throne Room. (Doom metal sees a similar ritual magick component, or at least one sympathetic to it). Neurosis seem to generate a non-appropriative American spiritual experience without being, to be frank, a corny and fascist-adjacent one (along with Wolves in the Throne Room.)
(It’s often said that Marxism and fascism are opposed on matters of materiality versus mysticism, and that the mystic is more conducive to fascism; I do not believe this to be true, however. It's that spiritual concerns are more often abandoned by leftist artists and thinkers in an effort to turn people toward the materiality of suffering and material response to those oppressions, which in turn leaves the field open for fascist cooptation of all spiritual space.)
Tribulation entered my life at a serendipitous time. I was familiar with their debut The Horror as an ardent death metal kid through high-school and college; I remember it satisfying me but not wowing me, being a record that I played regularly on its release but fell off my radar shortly after that. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of bands that I don’t enjoy whatsoever, and there is nothing wrong with being one of those pleasant moments that fill in the gaps in the lives of others. I had almost forgotten their name when I bought a ticket to see Watain live (before the Nazi associations started to flag them) in support of their newest record at the time The Wild Hunt. I had somehow never heard of the other opener In Solitude ever, despite being immersed neck deep in metal, which is a good sign of how we should always keep our ears open no matter how much we think we know.
Needless to say, at the end of a night of pig’s blood, inverted crosses, and walls of dried bones, I was a newly converted fan of In Solitude but a newfound acolyte of Tribulation following their stellar performance of material from their then-new album The Formulas of Death. The show was an ideal example of the theater of spirituality and heavy metal mingling well, each of the three bands hovering around the same bare notional elements of death worship and a particularly vampiric Satanism, but with In Solitude and Tribulation striking a more ecstatic and joyously fevered pitch than the relatively dour black metal of Watain. Granted, of course, dourness is parly one of the aesthetic elements we look for in black metal, but there was something more resonant and, for lack of a better word, real about the joy-filled ecstasy laced in the poetic paeans to death and the dissolution of will and spirit in its black embrace by those other two openers. Later, I would learn their aesthetic union was due to them having a shared origin in Repugnant, in which the founding members of both once played together along with Tobias Forge of Ghost fame, creating from one rough teenage death metal group the makings of three contemporary goth greats.
As such, I was primed and ready for what would come next. I became newly sober, less out of the health reasons that I told others and more because I was sick and tired of drinking all the fucking time, blocking out the weekend without fail to down forties and shots and a dozen beers, texting a series of increasingly distressing nonsense to the people in my life before waking up with no memory of what I’d done. My life was defined for so long by its turbulence that I was scared to death of things ever sitting still; I had become better accustomed to grappling with the rattling terror of chaos than the inward self-reflective eye of stillness. I dreaded how I would be judged in that fatal hour and so sought to fill the empty spaces with psychic noise. No longer. I was a man, albeit a young one, and I wanted to sit in solitude and reflect and heal and grow. To linger in the silence of my transgressions and allow them to hurt me, like a doctor breaking a bone to reset it proper, so I could grow strong and straight and firm again.
In the wake of this great unspeakable silence, Tribulation released The Children of the Night.
My worship of death had transformed from the abstract (embodied in my suicide attempt and the death of my father) to the mechanical in my cold meditation on the process of decay and reabsorption of the body to something more ecstatic and spiritual, more like the Tarot. Death was the cleaving of the spirit from the body, the freedom of the nascent from the embodied; in that mind-image, the concept of the grave felt like liberation, an end to the person I once had been in the anti-birth of some new thing I would become: a better person. Likewise, the dancing dark figure on the cover resonated with me as a darkling sprite, some impish creature that danced in moonlight and scorn not with rage but with joy, something pure and devoid of the perverting elements of lust and vengeance. It was a pure and joyous thing, a record that for all its thundering darkness was a beam of joy, birth, and power. It, like In Solitude’s Sister before it, was goth as a means of stellar rebirth, bending the poetry of William Blake and Baudelaire and Lautreamont to the anti-theistic devilish animal joy that black metal and death metal sometimes pretend to but do not always fully capture.
I’m a prog-head as much as a metal-head, so the opening layers of Mellotrons and Moogs hooked me instantly. The album arced over me like a novel, grim and beautiful, my Maldoror, my Melmoth. It is the rare album that, no matter how many times I have heard it, exists to me only as a full document, something I carve time out for and intake as a single object. The Children of the Night is for my money the best metal record of the decade and has risen fast to become one of my favorite records of all time.
Spirituality in art is hard to convey and engage with critically partly because it is so personal, and we do not have the greatest praxis for engaging with the deeply personal in art. We cannot simply cleave the two from each other; it is naive to think that something like art, which certainly has an objective character to it, matters whatsoever when divorced of its subjective component. “Art,” after all, is experiential, the phenomena that arises in witnessing and not the object itself, which is precisely why natural formations and the subtle stirring of autumn air as we draw in breath one second after something terrible happened to us can both be artful despite having no traditional author.
All this considered: The Children of the Night reveals to others what I see as a useful, joyous, positive Satanism, an image of Satan as resistance not to sorrow but to sadness, to embrace fully the alchemically melded joy and sorrow that suffuses the embodied world and whose tension is the breeding ground for potentiality, will, power, and life. It was the grinning skull smiling back at the fair face of death, laughing as darkness falls; not because we should or might find pleasure in the thought of dying and being dead but in response to the cosmic drama, which trots on ever apace no matter our protestations against the cruel and fickle turning of the stars.
The album is fun, imaginative: a psychedelic and proggy romp through death metal-infused gothy hard rock. It sometimes gets separated out from death metal, but I think this is in error; Tribulation were, in fact, born from death metal’s roots and drank deep from both black metal and traditional heavy metal in their youth.
They represent, to me, the alchemical ideal of rock music, finding on The Children of the Night a perfect blend of all of my favorite elements of guitar music. No other band nor album has quite so perfectly embodied for me the absurdist theatrical drama of the motions and contortions of the spirit, which crave archetypal forms like Satan and Jehovah and Lucifer and Christ and the drinking void of death which is beyond nameless such that even the notion of names is erased, and how this absurd pitch the heart and spirit demands jutts so painfully against the reality of our daily mundane lives.
But art is not about necessarily making the two play nice with each other, not always at least, and the benefits of a group like Tribulation sitting side-by-side with a group like Neckbeard Deathcamp (who target more explicit, tangible, and real-life elements) is part of the great absurd tragi-comic theater of art.
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