Esotericism and Metal in the Black Ivory Tower

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I’m a voracious reader. In addition to the scores of blogs I follow in my personal and professional lives, I’m juggling four or five books at any given time. I’d estimate that over the course of a month, I read the writing of around a hundred authors. As a person who believes that language can be evocative as well as informative, I find myself sifting through articles, eager for an elegant turn of phrase or a taste of dry wit. There are go-to film writers who deliver confident, textured writing that entertains beyond the scope of its subject matter,* but I find myself looking for music writers with the same panache. The difficulty of writing about music is summed up in an old chestnut of dubious origin, but as I read more underground music criticism on a regular basis, I can’t help but pine for strong, personal voices. To my obsessive reader’s eye, a troubling majority of writers on the kinds of music I enjoy** (various forms of metal, neofolk, industrial, and so on) are concerned with the niceties of genre classification and the relative production values between records to the exclusion of honing their craft as authors. This kind of writing is undeniably helpful when it comes to making purchasing decisions, but it’s often a joyless thing to read–more on a par with Consumer Reports than anything one would pick up for pleasure. I believe that sophisticated language takes on additional importance when an author chooses to write about underground and extreme forms of music, since the reasonable assumption should be that the piece of writing in question will be most readers’ first exposure to the music being reviewed.

*If you don’t read House of Self-Indulgence (Yum-Yum), Mondo Heather (Heather Drain), and Acidemic (Erich Kuersten), you are missing out on truly unique perspectives from people who are masters of their craft.

**The #NotAllWriters rule applies, guys. I’m not being shady towards people I know.

One of the luxuries afforded to independent publishers who don’t make their livings from their writing is the fact that they can develop aggressively non-commercial voices and perspectives. I’m keenly aware that my blogging and zine pursuits don’t have to line up with popular opinions or trends, and it’s creatively freeing for me. I find myself struck with delight in those all too rare moments when I find a kindred spirit in some far-flung corner of the world, madly writing away about some arcane topic and feeding his or her soul in the process.

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Through the vagaries of fate,*** I recently came across writing so absolutely unique within the metal world that I was fascinated at first read. Black Ivory Tower, published in blog and zine form, is dedicated to the most obscure forms of metal and underground music imaginable. To put this in perspective: perhaps the most well-known band reviewed in BIT is Peste Noire, the French “National Satanist Black Metal” outfit.**** One will not find a gentle guide through the wilderness of these recordings in BIT. Instead, the reader is overwhelmed by a wall of elaborately structured, deeply intellectual, and frequently caustic prose. This is writing that meets the arcane and aggressive music it discusses head-on, without apologies.

***OK, actually Twitter.

****Note to my regular readers: as an added encouragement to seek out Peste Noire’s music, be aware that band leader Famine describes their output as “fantastique, grotesque, archaeofuturist black metal,” which makes me a little swoony even just typing those words.

The person with this startlingly refreshing voice is Degtyarov, a writer who embodies the unrepentantly esoteric nature of the true underground. While his writing on the topic of National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) bands like Russia’s Moloth has rubbed some the wrong way, there’s more than mere provocation to his work. The current resurgence of political correctness has made it all too easy for even the most amateur authors to hammer on hot buttons, but Degtyarov’s best work captures the bleak outlook of the frustrated Romantic.

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Glimpses of his skill as a writer and editor***** are available in the blog, but Black Ivory Tower is best experienced in print form. I find reading print media to be far more relaxing and immersive than reading online: distractions are fewer, the physical experience is more comfortable, and it’s an altogether more natural way to absorb the written word. The traditionalist views and extreme erudition of BIT are inherently better suited to the printed page than to the virtual one, and as an editor, Degtyarov takes full advantage of the magazine medium to create a deliberate flow from article to article. Physically, the zine feels substantial–thoughtfully illustrated and printed in full color, it’s clearly a labor of love for its creator. There’s a sophistication and density to the second volume of BIT that’s unlike any metal zine I’ve ever read. Contributors to BIT 2, aptly subtitled “Time of Heroes,” take an intense, scholarly look at topics including Current 93 and Christianity, the Alpine mythology of Sturmpercht, and Colombian folk music. Articles in the zine are united by themes of cultural heritage and a yearning for a heroic past that perhaps never existed. This is a canny choice by Degtyarov in his role as editor, as it allows him to contextualize his own writing on the ultra-esoteric world of Siberian folk and metal music. In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be no more than a novelty–trivia about a Western, urban form of music adapted by people from an “exotic” land. What Degtyarov does here is more than merely define the world of Siberian metal–he brings it and its creators to life for his readers. Take, for example, these passages from Taigafolk (available to read in full on the BIT blog):

The clouds press heavily on the trees, cloaking them in a sultry fog that permeates even the loneliest thickets of the immense boreal forest. The spruces that safeguard nature’s last remaining secrets reach into cold, unwelcoming soil, yet it is the only home that they have ever known, and ever will know. Set in motion only by an occasional breeze, these green giants stand side by side as the pillars of an immovable forest wall, unscathed by man. Their only fate is eternity; they shall remain loyal to the earth that nurtured them, until the end of time.

In art, and music in particular, one can already witness the casting off of falseness and Babylonian platitudes. Though commonly seen as a force of desecration, the black metal genre is ugly only in form, as its hideousness merely serves to hold up a mirror to the nauseating excesses of the era against which it revolts. Folk music, too, spearheads its own insurrection by attempting to purify itself of the grotesque musical mutations that together constitute the soundtrack of the 21st century.

Flutes, bells and additional guitars allow the melody come to fruition. They dance in harmony, paving the way for the drums and electric strings, which finally push the composition into a black metal orbit. These instruments, too, remain loyal to the leitmotif, with the solemn humming in the background persisting until the very end. Together, they establish the scene of Mother Earth, who can only stand idly by as a great evil pierces through her crust.

The structure of this article is such that, by the time Degtyarov gets around to describing the music, the reader is so completely captivated by atmosphere that they ache to know what the recording sounds like. His style of writing goes beyond music criticism for the sake of information and becomes an extraordinarily pleasurable and–yes–poetic reading experience. In the author’s deft hands, an LP produced in a small city on the Asian continent takes on a jewel-like significance: rare, beautiful, and representing so much more than its modest scale would suggest.

*****It should be noted that though the focus here is on BIT’s creator, the site and zine features multiple contributors

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There are those who will dub the approach to music writing in BIT elitist, and that’s not an incorrect observation. I’d argue that a populist approach to esoteric art is by its nature inappropriate–if you’re turned off by the concept of high-minded writing about high-minded ideas, this isn’t a publication for you. The most unique artists in any medium know that they alienate vast portions of the world by honing the characteristics that define them. An egalitarian approach to reviewing music by a band that only releases thirty physical copies of their album would be beyond dissonant–it would be laughable.

I’ll confess that I read Degtyarov’s writing with a sense of envy on a number of levels. He’s an absolutely fearless writer, confronting topics I struggle to discuss in polite New York City 2016 society, but beyond that, he’s not a native English speaker. Hailing from the Netherlands, his writing process in the early days of BIT was to write an entire review in Dutch and translate it into English only after it was complete. One can witness the evolution of his writing over the four short years that BIT has been published; the work in volume 2 of the print zine is demonstrably more powerful than the angrier, more venomous content of volume 1. There’s an advancement to a higher plane of thought happening here that’s fascinating to witness.

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It seems only fitting that this story ends with a bittersweet yearning for what could have been. The unfortunate truth is that Black Ivory Tower is not, at the time of this writing, an active publication. Degtyarov contributes to Nine Circles (my metal blog of choice and now home to my writing) and is the co-host of Heathen Harvest’s excellent podcast, A Forest Passage (HH is another site I’m privileged to write for). In my heart of hearts, though, I hope Degtyarov makes a triumphant return to the fortress of dark ideals he built with the Black Ivory Tower.

Around the Web: Imperial Decadence, Predictable Violence, Metal Comics & Occult Fun

2016 has certainly started with a bang, and February holds some really exciting developments that I’m looking forward to sharing. For those of you looking for a handy run-down of what I’ve been up to, you’re in luck!

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January’s installment of Great Moments in Historical Sluttery, my monthly column at Slutist, is probably one of my favorites so far. Roman Empress Messalina is a fascinating figure whose scandalous reputation continues to titillate audiences looking for tales of sexy intrigue. Short of the whole “getting executed for treason” thing, it’s pretty amazing to think that one’s insatiable sexual appetites would continue to be a topic of conversation two thousand years after one’s death. May we all be lucky enough to be the namesake of a German strip club. Read the article here.

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On a completely different but also-controversial note, I reviewed Feral House’s spicy new release, The White Nationalist Skinhead Movement: UK & USA 1979-1993 for Heathen Harvest. SPOILER: Many people are punched; little is ultimately accomplished. This was a challenging read from a very different perspective than the majority of writing on the subject, though its 600-plus-page run length makes it a book geared towards the VERY curious. Of all of the exhaustive details, I think my favorite anecdote was the fact that Ian Stewart of Skrewdriver was used as a bogeyman to convince his friends’ kids to behave themselves.

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Because I have friends who humor me perhaps a bit too much, I have a new monthly column at Nine Circles where I discuss heavy metal comics. My first installment of Stygian Imagery talks about Glenn Danzig’s Satanika. It’s exactly the sort of comic book that you’d imagine Glenn Danzig would write, in that it is full of tits and gore.

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Lastly, but absolutely not leastly, my Art Coven sisters Becky Munich and S. Elizabeth brought together amazing artists and authors for their just-released Occult Activity Book and invited me to participate. If you’ve ever wanted Elizabeth Bathory paper dolls and Suspiria color-in pages, then boy howdy it is your lucky day! I’ve got my filthy hands on a copy of this and it is a creepy, cheeky good time. Purchase your copy here!