Thank You, Professor, That Was Putrid
The bald, beefy moderator, Niall Scott of the University of Central Lancashire, approached the podium in darkness. "It is my revolting pleasure," he susurrated, pulling on his long goatee, "to introduce Professor Erik Butler, who will present his paper 'The Counter-Reformation in Stone and Metal: Spiritual Substances.' "
And Mr. Butler, an assistant professor of German studies at Emory University, talked about black-metal music — in its second-wave, largely Norwegian form — as a cryptic expression of Roman Catholicism. He started with the 16th-century Council of Trent and the early modern church. He quoted lyrics from the face-painted, early-1990s Norwegian black-metal bands Gorgoroth and Immortal; he framed black metal as respecting some of rock's orthodoxies, as opposed to the heresies of disco and punk; and he spoke of black metal's preoccupation with "the abiding and transcendent: stone, mountain, moon."
"The purest black-metal artist is one who's unknown and inaccessible," said Nicola Masciandaro, a professor of medieval literature at Brooklyn College who organized the six-hour event.
In a way, black metal runs on a very old cultural motor: loss of faith, and the hysterical fear and sadness that come with it. But it has become one of rock's best modes of resistance, which is why it persists, why recent books and films about it have found an audience (like Peter Beste's photo essay "True Norwegian Black Metal" and the documentary "Until the Light Takes Us") and why it has inspired a new American wave of bands, including Nachtmystium, Krallice, Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy.
During a Q. and A. period Mr. Hunt-Hendrix was challenged by Scott Wilson, a professor from Lancaster University, who, like Mr. Scott, had traveled from England to attend the conference. Mr. Wilson wondered, skeptically, if transcendentalist black metal just boiled down to "all you need is love."
"I'm not so interested in defending anything I say," Mr. Hunt-Hendrix replied. "I only like to be judged on whether it's interesting or not."
But perhaps the day's most profound lecture came from Mr. Scott, who spoke in priestly cadences about black metal as part of the ritual of confession.
"The black metal event is a confession without need of absolution, without need of redemption," he said. It is, he added, "a cleaning up of the mess of others." He invoked the old English tradition of sin eating by means of burial cakes, in which a loaf of bread was put on a funeral bier or a corpse, and a paid member of the community would eat the bread, representing sin, to absolve and comfort the deceased.
"Black metal has become the sin eater," he intoned. "It is engaged in transgressive behavior to be rid of it."