Hell, if Dante and Slayer are to be believed, is a fairly shit place. At least that's the vibe I get.
I spend a lot of time thinking about metal in it's socio-historical context. Why it emerged when it did, how it did, and what it all kinda means. I've always followed the fairly traditional method of acknowledging metal as having emerged when Black Sabbath awoke the youth of working class Birmingham in the late sixties. I'll nod my head toward theories that point to the band Blue Cheer as having developed the proto-metal sound, and maybe even give the time of day to people who want to claim Helter Skelter by the Beatles was the first song to showcase that indescribable 'feel'.
But maybe we should be looking further back. The notion of something being 'metal' is bandied around a fair bit, without any real thought as to what the fuck it means. Does it just mean all grim and shit? Is it all just throaty vocals and inverted crucifixes? Is it all pomp and posture? Or is it maybe just the modern manifestation of something we as, you know, 'people', have always been obsessed with? Namely, that of that darkened world. The word where hope and Goodness is extinguished. Is it, in other words, a fairly traditional exploration of Good v. Evil?
It's here where we look at Dante. As form of kind-of-half-hearted-backstory, Dante is essentially Italy's Shakespeare. He lived in fourteenth century Florence, was a poet/writer/mad dog, got caught up in some serious political shit storms, (which Florence was fairly famous for at around that time)/was exiled, then died. During his life he managed to bang out a book called La Divina Comedia, or The Divine Comedy. It follows Dante, and his mate Virgil (he took some liberties with time....Virgil was a famous Ancient Roman poet) as they go through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It's pretty epic.
As a small backstory, when I lived in Italy, I had to memorise the first four verses of the Divine Comedy and recite it in front of the class. I had only been at school for about two months, couldn't speak the language, and was so shit scared that I can, to this day, still reel off those verses without a hitch.
The first verse of the first book, Hell, goes thus:
Nell' mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai in una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.
Which roughly translates as:
In the middle of our walk through life
I found myself in a dark forest
Where the right path had disappeared.
Basically Dante has a bit of a mid life crisis, goes for a wander, ends up in all three other worlds, and comes back a better man. But the first book, where he goes through the nine circles of hell, is fucking grim. It's a classic Christian depiction of Hell, where all the sinners, depending on the severity of the sin, spend the rest of eternity undergoing constant torture in one of the rings. Lucifer himself is to be found in the bottom ring, with all the most evil/hated men and women. Sure, it's kind of odious, given we have to account for all the people ever who came before Christianity find themselves in Limbo, the first ring, just purely out of bad timing, not to mention those who committed suicide, who find themselves in the seventh circle along with the sodomites, etc, etc.
But the point is is that it is a fucking terrifying depiction. I remember going through a huge illustrated copy of of my Mum's when I was a kid (full disclosure: I scribbled all over it, it was worth like 400 dollars) and being utterly transfixed by the images of, well, Hell. It was, I now realise with the benefit of hindsight, having the same effect on me Slayer had ten years later. It was a depiction of the Dark, of the Dying, and of the Lost. It was despair without hope. It was terror with no chance for redemption. These images tapped into the darkest recesses of my mind.
All of which brings us back to Dante being pretty fucking metal. And we can dismiss the idea of Dante being metal as absurd. Firstly because Dante didn't live in a time where 'being metal' was possible, making after-the-fact socio/pop-cultural remarks about him kind of absurd. Secondly, we still haven't defined what 'being metal' entails, other than pointing to some vague ideas about good and evil, and other such bullshit. But if we treat metal as but a sub-set of one of many artistic urges to try and describe/explore/make sense of the world and us and everything else, then we don't really need a proper definition, in the same way that romantic literature doesn't, or post-war post-modern lit doesn't either. If we can accept, even tentatively, that metal is part of a great obsession with the Dark, in a kind of deeper, existential sense, then we can begin to see why Dante and Burzum had a lot more in common than first appears.
In the middle ages, the inverted fifth, the musical root note that all metal is based around, was banned. It was believed to 'bring out the devil' in people. It was said to cause a shiver down the spine. That was supposed to be Lucifer entering your body. Ideas around Lucifer, the Devil and the blackness beyond the gate were obviously prevalent in the Middle Ages and Renaissance period. The Divine Comedy is a perfect snap shot and example of how scared we were, and still are, of that tingle down the spine. The one you get where it occurs to you that, perhaps, all is not as it seems.
It may be that metal did in fact emerge out of Birmingham in the latter half of the twentieth century, and that anything that came beforehand that seems artistically similar, is unrelated. It seems to me, however, that metal deals with something we have always, and I suspect always will, deal with. Metal is really anger and grief. Power and despair. Bleakness and misanthropy.
I can't see much difference between when Dante stepped down into the ninth circle of hell, to face Lucifer himself, and when Morbid Angel wrote Fall from Grace.
From the first circle I descended thus Down to the second, which, a lesser space Embracing, so much more of grief contains, Provoking bitter moans. There Minos stands, Grinning with ghastly feature: he, of all Who enter, strict examining the crimes, Gives sentence, and dismisses them beneath, According as he foldeth him around: For when before him comes the ill - fated soul, It all confesses; and that judge severe Of sins, considering what place in Hell Suits the transgression, with his tail so oft Himself encircles, as degrees beneath He dooms it to descend. Before him stand Always a numerous throng; and in his turn Each one to judgment passing, speaks, and hears His fate, thence downward to his dwelling hurl'd
Hot wind burns me
Burning as I fall
Speechless in the holy way
The scourge and banishing
To scorching land
I am lord, I take command
(Fall from grace)
Forgive me not
This knowledge makes me strong
The cities of the damned
All the treasure of sodom
Now belong to me - celebrate
Fallen angels take my hand
(Fall from grace)
Whores long for my flesh
And my desire
Lust annointing me now
Consume my soul
(I ride the flesh and the sinners of hell)
(I am belial)
(I bend knee not before my selfish desire