Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So Pure...So Cold: Transilivanian Hunger as an Embodiment of the Faustian Spirit

If only one word could be used to describe Darkthrone's 1994 release it would be minimal. That can be misleading to some, conjuring thoughts of mindless simplicity or uninspired drivel. In actuality, the minimalistic nature of Transilvanian Hunger - with its swirling vortex of repetitive, trance-like riffs and static percussion - accomplishes something few modern albums have: it captures the infinite space of the Western, or Faustian spirit.

In Decline of the West, philosopher Oswald Spengler, describes what he calls the Faustian soul and its development around 1000 AD when Western Man confronted and gained knowledge of Death - when the idea of an impending end of the world spread throughout Europe. The Faustian, or Western, soul in contrasted with that of the Classical, or Apollinian. Classical man regarded as the prime problem of being: "the material origin and foundation of all sensuously perceptible things." Reality, however, exists beyond this tangible plan, as he explains further: "The prime symbol of the Classical soul is the material and individual body, that of the Western pure infinite space."

For example, he cites Apollinian cosmology as well-ordered and ending in a quantifiable "heaven," which is reflected in the grounded columns of Classical architecture. Compare this with the soaring buttresses and magnificent facades of Gothic cathedrals. Faustian art, such as a landscape of Claude Lorrain (one of Spengler's favorite examples), is pure space. Spengler describes this space: "Space - speaking now in the Faustian idiom - is a spiritual something, rigidly indistinct from the momentary space-present, which could not be represented in an Apollinian language, whether Greek or Latin."

Language, mathematics, science, and art allowed the Faustian man to contemplate and develop ideas in relation to the concept of space, a chaotic universe, and wild nature. Spengler goes much more in depth and discusses the origins and importance of this space in great detail, which warrants an essay or book of its own. However, that is not meant to be the crux of this essay. This is an essay about music, something uniquely adept at capturing space: besides Lorrain and architecture, Spengler also uses music as an example of it in the Faustian world: "It [18th century instrumental music] is the only one of the arts whose form-world is inwardly related to the contemplative vision of pure space."
He refers particularly to the music Ludwig van Beethoven: "Here infinite solitude is felt as the home of the Faustian soul. Siegfried, Parzival, Tristan, Hamlet, Faust, are the loneliest heroes in all the cultures." The music of Darkthrone, like Beethoven (though on a lesser scale, and vastly inferior to the great master) embodies this solitude, contemplation, and ponderous awakening.

In Matt's last essay he talked about the "Metal Ear," an ear which applies to any intelligent music. When I first heard Darkthrone I didn't have this ear and I heard the Preparing for War compilation. As a result, my initial reaction to Darkthrone was not of the positive nature. I didn't dislike it, but I certainly didn't like it. Looking back, I think it was because I didn't understand it. Armed with a lukewarm appreciation of metal and a thoroughly unfocused musical attention span, I attempted to listen to Darkthrone. I had heard and enjoyed Emperor and other extreme metal years before, so extremity wasn't the issue. Darkthrone is different, it is extreme, yes, but also extremely minimal - adding a layer of difficulty.

After putting Preparing for War on the shelf for almost a year, I decided to give Darkthrone another shot. I had begun listening to more and more metal, and a lot of it extreme. The more I read about it, the more I felt it deserved a second chance, something I was bad about up until a few years ago: I'd hear something once or twice, make a snap judgement and ignore it. Why else would it have taken almost five years of serious interest in metal to get over a ten year aversion to Deicide (based on one listen in a record store in middle school) and listen to Legion?

I bought Transilvanian Hunger for a couple of reasons: the reviews seemed interesting, I liked the title track from the compilation, and it was the only one in the store at the time. I slowly began warming up to it, and my appreciation for its beauty grew as my metal ear developed and as I began taking a more thinking man's approach to music in general.

Transilvanian Hunger reflects the infinite space of Spengler's Faustian soul even before the music starts, as the inner sleeve art features a blazing full moon above a thick forest and the almost encapsulating arms of mountainsides. The mountains do not, and cannot enclose the sky, and the breadth of the night sky in triumphant.

The triumph of infinity is solidified when the music commences. The opening track is the aforementioned title track. The percussion, Fenriz stripped down to a human metronome, serves as a backbone for the boiling, simplistic riffs. The initial/primary riff is arguably the best example of this. The "space" embodied in Transilvanian Hunger derives mainly from the trance-like repetition of 2 to 4 note patterns, while tremolo picking and vacuum guitar sound make it even more all-encompassing.

There is also something so utterly European and medieval in the album's title, which conjures images of mountainous expanse, endless horizon, and cold castle walls. "Over Fjell Og Gjennom Torner" captures this feeling as the muffled, spoken, throaty vocals set a frightening atmosphere - suited to the vastness of Northern forests.

A personal favorite, and a track especially expressing space, is "I En Hall Med Flesk Og Mjød." The repetition of a SINGLE NOTE for an extended period truly creates a whorling infinity. The listener becomes enscrolled in it just in time for a more aggressive passage, which gives way to cloaking repetition yet again. It is thinking music that requires full attention to comprehend the beauty, power, and art in its simplicity.

It is possible for Darkthrone to create this space because the music is not rhythm driven. It has a rhythmic backbone, but, like the instrumental music of the 18th century so acclaimed by Spengler, is driven by stringed instruments - in this case the melody-assault of the guitars. "Slottet I Det Fjerne" features a particularly piercing high-end thanks to Fenriz' (according to Metal Archives) furious guitar playing.

In Transilvanian Hunger, Darkthrone has created an intelligent work of art that, as Spengler says of 18th century music "contemplates the vision of pure space." This space is so important because it is a representation of humans thinking in more abstract terms and of the complexities of a chaotic, infinite universe.