In my early years as a metal fan, in the 1980s and 1990s, everything was interesting. The process of musical discovery was a slow one, proceeding in fits and starts as I gradually managed to buy, copy and hear enough metal to become knowledgeable about the parameters of the genre. In the pre-abundance era, there were always unheard acts and recordings that tantalized. Obtaining a recording was an intoxicating triumph against scarcity.
By the time I began my PhD on metal in 1996 and started writing for Terrorizer magazine in 1997, this first glorious phase of my love for metal was over. I wasn’t an expert, but I knew the canonical texts, I knew what I liked and didn’t like, I knew what counted as good and bad music in metal scenes. As such, I thought I was ready to be a metal journalist.
In fact, I was completely unprepared for the aesthetic and critical challenge that awaited me.
This challenge had a name – Morgul. Morgul were a Norwegian black metal band formed in 1991. They released two demos in 1992 and 1994, and then two albums with Napalm Records in 1997 and 1998, two with Century Media in 2000 and 2001, and one with Seasons of Mist in 2005. The one constant member of the band was ‘Jack D. Ripper’, but they never managed to achieve a stable line up and, as far as I can tell, never extensively toured. Jack D. Ripper now apparently resides in Detroit but Morgul appears not to be a functioning act any more. There is little information online about the band, save for a Wikipedia entry and a few brief interviews.
Morgul’s significance for me is that I received their debut album Lost in Shadows Grey in the very first package of items for review for Terrorizer. On hearing it, I was literally at a loss for words. I knew where to place it generically – as part of the wave of Emperor and Cradle of Filth-influenced keyboard-driven Norwegian black metal that followed in the wake of the scene’s early 1990s notoriety – and I knew roughly how to evaluate it – as decent but unspectacular – but beyond that I didn’t know what to say about it. I struggled to fill the 180 words allotted to me. What was this album? It was ‘okay’, it was one of a crowd of similar releases, it was mildly entertaining, it was competent. The album seemed to offer no purchase on which to grab hold of.
The problem persisted throughout my ‘career’ as a metal journalist. Sometimes I was given exciting, innovative, brilliant albums to review, sometimes I was given incompetent or poor albums to review. In both those cases, the words came flooding out. But more often I was given albums like Morgul’s to review; albums that provided the bulk of the review copies that flooded everyday into the Terrorizer office. With these I struggled, beyond situating them, saying something about the band and noting their competent generic nature, what was there left to say?
The challenge of Morgul persists to this day. In an earlier article I suggested that repeated listening to Lost in Shadows Grey, or a similar kind of text, could be one of the ways in which the boundaries of metal aesthetics could be pushed. This I have done. I can now report that this challenge hasn’t transformed my appreciation of metal, so much as puzzled me – its mysteries seem to have deepened. The album doesn’t excite me, but it doesn’t repel me either. It is similar to much of the black metal produced at the time and subsequently, but it does not deserve to be singled out as any more derivative than dozens of other bands. It is reasonably played and produced, but is not a masterpiece of virtuosity and innovation. It is not exciting, but not boring either.
What astonishes me is that in 2015, when I am vastly more knowledgeable about metal than I was in 1997, and having listened to the album many times, I still can’t find much to say about Lost in Shadows Grey. Nor can I pinpoint exactly what, in musicological terms, makes the album so difficult to talk about. There are other albums produced at the time and since then that sound very similar to this one, but that excite me far more. The line dividing Morgul from acclaimed canonical artists is clearly narrow, but I cannot trace it.
In short, Lost in Shadows Grey leaves me at an impasse: as a fan I cannot get into it, not matter how hard I try; yet as a scholar and a critic I cannot pinpoint why this is.Escaping this impasse requires a rethinking of what the pleasures of metal might involve. It involves an engagement with ‘mediocrity’.
Mediocrity, as I understand it here, should not be seen as the same as bad music. Rather, mediocrity exists in the broad aesthetic space between good and bad music. It is a space that is rarely considered by either scholars or practitioners. Music is never universally judged good or bad by everyone, and most music that exists has at some point or another been judged good or bad by someone (if only the artist who made it). But whenever there is a canon – and musical fields without canons are extremely rare – aesthetic judgement applied to particular works and artists ‘clusters’ towards the two ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Between these poles, aesthetic space is only weakly or erratically subject to consistent judgement. This is the domain of mediocrity.
One of paradoxes of mediocrity is that it attracts silence and indifference, but it is almost always produced by ‘noisy’ passion and enthusiasm. I know little about Morgul the band, but I find it hard to believe that the motivating force behind the band was any less strong as was the case for any number of canonical acts. Producing metal is difficult, underground metal most of all. Even in places like Norway, where a supportive infrastructure exists, it does not come easy. One could view the massive disparity behind the passion that produces mediocrity and the indifference that greets it as somehow tragic – and perhaps it is – yet maybe it can also been seen as heroic.
Why should it be that musicians require a passionate audience to be validated? Maybe the purest aesthetic gesture of all is to produce music that has only a minimal chance of being heard. Like offerings to a non-interventionist God, mediocre music requires a blind commitment in the face of apparent indifference. In contrast, the canon invites a more worldly instrumental rationality, in which the passion that produces music can be ‘balanced’ against the response it receives.
So I may not be able to love Morgul’s music, but I can honour, respect and marvel at the efforts that produced it – and these can bring me pleasure. There is a joy in appreciating that extraordinary resilience and desire that keeps metal going. It is a joy that can be accentuated by reveling in the stories behind the mediocre. While I don’t have these stories in Morgul’s case, I do have them in others. I have spent much time with and listened to the tales of many musicians whose music is largely ignored. The contrast between the story and the result leads to piquant gratification.
In a slightly different context, the critic Carl Wilson undertook a similar journey to the one that I am trying to take. In his Let’s Talk About Love, Wilson deliberately tried to learn to love Celine Dion’s music, something he had always loathed. While he never learned to love ‘the music itself’, he did find that a sincere attempt to understand Dion’s fans and Dion herself brought unexpected pleasures that made him rethink his assumptions about what it was to be a critic and what it was to love music. As he argues:
What counted in the end was to give Let’s Talk About Love a sympathetic hearing, to credit that others find it lovable and ask what that can tell me about music (or globalism, or sentimentality) in general. The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by “cool” taste is inimical to that sympathy, to an aesthetics that might support a good public life. The goal is not that we all end up with the same taste, no matter how broad.
You…can love a song for its datedness, for the social history its anachronism reveals. You can love a song for how its sentimentality gives a workout to the emotions. You can love it for its foreignness, for the glimpse it gives of human variability. You can love it for its exemplarity, for being the “ultimate” disco floor filler or schmaltzy mother song. You can love it for representing a place, a community, even.
And I’d add to that – you can love a song for the indifference it stirs within you, and for the thrilling contrast between that indifference and the commitment that produced it.