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Through a roundabout series of connections, I got invited to be part of a roundtable panel at EMP Pop 2015, which ended up (in keeping with this year's themes of Music, Weirdness and Transgression) being a group deliberation on the subject of The Worst Song in the World.  

And since I was going to be there, and conference rules allowed for solo proposals in addition to the group thing, I figured I might as well also try something fun and weird and outside of my usual current data-alchemical domain.  

In the end the thing ended up being not quite free of data-alchemy in the same way that my songs without drums always somehow develop drum tracks. But it's not about data alchemy. At least mostly not.  

All the talks are supposed to eventually be available in audio form, but in the meantime, here is the script I was more or less working from. To reproduce the auditorium experience you should blast at least the first 20 seconds or so of each song as you encounter it in the text, and imagine me intoning the names of the songs in monster-truck-rally announcer-voice, and then saying everything else really fast and excitedly because a) you only get 20 minutes, and b) it was 9:20am on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night conference party and some people might need a little help relocating their attentiveness.  

(Also, be forewarned that neither the talk nor the music discussed is intended for underage audiences or people who are insecure about religion or genuinely frightened by grown men growling like monsters.)  
 

The Satan:Noise Ratio
or
Triangulations of the Abyss  

I grew up in what I wouldn't call a religious community, exactly, but certainly one that was dominated by the assumption of Christianity. My social status was kind of established when I told two members of the football team that the universe was formed out of dust, not Godliness, and it really didn't make any difference whether you liked that idea or not. This was second grade. We had a football team in second grade.  

By the time I discovered heavy metal, I was pretty ready for some kind of comprehensive alternative. Science fiction, existentialism, atheism, algebra, Black Sabbath. These all seemed to frighten people, which suggested they were good and powerful ingredients. But if you're going to fight against football in Texas, you have to have your shit organized. You need a program.  

Obviously as an atheist I wasn't going to believe in Satan any more than I was going to believe in elves, but the idea of Satanism seemed potentially compelling anyway. Like Scientology, but with roots, and better iconography, and fewer videotapes to buy. And I had learned a lot from reading the liner notes to Rush albums, so I dug into Black Sabbath albums with the same enthusiasm.  

Black Sabbath "After Forever"  

[You have to remember that at the time, that was really heavy. But the words go like this:]  

I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced
Will you be so sure when your day is near, say you don't believe?
You had the chance but you turned it down, now you can't retrieve  

Puzzling. But then, as if realizing they were missing something, they got a new singer whose name was Dio, and made an album called Heaven & Hell.  

Black Sabbath "Heaven & Hell"  

Sing me a song, you're a singer
Do me a wrong, you're a bringer of evil
The Devil is never a maker
The less that you give, you're a taker
So it's on and on and on, it's Heaven and Hell, oh well

Fool, fool! You've got to bleed for the dancer!  

The music: solid. The lyrics? Not exactly "Red Barchetta".  

But OK, what about Judas Priest. Didn't two guys kill themselves after listening to Judas Priest? Now we're getting serious.  

Judas Priest "Saints in Hell"  

Cover your fists
Razor your spears
It's been our possession
For 8,000 years
Fetch the scream eagles
Unleash the wild cats
Set loose the king cobras
And blood sucking bats  

OK, if I wanted a fucking rhyming "evil" version of Noah's Ark...  

But whatever. Before I found the Satanism I was looking for, New Wave happened, and it turned out that androgyny and drum machines scared the football boys way more than Satan.  

And then I left Texas and went to Harvard and took on a very different set of social challenges. So the next time I cycled back into metal, as I always do no matter how many other things I'm into, I wasn't looking for more elaborate pentagrams to shock football boys, I was looking for more hermeneutic nuances to situate and contextualize metal for comparative-lit majors who listened to the Minutemen and the Talking Heads.  

Slayer. The Antichrist. Fucking yes. Slayer makes Sabbath with Ozzy sound like Wings, and Sabbath with Dio sound like Van Halen with Sammy Hagar.  

Slayer "The Antichrist"  

I am the Antichrist
All love is lost
Insanity is what I am
Eternally my soul will rot (rot... rot)  

So, that's not Satanic, that's Christian. I mean, it's sort of ironic, Slayer of course were the original modern hipsters.  

But what about Bathory? In Nomine Satanas. Fucking Latin! Or something...  

Bathory "In Nomine Satanas"  

Ink the pen with blood
Now sign your destiny to me  

Jesus fucking christ: more fealty.  

Emperor. These are Norwegian actual church-burning dudes. Although, it's Scandinavia, so the church-burning was actually part of a progressive urban planning scheme with multi-use pentagrams in pleasant, radiant-heated public spaces.  

Emperor "Inno a Satana"  

O' mighty Lord of the Night. Master of beasts. Bringer of awe and derision.
Thou whose spirit lieth upon every act of oppression, hatred and strife.
Thou whose presence dwelleth in every shadow.
Thou who strengthen the power of every quietus.
Thou who sway every plague and storm.
Harkee.  

Satan's uvula! "Harkee"?  

Gorgoroth "Possessed by Satan"  

worldwide revolution has occurred
holy war, execution of sodomy
We are possessed by the moon
We are possessed by evil
We are possessed by Satan
possessed
possessed by satan
and then we rape the nuns with desire  

We rape the nuns with desire? This is a program of sorts, I guess. But not one that offered solutions to any problems I actually had. But after a while, I kind of stopped asking music to solve any problems in my life that weren't about music. As an adult, the main thing I asked from my Satanic Norwegian metal was leads for where I could find more of it. The most constant internal theme in my life has been the desperate gnawing suspicion that all the music I know is only the tiniest sliver of what actually exists.  

And maybe what we fear guides our evasions so inexorably that we always end up confirming our suspicions by our nature, but my love of metal motivated and informed my work designing data-analysis software as much as it haunted my attempts to understand emotional resonance, and gradually over the years my writing about music for people bled into writing about music for computers, and that's how I eventually ended up at Spotify, where we have a lot of computers and the largest mass of data about music that humanity has ever collected. And this makes it possible to find out about a lot of metal that you might not otherwise know about. A lot. And a lot of everything else. So I ended up making this genre map, to try to make some sense of it all.  

 

And having organized the world into 1375 genres (which is approximately 666 times 2), I can now answer some other questions about them. Just a few days ago, in fact, purely coincidentally and in no way because I was writing this talk at the last minute without a really clear idea where I was going with it, I decided to reverse-index all the words in the titles of all the songs in the world, and then, using BLACK MATH, find and rank the words that appear most disproportionately in each genre.  

It wasn't totally obvious whether this would produce a magic quantification of scattered souls, or a polite visit from some Mumford-and-Sons fans in the IT department, but here are some examples of what it produced in a few genres you might know:  

a cappella: medley love somebody your girl home time over will with when need around life what tonight song that don't just  

acoustic blues: blues woman boogie baby mama moan down mississippi gonna ain't going worried chicago shake long don't rider jail poor woogie  

modern country rock: country beer that's that whiskey love good like cowboy truck don't she's carolina back ain't just wanna this with dirt  

east coast hip hop: featuring edited kool explicit rhyme triple hood shit album game check ghetto what streets money flow version that style  

west coast rap: gangsta dogg featuring niggaz nate snoop hood ghetto playa money pimp thang shit smoke game bitch life funk ain't west  

I'd say that shit is doing something. [The whole thing is here.]  

Using this, I can finally figure out the most Satanic of all metal subgenres. It is Black Thrash, whose top words go like this:  

satanic blasphemy unholy death infernal antichrist satan hell blood holocaust evil metal nuclear doom vengeance black flames darkness funeral iron  

If Satanism is fucking anywhere, it is here.  

Nifelheim "Envoy of Lucifer"  

OK, no idea what they're saying there.  

Destroyer 666 "Satanic Speed Metal"  

Um.  

Warhammer "The Claw of Religion"  

Since the beginning of time
A weapon was built and protected
To keep the balance in line
To guard the "forces of the light"
Do you hear the cries of all the ones that fell?  

Isn't that actually the narration from the beginning of The Fifth Element?  

Sathanas "Reign of the Antichrist"  

From the fall of grace-I shall rise again
Avenging chosen one-Known as Satan’s son  

Well, it's certainly Satanic. But it's Satanism as mirror-image Christianity. Like, imagine if Jackson Pollock's avant-garde transgression was taking Vermeer paintings and repainting them with left and right reversed!!!! To be fair, that's the usual way in which revolutions collapse into politics, hating the status quo's conclusions but being unable to escape its assumptions.  

However, I have a lot of other metal subgenres to work with, and I can actually reorganize the world as if Black Thrash were its point of origin, and then as we move slowly away from that point, genre by genre, we can start to see the patterns change.  

"Satan" begins to disappear.  

 

"Christ" goes away.  

 

"Damnation" no longer so much of a concern.  

 

"Chaos" starts to appear.  

 

"Darkness" is everywhere.  

 

"Eternal" fascinates us.  

 

As does "Beyond".  

 

"Death", always death.  

 

And over and over, at the top of almost every list that doesn't start with "Death": "Flesh".  

 

Except groove metal, where the number 1 term is "Reissue".  

So my mistake, maybe, was in assuming I was looking for a philosophy that called itself Satanic. Give up that constraint, and ideas start to coalesce after all.  

Entombed "Left Hand Path"  

No one will take my soul away
I carry my own will and make my day  

Enslaved "Ethica Odini"  

You have the key to mystery
Pick up the runes; unveil and see  

Dantalion "Onward to Darkness"  

Existence is your own adversary,
a path full of pain and madness.  

Mitochondrion "Eternal Contempt of Man"  

Now the earth, sea, and sky all have torn
Now a gate from the void hath been born
Both the watchers and the unholy do agree
Eradicate that vermin filth humanity  

Dodecahedron "I, Chronocrator"  

Reigning formulas undone
Oaths sworn into silence
Our world will be without form
Our earth will be void  

We are approaching a version of Nihilism that is not an absence, but an embrace of nothingness, an embrace of the finite, of finity.  

Celtic Frost "Os Abysmi Vel Daath"  

Where I am there is no thing.
No God, no me, no inbetween.  

Totalselfhatred "Enlightenment"  

OK, first of all, the band is called Totalselfhatred, and they sound like this. Dreamy.  

I cannot change your destiny, can only help you think
As far as my horizons lead - your thoughts will be more deep
Hope inside is torturing me - keeps painfully alive
A light inside, a knowledge deep, that shines so bright!  

And then, maybe, the grand masters of this, Deathspell Omega.  

Deathspell Omega "Chaining the Katechon"  

That's a 22-minute song, and it does not fade in.  

The task to be achieved, human vocation
Is to become intensely mortal
Not to shrink back
Before the voices
coming from the gallows tree
A work making increasing sense
By its lack of sense
In the history of times there is
But the truth of bones and dust.  

Here, then, are some potential tenets of a chaotic black metal philosophical program:  

1. Babel. Acceptance of chaos, instead of a futile struggle for order or serenity
2. The Codex. To exist in chaos is to seek complexity over simplicity
3. The Void. There is beauty in darkness
4. The Scythe. There are either no illusions, or all illusions, but either way, only death is real  

Which all adds up, I think, to something that I basically understood in second grade, after all: grimly acknowledged free will. That is the philosophical core of metal, as an art form. That is the exact rebellion I was seeking. To choose Satan, and particularly to choose Satan without giving him any positive qualities, is to assert that the act of choosing is more important than the actual choice. To choose death is to assert that choosing is more important than living. To choose death symbolically is somewhat more powerful than choosing it literally, because you can choose it symbolically more than once, while gives you a chance to refine your symbolism.  

Blut Aus Nord "The Choir of the Dead"  

That is Blut Aus Nord's "The Choir of the Dead", from an album actually called The Work Which Transforms God. What does it say? I dunno. But what does it mean? "Hail Satan" is "Think for yourself" plus noise.  

Thank you, and see you in Hell.  
 

[The whole playlist that I was playing from is on Spotify here: Triangulations of the Abyss.]  

Thanks to the Program Committee and the audience for indulging this whim, and particularly to Eric Weisbard for backing up his early-morning scheduling of this racket by showing up to moderate the session himself.
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