With the above-average prevalence of autism in the metal scene in mind, it is hardly a challenge to explain metalheads’ tendency to classify every last metal band into the most obscure subgenres. Instead of accepting that some bands may have a somewhat unique style, the most ridiculous terms are called into life to categorise every type of music that even has as much as an electric guitar in it. Perhaps this is the only way for them to keep things organised and safe – who’s to tell what one of these loners might do when their brains are overloaded from thinking too much, after all. This is why, for as long as metal has existed, meaningless labels have been put on albums and even entire bands, such as ‘epic metal’ (power metal), ‘symphonic metal’ (metal bands that have the budget to replace their Casio keyboards with actual orchestras) and ‘fantasy metal’ (power metal for people who are confused about their sexual orientation). This process becomes even more convoluted when adjectives are being thrown around, as to imply a non-existent distinction: ‘melodic black metal’ (nearly all black metal is melodic), ‘depressive black metal’ (black metal is seldomly happy, and since when was a general mood sufficient to distinguish an entire genre?) and ‘blackened death metal’ (an umbrella term for terribad bands from Paris that make you wish the entire Île-de-France would just sink into the ground).
Then comes ‘blackgaze’. This latest product of the unkillable desire to invent new genres for bands that play their instruments slightly differently, has only appeared very recently. The term for a somewhat moody, atmospheric style of black metal from the European underground only started gaining prominence in 2011 and 2012, which unfortunately doesn’t prevent its advocates from retrospectively applying it to just about every post-punk/post-rock-inspired band they can get their greasy fingers on. The word itself is a combination of ‘black metal’ and ‘shoegaze’, the latter being a sort of dream-like rock that, like black metal, distances itself from the usual pop structures.
According to the community of RateYourMusic, the first blackgaze release is Alcest‘s Le Secret from 2005. While the two songs on Le Secret certainly deviate from the standard of traditional black metal, it remains unclear just what makes this album so unique that some apparently consider it the starting point of a whole new genre. Maybe the ‘dreamy’ and ‘hallucinating’ riffs remind – in retrospect – a bit of shoegaze, but they are by no means elements that had not been present in black metal before that point. Bergthron, for example, had been experimenting for years with stretched, hypnotising compositions, not to mention that just about every black metal fan will be able to trace these elements back to Burzum. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Neige, the musician behind Alcest, admitted in an interview that he had never even heard of shoegaze before people started drawing comparisons between that style and his Souvenirs d’un autre monde album, which was released in 2007, mind.
The validity of the term ‘blackgaze’ is compromised further when one takes a glance over the other music that supposedly fall into this category. Take Velvet Cacoon, a band that hangs in-between drone doom and black metal, and has to thank most of its reputation to the fact that the dopeheads behind the project shamelessly plagiarised a few demos by completely different bands. Or Amesoeurs, another one of Neige’s projects. Because when Neige is involved, it must be shoegaze, right? Being the total hipster that I am, I was actually ‘there’ when the first Amesoeurs EP, Ruines humaines, was released in 2006, and I can guarantee that not once did I hear anyone bring up the term ‘shoegaze’. Not in interviews, not in reviews, not in the ‘scene’, nowhere.
That nobody back then came up with the idea of declaring the birth of a new genre should hardly shock anyone who is at all familiar with the evolution of Amesoeurs. The first two songs on the Ruines humaines EP were originally written for Mortifera, a black metal project that involved Neige and Noktu. Both their EP, Complainte d’une agonie celeste (2003), and their first album, Vastiia Tenebrd Mortifera (2004) had a style near identical to those two songs, yet it occurred to noone to bestow the blackgaze moniker upon Mortifera some 10 years later (although I hope I didn’t just give them an idea). Not to mention Celestia, Noktu’s main band, that has been making black metal in this style since the late ’90s. This can only mean that the ‘distinction’ between blackgaze and black metal has more to do with image than with music. Amesoeurs has an urban, post-industrial image, while Celestia and Mortifera lean more towards ideals that evoke comparisons with nineteenth century Romanticism and mediaeval themes. Terribly interesting for the marketing department as all of this may be, it hardly justifies labelling Amesoeurs as the pioneers of a whole new genre.
Now, I generally don’t care much for genre debates, but in the particular case of ‘blackgaze’, what bothers me is not the false musical distinction the people who use the term try to establish, but rather the ideas that have led to the invention of this bastardised pseudo-style. Blackgaze is, first and foremost, a term born out of non-musical motives. Black metal, at its core, is a rancid, unattractive music style that is known for its inaccessibility. A new image, more artistic and pretentious in nature, was thus necessary to make it attractive for beanie-wearing skaterb0is who, after having gotten over Blink 182, needed a new soundtrack for when they waited in line at the AppleStore. Blackgaze and Montessori-bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room experienced their finest hour. The hype will die out, however, and these people will hop on the next big trend soon enough, undoubtedly breaking their horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing skulls over making up new genres once more. Surely they will claim to have ‘grown out of’ blackgaze and exclusively listen to genres that are decorated with the prefix ‘post-‘. At least, if they’re not too busy furiously shoving Spaghettios up their snatch.
Naturally, there are still distinctions to be identified within genres, for example between bands from a certain geographical or historical context. Black metal from Auvergne, for instance, is different from Parisian black metal (coughinthatitsbettercough). But that should not lead to some imaginary distinction between ‘Melodic Mediaeval Auvergnised Black Metal’ and ‘XXXtreme Parisian Death Black Awezum Metal 4 Cool Kidz’. ‘Blackgaze’ is a fad word that only has to do with image. As such, the listening to and, if necessary, categorisation of music can henceforth best be left to individuals who have more firing neurons in their brains than empty bags of Cheetos in their pantry. I wish the rest of you the best of luck with sodding the fuck off.
Update 07/03: broken link fixed.