The Importance of the Underground


“Lord, heap miseries upon us yet entwine our arts with laughters low.”

An article by Antonio Espinosa


The term ‘underground’ as applied to music has come to mean something more than a lack of widespread recognition or commercial success. There are legions of unsuccessful performers out there who spend years of their lives writing, recording and promoting material in the style of say, Katy Perry, without ever going beyond the stage of singing to a drunken pub crowd. These artists however, are not underground: they are simply unsuccessful ‘mainstream’ artists. On the other hand, artists and recordings with a wide international reputation, such as Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, or Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, would never have their underground status questioned despite the extent of their critical, and even commercial, recognition.

Underground status then, is bestowed upon a musical artist or work based on the degree to which it operates outside the confines of the mainstream musical language. This is what gives rise to discussions regarding just how ‘underground’ a particular band, album or style is. Are Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel, for example, really underground music? What about their legions of hopelessly obscure clones? What about more famous and accessible bands that have had an undeniable impact on underground styles, such as Metallica, or The Sex Pistols? [1]

In order to answer these questions we need to answer another one first. What is the mainstream musical language? This one isn’t very hard: for the past century or so, the mainstream musical language of the West, and increasingly of the whole world, has been that of North American popular music. Founded as it was upon a heritage of Northern European and British Isles folk music (whether filtered through the lens of black or white Americans, its essential qualities vary very little) and classical theory, this language is built upon European musical principles. The most important of these are:

  • Homophony: this means a texture with a clear melody-accompaniment hierarchy, for example a vocal melody accompanied by a band, who outline the chords.
  • Cyclical structures built around strophic sections and refrains, for example the famous verse-chorus-verse.
  • Tonality. This is tougher to explain in brief, but in essence it is the system of chord hierarchies that served as European music’s main organizing principle from the 17th century up to the beginning of the 20th.

Though it has had quite a few facelifts since its initial developments on Broadway stages and other variety shows (Dixieland, Sinatra, rock & roll, hip-hop, etc.), the language has undergone very few, if any, essential changes. It has also become dominant to the point of being inescapable: you don’t have to go to a concert or turn on the radio to hear it. All you need to do is go to the cinema, the supermarket or simply get on a cab or an elevator in order to be bombarded with it. It is so imperious that it has made us forget that the only reason it is so immediately comprehensible to our ears is because, through our constant exposure to it, we have come to know its parameters very well, and our brains have accordingly built the corresponding set of aural expectations.

When this language was developed, largely in the US, but also partially in Weimar Berlin and Parisian opera, it was drawing upon well-established tenets, many of which European classical music was already quickly moving away from. Beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven a new idea penetrated the world of music; that of the solitary and misunderstood Romantic genius, whose greatness the public must struggle to understand despite the difficulties presented by his work. This idea quickly amplified itself throughout the XIXth century, culminating in the excruciatingly long and difficult works of Richard Wagner, which often inspired either fanatical devotion or seething hatred. Thanks largely to this new conception of the composer’s role, the 50 years that transpired between these two giants saw an enormous increase in the chromaticism of the tonal system, brought about by an increasingly dense polyphonic framework (which implied the breakdown of homophony) and the new structural principles demanded by the advent of program music [2] (which implied the breakdown of cyclic structures).


The last vestiges of the classical language finally collapsed, famously, with the music of Arnold Schoenberg and his two most talented students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern (known collectively as the Second Viennese School), when they finally left the limp carcass of tonality behind them. This new ‘atonal’ music was met with immediate outrage and shock, with Schoenberg even recounting physical violence outside of his concerts, often directed at his own person. However, for good or ill, these men soldiered on undeterred, and often had a positive attitude about the future reception of their works. Webern is often quoted as saying “in 50 years school-children will be singing Schoenberg’s songs.” This sounds absolutely ridiculous to us today, as even most classical music listeners still cannot stand atonal music, but perhaps it did not seem quite so ludicrous at the time. After all, the music of Beethoven, Liszt, Mahler and many others had initially been met with deep derision. But the works of the Second Viennese School would be denied a normal lifespan, because the years immediately following their composition and release corresponded with the massification of Western society and media, and therefore, of a certain set of cultural languages, including North American popular music, whose language was almost the diametrical opposite of that which Schoenberg and his students had arrived at.


Music was of course not the only art affected by this phenomenon of massification. Western literature, in many ways, ran a parallel course. As it too began to enter a different phase in the evolution of its language, the mass elements that replaced it were the radio broadcast and the motion picture. Literature, like music, became increasingly niche in response.

In his spectacular treatise Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot would have it that this is nothing new, that high culture has always been niche, in fact, that it must be so. In the past however, inaccessible as this metaphorical alcove may have been to the general populace, the best of its results were widely recognized as being the sole standard-bearers of the highest cultural expression. Because the language was aware of itself, there were base parameters with which to judge a work belonging to it. This is why it was very often the case that works that stretched the boundaries of the language were originally met with suspicion, and then with high praise. It is no wonder at all that in the inverted hierarchy of the democratic worldview, in which worth is decreed by demand, “culture of the high kind”, the genuine Western cultural dialogue, should be pushed to the margins of society.


This led to a process in which artists at these margins increasingly prized themselves on the ‘fringe’ nature of their work, and sought an increasingly individual means of expression. For literature, and perhaps for all of Western art, this process peaked with the impenetrable monolith that is Finnegans Wake. In it, James Joyce weaved a linguistic web so intricately self-referential, so intensely private, that he reduced the niche so radically in size that at least initially, it could be argued, it included no one but himself. Finnegans Wake was Western art’s non plus ultra, and after it the remnants of high culture throughout the European world splintered and scattered into hundreds of little sub and sub-sub niche groups that, despite their best efforts, remained mostly incapable of producing a work intelligible and valuable to those outside of them.

To the underground music fan this dilemma may sound familiar. Underground music however, was not born from this splintering of the high culture, but from dissatisfaction with the mass musical language, specifically in the form of Henry Cow and the ‘Rock in Opposition’ movement they spearheaded. This group of musicians in the late 1960s conscientiously sought to escape the trappings of the by then well-established language of North American popular music. However, this language was their background, and they kept many of its tenets, particularly regarding instrumentation, and could thus still vaguely be considered ‘rock’ bands.

This is the underground’s great advantage: it inhabits a sort of middle ground. Most (if not all) currently relevant underground music languages are ultimately (if loosely) derived from the mass language of American popular music, and thus there are signposts along the way that ease us into them. Think of the typical metalhead’s progression from Iron Maiden and Metallica to Slayer, Bathory, Darkthrone and beyond. However, because of this exceptional position, contemporary underground music faces two risks that are totally unique to it, apart from the usual risks of mediocrity/stagnation and plain old incompetence. The first is an inability to see the uniqueness of the language it utilizes, its inherent potential and unspoken dos and don’ts. This leads to a natural regression back into the omnipresent mass language in a process that could be termed assimilation. The second is descent into total incomprehensibility, or the absolutely futile attempt at a private language (more on this later). In my experience as an underground music listener (who is, admittedly, mostly confined to metal), the second scenario is very uncommon and the first almost inescapable, given enough time.

Ridiculous a concern as it may seem to an outsider, this matter is not an entirely trivial one. In an era where the cultural dialogue has been entirely penetrated by ideological concerns, the strength of the underground phenomenon is its capacity to disassociate itself from this corrupted dialogue and continue the genuine cultural conversation. However, because of its marginal nature in globalized consumer society, it is forced to do so in what we could term ‘niche languages.’ These encompass not only a musical language, but also a whole system of aesthetics. Think of black metal’s visual presentation and its importance to the whole aesthetic package the genre presents.


But, why underground music? After all ‘classical’ music is still being composed out there. There’s Haas, there’s Castagnoli, there’s many more. This music is important, and often wonderful, but it faces two enormous problems that do not affect the underground. The first is that, after Schoenberg, its language continued developing rapidly alongside an audience that was no longer listening, to the point where it has become incomprehensible to the general public. Therefore it’s extremely difficult to engage anybody who is not already interested in the theoretical dimension and mechanics of music in the compositions of say Luigi Nono, or Milton Babbitt, without hours and hours of dedication, hours that more often than not prove entirely fruitless. Such is not the case with artists like Beherit or Coil, which, though not immediately accessible by any means, at least offer glimpses of the language we know and, as previously mentioned, form part of a framework the average listener may follow which could lead back to the dominant musical language. The second inconvenience ‘contemporary classical’ music faces is that, thanks largely to its attachment to the academic apparatus, it is often deeply (and ironically) submerged in the dominant ideological paradigm of populist egalitarianism. Thus it is forced to deny itself the, necessarily elitist, relative isolation required of all ‘high culture’, an isolation many underground musicians, particularly in black metal, are very well aware of.

The underground is therefore a key phenomenon in the continuation of the Western cultural dialogue through our strange era of the masses, as it has a marked advantage over contemporary academic manifestations. In order to do so however, it must recognize itself as a phenomenon and as a language set, or it runs the aforementioned dual risks of being assimilated or turning into nonsense, both of which entail the failure to communicate anything worthwhile.


The defiant post-modernist may ask, “Why must we impose on art the need to communicate? What’s wrong with nonsense?” [3] There are two parts to this imaginary hipster’s question, but they’re intrinsically linked. Artistic languages, like all other languages, must communicate, or they are nonsense. An argument could be made that contemporary art is at a point in which each artist creates their own language, and therefore communicates in their own way. This argument is a very poor one: a private language is an impossibility, as the very conditions for a language demand external points of reference. [4] Therefore, what ‘artists’ operating outside the bounds of communication are producing is, essentially, nonsense, and a culture whose functions are fulfilled by nonsense is no culture at all.

The need to communicate is therefore not being imposed on art but is inherent to it. If this communication is incomprehensible to anyone but the artist, then it is worthless. In fact, we could even say that if a work is comprehensible to the artist then it must be, eventually, comprehensible to someone else too, seeing as how private languages are impossible, and that therefore a work which is incomprehensible to absolutely everyone else must also necessarily be incomprehensible to the artists themselves, and therefore doubly ridiculous.

Even the language of Finnegan’s Wake is not completely private: it is Joyce’s individual assessment and ‘digestion’ if you will of the Western literary heritage, and as Herculean an effort as this greatest of minds may have made to conceal many of his sources, the fact remains that this assessment is still, necessarily, thoroughly conditioned. The book is, after all, mostly in something resembling English.


“To believe that we may at times be understood or accompanied by our fellows is one of man’s greatest mistakes. Never can one being see or think anything in the same way as another. Absolutely nothing may be shared, no joy, no sorrow. Experience is only individual.”
-Ignacio Gómez Dávila, El Cuarto Sello. [5]

At the very least, this tendency towards the individualization of artistic languages recognizes the unassailable chasm that separates every man from his fellows. However, it approaches it with desperation, failing to recognize that this chasm is the very reason culture exists. Communication beyond the most basic animalistic functions of everyday survival would be unnecessary without it. Between what can be easily communicated and the true experience of our being lies the void of the unutterable, and that is where culture steps in.

Art and culture cannot bridge this abyss: its unconquerable nature is a necessary condition of individual existence. If art, or any other type of language, were to attempt doing so, it would fall into the trap of trying to specify in language things that, because of their very structure, are incompatible with language. To go back to my man Witty’s terminology: you cannot know or touch anybody else’s ‘beetle.’ Genuine cultural dialogue (‘high culture’) does not attempt to ‘say’ these things, but rather ‘shows’ us hints in their direction, which is why it does not degenerate into nonsense and is, on the contrary, extremely valuable. It is perhaps the most effective means of ‘showing’ ourselves to each other that we have, both on an individual and collective level, and in it we create some of our most important associations with each other and the world, in spite of our perennial condition of solitude.


This is why it’s important that underground music live up to its potential. It holds a unique position that affords it many benefits and presents it with many risks, both of which have already been explained. An important step for the underground in avoiding these pitfalls and exploiting its possibilities is to recognize itself as a unique phenomenon in the history of artistic languages and to take pride in that position, assuming the consequences of that fact, both good and bad. There is of course no specific method or instruction manual to be derived from this discussion. That could only be so if this article were written completely post-factum, and the underground had already dissipated far into the annals of history, which thankfully has yet to happen. However, I believe thinking about the problem with the correct terminology is of vital importance. To that end, hopefully this little piece will be of some help.

Now go make music.

[1] This is why a certain website’s tendency to highlight the importance and distinctness of ‘underground metal’ from the wider metal world is actually spot-on, and maybe even, *gasp*, important.
[2] “Music intended to suggest a sequence of images or incidents”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The prime example of this is Hector Berlioz’s instrumental narrative Symphonie Fantastique.
[3] This attitude seems to be particularly prevalent in the visual arts, perhaps because their standards of technical aptitude have dropped far more radically than those of the other artistic disciplines.
[4] Interested readers are urged to consult Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, particularly the section starting at paragraph 202 and ending with paragraph 315.
[5] The translation is mine. Original Spanish text: “Creer que a veces somos comprendidos o acompañados por alguno de nuestros semejantes es uno de los errores más grandes del hombre. Nunca, ningún ser puede pensar o ver nada de igual manera que otro ser. Absolutamente nada se puede compartir, ni una alegría, ni una pena. La experiencia no es sino individual.”

About Basajarau (5 Articles)
Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.

1 Comment on The Importance of the Underground

  1. This is an extremely interesting essay, it’s actually about something similar to what I wrote my master’s thesis about last year: The role of the genius and the sublime in the history of aesthetics and philosophy. Likewise, the exact mechanics of the relationship between “high culture” and “low culture” is a favourite study subject of mine and has been for a long time.

    The idea of countercultural scenes either taking the place of the traditional cultural elites, or at least acting as a disseminator of ideas from high to low culture somewhere in the chain, is one that I have encountered quite a few places before even though I’m not sure how easy that ideal can be fulfilled. The namedrop of the “Rock In Opposition” movement is interesting, because their main inspiration sources Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa had as their mission to tear down the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture but I don’t think Beefheart ever became that popular with a large audience for instance, and I think both are already passing into the zone of artists who are more influential than popular. Of course, both of them already reached a way larger audience than Ornette Coleman, Igor Stravinsky, Edgar Varese etc. ever could.

    Which could prove your point about how for an art form to evolve, it needs an esoteric elite upper echelon (the “geniuses” that Schiller, Kant, Nietzsche etc. spoke of) that the innovations later absorbed by the more popular outer circles have to flow downstream from.

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