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Nicola Masciandaro (ed.): Hideous Gnosis. Black Metal Theory Symposium I

Imke von Helden
p. 211-213
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Charleston: Create Space

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heavy metal / hard rock
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1Metal studies is an ever-growing field within academia, with annual conferences being held and new publications appearing fairly regularly. However, theory and methodology are two fields of research that have not yet been much discussed. Frequent criticism of metal studies often focuses on a lack of theoretical as well as methodological engagement – an accusation of being unscientific. There has been some work focusing on this problem and trying to deal with it – mostly sociological and musicological publications as well as the Hard Wired workshops in Germany and Switzerland, for instance – but book-length analyses of the subject are still rare. Thus, a volume ostensibly focusing on theory, even if it is black metal theory in particular, is most welcome, and promises to further invigorate the field of metal studies. However, the claim that the editor and authors of this volume postulate in the book's title is not borne out by its content.

2In fact, Hideous Gnosis is as obscure to the outsider as black metal itself: its black-and-white aesthetics and the want of a blurb or an explicatory introduction make it difficult to access. A first glance at the publication does not tell the reader of its aims nor of the audience at which it is aimed. Nor does it give any information on how the volume came into being. Furthermore, there is no information on the authors, some of whom do not give references at all. Several essays pick up philosophical concepts and ideas without further explaining them, thereby not inviting the uninitiated reader and thus, a broader audience (Masciandaro: “teaching those who already know”, 2010: 84f).

3Regarding a genuine theory of black metal, one's hopes are dashed: as this volume is in the nature of an anthology, there is no systematic approach to a genuine black metal theory. Instead, the essays offer a discussion of a range of aspects that black metal is concerned or associated with, such as politics and religion.

4Only a few authors try to explicitly approach a black metal theory: editor Nicola Masciandaro attempts to parallel black metal with a theory of negativity and states that black metal (or rather its followers) refuses discourse and self-reflection, thus evading theory, maybe in fear of realising themselves having a “cavedweller's fantasy” (Ibid.: 85). Scott Wilson's essay “BAsileus philosoPHOrum METaloricum” on the intersection of black metal and academic discourse, too, states that there is no such conjunction – there is no “academic illumination of black metal” (Ibid.: 35) because an analysis cannot be undertaken without bias. Rather what takes place is the other way round: a “blackening” of the discourse. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of the band Liturgy) develops theses on transcendental black metal as opposed to hyperborean (Scandinavian).

5The essay’s focus clearly lies within the subjects of black metal's relationship to religion/Satanism (Butler, Scott, Thacker), Nazism/National Socialism (Noys, Williams) as well as the role of nature, the failures of ‘modernity’ and the longing for a primordial past (Shakespeare, Stephanou). Negativity and decay are two other fields that are discussed (Russo, Masciandaro). Whereas Evan Calder Williams and Benjamin Noys pose the question: “can black metal be understood separately from its lyrics?”, Erik Butler argues that black metal can be better understood in relation to the history of religion (Ibid.: 23). He also draws a comparison between black metal and Reformation-era Jesuits in that bands like Gorgoroth take on slogans (“Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam”) and he hints at morphological similarities between them, for example an affiliation with radical politics. Being elitist, black metal stresses purity and “represents a return to orthodoxy” in criteria such as purity and ascetism (27); “the other” can be found outside as well as inside the metal community.

6Aspasia Stephanou's piece on patriarchy and feminity in black metal analyses the trope of the wolf “that seeks to destroy subjectivity” (159) and thus, a loss of humanity. Referring to the past as well as Norse mythology's symbols, black metal mourns for an original past and purity that never existed that way, interpreted as an act of affirmation of masculinity. Stephanou employs the image of Red Riding Hood and the wolf to explain the threat of female masculinity that must be consumed by the wolf figure. The women in black metal (illustrated here by Astarte), she explains, reclaim the realm of female desire by challenging the partriarchal structures of black metal by turning the wolves into servants.

7In “Meaningful Leaning Mess”, Brandon Stosuy presents a (nearly) uncommented discussion excerpt of members of American black metal bands that allows insight into specific characteristics of this community as opposed to the Scandinavian scenes, for example their interest in life and philosophical questions surrounding it, rather than being preoccupied with anti-Christian forms such as Satanism.

8All things considered, Hideous Gnosis is a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) that is difficult to access. In addition to the essays, there are symposium photographies (including photos of referees and of art) and various forms of expression surrounding the black metal subject (blog comments, a letter, drawings). It remains unclear if it is the intention of the publication to contribute further to metal studies within an academical frame. Juliet Forshaw, in her discussion of three works of metal studies, admits that it is a “different kind of scholarship […that] indulges in a level of obscurantism that is only possible among members of a tiny occult sect who are unconcerned with courting a broader audience” (Forshaw 2011). Apart from “Metallic blackening of theory” (Masciandaro 2009), the aims of this project remain unclear. A summing up of the discussion, to find out if there is indeed a consensus on a black metal theory, would have been helpful. Otherwise, Hideous Gnosis offers interesting suggestions for thinking further about already acknowledged topics in (black) metal studies and discusses quite a lot of underground bands. In addition, it is an appealing artistic collection in a new form of engaging with the subject of metal studies.

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Forshaw, J. (2011) “Metal in Three Modes of Enmity: Political, Musical, Cosmic”, Current Musicology, n° 91, p. 140-62.

Masciandaro, N. (2009) 'Hideous Gnosis: Schedule and Flyers.' [accessed 09 May 2012].

Masciandaro, N. (ed.) (2010) Hideous Gnosis. Black Metal Theory Symposium I. Charleston: Create Space. Available online here:

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Référence papier

Imke von Helden, « Nicola Masciandaro (ed.): Hideous Gnosis. Black Metal Theory Symposium I », Volume !, 9 : 2 | 2012, 211-213.

Référence électronique

Imke von Helden, « Nicola Masciandaro (ed.): Hideous Gnosis. Black Metal Theory Symposium I », Volume ! [En ligne], 9 : 2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2015, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Imke von Helden

Imke von Helden, PhD student of Scandinavian Studies, works as a research assistant in the project History in Popular Cultures at Freiburg University, Germany. Her current research focuses on the reception of national symbols and history in extreme metal. Furthermore, she is a member of the steering committee organising conferences for Heavy Fundametalisms. Recent publications include:"Glocal Metal: Lokale Phänomene einer globalen Heavy Metal-Kultur." In: Rolf F. Nohr/Herbert Schwaab (eds.): Metal Matters. Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt, LIT-Verlag Münster, 2011 and "A Furore Normannorum, Libera Nos Domine! - A Short History of Going Berserk in Literature and Heavy Metal." In: Kristen Sollee (ed.): Can I Play with Madness? Metal, Dissonance, Madness and Alienation. E-Book, Oxford: ID Press, 2011.

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