When I was very young I used to watch Disney’s Fantasia on VCR again and again and again. I loved it a great deal (still do, as a matter of fact) and I used to watch enrapt as sugarplum fairies heralded winter to the music of Tchaikovsky, or as Bacchus danced to Beethoven’s beats. My favourite bit, however, even as a young child, was the final number which contrasted Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain with Schubert’s Ave Maria, and featured a black, bat-winged representation of Satan with glowing, yellow eyes. In subsequent appearances, Disney rechristened this character Chernabog, after the Slavic Black God, but in my imagination I always called him the Bat Man for his leathery wings. I watched Chernabog in, not just awe, but also a kind of rapturous appreciation. It wasn’t the fact that Chernabog was evil that drew me towards him (I’m not even sure we can so simply label him ‘evil’, seeing as all he really did was cause dead souls to dance), but certainly the element of darkness was relevant. He stirred something deep within my five-year old self, some kind of reverence for the darkness that surrounded him and the power he wielded. Is it any kind of surprise, then, that when I first really started listening to music at the age of about fourteen, I found myself irresistibly drawn to metal?
Some time ago, when I had just left school, one of my erstwhile classmates came up to me and asked: “Is it true what I’ve heard, that you’re listening to heavy metal these days?” I confirmed his suspicions and he drew closer to me, pulling my face towards his, and almost whispered: “I have the darkness in my heart.” At first I thought he was referring to the neo-glam rock band, The Darkness, who were very popular in those early noughties, and I promptly pooh-poohed him, but he hastened to correct me. He had real darkness in his heart, he insisted. I didn’t bother to pursue the conversation so I don’t really know what he meant by this, but reminiscing as I do now from the vantage-point of some ten years thence I can happily imagine that Chernabog inspired him as he inspired me. That figure of darkness lunged forth from out his heart, as he did from mine, and summoned up the denizens of heavy metal.
But I get ahead of myself. Darkness and metal go, of course, hand in hand, in the imaginations of the populus and of the initiated, but is darkness necessary for a piece of music to be called ‘metal’? Clearly not. The very band that started me off on this tirade, Alcest, went out of their way to demonstrate that metal needn’t be ‘dark’ at all. And there’s more: the thick, mellow soundscapes of Jesu, for instance, or the ecstatic riffage of Stratovarius. There isn’t much darkness in any these undeniably metal bands. But there is... what? A certain something, a sense of the glorious or the magnificent, of drama and self-importance. A certain power contained in the thunder of those distorted guitars. The same kind of power, and I come back to him again and again, that Chernabog wielded from atop Bald Mountain. And darkness does suit that power awfully well. Negative emotions are, after all, so much more powerful than positive ones; it’s of no small significance that the first song that got me into metal, as it were, was For My Fallen Angel by My Dying Bride.
Alcest drew on this power and used it to create a fantastical childhood dream-world. A related band, Amesoeurs, which also featured Neige on various instruments, went a step further, infusing urban modernity with the power of heavy metal to create a merveilleux quotidien (Amesoeurs subsequently split-up over tensions between more traditional black metal aesthetics and a post-modernist urbanism; you can hear these tensions on their self-titled debut album). Having lost this power, Shelter is reduced to some forty-five minutes of inconsequential dream-pop. Old as I’ve grown, and less invested in music as I’ve become, I can’t help but feel a great disappointment at the loss of the magical power, of the metal, which once filled Alcest’s music. Even now the figure of Chernabog remains with me. Sometimes, when I’m feeling alone and marginalised, I resolve to bear my existence down upon the world, to stretch my leathery, bat-like wings over the land. My wings are, of course, these words.
P.S. For anyone who’s interested, In Darkness Let Me Dwell is a lute-song by the Renaissance musician, John Dowland.
Image captured from Disney's Fantasia (1940)