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Yeah, you heard me. Cascadian black metal is bullshit.
Okay, so maybe that’s a little over-the-top. I’m not saying the music itself is bullshit – that’s more of a personal taste thing – but I think the sub-genre as a concept is bullshit. Ever since Wolves in the Throne Room garnered a more significant share of the music spotlight (chiefly by playing a corporate-sponsored festival, I’ve seen the term “Cascadian black metal” tossed around in more articles recently. Some of these have been from outside the metal world (the New Yorker, The Guardian), while others are more in tune with the underground. But I’m skeptical by default of any attempt by music media to create new pigeonholes for the music they cover. In some cases, it’s merely lazy journalism; in other cases (I’m looking at you, New Yorker dude), it’s just a way to make it seem like you know more than you really do about your topic.
Still, it’s normal for humans to want to categorize – some of us just take it further than others. My music library sticks to general tags like “rock” and “metal”, while some people I know have separate tags for every possible sub-sub-sub-genre known, for example. The metal world is rife with factional strife regarding sub-genre definitions to begin with, making this sort of thing all the harder.
So, let’s pick this thing apart, shall we?
In my mind, there are two general approaches to defining a genre. One is lyrical/philosophical (protest folk or pornogrind), the other is sonic (thrash metal or house). These can obviously be combined, and whether a genre is defined one way or the other is often hotly debated – just look at black metal, where there’s a constant war of words over whether you can even really be “black metal” if you’re not Satanist.
Let’s start with the latter way of defining a genre, because I think it’s the easier to dismiss. When the term “Cascadian black metal” shows up in an article, it’s almost always referring to WITTR, or to bands that sound like them. Which is to say, essentially post-metal/metalgaze. Certainly, both obvious reference points – Wolves and Agalloch – fall into that general paradigm, but to suggest that the terms are interchangeable is patently false. Many (indeed most) bands that fall into the post-metal niche hail from nowhere near Cascadia, nor is there any consistent philosophical leaning among them.
The aforementioned exemplars of the supposed genre (WITTR and Agalloch) do share quite a bit philosophically. Both arose in relatively low-density urban environments (Olympia and Portland, respectively), venerate the natural landscape of Cascadia, and have a distinct anti-modernist bent. Of course, that’s hardly unique in the black metal world; as WITTR co-founder Aaron Weaver states in Terrorizer #214 (September 2011), many early Scandinavian black metal bands shared similar philosophical themes. Such bands also owe a considerable debt to various neo-folk bands over the past two decades; see the comments of Don Anderson (of Agalloch) in the neo-folk feature in Decibel #84 (October 2011). So, philosophically the supposed Cascadian black metal bands aren’t unique.
Is there anything that separates these bands from everyone else? Perhaps some combination of sound and philosophy? Possibly. You could argue that their music combines the sound of black-metal-based post-metal (that’s a lot of hyphens) with nature worship and hatred for mankind’s current value systems. Many post-metal bands draw heavily upon anti-modernism and nature fetishism, however, so perhaps limiting it to Cascadia is disingenuous. Some (particularly those actually in the metal world, rather than on the outside looking in) have started using the term “ecological black metal” instead, which fits a bit better. Of course, that brings up arguments about what exactly is meant by “ecological”, but I’m not going into that here. Such a conception also excludes the likes of Krallice, who are similar in sound, if more urban/modern in their philosophical bent. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up for – you guessed it – debate.
Through all the hours spent listening to Agalloch, Wolves in the Throne Room, Fen, Ulver, Windir, Bathory et al over the years (not to mention some aural over-saturation this past month), I’ve noticed some patterns but remain unconvinced that there even is such a thing as Cascadian black metal (or even ecological black metal, for that matter).
Personally, I don’t care much, as it all gets filed under “metal” in my library. But I think there’s potential for such a movement to coalesce. In my mind, it’s usually left for Second Wave bands to really cause a musical movement to gel – those retroactively regarded as founders are usually seen initially as genre outliers. Black metal itself began as an outlier of thrash metal, which was itself an outlier of the NWOBHM scene, and so on. Time will tell if Cascadian black metal gets off the ground as a genuine movement, but at the moment, it remains the non-existent product of over-eager music journalists.
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