-By Zack Sigel
The top playlists on Spotify right now can be seen when one opens the desktop client and scrolls through a gallery at the top of the welcome screen. It is a collection of music for just about any occasion, such as “Jazzy Dinner,” which sounds nice, or “Afternoon Acoustic,” which I’ll have to queue up for my next Sunday barbecue. You have your standard EDM playlist and your standard alternative rock playlist, a decent collection of hip-hop songs hidden in Spotify’s 50-song Top 40 list, and no fewer than two different R&B playlists. There is a lot of John Mayer and a lot of Ed Sheeran, and this was also the way I discovered that Modest Mouse has released a new album.
But what if you don’t want to have a relaxing evening with warm companions, with neither candlelight nor Bordeaux? The occasion must sometimes call for something meaner, fouler, and perhaps a little Satanic, like when you need to let off an entire work week’s worth of steam or you’ve just discovered that a band you’ve once covered favorably has decided to start charging arena-level prices for small-venue-level concerts. Well, if you’re me, that means cueing up Nicky Bonde’s excellently curated crust punk playlist, or digging up glinderoth’s black metal playlist, which, had it appeared on the welcome screen next to “Jazzy Dinner,” might’ve been more creatively titled “Rough Evenings Under Cold Wintermoons.” Or, if we’re being honest, “Dinner for One.”
Spotify has also created an official black metal playlist, and it’s clear they’ve done their research. In “Atmospheric Black Metal”, which describes a moody subgenre of black metal in thrall to ambient, environmental musicianship, the American band Agalloch correctly shares space with the Ukrainian band Drudkh; they aren’t the only bands on the list whose use of nature motifs recalls the lyricism of the German Romantics. Spotify describes the playlist as “The perfect soundtrack for walking deep into dark forests or a candle lit cozy evening”, which is completely fair and even welcome to the metalhead used to hearing his music derided as unserious and depressing. Sometimes its the loudest sounds that provide the deepest solitude.
When Spotify finally overcame the rights negotiations and launched in the U.S., I asked a friend who’d early-adopted if he could look up an album by Immortal called Pure Holocaust. I was teasing, of course — it’s a somewhat obscure release with an offensive title — but he found it, along with virtually every major release in early black metal. Perhaps this owes something to Spotify’s Scandinavian roots, or to the democratizing effect that having so much of the world’s music at your fingertips has had on the way we discover and appreciate new genres.
The service isn’t perfect. Doctrinal black metal was explicitly against becoming democratized in the first place, in the belief that opening its music up to the masses would inevitably water it down, so it is likely that many diehard fans will never embrace the streaming platform. Likewise, well-known discrepancies in what black metal’s adherents consider “true” black metal has made it difficult to automate recommendations, a key function of any decent music software. Thus, building a randomized radio station on Spotify based on Immortal is likely to produce a playlist leaning heavily on Immortal and its peers, all of whom emerged more than twenty years ago, which means a tired selection of Mayhem, Gorgoroth, and Enslaved.
Spotify also frequently asks listeners of black metal to check out bands like Burzum, which, functionally and musically, is a fantastic choice. Burzum is easily the most influential band in black metal. It’s nearly impossible to pick up a new black metal release and not hear some chord progression or sound that its sole member, Varg Vikernes, wasn’t already experimenting with in 1991. It will take a little more digging to discover, however, that Vikernes is an avowed neo-Nazi who murdered his own bandmate, which newcomers can learn by navigating to the Biography link for Vikernes’ artist page.
By recommending Burzum sight-unseen, Spotify likely hopes that the music it offers will stand on its own merit. After all, Richard Wagner, whose entire catalogue is on Spotify, also hated Jews. And yes, Chris Brown's on there, too. The extra effort in filtering out musicians whose ideologies or actual crimes should disqualify them may be worth it, because when Spotify gets it right, its selections can be glorious: I discovered one of my favorite black metal bands, the Swedish solo project Arckanum, from one of its automated recommendations. And if you’re sick of Burzum or albums called Pure Holocaust hogging the spotlight, you can instead lose whole afternoons in the doomed ecosystems of bands like Fyrnask, Panopticon, or Tombs. But only if you know where to look. If Spotify were to revise its algorithm, starting a radio based on Immortal will bring up more of the bands who were inspired by them decades later instead of the usual feedback loop of bands from the ancien regime.
Much of that, however, depends on the relationship between these bands and the platform itself. In the tradition of their forebears, newer outfits like Panopticon turn to do-it-yourself services. The most popular of these is Bandcamp, which offers free streaming of the band’s music and the option to buy the record directly, which is how I discovered Panopticon’s 2012 release, Kentucky. That album is a stirring, socially conscious anthem to blue-collar labor, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been more widely heard. Panopticon could have chosen to stream it on Spotify, but it isn’t hard to understand why they might have not. Because streaming services pay by the play, an album like Kentucky, which only has eight tracks, is devalued against an album like Modest Mouse’s newest, Strangers to Ourselves, which has fifteen but nearly the same running time. And because black metal albums — sparsely populated with lengthy cuts — almost always look more like Kentucky than Strangers to Ourselves, for Spotify to uphold its mission to democratize the music industry it would have to account as much for the time spent listening to the music as it does for ticking off individual listens. Black metal, hardly concerned with statistics or objective measurement, is itself a qualitative experience. Anything else is missing the dark and gloomy forest for the trees.