Vastum, Death Metal, and Questions of Context

Trigger Warning: This entry contains mentions of gendered/sexualized violence, and contains a link to a potentially triggering image of said violence.   

Two days ago I posted my first entry on why I think the cover of the new Lord Mantis album, The Death Mask, is no good. One of my biggest issues with the cover image of The Death Mask is that it represents the ways in which privileged cis men misuse the bodies of trans individuals (in this case, a trans woman) to represent something that is monstrous and/or disgusting. Today I discovered that one of my favorite death metal bands, San Francisco’s Vastum, also has an album cover that strikes me as problematic.

The cover in question is that of Carnal Law, Vastum’s first album from 2011. The image to which I linked isn’t the one I have on my digital copy of Carnal Law, and I’d never even seen it until I was checking out the band’s Facebook page earlier today. I was initially quite surprised to see it, and the first thing I noticed about it was about the prominence of sexual violence. Showing it to a few other people confirmed for me that, yes, that’s certainly a reading of the image that makes sense. There’s also the hint that being transgender is, once again, something that can only be depicted within contexts that are potentially sick and/or twisted (a cultural trope which is both tiresome and potentially dangerous for trans folks). It’s hard to pinpoint the exact gender(s) of the individuals involved. However, if the scene is depicting an act of sexual violence (potentially even rape), then the genders of both victim and perpetrator seem less important.

This cover is bothersome to me because I’ve come to see Vastum as performing death metal I can get behind. Their lyrics tend to avoid more explicit descriptions of sexualized violence, as well as the sub-genre’s more sordid and graphic tales of dismemberment and disposal right out of a “torture porn” horror film. Instead, Vastum often take two of death metal’s favorite subjects – violence and perversion – and turn them inward. When asked about their lyrical approach in this November 7th, 2013, interview with Invisible Oranges, members of Vastum described their concerns as being more abstract and theoretical in nature:

Daniel: I tend to distinguish between erotic and sexual, “sexual” being an invention of late nineteenth-century human sciences. So there is a kind of dialectic between the sexual and the erotic in that we are sexed through language and culture, that we are in a sense violated by language, involuntarily submitted to it, which is an intrusion, a penetration; but that there is an excess that is not contained by the sexual and this excess is the erotic. This is horrifying beyond representation. It is the nameless and faceless dread that trumps any kind of horror one can experience directly. Only an indirect approach, an oblique one, captures this kind of horror — and even then this horror is only captured in the negative, in something that is not, something repudiated and impossible to integrate, something that resists symbolization. I think that Lori Bravo evokes this phenomenon in some of her lyrics; there are explicitly sexual themes that cannot be contained by the sexual and spill over into the bizarre, the unknowable, the mystical, and the erotic.

Leila: For me, images of perversion are expressed not in isolation but are embedded within a larger context of an experience that is indescribable, confusing, or difficult to put into words. These images are just hints, or flashes of the larger horror moving invisibly in the darkness.

As a long-time student of postmodernist feminisms and queer theories, these kinds of wordy descriptions make a certain sense to me. I suspect, however, that my broader acceptance and largely positive interpretation of Vastum’s output is shaped by how I found out about the band. My exposure to Vastum came from my reading interviews with guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf, found at Feminist Headbanger and Girls Don’t Like Metal. In both interviews Abdul-Rauf identifies herself as a feminist (a label which, she argues, has come to carry negative connotations in the music world and beyond). Additionally, in the Feminist Headbanger interview she asserts that her fellow Vastum bandmate Daniel Butler is “queer-identified” (though what that means to her, or him for that matter, is never stated). In a 2011 interview with Decibel, Butler himself notes that “I think a lot of lyrics from bands, while […] they talk about horror and atrocity, they don’t identify it with themselves—I guess how horrifying, disgusting and sickening, pleasurable and freeing their own sexuality is [sic]” (my emphasis).

When interpreting art of any kind, I don’t think everyone can be (or should be) presumed to be writing about themselves and their own personal experiences. However, I like Butler’s recognition that death metal lyricists so often seem to project their fascinations onto the bodies and actions of “others” (often women as victims and serial killers as perpetrators) while not exploring how they might relate those fascinations to themselves and their own bodies. In most of Vastum’s imagery and lyrics I see less appropriation and more personalization (even navel-gazing). The band’s apparent interest in personal and yet no less “death metal” subjects is exemplified in the lyrics of songs such as “3 A.M.”, a piece Abdul-Rauf has described as being about a woman’s suffering from a urinary tract infection as a result of sex. I would argue that such personal subject matter is as capable of invoking large amounts of metaphorical and existential horror at our own bodies and non-violent interactions as any account of murder and sexualized violence. I would much rather see death metal lyricists write about and objectify the angst and horror, as well as the abject pleasures and complexities, of their own genders, their own bodies, their own experiences. I would be pleased to see more death metal lyricists exploring how to represent themselves metaphorically rather than using the bodies and identities of people who already face daily marginalization as their metaphors.

My enjoyment and support of Vastum’s music, however, does not mean I can ignore the cover of Carnal Law. Having seen that version of the cover, my conviction (and hope) that the band thinks about the sex and violence of death metal differently than most of their peers is shaken. It’s an image that I find difficult to read as anything but a depiction of someone committing sexual violence against someone else, something that may be mundane for some but very triggering for others. Just because I personally am not offended or triggered by the image doesn’t mean I don’t need to consider whether it’s an image I can rationalize or defend in any ethical manner.

I interpret the cover of Carnal Law as being problematic because by itself it exists only as yet another death metal cover in a society that is riddled with systemic violence. Should my interpretation change if I read the cover through specific feminist and queer interpretations, or if I consider the identities and perspectives of people who play in Vastum? Can I then maybe come to grudgingly accept such an image? The fact that I must wonder, however, speaks to the difficulty of interpreting these sorts of violent and disturbing images in a society in which certain identities and bodies are more subject to daily oppression than others. It speaks to the need to be wary of arguments that insist that art has no meaning outside of itself, especially within in a subcultural space in which politicizing art is so often seen as anathema to enjoyment and appreciation.

I would like to argue that the fact that certain members of Vastum identify as feminists or queer means something positive because, as I argued in my last post, context is important to how we can interpret a piece of art. The contexts that inform this art are different than the negative contexts through which I’ve read other art, or so I hope. I would like to think that perhaps this cover image can be forgiven more readily than the artwork promoted by people who appear to display much less self-awareness and concern about privilege and gender politics in metal music and beyond. I’m surprised to find myself on a different side of the debate as I work through the meaning of this cover image. I wonder whether forgiving, overlooking, and rationalizing this image is even an ethical position I can take in this case. Not in every case, but in this case.

I wonder about the consequences and responsibilities of doing so.

An Open Letter: Lord Mantis, Gruesome Covers, and Taking Responsibility for Pushing the Boundaries

Content Note/Trigger Warning: transmisogyny; potentially disturbing interview quotes; links to graphic content

To the metal community (musicians, labels, writers, fans):

It’s time that we stopped ignoring, overlooking, and apologizing for the fact that we as a community so often fail to call out art or commentary that is, intentionally or not, sexist and transmisogynist. The cover for the latest Lord Mantis album, The Death Mask is an example of such art.

There are only so many interpretations of this cover, and none of them speak well of the judgment of artist Jef Whitehead, the band Lord Mantis, or the label Profound Lore, whatever their intentions. Asked about any possible controversy that might emerge from the cover image in a February 27th interview with Noisey, Lord Mantis vocalist/bassist Charlie Fell pleaded ignorance:

Trans awareness? I had no idea that this was going be such an issue. I thought maybe the trans community would be pumped that they’re getting some culture points! I tend to watch people a lot and in that I feel pretty detached from being human. It’s like being in a monkey cage, you start seeing people for the animals they are; laughing, eating, smoking, dick sucking, cum loving, piss-in-the-mouth monkeys. It’s strange thinking of sex when you see it from an outside perspective; meat slipping into meat; female, male. It’s blurred. I think everybody’s half gay when you remove the shame.”

This confusing response, which distracts from the issue at hand (transphobia, transmysogynistic violence), is symptomatic of a long-running trend. Metal media, artists, musicians, writers, and fans continue to appropriate the struggles of marginalized people. Marginalized people’s experiences are used to create morbid spectacles or to provide seemingly deep commentary that reduces those experiences to often simplistic understandings of “human nature” or “society.” These representations are often sold as “edgy” or “pushing boundaries.” These well-meaning rationales ignore the on-going structural issues that so many people must deal with a daily basis.

Is Lord Mantis intending to send a misogynistic, anti-trans message with this cover? Probably not, much as most metal albums depicting violence against women have probably not been intended to directly threaten women. This is not the first time an album cover has used a woman as a prop for representing violence, and it is presumably not going to be the last time. Still, it’s worth pressing the issue of why Lord Mantis, a band composed of presumably cisgender men, chose to objectify a trans woman in order to exemplify their feelings of being “detached from being human.” Why make this choice, particularly when transgender women are at disproportionally high risk of violence in their daily lives? Why not, for example, objectify a nude man, someone whose body could be portrayed as equally abject, fascinating, distasteful, and perverted in any number of ways? Why choose a trans woman if not to suggest that her body in particular represents something disturbing or wrong about the current human condition?

What further complicates things is that the cover image is the work of Jef Whitehead, an artist who has a troublesome history with women, as evidenced by his domestic battery conviction in 2012, and the way he represents women in his art. Labels like Profound Lore and bands like Lord Mantis continue to support and defend him, as well as provide him with an artistic platform.

It’s possible that most of the people involved are probably thinking of the cover and the album’s music as “just art,” but art is never “just art.” It is always political and invites conversation between the artist and the people who profit from and consume their art. Our complicity with problematic images is not only an issue in the metal music scene; it’s a broader cultural issue as well. Divorcing art from the social world (“art for art’s sake”) is a long-standing position in Western intellectual and political history, and it’s one that has been debated by artists, scholars, and activists for just as long.

As a white male, I have a great deal of social privilege. I know that I have at times willfully overlooked the ethically troublesome words, actions, and images of the artists whose work I admire. I’ve often argued with myself that they probably aren’t that serious, or that they are just ignorant of the issues, or that their words don’t really have that much impact, or that they deserve to be heard as much as anyone else. One or more of these things might even be true in many cases, but through reading and listening to the public words of marginalized fans, writers, and musicians, I’ve come to realize that it’s disingenuous to leave it at that. For those of us who are privileged in one way or another, whether it be because of our gender identity, skin color, or sexual orientation (or a combination of those things), it’s so very easy to distance ourselves from the socio-political questions that our consumption of art raises. We can get away with claiming no investment in – or responsibility for – the issues that affect those on the social margins.

To believe that the metal community is a level playing field is to preserve a norm that is strikingly similar to the cultural and political status quos so many of us criticize. We often hold back our criticism of our music, explaining to ourselves that x album or y artist are simply “too artistically important” to the scene to be given bad press. We refuse to hold these artists and ourselves accountable for what they/we say and do, accepting our own limp excuse that these artists and this music are “not political.”

I’m writing this open letter because I care about how this music affects all women. I am tired of the way in which so many of us look the other way, or stand against these issues only in private, or don’t criticize others’ art or words because we’re anxious about what our criticism might say about ourselves, or how it might affect our position in the scene. I want to be part of a metal community that takes the opportunity to hear out those who feel threatened or hurt by an interview, an album cover, or certain lyrics. I would like us to listen to their perspectives and not get defensive when their experience conflicts with ours, or calls into question the music we love. I would like us to consider whether a band, a label, or any particular sound is more important than the ripples they make in the lives of those of us who can’t or won’t pretend it’s “just about the music.” I want us to stop financially supporting artists like Lord Mantis and labels like Profound Lore until they take meaningful steps to address the criticisms they receive. In doing so, I want us to help tastemaker labels such as Profound Lore understand why this sort of thing is a problem, and I want us to support them all the more if they make changes and rise above the status quo.

Achieving the kind of critical community I envision would entail a different level of grassroots engagement with our music and its creators. I am not suggesting each of us must scrub ourselves and our music collections clean of the stink of any particular artist or band (though I believe this is a valid choice). Instead, I am arguing that we might be skeptical of those artists, labels, and fans that refuse to acknowledge their own privileged positions, whether that refusal takes the shape of simplistic claims of “free speech,” being “non-political,” or silence. I am not arguing that we should censor our scenes, but rather that we engage in meaningful dialogue about what free speech actually means and how it can be used to explore possibilities rather than shut down debate.

This different kind of engagement would mean all of us taking time to listen to the concerns of marginalized members of our community and to self-educate on issues such as systemic sexism and transphobia. This engagement may be particularly difficult for those who, by no fault of their own, are not acquainted with the complex and entangled nature of these issues via their own experience or education. However, taking time to learn about these perspectives and histories will be worthwhile if it means our community can match its dedication to extreme music and art with concern for the well being of its more marginalized members.

A Brief Resource List

The Anti.Violence.Project

A University of Victoria collection of resources and statistics on violence against transgender individuals.

Lord Mantis, Transmisogyny, and Questions of Intent

An earlier article by a fellow metal fan on this issue.

A Day In The Life of an Angry Transsexual

You don’t have to agree with this site’s political views in order to understand this author’s depiction of daily microaggressions faced by many trans individuals.

Cis Privilege

An article on the many unspoken and often unrecognized daily privileges possessed by people whose preferred gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth.