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.

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