A more thorough proposal…

Last week I briefly touched on what my “final project” is shaping up to look like. This week I’ll go over what I’m trying to say/do in a little more detail.

So, the general idea at play here is that World of Warcraft is transgressive in the sense that it achieves a “postmodern goal” of “beating” the metanarrative.

Last week I mentioned that one of the big problems in defining “interactive fiction” is that interactivity itself is a problem — how is a game truly interactive? How is a piece of fiction truly interactive? The immediate problem that arises is that a game can only present a player with so many options: there is no true “sandbox” game. No computer game can exist outside of the realm of numbers and narrative — every game (and every story within each game) must be mapped out ages before a player actually interacts with it.

That, of course, is the problem. That fact seems to invalidate video games as possibly postmodern, as they seemingly reinforce their own metanarrative — that is, there is a predetermined story that the player cannot escape from. No matter how the player experiences the game, their narrative will always bow to the game’s.

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern give us away around this with agency — they show us that interactivity in drama (and games) is not marked by the ability to do anything, but instead the ability to do something meaningful (from the player’s perspective).

Yet, there is still a problem — the metanarrative is still enforced by the game. While interactivity — the player’s ability to impact the narrative — might be part of the game, the narrative is still defined in relation to the metanarrative. That is, if we take a game like Mass Effect, and we look at how it presents its choices to the player — those choices still align the player within the gameworld’s narrative.

So, how does World of Warcraft deal with this? That’s where I come in!

In World of Warcraft, the community is a gameplay mechanic. Using roleplaying servers in World of Warcraft as an example, I hope to show that there’s this weird paradoxical thing going on in the community, where players both consciously acknowledge the “metanarrative” and rebel against it in a unified way. That is, the “metanarrative” might say something (the “most important” story is defined, individual characters all theoretically go on the same journey from 1 – 90, etc), but the players can (and are expected to!) ignore it.

Basically, there’s a level of cognitive dissonance within the game that every player is expected to accept. On one hand, you’re supposed to acknowledge that yes, you can’t play the game without encountering the metanarrative. At the same time, however, a roleplayer can’t actually do all of the things his avatar is doing within the game.

For example, a quest in the game might have you take down an important character. Of course, a million other players are going to do the exact same thing. So how does the individual roleplayer deal with this event? If you “take credit” for the action, you are invalidating the experience of everyone else. What most players do, in this case, is situate the event within their character’s perspective: so perhaps they didn’t kill the important character — maybe they just witnessed his death, or maybe they might have aided someone else involved in the slaying. Or — another possible alternative — the player might choose to separate their character from the storyline entirely.

By bifurcating the story, the player creates their own narrative, independent from the metanarrative. Not only is it independent from the story, but it displaces it — to the player, her story is the most important element — not the “metanarrative.” Likewise, players that interact with the player will be interested in her story — not the overarching “metanarrative.”

Now, magnify this by a thousand choices, on a hundred different realms. Suddenly, World of Warcraft is way more than just a single storyline — it’s a thousand independent storylines, each existing independent of each other (yet each taking up the same “important” space in relation to the player).

The beginning of a postmodern project

The theoretical “project” my independent study is working toward is a paper on metanarrative and MMORPGs. Specifically, it’s the concept that World of Warcraft‘s community is the ultimate destroyer of the metanarrative. In short, the idea goes something like this:

“Metanarrative” was first defined by Jean-François Lyotard as a fancy word for “grand narrative.” Lyotard described the postmodernist movement as one that was in reaction to the idea that “grand narratives” were the basis for social movement. That is, “metanarratives” were stories that propped up stories — they were the history behind the history, or the meaning behind every other story situated underneath them.

If you’re an American, perhaps the “bootstraps” metanarrative is a great example. In America, there is a general (capitalist) idea that motivation, determination, and hard work are all that one needs to succeed. Therefore, every narrative (literally stories of individuals) must conform to this metanarrative. So when someone succeeds in America, it’s because they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Likewise, when someone fails, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. This metanarrative is so loud and so dominant that it eats the petits récits, or the tiny stories of the “little people.” A man might fail to succeed because of racism, ableism, or other variables, but because these events are not recognized by the metanarrative, they are ridiculed, ignored, or otherwise completely overshadowed.

Postmodernism is seen by Lyotard as a rejection of the metanarrative. Instead of privileging metanarratives, postmodernist prefer petits récits — they prefer narratives that exist outside of the influence of metanarratives (or, at the very least, they aren’t overshadowed by it).

A typical metanarrative will privilege certain voices — a petits récits on the other hand, looks to give voice to anyone.

So, where do video games come in?

It’s fair to say that up until the contemporary era, video games were very much metanarratologically oriented. Video games are defined by central narratives: one of the largest theoretical problems in critical play studies (and game development) is the creation of a space that gives the player a balance between gameplay and narrative:

“If the system decides the ending, we have guaranteed closure without interactive freedom; if the user decides the ending we have guaranteed freedom but possibly no closure. Further, if a player is playing a prescribed role, such as Ghandi, we either have to limit interactive freedom to maintain the player’s role (and story arc) or provide interactive freedom at the expense of the role (and story arc).”

In this typical ludological criticism, a true postmodern game is seemingly impossible: true “interactivity” destroys any hope of a narrative, and a distinct narrative destroys the possibility of interactivity (and thus, the possibility of a “game”).

Within this line of thought, contemporary games are destined to be metanarratives: there is no way to provide “true interactivity,” and so all narratives must conform to developer intentions — they must conform to the metanarrative of the text. Using World of Warcraft as an example, players might be offered different paths through the gameworld, and players may (or may not) choose different quests — but the overarching story of the gameworld itself is predetermined: it follows a metanarrative that the player cannot escape from.

There is, however, a theoretical way out: redefining “interactivity.”

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern manage to do this by replacing “interactivity” with “agency.” They argue that “interactivity” is needlessly vague, choosing to use agency instead: “A player will experience agency when material and formal constraints are balanced. This is not the same as ‘a player will experience agency when they can take arbitrary action whenever they want.’ So in the case of choosing the ending of an interactive story, the player does not need the ability to make arbitrary endings happen in order to feel agency. A small number of authorially-determined ending configurations can still produce a strong feeling of player agency if reached through sequences of player actions within a materially and formally balanced system.”

While this does not mean that agency = breaking into the postmodern, it does mean that the potential exists: for the first step to reaching the theoretical “postmodern game” is giving the player the ability to even have a separate story to tell (outside of the metanarrative).

This is where World of Warcraft comes in again — while players might not be able to arbitrarily exit the predetermined in-game narrative, they do have the ability to pick and choose their character’s destiny, giving them agency within their own story.

So, at the very least, we know the possibility is there — the only questions that remains is this: does the game acknowledge stories outside of the metanarrative? If the answer is yes, then World of Warcraft has to be considered a postmodern game.

References:

Mateas, Michael, and Andrew Stern. “Interaction and Narrative.” Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. 642-69. Print.

So, how are we doing?

Today’s reading was Maps of Digital Desire: Exploring the Topographies of Gender and Play in Online Games by Nick Yee. This was a formal book chapter based on Yee’s research in The Daedalus Project, which I’ve referenced before in previous bits of research. The Daedalus Project, in short, was (it formerly went into “hibernation” in 2009) a data collection project that looked at gender, playtime, age, and a handful of other variables relating to MMOs. The data was collected via player-given surveys every few years, and then collected into a database.

The article itself uses the data within the project to fuel a conclusion: that game communities are more impactful on gendered play than gameplay mechanics.

Outside of demographics, Yee notes that the motivations for play in MMOs are similar between male and female players. Yee categorizes “play motivations” into three spheres:

Achievement: progress, power, status, numbers, analysis, challenging others, provocation

Social: casual chat, making friends, support, group achievement

Immersion: exploration, lore, fantasy, appearances, escapism

Yee’s categorizations show the many ways in which players “enjoy” MMOs. Likewise, they also show that there’s a great variety of “enjoyment” to be had within most modern MMOs.

The assumed, “popular” differences between the genders (in the gaming sphere) would seemingly mark these categories as gendered. I’m sure anyone who has ever belonged to a virtual community of some sort would immediately know the implications of each category without me even mentioning them: the casual, feminine space would be clearly defined. Likewise, the competitive, aggressive male space would also be clearly defined. The borders would be understood. Yee’s research, however, clearly shows that this popular assessment is bunk: in the category with the largest gender swing (mechanics), the overlap between men and women was 66 percent. Overall, the overlap was 87 percent. While there was difference, there was far more shared ground than feminine/masculine ground.

Yee notes, however, that even these tiny “gendered” spaces can be explained away with other statistics: age differences, for example, slightly inflate the numbers, as women gamers tend to be older than men.

This is about where we get to the elephant in the room: if women and men play for similar reasons, then why is their such a gender gap?

Yee’s interviewees offer some perspective:

“The only really off-putting detail is that it’s ludicrous that every time my elf fights, her breasts stick out to the side repeatedly. It is a constant reminder to me that this game is made for 13 year old boys, or men who still think like them. (World of Warcraft, female, 42)”

“But every ounce in a while, I seem to meet someone who wants to violently deny that I am who I am. And how am I supposed to respond to a charge of ‘You are not a girl!’ — I can’t flash ID or body parts to prove it. (World of Warcraft, female, 36)”

“There are things that happen in-game that make me embarrassed, as a woman and as a person who tries to be socially responsible, to be playing. For example, male players will talk about getting ‘raped’ without really thinking about it, things that happen will be referred to as ‘gay,’ which is offensive, people do crude things to player corpses in PvP [Player vs. Player settings], etc. (World of Warcraft, female, 29)”

With the exception of the first comment, all of these women have problems with the game’s community (and not the gameplay). Even then, the first comment could be considered a community issue as well, as the “community perspective” defines what parameters the game is developed to.

And so it is obvious then, what perhaps the largest “block” is on gender and MMOs (if not the whole of gaming).

But here’s my question — this article was written in 2008. The data is references was collected sometime during early vanilla World of Warcraft (as far as I know), with very few updates since then.

So… have things gotten better? Has the perspective changed?

Or, perhaps more to the point: has the recent (I’d argue 2010 and forward) surge of feminist (and queer) criticism directed at World of Warcraft impacted the diversity of the playerbase? Has it impacted developer dialog? Gameplay changes? Have advertising campaigns changed?

These aren’t questions that I can really answer yet — but they are certainly avenues for research later on in the semester. In the short-term, I’d like to interview a few WoW-based feminists to see what they think.

The difference between what you say and what you do

Currently, the gaming space is obsessed with a new title: Grand Theft Auto V. As is the case with most “AAA” titles, the game has become the sole topic of conversation among both gamers and game critics. As can be expected, as soon as the reviews started to flood out, the conversations started about quality, gameplay, story, misogyny, review scores, and… well, every other bit of detritus that is often stirred up by these sorts of things.

My critical eye, however, was focused on something else: dissonance.

Often within “critical” gaming circles (either academic or otherwise) we often talk about this thing called ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that generally symbolizes the common conflict within video games wherein the gameplay does not align with the story. This is a concept that any gamer who has played a major title in the last, well, forever, is familiar with.

Ludonarrative dissonance is important because for “contemporary” games, it’s seen as both a problem and a tool — and really, to understand why it still exists in contemporary gaming, you have to understand both dynamic sides of the issue.

For some, the dissonance presented within is unseen. I’d wager this is the popular position. Gamers are assumed to either a). not care, or b). not notice the dissonance present in, say, any of the Modern Warfare titles. It just is. It’s just video games. A limitation of the genre.

On the other side of the argument, it’s a problem — one that can either be used, tackled, or otherwise shifted. Both Bioshock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line arguably use the “dissonance” to say something — using the “limitation” of a medium to speak certain messages to the player.

Then, of course, there are the titles that attempt to tackle and eradicate the problem all together: take Gone Home, for example, or just about any adventure game — games that believe dissonance is just that: noise and chatter, something that needs to be eradicated or used in a precise way.

The latter two ways of looking at ludonarrative dissonance appear to be optimistic to me — they look at the medium as something that can grow, as something that can be art at the present moment. The former, however, is cynical: it sees gaming as nothing more than Tetris. The blocks fall, the soundtrack plays, and that’s all there is.

Interestingly enough, the above debate is mirrored in the critical space.

While thumbing through reviews of GTA V, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the reviews were saying the same things (I certainly wasn’t the only person to notice this). Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that’s new. It’s basically the same deal with every “AAA” title that comes out.

But what specifically struck me about all of these GTA V reviews was that they kept mentioning the game’s story in a negative light — its fractured characters, its misogyny, its inability to weave its narrative — and yet the score at the bottom wasn’t reflecting this. In the case of Chris Plante’s review, almost a sixth of his piece focused on storytelling flaws, yet he still managed to give the title an almost perfect score. The same was repeated over at Gamespot, where Carolyn Petite spent some time criticizing the game’s storytelling flaws — right before giving the game a 9/10 (and — even more problematic — she was horrifically harassed for giving the game anything but a perfect score).

So what gives? What is being reviewed here?

The obvious, knee-jerk answer is that gameplay trumps everything — that nothing else matters if the game is “fun.” (A note: what the hell is considered fun? What is being said by a reviewer that thinks a game is “fun” despite questionable content?)

But really, that answer is a cop-out. It’s a shitty response to a complicated question. Video games — especially video games like GTA V, that want to be taken “seriously” (yes, as art) — are not just “gameplay.” They are more than systems designed for the production of fun.

I’m not speaking from just an academic, ivory-tower position here — this method of looking at games like a fractured system of parts is tired and worthless. It ignores a great many of us who play games as more than just fun simulators. It ignores a great many of us who, hey, enjoy video games as a cohesive, unique form of entertainment, and not just something we plug into when we’re bored.

But more than that (and I’m climbing back in the ivory tower), such a method is critically destructive, and not in the Derridean way, either.

By honestly (truly) picking up GTA V and scoring it based on only the things we like, or that only we pay attention to (while pretending to be critics, and not New Critics — and making the “I” clear), we are preventing the genre from evolving. We are accepting its limitations. We are also just being disingenuous as critics — we aren’t being true to the medium we are working in.

BUT — that isn’t what’s happening, right? Clearly, at least in the case of Plante and Petite, they are fully reviewing these games, right? They are mentioning these things!

The problem is that there’s dissonance. The score and the words don’t line up.

In the intellectual bits of the game reviewing field, the score isn’t supposed to matter, right? It’s supposed to just… just…

What? What are we supposed to do with it?

Just as is the case with ludonarrative dissonance, we can’t ignore the gameplay or the narrative when looking at the full picture. In a video game, both parts must be present. Likewise, in a game review (or a review of anything, for that matter), the score and the words matter. Yes — in a perfect wonderland there would be no scores and no MetaCritic, or whatever — but that isn’t the world we live in. We have scores. They are here. The people reading those reviews are going to look at the score. A great many of them will look at just the score.

So we can’t ignore it. It’s there. It’s saying something.

That is, of course, if you aren’t cynical.

A formal beginning

In late 2012 — right around this time of year — I began grad school at TCNJ. While I had a general idea of where I wanted to go (academically), I really didn’t have much of a critical focus. Okay, I’ll be a little more honest — I didn’t have any focus. I was aimless. It wasn’t that I hated research (I don’t!) or that I didn’t enjoy any aspect of English (or literature), it was simply that I couldn’t choose. Nothing had my heart. Nothing reached out and really grabbed me by the shoulders.

And then I took ENG 505 — Contemporary Theory & Methods.

My professor (and current adviser) encouraged the class to think outside the box. What is a text? What can work? Why not a comic book, or a movie, or a video game?

That last one caught my attention. Of course, it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard of game studies — I had! But I’d hardly considered it a viable thing that I could do. Despite the fact that I’d been writing professionally about games for the last two years, something had acted as an academic block, preventing me from seeing this possibility. For some reason I thought it wasn’t an avenue available to me. Yet, here it was.

I jumped at the opportunity, stumbling through a discipline that I had a lot of passion for, though not a whole lot of knowledge.

The end result was a trip to a conference, where I presented my first “serious” paper: “Reaching for the Moon: Agency, Linearity, and Gender within Portal 2.”

That same semester I wrote a second game studies paper — once again about Portal 2, except this time the focus was on Foucault.

In the spring my attention turned to World of Warcraft, where I wrote a paper discussing the game’s queer nature.

Throughout all of this, though, there was a slight problem — a blind spot I couldn’t quite locate just outside of my vision. You see, despite my passion for the subject, and despite the research I had done, I felt like I had no right to write all of these papers without a more concrete foundation. Who was I to talk about all of these big subjects? How can I call myself a game studies theorist?

While I realize such questions are a little ridiculous, I still felt I needed some sort of critical surface to build off of. So with that goal in mind I set out to built an independent study for myself — the goal of which is to create that mythical academic foundation. As I feel like I do some of my best thinking publicly, I’ll be posting all of my “journal entries” on this blog. All of my thoughts, musings, and whatnot will be out in the wild. Hopefully this will help me develop — and hey! — maybe it’ll help someone else out a little bit too.

And so… we begin!

An Introduction to an Introduction: Frans Mäyrä’s An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture

I’ll be referencing this book in the future weeks, but to start off I want to talk about something I find interesting — the interdisciplinary nature of game studies. It’s one of the earliest things Mäyrä brings up in his book, noting that there’s a certain interesting mix of media within digital games. This is further complicated by the different dimensions of possible study: you have the game itself, and then you have the community around the game (and everything in-between).

On one level, the study of games is mathematical — programming and design, switches and interface. On another, games certainly can be seen as texts (and as such, are completely open to interpretation by all the contemporary lit theory methods we can throw at them). Going even further, games are a amalgamation of different forms of media: music, visual art, literature, and more I’m likely forgetting.

There are, without a doubt, an almost limitless amount of perspectives you can take.

While that is freeing, it also can be intimidating.

One of the largest obstacles I’ve faced thus far is that it feels like studying games requires a monumental amount of theory knowledge — and by “theory” I don’t just mean “critical theory,” either. For a paper I wrote over the summer about the power of language in World of Warcraft, I found that I had to dig my hands into linguistics and ethnography — two fields I’ve never touched. Even after twenty or so pages of analysis, however, I felt like I was missing something — like I had to dig even deeper, into other fields and other disciplines.

I don’t have much of a direction here or end-goal for this post — but more of a question: how do you deal with a subject so incredibly interdisciplinary? Is there a limit? Is it acceptable to go this far and no more?

Mäyrä, in the first chapter of the book, discusses forming an “influence map” of sorts, to mark out your own gaming “cultural background” of sorts. The purpose is to situate the scholar in a certain place within the field. I wonder if such an activity would be helpful in sorting out my own “disciplinary” knowledge sets? Maybe figuring out what interdisciplinary route to take is just a matter of figuring out what route you’re interested in. Or maybe that’s an academic trap.

Yo friends, check your proverbial six (because you’re doing bad things)

Feminism is not a switch, nor is it a binary. You do not get to turn it off. You do not get to decide intersectionality is too cool for you.

Feminism is not a switch, nor is it a binary. You do not get to turn it off. You do not get to decide intersectionality is too cool for you.

It’s fair to say that my musical tastes don’t align with MTV. While I don’t mind pop, I also don’t seek it out, so the VMAs aren’t exactly a “thing” with me. I don’t watch them and I don’t care about them.

But considering the overwhelming clusterfuck that was my Twitter and Facebook feed last night — well — I feel like I might as well have watched them.

You see, apparently Miley Cyrus did some things. By “some things” I mean perform on stage, the way many other performers have. Except, of course, there was some sexuality thrown in.

The result is an endless tirade of bullshit being flung at Cyrus. She’s a slut. A whore. A good ol’ jezebel. Oh, and she’s ugly. And fat. And her butt is gross. As is the rest of her body.

There are problems with this. Let me list them.

1.

Other lady performers (Gaga, for example), can literally parade around nude (and semi-nude at award shows) and not an eyebrow is raised. But Miley — that’s different. Miley is supposed to be the virginal pop starlet, she’s supposed to be the good down home gal, playing country guitar and singing folksy songs about… shit, I don’t know, cows or something. But when she breaks this narrative — when she dares, as a 20-year-old woman, to show her sexuality (in a flamboyant way, no less!) she is decimated.

This young adult performer is, apparently, not supposed to be like that. She’s supposed to be a role model for young girls — and lord knows that the only thing they should learn about sexuality is that it’s for men and bad and no no no no no~

2.

What the fuck, feminist friends?

I’m going to be honest — I don’t really care about Cyrus at all. I don’t. I can’t. I did not care at all about any of this until I saw some of the responses my (otherwise) feminist friends were making — everything from “that shouldn’t be on TV!” to critiques of her body.

Why.

Why. Why. Why.

Instead of going after the potential cultural appropriation issues, instead of going after the system that might make Cyrus feel like she has to sexualize her act to make money, instead of talking about Robin Thicke, instead of talking about the dwindling musical relevance of MTV… we get this?

How does that logic work?

“Objectification is bad! But totes not if we don’t like the woman in question!”

Which brings me to…

3.

The sound of the entire ocean cascading over the heads of everyone both patting Justin Timberlake on the head while simultaneously tearing into Cyrus.

Yes, yes. NSYNC is back.

On one hand, you criticize a lady who — by her own agency — decided to do something sexual in a performance on an adult show on an adult network.

On the other, you forget that the group (of men) you are cheering literally made their names on sex. What, did you think NSYNC was totally about… like, what? JT sells what, exactly?

Did you think Giddy Up was about horses? Did you think Let’s Take a Ride was about a wonderful drive through the enchanted forest?

Did you think FutureSex was talking about, shit, god, can you see the problem — do I have to continue? Can we remember — during a certain Super Bowl appearance — who helped a nip to slip? Man, who did that controversy fall on? I bet it totally was evenl–

OH WAIT

4.

Finally, let’s just step aside for a moment and acknowledge that yes, there is potentially a problem if women feel that they are forced to sexualize themselves in order to “make it.” That is serious shit. That’s something to write about.

But, here’s the thing — when you are writing about it, when you are talking about it in a serious way — you don’t target the woman who is the victim of the complex. You target THE COMPLEX.

And if you handwave all of this away under the guise of “it’s just good fun! cultural touchstones!” then realize you are basically the guy in the back of the room saying “it’s just a joke!” or “it’s just a MEDIATYPEHERE!”

Likewise, if you critique Cyrus by calling her a whore/slut/pr0n*/whathaveyou, you are basically saying “hey, sexuality is bad unless it is on our terms*.” Also, slutshaming. That’s a thing.

Basically you’re part of the problem, stop it.

Or, for a more philosophical angle — take a lesson from Foucault. If everyone around you is screaming the same things, maybe you should consider why they are screaming those things, and understand the social methodology that makes you feel obligated to do the same.

* — Whatever conservative, straight, white cis-gendered male middle-America is comfortable with.

Strange music for the end of summer

Music can be weird.

Weird can be awesome.

Unfortunately, weird music is often shunned — it is often pushed away into the shadows. The creative freedom of embracing “weird” is obvious, yet in mainstream music it simply doesn’t have much of a place.

This article celebrates that creative freedom. It’s about the experimental and the weird.

I think that there’s something to that weirdness. I think embracing it — even just long enough to make it through a single song — can be productive. Dissonance can be creative fuel. It can be like a drug, opening up connections and igniting areas of our brain that have gone previously unnoticed.

The following albums haven’t been picked because I love them. No — they’ve been picked because they move me in some way, even if it is weird and uncomfortable. None of these listens are “easy,” and most are incredibly alienating.

But please. Give them a try. See what they make you think.

 

Sunn O)))

Sunn O))) – Monoliths & Dimensions

Tracks: Big Church, Alice

Sunn O))) is classified as “drone” metal. That, um, should give you a good idea of what you’re about to hear.

Sunn O)))’s discography is filled with lengthy tracks composed of nothing more than the sound of down-tuned guitars played at earthquake-inducing frequencies. Of course, these tracks are layered over a bunch of other down-tuned guitars, some ambient noise… and well, the result is mystifying.

M&D takes this formula and ramps it up quite a bit.

When I first listened to Sunn O))), I laughed. How is this music? Who could listen to this? I didn’t make it fifteen seconds before turning it off. A few months later my playlist happened to randomly play one of their tracks, and I decided to begrudgingly listen through it (mainly because I was too lazy to hit next).

I found myself staring out the window. At nothing. I found my thoughts gone.

Hungarian chanting echoed in my head. Nothing else.

One of Sunn O)))’s albums is called “Void.” Honestly, I can’t think of a better word to describe their music. Void metal, really. Listening to their music is like staring into a dark, dark place that swallows up your energy, your thoughts, and just about everything that makes you, you. It isn’t the sort of thing you turn on for pleasure — at least not the same musical pleasure you get from listening to, well, normal music. It’s the sort of thing you turn on because you want to go somewhere that you just can’t go without it.

 

Blut Aus Nord – The DesanctificationBlut-Aus-Nord-777-The-Desanctification

Tracks: Epitome VII, Epitome X

But Aus Nord is a mix of black metal and industrial. It is coated in mysticism, but it’s also uniquely stripped of it. It’s completely painful to listen to at times — nothing but walls of dissonance and discord — yet, moments of beauty manage to sneak in, breaking up those passages.

A thousand black metal bands could fit in this space, but Blut Aus Nord just… well, they fit more than most.

For all its seething rage, black metal tends to feel synthetic. The layers of corpsepaint and satanism all seem to go nowhere. It’s all for image. Blut Aus Nord rebels against that. There is no shouting at society here, no devotion to angsty teenage causes. Everything is cloaked. Everything is hidden.

To uncover what’s beneath is painful.

Is it worth it? I’m not quite sure. I sure as hell haven’t yet.

 

Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion30289084_700x700min_1

Tracks: Ljudet Innan, Storm Corrosion

Storm Corrosion is a winding, 48-minute journey through a strange musical idea that is situated somewhere between progressive rock, psychedelia, and ambient/drone music. Arguably, it even has some subtle metal elements, although finding them (and pointing them out) would be a difficult task.

Storm Corrosion is technically “lighter” than many other pieces on this list. Yet, despite this it manages to create an atmosphere that is just as dark. If Sunn O))) or Blut Aus Nord are like being punched in the nose, Storm Corrosion is like a thread moving subtly against your skin. No, you won’t feel the impact quite as soon, but you’re sure it is there.

While there are cohesive ideas at play, the album tends to wander quite a bit. Instruments and sounds pop up on a track only to be completely forgotten — perhaps their melody remembered later, but in a ever-so-slightly-dissonant way. Of course, it all feels strangely in place. This isn’t random thoughtless generation. It’s intentional, and that’s clear — but it isn’t obvious why, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

Perhaps the best part is the fact that this album was essentially created by two minds moving past each other. While all albums are like that in a way, this one specifically features two powerful minds (Mikael Akerfeldt and Steven Wilson) coming together — briefly — to form an album. Opeth, on their album sleeves, refers to their albums as “observances,” and I feel that label is perfect here, too. This isn’t really an album, no — it’s a musical observance. It’s a series of ideas and thoughts that could only come together in that specific place.

While I maintain a certain distance from most album’s on this list, Storm Corrosion sticks close to my heart — for that reason among many.

 

Hexvessel – Dawnbearerhexvessel-dawnbearer

Tracks: I am the Ritual, A Stranger’s Grave

Hexvessel is, strangely enough, the most normal band on this list. Their tracks have form, and for the most part they aren’t all that dissonant (well, okay, they have dissonance — but at least it is melodic dissonance).

Depending on who you’re talking to, Hexvessel either falls into “occult rock” or “neo-psychedelic folk.” I’m not really sure, to be honest, and I don’t think it matters much at all, especially when you consider how unique their sound is.

Hexvessel essentially plays a sort of folksy, creepy music that is filled with fairly straight-forward guitar sections that twist and turn, morphing into something else entirely. Atmospheric elements pour in as the songs tumble on, organs, bells, haunting voices — you name it.  As can be expected, heavily “spiritual” lyrics are layered on everything. Oh, and tritones are pretty much everywhere once you get to the meat of most the songs.

Their inclusion on this list might seem strange at first, especially by the above description. Where does this band fit in here?

The secret lies in the combination of all the elements: it is clear that this is not the work of a group of guys interested in creeping you out. It’s the work of a group of guys who believe their music has a higher purpose. And that is chilling, in the strangest way.

Just like the other artists, this isn’t music that can be idly listened to. You’ve got to dig at it — you’ve got to really listen in to get the full experience.

But if you do… well, you get to see why some people refer to it as “psychedelic” folk.