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In a 2011 essay on queer sound for The Wire, Drew Daniel describes the reaction he once had to ‘French Kiss’ by Lil’ Louis on entering a gay bar. Rather than the sense of community the song was meant to engender, he writes, its effect was the opposite, an “oppressive experience”. He goes on to advance that “reassuringly gay” music, with the anthem at its peak, is a construct that reinforces the “dead end… the bagging and tagging of identities on behalf of a celebration of difference”. All sound, as opposed to some music, is queer, as “The fact of the sound of the world – its universality, not its difference – ruptures the common sense of normative, ‘straight’ life.” It makes for an instructive introduction to Why Do the Heathen Rage?, subtitled Electronic Profanations of Black Metal Classics. An album of black metal covers – corruptions, really – Why Do the Heathen Rage? reinterprets music from a genre renowned for homophobia, racism and hate as club music to embody Daniel’s argument that, ultimately, all sound is queer.
Of course, none of this theoretical underpinning would be worth much if the music weren’t up to scratch. By and large, the songs on Why Do the Heathen Rage? are brilliantly executed hybrids that manage to subvert received ideas even once you’ve processed the album’s premise, thanks to superb transposing and Daniel’s knack for lashing together motifs from utterly different styles. He finds an unexpected analogue for the howls and guitars of Venom’s ‘Black Metal’ with the ecstatic violence of gabber’s abrasive saws and punishing tempos; the drum ‘n’ bass version of ‘Maniac’ harnesses the frenetic rush of the Hellhammer original, and the cover of Darkthrone’s ‘Beholding the Throne of Might’ is ingenious, its sleazy groove offset by chattering synths and Jennifer Walshe’s throaty whisper.
The offbeat sense of humour prevalent in Matmos’s work also courses through these crossbreed covers, along with the same parodic stance you’d expect from someone who calls an ambient Burzum cover (not on the album) ‘Rundgang (Fuck Varg’s Racist, Anti-Semitic Bullshit Politics Forever!)’. Take ‘Satanic Black Devotion’, which features Terrence Hannum of Locrian. Daniel recasts the howling riffs of the Sargeist song as folky guitars that descend into a barrage of buzzing synths, counterpointing Hannum’s gravelly scream perfectly with a mangled ‘I’ve Got The Power’ sample. The pummeling pace of the original is reimagined as a monumental breakdown whose colossal drops and ugly blunted synths are only a hair’s breadth from stadium EDM, and almost as obnoxious. Admittedly, the massive drops and cornier rave motifs do grate after a while – even in the context of critique – but there’s enough range in the styles, textures and dynamics on the album to prevent that being a serious issue.
If the premise of queerifying black metal with a series of covers seems straightforward enough, Daniel’s nuanced critique soon puts paid to that idea. The album closes with a searing cover of a pastiche by spoof black metal band Impaled Northern Moonforest, which speaks volumes of the layered, self-referential complexity at work, in a similar way to that irreverently deployed sample in ‘Satanic Black Devotion’. Likewise, ‘Ready To Fuck’ undermines the sound of female orgasm ubiquitous in those “reassuringly gay” anthems (including ‘French Kiss’) with vocal roars, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak’s genuinely sensual vocals and euphoric synths that culminate in an ominous growl. It’s details such as these that make Why Do the Heathen Rage? seem more than a middle finger raised up to extremism; it’s also an inquiry into the differentiating effect of so-called gay music, and a celebration of the universality of queer sound.