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O Magazine

Subversive Typography

By Javier Calvo

When, in 2009, design studio Trine + Kim opened its Metal Artwork exhibition in Oslo, in the former premises of legendary shop Helvete, the event acquired special relevance. Black metal aesthetics was going back to its place of origin transformed into a global artistic manifestation, used now by musicians and fans of all sorts of musical genres, popular in a way that it had never wanted to become and that would frighten its founders to death if it wasn’t because they are already dead. In any case, it certified the existence of a black metal art: a corpus of works created during three decades that already constituted a canon. Something to reproduce ad infinitum on covers and posters, logos and performances, facial paint and music videos. In the last ten years, there have been black metal art exhibitions around the world. Artists and film directors, from Harmony Korine to Ben Rivers, have paid homage to it. There are millions of parodies, and thousands of designers specialised in producing serial “art” for extreme metal bands and records.

The logo of black metal bands has become a genre in itself. Its extreme nature, almost illegible, is a reflection of the extreme nature, almost inaudible, of their music. On the one hand, the extremism of the logo –violent and inscrutable at the same time, aggressive and opaque– is “proof of authenticity” of the band’s extremism. On the other, it’s an emotional testimony. If black metal’s cornerstone is the rage and suffering of the misanthrope, its logos communicate desolation in a way that is not too far from Scandinavian tragic and melodramatic tradition: letters as spines, as brutal scratches, as wounds, as blood splatter, as inverted crosses, as ornamental inscriptions on codex, as runes, as occult symbols. Melodrama meets Gothicism. British artist James Stone, specialising in “subversive typography” and extreme metal logos, admitted during a recent workshop that he used the Book of Kells as source of inspiration.

The transformation of graphical symbols into drawings, their cancellation as signs, the concealment of their meaning, has a long tradition in occult philosophy. After all, illegibility is a synonym of inscrutability. But on top of that, other traditions converge in this occult practice: medieval calligraphy and the illuminated manuscript; Giordano Bruno’s Renaissance hermeticism, in which the trace itself is imbued with independent life to become a mnemonic aid; the alchemist, astrological and religious symbol; Austin Osman Spare’s magical sigils, and the avant-garde calligram, with its roots on Mallarmé’s (spiritual cousin of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) symbolist textual dispersion.

When it comes to the black metal logo, its purely non-alphabetical sigil elements, mnemonic-alchemist drawings, barely respond to a set of rules that refer less and less to typography and more to a series of laws dictated by its own tradition: symmetric in respect to a horizontal axis, deformation of first and last letters so that they are a mirror reflex of each other, a tendency towards ideogram, implementation of bonds, and submission to a geometric form (pentacle). The result is more abstract every time, from pioneering Mayhem and Darkthrone logos to unintelligible arabesques of neo-black metal bands such as Xasthur. More a ceremonial element than a band logo. A sigil from which to extract negative energy. Only for the initiated, of course: the rest of the population can’t decipher their occult language.

Guess the names of the bands (see solutions below)

1. Darkthrone, 2. Mayhem, 3. Drautran, 4. Eviscerator, 5. Gurglectomy, 6. Gutural Death, 7. Ichor, 8. Overdose, 9. Pathology, 10. Xasthur, 11. Utter, 12. Prosanctus Inferni, 13. Averse & 14. Bloodbath