When does homage cross the border into pastiche? When does inspiration curdle into derivation? Now that the time-honored pop-crit values of “originality” and “authenticity” have been so thoroughly debunked by a generation of deconstructionist pop music historians, what is left to say about music that is utterly and completely indebted to the work of another artist? Questions like these come to mind when listening to the new album by King Dude, the dark folk project of T.J. Cowgill, proprietor of witch-house apparel label Actual Pain and frontman for Seattle’s death metal outfit Book of the Black Earth. Burning Daylight is the third album by King Dude, a project that would seem — from concept to every detail of execution — to be operating as a largely unacknowledged tribute to the work of British post-industrial group Death In June.
Death In June formed in 1980 from the ashes of Crisis, an antifascist punk group that was preoccupied with the Holocaust as metaphor and political parable. Guitarist Douglas Pearce and bassist Tony Wakeford transferred much of the Nazi symbolism from Crisis to DIJ, but this imagery was increasingly employed in an ambiguous and problematic way. No longer describing themselves as leftist or anti-racist, Death In June transformed metaphor into fetishism, jettisoning the leftist political program in favor of a highly personal, homoerotic, and politically ambivalent embrace of the transgressive. Along the way, the music shifted from Joy Division-esque post-punk to a unique iteration of folk music drawing inspiration from the British and American (psych-)folk revival of the 1960s. The style reached maturity on classic albums like Rose Clouds of Holocaust and The Wall of Sacrifice, which combine simply strummed acoustic melodies with atmospheric production flourishes and lyrics reflecting a highly attuned sense of romance and tragedy, constructing a pantheon of transgressive queer cultural touchstones including Ernst Röhm, Yukio Mishima, and Jean Genet.
Although Death In June remain obscure to this day, their cult is considerable. They unwittingly spawned an entire corner of the underground, known variously as “apocalyptic folk” (Current 93, In Gowan Ring), “neofolk” or “martial industrial” (Strength Through Joy, Sol Invictus), and are often lumped in with a larger and more heterogeneous group of post-industrial noisemakers who are unified not by similar sounds, but by an obsessional axis that includes neo-paganism, occultism, Nordic and Old European mythology, and an often circumspect and ambiguous relationship to the völkisch ideologies that spawned Nazism. The flowering of this milieu is arguably well behind us, having culminated in the early 90s. Death In June still tour and release albums, though the music has lapsed in lazy self-parody and live dates are often met with protests and forced cancellations on behalf of groups who see the music as a subtler and more insidious form of neo-Nazi agitprop. For his part, Pearce (the only remaining member of the group) has largely refused to clarify the more ambiguous aspects of his project, believing (rightly) that specificity with regards to his politics might break the spell, so to speak.
That essential ambiguity is magnified by King Dude, who continues on his third album to execute a near-exact recreation of Death In June. It’s all there: wintry atmospherics, 80s synths, creepy field recordings, Ennio Morricone-style choral passages, kettle drums, baritone crooning drenched in reverb, and symbolist lyrics about death, apocalypse, and destiny. There is no doubt that King Dude is good at what he does. Indeed, on first blush, the album is every bit as eerie and listenable as vintage DIJ. And to be fair, there are differences as well. Cowgill seems uninterested in Holocaust imagery or right-wing politics, and his lyrics don’t contain coded references to homosexuality. Stylistically, the music gestures toward more domestic modes, with nods to the noir country of latter-day Johnny Cash (think of the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings cycle) and the blues of Robert Johnson.
Cowgill makes what amounts to a metonymic substitution, swapping out the British and European folk traditions that inspired Death In June for America’s own haunted folk traditions: “Hellhound On My Trail,” Christian millennialism, and The Man in Black singing about killing a man in Reno. On some tracks, such as “Lorraine” and “I’m Cold,” this American lineage is made obvious. On others, such as “Holy Land” and “Jesus In the Courtyard,” the replication of the DIJ sound is so complete that the geographical specificity barely registers. Tellingly, it is the latter tracks that work best, liberated from the need to awkwardly shoehorn country-blues twang into the spooky, Euro-goth surroundings.
So the question remains: Why a pitch-perfect emulation of Death In June, and why now? I believe part of the answer can be recovered with reference to King Dude’s other projects. As the proprietor of Actual Pain, Cowgill offers an array of striking logo apparel that serves as the fashion analog to witch-house aesthetics, an unholy alliance of satanic imagery (often filtered through a black metal sensibility) and the oversized sportswear of hip-hop fashion, joined together with an unmistakably satirical slant, an artifact of witch-house’s origin as internet meme. (Some Actual Pain tees even feature slogans that make direct reference to Death In June albums.) As the leader of Book of the Black Earth, Cowgill traffics in a somewhat clinical pastiche of black/death metal (complete with the de rigeur Cookie Monster vocals) that evokes the Nordic black metal of Burzum, Darkthrone, et al. without ever fully invoking it. All three projects — King Dude, Actual Pain, Black Earth — attempt to liberate highly fraught cultural forms from the subversive and provocative ideas that comprise their content.
And it can’t be a coincidence that the common element uniting all three projects is satanism, specifically that thread of satanism that animated Ragnar Redbeard’s Might Is Right, Aryan race theory, and the Odalist philosophy of Varg Vikernes and the Allgermanische Heidnische Front (Heathen Front). In other words, all three of Cowgill’s projects make specific and unmistakable reference to previously existing cultural strains that are, at least in part, motivated by racist ideologies. I’m not claiming that Cowgill is racist, consciously or unconsciously. Far from it. The important difference between Cowgill and artists like Pearce and Vikernes is that Cowgill does not appear to have any kind of sincere political ideology underlying his art. Where Pearce and Vikernes were inspired by primary sources (Nietzsche, Nordic myths, Nazism, etc.), Cowgill is inspired by secondary sources (Death In June, Burzum, etc.). Anxious cultural critics might dismiss these differences and instead underline the ways in which Cowgill, intentionally or not, is perpetuating dangerous ideologies, but I believe it’s important to make such distinctions. There is nothing remotely racist or rightist about Burning Daylight, and yet it appears to gain at least some of its power by superficially referencing a transgressive history that includes racism and fascism as a key element.
And this is perhaps a sign of how far we’ve come as a culture, when even the virulent racism of National Socialism can be transformed into a largely imperceptible veneer, a slight tang to stimulate the taste buds, all of the flavor with none of the calories. Burning Daylight makes full use of this readymade constellation of transgressive cultural references, but they’ve all been fully defanged for your listening pleasure. We all know that Johnny Cash never killed a man, that Robert Johnson didn’t sell his soul to the devil, and that Douglas Pearce isn’t a card-carrying Nazi. It’s all part of the show. In a way, these cosmetic forms of subversion have been with us since the dawn of popular music. Rather than referring to primal transgressions, however, Cowgill refers to the performative transgressions of earlier musicians. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and yet there is something about King Dude’s particular gloss on neofolk that I find naggingly inauthentic. I know, I know. “Authenticity” is always already a construction, especially with regards to pop music. In the end, I can’t offer any rigorous justification for my antipathy towards this music other than the fact that I’m just not convinced that the world needs another Death In June tribute act, with or without the additional layer of ironic distance.