The Sound of Cosmic Pessimism

How Cosmic Black Metal could be the musical genre that encapsulates Eugene Thacker's take on cosmic pessimism

Lidia Zuin
8 min readMay 28, 2024
Scene from the movie Sunshine (2008), directed by Danny Boyle

What would be the best way to start a trilogy on the “horror of philosophy” and “cosmic pessimism” than having black metal as your first example in culture? That’s exactly what Eugene Thacker does in the first book.

In “In the Dust of this Planet”, Thacker takes the meaning of “black” in black metal from different perspectives: as in black metal being the most extreme metal subgenre, as being equated (though in a reductionist way) to Satanism, and as being related to another kind of heretics, paganism.

For the latter two interpretations, there are plenty of examples that the author himself lists in the book: Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger and Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Satanas for the satanism take, as well as Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal and Wolves in the Throne Room’s Diadem of Twelve Stars for the pagan reading.

Thacker however suggests that there should be another interpretation of the word black, something that is completely unrelated to humanity as a whole. While Satanism and paganism deal with other entities (e.g. demons, faes, satyrs), they all take part in human life somehow, whereas a cosmic perspective on "black" would go further than that.

To get to this interpretation, the author mentions the way Schopenhauer refused Kant’s meticulous categorization of reality, as well as Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel’s romanticization of nature. For Schopenhauer,

“…if we are to really think about the world as it exists in itself, (…) we have to challenge the most basic premises of philosophy. These include the principle of sufficient reason (everything that exists has a reason for existing), as well as the well-worn dichotomy between self and world, so central to modern empirical science.” (Eugene Thacker, in In the dust of this planet, p. 18.)

For Thacker, to understand Schopenhauer (or more specifically the perspective of cosmic pessimism), we need to entertain the possibility that

"…there is no reason for something existing; or that the split between subject and object is only our name for something equally accidental we call knowledge; or, an even more difficult thought, that while there may be some order to the self and the cosmos, to the microcosm and macrocosm, it is an order that is absolutely indifferent to our existence, and of which we can have only a negative awareness." (Ibid.)

In that sense, the author argues that philosophy has perhaps never truly captured this idea, but supernatural horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft could do so. Throughout the trilogy, Thacker gives plenty of examples of what he means by cosmic pessimism, and how to address the unnameable, unthinkable, and ungraspable in many ways, but specifically in philosophy. In literature, Lovecraft was already able to describe how incapable his characters are of grasping the horror they face, and what is the reason, origin, or meaning of it.

In fact, Lovecraft has named this approach by calling it "cosmic outsideness", which is better described through a citation used by Thacker:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

When it comes to music, Thacker believes that cosmic outsideness was better achieved by non-metal musicians. He cites Keiji Haino's piece So, Black is Myself, an experimental work that only has one line as its lyrics: "Wisdom that will bless I, who live in the spiral joy born at the utter end of a black prayer." But I dare say that Thacker missed a very specific subgenre of black metal, which is called precisely cosmic black metal.

Promo picture of the Swiss band Darkspace

Back in 2017, Andrea Bosetti wrote a piece about the subgenre for Noisey and used the blurb "What happens when black metal bands stop staring down at Hell and look up towards the stars?". Though Thacker doesn't necessarily use the term cosmic in relation to outer space, planets, and celestial bodies, that is another interpretation to the term.

More specifically, according to Merriam-Webster, the word "cosmic" can be defined in these ways:

1. of or relating to the cosmos, the extraterrestrial vastness, or the universe in contrast to the Earth alone. E.g.: cosmic radiation.

2. of, relating to, or concerned with abstract spiritual or metaphysical (see METAPHYSICAL sense 2) ideas. E.g. cosmic wisdom.

3. characterized by greatness especially in extent, intensity, or comprehensiveness. E.g.: a cosmic thinker, a book of cosmic significance.

All in all, the term cosmic is chosen to address that which is beyond our grasp, which is too huge, too complex, too abstract for our minds to comprehend or even draft a thought. The expression "cosmic vertigo" may fit well here, though it also has an astronomic origin as it refers to the dizziness one may feel when trying to think about the incomprehensible scale of space. Space, therefore, is just a more concrete way to express the ungraspable, and that is arguably way scarier than hell, demons, or evil creatures.

Though cosmic black metal can also be referred to as space black metal, thus more specifically related to astronomical topics, it can also encompass that dizziness caused by the cosmos. In fact, as brought up by Bosetti, that's an inspiration in black metal since the 1990s, when Arcturus titled their first EP Constellation and when Darkspace came to be.

In 1999, the Swiss trio decided to use space as the ultimate means of dehumanization. In Bosetti's words:

"Following a digitally-released 2002 demo, in 2003, the unprepared world of underground metal fans was violently shaken awake by the band’s debut full-length, Darkspace I. With a drum-machine consistently spiraling past 120 bpm, their formless guitars painted the void of deep space, in which inhuman and indistinguishable screams are the only trace of life. Compared with the cruelty and impenetrability of Darkspace’s work, Alien’s Nostromo and Pandorum’s Elysium seem like safe havens. (…) It’s as if heavy metal music fans have suddenly realized that (…) nothing is more inhospitable, nihilistic, and misanthropic than the cosmic void. At the same time, space allows nearly infinite expressive freedom: From pure narrative to a more scientific, speculative, or philosophical approach, these artists have started to define new ways to confront the vault of heaven and all that is hidden beyond it."

Though old-school black metal stans could think drum machines are lame, these are widely used in cosmic black metal as well as synthesizers, a sonority that could thus also appeal to science fiction fans. While Mersathim has used their music to address scientific concepts such as The Great Funnel, other bands such as Greece's Spectral Lore are all about speculation. In Bosetti's words:

"Spectral Lore features a strong philosophical vein, which sometimes turns toward Planet Earth, but more often takes the road towards the cosmos via a heady combination of black metal, synthesizers, unlimited expansion, and songs that travel swiftly between seven and eighteen minutes of duration."

It is worth noting that the unspeakable was approached by Lovecraft in several ways. This could be done through a cosmic perspective (Color Out of Space) or a more "demonologic" take when you think about Ctuhulu and "the old ones" (also the name of a black metal band). More recently though, post-Lovecraftians have explored cosmic horror from a psychedelic perspective, such as it is the case of Panos Cosmatos (and possibly Jodorowsky too) in cinema and Oranssi Pazuzu in black metal.

Scene from Panos Cosmatos' movie Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Bosetti cites the Finish band and the way their exploration into the cosmos is both ignited by drugs and demonology. Oranssi means "orange-colored" and it is a reference to Orange amps and their importance in psychedelic rock; Pazuzu was a demon from Ancient Babylon. In his words:

"The result does an insane amount of damage, bolstered by very long songs, very long pedal boxes, and very long hair, distinctive traits that amount to albums with titles like Muukalainen Puhuu (Speaking in Alien), or Kosmonument. And when they aren’t getting into space, they find plenty of space for drugs, preferable hallucinogens. Compared with all of the others that preceded them in this article, Oranssi Pazuzu are not as interested in the mysteries of deep space, or in its narrative, as much as they are in chemically expanding their own perceptions of the self."

That can take us right into Cosmatos' universes, especially in Beyond the Black Rainbow, but also in Mandy and his episode for Del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. This encounter between transcendence and space is, however, no news if you consider Timothy Leary's works or, more specifically, his and Robert Anton Wilson's Eight-circuit of consciousness model.

In a few words, the two researchers mapped how humans can achieve different levels of consciousness through different means (meditation, breathing exercises, but also specific drugs), and, in the highest circuit, one could sense or merge with the cosmos:

8. The Psycho-atomic Circuit allows access to the intergalactic consciousness that predates life in the universe (characterized as God, the Overmind and lets humans operate outside of space-time and the constraints of relativity. This circuit is associated with Ketamine and DMT by Leary. (Called also by Leary The Neuro-Atomic Circuit or The Metaphysiological Circuit, Robert Anton Wilson called this circuit The Quantum Non-Local Circuit.)

Now, considering Buddhist takes on the dissolution of ego and more recent propositions that death could be another "state of mind" in which consciousness is completely dissolved (perhaps back to what it used to be before one is born), then we get back to black metal's funereal humor and Thacker's proposition of nothingness, of something that is completely lacking humanity and everything we know of.

With all things considered, the next step towards this investigation would be diving into the dark oozing pool of cosmic black metal and seeing for yourself how much it can make you merge with the void of the cosmos. Here's a playlist for you to get started with the genre or check this list of cosmic-themed black metal bands at Encyclopaedia Metallum:



Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.