Violence, Satanism, and Distortion: The Frenzied World of Black Metal
Through dense thickets of pine and spruce a magnificent twelfth century church stood nestled in the pristine Norwegian wilderness. The towering edifice was entirely constructed of wood, and scaly shingles blanketing the multi-leveled exterior coupled with dragon motifs jutting from the high gable-points amounted to a mystically powerful structure. The church was one of thirty-two surviving “stave churches” throughout Europe, though the architectural style’s cathedral-like prowess had become synonymous with Norway (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 81-84). Sitting on a hilltop near the western coast of Norway, the church was hidden from the world, existing in an immaculate balance between the natural world and human history. In the misty Norwegian morning on June 6th, 1992, however, the church was swallowed by flames, the work of an arsonist (Gardell p. 306). One of Norway’s most cherished cultural and historical monuments was diminished to smoking ashes, and as more and more cases of church burnings occurred throughout Norway, a bewildered country found itself asking, who among us is capable of such destruction?
The answer began to emerge from an underground music scene the media ominously labeled “The Black Circle.” United around an extreme offshoot of heavy metal known as Black Metal, the seemingly cultish albeit disorganized society was linked to a third of the nearly sixty cases of arsons or attempted arsons in Norway. This brutal phenomenon and its corresponding characters raise some fascinating questions regarding music’s role in modern society, the power of the individual, and the existence of pure evil in the world today.
To begin a discussion of Black Metal one must logically begin at the conception of its umbrella genre, the distorted colossus that is Heavy Metal. The birth of metal can be traced anywhere from the creation of the electric guitar in the 1920’s to the early 1980’s, when heavy metal materialized as a distinctly different form of music from hard rock. Sonically inspired by the acid-fueled rock and roll of the 1960’s with its distorted edginess and emphasis on high volume, bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath took the standard components of rock and roll-- electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, and vocals--to a more intense and characteristically abrasive realm. The term “heavy metal” comes from Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit “Born to Be Wild” in which the band describes the sensation of freedom at the wheel of a car or motorcycle as “heavy metal thunder” (Weinstein p. 19).
The conceptual and lyrical motifs of this steadily divergent music were also distinct from the 1960’s focus on peace, love, and unity. Instead, heavy metal bands seemed infatuated with the darker side of the human experience, and themes such as death, destruction, nihilism, and alienation took precedent over the flower-picking joy of universal brotherhood. Psychologist Jeffery Arnett explains this shift of interest in his book Metalheads partly in terms of commercialism, saying “If most other bands were doing sex, love, peace, brotherhood, and so on, one way to be original was to turn that formula on its head…and these possibilities could…get you noticed as a band” (Arnett 43). In Arnett’s analysis of 115 heavy metal songs, 50% percent of the songs were based on themes of anger, 27% on sadness, and only 15% on positive themes such as love, happiness, and compassion. He also accredits technological advancements as key in the conceptual shift, as the electric guitar and bass, along with their newly developed effects such as the fuzz box, could increasingly simulate “a sense of chaos and doom” (Arnett p. 43, Weinstein p. 38). A new wave of bands in the 70’s and 80’s such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Megadeth utilized this novel sound and energy to distinguish themselves from “mainstream” hard rock, and were met with high commercial and financial success.
Black Metal’s true progenitor, however, exists in the screeching pessimism and fury of “Death Metal,” a genre entirely obsessed with themes of death and violence, as its title suggests. Slayer, one of the foremost 1980’s death metal groups, introduced a chilling sense of enjoyment and eagerness in their discussion of brutality, a notion inherent in the matter of Black Metal. For example, in Slayer’s song “Kill Again” from their album Hell Awaits, the lyrics read:
Trapped in mortal solitude No apparent motive
Lift the gleaming blade Just kill and kill again
Slice her flesh to shreds Survive my brutal thrashing
Watch the blood flow free… I’ll hunt you till the end.
The type of violence discussed is not only graphic, but also meaninglessly brutal, and furthermore targeted against women. Musically, these themes were augmented through fast speeds and complex songs both in rhythmic and structural terms. Employing a growling, abrasive vocal quality and a highly distorted background, Death Metal created a sonic assault like nothing else in the world of rock music.
Despite Death Metal’s alienating brutality, however, it experienced a hasty rise in popularity in the 1980’s and 90’s as record labels desperately signed second-rate acts to cash in on the growing trend (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 31). As the cycle of underground music often goes, what was once on the edge had moved into mainstream, and Norwegian Black Metal was the vengeful progeny of this commercial brand of mediocrity. Death Metal’s comic-book style violence was seen as aimless blasphemy, and early Black Metal groups with names such as Mayhem, Bathory, Celtic Frost, and Venom responded to this “imaginary” violence by bringing an unprecedented primitivism and severity to their sound and thematic content. This wasn’t necessarily a step forward, rather it was a retraction to the very roots of the type of evil simply gawked at in Death Metal. Satanism, Paganism, traditional Norse mythology, and the idea of “pure evil” became central to this new movement, and the result was as volatile as the music itself.
The Black Metal scene brewed in a sense of willful obscurity in the late 1980’s to early 90’s, revolving around a few magnetic visionaries whose music, activities, and associations established a firm foundation of the scene in Norway. Arguably the two most important (and infamous) characters in the surreal pantheon of Black Metal are Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth, better known as “Euronymous” (the Greek word for “prince of death”) and Varg Vikernes or “Count Grischnack,” of the band Burzum. Aarseth provided a much-needed ingredient for a budding underground music scene, a locus of activities similar to that of New York’s CBGB. Aarseth’s legendary record store, “Helvete,” located in a seedy Oslo neighborhood, gained a dedicated clientele of young customers who constituted the Black Metal scene’s infantry (Fox p. 53). With these youthful masses, Aarseth found himself in the position of something like a cult leader. Most importantly, through his record label “Deathlike Silence Productions” (or simply “DSP”), this new and highly energetic genre, as well as its corresponding ideology of Satanism and anti-establishment principles, was disseminated to countless Norwegian youth (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 65). On DSP, Aryan-centric music by bands such as Darkthrone, Tolkien-esque mysticism of groups like Burzum, and the melodically complex, “scorched earth” soundscapes of Immortal, Thorns, and Enslaved found a charged and straight-faced audience prepared for what seemed like any escalating level of intensity.
If Øystein Aarseth is considered responsible for the materialization of the scene, then Varg Vikernes was its infamous torchbearer. Although Vikernes lived in Bergen on the West coast of Norway, far from the scene’s focal point in Oslo, his omnipresence in the media and highly influential band, Burzum, meaning “darkness” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Black Speak, made him the quintessential Black Metal poster boy (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 66). Through Vikernes’ partnership with Aarseth the ideals of “pure evil” and Devil worship became more than philosophical musings, described in Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s prolific history of Black Metal titled “Lords of Chaos” as “two charismatic personalities egging each other on” (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 75) to inspire increasing levels of morally repugnant behavior. From church break-ins and cemetery desecrations to extreme acts of violence and church arson, the media began to catch on to this growing trend, and what was fundamentally “in the dark” (Black Metal “club house,” Helvete, was reportedly so dark that the owner, Aarseth, encouraged customers to bring torches to read the record titles), began to see the light of day on newsstands around Norway.
Why Norway? Unlike the formation of a genre like hip-hop in the 1980’s, which has a fairly clear connection to socio-economic difficulties in urban areas of the United States (Watkins p. 9-10), Norwegian Black Metal and its association with Satanist beliefs do not, on the surface, seem to have such a logical socio-geographic association. Norway, a nation of about 4.5 million citizens located on the western edge of Europe, is not an oppressively religious state as Black Metal lyrics and sentiments would lead listeners to believe. Although the state-organized religion is Protestantism and some 88% of Norwegians are members of the state Church of Norway (Kagda & Cooke p. 83), a recent Gallup poll revealed that a mere 20% of Norwegians claim that religion occupies an important place in their life [i]. This would place Norway as one of the most secular countries in the world, with only Estonia and nearby Sweden and Denmark reporting lower levels of religiosity. Furthermore, according to the International Monetary Fund, Norway is the second wealthiest country in the world, benefiting from the most extensive capital reserve per capita of any nation in the world and bountiful resources of oil, natural gas, and hydroelectric power [ii]. Citizens enjoy universal healthcare, subsidized higher education, and a powerful social security system (Kagda & Cooke p. 73-83). The level of depravity in Black Metal lyrics and sentiments liken their source to somewhat of a “hell on earth,” but the basic social and economic characteristics of Norway most definitely do not fit the bill.
So what, then, is Black Metal rebelling against? In Lords of Chaos, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind describe that the void of institutionalized spirituality in Norway is often filled by strict religious orientations such as Evangelism. According to Moynihan and Søderlind, “Evangelical culture is particularly active on the southern and western coasts [the locations of the first church burnings]…[where] drinking alcohol and sometimes even dancing is frowned upon” (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 40). But don’t pockets of isolated conservatism such as these exist everywhere throughout the world? Accrediting Black Metal’s extreme anti-establishment motifs to this seemingly limited conservatism seems to only partially answer the question.
Perhaps a more culturally driven phenomenon is responsible for Black Metal’s violent and extremist tendencies. Norwegian citizens are largely shielded from the violent imagery and grotesque displays of macabre that is so commonplace in, for example, American literature and entertainment (Geis p. 290-295). In the United States, authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft paved the way for a frank exploration of morbid topics such as death and corresponding horror, and more recently films in the vein of Saw (2004) directed by James Wan and Se7en (1995) directed by David Fincher have emphasized the psychological and spiritual aspects of horror to a mainstream audience. American culture is clearly willing to look death, even the most graphic and brutal representations of death, straight in the eye to fulfill what Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, called mankind’s inherent “fascination of the abomination” (Conrad quoted by Bloom p. 83).
Norway boasts little of this cultural history. For example, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind point out that “Norway’s otherwise highly prolific movie industry has produced but one horror film in its seventy-year history” (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 41). Furthermore, international horror films are routinely banned, or censored to remove scenes of “excessive brutality” (Geis p. 295). In a world increasingly connected through the internet and social media, Norwegian citizens, including adolescents attracted to Black Metal, now have access to virtually infinite amounts of graphic material online, ranging from the relatively harmless form of horror films to highly disturbing displays of human cruelty in the form of snuff films or violent pornography. According to a testimony by Varg Vikernes quoted in “Lords of Chaos,” prominent Black Metal musician, Øystein Aarseth “spent large parts of his time watching child pornography” as well as a whole laundry list of unspeakable content (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 76). Norway’s craving for violent imagery seems to have boiled over, fueling the Black Metal scene’s absorption in morbid themes.
Norwegian media, especially the teeming swarms of tabloids, quickly formed a connection between the surge of anti-Christian crime and the increasingly publicized Black Metal movement. One infamous article in the British Metal magazine Kerrang! featured the headlines “WE ARE BUT SLAVES OF THE ONE WITH HORNS…” and “ARSON…DEATH…SATANIC RITUAL…The Ugly Truth About Black Metal,” as well as multiple incriminating quotes by Varg Vikernes regarding not only church burnings, but child abuse, murders, and the possession of lethal weapons (Arnopp p. 42-44). Aarseth and Vikernes even offer a title for their ghoulish hordes, the “Satanic Terrorists.” In great depth they elaborate on the structure of this inner circle, which they described operating much like the Mafia, complete with a distinct hierarchy of power and organized financial backing (Arnopp p. 42-44).
But how accurate is this dramatic and terrifying story? According to an interview by Moynihan and Søderlind with “Samoth” of the band Emperor, this “Black Circle” was not nearly as organized as the Black Metal public relations arm suggested. When asked to describe the Circle, he replied by stating, “Most of the actions were more or less ‘let’s do it tonight’ kinds of things…It was not like ‘Knights around the Round Table’” (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 103). So, why then would Aarseth and Vikernes sensationalize this underground movement past a realistic point? The answer to that question points to a strange and fascinating aspect of Black Metal—its obsession with creating a fearsome and alienating self-image.
The archetypical Black Metal figure is a terrifying image indeed. Often dressed head to toe in black, or donning medieval style robes, the musicians prefer to be photographed with cryptic backdrops and startling black, white, grey, and red face paint known as “corpsepaint,” because of its resemblance to a decomposing body. They also often garnish their appearance with spiked wristbands, medieval weaponry, and inverted crosses or pentagrams to express their anti-Christian beliefs. In his 2008 book of portraits of Black Metal culture and characters, photographer Peter Beste captured the mysterious essence of this image in lush color, a startling and captivating collection. Live Black Metal shows also play a key part in the genre’s rumor-breeding atmosphere. Norwegian band, Gorgoroth had perhaps the most famous live performance in Black Metal history in Krakow, Poland, documented in their live concert film Black Mass Krakow 2004. The group displayed sheep heads on stakes, satanic runes, and four fully nude, crucified models posted around the stage. In addition to the fashion and theatrics of Black Metal, the lavish and highly colorful imagery on Heavy or Death Metal album covers, (see album art for Cannibal Corpse’s Eaten Back to Life or Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast for an idea) are nowhere to be found in Black Metal album art’s is strikingly minimalist design. Take Burzum’s self-titled album, for example. The cover art features a hazy black and white drawing of a cloaked individual in a foggy, barren landscape, a simple and poignant image suggesting the serious nature of the band’s agenda.
From a distance, Black Metal appearances and antics seem almost laughable. Cartoon Network’s adult programming, Adult Swim, even features a show called Metapocalypse, a parody of extreme metal which satirizes the lifestyles of Metal musicians as well as the hyper-macabre content of the genre. However, the seriousness with which members of this underground scene take themselves is anything but amusing. In interviews with Vikernes in “Lords of Chaos,” for example, he discusses his role in the scene with an almost cosmic importance: “On one hand I can slaughter these idiots [in reference to the hypocritical supporters of Black Metal] with a snap of my fingers, and it doesn’t matter at all; on the other side I can play with my daughter. There’s no contradiction in that. There’s no contradiction in being both total evil and total goodness” (Moynihan & Søderlind p. 162). It seems Vikernes, and many other Black Metal supporters, feel that Black Metal both as a music form and ideology, is a player in an immense philosophical struggle, with repercussions throughout reality.
It’s not difficult to agree with some of the most fundamental facets of this controversial and alienating genre. Organized religion has a tendency to influence people to forget the immense power of the individual by creating sheepish behavior and conformity. Countless times throughout history this spiritual submission has led people astray, from the violent debauchery of the Crusades to George W. Bush’s infamous religious warmongering through statements like “God would tell me, ‘George go end the tyranny in Iraq.’” Also understandable is the desire of many Black Metal musicians and fans to reintroduce traditional Norse culture and “Odinism” to modern Norway. After centuries of neglect and active repression facilitated by the Church of Norway, from the building of churches such as the Fanfoft Stave Church on top of sacred pagan sites or the sites of pagan shrines, or vé’s in Old Norse, to the forced translation of traditional Norwegian folk songs into a Christian context. In this culturally revolutionary sense, an active consciousness of one’s national and geographic history is vital to nationalist pride, and what better way to express that pride than through a localized form of music? Ultimately, Black Metal’s insistence on destructive and violent behavior to counter these phenomena is most definitely not the remedy.
If we are to look at the movement as a revolution of sorts, then Black Metal’s methods adhere to a central idea of Mao Tse-Tung’s famous thesis titled, “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire.” A central notion to this essay is the strategy of “sharpen[ing] the contradictions” (Zedong p. 4), a method of guerilla warfare later replicated by Che Guevara throughout South America, and after that by the Sendero Luminoso, or “Shining Path” of Peru. The philosophy, essentially, is that extreme or brutal actions taken by the revolutionary side, such as the church burnings, are necessary evils because they inspire amplified retaliation from the oppressive side, such as a media obsession and global condemnation of Black Metal as a music and ideology. Ultimately, the actions of the revolutionaries have “sharpen[ed] the contradiction” between the revolutionary side, Black Metal, and the establishment, organized religion, strengthening the solidarity and support for the revolutionary side. While this might sound logical for a struggling rebellion, history has proven this idea senselessly bloody and nauseatingly cyclical, and with little long-term, productive value.
The more I attempt to understand Black Metal both philosophically and practically, and somehow clarify the bewildering spirit of this beast, the more I find myself hopelessly lost in contradictions. Perhaps Black Metal is simply comfortable thriving off of its mysterious image and place on the outskirts of reality. In that sense, a motivation to categorize the scene or reduce it to a senselessly brutal, almost avant-garde form of artistic expression undermines its truly inhuman and serious nature. These musings aside, the music and its history offer a fascinating modern phenomenon for dissection and analysis. Black Metal seems to have met its self-imposed imperative of creating something completely and utterly horrifying and substantiating it with tangible, equally revolting actions and lifestyle. For those of us on the outside of the scene, peering into this surreal world forces us to reconsider our own ideals and fundamental views of the world around us.
A Brief Listener’s Guide To Black Metal
The following five songs exemplify the essential black metal sound. Spanning from 1988 to 1994, these songs display the primitive intensity and atmospheric quality of this extreme offshoot of heavy metal, as well as the genre’s obsession with Satanism, the apocalypse, and neo-paganist views of naturalism, natural mysticism, and Norse mythology.
1. “I Am the Black Wizards” by Emperor, from their 1994 album In the Nightside Eclipse
A characteristically bleak and abrasive song from one of the most popular Black Metal groups, Emperor. Features a tortured vocal sound, pounding drums, and low production quality.
2. “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem, from their 1994 album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
A more structurally cohesive piece, shows the early Black metal sound while still in its formative period. Features lyrics reflecting on Norway’s long, dark unrelentingly cold winters.
3. “Inn I de dype skogers favn” by Darkthrone, from their 1993 album Under A Funeral Moon
A truly terrifying Black Metal song in the Norwegian language, a first for the band.
4. “War” by Burzum, from their 1992 album Burzum
One of one-man-band, Burzum’s most popular songs. Written and performed by Varg Vikernes, and with minimal production quality (it sounds like it was recorded on one microphone in a dark basement) the song has a grimly ambient quality that marks much of the artist’s music. Features a guitar solo by Euronymous, who Vikernes later murdered supposedly over a contract dispute.
5. “Blood Fire Death” by Bathory, from their 1988 album Blood Fire Death
The only non-Norwegian group on the list, Swedish Black Metal band, Bathory is seen as one of the founders of the movement. This song illustrates an early form of “Viking Metal,” which celebrates Norse mythology, Norse paganism, and the Viking Age.
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Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. Metalheads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation. Boulder, Colo.: WestviewPress, 1996.
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Fox, Dominic. Cold World: the Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria. Winchester, UK: O Books, 2009.
Gardell, Mattias. Gods of the Blood: the Pagan Revival and White Separatism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Harris, Keith. Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford: Berg, 2007.
Kagda, Sakina, and Barbara Cooke. Norway . 2nd ed. New York: M. Cavendish, Benchmark, 2006.
Moynihan, Michael, and Didrik Søderlind. Lords of Chaos: the Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. New ed. Los Angeles, Calif.: Feral House, 2003.
Phillips, William, and Brian Cogan. Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Watkins, S. Craig. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
Weinstein, Deena. Heavy Metal: the Music and its Culture. Rev. ed., 1st Da Capo Press ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000.
Mao, Zedong. A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire . [1st ed. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1953.
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Misc. Electronic Resources
Robert Walser. "Heavy metal." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/49140 (accessed November 22, 2010).
"Gallup Poll Results Reveal Estonia as the Most Atheistic Country in the World « Voices from Russia." Voices from Russia. http://02varvara.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/gallup-poll-results-reveal-estonia-as-the-most-atheistic-country-in-the-world/ (accessed December 5, 2010).
"Norway and the IMF -- Page 1 of 5." IMF -- International Monetary Fund Home Page. http://www.imf.org/external/country/nor/index.htm (accessed December 5, 2010).