The idiot's guide to black metal - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #170

(as in, written by an idiot)
Graffiti in the basement recording studio of Helvete record shop.
“Black Metal is like Black Magic without the chocolate” David Wood.

Black metal is first and foremost a subgenre of abrasive heavy metal music, but like all genres doesn’t stop at musical sound. Some will claim black metal is a theatrical gesture, some say it’s a way of life or an act of rebellion. It’s associated with the countries of Scandinavia and Norway in particular. Musically it strains at the edge of listenability, even for people who are self-confessed fans. The fusion of many aesthetics of 1980s death and thrash metal and hardcore punk, as well as occult doom rock dating back to the 1960s; and ideologically drawing on Satanic, or pre-Christian Pagan views of western Europe, black metal of the 1990s was confined geographically and ideologically. Today, the old models have been blown apart, now black metal emanates from sweaty basements in back alleys of every city of the world. The rebellious streak of Norwegian black metal is bent to rebel against American ideals, Cobalt’s own brand of melody is more inspired by Hemingway and Hunter Thompson than any musical tradition, Botanist’s one-man San Fran ‘green metal’ combines hammered dulcimer sound with an environmental message, Janaza takes the elements of black metal violently opposed to organised religion and sings “burn the Quran”. There are even Christian black metal bands, who are regularly hounded out of venues by fans of ‘true’ black metal. This article should function as a beginner’s guide to Black Metal; its musical legacy, its preposterous and violent history, ludicrous iconography, and the new divergent artists and their clash with the established order. I’ll interweave these, as they are interwoven, to paint hopefully a canvass of a very confused, contradictory and thriving group of people.

Buried by Time and Dust – Potted history.

The eleventh century Fantoft stave church
razed by Varg Vikerness
photo - Jérémy Bernard
Black metal is not an inclusive term. There is the first established generation of black metal bands which were initially American. Led by Venom’s groundbreaking album and song Black Metal from 1982. The early nineties exploded in a renaissance of the black metal sound from Norwegian bands, and is widely accepted as the ‘second wave’ with most of the notable names in the genre, Mayhem, Darkthrone, Satyricon, Emperor. These bands, not Venom and their 1980s counterparts, developed the now established ‘black metal’ sound based around the characteristic tremolo picked riffs and ‘blast beat’ drumming. Because of this, this wave of black metal, emanating from Norway but quickly going global, will be referred to as ‘black metal’ throughout this essay, and Venom’s 1980s sound will be referred to as ‘proto’ black metal for ease of association. These will be examined in detail along with other sound aspects of the genre. The history of black metal began much earlier. Musically black metal variously traces its roots back to Black Sabbath’s eponymous 1970 debut, which popularised the use of the diminished fifth chord, to which the heavy metal genre owes almost everything. Some point to 60s rockers Black Widow and their track Come to the Sabbat, or Atomic Rooster’s Death Walks Behind You, or Coven’s groundbreaking Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, which had a track called Black Sabbath a year before the rifftastic Brummies did. All of these songs contribute to the musical forebears of black metal as it is today, but ideologically black metal began between 710AD and 718AD with Willibrord, Apostle to the Frisians, who began the Christianisation of Scandinavia. King Haakon the Good in the tenth century began the Christianisation of Norway. A process protracted and violently culturally destructive. The coronation, conversion, baptism and return to Norway of Olaf Tryggvason was the catalyst for the musical inspiration to a great deal of black metal artists in Norway. The destruction and breaking up of traditional Norwegian pagan temples, as well as the torture and murder of any pagan resistors. The building of Christian churches within established lines of Pagan temples and sites of worship, effectively breaking them up, is the reason for the arson committed by members of black metal groups in the early 1990s. A Norwegian archdiocese was established on 30th November 1154, confirming Norway as a Christian nation. Almost universally, early black metal artists were well-versed in history, and suspicious or resentful of modernity. Black metal artists have a disparate ideology, some claim to align with Satanism, others with Paganism and Norwegian nationalism, some nationalists became fascists or national socialists; though the ideologies may have been disparate, their anti-Christian attitude was universal. For the fascists it was motivated by hatred of all non-state organisations, for the Pagans and nationalists, Christianity represented an occupying force, for the Satanists it was an ideological opposition. This anti-Christian ideology united the disparate ideologies of black metal artists.

You That Mingle May – Musical litany.

Satanism conflates nicely with the key sound in heavy metal music: the diminished fifth, or tritone, which was identified as the ‘devil in music’, and in western musical tradition more or less banned. The tone was used heavily in Black Sabbath’s debut album, leading to that occult and otherworldy feeling, because the diminished fifth is a dissonance. Black metal begins at Black Sabbath, and the other occult rock bands, of course, but it really begins with the proto black metal bands, and Venom’s Black Metal. The theory goes that Venom (much like their hardcore punk contemporaries) played so fast and created such an abrasive sound to mask their lack of musicianship in the new wave of British heavy metal which prided itself on virtuosity. Venom’s desire to have “the stage show of KISS, the leather of Judas Priest, the Satanic lyrics of Black Sabbath, the heaviness of Motorhead” pithily summates black metal. Their second album and its paradigm-shifting eponymous opener, Black Metal, was specifically crafted to be unlistenable, and as predicted, people hated it. Almost everyone couldn’t stand the sound, rock critics, fans and other bands were caught out saying the same thing your dad always said about heavy metal, “it’s just noise”, all except for a few fans who got it. It was a fusion of Iron Maiden’s metal, Black Sabbath’s lyrics, and everything distorted and twisted and blended up with hardcore punk. This donated much of its sound, much of its attitude and all of its name to what would become black metal.

What most defines the black metal sound, more than the tremolo picked guitars they share with death metal, or the speed shared with thrash and grindcore, or the vocals shared with all extreme metal genres, is blast beat drumming. Blast beat drumming originated in jazz as a thrilling heart-stopping thump to punctuate a song. Blast beat refers to the sound of a double-action on the bass drum, black metal revolutionised this sound by repeating it sometimes for the length of the song. Most rock songs, and most metal, become blues when broken down musically, but black metal doesn’t. The use of blast beat drumming cements black metal as the most abrasive genre by turning the drums into just another source of noise, as well as removing the foundation of rhythm almost all music is built on, giving the audience very little to hold on to, and a sound that is much more noisy and disruptive than even the death metal sound.

Mayhem's De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas title track is probably the definitive example of the traditional black metal sound. Growled and screamed vocals, tremolo picked distorted guitars and extensive use of blast-beat drumming, almost non-existent bass and low-quality production value.

This abrasiveness is openly accepted by black metal, and certain early bands in the movement sought to augment their already violent and nihilistic sound by minimising production, by making use of ‘necro sound’, a very conscious rebellion against established musical tradition of ‘good production’, embracing a barely-audible, flat, tinny and empty sound which fed perfectly into their misanthropic ideals. Black Metal as a whole rebels against the notion of music as an inherently pleasurable thing, by playing songs that are not necessarily (certainly not initially) pleasurable to the ears.

The Lucifer Effect – black metal philosophy

Inverted crucifix and Norwegian flag.
To make sweeping statements about the philosophy, religious beliefs and affiliations and worldviews of a group of people millions strong spanning the globe would be generalising to the point of inaccuracy, I make only generalised statements about the philosophy of the early black metal musicians, primarily from Norway. Black metal was characterised generally by nihilism, misanthropy and rebellion, and specifically by Satanism, paganism, atheism, the previously mentioned fascism or national socialism. Satanism is the most common, sometimes not literally or admittedly, but through the elitist and deliberately discriminatory values of Satanism as outlined in Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible. Satanism, contrary to popular belief does not worship the devil in the way the Abrahamic religions worship God. Satanism as described by LaVey foregrounds the worship of the self, and accepts only the strong, the powerful and the influential. Thus the initial clique of black metal artists absorbed this self-image. A view that they were doing something that was not necessarily popular or profitable, but that through the views of LaVey Satanism they were marked out as important people, and the rest of society was below them. The more mainstream society believed black metal to be a moral panic, the more this worldview that they were special, important and misunderstood people cemented itself.

Black metal philosophy is fascinating because it seems to hold dearest not any one philosophy but an understanding of rebellion and resistance against whatever system is currently the most powerful. In America bands like Agalloch and Cobalt resist the popular culture by being literary, knowledgeable about the environment and ‘European’ in their sensibilities. San Fran’s Botanist, whose fourth album IV: Mandragora was released this year, focuses on ecology. Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy similarly lean politically left and rebel against the established American society in that way. Janaza and Seeds of Iblis resist the predominant Muslim worldview of the Middle East through their music.

Violent opposition to every facet of Norwegian life in the 1990s was extolled by members of the black metal community. It’s easy to laugh at the movement, the look is inherently theatrical, and some of their histrionic on-stage antics can seem ridiculous, but the dark side to the Norwegian black metal scene proves at least some of the members were serious about their convictions. Like all underground music, the established order in Norway saw black metal alternately as a subject for mockery or moral panic. Like all underground music, jazz, early rock and roll, it was a youth phenomenon which foregrounded rebellion against the forces of old and evil, but unlike jazz or early rock and roll it didn’t break onto the mainstream. It didn’t covertly seek to become a part of the established order, and instead of inspiring acts of teenage misbehaviour, some of the artists of the black metal movement were implicated in a string of murders, suicide, arsons and assaults across Norway in the early 1990s.

Photo - Peter Beste
The sensationalist accounts of this movement focus on the more surreal and criminal aspects, facts though they are, until the black metal movement appears to outsiders as and extended version of a grim crime story. With Varg Vikerness, Euronymous and Dead all trapped together in a mawkish tale of tragic misguided youth. Like the pre-Raphaelites, or the Beats, theirs is a tale of alternately motivated or misguided (mostly) young (mostly) men and their attempts to forge a radically new way of thinking on a resistant society. Their actions in some cases should be applauded, in others condemned, their art studied and their actions thought of as part of their art.

Look at Thorns, a band who broke the mould of black metal before it had even fully crystallised and possibly provided the definitive example of it. Known most through Snorre W. Ruch, who received an eight year sentence for his part in the murder of Euronymous, for which Varg Vikerness received 21 years. A listen to the compilation album Stigma Diabolicum demonstrates a band at the height of their creative powers, and at the very zenith of their artistic boldness. The epitomise the black metal sound on their Trøndertun demo, which opens the compilation. Recorded in the studios of Trøndertun School for the Performing Arts. The early version of what would later be a black metal staple, Aerie Descent, is slow and deconstructionist of the black metal sound. It throttles back on the abrasiveness and allows those studying black metal to understand the musical moves being completed behind the iron curtain of tremolo and blast beat noise over most black metal tracks. Thorns’ masterstroke was their Grymyrk demo, played by just bass and guitar, no percussion, no vocals, over a single day; the 26 minute Grymyrk demo was never officially released to the public but has since become a must-have bootleg. The songs are black metal riffs slowed down to the point where they can be understood, like looking at the rings in a hopelessly gnarled old tree and seeing the 500 years of storms and weathering behind the impenetrable façade. The songs aren’t even strictly black metal in sound, they are more akin to the roughest doom metal. Glimpses of the Aerie Descent riff on Home, all played by insanely distorted guitar making extensive use of that Sabbath diminished fifth, underlaid with thrumming bass lines.

Euronymous in Helvete
But their actions cannot be ignored. In 1991 the small black metal scene, including members of Thorns, Mayhem, Burzum and Emperor would congregate in a shop opened by Mayhem’s Euronymous, named Helvete, hell in Norwegian, the literally underground shop became the starting and focal point for the movement. Euronymous was also the founded of Deathlike Silence, the small record label which released the early black metal material, some of which became highly sought-after and prompted other labels to reconsider their position of shunning the black metal sound. Around Helvete a community formed, and out of Deathlike Silence a canon was formed. The suicide of Dead, singer for the band Mayhem, in a house in Bergen shared with the band was the turning point for the movement. Possibly apocryphal stories exist about exactly what happened next. The most common line goes that Deathlike Silence founder, Helvete owner and Mayhem guitarist Euronymous found Dead, and instead of informing the authorities, returned to town to buy a disposable camera to take photos of the body (this part is true, one such photo became the cover of Dawn of the Black Hearts), rumours abounds that necklaces were made from skull fragments, a stew was made from the parts of Dead’s brain the shotgun didn’t obliterate. The bassist for Mayhem noted that Dead’s suicide was motivated by the commercialisation of black metal, and the band paradoxically used his suicide to reinforce their ‘evil’ image and publicise the scene as a whole. Dead was not the only high-profile member of the scene driven to suicide, and a subgenre of the subgenre was born, ‘suicidal black metal’, largely from Sweden, of which Silencer’s Death Pierce Me is the er-example.

A Semblance of Something Appertaining to Destruction – murder, torture, abduction, self-mutilation, arson and black mass.

I want to again emphasise that the most violent of the crimes were committed by a hard-core within the black metal elite, either compelled by beliefs they didn’t fully understand or taking a joke so far as to live it, ultimately their motivations, personal, religious, political, artistic, are ultimately unknowable. Only their actions can be described. These were the violent actions of a select few, in this time many records were made and their musical legacy stands outside of what they did. To exclusively focus on either the sensation of their violence, or their musical legacy would be incorrect, and this article attempts to balance them.

The violence of the black metal artists, some in service to their art, such as the alleged abduction of mental patients under the care of one of the members of Stalaagh to record the very literally insane lyrics of their 2007 record Project Misanthropia, or the satanic mass conducted by Gorgoroth in Krakow; and some apparently connected to the musical movement only by their participants, such as the 1992 murder of a gay man in Lillehammer by then Emperor drummer Faust.

The arson of over fifty churches in Norway, some hundreds of years old and committed by members of the black metal inner circle, others by copycats, was deliberately perpetrated as an extension of the anti-Christian and fiercely Norwegian nationalist ideals of some of the musicians. Varg Vikerness, one man Burzum musician and key figure was convicted of four arsons, including that of the eleventh-century Fantoft stave church, a Norwegian national landmark whose destruction galvanised Norwegian society, and the remains of which graced the cover of the Burzum EP Aske. Euronymous with Vikerness also planned to blow up the Nidaros Cathedral, which appears on the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas cover to coincide with the Mayhem album launch, but their plans never came to fruition. Emperor and Hades Almighty musicians were also convicted of church burnings. As time has weakened their destructive impact, opinion within the community has split on the impetus for the church burnings, as well as their ideological effect.

Gaahl, vocalist for heavy hitters Gorgoroth, brains behind delicate ancient-instrumented Wardruna, fashion designer, vocal proponent of church arson, blood drinker, convicted torturer, Mr Gay Bergen two years running and a complex walking industry titan, is probably the third central figure of the scene, whose name appears again and again in album credits, interviews and court summons.

Vikerness' devilish grin as he was found guilty
 was front page news.
The turning point for the black metal movement, and a crime and trial which shocked Norwegian society in the 1990s was the murder of Euronymous by Varg Vikerness. Seen variously as the culmination of a power struggle, a misunderstanding in a civil dispute, self-defence on Vikerness’ part, or a personally-motivated slaying. The defining image of black metal, with its noisy music and corpse-painted horrors is the smiling face of Vikerness as the verdict was read out. He was convicted of four arsons and the murder of Euronymous and drifted into metal lore as one of its most infamous figures. He recorded two Burzum albums in prison.

I Shall Lead, You Shall Follow – Swedish black metal.

Bathory, believed to be one of the first ‘true’ black metal bands, is Swedish, not Norwegian. The previously mentioned Silencer, Shining, Watain and Dark Funeral are all big black metal names originating from Sweden. They form part of a scene of non-Norwegian black metal which seeks entry into the inner circle by being more extreme. The Swedish bands are influenced even more by the aesthetics of Swedish death metal, and the sound of Swedish doom metal, culminating in a sound that is slower and more grinding, with less of a hardcore punk influence and even more of a horror movie aesthetic. Sweden also brought two of the scene’s most notorious, enigmatic and disturbing characters, Nattramn and Kvarforth/Ghoul.

Kvarforth was the charismatic frontman of Shining, covered in scars from self-inflicted cuts. It was claimed Shining’s music was a contributing factor in several suicides. Kvarforth was only twelve years old when the band began in 1996. His stage show rose to prominence, as he would cut and burn himself during the band’s shows. In 2006 Kvarforth disappeared, presumed to have committed suicide, and Shining reappeared with ‘new’ vocalist Ghoul, at a February 2007 show, Ghoul was revealed to be Kvarforth. During the show he fought with audience members and two guest vocalists, razorblades were handed to members of the audience and Kvarforth kicked an audience member in the chest.

Nattramn, vocalist for Silencer and head of the Humani Animali Liberati label/fansite. He too supposedly self-harmed on stage, as well as rumoured to have been committed to a mental asylum after the attempted murder of a five year old girl with an axe and his own attempted suicide-by-cop. Almost certainly untrue rumours exist that he amputated his own hands and replaced them with pigs' trotters. Whether these stories are apocryphal may never be determined, but his output, including records and books is strictly limited to very few copies given to select people.

Faustian Echoes – Nazis, hipsters, anarchists, Kentucky coal miners and burning Qurans.

Black metal is a global musical movement, with diverse strands and representatives in every city on earth. Similarly, the music has diversified and expanded. Black metal as a genre definition covers the Hemingway-inspired ‘war metal’ of Cobalt, Panopticon's fusion of black metal with Kentucky folk song and anarchist ideology, Liturgy’s ‘hipster black metal’, the pro-Christian ‘white metal’, the naturist ecological metal of Agalloch, the anti-Islam black metal of Janaza and Seeds of Iblis coming out of war-torn Iraq, the French neo-nazi lyricism of Peste Noire and the popularism of Cradle of Filth. Bands can be called black metal if they borrow one element of the aesthetic, and can disregard parts at will. It has become a sensational worldwide genre, while remaining underground. Black metal is re-fused with hardcore punk by Edinburgh’s own (and blog darling) Tommy Concrete, and contributor Adam’s home city of Belfast is keeping classic black metal alive with Vintress (whose debut EP can be got for free here).

And article will follow next week on the latest and greatest in grassroots black metal, or as I am not informed to call all of it ‘blackened metal’ because it ain’t all exactly straight BM. Oh well, next week I shall see ya. Until then stay kvlt, however one does that.

Written under duress by Steven.

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