On a stage lined with impaled sheep heads and daubed with animal blood, Norwegian band Gorgoroth played their now-infamous Krakow “Black Mass” show as four nude people, bound to crosses, hung above the stage. Footage of the 2004 show was later seized by police, who attempted to charge the band with “causing religious offense,” a crime in Poland for which they were later cleared. One of the seminal bands of Norway’s black metal scene, Gorgoroth’s official biography is tantalizingly crazy: “After making a pact with the Devil in 1992,” it begins, “Infernus founded Gorgoroth.”
Born in Norway, black metal is considered by metal purists to be sonically and culturally distinct from thrash metal, heavy metal, doom metal, gothic metal, and grindcore, and can be most easily distinguished from the death metal subgenre by its vocals—wraith-like shrieking rather than deep, guttural growling. For those who can distinguish lyrical themes in the screaming, bellowing, and growling of grown men over blast beats and breakneck guitars, black metal lyrics are generally preoccupied with evil, violence, and Satan, featuring song titles like “Chainsaw Gutsfuck.” Producers use lo-fi techniques to further degrade the brutal sound, undercutting the magic with a cavernous droning comperable to a legion of satanic bees. The music is played at incredible speeds, with explosive percussion that almost masks the technical skill needed to play black metal.
The easiest way, however, to spot a black metal band is by their names and their getups. The vast majority of black metal musicians take on an unholy pseudonym, and elaborate costumes are the norm. Inverted crosses, nail studded leather, “corpse paint” make up (pallid face, eyes blacked out), and swords abound, another layer of pageantry to enhance the atmospheric, otherworldly aspirations of the music itself. Fantasy is important to the aesthetics of the scene, and many black metal musicians display a curious affinity for Tolkien, evidenced by a penchant for taking on the names of places (Gorgoroth, Isengard) or characters (Count Grishnahk, Shagrath) from Lord of the Rings. Norwegian black metal also boasts one of the most chaotic origin stories in music, notoriety which often outweighs consideration of the actual music.
THE STORY OF MAYHEM
Founded in 1984 by Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, and Kjetil Manheim, Mayhem is perhaps the most famous Norwegian black metal band, known as much for its music as for the cataclysmic events of its early history. Inspired by releases like Hellhammer’s “Satanic Rites” demo, Euronymous and his teenaged cohorts began playing a form of extreme thrash metal. Their style crystallized with the 1987 release of their first album “Deathcrush,” part of a new sub genre which Euronymous named ‘black metal.’
Other bands, like Darkthrone and Burzum, followed, their members drawn to the refreshing brutality of the black metal sound. The embryonic scene thrived on the letter writing, fanzines, and tape trading of an underground network of devotees, attracted to the raw authenticity of the early music and dabbling in as many aberrant ideologies as possible—Satanism, Nazism, Paganism. In famously conflict-averse Norway (neutral in both World Wars, with a national murder rate equal to that of Sioux Falls, SD), black metal was transgressive and escapist, an outlet for disaffected fans to channel the rage and darkness that had no comfortable place in the placid ultraconformity of mainstream culture.
Mayhem recruited vocalist Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin in 1988, who auditioned for the band by sending a demo tape, along with a letter and a crucified mouse. Obsessed with his own mortality, Dead was said to carry around a decaying crow in a bag while on tour with Mayhem, in order to inhale the smell of death before shows. Dead is also credited with popularizing “corpse paint,” now a de rigueur part of the black metal uniform, which he used onstage give himself a more deathly appearance. Mayhem’s popularity spread in the tiny underground scene, fueled by their incendiary live shows, featuring attractions like severed animal heads and onstage self-mutilation.
In 1991, the band moved to a house in the forest to continue work on the album “De Mysteriis Dom Santhanas.” In April of that year, Dead committed suicide by slitting his wrists and then, in a fit of impatience, shooting himself in the head. His now-infamous suicide note apologized blithely for discharging a gun indoors and asked his housemates to “excuse all the blood.” Dead’s body was discovered by Euronymous, who collected the fragments of his skull to make a necklace, bought a disposable camera, and took pictures of the body, all before calling the police (one of the grisly images notably found its way to the cover of Mayhem bootleg “Dawn of the Blackhearts”). Euronymous called bassist Necrobutcher the next day to break the news, saying, “Dead has done something really cool! He killed himself.”
The suicide touched off a series of fateful events—Necrobutcher, disgusted with Euronymous’s reaction to the death, left and was replaced by radically anti-religious Kristian “Varg” Vikernes. The combined influence of both Euronymous and Varg instigated a shift in the culture of black metal, which became more extreme and deeply obsessed with the Satanic. New bands, like Gorgoroth and Emperor, emerged on the scene, which began to gain European and international popularity. Emboldened, a few politically-minded black metallers figured out a novel way to bring their nationalistic and anti-Christian sentiments to the attention of the mainstream: they started burning churches.
News of the arsons, like that of the 12th-Century Fantoft stave church, was picked up by the understandably agitated media. Jumping at the opportunity to publicize the scene, Varg gave a series of gleefully inflammatory interviews, in which he claimed to be in the inner circle of a vast Satanic cult responsible for the church burnings, copped to Nazism, and mused that the only bad thing about murder was that “when you kill someone, they can no longer suffer.” Newspapers and magazines reported on the “extreme group of neo-Fascist Devil Worshippers,” with Varg emerging as the sneering poster child of Scandinavian Satanism. He was briefly arrested, then released for lack of evidence, as fanatical black metal fans burned several more churches across Norway.
The relationship between Euronymous and Varg deteriorated, as Euronymous grew resentful over the attention Varg was receiving and a monetary dispute erupted between the two band mates. Rumors circulated that Euronymous intended to kill Varg, who reacted by showing up at Euronymous’s house in the middle of the night and stabbing him more than 20 times in the back, neck, and face with a pocketknife. He was soon arrested and charged with the murder, as well as the arson of several churches.
“De Mysteriis Dom Santhanas” is now considered one of the most important recordings in black metal. It was released in 1993 in the midst of Varg’s murder trial, featuring lyrics by Dead and the performances of both Euronymous and his murderer. Varg went on to serve 16 years of a 21-year sentence, the maximum prison sentence for any crime. In Norway while in prison, he managed to record and release two albums. In 2009, he secured an early release despite a 2003 escape attempt involving a rifle, a handgun, several knives, a gas mask, and a stolen Volvo. Mayhem was re-formed by its surviving members, and continues to tour and release albums to this day.
BLACK METAL’S MIDDLE AGE
The outlandish violence of black metal’s early days is doubly unsettling when one considers the youth of the players involved—most fans and musicians were in their late teens, Varg was 20, and Euronymous, veteran of the scene, was 25. Created by teenagers, black metal exists in a more simplistic universe, where evil dresses in black, carries a sword, and blasphemes the Bible. It’s juvenile, transportive and incredibly appealing to the alienated and angry, but does not translate well to the real world: the crossing over from dark fantasy to real-life violence destroyed two of the most influential aesthetic visionaries of black metal (three, if one counts Varg’s incarceration and removal from the scene).
The most notorious figures of the early scene appear to appreciate this divide—approaching middle age, many have abandoned the strident, sneering Satanism of their youth. Gone too is most of the virulent neo-Nazism, in favor of more nuanced atheistic or pagan beliefs and indifferent, or at least more private, views on racial politics. Even self-described “narrow-minded ultra-conservative anti-religious misanthropic and arrogant bigot” Varg Vikernes, now an Odinist, espouses a grudging tolerance: “if those who are not like me are able to enjoy my music that is all fine by me. Be a Christian-born black gay feminist converted to Judaism for all I care, or worse; a Muslim. Just stay off my lawn...”
Black metal’s response to the July attacks in Norway hinted at this maturation—despite their unholy, violence-glorifying reputation, the overwhelming response by black metal musicians who chose to comment was great, eloquent sorrow. Even Varg, who responded to the news with a very crazy missive blaming the whole thing on Israel, seemed shaken. “True nationalists don’t kill children of their own nation, even if someone tries to brainwash them, like AUF did,” he wrote, regretfully, “They were not (yet) Marxist extremists; they were just children.” Twenty years’ perspective appears to have underscored a realization for the founders of black metal: senseless violence is not provocative or exciting, just tragic.
KELSEY SHIMAMOTO B ‘12 is metalic.