For n+1, Ben Parker writes about the strange microcosm that is Norwegian black metal, with its murders, dark soundscapes and Tolkien references. Read Parker in partial below, in full via n+1.
IN THE EARLY 1990S, the Norwegian heavy metal scene became notorious for a spree of church burnings and fatal stabbings associated with a few little-known “black metal” bands. Varg Vikernes, of the band Burzum, was charged with the arson of five medieval wooden churches, and with murdering Øystein Aarseth, the guitarist of Mayhem. Aarseth, in turn, was rumored to have eaten the brains of Mayhem’s singer after the latter committed suicide by shotgun. In an unrelated incident, Bard Eithun, drummer for the band Emperor, stabbed a gay man thirty-seven times outside the Olympic Village in Lillehammer. Speaking to journalists, the musicians boasted about their crimes, taking credit for more arsons and violence than they had yet been linked to. They also took the opportunity to spell out the home-brewed Satanism that inspired their deeds: partly the invocation of the devil as a cloven-hooved Evil One; partly a recitation of quasi-fascistic themes (cruelty, mastery, “winter journeys, to ice and mountains”) from Nietzsche. Metal bands had always toyed with Satanic imagery (Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast,” the ubiquitous “devil horns” gesture spawned by Ronnie James Dio)—but the willingness to act out Satanism in all seriousness was unexpected.
Amidst this self-mythologizing to the press, the most prominent influence they cited was the British band Venom, whose 1982 album Black Metal had christened the genre. (In any photo of the Norwegian scene from this era, at least one band member is always wearing a tattered T-shirt with Venom’s pentagram logo.) But surely, many wondered, this lineage was some kind of cultural mistranslation? Venom’s Satanism was kitschy and unserious, their image and live show a tantrum meant to titillate adolescent rebellion and upset Thatcherite parents. How could these Norwegians have mistaken the antics of Venom (who also sang sophomoric anthems like “Teacher’s Pet”) for an authentic message of anti-Christian terrorism and nihilism? The answer given by Varg Vikernes (nom de guerre Count Grishnackh, after an orc in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), bassist of Mayhem and the sole member of Burzum, in an interview from prison, encapsulates the ideological legacy of the entire scene: “We are what [they] claimed to be. We believe what they pretended to believe.”
In musical terms, also, Venom were not an obvious antecedent. Where Venom added a biker bar bounce and the slurred choruses of football chants to the brooding stoner blues of Black Sabbath, the Norwegian black metal sound is not immediately recognizable as deriving from rock music. The rhythm is reduced to a flickering pulse reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s ambient soundscapes; the guitars do not so much play riffs as sculpt tinny feedback. The typical vocals are more like an attenuated croaking or rasping than the grunts and shouts of heavy metal or punk. The entire effect is of a self-consciously rudimentary reaction to the commercial polish of bands like Metallica, or the one-dimensional brutality of death metal.
Norwegian black metal, then, is a “strong misreading” of its own origins. Where Venom had been Satanists for the pub crowd, boisterous pranksters rather than occultists, Norwegian bands like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, and Emperor redefined black metal as the elitism of an inner circle, inscrutable to poseurs and the uninitiated. Their recordings were purposefully lo-fi, drowned in guitar static and (feigned) sloppy musicianship. Whereas European metal bands from Sweden to Greece had always sung in charmingly garbled English, they began to write their lyrics in Norwegian. They rarely played live. Their album covers also basically looked the same (a cloaked figure among trees, mournfully carrying a candelabra) and had variations on the same title (Under a Funeral Moon, In the Nightside Eclipse, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk) in nearly-illegible gothic typefaces. In the context of the early ’90s, this obscurantism could be seen as a disavowal of the everyman grunge aesthetic of flannel and acne. But while grunge, and the related populism of death metal, had considerable record sales, many of the black metal pioneers imploded before they could capitalize commercially. It took more than a decade of underground percolation before black metal elements trickled into American canons of cool. Its goofy solemnity has been parodied on Portlandia, while the broad gestures of the musical style (now disencumbered of its Satanism) reap acclaim on Pitchfork.
*Image of Varg Vikernes via loudwire