Historicizing Black Metal

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Graffiti in the basement of black metal club Helvete, Oslo, 1980s. Wikimedia Commons

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Sometime in the autumn of 2005, I decided to give black metal a chance. Until that point, I had had reservations about that type of music, which is often associated with neo-paganism, the far right, and base displays of primal machoism. A long-time classical music aficionado, it soon occurred to me that what had appeared at first as musical chaos actually involved complex, layered compositions full of breaks, tempo changes, intricate melodies, and that few of these artists are hyperviolent psychopaths. Not surprisingly, this was a lonely experience, as most of my friends failed to understand what I saw in layers of cacophonous noise topped with the ramblings of a growling animal of sorts. Indeed, like Vegemite, black metal is an acquired taste. This post does not purport to convert anyone to this type of music, which is certainly not for everyone. The rationale for writing on this particular topic stemmed from the realization that, since everything in this universe – from cat trees to reality TV – will undoubtedly (or has already) become the subject of serious historical investigation, why not attempt to lay out the basis for a political history of black metal?

Unlike protest songs, which I wrote about in a previous post, black metal (and extreme metal in general) has elicited few serious historical studies. While some anthropologists and journalists have published articles, monographs, and filmed documentaries on black metal – which often emphasize the hackneyed commonplaces of the cliquey, immature, and simultaneously (and paradoxically) good-natured and reactionary artist –, historians of music have maintained a safe distance from that topic. First of all, this type of music is not exactly of the “top 40” variety, which limits its marketability. Secondly, extreme metal bands smell of sulfur. While it is all good and well for historians to explore seventeenth-century witchcraft or Victorian esotericism, the contemporaneity of intimidating, mostly male, head-bangers has probably deterred many from focusing on that particular topic. Nonetheless, more studies of this musical genre would open up many avenues for all kinds of historical investigations, whether one is interested in the history of ideas, generational conflict, gender, religion, or politics.

Black metal first attracted massive media attention, not so much due to its musical or aesthetic characteristics, but to a series of church burnings (most infamously the 1992 arson of Bergen’s Fantoft church); the 1991 suicide of Mayhem’s singer Dead (Per Yngve Ohlin); the gruesome murder of Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth), then leader of the now legendary band Mayhem, by Count Grishnackh (Varg Vikernes) in 1993; soon followed by the arrest of Emperor’s drummer Faust (Bård Guldvik Eithun) for killing Magne Andreassen, who had solicited him for sex one year earlier. Rumors of Satanism became systematically (and unfairly) associated with the Norwegian youths who chose to grow their hair long, wear face paint and (post-)goth clothing. The tragedies that riddled that period have undoubtedly overshadowed the artistic dimension of black metal, whose fans had to deal with the stigma of ridicule, at best and, at worst, that of amorality. While all that violence is undoubtedly part of the history of the genre, the music was, until recently, often dismissed as cacophonous nonsense.

One can trace the origins of black metal to the development of thrash metal, which resulted from a fusion of early punk and 1970s hard rock. Generally, specialists identify two waves of black metal, though one might be tempted to separate the early “second wave” from a third, current one, which has seen the relative legitimation and commercialisation of the genre. Coined after Venom’s 1982 album, black metal emerged, perhaps not accidentally, in Thatcherian Britain, before the first wave saw its centre of gravity shift to Scandinavia, where such bands as Bathory and Tiamat (Sweden) defined the genre’s basic features. In essence, the latter consist of the alternative use of fast tempos – most notably through the drummer’s regular recourse to the double pedal and blast beats – and more atmospheric moments. More importantly, however, black metal is characterized by shrieked, screamed, and occasionally growled vocals. Such acts adopt easily recognizable aesthetics, including corpse paint, long hair, and often sport spiked boots, bracelets, and collars. Some purists, like Funeral Mist’s Arioch, have argued that black metal musicians should always have “Satanism as the highest priority.”[1] While that argument has often been challenged, themes dealing with the occult, death, nature, a variety of Norse paganism known as Asá Tru?, and misanthropy have indeed played a large part in defining that type of music.

The first wave soon expanded abroad, with Sigh (Japan), Rotting Christ (Greece), and Blasphemy (Vancouver) enjoying relative success. Nonetheless, the “fun-and-games”, theatrical attitude of early black metal subsided when the second wave emerged. Dominated by Norwegian bands, that scene contributed to endowing the genre with a well-defined sound based on the more systematic use of “full” power chords and dissonant bars. Most importantly, the Norwegian scene promoted a cultish, proactively Satanist way of life. However, since the mid-1990s, the majority of the bands have held loosely, often superficial Satanist views – with the notable exception of Gorgoroth.

In my work as a sociopolitical historian, I have observed that the potential for rebellion never really disappears but is simply stifled by circumstances and/or various agents’ success at balkanizing a given society. Thus, the “age of revolution” (as Eric Hobsbawm has dubbed the nineteenth century) is a post-hoc creation that tends to downplay the subversive potential inherent to any society at any time. Throughout history, popular dissatisfaction has found a wide variety of outlets and modes of expression. The same seems to apply to music, as nonconformity and outrage over real or perceived practices or measures are a constant. That being said, such massive manifestations of dissent can remain dormant for several decades until objective conditions – the possibility of marketing them, a scandal, power abuse, etc. – allow them to break into the open. In the same way, musicians’ potential for antagonizing or just questioning their day and age seems to be a constant. Just as muzak is eternal, so are controversial, dissenting musical expressions. Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Igor Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring and other monuments ushered in new ways of conceiving of sounds and orchestrations, infuriating hordes of music lovers in passing. The postwar commodification of music, facilitated by technological innovations and the advent of the record industry increased the visibility and enabled the development of the once allegedly demonic jazz, blues, and rock and roll.

Before they emerged from their artistic ghettos, black metal acts made use of the technology at hand, namely audio cassettes. They also performed live… or not. While nowadays all kinds of extreme metal have been swallowed into the music business, many early black metal artists resisted commodification by self-sabotaging their own performances. Permanent subversion was their reason for being. This will to provoke, infuriate audiences should not simply be dismissed as a mere public display of teenage angst. Black metal music is the result of dissatisfaction in and with modern liberal societies. Boredom and bourgeois comfort, not injustice and power abuse, are conducive to such phenomena.[2] Over the last two decades, black metal has gradually transformed into an acceptable avenue for mass subversion akin to what Mikhail Bakhtin has called a “culture of folk carnival humor … [v]arious genres of billingsgate: curses, oaths, popular blazons.”[3] The main difference here is that carnival is no longer exceptional, and, due to its commodification, can happen at any time of year. Also, extreme metal is only carnivalesque in its partly subversive, tongue-in-cheek nature. Indeed, while “carnival does not know footlights”[4], black metal bands cultivate a sense of mystery and distance.

These subversive, and therefore political, forms of musical expression have often, due to their cult of violence, been associated with the völkisch, fascist right. Many black metal acts have indeed openly adhered to conservative, spiritualist, backward-looking worldviews. This revivalist, “palingenetic”[5] worship of imagined pasts and of the occult that involves the harnessing of modern means of performance and diffusion, reminds one of early twentieth-century fascist syntheses. Indeed, the oft-repeated claims of apoliticism barely mask an undisguised pining for idealized bygone days, as in Cradle of Filth’s “English Fire” or Satyricon’s Dark Medieval Times. A minority of artists have also combined their Satanism with a vulgarized, often flawed understanding of the Nietzschean notion of Übermensch. More bothersome is the existence of avowedly neo-Nazi artists, such as Norway’s Varg Vikernes and Erlend Erichsen – the latter developed his own theories on the matter in his 2005 book entitled Nationalsatanist. In the 1990s, the sociopolitical vacuum that resulted from the collapse of the Eastern Bloc provided a fertile ground for openly racist bands, such as Graveland (Poland) and the Ukrainians of Hate Forest and Nocturnal Mortem. Concurrently, the USA became another stronghold for neo-Nazi black metal (NSBM), where bands like Grand Belial’s Key and Grom used their music as a vehicle for the notion of Racial Holy War (RaHoWa). Nowadays, North American NSBM is undoubtedly more of a threat than its Scandinavian and Slavic counterparts, as it benefits from the support of dedicated racist organizations and production companies, most prominently Vinland Winds Records and the Canadian-American Resistance Records.[6]

However, although “black metal rejects the basic tenets of the Enlightenment,”[7] one should not see it as uniformly conservative. The Norwegians of Enslaved and Americans of Wolves in the Throne Room are militantly anti-racist and promote a universal, albeit still misanthropic, brand of extreme music. Secondly, black metal does not naturally lend itself to fascism, as it does not base its legitimacy on the masses. Conversely, it promotes individualism and freedom of thought. Thirdly, the genre’s generally anti-Christian stance does not automatically mean a pining for some allegedly authentic heathen past. In many cases, the lyrics (when they are comprehensible) and the grotesque, Spinal Tapish aesthetics are meant to shock and encourage practicing Christians to take a more critical approach to their beliefs. Unlike Dylan-influenced artists, black metal bands do not place much emphasis on the lyrics. Generally, they seem to consider showmanship and the sonic shock-value associated with it as their priority.

Thus, it would be intellectually dishonest to see black metal as an overwhelmingly reactionary genre. Black metal, though certainly characterized by a conservative streak, also has a liberating agenda. The former Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl has repeatedly stated his contempt for Christianity’s oppressive, conformist tendencies, and advocated freedom of thought.[8] If anything, one might also interpret black metal as a youthful reaction against the most bourgeois-Lutheran aspects of Norwegian society. Though rarely intellectually challenging, black metal remains a serious emotional expression of anti-authoritarianism. In that regard, the Polish band’s Behemoth use of Satanist imagery can be understood as a means to combat the power of the Catholic Church without getting directly involved in the political arena. Other artists have vocally supported progressive causes, often by championing environmentalist ideas. Although the style and lyrics are certainly not in the same league as Bob Dylan’s and Joan Baez’s best protest songs, the commitment and energy that some bands invest into such themes as eco-feminism and anti-racism cannot be denied. For example, Wolves in the Throne Room’s Two Hunters is a surprisingly contemplative, impressionistic plea for the need to reconnect humanity with nature.[9]

Extreme metal has also often been criticized for being an avenue for masculine aggressiveness and sexism. Here too appearances are misleading. Just because something sounds and looks “scary”, it does not make it exclusively “masculine”. The assumption that extreme metal promotes male domination tends to be self-contradictory, as it implicitly perpetuates a gender-based functional division, in which men would assume the role of hunter-gatherers and women would be assigned domestic tasks. The answer to the scarcity of female black metal musicians certainly lies in sexism, but only partly in an ad hoc type of sexual segregation, as patriarchy and the liberal/market-centred society is also responsible for deterring artistically inclined women from choosing allegedly unladylike hobbies or professions. Some bands’ lyrics (NSBM or not) are of course disgustingly misogynistic, but not inherent to that genre, as Nickelback, the Rolling Stones, and many rappers have also authored distasteful, offensive songs. Overall, extreme metal is by no means an old (or young) boys’ club, as increasing numbers of women attend live shows. While few women have been involved in extreme metal bands, examples of talented female musicians are rife, most notably Angela Gossow and Kimberly Goss.

The same conclusion can be reached regarding accusations of homophobia. Indeed, some of these bands (and probably many of the fans) are clearly hostile to the LGBTQ community, but the majority of extreme metal bands are not homophobic at all. If anything, Gorgoroth’s former frontman Gaahl’s coming out, in 2008, demonstrates that sexual identity does not have to be equated with certain types of behaviour or adhere to the regulatory discourse of a given community. In addition, the anthropologist Amber Clifford-Napoleone has pointed out that, though “fans of heavy metal … overwhelmingly prefer the sounds of death and black metal,” adding that these genres “are intended to push the envelope, to get increasingly more extreme. What could be more extreme than listening to music that objectifies and threatens you?”[10] Nonetheless, there is no proof that the presence of homophobic elements in extreme metal automatically derives from the violence of the music itself.

***

Extreme metal has often been considered as a mindless, brutish, dehumanizing, sometimes offensive type of music. Fortunately, several musicologists, anthropologists, and sociologists began exploring those genres and subgenres shortly after their inception, thereby setting the ground for future historical investigations. In that regard, historians, who usually feel more comfortable with preterited subjects, should not shy away from analyzing phenomena in the present perfect, as anticipating their future colleagues’ works can only enrich future efforts at understanding past phenomena – even seemingly “marginal” ones.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.


NOTES

[1] “Funeral Mist,” Slayer no. 20 (2010), 88.

[2] Benjamin Hedge Olson, “I am the Black Wizards: Multiplicity, Mysticism and Identity in Black Metal Music and Culture,” MA thesis (Bowling Green State University, 2008), 129.

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 4, 5.

[4] Bakhtin, Rabelais, 7.

[5] Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

[6] Olson, “Black Wizards,” 107-15.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Peter Beste et al., dir., True Norwegian Black Metal, 2007, 13’40’’-14’45’’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32iX5lbVDto.

[9] Olson, “Black Wizards,” 91.

[10] Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone, Queerness in Heavy Metal Music: Metal Bent (New York: Routledge, 2015), 115-17.

One thought on “Historicizing Black Metal

  1. Roger Olson

    Interesting article. One avenue left unconsidered is the emergence of some extreme metal bands in North America who profess to be Christian (and might avoid the label ‘black’).

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