Black metal is a historic subculture tied to a genre of heavy metal music that involves bleakly/brutally distorted guitars, tremolo picking, lo-fi recordings and an emphasis on atmosphere or ambience. The music genre was spawned as an aesthetic in the first wave, most notably by Venom (with the album Black Metal), Bathory (which got its name from the Venom song “Countess Bathory“), and Celtic Frost. Ideologically, this music was rooted in Norse and Viking culture – indeed, Bathory provided a schemata for black metal before moving on in their fifth album “Hammerheart” to begin the viking metal scene. The label ‘black metal’ has also been used synonymously with ‘satanic metal,’ as its proponents tend to be staunch enemies of Judeo-Christian ideology and Christian practice. Black metal advocates are usually divided between Satanists and pagans as well as individualists and group-identifiers. One might guess that these radical polarizations (especially between individual and community emphasis) would lead to contradictions later on. Also, as you may have guessed by the title of the article, black metal was started by a community of exceptionally hateful heterosexual white males (statistically, empirically, overwhelmingly so).
You should listen to a bit of the music itself before continuing to read my dissection of its history and relevant political/social movements. Mayhem may not be the first band the average black metal fan would pick to describe the genre (Darkthrone and Bathory are probably essential listens for you metal aesthetes out there), but I actually like this album, so here you are.
The subculture of black metal has its origin in the early Norwegian black metal scene, or the second wave of black metal. The subculture has been faced with extreme resistance in mainstream culture largely because of all the weird shit that these musicians get up to when they’re not howling their guts out in their practice spaces. The Norwegian black metal community was subject to a huge amount of mainstream media attention when its members were discovered to be responsible for over 50 arson attacks against churches between 1992-1996. Varg Vikernes in particular (occasional Mayhem bassist and Burzum one-man mastermind) has been prosecuted for murder and arson, most notably the arson of the Fantoft Stave Church (which he photographed and used as the album artwork for his Burzum EP Aske or Ashes). Varg is a particularly interesting case, and also probably an outlier that black metal fans would characterize as unfair when writing an article that makes large generalizing sweeps about the scene and what it was. If you’re interested, you can read the wiki yourself.
Faust, drummer of Emperor, traveled to Holmenkollen Chapel with Euronymous of Mayhem and Varg Vikernes of Burzum with the intension of bombing the chapel. When the homemade bomb they put on the altar refused to detonate, they soaked hymnals and Bibles in gasoline and lit them on the altar, burning the church to the ground. Source: Metal Injection
Mayhem’s lead singer Dead infamously saw himself as a non-participant in the real living world (hence his name) and often cut himself with a hunting knife while on stage (and threw rotting pig flesh at fans to make sure that ‘only the most brutal’ would see the end of his concerts). He committed suicide on April 8, 1991 in a cabin in the Norwegian wilderness; after Mayhem guitarist Euronymous found his body, he ran to a nearby convenience store and purchased a disposable camera which would be used to create a photograph of Dead’s suicide (later used as album artwork for some live bootlegs: graphic link). When describing Dead’s death to a friend, Euronymous reportedly said “Dead has done something really cool! He killed himself!” He also claimed that Dead had killed himself because of the “trendy commercialism” of death metal (which can be linked to a nationalist rivalry between Swedish death metal bands and Norwegian black metal bands). On top of this insanity, it’s rumored that Euronymous made necklaces of Dead’s skull fragments and distributed to those he thought were “brutal” (honorable, in black metal speak) enough to deserve them. There’s also a rumor of the band members making a stew of Dead’s brain and consuming it. No comment. The death of Dead reportedly lead to Euronymous’ retreat into fantasy and excessive brutality; as a leader of the black metal scene and owner of influential record shop Helvete, he had a great say in what was ‘black metal’ and what was not. Here’s a little quip by Euronymous on black metal and Christianity:
During the last two years of his life, he took Varg Vikernes (5 years his junior) under his wing and invited him to play bass in Mayhem. This decision would lead to the end of his life and the most disputed/interpreted homicide in the history of metal. First, a small (and potentially related) aside about Faust (pictured below with sword).
Emperor’s drummer Faust fatally stabbed a gay man in Lillehammer, Norway in 1992. This has been radically de-sensationalized and it’s not entirely clear why it happened, but no one appears to hold it against him these days. He claimed to have no remorse at the time, and his bandmates noted that he had been fascinated by serial killers for some time beforehand.
After a year of living freely (which included that arson with Euronymous and Varg), Faust was arrested and confessed to the stabbing. He served nine years of a prison sentence and was let out early. Currently, he’s the main lyricist for Zyklon (more fun Holocaust references!). I’m not entirely certain whether I can claim that this was a hate crime (“faggot”? crime starts with sexual solicitation?), but it’s pretty hard to cast Faust’s action in a favorable light regardless.
Also, metal scenes tend to espouse homophobia in general – on “metalstorm.net,” one article entitled “101 Rules For Going to a Metal Concert” says: “89. A concert that has seating is gay and therefore not metal.” Clearly, ‘metal’ fans don’t intend to coexist with those who are okay with things that are ‘gay.’ On thatsnotmetal.com, we have the excellent statement that metal concerts “are where men gather to be men… we celebrate by hitting each other.” But I digress.
With this stabbing in mind, let’s revisit Varg Vikernes’ murder of Euronymous. It has been speculated to be an attempt to “out-do” the stabbing committed by Faust, a dispute over a record contract, or simply a power struggle within an extremist group of friends. Varg claims that the murder was a result of Euronymous telling a “select group of friends” of his plan to electro-shock Varg, tie him to a car, and torture him to death all while videotaping it. One of these friends told Varg (who “wouldn’t have taken it seriously if [Euronymous] had told just anybody of his plans”), who then drove to Euronymous’ residence with an accomplice to pre-empt Euronymous’ claims. This plays into Varg’s claim that his murder of Euronymous was performed in self-defense – you can surely read more about this online, but Faust and other members of the black metal scene have cast doubt onto Varg’s self-defense claim. Black metal, after all, is an exclusive community populated by those who support an inverted system of morality and advocate brutality, grief, and suffering. I do not find it too far-fetched of a claim to read Varg’s murder of Euronymous as (a) a one-upping of Faust’s murder in Lillehammer (minus homophobia) and (b) a sort of pre-empted action to a murderous power struggle within a tight-knit community of social rejects. Also, when Varg was sentenced for the murder, I should note that he was sentenced for 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence for any crime committed in Norway. Interestingly enough, their prison system is globally acclaimed as the ‘most successful’ and ‘most humane’ prison in the world, but Varg actually escaped prison with a guard’s vehicle, weaponry, GPS, and cash TWICE. Perhaps there should be a special prison for black-metalers, as Varg used his lock-up time to record albums and do all sorts of ideological scheming. In some senses, Varg may be one of the only people in the world who actually deserves to do time in a US federal prison.
I want to take a minute to discuss Varg’s lofty (and often confused) ideology. He espouses Odalism (From Norse óðal (homeland, allodium, allodial law, nobility, noble, inherited goods, fatherland, land property, distinguished family, distinguished, splendid, kin and the nation)) and National Socialism (he’s not a “Nazi” but rather someone who supports the Nazi persecution of “Jewish heresy” / Judeo-Christian thought) regularly on his website and obviously has taken his anti-Christian ideology into the realm of action. Varg also claims to be a racist (Odalism includes ‘racialism,’ which is pretty much just racism with an extra syllable) but says that he hates no one: “hatred is irrational.” Alright, dude. Whatever. He also advocates eugenics, but says that everyone is free to follow their individual culture. I guess he just likes watching the nationalists squabble over territory. He also went around calling himself “Count Grishnakh” (a particularly vehement/violent orc in The Lord of the Rings) for a good period of life, so take all of this lofty ideology with a grain of Middle-Earth salt.
In any case, not all people who play black metal music are evil homophobic racists. The most recent strain of black metal ideology was put into manifesto form by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of American black metal band Liturgy. It attempts to separate the kind of music that Liturgy makes (“transcendental black metal”) from the historic Norwegian scene (“hyperborean black metal”) by describing the qualifiers most idealized by each scene, and also attempts to signal a “break” from the European tradition of black metal. It symbolizes “human dignity, hybridization and creative evolution”; well gee, I like that stuff too! I think the entire treatise is a little preachy (and certainly wrapped up in its own solar ivory tower), but you can read Vice’s (actually excellent) deconstruction of it here.
Those who promote a transcendental vein of black metal (and associate it with ‘solar’ forces) would probably do well to distance themselves from the historic black metal scene, confused and violent as it was. I agree that a nihilation of nihilism is necessary (for affirmation is the only way to justify one’s continuing existence as a meaning-making being), but I don’t think that the ‘burst beat’ and this generally horrible-sounding genre of music are the only way to achieve it. Indeed, it seems counter-productive to tie one’s breaking-off movement linguistically to the same subculture one is moving away from – doesn’t TBM still include ‘black metal’ in its very name? Why not just call it transcendental metal? White metal? ANYTHING ELSE?
As a sidenote about non-racist black metal musicians, Gorgoroth guitarist Infernus sued to earn ownership of the band name in 2008 from his bandmates Gaahl and King ov Hell and was successful. He claims to have no interest in continuing to work with those who pursue racist agendas. Many black metal musicians (notably Fenriz) have come out in support of Infernus and have called his bandmates “thieves.” Notably, Infernus also claims to be a theistic Satanist – he mentions that “anti-Christian is not the same as anti-religious,” and he also advocates against the burning of churches. All around, it seems like Infernus is your dude if you’re trying to be a tolerant/reasonable black metal advocate. For a more detailed read on the name dispute, check the wiki.
Perhaps subcultures which are outright violent to mainstream/national culture(s) are actually more dangerous for people of color – it would give racists an excuse to persecute them for their radical ideas. Seriously, could you imagine an American metal band composed entirely of musicians of color burning down churches and making the burned-down church remnants their album covers? God-fearing white people would literally be pursuing them with nooses in tow and lynching trees in mind.
It’s possible that black metal ideology and culture come from an absolute lack of struggle. With no oppression weighing down their personal lives, the men who would grow to be important black metal musicians were free to spend their days being bored out of their skulls in statistically-above-average-happiness Scandinavian countries and contemplating their finiteness as beings (and thus, mortality was revealed by the corpse paint of the black metal musician to be his one and only struggle on this cruel earth). If you’ve ever been to a metal concert, you probably noticed that you were standing in a crowd of sweaty, very gender-binary-conforming white dudes who probably weren’t older than 30 on average. This is probably an alienating generalization, but maybe the reason why the black metal scene is so white and so devoid of non-cis-males is because those people just have more important things to contemplate than how great Norse ideology is or how angry they are at the world. Those people don’t have the privilege of shutting themselves off from the mainstream world – indeed, one might view the most violent aspects of the black metal subculture as examples of deranged white men taking their privilege and running as far as they could with it.
Perhaps we can see a little into the social construction of race here, too – by distinguishing ‘black’ and ‘white’ (not the actual color of anyone’s skin), we polarize ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in infantile terms clear enough for the slowest West Virginia redneck to understand. I’d like to put forward the idea that the black metal musician unconsciously attempts to make himself ‘black’ (racially) via his ideology and culture; the perceived enemy of European Christianity (the African Muslim or pagan) is subject to a sort of penis envy on the part of the European black metal musician. He wants to be hated by society, but by birth he is not – thus, he undertakes horrible actions in order to be deemed an outcast. This is probably my most far-fetched and theoretically intensive claim in the entire article, feel free to disregard it if you like. Just food for thought.
From the aesthetic of the music (blackened, scorched deserts of sonic space; howled, indecipherable screeches in place of singing, poorly recorded albums) to the extreme and often pathetic elitism of those who advocate it on music forums, black metal proves itself to be a generally unpleasant phenomenon (which was always its goal). Perhaps its fans can languish in the superiority they delude themselves into experiencing – “ah, yes, it is we who are the most brutal, the most anti-Christian,” but in their languishing they forget the true brutalities which spawned their false sense of superiority. Unfortunately, being a fan of black metal puts you among the aesthetically illiterate, the racist, the homophobic, and among those who generally have a difficult time imagining the experiences of others (but who espouse simultaneously a sort of misguided existentialism). In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the new Kendrick album and music that’s generally more groovy. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind my readership that it is not the popularity (or lack thereof) which makes music good, but rather its artistic coherence and innovativeness. I’m not saying that there haven’t been any creative metal bands, nor that there will never be; what I am saying is that the black metal scene (current and historic) is populated by uneducated, intolerant, insufferable brutes who could barely agree upon a common “Other” to hate among themselves. Emperor is still pretty fun to listen to, though.
Also, please enjoy a humorous photo of Abbath (Immortal frontman/guitarist):