“The annals of Black Metal are fraught with violence,” intone Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind at the beginning of their 1998 history Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, “exploding in both self-administered suicidal shotgun blasts and cold-blooded, knife-blade murders. The number of deaths incurred worldwide is hard to calculate, but the frenzied nature of the killings bestows them with an unmistakable essence. As merciless as the murders have been, the ongoing campaign of church arsons adds psychological terror and religious intimidation to the list of Black Metal’s arsenal.”
This extraordinary passage raises troubling questions for music criticism, such as: Aren’t suicidal shotgun blasts self-administered by definition? Isn’t murder always merciless? What is the “list” of an “arsenal”? And most important: Why is this bullshit all the average music fan knows about black metal?
Well, I suppose Satanism, arson, and murder are sort of attention-grabbing. And it wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t know Fenriz from a hole in the northern sky myself. My metal acumen extended to AC/DC, the first few Sabbath records, a little Slayer, and Appetite for Destruction. I was begging the local record store clerk to let me buy his advance copy of the new Pavement CD. Black metal seemed to be trying too hard—WE ARE SO EVIL, FOR REAL—while indie rock could barely get out of bed, which was more my speed.
But at some point, indie began to seem overly safe and insular. The world doesn’t need another article about how boring indie rock is, so I’ll just skip to the part where I heard Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger [sic] for the first time. Then I’ll skip to the next day, when I heard it for the 10th time. Soon Emperor and Bathory and Immortal and other early black-metal bands began to infest my apartment with their brambly logos. Metal gave me a new lease on rock ‘n’ roll, and it was black metal that set the paperwork in motion. Brothers and sisters, I am here to testify that pale, sickly beings once created a beautiful racket under the Scandinavian moon.
I often find myself called upon to explain the difference between black metal and death metal (usually to people like my sister who have just asked me to turn down the wrong one). As Dayal Patterson writes in his new book Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, black metal features “high-paced percussion, high-pitched ‘screamed’ vocals, [and] fast tremolo picking on the guitars,” with an emphasis on “atmosphere,” while death metal emphasizes “brutality or technicality” and uses “ ‘growling’ vocals and frequent riff changes.” (Listen to a black metal song here, and a death metal one here.)
Black metal’s sound is frequently described as “cold” and “icy,” in part because it draws its tropes from its Nordic origins—At the Heart of Winter, “Where Cold Winds Blow,” the grim reaper riding through snow-covered mountains. But it’s an affective descriptor, as well—guitars buzz and whine like industrial refrigerators, drums jackhammer, lyrics concern “sons of northern darkness under the throne of the moon” and are screamed by yetis. In Patterson’s book, former Mayhem vocalist Sven “Maniac” Kristiansen describes Bathory’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark (don’t ask me what the “sign” of a “mark” is), the record that provided the template for black metal’s influential “second wave,” as “so fucking, freezing cold. Of course you had the Satanic lyrics, but there was something within the music that was really capturing me, it was really cold, sometimes even scary.”
With 600 pages of interviews and photographs documenting the genre’s birth and evolution, Black Metal is as definitive an encyclopedia of the music as the human race is likely to produce. Patterson seems to have spoken to every person who ever pondered the relationship of Satan to guitars in wintertime. Every aspect of black metal is allotted its 15 minutes of blasphemy: its roots in punk, thrash, and death metal; its progenitors (Bathory, Mercyful Fate, Venom, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost); its early flowerings in Canada, Switzerland, Greece, and the United States; its Cambrian explosion in Norway; its developments in France, Sweden, Poland, and Japan; its snaking into increasingly unwieldy subgenres; its present-day “post-black-metal” incarnations.
It’s the Norwegian scene that receives the most attention, since Norway is black metal’s Liverpool, Memphis, and New Orleans all in one, home to the bands that matter the most: Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal, Emperor, Satyricon, Ulver, Gorgoroth, Enslaved. And, yes, some of the people in these bands burned down really gorgeous old churches and/or killed other people in these bands. Some of them killed people who weren’t in any band. Some of them killed themselves. (Worried that their noisy neighbors were hogging all the fun, some Swedish black-metal bands also went the arson-murder-suicide route.)
Patterson covers all this without resorting to sensationalism. It makes for queasily fascinating reading. Mayhem singer Per “Dead” Ohlin, who would shoot himself before he could appear on the group’s studio albums, auditioned by mailing the band a crucified mouse. “He had issues,” says Kjetil Manheim, the group’s drummer.
But Patterson’s focus is on music, not criminal immorality. Mostly, he just lets the band members talk, a strategy that has the fortunate effect of keeping his own prose to a minimum. It seems never to have occurred to Patterson (and too many other metal critics, though of course there are exceptions—Ben Ratliff and Brandon Stosuy, for instance) that writing might be more than a vehicle for the conveyance of information. Often repetitive (“ … seemingly the first recorded example of either within rock culture. Now seemingly ubiquitous … ”), ungrammatical (“Varg Vikernes and Darkthrone, whom the article explained ‘describe themselves as fascist in outlook’ ”), and clichéd (“What the future holds for Master’s Hammer is all but impossible to say”), Patterson’s writing is almost charmingly amateurish. (As is the editing—someone from Colombia is not a “Columbian.”)
But who cares? Fans aren’t looking for good writing from a book like Black Metal—they’re looking for lore, for new and eviler bands to listen to, for absurd statements from their metal gods. (“Living off human blood, decorating your flat with tombstones, animal carcasses, digging up graves and shit, does something to you,” explains Emperor’s Terje Vik Schei, who is “no longer a Satanist and now married with children.”) On that score, as your average metal reviewer might have it, it delivers the goods and then some.
Many of these evil musicians come across as rather genial—normal, even. Anyone who’s seen the 2009 documentary Until the Light Takes Us knows that Darkthrone’s Fenriz is hilarious and sort of cuddly. (“Folk is good,” he says here. “Metal is good. But together? No. It sounds too merry for phat fuzz.”) But who knew that Mayhem’s Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud was so personable (or that one of his heroes is Jello Biafra)? Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost also turns out to be quite likable. (“I never personally said that I created the death grunt.”)
Patterson’s authorial restraint is regrettable, though, in at least one respect. A minority of black-metal musicians are white-supremacist fools. Graveland’s Rob Darken, for instance, says shit like “I am a warrior protecting traditional white man values.” And Patterson informs us that murderer Varg Vikernes, of Burzum, recently posted on his website about “Negroes and other inferior races”—which, according to Patterson, is “politically charged” speech.
This sort of nonsense should be countered with the mockery it deserves. But Patterson is more determined to explain that the term “National Socialist Black Metal” is misleading, since not every racist band espouses Nazism: “Indeed the pigeonholing nature of the label means that even many of the most openly race-conscious bands are hesitant to accept it.” Well, you sure as heck wouldn’t want to pigeonhole any “race-conscious” bands. You wouldn’t want to suggest, say, that they are as morally repugnant and intellectually crippled as the Nazis they hesitate to identify with.
To be fair, Patterson does allow nonracist black-metallers to slam their idiot brethren, quoting, for example, Erik Danielsson, of the not exactly politically correct band Watain: “Black Metal is a cult of Satan, its foundation is the cultivation of Chaos and Darkness, and no little pimple-ridden Internet-nazi movement can change that.”
As for the po-faced Satanism, one can sympathize with Venom’s Conrad “Cronos” Lant when he wonders what happened to the “tongue-in-cheek” aspect of his band, which invented the term “black metal.” Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth of Mayhem (who was murdered by Vikernes in 1993) claimed in an interview that “if a band cultivates and worships Satan, it’s black metal,” while Daniel Rostén of Marduk and Funeral Mist issues the following edict:
If it’s not Satanic, it’s not black metal, it’s “something else-metal”—there’s a million labels, choose one of them. Black metal is Satanic metal. I really don’t like to label myself, but if there would be a label for it, it would be devil worship.
Thankfully, most black-metal bands don’t take themselves this eye-rollingly seriously. It’s horror-movie stuff, and it adds a certain goofy frisson to the music, as does the famous “corpse paint.” (I’ve never understood why you’d wear clown makeup if you wanted people to take your occultism seriously.)
Even Euronymous later admitted that “I love Satanic bands, but I don’t care if they sing about eating carrots, if the music is great.” And while I might quibble about some of Patterson’s criteria (why doesn’t Immortal get its own chapter?), Black Metal is finally a book about great music. I know it’s only the cultivation of Chaos and Darkness, but I like it.
Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult by Dayal Patterson. Feral House.