The Birth, Definition and Contextualization of Black Metal
Before dawn on the morning of June 6th, 1992, a small group of young men burned the Fantoft Stave Church, just outside of Bergen on the west coast of Norway, to the ground. The Fantoft Stave Church was built in the twelfth-century and, until the morning of June 6th, 1992, represented one of the most compelling links between Norway’s Pagan 1 and Christian eras.2 The young arsonists were all members of Norway’s flourishing black metal scene that had previously received little attention outside of the rather closed world of extreme metal. As the summer of 1992 progressed, it became clear that this was not a random act of violence perpetrated by thuggish adolescents for the sheer enjoyment of seeing a large building burn. The young men in question were devil worshipers. They claimed to worship the devil; some type of corporeal evil apparently in keeping with Christianity’s definition. In a series of cryptic press announcements black metal scene members denounced not only Christianity but also “goodness” and the modern world.3 Over the next few months, even the larger extreme metal community would be scratching their heads and turning a wary eye towards the Norwegian countryside where diabolical activities were apparently afoot.
Over the next several years at least forty-five and perhaps as many as sixty churches were burned by black metal scene members in Norway.4 Black metal in Norway quickly reached the status of a national menace and police frantically attempted to reign in the pyromaniacal young metalheads. The church burnings posed a number of questions: How did a country as wealthy, peaceful and stable as Norway produce a violent, devil worshipping heavy metal cult on this scale? What did they want? Would this start happening in other countries? Why all the face paint and metal spikes? Were they Vikings? What did it all mean? The international metal community was as perplexed as anyone.
Although black metal scene members were both vocal and conspicuous, police were initially confounded as to who exactly was involved in the arsons. The two most famous and often quoted scene members became the focus of much media attention.5 Øystein Aarseth was the owner of the extreme metal music shop Helvete6 in Oslo, guitarist of seminal black metal band Mayhem and founder of the Deathlike Silence Productions record label. Varg Vikernes was the sole member of the one-man band Burzum,7 not so coincidentally based in Bergen. While Varg Vikernes would become infamous for his role in the church burnings and other acts of violence, it was Øystein Aarseth who defined much of the early Satanic black metal rhetoric.8 Øystein Aarseth’ misanthropic pronouncements and extravagant sense of aesthetics created an evocative backdrop for the unique music the scene was producing. Nordic black metal problematized the distinction between music-based youth culture and fanatic religious cult. It created a culture not only opposed to mainstream politics and religion but also the more abstract notions of rationality, progress and pleasure. It was not necessarily the Norwegian government or the Lutheran Church that Nordic black metal was attacking but the entire modernist project.
Norwegian black metal had existed for some time before Fantoft Stave Church went up in flames. A group of fans and musicians had been congregating around Norway for some time and had been crafting a highly unique brand of music, style and ideology that would eventually distinguish itself from all other extreme metal scenes to become something more ideologically driven. Extreme metal fanzines that circulated across northern Europe had been discussing black metal and doing interviews with the Norwegians since the late 1980’s. In an interview in 1993 with the Finnish fanzine Kill Yourself Magazine!, Øystein Aarseth pontificates, “I believe in a horned devil, a personified Satan. In my opinion, all other forms of Satanism are bullshit. I hate that some people think up idiotic ways of making eternal peace in the world and dare to call it Satanism, like so many do. Satanism comes from religious Christianity, and there it shall stay. I am a religious person and I will fight those who misuse His name. People are not supposed to believe in themselves and be individualists. They are supposed to Obey and be Slaves of religion.”9
This statement is an example of the hard-line, misanthropic devil worship that was popular in the early Nordic scene. While many forms of Satanism, both within and outside of black metal, celebrate individualism and reject all types of dictatorial constraints,10 many black metallers follow Øystein Aarseth’ masochistic, misanthropic, anti-individualist ideology.11 This type of rhetoric was unheard of anywhere in metal prior to Norwegian black metal. Previous metal bands of various types had claimed to be Satanists, but always either of the Church of Satan variety or in some other vague, non-literal way. As Robert Walser argues, metal culture in the eighties had been about power, freedom and control.12 Norwegian black metal attempted to break from metal’s most fundamental definitions and create new values based in Christianity’s most negative polarities. As these ideological foundations grew, changed and proliferated, they would take on myriad forms, while continuing to share a fundamental rejection of modern culture, religion and identity.
Norwegian black metal was also a dramatic musical and visual break from any previous form of metal. While virtually all earlier forms of metal music had emphasized clarity, energy and virtuosity, black metal music is dense, deeply distorted, and cacophonous.13 Black metal exchanges the guitar solos, technical wizardry and song structure of traditional metal for a buzzing, droning wall-of-sound. Abrasive, meandering and extremely dark, black metal is often completely impenetrable to the casual listener. In certain respects, the early works of Darkthrone, Emperor and Burzum bear a closer affinity with the avant-guard soundscapes of Merzbow, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine than with other types of metal. The high operatic vocals of heavy metal and the low grunting of death metal14 are exchanged for sexless, inhuman, agonized screaming in black metal. The overall effect is claustrophobic, haunting and evocative. A black metal fan whom I interviewed explained his first impression of black metal to me by saying, “The vocals were more shrieking, it was not so guttural. Yeah, it was just something different. Something about it just struck a cord.”15 The black metallers with whom I have spoken with often refer to a sense of passion and sincerity in black metal that is not evident in other forms of metal.15
Black metal’s visual style had some precedent in earlier metal but it dramatically redefined and exaggerated these earlier forms. The black leather and metal studs worn by many segments of the metal community were turned into huge gauntlets with massive pointed spikes by Norwegian black metallers. War imagery like bullet belts, popular in traditional metal, were either exchanged for or embellished with medieval armour and weaponry. Instead of tattoos, brutal self-mutilation scars were often displayed by black metal scene members. Kiss — inspired Halloween-like face paint was transformed into sinister black and white “corpse paint.” Capes and long black cloaks were often employed, giving black metallers an evil wizard look. However these outfits might appear to outsiders, we will see that, they are meant to be taken very seriously.
The black metal style attempts to altogether deny mundanity, humanity and everyday life in favour of a super-human empowered religious identity that participants feel can provide the meaning that is unavailable to them in mainstream culture. To understand how this transformation occurred we must go back to the birth of metal culture and trace black metal’s origins and precedents.
All names that refer to a religious group will be capitalized to avoid giving preference to one group over another.
Moynihan, Michael and Soderlind, Didrik. Lords of Chaos, pgs 81–84. 2003 Feral House.
Kerrang! #436, March 27 1993.
Moynihan, Michael and Soderlind, Didrik. Lords of Chaos, pgs 83–84.
Moynihan, Michael and Soderlind, Didrik, pgs 81–109.
Hell in Norwegian.
Darkness in J.R.R. Tolkien’s orc language.
Baddeley, Gavin. Lucifer Rising: Sin, Devil Worship & Rock’n’Roll, Part 3 Chapter 4. 1999 Plexus Publishing.
Kill Yourself Magazine! 1993.
Baddeley, pgs 189–212.
Walser, Robert. Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Walser, Chapter Three.
Mudrian, Albert. Choosing Death: the Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, pgs 66–77. 2004 Feral House.
Originally published at Atmostfear Entertainment.