Metal as a rock genre has its origins in British groups like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and, not least, Black Sabbath, whose album of the same name still towers as a source of inspiration for many of heavy metal’s offshoots. In the US, groups like Steppenwolf, who invented the term “heavy metal”, Blue Cheers and later Kiss led the field. The metal scene also comprised more intellectual, prestigious names like MC5 and Stooges, with Iggy Pop leading the way. When metal experienced a renaissance with all the Seattle bands in the early 1990s, it was called grunge and/or alternative, probably to appeal to the well-to-do middle class audience that listened to college radios and the so-called underground networks. With Nirvana in the lead it became big business, while all possible variations of more classic metal became the real underground in terms of both support and commercial exploitation.
We now see the dawning of extreme music, which has increasingly broad appeal as well as the most important thing: respectable sales figures. Thanks to new electronics and the Internet, the underground has a highly efficient infrastructure. The music is spread through web pages and mp3 files, the jungle telegraph and a well-established network of dealers, clubs, record companies, distributors, agents and radio and TV stations. As is always the case with minorities and underground phenomena, this is all about dedicated, passionate supporters. And there’s no lack of music. Today there is a wilderness of different types of metal, some having distinctive characteristics while others more or less overlap. The fans are wary of change, however, and the various groups traditionally stay within their chosen narrow style whether it be trash, speed, doom, power, goth, true, industrial, metal, techno, death, black, murder, Viking, dark, progressive, splatter or sado metal. Terms like stoner rock, hard core, death and cyber punk, grind, gore, grunge and avante garde metal also occur.
Common to all this diversity is the volume, tempo, harshness and brutality of the music, which is communicated by means of a more or less theatrical form of expression and full of cliché effects. The instrumentation is classical rock; guitar, bass and drums, while keyboards, sampling and acoustic instruments such as strings are brought in as identifiers, depending on which genre you operate within.
Death, decay and intestines
Black and death metal have stretched the limits to the maximum. These terms are frequently interchanged, but the differences are fairly marked, also in musical terms. In death metal, the lyrics have a lot to do with death and graves, decay, intestines and necrophilia. Some bands are politically aware and left-wing, particularly as opponents of fascism and nazism. From the musical point of view, death is easily recognisable: most bands tune down to F, the sound is unclear, the melodic progression chaotic and irrational, dissonances are much in evidence and the words are impossible to understand except as background noise. Black metal’s themes are more philosophically inclined, typified by darkness, cold, sorrow, depression, destructiveness, evil, Norse mythology and Satanism. The most advanced bands promote the antitheses of Christian values, interpret biblical symbols in Satan’s image and claim to have ties with occult brotherhoods and/or satanic congregations. In musical terms, black metal is thoroughly prepared, pointed noise, most bands tune in E, are concerned to create an aggressive atmosphere and are not unfamiliar with either keyboards or sampling. The melodies develop logically, the lyrics are more or less audible and the harmonies are sad, dark and almost beautiful in their minor keys.
Black metal as such is not a Norwegian invention. The term was used an LP title by the British group Venom in 1980, but Norwegian musicians have cultivated and developed this genre in an unusually abundant greenhouse that can only be compared with a similar blossoming of the genre in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil. Today the black metal scene in Norway comprises about a hundred different bands all over the country, five to ten of which are so well established that they can make a living from their music. The number of bands is somewhat misleading, because black metal musicians are often members of several different bands. The band members also change their names according to what they are playing and whom they are playing with. Most of them have recording contracts and have signed up with companies on the continent, in England or in the US. Norwegian companies have licence agreements with the same companies and distribute in twenty-five to thirty countries. On the domestic market, a black metal record seldom sells more than 3,000 copies; abroad, bands like Dimmu Borgir (Icelandic for Black Castle) sell 250,000, Emperor and Kovenant 150,000 and Satyricon 80,000. Only the most popular bands and records get any attention outside the metal scene, for instance by being reviewed in the national press. Kovenant, for example, has won a Norwegian Grammy in the heavy rock class two years in succession.
The function of black metal is to counter-balance most things. As a teenage rebellion, it will soon be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the group Mayhem’s EP Deathcrush from ’87, which marked the beginning of the first wave of black metal. Mayhem, founded in ’84, is legendary for many reasons. The group’s members comprised the core of a small, very close-knit cult that in many ways is reminiscent of the entry of punk into Norway. The music determined social status and was thereby the catalyst for mores at all levels. Mayhem’s music was even related to punk, as was the behaviour of cult members. All similarity ends there.
Mayhem is now said to be the most important black metal band in the world because it staked out the content of the genre and, not least, set the musical standards for raw, brutal extremity. The cult’s exposure took place through bands, a record shop called Helvete (Hell), the recording company Deathlike Silence Productions, newsletters, fanzines and, not least, the extremely secret satanic circle known as the Black Metal Council, the Norwegian Black Metal Mafia or the Satanic Terrorists. The organisation was related to the American First Church of Satan (founded in 1966 by Aton Szandor LaVey) and the thinking of English magician and occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). It is also probable that they cooperated with the occult masonic lodge Ordo Templi Orientes (OTO), the Scandinavian headquarters of which is in Bergen. Mayhem’s leader, Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, was a deeply committed Satanist and headed the circle, among other things by sending death threats to bands that were not sufficiently devoted Satanist believers. They declared war against Christianity and encouraged the firing of churches and other criminal acts.
Apart from Mayhem, Burzum (Darkness) band under the leadership of Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes was the most prominent band. Disagreement and deep divisions gradually arose between the two groups. Euronymous was a pure Satanist while The Count also began to propound racial theories and heathenism. Both made astoundingly provocative statements to the international metal press that were widely covered in the Norwegian media. It ended with Vigernes killing Aarseth in August ’93 and he is now serving a 21-year prison sentence. Mayhem’s vocalist, “Dead”, had already committed suicide, one of the members of the Emperor band was accused of another murder and several church fires brought the black metal scene into the public eye. Public opinion was, naturally, shocked and shaken and this probably put an end to the organised Satanist circle. Since then it has been impossible to write about the genre without mentioning these facts and only in the last couple of years has it been discussed on the basis of musical premises.
Music, not politics
These events helped to move the metal scene away from secret cliques towards a more creative, open situation. Inevitably, however, the musicians are not exactly household names, nor are they particularly communicative except when promoting records. Several bands distance themselves from former attitudes and correct the rumours and inaccuracies that abound on the net. In his time, Aarseth maintained that the record shop had 2,000 customers (it is now closed down), and the circle is thought to be about that size in Oslo and somewhat smaller in the other larger towns. Mayhem’s Deathcrush, declared a work of genius and a legend, was released in 1,000 vinyl copies and was not re-released until after Aarseth’s death. Mayhem continued as a band and is today an exponent of true black metal, the original, straightforward, brutal metal without too many embellishments or additional instruments. It is uncertain how long that description will apply, since their latest release, Grand Declaration of War (on the French Seasons of Mist label), which came out in April, contains a track that can only be described as deep house. It has undoubtedly extended Mayhem’s and the genre’s appeal and reaches beyond the circle itself. The Count, on the other hand, makes and releases music from his prison cell and his nazi statements have become more extreme. For a time, he called himself Varg Quisling after our infamous traitor, which aroused general disgust. The term “nationalist” is, for natural reasons in Norway, automatically translated to “nazi”. He has as good as been written off on the black metal scene, although he has certain fans among the very young who find his deeds and opinions heroic. His records are no longer sold in the shops and his recording company, Voices of Wonder, cancelled his contract immediately after the murder.
Black metal has, in many ways, grown up and has developed explosively during the intervening years. The second wave of Norwegian black metal began around ’95. Younger people who had not grown up with Black Sabbath and the like made their own music based on punk and other raw-energy rock. The time of threatening letters and cryptic death threats has definitively passed and the churches are allowed to stand in peace. Black metal musicians, the police and music critics maintain it is unlikely that occult and/or satanic rituals take place. On the other hand, they make no secret of the fact that most bands have strong Satanist sympathies and are declared anti-Christians or atheists. Such opinions are not rare in Norway. There may be many explanations for this, but strong pietistic elements and the fact that the state church is out of step with popular morals and ethics is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Nor does the fact that the conversion of the country to Christianity around the year 1000 exceeded even the most intestine-outpouring black metal text exactly moderate anti-Christian attitudes.
Fanzines, radio and record companies
There are innumerable fanzines, the three most prominent being pure magazines, Metal Shuffle, Nordic Vision and the leader, Scream, which sells an incredible 6,000 copies a month. Eight different radio shows are regularly on air, the one with the widest coverage being broadcast on Norwegian Broadcasting’s pop music channel, Programme Three, every Monday and presented, of all things, by a 31-year-old woman, Gro Narvestad. This is mentioned especially because she estimates the female share of black metal supporters to be somewhere between one and two per cent, and few people over thirty are ever seen at concerts. The only obvious problem for Norwegian black metal bands is that they have difficulty touring in their own country because the potential audience is so small.
Of the recording companies, two in particular are worth mentioning, Voices of Wonder and Moonfog. VOW releases about ten records a year, half of which are described as black metal. They have eight employees, a good distribution network, licence agreements with 25 countries and, after many years of careful operations, a sound financial base. They are regarded as the leading Norwegian company by bands that want to go out into the world and make a career for themselves. Moonfog also distributes in many countries, is run by Satyr of Satyricon and a promotion manager, and has bands such as Darkthrone, Gehenna and DHG (formerly Dødheimsgard) in its catalogue. In ’98 it had a turnover of NOK 4 million and is probably the most demanding of the black metal companies, demonstrating a high degree of integrity both within the business and far outside the inner circle. It cooperates with the US company Pantera, among others. Satyricon has maintained that it wants to remove the childishness and the cartoon label from black metal. It has succeeded, if you disregard the highly vital Uncle Scrooge philosophy. Seven to nine Norwegian black metal records are released each month.
The Norwegian sound
There have been positive developments on the musical front too. The earlier records featuring veterans like Darkthrone, Ulver and Dimmu Borgir were recorded on four-track tapes. Ulver even recorded many of his songs outdoors, deep in the forest! This established the “Norwegian sound” that black metal bands all over the world have tried to copy with little success. Some bands, like the German Himminbjørg, even try using Norwegian lyrics.
It is difficult to explain what the Norwegian sound really is, but compared with black metal from other countries, most Norwegian releases appear to have a certain atmosphere, an almost inaudible echo that warns of magic and evil. The sound has gradually become more sophisticated in step with the technical development of production and increased resources. Not least, the music is better, more versatile and thoroughly prepared and the musicians are exceptionally talented. Many of them have a background from classical music studies. A black metal musician also has to be in good physical shape, strong and supersonically quick on his instrument! The magazine Modern Drummer praises Satyricon’s drummer Frost: “during the multi-part opener, Tied In Bronze Chains (which lasts nearly eleven minutes), his double bass pounds out 32nd notes (most drummers can’t do this well with their hands), while his hi-hat and snare jog in double-time”.
Dimmu Borgir (on the German label Nuclear Blast) claims to be inspired by Dvorák and Wagner. Many of the songs are strongly keyboard-based, the organ almost sounds cathedral-like (sic!), and you sense 70s symphorock à la Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Emperor builds up its albums more or less like classical works. The music is scored and classified as classical music by the copyright agency.
Ulver (Voices of Wonder) is not strictly a black metal band but belongs in and appeals strongly to this circle. It has moved from melodies audibly based on medieval tonal language and Norse verse metre to a strongly avant-garde character that flirts with a variety of genres and sound images.
Satyricon’s next album, Rebel Extravaganza (Moonfog) has been panegyrically received everywhere and they are really the genre’s innovators, both musically and visually. The wall of sound is compact and brutal, but it leaves room for intricate shifts of tempo and impressive finesses and details. The band is highly conscious of the visual aspect, harmonising graphics, photos, music and costumes. They are currently working on a road movie from their last European tour.
As regards lyrics, the bands are still focused on the antichrist, evil, Norse mythology, sex and violence. War and trench romanticism are also themes that interest an increasingly large number of people, cf. Mayhem’s latest Grand Declaration of War. Most bands’ lyrics are naïve and suffer from bad grammar. The exceptions are the biggest bands, which work harder on the lyrics and are concerned about the unity of text, music and visual image. The lyrics of a band like Satyricon could easily stand alone as poetry, while Ulver puts music to texts by the British mystic and visionary William Blake (1757-1827) on the double album Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Black metal is not a genre that encourages renewal and experiment. Nevertheless, it sometimes permits a surprising amount of leeway. This is clearly shown in the spoof band Black Debbath and the album Tung, tung politisk rock (Heavy, heavy political rock) with titles like Problemer innad i Høyre (Problems inside the Conservative Party) sung in Norwegian bureaucrat-speak and linked to 70s well-produced heavy, called stoner. It was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy and has been accepted by the inner circle while at the same time attracting student audiences. Their next record will be heavier and better, they promise, and contain a tourist’s guide to Norway!
Norwegian black metal has come to stay. It makes Marilyn Mason sound like harmless family entertainment. As long as there are new generations seeking new objects of rebellion and distancing themselves from the establishment, black metal will continue to exist. Black metal is noisy and shocking but, hopefully, not dangerous.