Music! Murder! Arson! Satan!
// Colin Spensley

“Children of the evil and demonic

curse his love again.
Graveless souls awake,
seem to ignite the flame.”
—Emperor (Night of Graveless Souls)

Have you ever listened to music while simultaneously wondering if you’re having a pagan spell cast upon you? Does an icy chill run down your spine every time you put on your headphones? Is your favourite singer a ghoulishly face-painted moaning warlock? If not, you probably haven’t listened to enough black metal.

From its early incarnations in the 1980s to current brutal acts, black metal music is often overshadowed by its preconceived reputation for violence, hate, fear, and a strong Satanic message. With ancestral roots spanning over a thousand years, some of black metal’s most influential bands claim that if you’re not Norwegian, then you aren’t black metal. The genre truly is a reflection of Norway’s ancient culture as much as it is a controversial and misunderstand branch of metal music.

The Norse people prior to 995 AD were a pagan people of varying religions and traditions. As Christianity spread over Scandinavia throughout the eighth century, it was strongly opposed by the pagan Norse, and was shunned until the rule of King Oalf I of Norway. Oalf I had previously been a raider of many Christian and European cities and fought many wars with Christian states. However, upon returning to Norway in 995 after a fabled encounter with a Christian seer, Oalf ceased the raiding of Christian cities and used all of his power to Christianize his nation. This included the murder and torture of any pagan resistors and turning all of Norway into a so-calledChristian nation. This set the stage for 1,000 years of what some Norwegians would call religious oppression, and the basis for the movement of black metal.

For many, black metal is a rebellion against the church, more so than as an extremist form of metal music. The music is characterized by grim and foreboding tones – blast-beat drumming, dissonant chord structure and shrieked vocals. Black metal is differentiated from its metal cousins, thrash and death metal, by the signature tremolo-style guitar playing and its satanic messages delivered in a uniquely shrill scream.

The Norwegian band Mayhem laid much of the groundwork for the visual aspect of black metal. Mayhem’s founding members were the first to don the now almost stereotypical corpse paint, which is white and black makeup accompanied by blood, spikes, upside-down crucifixes, and leather. Mayhem guitarist Euronymous and lead vocalist Dead would pioneer the genre with its dark atmospheric sound and terror-filled message. In 1991, to the horror of his band members, Dead took his own life with a shotgun. Their horror, however, did not stop them from taking photographs of the gruesome suicide and taking pieces of Dead’s skull to wear as necklaces. The photographs were later used as a Mayhem album cover, which received a great amount of attention from Norwegian media.

As a Norwegian music reporter points out in an interview with VBS, “They had an identity because everyone was against them.” The spotlight was set on these young musicians who cradled more than a passion for music in their hearts. What followed were a string of violent crimes and the burning of historic churches around the country.

Many of the crimes were committed by the group of black metal musicians in Oslo called The Black Circle, revolving around the heavy-metal record store Helvete. The leader of this group was the young Varg Vikernes. He is the sole member of probably the most important black metal band to come out of Norway: Burzum. Vikernes had been sensationalized by Norwegian media and was the figurehead for much of the controversy surrounding black metal in the early 1990s.

The church burnings in Norway were Euronymous and Vikernes’ attempts to lash back at the Christian church, which they claim erased the ancient history of Norway. This included the arson of some 800-year-old churches, which Vikernes claims had been built on sacred pagan sites. “If the Christians have no respect for Norwegian culture, why should Norwegians have respect for their culture? … By burning churches some people felt like they were taking back the land. The intent was to open the public’s eyes,” said Vikernes. After a dozen church burnings in 1992-93, Norwegian police had become suspicious of The Black Circle.

Euronymous and Vikerne’s friendship fell apart over a record contact dispute regarding Mayhem, a band that Vikernes was playing bass guitar in at the time. On Aug. 10, 1993, Vikernes and his friend Snorre Ruch drove over 400 miles to Oslo to settle this conflict. Vikernes claims that he had heard rumours of a plot to capture and torture him made by his ex-friend and bandmate Euronymous. When the two met at an apartment in Oslo to settle the conflict, Vikernes was attacked on the doorstep and proceeded to murder Euronymous, which he claims was in self-defense. Vikernes stabbed Euronymous 23 times, mostly in the back with a dull hunting knife. Within days Vikernes was arrested by police and taken to prison to await try in Oslo.

He was sentenced to the maximum prison sentence in Norway (21 years) for murder and the arson of four churches. “The church burnings were hardly mentioned in the court. They presented one witness in each case who claimed I had burned this or that church, and that was it. ‘Guilty’. Just like that. This process was repeated four times, and I was found guilty of kindling four churches, three of them having burned to the ground,” writes Vikernes in a testimonial posted to his person web page. “I am not going to say that I burnt any churches. But let me put it this way: there was one person who started it. I was not found guilty of burning the Fantoft Stave church, but anyway, that was what triggered the whole thing.”

With two of the founding members now dead and one incarcerated, the two most influential bands of black metal were put in jeopardy. It would have seemed like the black metal scene in Oslo would fall apart, but instead, it grew vastly more popular through all the media attention of Varg Vikernes and the fear he cast over Norway’s people, which was, of course, the intention. Bands like Emperor, Immortal, and Darkthrone continued to thrive in the genre and gain attention outside of Norway, spreading black metal across Scandinavia and later across the world.

Modern bands like Gorgoroth would continue to give a controversial side to black metal well into the 21st century. Gorogoroth seems to feed off the media’s portrayal of them as something to be feared and shunned. They prefer to be viewed as an ideological group whose music comes second to their satanic message of hatred, which the Norwegian media loves to report on.

Gorgoroth’s live show is a theatrical spectacle of morbid imagery and gruesome displays of anti-Christian symbolism. Local police in Krakow, Poland seized the film of a concert that was recorded in 2004 for a live DVD, due to the criminal act of Religious Offence; a punishable law in Poland, as it is a predominantly Catholic nation. The props for this concert included severed sheep heads on spikes, gallons of blood, and crucified models on the stage.

In an interview in the documentary True Norwegian Black Metal, Gaahl (the lead singer of Gorgoroth) explains his philosophy of individualism: “I have no intention of getting a flock of sheep that’s just following me blindly, because then I would be just as bad as society … You don’t perform black metal if you are not a warrior. Black metal is a war against what everyone knows.”

The parallels in the musicianship between early 1990s black metal and current acts like Gorgoroth are quite apparent, but they do show quite different sides to the rebellion against Norwegian traditions. Many fans of black metal would not consider themselves Satanists, Norse men, or even hate-filled people. Luckily, over the past ten years the music has stayed true to its form, and any fan of black metal in 1991 is likely still a fan today. Vancouver’s Artep would probably fall into the genre, with their quintessential blast-beats and ghoulish vocals, although how active they currently are is a bit harder to distinguish.

There are few genres of music that can summon up gut feelings and visceral imagery as well as black metal can. The music is a spirit that starts in your stomach and rises up and grips you with an emotion that is as much dread as it is reverence. It also conveys a respect for the vivid landscapes of an ancient country with its snow-capped mountains, dark forests and gloomy skies. Black metal is the essence of Norway itself.

// Colin Spensley, Columnist

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: