The Devil’s Soundtrack
Horror has always been metal’s core ingredient. In 1970, Ozzy Osbourne wrote the lyrics to the song “Black Sabbath” from the seminal band’s self-titled debut album. The song is based on a nightmare that haunted the band’s bassist, Geezer Butler. Possessing an obsessive interest in the dark arts, Geezer’s bedroom was covered with occult artifacts, such as pictures of Satan, inverted crosses and Latin magic texts. Geezer claimed that in the dream, an entity invaded his room and stood at the foot of his bed. The horror of the dark figure disturbed Geezer so much that he shared the experience with his band mates. Ozzy wrote the words: “What is this that stands before me?” With those lyrics, the devil’s soundtrack was unleashed on the world.
The first metal song ever recorded was an exercise in pure horror. It scared the hell out of most people and it spawned the musical Antichrist, heavy metal. It’s been a long time since 1970. There are literally countless sub-genres under the metal umbrella. The most extreme sub-genre of metal, and arguably the most extreme form of music that has ever existed, goes by the name of black metal.
I love black metal.
Made in HIS Voice
Most music journalists claim there was a “first wave” of black metal, which included the early 1980s works of Celtic Frost, Venom, Hellhammer and most importantly, Bathory. All of the bands built on the horror elements of Black Sabbath. They made the first metal band sound like The Village People. Their music was dark, aggressive and paralleled the rise of American thrash metal. The album “Black Metal” by Venom gave the genre its name, but Bathory gave the genre its soul, both musically and lyrically. Fast, ugly and sporting notoriously low-fi production, Bathory’s music was chock-full of Scandinavian mythology and Satanic imagery. While these bands laid the foundation, I don’t consider any of them true black metal.
Conceived in the icy mountains and forests of Norway, true black metal exploded into notoriety almost as soon as it came into existence. Early music oozed with anti-Christian, misanthropic and Satanic ideologies. They despised Laveyan Satanism because it wasn’t ruthless enough. Some bands went into objectively terrifying territory, such as ethnic cleansing and Nazism. The musicians were so opposed to the music sounding commercial that they intentionally employed poor recording techniques to give it a “necro” sound. They literally wanted to make it as inaccessible as possible. The movement can be traced to one source. True black metal started with the band called Mayhem.
In the early 1980s, Mayhem was formed by Euronymous and Necrobutcher. They self-released a classic underground E.P., “Deathcrush,” but didn’t start to gain momentum until “Dead” joined the band as their permanent vocalist in 1988. Dead was part vocalist, part method actor. He would bury his clothes underground in the forest and then retrieve them before performing with the band. That way, he was able to display the complete aesthetic of death on stage. Dead employed many unsettling antics. He would place rotting animals under his bed to experience the smell of death. He would cut himself on stage. Band mates described him as kind, but severely odd. Dead frequently stated that he wasn’t meant for this world. He obviously believed that.
In 1991, Dead put a shotgun in his mouth. The note he left simply said “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” Euronymous found the body and took a picture of the carnage. That photo can be found on the cover of one of the band’s rare releases. He then collected various pieces of Dead’s remains and made necklaces out of the gore and bones, which he then gave to fellow underground musicians.
In 1992, Varg Vikernes (of the band Burzum) joined the band as a session bassist. During this time, church burnings erupted across Norway and received international attention. The black metal underground and its ideologies were responsible for the arson acts. In 1993, Vikernes savagely murdered Euronymous with a knife. He was eventually found guilty of murder, in addition to arson, and was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison.
The Fire is Lit
Mayhem wasn’t the only band to engage in chilling behavior during this time. Faust (drummer for Emperor) brutally murdered a homosexual man in the forest after the man propositioned him. The church burnings continued. Despite the chaos, some of the most artistically vital metal albums of all time were released during this period. Mayhem’s first full length album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, was released after Euronymous was murdered and is considered a watershed moment in metal. There were many others. Immortal released Pure Holocaust and Battles in the North. Emperor put out In the Nightshade Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Darkthrone gave the world Transilvanian Hunger. Meanwhile, other legendary bands like Enslaved, Satyricon and others were getting their start.
After the early nineties, the sensational crimes of black metal stopped, but the music’s quality and artistic diversity continued to increase. New bands emerged while older bands continued to release great records. In 2004, Gorgoroth played an infamous set in Krakow, Poland. The show featured severed sheep’s head on sticks with naked men and women on crosses. Unsurprisingly, the concert was quite controversial and got the band all the media attention it wanted. Gorgoroth’s vocalist at the time, Gaahl, had already had several run-ins with the law for violent behavior. In one instance, he was convicted of torture. Gaahl held a man, who had attacked him in his home, hostage. While the man was tied up, Gaahl collected his blood into a chalice over the course of several hours. Besides a few isolated instances like this, authentic displays of pure evil are virtually non-existent in the modern black metal scene.
Side Note: The vocalist of “Christian” metal band, As I Lay Dying, tried to hire a hit-man to kill his wife. The hit-man turned out to be an undercover police officer. The Christian screamer went to jail….
What Kind of Humanist Would Listen to This?
Even though churches aren’t burning and people aren’t being murdered anymore, many ideologies within black metal still represent pure evil. Bands like Gorgoroth, who claim to practice “theistic Satanism” aren’t troubling to me because of the sheer ridiculousness of that belief system. Inverted Christianity is just Christianity in reverse. What is troubling to me is Scandinavian and Nordic folklore that supports, or could support, theories of racial superiority, homophobia, xenophobia or other fascist ideas. There are many black metal bands that don’t flirt with these dangerous ideologies, but there are some that do. For example, Varg Vikernes is now out of prison and has his own YouTube channel. His material is as unintelligible as it is offensive.
I am a progressive humanist. You might be wondering why I love black metal, considering its sordid past and the dangerous beliefs of some bands. I believe that art and the artist are separate. I still believe that Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece, despite the fact that Roman Polanski is a child rapist. I will still enjoy Seven despite Kevin Spacey’s apparent history of sexual misconduct. I would not vote for them in an election, but I won’t abstain from their art because I get pleasure out of it. Similarly, I will continue to enjoy the dark treasure that is black metal.
To me, the true meaning of black metal is authenticity. Besides, acting like I understand all of the esoteric folklore references would be pure pretension. Black metal is the most uncompromising descendant of Geezer Butler’s nightmare. It is the quintessential embodiment of that horror. Early artists wanted the music to be so dark and challenging that few would dare experience it. Multiple cycles of musical evolution have conjured metal’s darkest offspring. Distilled into the purest form possible, evil lives within black metal. Its music is the soundtrack to pure evil, pure horror. That sort of realism is rare in any form of art. When it’s achieved, it’s an aesthetic rush.