Saturday, April 5, 2014





'And I still think that no one has really been able to touch that thing that gave life to Black Metal in the first place, because it takes so much, it takes intense study, and it takes far more than being passionate about the music, for to approach the dangerous and abominable thing that gave birth to Black Metal’.

-        Erik Danielsson (Watain)

‘…those alone who pass beyond all that is pure and impure, and ascend above the topmost altitudes of holy things, and who, leaving behind them all light and sound and heavenly utterances, plunge into the Darkness where truly dwell, as the Oracles declare, that ONE who is beyond all’.

-        Dionysius the Areopagite

‘This is the plane whereon the vestiges of all things (Kullu Shay) are destroyed in the traveller, and on the horizon of eternity the Divine Face riseth out of the darkness, and the meaning of “All on the earth shall pass away, but the face of thy Lord….” is made manifest’.

-        Baha’u’llah  ‘The Seven Valleys’

‘You play it like a warrior’

                                                                                          -Legion (Marduk)

Black Metal has consumed me over the last few months. I have done little else. I now own a Bathory t shirt which is unwearable in public and I have burned out head phones and filled my new iPhone.  As I continue my ascent into darkness, I want to take stock. I don’t expect this post to be much read. Where I am, is almost unreadable.

There are two descriptive words to say about my experience of Black Metal and they are (1) antinomian (hence the quotes above) and (2) difficult (hence the quotes above). All the other words are attempts to explain the truly ineffable and therefore will be lies. Shall I therefore lie? Why the hell not.

I will begin with the music. Metal music in general uses discordant tritones (once called the Devil’s interval) and is in a minor key. BM began in part as a reaction to the high technicality of Death Metal. The idea was to emphasis the aesthetics – low fi production, a cold atmosphere, theatricality. ‘Classic’ BM, mostly Scandinavian from the 1990s, is characterised by slow tempo, very fast blast beat drumming and tremolo picked guitars which play the whole of the chord in order to captivate a chilling, unearthly sound. The vocals are screamed, growled or howled. Death Metal vocals sound like this:


 BM vocals sound like this:


 A brilliant example is ‘Into the infinity of thoughts’ by Norwegian band Emperor, the first track from their album ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’.  It starts with sounds that set the atmosphere, almost industrial hissing and grinding and howling like the beginnings of a bad hallucination. The room temperature drops a couple of degrees in ghastly anticipation. Thunder and lightning. Then in come the guitars and percussion, wailing and building. And finally Ihsahn’s vocals, which alarm me every time. His voice is a high pitched agonised shriek, inhuman as a void in space. Are there words in there somewhere? What are they?

               ‘As the Darkness creeps over the Northern mountains of Norway

               And the silence reach (sic) the woods, I awake and rise…..

               Into the night I wander, like many nights before,

               And like in my dreams, but centuries before’.


And the track ends with the words:

               ‘The lands will grow black            

               There is no sunrise to yet to come

               May these moments under the Moon be eternal

               May the infinity haunt me ……in Darkness’

A side note about Emperor.  For some years three of their four members were in prison for murder and/or church burning. BM bands need to take a long view to survive sometimes quite protracted imprisonments.

Now to discuss the problems inherent in Black Metal, of which there are many, and yet although it does indeed collapse under the weight of its contradictions, it mutates and survives to continue its process of glorious contamination.

Firstly, the music. As hinted at above, simply listening to it is fraught and requires commitment.

In the Western musical canon, we are used to songs that have a clear trajectory, a beginning, middle and end, and that tell a story. BM often does none of this. It starts. I’m overwhelmed by an avalanche of noise. Then it stops. There is no figure and no ground. Any expectations are nullified. A pseudo-hallucination is induced – walking in the city I hear guitars shred the construction sites and the traffic burns and howls. I am reminded of Stockhausen’s aleatoric processes. As BM has progressed musically, it actually owes more to the avant garde. Which is ironic, as it is also very backwards- looking, often favouring earlier or more ‘natural’ methods of playing or recording.

Moreover, we are used to rock music played by bands, where the rhythm section backs the leads and vocals in a three dimensional fashion. BM musicians often have solo projects, rather than the usual fairly stable rock group. Examples from opposite ends of the spectrum are Burzum, by Varg Vikernes (Count Grishnak) of Norway, and the US musician Wrest, with his solo project Leviathan. (See under Misanthropy, below).

As for the sound, it’s often recorded with the bass down low and best heard that way too. The vocals are put through the guitar microphones. And vice versa. The distortion is maxed. And it contrives to be both fast and slow at the same time. The effect is a slow horrible endless crash, or a sense of doom that does nothing but impend, but at full noise.’ Between the desire and the spasm, falls’……life itself, into the chasm.


The lyrics in BM are mostly incomprehensible, yet they are also very important.  Some bands, such as Gorgoroth, withhold their lyrics. This is a good example of the sheer demand BM puts on the listener. You have to really mean it. I started by naively listening to the music and just letting it saturate me. I wasn’t keen on discovering the lyrics, because the subject matter is almost always problematic . Now I get that listening requires discernment. BM is bombastic, ridiculous and pretentious at times, but it is never superficial.  

Equally opaque are some of the aesthetic sensibilities. BM bands/projects often have logos that are like occult sigils, ferociously beautiful and completely unreadable. Here is my favourite, for US solo project Xasthur. Yes it really does say Xasthur.

Live performances are theatre, always have been. In the very early days Dead, vocalist of Mayhem, was cutting himself on stage and throwing pigs’ heads into the audience.  In 2004, Gorgoroth staged a controversial Black Mass in Kracow, as their live show, with hooded naked people suspended from crosses and sheep heads impaled on the stage. Here is the stage set, and vocalist Gaahl with a friend.

 Watain, from Sweden, keep blood and animal parts until they rot before dousing themselves and their audiences with them

The photos give some more idea of the BM aesthetic – black clothing, bullet belts, spiked arm bands, corpse paint.  Darkly erotic? Absolutely not. The ratio of thanatos to eros is way out of whack here.  

The pomp and circumstance hides another important BM contradiction – this is music that was never meant to be heard. It was meant to be played. But not heard. Black Metallers make much of their contempt for trends, posers, and the fact that BM has a following. It is a source of constant perplexity. They blame the media frenzy and moral panic that surrounded the murders and church burnings in Norway in the 1990’s, that pulled in young people and publicised BM world wide.   BM music is Norway’s biggest cultural export. All this leads to a relationship between musicians and fans that is at least ambivalent.  

Which brings me to misanthropy. Unlike punk which was sociable and teleologically hedonistic, BM was never a ‘movement’. Many practitioners are allergic to people, even to other Black Metallers, even sometimes to themselves. BM sometimes sides with Nature, or with the mythic past, but never with humans. So, how does a misanthropist live? Some of them didn’t. Dead, vocalist of Morbid and Mayhem, killed himself, briefly put, after 17 years of believing himself not to be human.  Jon Nodtveidt of Dissection did so too, but for different reasons. He was a member of the then Misanthropic Luciferian Order (now the Temple of the Black Light) and believed that it was the truly Satanic thing to kill oneself at the height of one’s powers. Niklas Kvarforth of Swedish band Shining, who claims he ‘hates life, everything that lives and breathes’, has encouraged audience members to harm themselves by handing out razor blades at concerts. Self destruction is undertaken in order to gain transcendence rather than express distress. Here is Celtic Frost, from their album Monotheist:

‘Frozen is heaven and frozen is hell. And I am dying in this living human shell. I am a dying God coming into human flesh.’

There is nothing in this world for the BM practitioner. The body putresces, the worm blackens the apple, ‘only death is real’. And much is made of eternity, here.

The sociologist announces that Black Metal was never ‘part of Norway’s overarching narrative arc’. I am sure many people are relieved to hear that.  This is Kvitrafn, then of Gorgoroth, on the cobbled streets of Bergen, Peter Beste’s photo taken just as the older lady notices him: 

So what made well brought up young men in a relatively secular, liberal, wealthy, politically stable nation such as Norway, burn churches and murder each other with a side order of neo-fascism to boot? It’s a helluva way to solve the first world problems of ennui and cultural dislocation.
I would have found that easier to explain when I started out on this ascent into darkness. Now I have only broken images to describe, rather than prescribe. Imagine this. A rite of passage. A young man enters the limen (threshold) – the vision quest, or the caves of Lascaux. He spends days in darkness, spirits come and strip his body to a skeleton, and then build him again into his new self. Or he wanders and fasts until his power animal is shown to him. The men of the village have all been through this. They know he will be frightened, neither boy nor man, not himself, not yet. They know he will need to be tested to his utmost, and he may not even pass. But he is precious to them, and they will help him. He passes his ordeal and returns a man.

Now, there are no such rites. A young man enters the limen. He wanders, alone, in this liminal state. His mouth fills with dirt. He sees the stars and they mean nothing to him. He is overwhelmed. He is nothing. He is dead. He is not dead. Then the sound comes, like a freezing wind. It strips him. It shows him. It changes him. The flesh falls from his blasted bones. What is left is the heaviest blackest metal of all, that of Pluto. The alchemical process of nigredo is complete. He will never come back.

               When night falls

               She cloaks the world

               In impenetrable darkness -           

               A chill rises

               From the soil

               And contaminates the air.


               Life has new meaning’.

-        Burzum (Varge Vikernes) ‘Dunkelheit’