AMERICAN BLACK METAL BANDS SPECIALIZE IN A UNIQUELY BRUTAL, HOMEGROWN SOUND, BUT THEY DON’T ACTUALLY KILL PEOPLE. SO WHY SHOULD THEY BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY?
DISCUSSED: Multiple Stab Wounds, Inner-Scene Power Struggles, The Suicide of a Man Named Dead, Untitled Salt Sculptures, Japanese Literature, Pretzels, Hash, Necklaces Made of Teeth and Bones, The Common Conflation of Two Different Metals, Corpse Paint, Dude-ish Tracksuits, Illinois, The Sound of the Ghost of a Strangulated Raven, How Dreaming About Killing People Is More Radical Than Killing People
“Here we find the dream world of a teenager thinking he’s a demonic overlord, suffering from delusions of grandeur. He knows it’s just a dream, but he refuses to admit it’s not real. Maybe he’s been reading too much Tolkien or been playing too many role-playing games, but the thing is: He’s bored with the world of the grown-ups, with the harsh dullness of living in a more or less capitalist society. I think it is interesting that black metal exploded in Norway immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the final demise of the idea that fighting against the bourgeoisie and capitalist conservatives, including Christianity, could be defeated by revolutionary socialism. Now there is only one strategy: Burn the churches to inflict harm. It’s all part of an escape from reality… Old black metal has an aspect of aesthetic fanaticism that I find beautiful. Some of the best black metal ever is made by fifteen-year-old kids with a four-track sitting in their father’s basement making what they believe is the greatest music ever, because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking that.”
— Svein Egil Hatlevik, of Norwegian bands/projects Umoral, Fleurety,
Pronounced “Sex,” and Zweizz, in discussion with the author.
A little over a year ago I went to the Norwegian city of Trondheim to attend a mostly indie rock, non–heavy metal festival so I could meet Snorre Ruch, a.k.a. Blackthorn, a black-metal musician likely best known for his connection to the murder of another black metaller, Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. Euronymous, on August 10, 1993. While Ruch didn’t actively participate in the murder, he knew the general idea when he helped the killer, Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, drive east from Bergen to Aarseth’s apartment in Oslo.
As the story goes, Aarseth answered the door in his underwear, Vikernes confronted him, chased him through the hall and down a flight of stairs, and ultimately stabbed him a total of twenty-three times with a dull knife. The final deathblow was a wound through Aarseth’s forehead. When Vikernes removed the blade, Aarseth fell down another flight of stairs, in Varg’s words, “like a sack of potatoes.” Also according to Vikernes, Ruch was shocked when he came upon the carnage. As Ruch put it in an interview in the book Lords of Chaos: “When I stood outside Øystein’s door I heard noise inside and Øystein came out, with [Vikernes] on his heels, covered in blood, rushing down the stairway… I realized that this was going to hell. We had intended this to happen in the apartment, and fast—no big, dramatic thing with a hundred knife-stabs or something. So I ran down the stairs, past them, and into the square outside the building.” Ruch drove the car from the immediate scene, but was so rattled by what had taken place that he circled listlessly around Oslo for twenty-some minutes. Vikernes took the wheel after removing his bloodstained clothes, which he later dumped into a lake. Ruch was twenty-one at the time. The murdered Aarseth was twenty-five. Vikernes, twenty.
Vikernes remains in Tromsø Prison, serving a twenty-one-year sentence for the killing, as well as several counts of arson (specifically, church burnings). He tried escaping while on leave in 2003, which added to the previously reduced sentence, and was denied parole in 2006 (he was up for parole again in April 2008, but as of May, no actions have been taken). Ruch served eight years and was released in the late ’90s.
The gossipy he said/she said stories surrounding the Varg-Euronymous debacle, which was covered extensively by the Norwegian media and in the British metal magazine Kerrang! as it unfolded (and somewhat later in SPIN, etc.), continues to this day, primarily due to the media—and the fans’—enduring fascination with the case, a fascination flamed by Vikernes’s willingness to give incendiary interviews and maintain a personal website that asserts his (sort of) innocence.
It’s become a pretty lucrative business: In 2007, Vice produced True Norwegian Black Metal, a five-part web TV series. This year, the director of the project, Brooklyn-based photographer Peter Beste, published a large monograph, True Norwegian Black Metal. And there’s a forthcoming documentary, Until the Light Takes Us, that focuses on Vikernes and other early Norwegian black metallers. Subsequently, through the various (cartoonish, incomplete, or incorrectly angled) retellings and Vikernes’s own shifting storyline, it’s difficult to establish an exact motive for the killing. It’s been said that Vikernes was angry with Aarseth over contracts and royalties owed to him (at the Burzum website Varg claims he gained entrance into Aarseth’s apartment building by telling him “I got the contract. Let me in” when he buzzed up), but the killing could just as easily have been inspired by an inner-scene power struggle between Aarseth and Vikernes.
Aarseth, a major force in establishing the early Norwegian black-metal scene, ran an underground metal store in Oslo called Helvete (“Hell”) and operated Deathlike Silence Productions, the black-metal label to which Vikernes’s one-man Tolkien-referencing band Burzum was signed. In 1984, Aarseth also cofounded the black-metal band Mayhem, in which Ruch played guitar briefly, and Vikernes (then called Count Grishnackh) also briefly played bass. Aarseth initially sang and played guitar, but quickly passed along vocal duties to a series of singers. (Aarseth wasn’t the first member of Mayhem to die: The band’s most infamous vocalist, the Swede Per Yngve Ohlin, a.k.a. Dead, shot himself in the head in 1991 at the age of twenty-two.)
In January 1993, a few months before Aarseth’s death, the Bergens Tidende ran a story called “We Lit the Fires” on the scene and its alleged criminality: church burnings, Satanism, the participants’ shadowy appearances, etc. Vikernes was interviewed anonymously for the piece, at his apartment, by the journalist Finn Bjørn Tønder. Over the years, the burnings would be explained as a way of removing the Christian invaders from Norway, returning the grounds to their pagan roots, but in the story, never identified, Vikernes talks about the burnings in terms of spreading fear and honoring the Devil. (In the article, he rejects the term “Satanism” as a word used by “foolish groups of poseurs.”)
Vikernes was arrested soon thereafter (even though, in his own words, he’d “exaggerated” a bit). He alleges that he only agreed to do the interview after he and Aarseth decided it would be a good way to bring attention to the scene. As he explains at his website, Varg thought of it, too, as a way “to help Euronymous get some customers for a change.” Aarseth closed shop temporarily, which angered Vikernes, who interpreted it as a sign of Aarseth’s weakness (the store closed for good later in 1993, shortly before Euronymous was killed).
And, as Vikernes wrote at his site in December 2004: “[W]hen the media wrote all that crap about me it made him feel less important. Suddenly he was no longer the ‘main character’ in the hardcore metal scene.”
To this day, Vikernes maintains that he didn’t murder Aarseth. He’s stated, more than once, that he stabbed Aarseth in self defense, after learning that Aarseth had allegedly wanted to kill him. Again, as Vikernes writes at burzum.org: “His problem was that he included a few of the metal people in his plot to kill me, and they told me. He had told them because he trusted them, but obviously they had warmer feelings for me than for him, so to speak. At one point he phoned Snorre, who lived in my apartment, and Snorre let me listen to what Euronymous had to say. He told Snorre that ‘Varg must disappear for good’ and similar, confirming the plans others had told me about earlier.”
For his part, the more understated Ruch is no longer interested in discussing the events. As he told me, “There are enough silly speculations, personal opinions, and fantastic versions without me feeding the curiosity and gossip… The incidents might have given our music publicity, but not good [publicity]. Most Norwegian mass media is tabloid and they helped feed the fire with sensationalistic headlines. It just becomes boring that [this story] always turns up, as one has moved on for so long. One will always end up pigeonholed and misunderstood when trying to do something different.”
Since being imprisoned for murder, Vikernes has grown more outspoken and radically minded, long ago graduating from his early Satanist leanings to right-wing, anti-Semitic, and racialist views. He brushes off the accusations of Nazism, preferring to term himself an Odalist (though the Bergens Tidende does describe Nazi paraphernalia in Vikernes’s apartment back in 1993, during his Devil-worshipping phase). He’s also continued to occasionally release Burzum music, though the albums he’s recorded in prison tend to be more darkly ambient than marked by the explicit brutality of black metal. They’re also not that great.
Snorre Ruch and I met in a bar. He was with two of his friends. I was with one of mine. Before meeting, Snorre and I had corresponded via email, and he’d suggested this crowded corner pub close to his house. We each had a beer and discussed a mutual acquaintance as well as his collaborations with the artist Banks Violette (a collaboration that culminated in 2005 with an untitled salt sculpture representing a burnt church at the Whitney museum) before he said it was too loud in the bar—I agreed—and suggested we go back to his apartment. So we all bundled up and walked out into the snow.
As we trudged along the pathway, I started thinking about the gruesome stories in which he played supporting roles. Stories that the media fueled, yes, but that the Norwegian scene musicians have also willingly kept alive for years. Though I trusted Snorre, a part of me started wondering if we were suckers for accepting the invitation to his house. I knew he was a nice guy via our talks, and that he had been young (and somewhat clueless) when the murder happened, but still: You’re in Norway with an infamous ex-con black-metal musician who was present that bloody night when the myth of Norwegian black metal was born. (Also, I didn’t want to extend Vikernes’s anti-Semitism to the rest of the black-metal scene, but it should be mentioned that my cohort, another writer, was Jewish.)
Then again, Snorre seemed reformed. As he later told me: “I mostly get my kicks from the music, and as we are getting better at it, the need to go smearing cat blood on the local Christian community house is even less existent.” He also claimed that “black metal… is a true blessing for a fiery heart! It touches a universal nerve of spite. It is empowering, dark, destructive, and creative.” Yeah, we were sorta nervous.
After a ten-minute walk, we arrived at Snorre’s apartment. We entered, took off our shoes. It was a cozy, well-kept space with a couple Violette pieces on the wall, well-stocked bookshelves (Japanese lit, philosophy), and an intense home-studio computer setup. Snorre had already laid out various snacks for us (peanuts, pretzels, crackers), along with hash, red wine, and other drinks.
We listened to the British electronic band Nitzer Ebb awhile and then he played us the new—and at that time unreleased—Mayhem album Ordo Ad Chao. We spent the night talking about the weather (cold), the past (only in general, hard-to-pin-down terms), and Ruch’s current project, Thorns, which he started in 1989. He’s released only one proper full-length album (self-titled, 2001), but it’s considered a seminal effort—an all-consuming, industrial-tinged, and claustrophobic slice of latter-day black metal. (I heard from him recently, and he said to expect the new, much-delayed Thorns album in 2009.)
Given how sweetly un-evil Snorre appeared to be, I found myself querying the infamous (and implicit) bad-assedness of Norwegian black-metal musicians. The murder of Aarseth, the aforementioned suicide of Mayhem vocalist Dead, the not aforementioned murder of a gay man in Lillehammer in 1992 by Emperor drummer Bård G. “Faust” Eithun (a one-time member of Thorns and currently in the thrash act Blood Tsunami and the lyricist for Zyklon), the dozens of church burnings perpetrated by various individuals between 1992 and 1996 (the cover of Burzum’s Aske EP is a photo of the torched Fantoft stave church), the grave desecrations, the obsession with Satanism that veered into racism and fascism among the more extreme crews, and the generally attendant ghoulishness (after Dead killed himself, the surviving members of Mayhem supposedly made necklaces out of his teeth and bones), are all essential to the Norwegian mythology upon which subsequent black-metal mythologies may (or may not) be based. But at what point does a myth—even if it’s based on a real event—begin to more resemble a convenient fiction (or worse, an empty caricature), utilized by music writers and fans and the musicians themselves, to create easy cohesion and a sense of purpose? Are mythologies essential to the playing of “authentic” black-metal music? Is cohesion?
A common mistake made by the uninitiated listener is to conflate death metal and black metal. I’ve been at a few parties or dinners or whatever where someone has asked me to describe the difference between the two. To answer involves me trying to explain a blast beat, followed by vocal impressions of a death-metal vocalist (low, deep, guttural growling) vs. a black-metal vocalist (usually higher, wispy, wraithlike, and screeched). Admittedly, sometimes it can be like splitting hairs. Black metal’s gone through various shifts, but generally speaking, the guitars buzz, the drums are quick, the vocals shrieking, ghostly, and anguished. The early work had a particularly eerie, lo-fi sound. As the scene developed, and younger musicians mastered their instruments, the structures grew more complex. Black metal is generally not as straight-up technical as death; it’s usually more classically symphonic. (Of course, there are always exceptions, such as the early Floridian death-metal crew Morbid Angel, who created complex, epically sublime death constructions.)
Death metal started out in the States, Germany, and the UK, and was also a force early on in South America and Sweden. Carving out a space for black metal put Norway on the map musically. When fledgling black metal first appeared underground in the late ’80s, death metal was the dominant extreme metal mode. In fact, there was plenty of crossover between the scenes: for example, the Norwegian black-metal duo Darkthrone started out as a death-metal band. The difference between Darkthrone’s 1990 album Soulside Journey and 1992’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky elegantly illustrates the tipping point at which ex–death-metal bands embraced black metal’s more sinister visual aesthetic and primitive sound. There are exceptions, but in general, the death-metal musicians of that period eschewed black metal’s sartorial pageantry for basic dude-ish tracksuits and sneakers.
The British metal band Venom’s 1982 album Black Metal (and its grunting title track: “Black is the night, metal we fight / Power amps set to explode / Energy screams magic and dreams / Satan records their first note,” etc.) coined the term “black metal,” even though they were technically a more formative blend of doomy proto-thrash and speed metal (their “Satanic” image, though more of the theatrical stage-ready Mötley Crüe sort, was also essential). The First Wave of black metal (the aforementioned Venom along with the Danish band Mercyful Fate fronted by King Diamond, Sweden’s Bathory, and Switzerland’s Hellhammer, who later became Celtic Frost) influenced the future sound of black metal by laying down the general aesthetic and sonic template. Bathory’s lo-fidelity recordings, Satanic lyrics, and grim vocal style were especially important. Euronymous took his name from Hellhammer’s “Eurynomos” (and it’s pretty obvious where current Mayhem drummer Hellhammer scored his moniker).
The Second Wave of black metal, initiated by Aarseth and his Norwegian cohorts, technically began in the late ’80s after Mayhem set the mood with their Pure Fucking Armageddon demo (1986) and the Deathcrush EP (1987), but didn’t really flourish until the early ’90s. It was the Second Wave that introduced corpse paint, weapons, and shadowy horror-film photos. Norway established and mastered the black-metal image—low-lit, highly ambient photographs of the dead-looking musicians standing in a cavernous basement or wintry Norwegian forest.
Today’s international black-metal scene, which to my ears is strongest in France, Eastern Europe, Canada, and the United States, could be seen as the Third Wave. Though there’s no clear date, you could say it started in the mid-’90s, when bands began upping their production values and, in some cases—like the Norwegian band Dimmu Borgir—heading toward a more arena-ready (and filling) sound.
But I focused earlier on the Second Wave because that period is most helpful when trying to explain the black metal coming out of the United States—or USBM, as some folks call it—because it’s impossible to understand USBM without touching on this pervasive mythology. Also, for all the attention Norway’s black metal scene has received since the early- to mid-’90s, Norway hasn’t been producing the best black metal in recent years. The majority of the older bands are no longer making as intense, grim, or fucked-up music as you can find elsewhere—as you can find, for example, in the U.S.
For a long time, the majority of black metal emerging from the States was seen as a joke. As recently as two years ago, I remember talking with European black-metal artists who snorted when I asked them about it. That’s part of what I like about American black metal—its scruffy underdog nature. More compelling, though, is the music itself, its inventiveness and eccentricity and, most importantly, the feeling that it hasn’t crested or stagnated.
No one agrees exactly on the genesis or roots of USBM. New York’s Profanatica, formed in 1990 by three former members of the death-metal band Incantation, is often cited by other black-metal musicians as a seminal USBM band. Their death-tinged sound is raw, hissing, and lo-fi, and they have song titles like “Raping of Angels” and “Final Hour of Christ.” They broke up in 1992. Another of the first American black-metal bands of note is San Francisco’s Von, a guttural, minimalist, especially scrappy, tiny-sounding crew who formed in 1989. They received early international props when Vikernes wore one of their shirts during an interview/murder trial session and contributed to their mythology when he was asked to spell the band’s name and he replied, “Victory, Orgasm, Nazi.”
Another important early USBM group, Judas Iscariot, the project of Andrew Harris (a.k.a. Egyptian-inspired Akhenaten), focused on nihilistic, anti-Christian, and anti-capitalist themes, and laid down a smoother, often slower, atmospheric, and more depressive template that’s been picked up by various current one-man USBM acts. Harris spread USBM further abroad than most early practitioners, gaining respect from European fans. More philosophical than some of the other early USBM acts, he has a song titled “Nietzsche,” and formed the band in 1992 in DeKalb, Illinois, initially under the name Heidegger. He kept the project going until 2002, after which he retired from music.
However, it’s the current crop of American black-metal bands that have really found a voice. These USBM bands, hailing from vastly different cultures and geographies, have managed to latch on to different sounds without diluting their defining brutality (and beauty). The 2008 record Massive Conspiracy Against All Life by California-based Jef Whitehead (a.k.a. Wrest, of one-man band Leviathan) sees an intense blend of warped atmospherics, death riffs, huge drums, and a warbling, at times throaty, Eastern-tinged howl—it’s like returning in ways to the early sounds of Profanatica or Judas Iscariot, but layering it fathomlessly with all the developments that have happened since.
Then there’s the chaotic punch-drunk tenor of Bahimiron’s especially witchy, overlapping, blown-out vocalisms. Another Texas band, Averse Sefira, infuses a personal cosmology and occultism into their pummeling, full-band black metal. Then there are those like the rawer Chicago black-metal duo Cult of Daath, whose dual vocalizing hits with more of a death-metal growl. If My Bloody Valentine was a black-metal band, they might sound like the “eco-fascist,” tongue-in-cheek tricksters Velvet Cacoon (who recently told me they moved to Prague to live the lives of decadent Satanists, but it’s hard to tell if they were fucking with me). Buffalo one-man band Wrath of the Weak talks about the importance of the western New York landscape; his music sounds like a blizzard. Olympia, Washington trio Wolves in the Throne Room focus on a back-to-nature lifestyle and perform psychedelic shoe-gaze black metal, anchored here and there by a folky, ethereal female singer who cuts the harshness of the black-metal vocals in a Jarboe/Swans style. The Chicago group Nachtmystium, fronted by Blake Judd, shifted from their early black-by-the-numbers sounds to a psychedelic, Floydian form of post–black metal.
Another aspect of USBM is the crossover between straight-up free-noise: New York’s Dominick Fernow, of the one-man power electronics project Prurient, performs in the black-metal duo Ash Pool, and avant-garde guitarist Mick Barr of Orthrelm sings and plays guitar in the New York–based black-metal band Krallice.
Maybe the biggest name in USBM, though not the most interesting, is Scott Conner, a.k.a. Malefic, who records as Xasthur. Sticking to the icy, candelabra-lit feel of Burzum or Judas Iscariot, he tosses additional claustrophobic layers into the fire. His most interesting accessory is his voice—he comes off like the ghost of a strangulated raven.
Southern Lord, a label run by Greg Anderson of Sunn O))), has helped certain American black-metal bands cross into indie-rock realms. These are the bigger names like Xasthur, Leviathan, and Leviathan’s other project, Lurker of Chalice. Most interesting and strange for such a solitary genre is Twilight, a sort of USBM supergroup made up of Xasthur, Leviathan, Nachtmystium, and Krieg—though they hate the term “supergroup” and its rock-and-roll ramifications.
Supergroups are, of course, very American.
All that said, the problem with claiming USBM as a genre is that you’ll find a lot of the musicians who practice it denying that the genre exists. Of course, this is a common reaction most artists have when a pigeonholing takes place. But especially in the case of black metal, to claim a genre and therefore genre tropes and overlaps of sound and influence is to claim a cultural uniformity to our country that is geographically impossible. Many of the participants see USBM as a marketing term—again, the outsiders who make up the black-metal genre inherently reject such sloganeering.
You could say one of the biggest influences exerted by the early Norwegians on USBM might be an anxiety surrounding the need to have a mythology under cultural circumstances that prevent it. For instance, how important is it that there is no mythological “bloody night” for USBM, no Varg vs. Euronymous drama to mark its dark impact on the world? Does this make the music any less authentic by comparison, or vapid, or poseury?
In some regards, USBM emerged as a reaction to and against Norwegian black metal, similar to the way Mayhem and company originally rejected, and tried to find something more extreme and underground than the death-metal scene. In the brutal, noisier strains of USBM, where the real-life coefficients of church burnings and murders aren’t as integral to the music, the sound itself has become harsher and more death-like. It’s more private and less theatrical. (Some of the best—for instance the aforementioned Wrest of Leviathan, and Lurker of Chalice—are Pynchon-like when it comes to publicity.) It feels more punk. The music’s also drawing from a greater array of influences.
And, as Blake Judd of Nachtmystium told me: “I just feel that those bands are marketed for what has happened outside of the music, not so much involving the music. Like ‘Oh, church burning and murder and [Gorgoroth vocalist] Gaahl kills or tortures guys,’ but the last Gorgoroth album was weak as shit. Who cares what he does, if he’s a criminal? There’s guys selling crack in Chicago that are scarier to me than that guy.”
Perhaps there’s no need for a gory mythology when we have the daily reality. We live in a place, unlike Norway, by and large, where actual killing is happening both domestically and abroad, to Americans or perpetrated by Americans. Is it possible, then, that actual death—and destruction of buildings and whole countries—could be seen, in the current political context, as less radical than simply dreaming about it?
Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of black metal to flourish. But as the U.S. dollar continues its nosedive, our black-metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a dinner in Norway (one of the wealthiest countries in the world) with converted U.S. currency? When I’ve been there, I can only afford to eat in convenience stores. So much of the history of Norwegian black metal is just that—history. While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than compensate for that lack with our bleak view of the future.