Night’s Nirvana

A lot of the posed photos are about what you would expect: pig heads set on fire, shrouded band members looming in churchyards at night, or wielding chainsaws, or covered in prop blood. It’s either extremely silly, or very morbid and unholy, depending strongly on whether you also are a teenage boy.

On Norwegian Black Metal

Graffiti in Euronymous’s record shop. Photograph by Marieke Kuijjer.

Jørn “Necrobutcher” Subberud. The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-94. Ecstatic Peace Library, June 2016.

In the early 1990s, the Norwegian heavy metal scene became notorious for a spree of church burnings and fatal stabbings associated with a few little-known “black metal” bands. Varg Vikernes, of the band Burzum, was charged with the arson of five medieval wooden churches, and with murdering Øystein Aarseth, the guitarist of Mayhem. Aarseth, in turn, was rumored to have eaten the brains of Mayhem’s singer after the latter committed suicide by shotgun. In an unrelated incident, Bard Eithun, drummer for the band Emperor, stabbed a gay man thirty-seven times outside the Olympic Village in Lillehammer. Speaking to journalists, the musicians boasted about their crimes, taking credit for more arsons and violence than they had yet been linked to. They also took the opportunity to spell out the home-brewed Satanism that inspired their deeds: partly the invocation of the devil as a cloven-hooved Evil One; partly a recitation of quasi-fascistic themes (cruelty, mastery, “winter journeys, to ice and mountains”) from Nietzsche. Metal bands had always toyed with Satanic imagery (Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast,” the ubiquitous “devil horns” gesture spawned by Ronnie James Dio)—but the willingness to act out Satanism in all seriousness was unexpected.

Amidst this self-mythologizing to the press, the most prominent influence they cited was the British band Venom, whose 1982 album Black Metal had christened the genre. (In any photo of the Norwegian scene from this era, at least one band member is always wearing a tattered T-shirt with Venom’s pentagram logo.) But surely, many wondered, this lineage was some kind of cultural mistranslation? Venom’s Satanism was kitschy and unserious, their image and live show a tantrum meant to titillate adolescent rebellion and upset Thatcherite parents. How could these Norwegians have mistaken the antics of Venom (who also sang sophomoric anthems like “Teacher’s Pet”) for an authentic message of anti-Christian terrorism and nihilism? The answer given by Varg Vikernes (nom de guerre Count Grishnackh, after an orc in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), bassist of Mayhem and the sole member of Burzum, in an interview from prison, encapsulates the ideological legacy of the entire scene: “We are what [they] claimed to be. We believe what they pretended to believe.”

In musical terms, also, Venom were not an obvious antecedent. Where Venom added a biker bar bounce and the slurred choruses of football chants to the brooding stoner blues of Black Sabbath, the Norwegian black metal sound is not immediately recognizable as deriving from rock music. The rhythm is reduced to a flickering pulse reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s ambient soundscapes; the guitars do not so much play riffs as sculpt tinny feedback. The typical vocals are more like an attenuated croaking or rasping than the grunts and shouts of heavy metal or punk. The entire effect is of a self-consciously rudimentary reaction to the commercial polish of bands like Metallica, or the one-dimensional brutality of death metal.

Norwegian black metal, then, is a “strong misreading” of its own origins. Where Venom had been Satanists for the pub crowd, boisterous pranksters rather than occultists, Norwegian bands like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, and Emperor redefined black metal as the elitism of an inner circle, inscrutable to poseurs and the uninitiated. Their recordings were purposefully lo-fi, drowned in guitar static and (feigned) sloppy musicianship. Whereas European metal bands from Sweden to Greece had always sung in charmingly garbled English, they began to write their lyrics in Norwegian. They rarely played live. Their album covers also basically looked the same (a cloaked figure among trees, mournfully carrying a candelabra) and had variations on the same title (Under a Funeral Moon, In the Nightside Eclipse, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk) in nearly-illegible gothic typefaces. In the context of the early ’90s, this obscurantism could be seen as a disavowal of the everyman grunge aesthetic of flannel and acne. But while grunge, and the related populism of death metal, had considerable record sales, many of the black metal pioneers imploded before they could capitalize commercially. It took more than a decade of underground percolation before black metal elements trickled into American canons of cool. Its goofy solemnity has been parodied on Portlandia, while the broad gestures of the musical style (now disencumbered of its Satanism) reap acclaim on Pitchfork.

Of the Norwegian bands, Mayhem were the earliest to form, in 1984. For several years they remained totally unknown in their own country, but their legend grew through cassette trading with underground metalheads in Germany, Brazil, Italy, and Canada. They were also the first from the scene to come to international attention—albeit less for their music than for the gruesome suicide of their singer, Dead (Per Ohlin), in 1991, and the murder of guitarist Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth) by Vikernes/Grishnackh in 1993. (Outside of Norway, of course, this exposure was limited to metal publications. The moral panic over Satanic abuse that had seized American in the 1980s, such that Judas Priest were sued for subliminal suicidal messages in their music, was either exhausted or indifferent to actually existing Satanism in distant Scandinavia.) Mayhem’s only important full-length album, De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, was released almost as an afterthought to capitalize on the media frenzy, in 1994.

The Death Archive, a kind of scrapbook narrated by original bassist Necrobutcher, documents the band’s history up to that point, with almost 200 photos, documents, video stills, and accompanying reminiscences. A lot of the posed photos are about what you would expect: pig heads set on fire, shrouded band members looming in churchyards at night, or wielding chainsaws, or covered in prop blood. It’s either extremely silly, or very morbid and unholy, depending strongly on whether you also are a teenage boy. But the value of the more candid photos (mostly rehearsals and loitering, every place covered in crude graffiti and Coke cans) and the matter-of-fact commentary accompanying them is not only as archival ephemera, but also as a debriding of the accumulated “legend” of the band as it has been built up over the past two decades. Although Mayhem’s achievement—combining, on one hand, the atavistic regression of a popular music form, heavy metal, into a pre- or non-rock style, and on the other hand, endowing it with post-secular, transcendental themes—established a hugely influential template, this influence stood on the narrowest empirical supports. They played only six shows in the period 1984–1994, and none of their records much resembles the others. It was easier for later bands to copy Mayhem’s big gestures than the specifics of their musical development. (And, in their reunited, cash-in phase, this has been a problem for Mayhem themselves.)

The main goal of Necrobutcher’s text, then, is rather to demythologize, to dispel the aura that swathed the band after its tragedies, and return the participants to human dimensions. While reading I was continually reminded of We Are the Best!, the Swedish movie from a few years ago about three teenage girls starting a punk band. They can’t play their instruments, and they only have one song, “Hate the Sport!” Mayhem were more like that, at least for many years. Necrobutcher describes how the band used his mom’s skis to draw the straight lines of a pentagram on a banner with their logo. Their singer, Maniac, ran through all the lyrics for a song in the first thirty seconds: “We thought he had misunderstood the whole thing but he was just thinking in a different way. He had never worked with other musicians before.” They heated their practice space with Coke bottles filled with hot water, since this was included in the rent but not electricity. The main experience of touring across Europe and Turkey seems to have been the contrast with Norwegian food (reindeer meatballs) in unforgettable encounters with Italian food (“We’d never seen seafood on a pizza”), vegetarians, and foreign McDonald’s.

The band was cursed in a hundred small ways. Their first demo tape was so poorly recorded that a reviewer mistook the grunted vocals (“loud farting noises”) for the bass. The cover of their first record, Deathcrush (1987), designed to be blood red, came back from the printers in a hot pink more suitable for Debbie Gibson’s hair clip. Their bad luck at keeping a consistent singer (a post variously held by Messiah, Maniac, Dead, and Attila) rivaled Spinal Tap’s rotating drummer chair. At times, Mayhem seemed at the forefront of a burgeoning Norwegian scene. The established death metal group Darkthrone even renounced their earlier output and aligned with the black metal camp, donning all the trappings (Satanism, “corpse paint” makeup, stage names, black-and-white photography) Mayhem had introduced. Euronymous opened a record shop, Helvete, from which he held court, and started a record label, Deathlike Silence. But the shop had to close after the church burnings drew the attention of the police to the scene. And their mature style was “scooped” by albums from other Norwegian bands (particularly Immortal) whose development Euronymous had shepherded; De Mysteriis, intended as a major statement, became the underground metal equivalent of the long-stalled Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy.

By narrating the history of Mayhem as so many follies and accidents of youth, The Death Archive also serves as a corrective to a second “strong misreading” of the band itself that has been consolidated by the later development of black metal and its inevitable appropriation by hipsters, rock journalists, academics, and record collectors. That is, if Mayhem inverted Venom’s rock ’n’ roll swagger into a morose primitivism, a later tradition—foregrounding their lo-fi production aesthetic—has redefined black metal as almost performance art or modernist experimentation. The emphasis then falls on hyping up the “difficulty” of the music (originally the ineptitude of young musicians recording their rehearsals) as comparable to free jazz or serialist composition. The band has even bought into this conception, on bombastic and inessential output like Grand Declaration of War (2000) or Ordo ad Chao (2007). The afterword to The Death Archives by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore (who also published the book on his press) repeats most of this interpretation. (Moore, of course, is not speaking from within the history of metal, but as a self-appointed cultural arbiter and connoisseur of noise-as-performance far beyond the indie/alternative rock orbit.) In his description, the band is only a howling nihilist cacophony, not songwriters but wielders of intensity, expressing “the reality and irreality of mortification through the expressions of annihilating sound and passion.”

It isn’t accurate to say, as Moore does in his afterword, that Mayhem were “genuine innovators.” Detaching Mayhem from their predecessors and contemporaries may even be a prerequisite to misreading them as a spasm of avant-garde noise. But almost every photograph in The Death Archives tells a different story, provided one can decipher the band logos on the t-shirts and leather jackets they are wearing: not only Venom, but Hellhammer and Celtic Frost (Switzerland), Death (Florida), Sodom (Germany), Sarcafágo (Brazil), Sadistik Exekution (Australia), Blasphemy (Canada)—almost a complete list of the originators and promulgators of thrashing, ugly, Satanic metal in the 1980s. Mayhem have to be understood in the context of those other underground bands, not as some deracinated, opaque skronk.

Another way to put this is that black metal was the work not primarily of musicians but of die-hard fans—as much a style of performance as a new mode or rubric of listening. Necrobutcher explains how he and Euronymous liked the Norwegian synthpop group, A-Ha (best known for the inane “Take On Me”), provided that this too could be subjected to a strong misreading: “They were disguised as ‘pling plong pling’ that we had to translate into metal in our heads while listening.” In the same way, a black metal album like De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, or Beherit’s Oath of Black Blood (1991), demands that the listener actively discern and reconstruct the composition from out of a thin and crammed sonic space, imaginatively piecing together melodies from a blur of distortion and blasting drum racket. The cognitive challenge is not to marvel at the “guttural, yet searing, rawness” of the terrible recordings and disturbing screams, as Moore does, but instead to hear that Mayhem are scholars of a sort, addressing and revising specific problems of metal. Every step that they moved away from Venom, or Sodom, or Celtic Frost, not only led them to a more extreme style—faster, more dissonant—but each step in that direction was really a new problem. Playing faster was not simply mashing the gas pedal. Each tick faster was really a consequential piece of terrain that was fought for, that demanded a new strategy.

Subsequent black metal bands have eased the demands of listening, by submerging simple pretty riffs under a wash of noise. The listener then is not being asked to project out a narrative order, but only to observe, a kind of facile spotting not unlike the way children in a museum run up close to a Monet painting and then far away so that the lily pads will suddenly pop out. This process began innocently enough, in the ultra-underground output of French “Black Legion” bands Vlad Tepes and Mütiilation (around 1994), where shimmering melodies are frequently drowned in impenetrably bad recordings. But the songwriting had degenerated into the sort of listless moping that one finds in emo. The Polish band Graveland, whose album Following the Voice of Blood (1997) was a landmark in jangly, off-kilter riffs, afterward settled down into keyboard-doused faux-epic plodding. Graveland are the Woody Allen of black metal, releasing the same predictable, half-baked material on a strict annual schedule. The Norwegian bands themselves hardened into rigid masks of themselves, not living art: Burzum’s last songs prior to Vikernes’s imprisonment were endless churning through simple chord progressions, never arriving anywhere. Bands no longer trust the listener to do the kind of heavy lifting required by Mayhem or Emperor, and substitute allegedly “atmospheric” production and an array of gimmick borrowed from industrial and shoegaze music in the place of studying metal riffage. Although this domesticated version of the genre would seem to emphasize the legibility of the music as opposed to guttural yawps, which Moore focuses on, in terms of listening they are really two sides of the same coin. Both are limited to the immediate sound, the production and those gestures of stylization that can be processed in a few-second snippet.

It is a foregone conclusion at this point that all subversive and uncommercial impulses in art will be co-opted as empty gestures by the hipsterization of taste, or the relativism of academic cultural studies, or the financialized tourism of the art world. The Death Archives, an expensive matte-finish photo book on an indie art press, is plainly not the object that Mayhem would have produced in their anarchic glory days. But the hitch in their canonization is something else. The trouble isn’t that black metal is being defanged and cleaned up, but that the very premise of an “archive” and the insistence on performance (where Dead’s suicide functions as an artist statement à la Francesca Woodman or David Foster Wallace’s deaths) remain too caught up in the presence of documentary proof or artist’s signature. Black metal is turned into a baring-of-scars: the melodrama of bloody crucifixes, outbursts of unbearable noise, or personal misery attest to the pain of rejecting the world. As a further misreading of the music, this kind of “recuperation” of an obscure metal band as experimental music or performance art is unbearably condescending.

But then black metal was never a report on or from the world, a matter of archives or evidence. If a world of purpose is ever projected, it is only as a narrative of transcendence—a “journey to the stars,” to take the title of one Burzum song. Take for instance the storytelling in Emperor’s self-explanatory “I am the Black Wizards”:

Mightiest am I, but I am not alone in this cosmos of mine.
For the black hills consists of black souls, souls that already die one thousand deaths.
Behind the stone walls (of centuries) they breed their black art . . .

I travel through time and I return to the future. I gather wisdom now lost.
I visit again the eternally ancient caves, before a mighty Emperor thereupon came.
Watching the mortals “discovering” my chronicles,
guarded by the old demons, even unknown to me . . .

How many wizards that serve me with evil, I know not . . .
Forever they are in the hills in their stone homes of grief.
Because I am the spirit of their existence.
I am them.

There is some validity to the usual cliché about metalheads playing Dungeons & Dragons, provided that the emphasis on role-playing and world-building be contrasted with the ideological commitments of death metal (a nihilistic cynicism and black humor about the grotesque and horrific in this decaying world), or stoner metal (a kind of magic lantern of cascading, merely suggestive images, to pacify the listener), or a “horror punk” band like The Misfits (no social commentary but a sort of uncanny reanimation of the kitsch detritus of a lost childhood). It is probably no longer possible to revive this naive commitment to awe and derision—the main impression left by Necrobutcher’s text is, ironically, one of innocence—and black metal bands of our moment have cobbled together enough depressive mutterings and arcane glowerings as substitutes for the journeys offered by earlier bands like Burzum or Emperor, or by Immortal in their classic winterscape, “Mountains of Might.”

But what made the music great was the sense of an imaginative chronicle, of transport. If black metal was founded on a misreading—imposing a strident belief where none had been before—the tragedies and decline of the music have rendered its statements (musical and otherwise) a kind of gory or blasphemous tableau vivant. The Death Archive, with its tabulation of record-printing mishaps and the effects of playing Rod Stewart at a funeral, is a much more homely chronicle than “My Journey to the Stars” or “I am the Black Wizards,” but just because it is storytelling, is perhaps closer to the long-ago spirit of the music.

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