In the early eighties, a new wave of metal emerged from the British scene which would eventually confirm the fears of the religiously paranoid around the world. Venom, with their amateur musicianship and silly recreations of virgin sacrifices as part of a “satanic” stage image, proved one of the most inept bands to ever spark a musical subgenre; much less one so politically and philosophically inclined as black metal. Because even though Henry Rollins (among others) would eventually immortalize Venom with accounts of touring with a “real life Spinal Tap,” Venom’s legacy would actually be its inspiration of groups like Mayhem and the bizarre web of events linked to the Norwegian branch of the black metal genre. And while Venom admits that their whole “satanic” image was just that, the black metal musicians and fans who followed actually made good on the threats put out in their music. Suicide, church arsons, and murder eventually became the reasons why Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone and others received media attention until Varg Vikernes of the one man band Burzum stabbed Øystein Aarseth, Mayhem’s guitarist and a major figure in the black metal movement, to death in 1993.
To think that Jacob Aranza had already moved on from ranting about rock music...
The ugly story of Norwegian black metal fascinates people outside of the metal scene for the sole reason that everything about the music, aesthetics, and attitude behind it hits a single, discordant note: it’s stupid. From the hysterics of the media when covering the related crimes (the “Satanic Ritual Abuse” scare had not been entirely discredited in the early 90’s) to the actual music, which is nonsensical in both musical and lyrical structure, black metal seems to go out of its way to be inconsequential. What is it that makes people so interested in this? Schadenfreude? Moreover, how in the world did a genre of music birthed by a band as lame as Venom provide the impetus to such deadly serious things as arson and murder?
Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind try to explain the phenomenon of Norway’s black metal scene in their book, Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. Part music history, part lurid crime journalism, and part conjectural discourse on the archetypical make up of Norway and the Black Metal scene, Lords of Chaos enjoys a degree of attention that other books published by Adam Parfrey’s Feral House do not. Again, I am perplexed. I bought my copy of the second edition at the local Borders. Try finding a Borders that carries Apocalypse Culture.
Lords of Chaos, while admirable in its aims, cannot be taken any more seriously than the subject it reports. As musical criticism, factual errors mar its ever brief exploration of influences and antecedents. Particularly egregious: "the Misfits mutated into Samhain...by 1988 the band had changed names again, to simply Danzig.” As an account of the crimes that took place, the actual offenders and their peers have taken exception, claiming that the authors selectively ignored or misrepresented the scene’s more diverse elements. But Lords of Chaos receives most of its criticism for its explanation of why the church burnings and murders occurred. Various critics feel that Moynihan sympathizes with his subjects due to his own right-wing political leanings -- that his explication of black metal ethos and its eventual outcome borders on worshipful.
Moynihan contends that black metal and the crimes of the young men (and a few women) who committed them stem from a long suppressed Odinic impulse, not dissimilar to the emergence of the Odinic archetype in Nazi Germany, as theorized by Carl Jung in his infamous essay, “Wotan.” The authors even go so far as to compare the crimes of black metal bands to the wild hunt, with black metallers fulfilling the roles of marauding Aesir.
This is incredibly silly, but even if the adolescents involved actually were subconsciously invoking the archetypes that lay dormant in their racial unconscious, Moynihan and Søderlind provide no explanation for what reason they reemerged from the unconscious Hel. It seems that much of the book forms itself around the Jungian archetype thesis, almost as though the conclusion had been reached before even research began. The real explanation for the Norwegian black metal arsons and slayings, for the Floridian teens for which the Moynihan and Søderlind named their book and for countless other examples of extreme youth culture that they spend the latter chapters discussing is really very simple: they’re brats.
Varg Vikernes and Øystein Aarseth are the two most obnoxious music figures of the nineties. Based on the descriptions in the book, Vikernes is a jerk whose racist mother spoiled him. Aarseth’s parents helped fund his record store, Helvete, which Aarseth all but sabotaged with his irresponsible business practices. These two figures loom over every page of the book, even though the authors give Vikernes more than his due attention. It was Aarseth’s band Mayhem to first craft an absurd media image around theistic Satanism. Following the suicide of their lead singer, who fittingly handled himself “Dead,” Mayhem intentionally spread rumors that Aarseth had cooked pieces of Dead’s brain in a stew and made jewelry out of pieces of his skull. Dead, a melancholy Swede known by his parents as Per Ohlin, left a note that read, “Sorry for all the blood.” Aarseth found him after he had cut his own wrists and neck and shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Aarseth bought a disposable camera and took pictures before reporting the death.
Vikernes entertained an intense interest in fascism, Vidkun Quisling (a Nazi puppet governor of Norway) and Nordic heathenism. Aside from his killing Aarseth without a hint of remorse, Varg probably started the wave of church burnings and might have been planning to blow up a meeting place for left-wing punks with stolen dynamite before he was arrested.
Øystein Aarseth is a weaselly character, and Varg Vikernes a violent one, but they are merely two different personalities who share a common narcissism. The hatred each of them express towards liberal, Christian ethics has less to do with resentment of any particular facet of Christianity and everything to do with their desire to dominate and control people. For Aarseth, that desire manifested itself in having kids in the scene looking up to him and trying to impress him while he (according to Vikernes) watched stomach churning pornography and fake snuff videos and played with dildos, indulging in depravity because it was depraved. For Vikernes, it equated to a justification for violence.
Whether this is a result of repressed racial behavior is irrelevant: arson and murder should stay repressed. The black metal scene consisted of a group of young men and women who lived comfortably in one of the wealthier nations of the world who nevertheless thought that they should indulge in violence without consequence. Christianity represents (or at least represents itself as) the triumph of law and empathy over the chaos and selfishness of heathenism. Christ’s sacrifice represents the ultimate love of God; the gods of the Norse reward those who cause destruction. Aarseth worshipped Satan; his belief was to practice whatever he could get away with. Vikernes worshipped Odin; his belief was literally that might makes right.
And aren’t these childish notions? I won’t pretend that I didn’t have fun reading parts of Lords of Chaos. Perhaps schadenfreude won out. I merely wish to point out that the authors’ premise is silly and wrong headed and possibly informed by Moynihan’s own right-wing political beliefs. But it is difficult not to laugh when Vikernes drones on about UFO’s and Atlantis and the Aesir being interplanetary travelers. Lords of Chaos does offer a great deal of research, a trove of interviews with people both in and ancillary to the scene, and a mostly objective account of the world of angry white kids who claim to hate Christians and non-white people. But what's it all for, really? Boiled down and rendered of its image, its fanciful self-regard, and the self-aggrandizement of its pseudonymous leaders, black metal culture is merely the most common sort of human selfishness, wrapped up and delivered in terrible music.