True Norwegian Black Metal by Peter Beste
In deepest Scandinavia, Keith Kahn-Harris discovers social democratic Satanism
Of the many postwar subcultures, black metal is one of the most extraordinary. Arising in the late ‘80s as a reaction to the bloated success of mainstream heavy metal, the black metal underground sought to create a music and culture that were unambiguously satanic, transgressive and violent.
Although black metal has always been a global phenomenon, its birthplace was Norway – beautiful, peaceful, wealthy Norway with its generous welfare state, superb education system and excellent quality of life. In the early ‘90s the country was rocked by an outbreak of black-metal-inspired violence. A number of Norway’s unique wooden churches were burned down by black metallers – an unprecedented attack on the country’s cultural and religious heritage – some of whom were imprisoned. That wasn’t the end of it. One black metal musician, Count Grisnacht aka Varg Vikernes of the one-man band Burzum, was convicted of the murder of Euronymous aka Øystein Aarseth of the band Mayhem in 1993. Another musician, Bård “Faust” Eithun, was convicted of the murder of a homosexual stranger in 1992. More recently Gaahl, vocalist of Gorgoroth, was imprisoned for assaulting and torturing a man in 2002.
At the centre of black metal ideology lies virulent opposition to religion, particularly Christianity, embodied in the slogan “Support the war against Christianity”. This opposition stems not from a humanistic reaction to religious oppression but from a characterisation of religion as a form of weakness, a deviation from humanity’s lustful, animalistic self. The Satanism associated with black metal is rarely theistic, resembling instead an extreme form of anarchism in which compassion and community are eschewed in favour of individualism and elitism. Satanism on occasion crosses over into social Darwinism and fascism – in interviews before and after his trial, Vikernes espoused National Socialist beliefs. This tendency is compounded by the “volkisch” celebrations of pre-modern, pre-Christian national origins (such as the Vikings) often found in black metal.
Although one can find black metal scenes all over the world, Norway remains its spiritual homeland, the place where it is most developed and most notorious. Black metal as it developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s represented a rejection of everything contemporary Norway was about. In place of a stable, orderly, social democratic society, black metallers advocated a chaotic, individualistic free-for-all. The Norway celebrated in black metal is a land of forests, inclement weather and untamed wilderness, the land of the Vikings.
At the same time, the delicious irony of the Norwegian black metal scene is that it is in part reliant on Norway’s wealth and its welfare provision. The benefit system makes it easy for musicians to concentrate on making music. The well-funded education system makes musical training and rehearsal space easily accessible. The liberal criminal justice system allowed Faust, a convicted murderer, to be released after only nine years in jail and for Vikernes to record two albums while imprisoned. The Norwegian black metal scene is, as the sociologist Asbjørn Dyrendal has dubbed it, “Social Democratic Satanism”.
This often bizarre world is nicely captured in Peter Beste’s collection of photographs of Norwegian black metal scene members. Over 13 visits to the country, this American photographer immersed himself in the scene and his hard-won familiarity with the leading black metal personalities has produced some fascinating portraits.
Many of Beste’s subjects stare at the camera directly, with an uncompromising coldness. Look at the captions to the photos and they reveal pseudonyms such as Nattefrost, Samoth and King Ov Hell. The desire to create an inhuman impression is compounded by the frequent use of “corpse paint”, a kind of face painting similar to that used by Gene Simmons of Kiss, but less clown-like.
Some might find such material frightening and perplexing, others may find it mythic and powerful, still others would see it as ludicrous. It is to Beste’s credit that he avoids all these temptations in favour of developing a body of images that lay bare the ambiguities of the Norwegian black metal scene.
The most extreme images in the book are subtly qualified and questioned. Pictures of Nattefrost drunk and covered in his own shit are taken in his bathtub, as if to emphasise that his transgression is contained within the most mundane of objects. There is bathos here, but also vulnerability. The same is true of the many pictures taken of black metallers in the Norwegian countryside: in the woods, on mountains and in the snow, many of the subjects are made to appear small and insignificant (or quite simply cold). The contradictions inherent in black metal’s simultaneous celebration of untamed nature and untamed humanity are revealed in the insignificance of the black metaller next to the potency of nature.
My favourite pictures here are the ones of Kvitrafn and of King Ov Hell in full corpse paint taken in the old town of Bergen. In both pictures stunned, bourgeois-looking passers-by regard the black metallers with a mixture of puzzlement and horror. Shocking polite society is of course a classic feature of spectacular subculture. But Beste also shows that his subjects are more integrated into Norwegian society than might at first be apparent. There are pictures of black metallers with their children, in their apartments, on housing estates, on the street. There is no world but this one and black metal scene members live in it too, sometimes looking out of place, sometimes looking entirely comfortable.
What this collection cannot capture is the music – undeniably harsh, characterised by fast tempos, screams and trebly guitars, but also innovative and somehow unearthly. There is an austere, bleak beauty in the work of Burzum, Emperor, Gorgoroth and other black metal acts. If Norwegian black metallers themselves are caught between a desire for transgression and violence and the inescapability of living in Norway, black metal music is perhaps more transcendent, less inextricably tied into the circumstances of its production.
True Norwegian Black Metal is published by Vice Books