Dhananjai Sinha, on how a music genre took on a religion through its elements of protest art
And then there is black metal.
In the universe I was growing up in as an unsure, inquisitive, bespectacled kid, on a quest to take stock and rationalize the general rigmarole we had been placed into, music was one of the most effective ways I found to identify and connect with others. This connection allowed you to suspend your prevailing worldviews, which till then, had been shaped only by familial communions and prevalent social interactions.
In a way, music offered an easy way to reorganize ourselves into new circles and communities which were of our own make, based solely on what we listened to. Those were the days when the internet had just about taken off, we started warming up to ‘Peer to Peer’ and Kazaa, and our channels picked up others like us, on similar quests.
The music one chose to pick up on, stood for something, and by that effect, it stood for you.
In that small ecosystem of its own, where punk was for the rebel, Bollywood was the norm and rock stood for progression, metal was clearly for the non conformist.
It was an acquired taste. The one that made you reject the popular opinion about music and it’s traditional beliefs and go towards a stronger form, a bitter pill of sorts. This extended to the choices you got to make and stick to—to be identified as a “metal head”, expose yourself to an entirely new culture and immerse in it. All the while, questioning music norms and rapidly adapting to a new one. Interestingly, “Metal” has remained an alien culture in most countries, mostly because it is quite new as a genre.
The genre hence holds a similarity which all cultures effectively share— a strangely common ground set in the uncommon, for those who live by it.
And then there is Black metal.
If metal was non-conformist, then Black Metal was a defined stand ‘against’ all things which made you conform to them. Black Metal is the sub genre of a niche genre, which only a few dare treading. It is visually jarring, it sounds strange and unworldly, and you do not want to be caught dead in your room at night by your mother, listening to that “noise”, which they might automatically (and universally) associate with something devilish and demonic. A friend I know, who has gone on to become a restaurateur and has a degree in sports management from the NBA, once got himself caught in a strange insomniac spree for a long time, after he put the entire discography of the Norwegian Black Metal band, Burzum, on loop before going to bed for a week. Needless to say, he had to pause this black metal sojourn of life to move on with his life and get his game on for the NBA.
That’s how typical urban legends around black metal go.
What is black metal then?
And why is there such a staunch following for something which seems to be little more than just rebellion and rejection of mainstream society? Especially since rock music as a genre does the same and metal does it even better. So what is the purpose of Black Metal really? And why does it have such a cult following?
Over the years, I began exploring and understanding music as a means of communication, as a voice for those who had to have an alternate voice to express themselves. I got exposed to how music and its form got shaped over time, how genres evolved and how they got translated into something quite different from where they started.
Black metal then, to answer that original question, if studied through this lens of communication, offers one of the most unique experiments into protest art which music might have offered in recent history. It is the story of a place and the people, a movement which had as much gravitas and intensity as the Blues did for the African American slaves in the Mississippi delta during the mid 20th century. Black Metal used everything it had at its disposal at the time, to put across a story which reflected the condition or viewpoint of (some of) the youth growing up in the Scandinavian north, a voice which could have never come through any other channel to have a global impact as it eventually did.
THE BIRTH OF THE NATIONAL SOCIALIST BLACK METAL
The music composed and built out of these borrowed concepts was first classified as a genre called Black Metal in the early 90’s in Norway, by a section of disenfranchised musicians of a shared ideology, who used the genre as a means to convey their message of displeasure towards developments in their surroundings, through symbolism to portray a stand. The term Black Metal had first surfaced in the 1982 album by the same name by the British heavy metal group, Venom, and was picked up as a genre later in the decade by musicians in the Scandinavian north, especially in the city of Bergen in Norway (In what was referred to as the second wave of Norwegian Black Metal)
“Norwegian Black Metal” had also become especially notorious and had caught the attention of the rest of the world, when a fraction of musicians involved in that scene had proceeded to indulge in burning three Christian stave church. This was to commemorate the first Viking raid recorded in history. (on June 6th, 793), and it shocked the world into noticing the Norwegian “satanic” Black Metal scene. Two homicides with those involved in the scene on the flank, and an accusation of “being possessed by Satan and killing my child” by a woman (which was later dismissed as an over exaggeration) added to the ‘violent’ narrative of the genre. Black metal and its inner, “Black Circle”, rode this tide of shock and sudden limelight and spared no time in declaring their affiliation to the ‘devil’.
Politically, ‘National Socialist Black Metal’ (NSBM) was a sub-genre of music which stemmed out from the Black Metal circuit in Norway, which openly espoused the views of its musicians in all forms of expression—music, art and literature. The primary inner circle of this ‘cult’ called themselves a part of the ‘Black (Metal) Circle’ and began together, by spending time at the record store, Helvete (Hell), in Oslo. The scene was exclusive, and what was interesting to see, was the boundary it created within the local music scene. It successfully managed to sieve out from local musicians, those who had a similar political ideology and were willing to be vocal about it. This was protest music in its making, in the purest form.
THE PROTEST, AND ITS ENEMY
NSBM became a movement during the early 90s among (some of) the Norwegian youth who were opposed to, what they called the ‘McDonalds culture,’ which had been created as a result of the rampant scaling up of American multinationals who were expanding their presence all over the Scandinavian north (and throughout the world). NSBM was born out of the perceived dislike these youth harboured for the mindset of consumerism, which western countries, American brands and Foreign investments brought along into the gradually opening economy of the country and the disruption they caused to the local life and occupation. (The classic “MNC takes on the ‘Mom and pop’ shop” conflict.) A lot of big music labels had also made their inclusion into the local music scene in Norway, and had been influencing the market with their funding and network reach. There was a growing negative sentiment among the local musicians who perceived this interference a threat to their livelihood and music style.
Proponents of the NSBM ideology compared these events to the bloody conquest of Christianity over their local Pagan ancestory. They drew parallels to how Christianity had imposed a social hierarchy and subjugated the Scandinavians into submission, with how American corporates had been similarly looking at taking control of Norway through their deceptive offerings.
NSBM bands also hold Neo-Nazi beliefs at their core such as anti-Semitism (primarily in the music industry), fascism (in the majoritarian aspect), white (Aryan) superiority, xenophobia and hostilities towards any foreign religions like Christianity, Islamism and Judaism which looked to oppose ethnic European paganism, satanism and occultism, which they believed their ancestors had identified with and fought for.
This mix of music and political ideology culminated into a strange direction on June 6,1992, when a series of churches were burnt in Oslo. These were architecturally significant structures which dated back to the 12th century, and it brought the NSBM ideology into the spotlight as a volatile resistance to the agenda of the establishment. The disruption of the economic conditions with the recent influx of funding from an increasingly globalized world helped fuel their cause.
Like all forms of rebellious expression, this Black Metal sentiment resonated with others who were dissatisfied and it spread far from its Scandinavian roots. Anti-colonization sentiments have since been echoed in many other countries through Black Metal, which for many, is seen as the music of rejection and revolt. Being relatively new, a lot of the youth in various countries across Asia and the Americas have adopted Black Metal as a form of protest to their surroundings. One may argue that, what punk was to the previous generation of musicians, Black Metal seems to have found the same space, in this generation.
Through this piece, I will try and dissect the messages ‘Black Metal’ (specifically of the NSBM bands) intended to convey, through a research into the sound and the visual. These might still be lacking in the scope it deserves, but I hope to touch upon the general stream which gave birth to this form of music, its expression still very new and unrelatable to most.
Through their music, the Black Metal genre tried to demonstrate their protest and revolt against the American big labels, who had infringed on the local musician and possessed all the capital required to produce music and completely own the distribution channels to the listener – the physical record market, the radio waves and the television based music market. As competition, these foreign labels had also brought with them the most advanced and sophisticated sound recording equipment of the time and threatened to take over and disrupt the local musicians in their act. To show their protest against this yet unchallenged behemoth of big music labels, Norwegian Black Metal, as a genre, got together to offer the exact opposite of what the competition promised to offer.
THE ELEMENTS OF BLACK METAL
Where the big labels offered the latest in noise reduction sound production technology, Black Metal made friends with their nemesis—noise. With low-fi recording equipment, natural atmospheric soundscapes and raw noise captured of the surroundings, it became the signature style and counter statement to the sophisticated finish of the big production houses—a production which was jarring and cacophonous to an extent that, you can say, it made the conventional music industry sit up and take notice. Check out, Home, by the band Thorns from their demo, Grymyrk, released in 1991.
Undecipherable lyrics, guttural throat or growls, at a pitch completely against any traditional sense of melody. The jarring style of singing is supposed to tie back to the harsh wild as inspiration—the wild which the Nordic populations had forever braved, fought and survived in, before they were forcibly taken in by a new, foreign religion—a ‘language’ which was rooted in paganism. They talked about morbid proceedings and injustices at the hands of religion. Watch, Rust, by Darkthrone.
The music was minimalist in its structure, also limited by the simplistic setup the musicians chose to work with. A new guitar riff was invented by Snorre ‘Blackthorn’ Ruch of Stigma Diabolicum and Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth of Mayhem, which involved playing a full chord, instead of the two three of a power chord played traditionally. In its sound setup, this chord sounded more atmospheric and darker than perhaps what Wagner could have hoped for. The emphasis in Black Metal music was on the ‘dark’ aspect, since what most of it talked about was the darker implications of human strife. Thus this became the guiding light for the genre in its musical form, minimalist, dark and atmospheric.
The narrative of all Black Metal productions traditionally, was a call to olden times, its own Pagan culture, and the pillage, plunder and humiliation it suffered at the hands of Christianity and its inquisition. The lyrics often imbibed Satan as a ‘brand’ to encompass all the brands and institutions they were taking on, and openly worshipped the ‘Goat and its horns’, which had been a Pagan image of worship reduced to the sign of the ‘Devil’ during the dark ages.
A lot of sub genres of black metal have delved into Norse mythology in their narratives, in an attempt to bring forth Scandinavian culture and ideology which had been prevalent for the major part of the region’s collective memory.
The objective of Black Metal typography is to be as indecipherable as it could be. At the opposite ends to the big labels and their branding consultants, who were working their way to make their own brands retainable and decipherable for the market. In the Black Metal Scene, the more illegible you were, the more associated with the cause you looked to the audience in that closed scene. Thorns, ice and trees were the natural elements which were usually combined to form the typography and logo.
THE PERFORMANCE AND ITS ART
Black Metal performances have always set stage to the most graphic expression of their protest against Christianity, often running onto controversial territory. The now infamous, Black Mass Krakow, concert in Poland of the iconic Black metal Band, Gorgoroth, consisting of some of the most powerful personalities in the NSBM, was one of the most unexpected and graphic visual set ever presented on stage. Set in the town of Krakow, the performance will always be remembered in images of sheep skulls impaled on thick wooden sticks in front of the stage, separating the performer from their audience. Meant as a direct contrast to goat-heads being impaled on crosses in the Christian crusades to denigrate the Pagan religion and its beliefs, the sheep-heads referred to the flock of Jesus, his supporters and followers of Christianity.
And also take into account the appearance of the band members themselves with white corpse paints, and a thicket of thorns on their wrists, and you might get the picture of the extent and strength from which their expression stemmed out of.
Watch the entire concert here (if you can)
Black Metal had no place, according to the Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl, for musicians who had no political views, and specifically a strong anti-Christian sentiment. Gaahl has also remained one of the most feared and despised personalities in Norway for his strong ‘Satanistic’ views, and his actions at the helm of the NSBM, with a career marred by multiple accusations and imprisonments. Gaahl’s extreme views and opionions have been recorded on footage to, and have been quoted extensively in Black Metal literature. Do watch Gaahl’s Interview from, Metal : A Headbanger’s Journey.
Gaahl’s work evolved to a more native space in the recent past (close to two decades later) with forays into Nordic Mythology and Pagan instruments with the act called, Wardruna, and it shows how the Black Metal protest art has also evolved from where it set out from, managing, to some extent, to ward off the big labels they had perceived as a threat and create a space for local musicians and instruments.
THE RIPTIDE OF BLACK METAL
Being one of its kind in the kind of issues it took up against a big, organised religion and its narratives, Black metal has grown to harbour its own share of misfits globally. Although the validity and legitimacy of it’s stands might still be debatable, the purpose for which it evolved to the form it has now, reflects the polity of a generation in that space, at that time, and for this very reason, remains one of the most noticeable movements in music and arts we might have witnessed in the recent past.
The Black Metal community has also been exported to other countries as a stand against the mainstream expectations and norms local to that region, and is a relatively new art form, borne out of technological advents and he constructs of the modern age, an outlier still, in all cultures.
That Black Metal rose from a statement against the capitalist tendencies of the world into a legitimate force of threat to the Christian way of life and the Church in Norway, and continues to have strong political hold over the scene and the musicians who comprise them, is testimony to the effectiveness with which the artists in that scene used the tools of their time to communicate a sentiment which would not have had the impact it did, if left to just words.
It is said that the purpose of a theatrical is to exaggerate a point of view to an extent that something completely unrealistic might seem a little more plausible than it otherwise would. Black metal took this performance to the extreme, and by embroiling personal ideologies and situation in their act, presented a view the force of which shocked the traditional music standards to sit up and notice, to create something unique, a form of its own, for its own closed community.
DhananJai Sinha is a co-creator at instrupad, a space for musicians and their instruments, and an independent researcher who writes about music history, amongst other subjects.