Black Metal as the Nordic Gothic
Hammer Rising: Black Metal as the Nordic Gothic
No musical genre is more misunderstood than metal. Overdriven down-tuned guitars, assaulting double bass drums, and a guttural vocal style with less than family friendly lyrics often portrays the music as simply awful noise. Disdain for metal in not universal however, nor is it true that all of its practitioners are viewed in the same fashion. For instance even among 'metal heads' the mention of Black Metal has the power to inspire dread and awe like no other. Never before has a musical genre been so rife with violence (lyrically and physically), Satanism, the occult, and the sublime. But these things are relatively well known, at least to those familiar to the genre, what is far more intriguing is the notion of Black Metal as the Nordic Gothic. What, Black Metal is Gothic? The metal purists word wide would let out a collective howl of rage at such an accusation. But this animosity stems from unfamiliarity with the literary terminology rather than an objection of what the Gothic actually is. The truth is, as I will show, that not only is Black Metal Gothic, but that more importantly it differs in ways that constitutes its own sub division, the Nordic Gothic.
Before running around proclaiming this and that Gothic it is important to begin by briefly examining just what exactly the Gothic is. The Gothic is a slippery term, whole books have been written attempting to discern just what makes something Gothic. For the sake of this argument a text needs three elements to be considered Gothic. First is the presence of the Gothic sublime, or the feeling of intense terror or a realization of the insignificance of humanity. In Gothic literature this sublime is often brought on by horrific events, characters, or even setting.
Another similar convention of the Gothic is the uncanny. Sigmund Freud developed the idea of the uncanny in On Creativity and the Unconscious (1958). The uncanny is associated with what is frightening, or causes dread or horror. This horror is often derived from the departure from normality, or when something familiar becomes strange. He also explored the idea that the uncanny manifests itself when it is uncertain whether or not something is living or dead; or when something which should have remained concealed is brought to light (Freud). It is important to note that Freud claims that the uncanny is 'associated' with what is frightening, therefore what is uncanny can be frightening, but it does not have to be.
This brings us to the third and final convention of the Gothic, horror. Horror is possibly one of the most important, and pervasive conventions of the Gothic. Classical Gothic texts are rife with vampires, monsters, ghosts, bleeding portraits, and crumbling castles. What makes horror such an important aspect of the Gothic is the fact that without it some of the other conventions are not possible. For example, it is not possible to evoke the uncanny without horror. These three bare bones descriptions of the major Gothic conventions are not exactly extensive; however they will be sufficient to demonstrate their connections to Black Metal.
As mysterious as the Gothic can be for the average reader, the fundamentals and history of Black Metal are almost unknown to those not actively participating in metal culture. Metal is a misunderstood, disrespected, and patronized musical form, and that goes triple for the black sheep of metal culture. The term "Black Metal" was coined in 1982 when thrash metal band Venom released their sophomore album Black Metal (Harris 2). Venom's music dealt heavily with Satanism; and for the first time popularized openly satanic lyrics. Although Venom is not considered Black Metal by modern standards, they are credited with coining the term.
The true founders of the genre, Sweden's Bathory, aptly named after Countess Elizabeth Bathory, did not release the first true Black Metal album, Bathory until 1984. Bathory's founder Tomas Forsberg, more commonly known as Quothorn, pioneered a style of music that exhibited percussive blast beats, Satanic lyrics, a shrieking yet guttural vocal style, and a low quality of production that would become the genre standard (Eternal Obscurity). In subsequent albums, most notably Hammerheart (1990), Bathory's style evolved into more atmospheric music. Lyrical themes moved away from Satanism to Nordic culture, especially the Christian conversion of Nordic peoples. Bathory is considered to be the founding Black Metal band; Quothorn would continue to release albums until his death in 2004. Although Bathory originated Black Metal they were not the only band that is considered to be part of the first wave of Black Metal that began in the 1980's.
Another founding band Switzerland's Celtic Frost, formed in 1984. Founding members Thomas "Warrior" Fischer, Martin Eric "Ain", and Steve Warrior adopted the foundations established by Bathory. However, they shifted the lyrical focus from Satanism to corruption of men, and the relative meaninglessness of human existence. Their debut album Morbid Tales (1984) was an instant success in the underground metal scene; they would continue to influence Black Metal until they disbanded late in 2008 (Rivadavia). Celtic Frost and Bathory are the most important bands in the first wave of Black Metal. They created the Black Metal genre and successfully laid down a foundation that parallels with some conventions of the Gothic.
However, it is worth examining the second wave of Black Metal as it built upon the groundwork laid by Bathory and Celtic Frost; while at the same time shaping the genre so that it further resembles the Gothic. Bands like Immortal, Mayhem, and Emperor began to experiment with even more atmospheric sounds. The music went from fast punishing riffs to heavily distorted guitars playing chord progressions that maximize musical dissonance to produce the most ominous sounds (Kalis). These ominous musical arrangements were accompanied by electronic synthesizers and high pitched guttural vocals to add to the already bleak atmosphere of the music. Around this time Black Metal began to change lyrically as subject matter moved from Satanism to supernatural and fantastic songwriting.
This is not entirely accurate however, as a large number of Black Metal bands pushed the roots of the genre to new heights and lows. Gorgoroth, Mercyful Fate, and Satyricon were just some of the bands that continued to push the boundaries of Satanic Black Metal. Their lyrics became solely devoted to the subject of Satanism, the music became heavier, and the anti-Christian imagery soared to ridiculous heights. Many of these bands adopted a specific style of dress that included all black leathers, black boots, long black hair, inverted crosses, copious amounts of long metal spikes, and a new face painting style called corpse paint. Corpse paint involved painting the entire face and arms white, and then blacking out around the eyes; this was supposed to add to the evil feel of these bands by making them, as the name implies, more corpse-like. Corpse painting made Black Metal artists unmistakable, but it would be the on-stage theatrics that would force the anti-Christian imagery into the realm of controversy.
The leaders in extreme Satanist imagery are the Norwegian band Gorgoroth. In 2004 Gorgoroth performed a concert in Poland that sparked a large controversy. The band's set included ten actual decapitated sheep's heads on wooden spikes, two men and women completely nude, covered in blood, and hung from crosses. The audience was also sprayed with one hundred liters of actual sheep's blood (Tisdale). Even these theatrics were not the height of the Black Metal anti-Christian movement.
Black Metal began to move from gruesome music and gory live performances to actual violence. In 1991 Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin committed suicide with a shotgun at a house that the band shared. Band mate Øystein Aarseth admitted to purchasing a disposable camera, photographing the body, and collecting fragments of Ohlin's skull (Harris 45). Aarseth then used the photograph as the album cover for Mayhem's live album Dawn of the Black Hearts in 1995. He also admitted to using the skull fragments to create necklaces to which he gave other Black Metal musicians that he deemed worthy (Dunn). Three years after Ohlin's suicide, his Mayhem band mate Aarseth was stabbed to death by Varg Vikernes a member of the Satanic Black Metal band Bruzrum. Vikernes travelled to Aarseth's apartment and stabbed him 23 times in the head, neck, and back (Harris 45). As violent as this act was, it looks mild in comparison to the church burnings that made Black Metal infamous.
From 1992 to 1996 members of the Norwegian Black Metal scene were reportedly responsible for over fifty counts of arson (Harris 45). The sole targets of these acts were historic churches located throughout Norway. Many of the churches were historic land marks that had been built during the original Christian conversion of Norway. Black Metal effectively became synonymous with anti-Christian violence. Gorgoroth front man Gaahl praised these acts, stating in an interview for the documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey that "there should have been more of them [church burnings], and there will be more of them"(Dunn). It is apparent that some of the bad reputation associated with Black Metal is well deserved. What makes this series of events relevant in the scope of this paper is that Black Metal steps outside the fictional Gothic, and brings the Gothic to life through their actions. However before comparing fiction to reality, it is important to first examine some Black Metal lyrics in relation to classic Gothic texts in order to establish Black Metal as a form of the Gothic.
Two Black Metal pieces will be used to demonstrate the genre as Gothic; Bathory's One Road to Asa Bay and Celtic Frost's Into the Crypt of Rays. As lyrics are not a comprehensive body of work like a novel, each piece must be examined for one particular facet of the Gothic. It is also important to note that two bands are not necessarily representative of Black Metal as genre, however Bathory and Celtic Frost are two of the most important and influential artists in the field. Therefore, the work by these bands provides a canonical group of texts, whose style is closely mimicked by the rest of the genre; even if not all artists follow directly in their footsteps.
The most predominant theme in Black Metal is animosity towards Christianity. While this disdain is not particularly Gothic, when it is examined in historical context it mirrors elements in Gothic literature, especially Bram Stoker's Dracula (1908). Stephen Arrata suggests that Dracula is an allegorical representation of the binary opposition between the foreign and the domestic. He claimed that Stoker's characters, who were mostly English, were evolved in a struggle with a foreign evil that is personified as Count Dracula. Dracula attempts to 'invade' England and metaphorically taint English culture with his foreignness. A very similar situation is laid out in Bathory's One Road to Asa Bay, which details the Christian conversion of a Nordic settlement.
Just as Jonathan Harker describes the native people of Transylvania as simple minded and inferior, the women look "clumsy" and the Slovaks are described as "the strangest figures" that look "more barbarian than the rest" (Stoker 9). The Christian missionaries are seen with the same strange regard. "Strange men in armor dressed in purple shirts and lace" is the description given to the men that accompany the mission priest (Bathory). It is strange that Quothorn elected to describe the exact color of their dress, since purple would seem a strange color to the people of an isolated northern settlement. The strange me are also described as "smelling not of beer but flowers and with no hair in face". The "no hair in face" refers to their lack of beards which also must have seemed strange as many if not all of men in Nordic culture mostly wore beards. The "smell of flowers" coupled with the lace shirts and clean shaven faces conveys an aura of un-manliness. It is as if the natives look upon the brightly dressed, fragrant smelling foreigners as less masculine and therefore weaker peoples. This statement is particularly interesting as it draws a parallel with Aratta's ideas about disdain for the non-English in Dracula (Aratta 623). However felling more masculine than foreigners is not exactly the same fear that the Englishmen feel about Dracula's 'invasion' of England. But as the song progresses the native people begin to fear the missionaries just as much as they would fear a vampire.
A religious man "with the Hammer in chain", which refers to Thor's hammer which would have been a strong religious symbol, speaks out against the foreigners (Bathory). However he is quickly dispatched by the armored men who then force the natives to build a church and convert or face lashings. The people build a massive church "big enough to take two dragon ships inside", and having done what they were asked, hope the foreigners will leave. "Now must the god of the cross be pleased and satisfied" they cry, wishing to now return to their lives. At the end of the song an old man preys to the old gods that "now they must leave us alone", when he hears a old crow say "People of Asa land, it has only just begun". The old crow, that is similar to Odin's messenger the raven, revels to the old man that they have underestimated these strangers, they were much more dangerous than they seemed, and now their culture is in danger of being erased. This is the ultimate fear for the English according to Aratta (623). The major difference between the Nordic people and the English is that the English repel Dracula, while the missionaries erase old Nordic culture.
This conversion is the root of anti-Christian resentment in Black Metal. However while Stoker was content to express his ideas out foreign invasion in a novel, Black Metal artists are not so passive. This shift from expressing socially and culturally unacceptable ideas in the guise of a novel, to committing arson is the keystone difference between the conventional and the Nordic Gothic. Not only do Black Metal artists express abhorrence toward their Christian conquerors through their music they also physically attack them by burning same churches that they were forced to build so long ago. The Nordic Gothic is not only written but lived. Members of the extreme Black Metal scene openly support and participate in violent acts, acting upon the message of their music.
One notable example is Gorgoroth's Gaahl who has been arrested once for assault and a second time for torturing a man for six hours, collecting his blood in a cup, and threatening to make his victim drink his own blood (Harris 45). This is the distinguishing feature of the Nordic Gothic, social and cultural issues are not addressed through lyrical commentary, but physically acted upon. While these acts are unquestionably violent, an anti-religious stance is not enough to solidify Black Metal as Gothic.
However, Celtic Frost's Into the Crypt of Rays utilizes another key feature of the Gothic, the uncanny. Gilles De Rays was a Marshall of France and served as a personal guard for Jeanne d'Arc, but he is best known as a child serial killer. Rays would capture children and take them to his underground complex, where he would have sex with them before killing them. "Alluring children for his masses, robbing and buying young souls, sacrifice to morbid demons, satisfy his repulsive sexual lust", writes Fischer (Celtic Frost). His word choice clearly paints Rays as the uncanny distortion of a holy man, "Gilles De Ray's, the perverted son, the holy man". This reveals two parallels with Freud's uncanny. First is the notion of the familiar becoming strange; a holy man is expected to abide by both the laws of earth and Heaven. It is unsettling, and strange that he should be involved in practices like "Sacrifice to morbid demons" and "watching them [children] limp and die". Second is the idea of what should be concealed being revealed. This manifests itself in two forms, firstly the fact that Rays carries out his carnal acts in a crypt, which by nature is a place that is usually hidden from view. The second is that he had these desires that should have remained buried in this conscious, instead they manifest themselves physically.
The notion of the uncanny also presents itself in the use of corpse paint. By painting themselves white and blacking out their eyes artists like Gaahl make themselves seem corpse like. This relates directly to Freud's notion that the uncanny is produced when there is uncertainty weather something is dead or alive. These individuals look undead, yet they continue to move and speak as if they were still alive, it becomes uncanny because these persons personify the dead when they are in fact still alive. Not only is corpse paint uncanny but it also is a parallel with the last convention of the Gothic, horror.
Horror, either through physical imagery or lyrical subject matter is the strongest link between Black Metal and the Gothic. Corpse like figures bellowing Satanic praise, severed animal heads, and covering audiences with actual blood are some of the more extreme examples of horror in Black Metal.
Readers familiar with the Gothic will note that the sublime, one of the defining facets of the genre, is absent. However this is not entirely true. Music has the ability to not only convey feeling through words like a novel, but also to express feeling through the actual music. It is difficult to explain in an empirical fashion the feeling evoked by listening to Black Metal. The sublime is present in the atmosphere of the music, the dissonance and power of the music is apparent to the listener. It is impossible to convince the reader that this is so, it can only be achieved by experiencing the music first hand, only then will the true nature of Black Metal's Gothic sublime become apparent.
By looking closely at the history and reputation of Black Metal it becomes apparent that the genre is firmly Gothic. A violent and bloody past coupled with uncanny and horrifying imagery in conjunction with sublime evoking music paints a picture of a genre that oozes Gothic. Parallels with canonical Gothic literature only serve to strengthen the argument. So is Black Metal Gothic? The evidence has been presented and the task is now for the reader to decide. This decision cannot be made solely on grounds of empirical discussion, so relax, turn off the lights, crank those speakers and let Quothorn or Thomas Warrior do what they do best.
-Metal Up Your Ass
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"Bathory." Eternal Obscurity. 24, Nov. 2009 http://www.angelfire.com/zine2/cosmicmetal/bathory.html.
Bathory. "One Road to Asa Bay." Hammerheart. Noise Records, 1990.
Celtic Frost. "Into the Crypts of Rays." Morbid Tales. Metal Blade. 1984.
Freud, Sigmund. On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
Kahn-Harris, Keith. Extreme metal: music and culture on the edge. New York: Berg, 2007.
Kalis, Quentin. "Black Metal: A Brief Guide." Chronicles of Chaos. 24 Nov 2009 http://www.chroniclesofchaos.com/Articles/rants/6-668_black_metal_a_brief_guide.aspx
Metal: A Headbangers Journey. Dir. Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden. Perf. Sam Dunn. Warner Home Video, 2005.
Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Full Biography." MTV. 24, Nov. 2009 http://www.mtv.com/music/artist/celtic_frost/artist.jhtml#bio.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Penguin Classics, 1993.
Tisdall, Jonathan. "Norwegian black metal band shocks Poland". Aftenposten, 2004
Guest article disclaimer:
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
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