With its movie adaptation finally releasing (to lukewarm reviews), it’s a good time to take a look at Lords of Chaos. This is the book which in many ways solidified the myths surrounding the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s.
Not that it necessarily took much to do that. It was more or less inevitable that the Norwegian wave of black metal in the early 1990s would cast a long shadow. Along with a creative explosion which set a new bar for extreme metal, it was also a scene built around a volatile set of key personalities who, so intent on outdoing each other in establishing an “evil” reputation, ended up resorting to increasingly extreme acts.
There are few things messier than a pissing contest that’s gone out of control, and what happened in the 1990s black metal scene is no exception to that. Dead, lead singer of Mayhem (the band at the forefront of the new wave of black metal) performed on a stage decorated with severed pig’s heads, buried his clothes so that they’d smell like the grave, and engaged in alarming acts of self-harm onstage. Eventually he shot himself to death in the band’s communal house; band leader Euronymous, the scene’s major ringleader, took photos of the scene which eventually got used as the cover to a quasi-official Mayhem bootleg, Dawn of the Blackhearts. Picking up on previous waves of extreme metal’s embrace of Satanism, Norse heathenism, and general aggressive anti-Christianity, multiple members of the scene took to burning churches – including beautiful historic stave churches. Varg Vikernes used a photo of a burned church as the cover of the Burzum EP Aske, and was closely involved in many of the burnings. Faust, drummer of Emperor, callously murdered Magne Andreasson, supposedly not out of any sort of homophobic motive but simply for the sake of venting aggression.
The high water mark of chaos within the scene was accomplished in 1993, when Varg Vikernes brutally stabbed to death Euronymous. Mayhem’s debut studio album (it had been preceded by a Dead-fronted live album), De Mysteriis Dom Sathanus, featured Euronymous on lead guitar and Varg on bass; it ended up representing the end of an era, much as the Sex Pistols and the scene around them were all over once Never Mind the Bollocks came out. Although black metal musicians have courted controversy and occasionally have committed startling crimes and stunts since – Nikolas Kvarforth of Swedish “depressive suicidal black metal” group Shining infamously faked his death a while back – in general people seemed to realign themselves to focus more on the music rather than the controversy since then. There’s a sense that burning churches causes more trouble than it’s worth, and murdering your own bandmates doubly so (especially if they also run the label that’s publishing your music). Varg’s crimes cannot be topped; in addition, Varg has become an outspoken neo-Nazi since his incarceration (or maybe just revealed Nazi beliefs he held all along), and whilst some fascist black metal fans and musicians dig that, most groups realise that association with that sort of thing will have seriously bad effects on their record sales.
Under such circumstances, it’s pretty much inevitable that the clique around Mayhem, Emperor, and Burzum would have attained a great deal of infamy. Indeed, there’s a sort of standard essay people write about black metal; if they’re especially on the ball they will mention first-wave bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Bathory, and mmmmmaybe Hellhammer/Celtic Frost. They’ll mention the major Norwegian bands like Mayhem, Emperor, Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal, and whatnot. They’ll mention all the early 1990s criminality and the murder of Euronymous. And then they just… kind… of… stop, like nothing happened in the scene of interest after Euronymous died.
Lords of Chaos is still considered one of the most interesting deep dives into the subject matter, to an extent where I’d even argue that it’s part of the problem as far as propagating the above shallow interpretation of the genre goes. Penned by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, though it does have a cursory interest in the music it’s pretty clear that it is mostly interested in the criminality and wild behaviour and self-destruction whirling around the scene, and as far as its chronicling of the music behind the mayhem goes it largely loses interest once Varg kills Euronymous, splitting the rest of the book between chronicling other outbreaks of criminality and extremism in black metal scenes outside of Norway and philosophical reflections on the cultural place both of black metal and outbreaks of violence in such subcultural contexts.
It’s here that the book becomes truly contentious. See, whilst Søderlind seems, so far as I can tell, to be entirely uncontroversial (though his role in the book seems to have largely been focused on conducting interviews), Michael Moynihan has a much more dubious reputation. Much of his writing has been on fascist-adjacent topics – for instance, he edited Siege, a compilation of the shockingly violent writings of James Mason, founder of the Universal Order (a mashup of a neo-Nazi group and a Charles Manson-venerating sect) which in turn influenced present-day Nazi paramilitary outfit the Atomwaffen Division.
Outside of his writing career, Moynihan is most infamous as a lead member of Blood Axis – not a black metal band but a project straddling the worlds of neofolk and martial industrial, both subgenres with their own problems with fascists knocking about. Blood Axis seem to be part of the problem; as well as Moynihan making approving noises about fascism and elitism and social Darwinism in interviews, you have them doing stuff like opening Blót: Sacrifice In Sweden (a live release which seems to be their best-received work) with an extended sample from a speech by Oswald Mosley.
In more recent years Moynihan seems to have tried to walk back some of his more fascist statements of the past, but his work in Blood Axis draws on themes he also looks to here in understanding black metal – themes which some in the black metal crowd, especially Varg Vikernes, seemed to also be interested in. You have, for instance, this interest in Scandinavian/Germanic heathenism, the pagan faith of Odin/Wotan/Woden which gave us such sick badass metal imagery as that associated with Ragnarok. It’s been suggested – with reasonable textual support from the book itself – that here and there Moynihan slips into writing from the perspective not of a detached observer trying to make sense of a black metal worldview but of a Julius Evola-esque fascist mystic (Moynihan would edit some English editions of Evola later in his career) trying to cast black metal into his particular occult traditionalist worldview in order to make it a vehicle for that.
Certainly, there’s much wittering about the idea of “resurgent atavism” – that violent brutality is the natural state of humanity which has been repressed and is about to make a big comeback. If there is a propagandistic bent to the book at all, it’s the suggestion that a) Moynihan’s “resurgent atavism” is an actual thing and b) that violence and fascist politics are necessary components of the black metal scene, rather than ugly intruders which the genre can do just fine without.
In other words, if Moynihan had any hidden intent in writing the book, it was not to convert random readers to Varg-style Nazi heathenry; it’s more to frame black metal as an environment where that sort of nonsense is part of the point of it, so as to attract those who dig that sort of thing to the genre whilst pushing away folk who don’t fancy a bit of Hitler in their heavy sounds. Classic gatekeeping, in short, intended to aid the process of making the genre a safe haven for fascists. (Indeed, at one point in the book it is specifically noted that much extreme right propaganda is not designed, like other forms of advertising and persuasion, to sway the opinions of undecided moderates, but is instead meant to excite and energised folk who are already largely radicalised.)
I am not 100% sure that Moynihan is actually consciously doing this – and even if he is, he’s in part simply following the lead of his interview subjects. What I am sure of is that, thank goodness, it hasn’t worked to the extent that it could have. Black metal has a Nazi problem – there’s no question about that, so called NSBM (National Socialist black metal) is a recognised subgenre after all. And beyond Varg himself, it’s evident from the interviews that several of the key figures of the Norwegian black metal scene are (or at least were in the 1990s) shitty dudes with shitty dude politics.
However, time passes, music develops, and new voices arise. Whilst some new acts try to cling to a “trve”, “kvlt” interpretation of black metal, drawing on the Mayhem/Darkthrone/Burzum generation as their primary aesthetic inspiration (and a subset of them adopting extreme politics as a result), other acts have developed black metal in a range of different directions – and whilst the fascist sorts have latched onto it, so have people of a range of other political stripes. RABM – Red Anarchist Black Metal – is a thing, and even as the alt-right and other forces flex their muscles so too have some black metal musicians overtly set themselves against them.
As far as black metal publicity stunts go, perhaps the one which got the most traction recently was the appearance of Neckbeard Deathcamp – a black metal project which directly swipes the aesthetic presentation of NSBM, but which twists it around with lyrics and artwork directly mocking and piling ridicule on neo-fascists. If the band name didn’t tip you off that they’re an anti-alt-right group, try the title of their debut album on for size – White Nationalism Is For Basement Dwelling Losers. Projects in a similar vein include Gaylord’s The Black Metal Scene Needs To Be Destroyed, which includes such black metal anthems as Nice Sun Cross Tattoo Asshole. Subtle they ain’t – the more direct, go-for-the-throat style of black metal that Neckbeard Deathcamp and Gaylord play rarely is – but they got enough attention and applause to reiterate that there’s still plenty of anti-fascist fans of extreme metal, and to embolden such fans to speak out against the shittier groups.
Black metal has not, however, settled down into a mere fascist-vs.-antifascist slapfight. The diversification of the genre means that a truly broad range of themes are being explored with the tools it offers, themes which demonstrate that black metal doesn’t actually require Naziism, or even Satanism or heathenism, to be controversial or have an edge to it. Take, for instance, DSBM – Depressive Suicidal black metal. On the one hand, applying this romanticised view to suicide could be just as irresponsible as applying it to fascism; on the other hand, at least some practitioners of the form seem to approach it as therapy, a valuable opportunity to howl out their misery and frustrations through creative work, to scream the screams which would be socially unacceptable in other contexts but are embraced as part of the performance in black metal. The entire subgenre hinges on this hideous balancing act between glorifying and encouraging suicide on the one hand and an absolutely raw expression of genuinely-felt distress on the other, and as a result feels realer and more immediate than any adolescent posturing about Satanism or arcane mystical wittering on anticosmic Gnosticism or angry shouting about racial purity.
Outside of such subject matter subgenres, black metal projects have come out with a dizzying range of thematic focii. Paysage d’Hiver, for instance, can be enjoyed on a purely apolitical level, their releases consisting of atmospheric evocations of winter themes and mystical meditations thereon; the related Darkspace project takes a similar approach to evoke the nightmarish cold and isolation of deep space. Many projects take on an occult bent and are far more interested in deeply personal explorations of the psyche or cosmos than they are in any form of politics; on a more grounded level, acts like Wolves In the Throne Room combine a passion for environmentalism with a spiritual appreciation of nature, Book of Sand are anarcho-feminists, Demogoroth Satanum are a South African band of all-black members who use their lyrics and artwork to highlight the injustices of apartheid, and Al-Namrood turn the anti-religious bent of much black metal into a tool for political protest – for as a Saudi Arabia-based outfit, by writing and performing anti-religious music they put themselves at risk of death. There’s even Christian black metal projects (some of whom style themselves as “unblack metal”).
I actually think that the diversification of black metal can be traced back, ironically, to seeds sown by Varg himself – though this is surely a consequence he was not anticipating and didn’t appreciate. You see, Burzum was a solo project, and a diverse-sounding one at that; the material recorded prior to Varg being jailed for Euronymous’ murder (the run of albums from the self-titled debut to Filosofem) run the gamut from lo-fi black metal to more carefully-produced, synthesiser-driven ambient stuff and everything in between.
Burzum’s legendary one-man-band status sent a message loud and clear: a) you do not need a full band to make black metal, it can be a solo bedroom project if you wish, and b) your solo bedroom project doesn’t have to sound like utter shit. It set a low barrier not just for producing black metal material, but for being listened to and respected within the black metal scene – indeed, some bands took lo-fi, zero-budget recording aesthetics to an extreme. Gatekeeping in black metal, then, becomes that much harder precisely because of that low barrier to entry – and precisely because Burzum wasn’t afraid to go a little experimental and range beyond the barriers of black metal in search of additional sonic spice, many subsequent musicians haven’t been averse to such experimentation either. Groups like Deafheaven and Alcest, for instance, have gained attention by combining the so-called “atmospheric black metal” style inspired by the more experimental Burzum albums with shoegaze influences.
Attempts to gatekeep continue, of course. Angry purists denounce the likes of Deafheaven or Alcest or Myrkur – slammed for the twin sins of a) being a woman and b) being in an indie pop band outside of her black metal activities. Their various complaints boil down to an accusation that such groups are polluting the purity of the subgenre – a purity which, Lords of Chaos makes clear, was very important to the Norwegian black circle. Furthermore, anyone who wants to engage with black metal as a subgenre without inadvertently supporting the work of fascists needs to rigorously curate what they dip into, as even professional metal journalists find they have to do.
It’s fortunate in some ways that the fascist elements in black metal tend to correlate with a particular narrow idea of what the black metal aesthetic should be; it means that if a band is taking ideas from black metal but also blending it with interesting concepts from other genres, then it’s a bit less likely to be fascist than a group who are aggressively ripping off early Darkthrone’s style. Then again, that’s just a tendency, not a hard and fast rule; Nokturnal Mortum, a Ukrainian black metal group, went through a patch when they were overtly a NSBM band before they tried to play the obnoxious game many such bands play where they just pretend to be about “national pride” and whatnot and make their lyrics a bit less obviously Hitler-y – whilst still pandering to fascist romanticisation of the past and playing at far-right festivals, a blatant attempt to try and broaden their fanbase without losing the affection of the stiff-right-arm brigade who’d they’d won over with their earlier material. They don’t play straight-ahead black metal so much as a symphonic fusion of black metal and folk influences.
Point is, black metal has broadened its horizons and spread beyond the rut that the old school purists advocate for it – but it still hasn’t cleaned house when it comes to who gets attention and promotion and acclaim. It’s a matter of enduring frustration for me, because there’s some really powerful and exciting music coming out of the scene, but it’s also an area of music I don’t feel able to widely trumpet and recommend because of all the fucking Nazis clogging it up. I can’t even recommend getting Lords of Chaos first-hand (my copy is second hand) because I don’t want to support Moynihan. At the same time, I can’t wholly deny it’s value. One thing Moynihan is able to do is set his various interview subjects at ease and get them to disclose stuff to him that they might have been reluctant to reveal to someone who wasn’t a fellow traveller, after all. At the end of the day, Moynihan’s book is interesting enough to be worth looking at, but dodgy enough not to give further royalties to Moynihan over – in the same way you shouldn’t buy Burzum albums first-hand because Varg doesn’t need the money to buy guns and live like a militia terrorist in the south of France, where he’s retreated to after prison with his wife and kids.