Lords of Chaos: A Norwegian Black Metal Primer
Published on 22 March 2019
A group of young men, sullen and serious in Corpsepaint, encircle an ancient church and throw lit torches towards the building, burning it to the ground.
Another young man with long hair and dark clothing leaves a hand-written note beginning with the words ‘Excuse the blood’ before sitting on the floor of his hallway, putting a shotgun to his forehead and pulling the trigger.
Two angry young men shout, grapple and run around a Norwegian apartment. Former friends, the two men fight, chase each other down multiple sets of stairs whilst stabbing, before one man drives a kitchen knife into the skull of the other, killing him almost instantly.
These scenes, and more, are what make up the bleak and violent history of Scandinavia’s Black Metal scene of the early nineties. It’s a dark tale indeed, one that would be relatively difficult to believe these days, were it not for the fact that most of the people involved are still alive and only in their early to mid-fifties today. No other musical scene has engendered such a reputation and left such a disturbing legacy.
We feel like we want to warn causal readers at this point that this story - a matter of musical history - is intense and in places rather nasty. Those of a sensitive nature may find some of this a little disturbing. You’ve been warned...
Is Black Metal Satanic? If so, what does that even mean? And how did this scene come to form such extreme music, extreme passions and extreme behaviour?
That is something that filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund is seeking to answer with his forthcoming movie, Lords of Chaos. The end of March sees the UK release of this dramatic re-telling of those fateful years in Scandinavia. Famous for his iconic music videos for the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rammstein and the Prodigy, Åkerlund is also a musician, having played drums for defining Black Metal band Bathory in the early 80s. It seems he is the perfect man for the job of bringing this strange period in time back to life.
So, we began our article with some of the most dramatic events of the Scandinavian Black Metal scene but perhaps we should backtrack slightly and gain a little context. A fairly good place may be explaining just what ‘Black Metal’ even is!
Black Metal is a specific subgenre of extreme metal. Musically, you’ll hear lots of blast beats (fast and machine gun-like drum beats at tempos well past 250 bpm), tremolo-picked guitar riffs and some seriously ‘witchy’ sounding vocals. Subject matter of the songs is often blasphemous and satanic, though this is not seemingly a prerequisite of the genre as much as it is a recurring motif. To be clear, many Black Metal bands take this side of things supremely seriously and incorporate ritualistic behaviour in their live shows and personal lives. Otherwise, lyrical content tends to be about the nature and context of evil in its many forms.
Musically, the forebears of Black Metal were 80s Thrash and Death metal. Influential early Black Metal bands include Celtic Frost, Bathory and, perhaps most of all, Venom. From this came a second wave in the late 80s and early 90s which spawned the scene we are looking at today. Norway is the focus and bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor, Satyricon and Burzum are amongst the most notorious of these bands. Black Metal was all about sounding large, dramatic and hostile: guitars were downtuned, trebly and dripping with lethal levels of gain. Riffs and solos were certainly there but the overall sound was more important, with low budgets making many seminal recordings sound relatively lo-fi. Vocals and drums are arguably the most significant factors in this style.
Visually, Black Metal artists wore a lot of black, used esoteric and anti-Christian symbology like inverted crosses, pentagrams and images of Baphomet (a small subsection of Black Metal followers were Neo-Nazis but, as a genre, this was not a characteristic) and most obviously, the use of black and white face paint known as Corpsepaint. Satanism was certainly a part of Black Metal, though arguably this was closer to a type of neo-paganism than anything from Anton La Vey’s Church of Satan. This area is still hotly debated so we won’t comment too far in this direction. Suffice to say, interested parties can find lots to read about online.
Mayhem were one of the central bands of the Norwegian Black Metal scene. Their guitarist and de facto leader was Øystein Aarseth, better known by his stage pseudonym Euronymous. Euronymous not only started up the ‘Deathlike Silence Productions’ record label, he also ran a local record store (named Helvete, which is Norwegian for Hell) that became a hub for fellow Black Metallers.
Euronymous was outspoken with his Satanic opinions and liked to dress in a theatrical, vampiric manner. His confident and unsympathetic demeanour made him a popular figure in the Norwegian underground scene, though this same personality also caused him calamitous trouble, as we’ll see.
Euronymous’ bandmate in Mayhem was vocalist Per ‘Dead’ Yngve Ohlin. Stories abound of Dead’s unusual (to say the least) behaviour: before gigs, he would roll around in earthy ground and partially bury himself in order to look and smell more like a corpse; he often self-harmed on stage with broken glass; he even kept a dead crow in a plastic bag and inhaled the rotten smell of it before heading on stage. There are more stories out there but these few illustrate a young person in thrall to an image and worldview that is obviously extreme.
The two bandmates, Euronymous and Dead, lived together but eventually began to turn on each other. Dead’s behaviour grew more extreme whilst his mental state worsened until he violently took his own life, first with a knife and then with a shotgun. His suicide note explained that he felt that he was not human and that his life was a dream he would soon wake from.
Euronymous found Dead’s body but, instead of immediately informing the authorities, instead went into town to pick up a camera before photographing the body. These images were then used as a front cover of a later Mayhem release. Euronymous went as far as to keep pieces of Dead’s skull, sewing them into necklaces he then gifted to those musicians on the scene he deemed worthy of the ‘honour’. It seems unreal to even write that sentence, but these are facts.
(Above: Østein Aarseth, otherwise known as Euronymous)
The church burnings began in 1992. In less than four years, over 50 acts of arson against Christian churches had been reported in Norway. Burzum’s Varg Vikernes (whom we’ll come back to) is generally thought of as the person who began the burnings, destroying a church in Bergen and using a photograph of the result as the cover of Burzum’s ‘Ashes’ EP.
Friends with Euronymous, the two musicians plotted to set many more fires together, seeing it as an expression of their views and symbolically retaliating over the orthodoxy’s power and influence in Norway.
Was this the case? Was it, in fact, a case of scene-followers looking for recognition and congratulation from Black Metal’s gate-keepers? And did the church burnings serve any real purpose? It’s hard to say from an outside perspective but nothing of its like has happened again and we are, after all, writing about it a quarter of a century later. Whatever the ultimate purpose or aim, these criminal acts of arson and remorseless destruction are seared into the very fabric of Metal’s history.
Perhaps the most notorious episode in the saga of 90s Black Metal is the murder of Euronymous. Due to his record store and independent label, Euronymous became the focal point for the scene. As we know, one of the records he released was by Burzum, a solo project by his friend and fellow church-burner Varg Vikernes, otherwise known as Count Grishnackh. Euronymous invited Vikernes to play bass on the latest Mayhem record, bringing the two closer together and raising Vikernes’ profile in the scene. The two became close friends but this slipped quickly into rivalry and eventually enmity. Vikernes appeared to be the more extreme of the two, showing himself more willing to act on his impulses rather than merely talk of them.
(Above: Varg Vikernes, otherwise known as Count Grishnackh)
In an anonymous radio interview in January 1993, Vikernes mentioned that he’d committed a murder as well as admitting to burning the churches. He was promptly arrested but, without sufficient evidence to convict, was released. It is unknown whether this murder is fact or fantasy, but the intention of the interview was to publicise the Helvete record shop and drive in more business so presumably, stories like this would be effective for publicity whether true or not. Either way, it was clear that things were going far too far.
Events came to an head in August of 1993. Euronymous was by many accounts becoming a difficult person to many in the Black Metal scene. Accounts differ but several reports suggest that Euronymous had made death threats in relation to Vikernes. For his part, Vikernes maintains that he then acted in self-defence, maintaining that he’d been tipped off about what Euronymous was saying, adding that he knew the threat was genuine since Euronymous had told only a few close friends, rather than announcing it in a boastful way to all within earshot. Believing that Euronymous intended to electrocute, torture and kill him, he went to visit him at his home, responding to an invite from Euronymous regarding an unsigned contract. This brought him to the door of Euronymous’ 4th floor apartment in Oslo.
Vikernes says that he was attacked at the front door by Euronymous, who then ran into his flat to grab a weapon. A fight broke out, which moved its way down the floors of the building. Whatever really went down in that apartment block, Euronymous was left dead on a staircase three floors down from his apartment with 23 stab wounds to his back, neck and head. Vikernes dumped his bloodstained clothes and drove home with a friend.
Several people in the Black Metal scene were arrested and, during the trial, it turned out that there was evidence of premeditation: one friend was left at Vikernes’ apartment and instructed to both rent films and withdraw money using Vikernes’ credit card in order to provide an alibi. Vikernes was found guilty of murder, three counts of arson, another count of attempted arson (all churches) and of the theft of 150 kg of explosives. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the highest sentence available in Norway.
On the day he was sentenced, two more churches were burned.
The remaining members of Mayhem decided to carry on after Euronymous’ murder. The parents of the deceased asked for Vikernes’ basslines to be removed from the album they were working on at the time of the killing. Despite agreeing to this, the resulting album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, contains Vikernes’ bass parts alongside Euronymous’ guitars after all.
The Black Metal scene in Norway continued as if nothing had happened. Indeed, many reported that there was a sense of relief that the ‘Black Metal Police’ were no longer threatening people and bossing them around. The man who had been idolized by younger members of the scene was now quickly forgotten.
So where does that leave the Black Metal scene today? As a genre, it is not only thriving but is now at the point of influencing new types of music from outside the rigid doctrines of the die-hard Black Metallers. Bands like Zeal & Ardour and Myrkur are making exciting and beautiful music that bears a direct Black Metal influence but are taking the form into new territory. Other bands like Behemoth, who formed in Poland around the time of Black Metal’s second wave, have taken the sound and ethos (though not the behaviour) and created their own ‘Blackened Death Metal’ that is proving to be more popular than ever.
The influence of Black Metal’s music can be heard in bands from all over the world these days, from Judas Iscariot in America to Melechesh in Jerusalem, proving that this is a scene that is not restricted by geography. The church burnings and murders have not been elements that have continued.
In the guitar world, the legacy of Black Metal continues with plenty of appropriately shaped guitars from ESP, BC Rich, Ibanez and Gibson. Euronymous' guitar of choice was, in fact, a completely mainstream Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard! Seymour Duncan offer harsh (actually really good sounding) Black Metal sounds in the form of their Black Winter and Nazgul pickups.
Jonus Åkerlund’s movie, Lord of Chaos, is released in the UK at the end of March. Whether it answers any of the questions regarding the behaviour of these extreme individuals remains to be seen but, as you’ve just read, it is certainly a story that needs to be told.
Lords Of Chaos is releasing in UK cinemas from 29th March, for more info, you can check out the film's website here.