Bergen is a historical Norwegian municipality with an internationally competitive petroleum industry, known for its colorful medieval wharf and the still waters of its harbor. If you travel by light rail about 20 minutes south from its center, you emerge at the terminus of a long, winding road in a much quieter town by the name of Fantoft. Follow this road up by foot another 15 minutes and you pass by neighborhoods of little mansions stacked across the slope of a rising hilltop. Keep moving, and you appear in a clearing that eventually gives way to a forested path carpeted by several layers of mud and fallen leaves. At the end of this path is a gorgeous medieval stave church, or rather a replica of one: Members of the early Norwegian black metal scene burned the original building down in 1992.
On a mid-November morning, hikers and their dogs flit in and out of the hilly expanse, grasping on trees to keep their balance and trying not to slip in the mud. Many of them are either ignoring or coming back from seeing the impressive wooden structure, which was originally built in 1150, at the center of all this natural beauty. Norway is a Christian nation well known for its unusual churches, constructed out of timber instead of limestone in the Middle Ages, many of which do survive to this day. The wooden edifice of the replica recedes into the thousands of years of old growth surrounding it, and yet one cannot help feeling as if the church is as much a work of careful craftsmanship in its own right as a wooden gravestone demarcating the real thing.
I had heard that fans of black metal can sometimes be seen haunting the grounds of Fantoft. As the first such attack of many that came to define black metal’s political core, its burning has become essential to the lore of the original scene. But on that morning, I was the only one in sight. (You can always spot a fan of black metal: Look for the spidery white logotype on a faded black shirt and his unhappy sneer.) What would they have come for, anyway? To pay their respects? For a genre of music doggedly committed to an anti-establishment ethos, that would be unthinkable. Perhaps they would have come to see the moment black metal peaked, for a little more than a year after the arson, black metal as an ideological concept had all but disappeared.
Not long after lunchtime, darkness has already settled over Norway, and everyone has retreated inside. Nevertheless, Norwegians have for centuries made the best of it. One long-standing tradition is to fill interiors with the light of little candles, such that even every table in their version of Starbucks has a dancing flame at its center. One evening, in another November several years ago, Norwegians hunkered down around these flames while watching a continuous seven-hour broadcast of the train ride between Oslo and Bergen, in the first instance of what came to be called “slow TV.” I learned the appeal on my own train ride along that same route: sun rising over grassy hills, greens and browns giving way to an all-consuming blizzard that lasted almost until my arrival.
It is in this environment that black metal took root. Old, cold, and full of trolls; a reaction as much to the quiet evenings that start so early in cozy pubs as to the preponderance of new wealth. One of my hosts, in Oslo, explained that once Norway struck oil the country has been kicking back ever since. Black metal musicians were never so content. They cut themselves on stage and breathed fire and composed odes to murder and gore. A vocalist of the band Mayhem, a young man named Per Yngve Ohlin, thought the world was a dead place through which his ghost was being telegraphed. He was rumored to have buried his clothes in the ground in order to smell like rot, and he wore on his face a thick white paste and black makeup that was later known as corpse-paint, a practice which became so popular that it practically defines the visual aesthetic of the early Norwegian scene. Ohlin, who called himself Dead, committed suicide by first slashing his wrists and then firing a shotgun into his skull. When he was found, by Mayhem’s guitarist, “souvenirs” were taken, including photographs and pieces of the body. One of the photographs, depicting Dead’s obliterated skullcap, made it onto a pseudo-official Mayhem release in 1995. By then, however, that same guitarist, who went by Euronymous, was himself already dead.
What is black metal? It may be more instructive to say what it is not. It is not death metal, that speedy chug-chugging explosion of noise. Black metal prefers to drag measures out for maximum consideration, and on a much higher register of bestial shrieks and overdriven treble. It is not always affiliated with modern National Socialist movements, but it can be, and most listeners are more than willing to tolerate neo-Nazi bands because black metal is supposed to be purely about the music. Ideologically, black metal espouses individualism, nihilism, and anti-consumerism, like some kind of Satanic Thoreau. It is dark and hateful because the battle to uphold artistic integrity in the face of late-stage capitalism will always be a losing one.
When we receive black metal in the U.S., we are looking into black metal’s future, getting a glimpse of how it evolved out of violence and anomie into music so palatable that bands often debut tracks on NPR. But I wanted to understand how black metal bands today reconciled those murky origins with the genre they champion, and so I was on my way to Bergen to catch the second night of Blekkmetal, a one-off music festival. The organizers aspired to recreate the aura of the early-’90s scene and had booked legendary bands to play, including the reunited Old Funeral and the long-running Enslaved. I worried upon arrival that the festival would be too cute for its own good, coyly winking at its attendees, who as it turned out were in on the joke. The fear was realized as bands emerged on stage through wraparound velvet curtains, and though the music was deafening, fierce, and hateful, it was met with polite applause and horn salutes. Men in their late 30s gathered around to take group selfies. Thurston Moore was there.
The only people taking it seriously were the bands themselves. Hoest, who formed his band Taake in 1993, donned full corpse-paint and looked ready to go to war. Taake was scheduled to perform as the headliner, but Hoest was invited out for one song by another band to perform guest vocals, where he and his glistening bare chest were met with giddy cheers and more horn salutes. Helheim, another band dating to around the same time, beamed a succession of moving images onto the wall behind the stage; some added to the mesmerizing effect of the music, but others were less successful. One was a crucifix engulfed in fire, as promising a symbol of black metal as any, except that, like an animated GIF doomed to repeat ad infinitum, the cross was never actually consumed by the flames. The effect of the cross withstanding destruction was clearly unintentional, but it brought to mind the stave church at Fantoft, resisting all these many years to stay ashes.
I posed the question to Fenriz, of the band Darkthrone, who along with cofounding one of the most influential bands in black metal history has also done a lot of the work in keeping the music alive and relevant. He throws away more music in a year than most people are able to consume in a lifetime, playing personal recommendations on his radio show when he’s not writing new music for his own projects. “The essence of black metal,” he began telling me, “I usually say, ‘Listen to the second Bathory album.’” He’s referring to The Return, a 1985 release that laid much of the groundwork for what is considered the traditional black metal sound. “Right in there, in the music,” Fenriz said, “you don’t even have to check the lyrics, just listen to it. There’s black metal.” The key was variation. What the first bands understood was that influences and playing styles had to come from a variety of places, which Fenriz likened to a primordial soup. “Like the first Possessed album,” he said, “had a song called ‘Death Metal’ so many people thought, ‘OK, maybe this is death metal then.’ But in other respects, it’s a thrash metal album. In the third respect, it’s a black metal album. So that album you can use an archetype for what was going in the entire scene.”
Back then, black metal as such was usually described as some combination of death metal and thrash. Euronymous formed Mayhem in 1984 and adopted the term “black metal” (from the title of a thrash metal song) to describe the type of music they would play. Centered around the meeting place in his Oslo record store, black metal grew out of the perception that death metal had grown too soft. In addition to the church burnings, there was a handful of murders, including at least one that was homophobic in nature and another that involved torture. (The killer in the latter went on to form a neo-Nazi band underwritten by the National Alliance.) But the last of these black-metal-connected murders was that of Euronymous himself, stabbed dozens of times by his bandmate and rival Varg Vikernes, almost one year to the day after the pair burned down a wooden chapel in the Oslo neighborhood of Holmenkollen. If the murder was the result of a power struggle in an increasingly visible music scene, as many believe, Vikernes ultimately failed. He went to jail that following May, and black metal as an ideological movement almost completely evaporated. The church burnings petered out; nobody was getting hurt. A prominent figure in the black metal scene came out as gay and eventually won “homosexual of the year” at the annual Bergen Gay Gala. Black metal was more popular than ever, but intentionally or otherwise it had finally, truly become only about the music.
Black metal was more popular than ever, but intentionally or otherwise it had finally, truly become only about the music.
The Blekkmetal lineup I saw was the night after the massacres in Paris, in which 130 people were killed in a tightly coordinated terrorist attack by gunmen and suicide-murderers sent by the Islamic State. Eighty-nine of those killed were in the Bataclan theater, spending an evening not unlike we were doing just 24 hours later. I tried to let the music of our own evening wash over me, its volume piercing even the protective membrane of my earplugs, but what I felt was closer to pity. It was theater, a performance of evil, a cheap reenactment: words, screamed; armbands of spikes, swung. Sound and fury had never seemed to signify less. When Taake took the stage, Hoest was wearing a T-shirt with the Islamic crescent-and-star crossed out.
“[For] a lot of people, the first time they were exposed to metal was directly into black metal,” Fenriz told me. If you were a metalhead kid in 1994, you didn’t have access to the variety of iTunes and Spotify and music blogs, and what you would find instead would be all-consuming, even brainwashing. “The people of our generation, our age, already have been through all the metal styles, and they have total understanding of the variation thing,” Fenriz said. He compared his record shop-trawling generation to the current Internet-connected one as fans who listened to everything, with the intermediate generation of fans screwed by their insistence on loyalty to one genre. “So you have, not me, not the people who were 25, 26, those are not the problem. But the people who are maybe 35 now, they might have a really conservative view on black metal. Try to find some of those! They might be really fucked in the head. They might give you some juicy ideas about, ‘oh, black metal never died! I’m still living the life!’ Who the fuck doesn’t evolve as a human being? A lot of journalists want to ask about shit that happened, that I wrote 20 years ago, I always want to...I want to, but I don’t, I want to say, ‘Let’s see what you wrote 20 fucking years ago, let’s see what you wrote when you were 21 or 18. You feel confident with those things?’ It’s just I was stupid enough to put it out on vinyl.”
What Euronymous brought to the scene, and why he’s considered its godfather, was a place for everyone to meet, in his record store. Varg Vikernes used to live in its basement. “We wrote letters to each other,” Fenriz told me. “But then we had a physical meeting place in fucking Oslo, so shit started to happen. And I mean people without large educations, without jobs, idle hands and all that, there you got some church burnings. I had a steady a job, I had a lot to lose.” The members of Darkthrone moved away as the meeting place devolved into what Fenriz described as a boys’ social club.
The record store still exists today, although it’s now home to a lookalike called Neseblod Records. Nearly every inch of its walls is covered in some kind of black metal paraphernalia, mostly vinyl sleeves and posters, but also flyers and T-shirts and art donated by some of the original musicians. Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Burzum, Varg Vikernes’ solo project, are given special billing, comprising several rows of records. One can buy a 23-year-old Darkthrone record signed by Fenriz, as if black metal had frozen in time. “Come visit our black metal basement,” a sign outside advertises. On the evening I traveled there, I was the only visitor in the store. Without a word, I descended into its basement, where black metal acquired its taste for the shocking. But it turned out to be nothing more than a small cavern, where the air was thin and chilly, with stacks of records strewn this way and that, and the words “black metal” written on its furthest wall in fading black paint.