Flaming Youth: The Pioneering Teenagers Who Helped Create The Swedish Heavy Metal Story
"I was about seven or eight when I started listening to my Dad's cassettes, he had hundreds by the late 70s. He always like Motörhead especially the song "One Track Mind" off of Another Perfect Day (1983). He would play it full blast in our blue Volvo, so I guess my sister and I were brainwashed at a very early age. I think I was initially drawn to the metal cassettes because of their covers and spent a lot of time gazing at his vinyl collection, especially the cover of Lene Lovich's album Flex and the skull on the cover of Oxygene by Jean-Michel Jarre. It was a sheer luxury to have as a child, something I realized as I got older."
–the author of Blood Fire Death: The Swedish Heavy Metal Story, and journalist Ika Johannesson talking about her early exposure to heavy metal growing up in Sweden. We should all be so lucky.
Long before the band Europe put Sweden on the map in 1982, teenagers in Sweden were already busy cultivating their own heavy metal scene. Kids would travel to Stockholm to buy issues of Kerrang!, share demo tapes, and form bands whose members would often rotate in-and-out of other bands communally. Bands like Heavy Load (formed in 1978), Bathory (1983), and Nihilist (1987, later Entombed) were a formative part of the early days of Swedish heavy metal and the emergence of Swedish-styled death metal. In the newly updated book by scene veterans Ika Johannesson and Jon Jefferson Klingberg, Blood Fire Death: The Swedish Heavy Metal Story, the authors have mapped out a clear trajectory of how teens from across the country came to successfully combine the fuck off fervor of punk rock with the then emerging wails of death metal, while drawing inspiration from bands like Iron Maiden and KISS. Satanism, Nordic pirates, and death–all are cornerstone components of Swedish heavy metal and death metal, and what happened in Sweden early on was conceptualized and made tangible, to a large degree, by teenagers.
Unlike their contemporaries who formed bands thousands of miles away like hardcore heroes Circle Jerks and Slayer, kids in Sweden had a hard time accessing musical entertainment that wasn't ABBA or ABBA-adjacent on the radio and TV in the 70's up until the late 80s. Johannessen recalls any kind of musical entertainment was scarce on SVT until about 1984 when the music video show Bagen (The Bag) launched. Radio thankfully offered more options and variety. Lack of accessibility fueled the desire to create a metal scene in Sweden, not only including technically proficient musicians dedicated to the ethos of metal in its darkest form, but also artists whose work would help further define the mystique of the scene, especially concepts and images meant to encapsulate death metal. From Niflheim's obsession with their homemade leather and spikes to the extremes Per Yngve Ohlin–aka Pelle/Dead of Morbid and Mayhem would subject himself in order to create his art, the movement was rife with subversive imagery and messages embraced with open arms by anyone willing to receive its message.
As the title of this post tells you, we'll be focusing on the kids who ended up in bands such as Entombed, Nifelheim, Heavy Load, and Morbid, touching on some backstory to help shed a much-needed light on the dedication it took to make Swedish heavy and death metal become a reality. I mean, were you breaking into slaughterhouses to pick out cow spines, pig heads, and entrails to put in a coffin at your bands next gig in the 80s? Have maggots ever rained down on you during a gig while the rusty tips of your spiked armbands rip your flesh? No? Death metal bands in the U.S. weren't hitting up butcher shops for stage props, but they were utilizing imagery inspired by Satan, gore, and pain.
Before we get started a quick note; I do not consider myself an expert as it pertains to my knowledge of Swedish death metal. I just know what I like, and Blood Fire Death is the ultimate gateway drug to becoming more enlightened about the seismic impact Sweden made to heavy metal. Let's roll.
"We will kill you if you don't like Iron Maiden because then you are a fucking wimp."
–Erik "Tyrant" Gustafsson of Nifelheim
Formed by twin brothers Pelle "Hellbutcher" Gustafsson and Erik "Tyrant" Gustafsson, visually Nifelheim has been described as a mashup of "Pinhead" (from the film franchise Hellraiser) and a "psychotic biker risen from the depths of hell." In the words of Tyrant, "You must suffer for metal. It demands it" and the fact that Tyrant and his twin Hellbutcher make their gonzo Road-Warrior-gone-metal clothing themselves is just one of the ways the band attested to their "suffering" in the name of death metal. Nifelheim produced only four albums, playing only 100 shows over the course of nearly three decades, and to date they are one of the most revered black metal bands hailing from Sweden. They are also considered two of the most dedicated fans of Iron Maiden. Proof of this was broadcast in a segment for Sveriges Television culminating with the brothers meeting their idols.
As children, the twins would travel with their parents, seeking out record stores wherever they went and soon both Erik and Pelle were playing instruments–Erik picking up the bass like his hero Steve Harris. After moving to Uddevalla to attend high school, they would finally connect with other metalheads who introduced them to the magic of heavy metal fanzines, and soon thereafter were in touch with kids just like them all over the country. With pig entrails, black leather and a few hundred spikes fashioned from nails later, Nifelheim came to be in 1990. Their most recent release, 2014's Satanatas, has been compared to early Bathory and rightly so–it's that fucking good.
"From Hell's Vast Plains" a track from Nifelheim's 2014 album, Satanatas.
Nihilist and Entombed
The average age of members of Nihilist in 1987 was fifteen. Original members Nicke Anderson and guitarist Leif Cuzner were childhood friends, and the two attended summer camp together (in the popular Dalarna county region of the Svealand province in Sweden) with another future member of the black metal community, Lobotomy drummer Daniel Strachal. The photo of the trio (above) throwing up devil horns with Strachal wearing a W.A.S.P t-shirt could be considered a heavy metal crystal ball of sorts, considering the contributions and connections both Nihilist and Entombed made within the genre. According to an interview with Cuzner, after he moved to Canada they even formed a band at summer camp called SONS OF SATAN, named in honor of the first track on Venom's 1981 debut, Welcome to Hell. Because in Sweden, even summer camp is completely fucking metal.
Though Leif Cuzner was sadly not long for this world (the innovative guitarist committed suicide in 2006), his "buzzsaw" technique (also referred to as the "Swedish Death Metal Crunch") set the black metal benchmark for guitar sounds. I'm no musician but I enjoying geeking out on gear and technique, and Cuzner's hallmark noise was achieved by combining B tuning and a Boss "Heavy Metal" effect pedal, then cranking his Marshall stack up all the way. Entombed vocalist LG Petrov played the drums on Morbid's demo December Moon and Nicke Andersson was deeply involved in trading cassettes and contributing articles and artwork to various fanzines. Nihilist only lasted for two short years, putting out a bunch of celebrated demos before becoming Entombed sometime in 1989, releasing the album Left Hand Path (most members were seventeen and eighteen-years-old now), and the record is considered one of the most defining contributions to the Swedish metal scene.
A track from Nihilist's 1988 demo Premature Autopsy, "Sentenced to Death."
The title track from Entombed's 1990 debut, "Left Hand Path."
Heavy Load was started back in the late 70s by another brother duo of Ragne Folke Herman Wahlquist and Stybjorn Wahlquist, along with bassist Michale Backlund. When the brothers were seventeen, like all good metalheads they went to visit their grandmother (or Moremore as Nana's are referred to in Sweden) in Norway where they listened to Deep Purple's 1971 album Machine Head. Thanks to their impossibly cool Mormore, the boys would spend the next two years listening to Machine Head until they had saved enough money to buy Deep Purple's 1972 live album, Made in Japan and were deadly serious about becoming a band themselves. Their first gig as Heavy Load took place in 1976 for which they created a massive drum riser made of wood. Ragne also brought six Marshall cabinets and four amps to the show noting in retrospect the following:
"Nobody really needs six Marshall cabinets and four amps. But I wanted it that way. It was my thing."
While we're on the very metal topic of Marshall amps, another notable Swede, Leif Edling of Candlemass, got to see Heavy Load early on and said unequivocally that the band was the country's first heavy metal band. It was also the same time he had ever seen a band line the entire stage with a wall of Marshall stacks. With assistance from another deeply influential Stockholm-based resource (and a mecca for metalheads), record shop Heavy Sound helped Heavy Load finance their first record, Full Speed at High Level (1978). The closing track on the album, "Son of Northern Light," could easily be passed off as an obscure, early jam from Metallica (think "Hit the Lights"), even though Metallica wouldn't be Metallica until 1981. 1981 was also the same year the Wahlquist brothers started their own record label, Thunderload Records. Since I've established previously, I am a bit of record art nerd, Heavy Load's album artwork does not disappoint. At least three of the band's albums include fantasy artwork by mysterious Swedish artist, Johan Holm.
"Son of Northern Light."
"He (Pelle Ohlin) is an icon, a sort of Jim Morrison of black metal. I believe anyone who's in the least bit interested in black metal traces the genre back to him."
–Erik Wallin of Swedish extreme metal band Merciless.
In a fantastic interview with Decibel, Ika Johannesson spoke about a particularly poignant chapter in Blood Fire Death which focuses on Pelle Ohlin, aka Dead–the vocalist for Morbid, and later Norway band Mayhem. The extreme metal scene in Sweden had proliferated when Pelle took his life in 1991–and the shocking news (especially concerning the actions of Pelle's Mayhem bandmate Øystein Aarseth following Pelle's suicide) were soon joined by reports of Norwegian churches being burned to the ground by blood-thirsty Satanists. As noted in the book, Erik Wallin's comments about Pelle are accurate, and Pelle's contributions to the genre have long been overshadowed by the sensational events which transpired following his death at the age of 22. In fact, as Johannessen learned, most of Ohlin's Swedish friends were taken back by stories and "rumors" portrayed in various posthumous documentaries about Pelle and Mayhem, as well as books and other articles. This was not the Pelle they knew or had grown up with–an easygoing kid who loved going to parties with his friends who loved KISS, Venom, and horror films.
Things would change for Pelle in high school where he was mercilessly bullied and later so badly beaten by his classmates that he nearly died. His parents acted quickly and enrolled Pelle in a new school where he would find his tribe and form his first band Ohlin Metal, eventually dropping out of high school to pursue music full time. Soon, Pelle would start to cultivate his image with such extreme dedication he would, among other things, bury his clothes with the carcasses of dead animals he had found for days before a gig so they reeked with the stench of "decay." Thanks to Johannessen's tenacity and desire to see Pelle's story told, Ohlin's family and friends seem to finally have some closure as it pertains to Pelle's death, that his impact on the genre receives the credit it so rightfully deserves.
If you have not already, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Blood Fire Death, as this post has merely scratched the surface of the vast ground covered by Johannessen and writer/Docenterna guitarist Jon Jefferson Klingberg in the seven years it took to complete their exhaustive, eloquent homage to a scene they were very much a part of. Lastly, if the title of the book reminds you of something, it should as it was borrowed from the title of Bathory's fourth album of the same name.
"My Dark Subconscience" from December Moon.