One God, Many or None; A Deeper Look at Religion in Black Metal
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The one sub-genre of music most closely associated with hatred, chaos, misanthropy, individualism, and a lack of rules has come to be known as black metal. Borne of a reactionary impulse against society and commercialism, the spiritual movement some say is long dead has actually existed for more than twenty-five years. Despite its anti-everything tenets, black metal is notorious for its comparably suffocating sets of rules. And though these rules are hardly agreed upon, it is somewhat ironic that the one musical style most concerned with the individual has adopted and embraced religion like no other. Religion??? I hear you asking. Yes, religion. To understand how something like this could arise, one must examine black metal’s history among the greater backdrop of heavy metal as a whole. One must first understand the mind of the metalhead
How many casual Anaal Nathrakh fans do you know? It’s a safe bet that there is no musical genre more sacred to its adherents than heavy metal. For most of us it is nothing less than a way of life. True fans don’t just listen to the music; they buy the albums, read the lyrics, and absorb all that the musician has given them into the very depths of their being.
Since its earliest days more than forty years in the past, heavy metal has been teased, beaten, and molded from fairly straightforward hard rock into a cornucopia of forms too numerous to list. Having been watered by the constant progression of its masterminds, metal’s family tree is therefore always evolving new branches. The resulting variety is all around us. A typical Destroyer 666 fan might scoff at the idea of Stratovarius. The girl with the Napalm Death ‘Scum’ back patch might very well scratch her head at the boy going bonkers over Dornenreich. Meanwhile the guy at The Gathering show just can’t wrap his head around his best mate’s love of the sweltering crust of Amebix. And yet no one would dispute seeing these bands filed in the same section at the local record shop. Beneath the complex umbrella of heavy metal, there is room for all of them.
If heavy metal music has morphed and changed so much, what keeps it all united under the same banner? There must be an underlying theme running beneath these startlingly different sounds. One could argue the answer is distorted guitars, but that would only be partially right. Sonically, perhaps, there are fleeting similarities between Mayhem and Nightwish, but what is it that truly allows such disparate entities to exist beneath the same roof?
The answer lies with intent. What is heavy metal in all its forms trying to provide or accomplish? Whatever it is it only seems to appeal to a select few. How are these unique, dedicated individuals distilled from the general sea of soulless, commercial claptrap being churned out by the big machine? Apart from demanding a higher quality experience in their music, metal fans have always been those who doubt, question, and above all else, seek answers.
Categorically, this music was always supposed to be about rebellion, be it personal, systemic, or existential. Most metal fans that come into the fold, at one point or another have experienced profound disappointment with the establishment’s lies. Be it from family, school, work, government, or religion, each of us has felt the ennui brought about by being lied to. Heavy metal provides a sonic catharsis that allows its fans to keep on chugging through life’s uncertain paths. It can be an intellectual pursuit, where the conflation of intelligent song structures and thought-provoking lyrics help lift us above despair. Or it can just be an adventure to realms of pure fantasy. It can instruct about our past, predict our future, or it can simply give us a platform to scream and yell and flail about, exorcising our daily demons in a healthy, more light-hearted manner. At its best, though, metal is the crucible within which we seek for greater meaning. A faith for the faithless, if you will.
Sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it? Enter black metal, that sonic shroud of pure darkness, that negatively charged particle in the atom of extreme music. One of the great ironies of music history is that this most hateful of sub-genres arose in one of the most liberal, secular nations in the world. Norway, whose people enjoyed and continue to enjoy one of the highest standards of living, gave birth to a sect of ideologists whose resume of arson, murder, misanthropy, and hate has been well documented; figures like Euronymous, Varg Vikernes, and Bård Faust became household names, their sociopathic deeds canonized by all adherents to the left hand musical path.
Being that metal music originates mostly from Christianized nations, which due to economics is much more widespread than music from Third World countries, it stands to reason that those seeking to lash out against societal norms would symbolize the archenemy of the Christian God as their emblem. Satan, the Adversary, became the face of this war as the eighties progressed. Occult rock bands had been praising the beast for years by the time pentagrams and inverted crosses started popping up on record sleeves. The first ilk of bands who embraced Satanic imagery, namely Hellhammer, Venom, and Slayer, were image-driven in their approach. There was no religious element to it whatsoever. The kids who first stumbled upon these bands, however, were transfixed by it. Many of them did not see the tongues buried in the cheeks. These kids are now between 30 and 50 years of age. They are the same people who went on to form or support the more familiar Satan-themed bands, from Morbid Angel and Deicide to Mayhem, Beherit, Emperor, Behemoth, Secrets of the Moon, and Dissection.
Even now, decades after most of these bands began forging their career paths, the number of groups hailing the Dark Lord has not lessened. If anything, it has increased. Whether one refers to the occult rock resurgence spearheaded by bands like Witchcraft and The Devil’s Blood, or the militant fastness of black metal orthodoxy, Satan as a theistic presence has remained prominent.
Why is this? The typical heavy metal fan has often been portrayed as a long-haired burnout concerned mainly with beer and tits and headbanging. And while all of those things are celebrated in the denim-and-leather canon of metal, the vast majority of metalheads are intelligent, discerning folk who doubt and reject the world around them. Philosophical Satanism should have been enough for these people. Summed up perfectly by bands like Destroyer 666 and earlier Samael, the non-deistic ‘do what thou wilt,’ forge your own path / be your own god Satanism is where it should have stopped.
Take this lyrical excerpt from ‘Chosen Race’ off of Samael’s 1996 masterwork ‘Passage.’
Fall black shroud, veil of ignorance
It is a new light we desire. Fall gods of man, worn masks
That our empire may at last rise up
Fight the fear of freedom, you cannot lose
Fragile are the steps
Sharp is the rise
Courage! Our time has come
Courage! The time is now.
Souls of steel.
No-one owns us.
Bands like Tsjuder, Taake, and Gorgoroth also embody this personal Satanism. Freed from canonical restraints, it is complete freedom of the individual to reject the impositions of mortal men – all of them. Though steeped in Christian euphemism, language, and riddled with references to ancient demons, it is therefore ultimately atheistic in nature. Its frequent brushes with Nietzchean thought lend this argument even more weight. Mayhem and Thorns, rooted in the second-wave of Norwegian black metal, shifted their own philosophies once the sensationalism of the early ‘90’s died down, choosing to reject deism of any kind. The focus now was on the darkness of self, the duality of man, with a dash of apocalyptic dread for good measure. Nowhere was this shift more noticeable than with one of the other linchpins of that second wave; Emperor.
With their 1999 masterwork ‘IX Equilibrium’ Ihsahn and Samoth abandoned the sweeping trem-heavy orchestration of their prior works for a more death-metal, forward thinking sound. Lyrically, they spelled out their intent both artfully and informatively. Consider this passage from ‘The Warriors of Modern Death:’
‘I see the spirit of those ancestors, and reconsider the faith.
A primitive sword cannot win my war. Cold fury, flaring eyes, calculated verbal gun. My pride justified, spiritual steel shines bright. Beyond the sun the pride of the warrior is far from dead. The colors of death are still black and red. Though modernized, blood will be shed.’
Ihsahn could have simply been telling us his days of arson were behind him, exchanged for the less prison-y pastures of expression solely through songwriting. Perhaps there was more to that message. It may well have signified a shift from deistic, mystic Satanism to the realms of a more personal, internal one. A rational dissent focused on the failings of mankind, and the liberation brought about by self-determinacy. Simply put, there is quite enough evil from which to draw inspiration in the deeds of men than in any made-up devil figure. Reject weakness, embrace strength, and be your own god.
Emperor was hardly alone. Out of the major players of the second wave, Satyricon and Arcturus left the black masses behind as the ‘90’s progressed. Two more of the scenes progenitors, Enslaved and Immortal, had never once even uttered the Devil’s name. By now they were no longer the exception, but the rule.
One could argue that this was as much a musical shift as a religious one. Augmented by avant-garde acts such as Dødheimsgard, Mysticum, Ulver, Aborym, Kampfar, Solefald, and Absu, black metal in the nineties was rapidly growing up and moving out of mum and dad’s basement. And while the music’s rigid shackles were being shed, Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth were exploding commercially, shining the spotlight onto a scene that had until now dwelled only in the deepest pits of the underground. Looking back, it was really only about five years until this little trend played itself out. As the media turned from black metal to nu-metal and then on to the thrash revival, one might think Satan’s original minions would return to the lo-fi ideals of its turbulent youth. But no, the spell was broken. Very few of the scene’s originators ever plied the same territory again.
Yet as the first decade of the new millennium wore on, metal began a series of retro trends that continues to this day. These mostly consist of doom and thrash, but old school black metal has, like Ouroboros the world-serpent eating its own tail, gone back into its roots to a time of rebirth. Led and nurtured by Finland, France, Sweden, and America, a wave of crushing black metal acts has reinstalled Satan himself upon the throne he once occupied. Sargeist, Horna, Watain, Funeral Mist, Weapon, Deathspell Omega, Ascension . . . the list goes on.
Called orthodox black metal, its adherents accept Satan as a real entity, a force exerting a palpable will on those seeking it out. Why? And why now? In a world where religion has become a caricature of itself, losing its grip anywhere there are high educational standards; why would an intelligent group of young men and women accept the antithesis to the Christian God as their own personal God? This is the big problem with orthodox Satanists in metal. The tunes are great – musically they’ve forged some amazing new paths through black metal’s sprawling murk – but hold that aside for a moment and consider their philosophy. When the members of Watain are seen praying before a performance, hands joined, reciting their memorized lines, what is the discerning, questioning skeptic supposed to think? What is the difference between such behavior and that of evangelical Christians praying outside of an abortion clinic? How does it differ, apart from cooler imagery and music, from the warped thinking of any religious fundamentalist? It is all the same delusion.
Yet it persists. Take, for example, those countries spearheading this orthodox Satanist movement. The United States is ~20% atheistic. France, Finland, and Sweden on the other hand are each between 25-40% atheistic. Be that as it may, there are no rules saying a black metal fan must be a non-believer. Despite the later shift toward philosophical Satanism, the genre as a whole was always intended to be a fist in the face of god. It exists to spit venom at the feeble Christian, mock the Trinity, and scorn the Jewish son of God. After twenty-plus years, a few are even (finally) pointing the sword of hate toward Islam, as evidenced by the superbly done ‘Remnants of a Burnt Mosque,’ by the aforementioned Weapon:
See the Leviathan lake of skulls? A crimson saga of Muslims burned!
While Mohammad weeps (like a broken parasite), (And) only the dead
Whisper Allahu-Akbar. From the remnants of this burnt mosque,
A coven erected for the Reaper sublime.
Fans of extreme metal will never complain about this type of vitriol, having no love for the purveyors of religious dogma at whom it is aimed. But isn’t it just a smidge ironic that the musicians building careers out of blasting the Abrahamic Faiths have chosen a deity from those very same doctrines as their champion?
The attitude of orthodox Satanism can be summed up most concisely by this verse from the 2001 album ‘Strength and Honour,’ by Satanic Warmaster:
Black Metal is War
The glare of churches burning in the night
The glow of nails and steel in the darkness
Nordic blood that boils with hatred is the knife
That slits the throat of the Christian god
There’s certainly no ambiguity in that verse. Spewing hatred for its own sake seems to be the prevailing message of orthodox Satanism. I wonder if the ranting of a particularly draconian Imam would sound any different. Perhaps such a level of unprovoked hate could also be found in the sermons of the Westboro Baptist Church, which attributes deadly earthquakes to the existence of homosexuals. In a world of massacres, suicide bombings, and monthly school shootings, what place does evil for evil’s sake really have anymore? And if we are going to enjoy music that is 100% negative, hateful, and malicious, why frame it in the parables of yet another religious dogma?
Do not despair, fans of black metal, for there are yet avenues of expression bereft of this ardent conservatism. Let us trade in the tired Judeo-Christian Satan for an open sense of wonder; a cosmic inquiry into the mystical, with roots far older and deeper than any Bronze Age myth. Occult black metal provides the discerning individualist with a far more engaging template with which to work. The music is just as sweeping and majestic as orthodox Satanic black metal, as bands like Inquisition, Melechesh, and Absu can certainly attest, but there is more of a ‘thirst for enlightenment’ feeling to these bands’ catalogues.
Occult black metal, along with secular black metal (e.g. Zyklon, Aborym, Destroyer 666, Kommandant, Cobalt, Anaal Nathrakh, Sacramentum, Axis of Perdition), contains subject matter that tends to be a little more variant and opaque. Yet they are still platforms of negativity, darkness, and atavism, accepted by all but the most close-minded fans.
This is not the whole story, though. There is still one more facet of black metal that has grown out of the ashes of the first two waves. Known as pagan black metal, this newer strain has old roots. There were some bands who adopted the furious pace and spiteful, venomous vocal attack of more traditional black metal, but they did so without any references to Satan. Touched on earlier, bands like Enslaved, Satyricon, Windir, Kampfar, and Immortal arose around the same time as Darkthrone, Emperor, and Mayhem, and proved that the black in black metal could come from a far broader spectrum of ideas.
There exists a much more palpable and engaging wellspring of inspiration than the make-believe Satan, one that modern society has almost demanded we close our eyes to. It is man’s ancient roots, our relationship with the Earth, the elements, and the forces which have shaped our history. It is our struggle with our animal natures. It is an ear bent to the echoes of history, aching for answers and spiritual fulfillment. Pagan black metal, or as I prefer to call it, elemental black metal, arose from this pure struggle to understand where we have come from, what is inside of us, and ultimately where we are headed. This is what has captured its creators like no Abrahamic doctrine ever could.
For individuals who have rejected theism, all existential questioning begins with opening one’s eyes to the wonders of Nature. The stars on a cold clear night, the sheer nausea of infinity; mountains, oceans, forests and storms – these things may not be nearly as provocative as demons and three-headed goats, but who amongst us has not felt the oneness, the heady, edge-of-the-cliff majesty when considering them? Pagan black metal sets out to articulate this feeling. And while this isn’t a concept unique to pagan black metal, such elemental themes have become its primary hallmark.
This is not to say that pagan black metal bands avoid references to myths. It is quite the opposite, in fact. There are plenty of references to Norse mythology, runic lore, Germanic poetry, the Eddas, and a host of other ancient stories within pagan black metal’s vast canon. Unlike orthodox black metal purists, whose belief in their demons and deities is mostly literal, here the mention of figures such as Odin and Loki are merely parables meant to help advance the story of the times and wisdom being portrayed. To achieve understanding of roots and heritage, and to instill a sense of authenticity into the music, the symbolism of such language is both enriching and useful.
Despite these substantial differences, pagan or elemental black metal is not entirely incongruent to more traditional black metal. There can still be the same feeling of isolation and misanthropy, as both styles are tailor-made for the misfit who feels out of place amongst all the sheep. In this way black metal of all kinds achieves its goal. Windir expressed this sentiment on their mind-blowing 2003 gem ‘Likferd’ in the song ‘Resurrection of the Wild.’
‘Every move that we make, are for our own sake
You see yourself in the eye of others, why the hell do you bother?
You are the civil man dying for a Promised Land
I live in the wilderness to avoid the human emptiness'
Firstborn in the hall of the mountain
Wandering through the endless woods
Surviving on weaker creatures
This solitary ambience feels so good
With love for myself I have no need for pride
I avoid human contact, I live my own life
Your aggressive and selfish fright, keeps you awake every night’
The rejection of modern society and the emergence of enforced mono-culture are often warned against in both facets of black metal, as they are in many other forms of artistic expression.
Despite this similarity, there has arisen a distinct split into two camps, created by this very schism. The purists reject the pagan/elemental family, feeling that without Satan, unfettered hate, and total darkness, it just isn’t black metal. More open-minded fans disagree. The musical platform that is black metal has survived into the 21st century. It is awe-inspiring, relevant, and difficult to both compose and perform. Arrogance follows it like a stench, as it should. This is not music for the masses, and it will never be.
Opinions will always differ about presentation as well. There are people who hate Krallice because they wear everyday clothes while they perform. Dislike their image if you will, but allow a song such as ‘Litany of Regrets’ to envelop you, and you will be lying to yourself if you don’t think their take on black metal is at least competent and at best highly effective. Corpse paint and costumes are much more effective for black metal in the live setting – you can’t claim that 1349 and Krallice have the same stage presence. But in the end doesn’t the music speak the loudest?
Perhaps what binds the pagan/elemental sect of black metal bands together is the depth of feeling involved. This is not to say that orthodox Satanic black metal lacks depth, but there is something to be said for the ability of bands who sing exclusively in their native tongue to reach out and unite people together. Take for instance pagan black metal bands such as Drudkh, Nokturnal Mortem, Dordeduh, or Myrkgrav. Virtually every word they utter is not in English. How is it that people from Mexico, the United States, Germany, and Russia can enjoy such bands without ever bothering to translate their lyrics? Take for example the Romanian language band Negura Bunget:
We are not talking about the blunt imagery of pentagrams and inverted crosses here. We are referring to a spirit that lives inside these albums that has no name, and yet touches us all despite our differences. That is because the true essence of pagan black metal transcends languages. It embodies the seeking mind, speaking to the search for our place in the tangible universe first and foremost.
An American black metal fan can listen to chanting and gang-vocal choruses sung in Latvian and still feel something – after all, oral tradition was the first method used to teach one another about our past. What else is this music but a modern day variation of storytelling, one that comes from deep within to capture the hearts of those willing to listen?
Those who care solely for the music and nothing for the meaning underneath it will be ultimately unmoved by this exercise. Black metal is black metal, to them, no different than thrash or doom except in the configuration of riffs and notes. But true extreme metal fans are always seeking; it is their nature. They cannot help it. Some are comfortable accepting the glorification of Satan as a real entity. Others are content with the genre’s imagery alone, extolling glorification of the self amid tales of hatred, darkness, and woe. I contend that inspiration, meaning, and fulfillment cannot come solely from such a rigid theater of emotions. Hate and malice have their place, but when there is nothing else that place can get awfully empty.
Allow this passage from ‘Leodum on Lande’ by pagan black metal masters Wodensthrone to encapsulate this struggle for meaning, and let us not forget that orthodox Satanism is just another side to the coin of organized religion, man’s greatest shackle.
‘Each of us must face the question, are we man or are we beast
But no pagan son e’er found his answer, staring blindly to the East
So I raise my fists to an ashen sky, and call to gods that do not hear
My hollow words, impotent and vain, are scattered on the howling winds.
But let this never be forgotten, this earth has tasted the blood of my clan.
Not of flesh, not of dirt, but of Spirit we are one.
My answer beats with the heart of the mountain, and crashes with the thunder in the sky.
And the wind that whispers in my ear will stay with me ‘til the day I die’.