Each person has his or her own way of delving into an art form. For me, books and documentaries have a colorizing effect on certain genres. Information about the music, the bands and the scene helps elevate the notes as they glide (or blast) out of the speakers.
This is the effect that British author Dayal Patterson’s book, Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, had on me. Being introduced to Mayhem, Emperor and Darkthrone more than ten years ago, I’ve always had an appreciation for the music, along with a set of favorite albums, songs and artists from the black metal set. But my mind had lacked the level of intricate detail on the web of inspiration that brought all the artists together, a sort of storyboard that had engendered my obsession with other scenes (e.g. thrash, grunge, 80's hardcore). If it wasn’t obvious enough from my 2014 list, I’ve been on a huge black metal kick since I read the book back in October.
In his review of Lords of Chaos, the legendary book detailing the crimes committed by the Norwegian “Black Circle,” my colleague Jeremy Ulrey wrote that:
Lords of Chaos establishes itself immediately as a work of sensationalist media, however entertaining or informative it may otherwise be
He goes on to note how it stood (at the time) as the only comprehensive book on the subject, for better or worse:
whatever its faults as objective journalism, Lords of Chaos continues to be difficult to improve upon… a situation exacerbated by the fact that many of black metal's key players tend to play their cards close to their vests, which often makes ascertaining their motives and inspirations educated guesswork, at best
Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult does much to address these motives and inspirations, and does so in an easily followed narrative structure. Patterson takes the reader on a grand tour of the early days of the first wave with bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate and Bathory, on through the legendary second wave, and into the fusionist movements of industrial, folk and “post” black metal. True, Lords of Chaos did much of this as well, but in a more sensationalist tone meant to assist the narrative of scandal, rather than relate a story that often had scandal as its handmaiden.
For the reader interested in learning the deep back-story of specific bands, and how that story relates to the music, Patterson’s book is filled with fascinating details about Master’s Hammer, Beherit, Gehenna and Tormentor, bands whose influence is almost unrivaled in black metal, but who rarely get mentioned in discussion. For the archivist, the obsessive or the reader intrigued by the drama and extremity of the story, there is much to discover in the book’s 600 pages. Some of this is well-trodden territory, from Dead’s suicide, to the church attacks, to the murder of Euronymous. Then there is the section on the French "Black Legions," a phenomenon which I had almost no previous knowledge of. I knew who Mutiilation was, but had no context for the music. Other parts retain hidden gems and hilarious anecdotes, ones which I won’t give away here.
Overall, the book is an excellent compendium on the subject, but there are a few things that people could quibble about.
One thing is a more tribal, perhaps petty, complaint in that he glosses over much of the American black metal scene (or the “third wave” as it’s sometimes called). While he dedicates a lot of time to VON and Wolves in the Throne Room, bands like Xasthur, Leviathan, Krieg, Agalloch, Judas Iscariot and Demoncy only receive passing mentions. However, I understand that this may have been due to concerns about the book’s length, as his discussion about Scandinavian, Polish and other scenes is so exhaustive that to even dip a toe into American waters would require another 200 pages. It could also have been an issue of access. With his years writing for Terrorizer, Patterson began the book with a storehouse of interviews and interactions with the European bands. True, the first and second waves are the most crucial part of the story, but I hope Patterson makes more time for the American scene in his upcoming series of books, Black Metal: The Cult Never Dies.
A second point relates to his discussion about the ideology of NSBM and white supremacism prevalent in certain black metal circles. There is value in Patterson’s distant, editorial neutrality on the subject. As a Slate article on the book explains, he mostly lets the artists speak for themselves, and then has others refute what they say. In short, Patterson treats the readers like adults, letting them make up their own minds. On one hand, my conscience made me want to say “alright, now that you’ve investigated and described this ideology, tell us what you think! Aren’t you going to say something to condemn this?” But then again, perhaps my impulse was a form of taking the bait. He trusted me to make a judgement, and my wanting him to agree with my perception proves his success. And as far as I can glean from interviews, he certainly isn’t the type to vote for the British National Party (or UKIP for that matter).
Then there are more quibbles, ones which I’m sure he’s tired of hearing and struggled with during the writing process. Due to their influence and depth of imagination (after all, they created an entire fictional world), Immortal merits a chapter of their own. A lengthier discussion of Satyricon would have been nice too. Another interesting dimension would have been a section on the outsider view, perhaps a compilation of death and thrash metal bands reflecting on how black metal impacted their scenes or influenced them in some way. This may have been a distraction, and its omission doesn’t harm the book, but it’s the type of thing that made American Hardcore so interesting (the end includes a flurry of metal musicians talking about punk). Also included in that book, which would have been helpful here, was the catalog of essential albums listed at the back.
And there are moments that drag, particularly in the multi-chapter discussion of industrial black metal. In this way however, I truly feel for the author. There are only so many adjectives one can use to describe dozens of bands and albums; I’m sure I would repeat myself, too, after awhile. Maybe one day if I get into industrial black metal (I only really listen to Anaal Nathrakh), I’ll appreciate these chapters more.
But Patterson surprised me in many positive ways as well. Rather than avoid them as “black metal third rails,” Patterson dives right into subjects like Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir and Alcest, thus proclaiming them as essential parts of the genre’s evolution and legacy. This is an area where he and I are in full agreement. Even for those fans still seething over the success of these bands, these sections are well worth reading for the insight on how these bands feel about their music and connections to “true” black metal.
Patterson sums up black metal today as a dialectical force, where past traditions are essential for its survival, but whose vitality still relies on evolution and challenges from new styles and angles. In this way, he acknowledges the need to change and grow, but buries the sword deep in the ground for all to remember records like In the Nightside Eclipse, Under a Funeral Moon, The Return of Darkness and Evil and Welcome to Hell, before trying to “change the sound from within.”
A book like must have been an exhausting challenge to write, but is an absolute joy to read and re-read several times.
And while you're reading, don't forget to check our Spotify playlist to follow the evolution of Black Metal (I included as much as I could).
Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult is available over at Amazon in both physical and digital formats.