The Complicated Appeal Of Black Metal

It’s hard to love aggressive music made by murderous, homophobic white supremacists, but for fans of this subversive subgenre, navigating the space between an artist’s image and the art itself is part of the challenge.

In the last few years, it seems that there is no scene or genre left in the American underground that has not been co-opted and clichéd for festival-going hipsters. In a music industry currently characterized by a game of courting Facebook “likes” and praying you can license your songs to a Bacardi ad if you want to make it, what could be cooler than bands that try to make themselves inaccessible? What could be more outré than music that is genuinely culturally transgressive? Therein lies the appeal of black metal.

While black metal is considered to be by and for the deeply misanthropic — “true” black metal, by definition, is satanic — in the past decade its popularity has grown extensively, crossing over from die-hard “kvltists” to a centrist, mainstream indie-rock audience that would have never otherwise cared about a metal scene.

Black metal’s dramatic origin story is so strange, it almost sounds made up. Beginning in Norway in the early ’90s, a cloistered scene of musicians flirting with Left Hand Path Satanism and pagan and fascist ideals — a few of them turned out to be sociopaths — fostered an aesthetic and sound that is still highly influential 20 years later. The dark, heavy, atmospheric music they made was, for some of these artists, paired with a commitment to violence that evidenced them as true believers. At the core were an unhinged few: Varg Vikernes of Burzum, Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, and Faust, the drummer of Emperor. In 1992, Faust murdered a stranger in a park, and later that week, the three burned down a famous church — a popular practice among members of the black metal scene. In 1993, Vikernes fatally stabbed Euronymous.

While it’s fairly easy to dismiss some members of black metal’s first tiny wave as lunatics, what is to be made of Vikernes, the man behind Burzum — unquestionably black metal’s most influential artist two decades in? Since his prison stint he’s come out as a neo-Nazi, and he blogs daily about his dreams of a racially pure Europe, Zionist media conspiracy, and the beauty of his children’s Aryan features — and still releases records. It’s been three years since Vikernes finished a 15-year jail sentence for the murder of Euronymous, but last month he picked up a terrorism charge in France (which has since been reduced to a breach of French hate speech laws). Though his recent work is a shadow of his early records and his music beloved by fans who abhor his views, decidedly non-metal acts like Grimes, Chelsea Wolfe, The Microphones, and Sleigh Bells have discussed listening to (and in some cases, being influenced by) Burzum and have helped gentrify black metal for an indie-rock audience.

Black metal (or most certainly, Burzum) flouts indie rock’s PC conventions — the genre’s bleak sound refutes eager-to-please indie rock, and its churlish theatricality is a stark contrast to the mock earnestness of the American underground. If the rest of your show-going and record-listening experiences have comprised cerebral, self-conscious, thrift-shirted indie bands, the laborious corpse-paint stage makeup and costuming of certain BM bands make them all the more lampoonable. It would be easy to assume that if dressing the part is a joke, so are the ideals, and that it’s all for show.

There’s an inherent, thrilling novelty to a genre where the core tenet is inaccessibility, aesthetically and otherwise. Early Burzum records set a standard; they sounded like shit because even then Vikernes was interested in keeping things pure, for the true believers. Black metal’s no-fi sound is an anti-commercial expression — it’s made to repel. Bands and labels successfully kept BM underground by limiting distribution and releasing cassettes and 7”s only; the goal was to make the music inaccessible in every regard. After a decade marked by underground and indie bands debuting at No.1 on Billboard, it’s hard to fathom any scene in 2013 that isn’t begging to be discovered.

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“It’s the ‘Kurt Cobain T-shirt effect,’” says Andee Connors, co-owner of Aquarius Records in San Francisco. Historically, the store has been one of the prime retailers of black metal in the United States. Connors is a doyen of the NorCal scene; his label Tumult reissued the Weakling album in 2000, which became the template for the stateside black metal scene, or USBM, as it’s called. Connors chalks up the current swell of interest to indie-rock tastemakers like Thurston Moore (who joined BM all-star band Twilight last year) and The Microphones’ Phil Elverum dropping the names of their favorite BM bands in interviews.

“Someone recently came into the store and bought Belle and Sebastian and Darkthrone CDs,” laughs Connors. “It seems like the new thing now is that everyone in an indie band has a black metal solo side project. It all makes sense to me; black metal has easy appeal for music obsessives.”

Even for those who don’t know their Gorgoroth from their Agalloch, the iconography and sounds of black metal won’t feel entirely foreign. The atonal, slurry guitars and tense din are an easy reach for anyone who came up on My Bloody Valentine, Slint, or Sonic Youth. Its high-contrast, degraded-Xerox imagery and cruddy, lo-fi recordings are familiar and beloved aesthetic touchstones for anyone who has cared about indie rock in the last 20 years.

Connors admits that being a thinking black metal fan is “hairy.” At Aquarius he labels black metal releases so customers are aware of an act’s politics or beliefs, enabling them to make informed choices about what they are buying. Still, for Connors, it’s not as cut and dry as identifying the creeps and not buying their records: “I like a lot of black metal, and it does make me feel weird, but I have made my peace with it. It feels like a bigger thing with no clear-cut short answer.”

For new black metal fans, Connors says the genre’s transgression can hold an edgy cachet. “After [Vice’s 2008 coffee table book] True Norweigan Black Metal came out, it was very much a kind of prop — dinner party conversation, like, ‘You know what I’ve been listening to?’”

Black metal’s evil darkness is abstract — cartoony, even — if you are unaware of the backstory.

The genre’s reluctant fans can be divided into a few apologias. There are those who go for the sheepish “but it’s so good I can’t help it” (the artist is creepy, his work divine). And others subscribe to the fantasy that if you don’t cosign the artist’s belief, their platform, their perversion, if you don’t understand what they are singing about, if the song isn’t explicitly promoting an agenda, though the artist may be, that you are less of a participant. Another common excuse is that the lyrics are unintelligible (or not in English, so they don’t “count”), and they are listening to black metal just for the heavy atmospherics.

Music fans have gone through this with R. Kelly, Eminem, and Michael Jackson, among others. Are we absolved simply by disagreeing? Are we cosigning by merely listening?

Are we off the hook if we don’t rap along to the part where Tyler says “faggot”? If we dance to “Ignition,” but feel bad doing so, is the conscience clean? If we come for the killer riffs and the misanthropy and atavism but don’t stay for the anti-Semitism, have we successfully extricated ourselves?

Anne Marthe Widvey / Creative Commons

One half of experimental electronic duo Matmos, Drew Daniel, who is gay and came up in the Bay Area Gilman Street scene — the very heart of PC punk America in the early 1990s — is selective in how he participates in black metal. “I have purchased bootleg Burzum T-shirts from Mexico on eBay. No profits went into Varg’s pocket. I’m OK with giving money to people who are ripping Varg off.” (Daniel has been spotted in a Burzum tee with “Fuck Varg’s Politics” in pink embroidery.) As a Burzum fan, he is mindful of Vikernes’ views. “Since his [initial 1992] arrest, Varg’s politics have been migratory — sometimes pagan, sometimes fascist, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes anti-Semitic — the flavor varies, but his stances seem to be pretty reliably reprehensible,” Matmos says. “I am not ‘OK’ with that, but it’s simply true that great artists are often vile people who commit terrible crimes and believe in stupid crap.”

Connors draws a comparison between the commonly held beliefs of Juggalos and Vikernes and other BM acts. “I listen to black metal and I think [Juggalos] are more extreme and bizarre and fucked up.”

The hipster obsession with transgressive scenes can be seen as a kind of cultural tourism that registers on several levels; there’s the sheer ironic enjoyment of the ridiculousness of it, but also the opportunity for rebelling against the PC strictures fostered in the American underground in the late ’80s and early ’90s that have long since guided a sense of respectful propriety.

“Obviously in the real world, racism is not exotic at all,” explains Daniel. “But if your context is hipster enclaves of mandatory tolerance, then people who are shameless enough to openly espouse racism seem weirdly exotic. This underlies the ascendance of ‘edgy’ racism too.”

That social policing and propriety began to recede in the early aughts, as American culture as a whole was upended by a post-9/11 sense of “nothing’s shocking.” A brusque irony took over the underground scene, and Vice magazine, known for its button-pushing irreverence, grew increasingly popular. The earnestness of the ’90s underground rock — all that romance and emo that followed the politicking and dogma of pop punk, DIY, and riot grrrl — went slack. Why police someone else’s record collection or unenlightened lyrics when there was a war on? Disempowered and despondent, we got high and danced. The lack of PC adherence wasn’t so much an act of acceptance of lesser social ideals as it was a matter of no longer giving a shit.

Even the PC era’s most important forebears, Fugazi, known for their intense dedication to ethics and nonviolence, realized that the gig was up. They pounded PC punk’s coffin nails on the title track of their final album, The Argument, which was recorded in the spring of 2001: “So here’s what’s striking me: That some punk could argue some moral ABCs / When people are catching what bombers release.”

“After a brief period of global calm and economic prosperity in the ’90s, people weren’t seeking out extremes,” says metal underground mainstay Aaron Turner, formerly of Twilight, explaining his theory of why black metal has taken such a freighted importance. “After this [recent] period of depression and warfare and strife, those extreme circumstances draw people towards more extreme forms of art. It’s hard to say whether it is prescriptive or descriptive, whether it fosters something or whether it is a release, or how much is an examination with conceptual heft and how much is extremism for its own sake — you have to go case by case,” explains Turner. “There is some moral ambiguity there.”

The Americanized third wave is, by and large, loathe to label itself black metal or associate itself with the genre. Agalloch, the forerunners of this scene, declined to be interviewed for this piece, saying they don’t consider themselves black metal. Sunn0)))’s Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson also would not comment for this story, though they have collaborated with BM artists, and in the ’90s, O’Malley did the design for both Burzum albums that Vikernes recorded while in prison for murder and church burnings.

Johnny Syversen / AFP / Getty Images

Nachtmystium’s Blake Judd (who also fronts Twilight) said he feels his band has not been black metal in years but is comfortable with the tag “blackened” as a nod to their roots. “We broke away from a herd within the confines of the genre,” says Judd. Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix denies that there is even such a thing as a functional USBM scene, just a scrum of un-unified bands. Asserting separation — by genre, location, or generation — is a way to shake free of black metal’s baggage, as well as a way to reduce it to its nihilistic core. Citing the new semantic of “blackened” is a way of holding allegiance to the genre, and respectful of the rules of the form that dictate true black metal is, by virtue, satanic. To call one’s band “blackened” is to show a kind of reverence, but it also serves as a distancing effect to say, “We are not satanists,” and by proxy, perhaps, “We are not racists or homophobic fascists either.”

Some musicians, like Hunt-Hendrix, are attempting to cherry-pick the parts they identify with in earlier Scandinavian BM — interest in philosophy and nature, making music that reflects the banal horror of the world — and sidestep the elements of what’s since been termed NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal) by saying they’re “apolitical” or citing an artist’s “politics” (a curious term for racism and anti-semitism) as irrelevant. In a 2011 interview with The Quietus, Hunt-Hendrix explained that while he disagrees with Burzum’s politics, BM’s history of nationalism and racism “are not necessarily virtues, but there is something startling and alive about it.”

For Blake Judd, his attempt to clear his band’s early connection to NSBM elements in the scene and establish his band as “apolitical” served only to draw more attention to the issue. According to Judd, Nachtmystium was booted off a Scion-sponsored black metal festival in 2009 because of pressure from an anonymous person from within the scene. They had alerted Scion’s parent company, Toyota, that when Nachtmystium was still in its infancy, they’d covered a Burzum song, as well as a Death in June song that denies the existence of the Holocaust.

There was also the already established issue that the band’s first CD had been unwittingly (so says Judd) sold through a NSBM mail-order site. “I tried to buy all 200 CDs from them at full price, $15 each, but they wouldn’t take it,” says Judd. His attempts to explain this to Scion were for naught; the anonymous source threatened to go public if Nachtmystium wasn’t taken off the bill.

Still, floating through the online ether are several interviews with Judd from early in the band’s career where he uses the word “faggot” as an insult and cites his belief in a Jewish-helmed media conspiracy. When asked if and how he has since evolved out of those beliefs, Judd says it took being confronted by his uncle, the person who had turned him on to metal in the first place, to make him reconsider what he was espousing.

“I was a misanthropic metal kid — both middle fingers up. Looking back, it was all a mask for my insecurity. I just had this realization that I didn’t want to be that guy,” Judd says. “I think it would be different if I had been saying that stuff at 25. For better or worse, I maintained the name of the band, and so this stuff followed me.”

Judd admits he is still bitter about it, and feels that Nachtmystium has been unfairly singled out. “I find Cannibal Corpse lyrics about raping more threatening than a guy selling a [NSBM-associated band] Graveland record. People shouldn’t come around extreme metal if they cannot handle some extreme views.”

After the dismissal from the Scion Festival, Judd went public defending his band in an open letter, writing, “Let it be known loud and clear for the LAST TIME, we ARE NOT a Nazi band, ARE NOT political.” But instead of clarifying the band’s position, it inextricably tied the band to questionable issues in their past. Rumored deals dried up for the band despite being “blackened” music’s best crossover prospect; Nachtmystium’s baggage was no big deal for their legion of fans, but it was evidently too much for the non-metal world to bear. “All we could do was apologize,” Judd trails off.

For his choice of covers, Judd blames his youth. “I just wanted to do renditions of them. I had no intention of suggesting politics. Those were things I did at 18 or 19 years old. I didn’t think years later I would be having to explain them to a magazine. I thought it would all be ensconced in metal — where this sort of thing is not an issue.”

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