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Sound Check Norway: True Norwegian Black Metal

Posted: 03. Jun, 2014

Immortal

In this article, Dayal Patterson, author of the recently released definitive tome on the genre; ‘Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult’, tracks the genre’s birth, Norway’s artistic legacy and how Norwegian black metal bands have impacted upon the world over the last decades.

By Dayal Patterson

As the writer of the most recently released – and hopefully most definitive – tome on the subject of black metal (namely Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult – might as well get the self-promotion out of the way at the start) it’s probably not much of a revelation to announce that I have visited Norway several times during the last few years. My relationship with the country does date back almost a decade before the book was conceived however, since which time I have been visiting the country on a semi-regular basis, for work, to visit friends and for family reasons. In that time I have experienced a fair cross section of Norwegian culture and society, but even so, I still have to remind myself that there are plenty of people living there who don’t know (or care) about black metal. Yes I know, that’s hopelessly naïve, but you’d be surprised how many metal fans picture the country in just those terms, and that’s a sign of not just how big black metal has become, but how ingrained Norway’s identity is within this unique form of music.

Of course it should be pointed out that – contrary to popular opinion – black metal wasn’t actually invented in Norway. No, strictly speaking it was born in England via Venom (and if you really want to go back to the start of it all, Black Sabbath). From there it took a significant evolutionary leap in Sweden via the band Bathory and then developed sporadically during the eighties thanks to a small collection of groups from Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Canada, Hungary, Greece and even Hawaii, all of whom added their own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies to a genre still in its very infancy. But there’s no denying; it was the Norwegian explosion of the early nineties that really changed everything. A wave of church burnings, desecrations, occult activity, assaults and even murder guaranteed that the movement would become known throughout the Western world and beyond, the strange, mysterious and even dangerous musical and cultural form taking on an almost outlaw status in the minds of both supporters and opponents.

Norway – cementing a genuine artistic legacy

Mayhem

But what was is more important – and took many years to be recognised due to the obvious sensationalism of the surrounding events – was that while all the scandal was taking part, Norway was also cementing a genuine artistic legacy. During that short period a tight but relatively small collection of artists took this once-fringe and loosely-defined genre (one in fact that had been seemingly forgotten in favour of other forms of heavy music) and resurrected it, carefully reformulating it before unleashing it upon a global audience. It’s hard to overstate in particular just how significant the work of Mayhem guitarist and Helvete shop owner Øystein Aarseth was in this process: Using his profound influence upon his peers and his unrivalled connections he essentially sealed the genre’s identity and with the aid of a multitude of talented native musicians relaunched a movement that is still growing steadily today. Without his vision and the work of numerous Norwegian musicians during the early to mid-nineties, black metal would almost certainly not be the widespread phenomenon it is today.

And widespread it certainly is. Indeed, since the rational part of me now acknowledges that not everyone in Norway is aware of just how huge this genre is today, it’s worth going into a little detail. Black metal now exists in every continent of the world, with black metal bands existing in almost every location you could choose, from Japan to Australia to Taiwan to France to Brazil to Iceland and even the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In England the genre was responsible for one of the highest-selling extreme metal acts of all time, Cradle of Filth, whose albums easily outsold bands from more ‘commercial’ genres for many years. In Poland the genre gave us Behemoth, a band whose latest record has topped national album charts despite its uncompromising lyrical and musical approach and the repeated attempts to suppress the group by religious and political authorities. In Germany, the biggest consumer of the genre, Emperor (who once played to more or less empty rooms on their first tour in the UK) are this year scheduled to play to an audiences of approximately 100,000 fans at the world-famous Wacken Open Air festival. And after twenty years playing catch-up, America now boasts a scene that has managed to lure in a whole new demographic of fans, an audience who in many cases would never consider themselves ‘metallers’, and which includes musicians from outfits such as grunge legends Sonic Youth.

Emperor

Yet, despite its truly international character, if you ask black metal fans which country they most associate with the genre, the overwhelming reply will be Norway. In fact, some would even tell you that the only real black metal is Norwegian black metal; I’m afraid that’s pushing the point too far, but it does highlight just how strong the relationship is. I suppose on the surface it might seem a somewhat superficial and one-sided relationship, and – like most relationships – it probably is on occasion. But just as a real blues fan cannot help but pick up upon aspects of American culture through the exploration of their chosen music form, so too has the history and culture of Norway been spread around the world in a pretty significant manner thanks to black metal’s expansion. The fact that there are many listeners who go so far as to actually learn the Norwegian language in order to better understand the lyrics of their favourite songs speaks volumes, not to mention the swathes of fans from around the world who visit the country to heighten their connection with the music they love. In my own city of residence London, one of our more prestigious venues, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, was recently packed out for a performance by Wardruna, a group using ancient Norwegian instruments and singing entirely in Norse, old Norwegian and even proto-Norwegian – pretty amazing when you think about it. Presumably the authorities in Norway think so too since the show received their support – indeed, generally they seem to have acknowledged the potential importance of their native musicians and offer financial assistance and the like to touring musicians. Clearly people around the world, particularly in black metal culture, are still hungry for Norwegian music.

Wardruna

True Norwegian Black Metal
The reason for Norway’s strong association with black metal in particular (even when other countries such as France, America and Sweden are now more than equal in terms of contemporary artistic output) undoubtedly stems in part from the self-referencing nature of Norwegian black metal itself. The term ‘True Norwegian Black Metal’ has been used steadily over the last couple of decades by bands for example, while the very opening line of perhaps the genre’s most iconic album, In The Nightside Eclipse by Emperor, could hardly be more geographically specific (“As the Darkness creeps over the Northern mountains of Norway”). Another popular outfit Taake boast imagery and titles that seem very exotic and otherworldly until one visits their hometown of Bergen and sees some of the very same icons appearing on municipal buildings. Elsewhere the works of Windir and their lyrical content have made the Sognefjord a place of pilgrimage for fans from across the world, the historic specifics of this relatively small area now known worldwide. The folk tales and legends of the country have similarly been explored and popularised to an international fanbase thanks to the works of bands such as Ulver, while a deeper understanding and exploration of the Norse gods is offered within the extensive back catalogue of Enslaved. Even the genius of Theodor Kittelson has now been discovered by many who would previously have never heard of him, thanks to bands such as Burzum and Satyricon using his art on their records.

Enslaved

At a more subtle level though, Norway has left a mark upon the international metal scene that will probably never fade. The haunting and genuinely groundbreaking guitar techniques and hallmarks that Snorre Ruch pioneered (originally in his own band Thorns and then within Mayhem) are now absolutely ubiquitous within contemporary black metal music and will likely always provide a backbone to the compositions of the majority of bands, be they from Norway, Finland or Peru. The ambitious harnessing of classical influences and occasionally even the use of classical musicians and orchestras (think Emperor, Arcturus or Dimmu Borgir) is responsible for the still-growing ‘symphonic black metal’ subgenre and likewise, the integration of folk tropes by bands such as Hades, Satyricon, Isengard and the like were almost entirely responsible for creating ‘folk black metal’, a subgenre alive and well today. Indeed, the ‘folk metal’ scene in general (hugely popular in territories such as the UK, Germany, Finland and Eastern Europe) grew largely from this subgenre.

Beyond musical characteristics, many of the general aesthetics and themes of black metal owe a huge debt to Norway, to the extent that many of the most familiar hallmarks can be directly linked to the country’s culture. The connection with nature and above all the mountains and forests of course makes far more sense when one understands the relationship of the Norwegian people with their landscape. The mention, for example, of trolls on so many of those early records is also rather less surprising once one has visited the country and seen that, far from being some sort of esoteric reference, it is an image that is about as mainstream and tourist-friendly as one could imagine. Even the ubiquitous use of black and white facepaint – perhaps black metal’s most obvious visual trademark – owes much to Norway, having been popularised by (once again) Mayhem and the bands that surrounded them, even if the origins were in fact inspired by a long succession of acts including Alice Cooper, KISS, King Diamond, Sarcófago and Hellhammer/Celtic Frost.

Rammstein + Dimmu Borgir

Dimmu Borgir

It would be a mistake of course to think that Norway’s influence upon the international music community has been restricted to the burgeoning black metal scene – after all even the absolutely massive German outfit Rammstein once admitted to me that they had taken percussive influence from Dimmu Borgir. Then there is the hugely popular Stavanger -based outfit Kvelertak who have taken a heavy dose of black metal influence, added it to their melting pot of other influences and then charged with it into the metal mainstream. And of course, Norway has given the world much more musically than just rock and metal, be it folk, classical, jazz, electronica or even hip hop music.

On that subject in fact, it’s interesting to note that the creative freedom that defined Norwegian black metal naturally led many of the key artists involved to evolve out of the movement’s boundaries altogether and explore some of these other forms of music. The aforementioned Ulver for example now make music that utilises rock, ambient, chamber music, and a multitude of other ingredients, an approach that that has led them to become one of the more respected avant-garde outfits active today. Manes began life as one of the darkest and most primitive black metal bands one could imagine, yet today tinker with electronica and trip hop. Likewise, Emperor frontman Ihsahn has constantly moved forward from his barbaric black metal beginnings, to the extent that his solo work is now deeply admired in prog circles and a crowd who would have a hard time stomaching the work of his former outfit.

But despite the broad musical and artistic arsenal it boasts, it is surely Norway’s metal musicians that are having one of the biggest impacts upon the world right now. The abrasive nature of the music’s specifics might make it a hard area to penetrate for many initially, but it is an art form that has truly touched a huge number of hearts. And perhaps the achievements the country has had within the field are something that every citizen can be a little proud of, whatever their own musical tastes

Dayal Patterson is a writer and photographer who began his career in music journalism with the publication of his own zine, Crypt, a decade ago. He is now a regular writer and photographer for Metal Hammer and Record Collector magazine, having also contributed to the likes of The Quietus, Terrorizer and Classic Rock Presents, as well as penning biographies and liner notes for the likes of Marduk and Killing Joke.

Having closely following the black metal scene since the mid-nineties, he is about to release an epic tome entitled Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Offering an unparalleled level of detail, the book spans 600 pages and captures the history of this genre in fascinating detail. From its infancy in the early eighties through to its resurrection in the nineties and onwards to the diverse scene we see today, the book examines the artistic, musical and spiritual development of the genre, and the ideologies and colourful lives of some of its most influential and unusual bands.

Taking four years, the book features exclusive interviews with members of such diverse bands as Venom, Mercyful Fate, Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Vulcano, Blasphemy, Samael, Rotting Christ, Necromantia, VON, Tormentor, Master’s Hammer, Beherit, Mayhem, Thorns, Darkthrone, Thou Shalt Suffer and Emperor, Gehenna, Gorgoroth, Trelldom, Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Mütiilation, Marduk and Funeral Mist, Shining, Graveland, Behemoth, Enslaved, Ulver, Windir, Negura Bunget, Hades, Primordial, Arcturus, Manes, Fleurety, Sigh, Dødheimsgard, Mysticum, Aborym, Blacklodge, Fen and Lifelover.

It also includes 300 images, many previously unpublished and in some cases never seen before, with unseen images dating right back to Mayhem’s Deathcrush sessions in the eighties.

http://www.evolutionofthecult.com

 

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