Diving into the Dark Depths
In the shadowy realms of the music world, there exists a genre that, in the late 1980s, roared against the perceived commercialization of heavy metal: Norwegian Black Metal. This genre, known for its raw sound, unconventional song structures, and an unrelenting focus on themes of darkness, evil, and the occult, was a defiant response to a music scene it believed had lost its way.
Norwegian Black Metal, known for its raw sound and focus on themes of darkness, is a defiant response to a music scene it believed had lost its way.
Notorious for its association with a spate of church burnings, murders, and other criminal activities during the early 1990s, the Norwegian black metal scene was as chillingly fascinating as it was controversial. The key architects of this dark and enigmatic soundscape include bands such as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Emperor.
However, the importance and influence of Norwegian Black Metal extend far beyond its murky beginnings. In fact, it has left an indelible imprint on the global metal scene, setting new standards for extreme metal and inspiring a multitude of bands and artists across the globe.
Despite its contentious origins, the artistic merit of Norwegian Black Metal cannot be denied. Its emphasis on atmosphere and mood, in particular, has been a beacon of inspiration, leading to the emergence of a host of sub-genres and stylistic variations. Its influence has permeated beyond the realm of music, echoing in various forms of media, including literature, visual arts, and film.
Moreover, the cultural impact of Norwegian Black Metal is undeniable. It has paved the way for a broader understanding and acceptance of alternative lifestyles and philosophies, thus proving that even in its raw, unfiltered expression, it is a force that resonates far beyond the boundaries of the genre.
The Early Years of Norwegian Black Metal
The haunting echoes of Norwegian Black Metal find their origins in the heavy metal music scene of the 1980s. This genre drew heavy inspiration from the early black metal scene, with bands like Venom, Bathory, and Celtic Frost playing influential roles. In fact, it was the English band Venom that coined the term “black metal” with their second album released in 1982. The music of these pioneering bands would go on to inspire a new generation of musicians in Norway, who would in turn forge their unique brand of black metal.
In the pantheon of early Norwegian Black Metal, bands like Mayhem and Burzum stand out as titans. Founded in 1984 by guitarist Øystein Aarseth (known as Euronymous), bassist Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher), and drummer Kjetil Manheim, Mayhem was a trailblazer in the scene. Parallelly, Burzum, the one-man project of Varg Vikernes (also known as Count Grishnackh), left an indelible imprint on the genre. Other key figures such as Dead (Per Yngve Ohlin), the iconic vocalist of Mayhem, added to the genre’s mystique with his intense performances and tragic end. Meanwhile, bands like Darkthrone, Immortal, and Emperor further fuelled the genre’s growth and popularity.
The ascension of Norwegian Black Metal cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the role of “Deathlike Silence Productions”. This record label, founded by Euronymous of Mayhem, was instrumental in promoting and distributing Norwegian Black Metal music. Its motto, “Only Death is Real”, perfectly reflected the dark, nihilistic themes echoed in the music it promoted. Notably, some of the first albums of the Norwegian Black Metal scene, including Mayhem’s “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” and Burzum’s self-titled debut, were released by this label. The label, however, ceased to operate after the murder of Euronymous in 1993, marking a dark and dramatic end to a significant chapter in the genre’s history.
Shrouded in Flames and Infamy
The 1990s marked a tumultuous era for Norwegian Black Metal, with its music echoing against a backdrop of controversy and notoriety. This period was marred by a series of church burnings, reportedly committed by members of the black metal scene. Varg Vikernes of Burzum was a notable participant in these acts of arson, seen as direct attacks against Norway’s Christian heritage. The intensity of these actions ignited a significant public outcry, as over 50 churches were consumed by flames from 1992 to 1996, some even dating back to the 12th century.
The 1990s marked a tumultuous era for Norwegian Black Metal, with its music echoing against a backdrop of controversy and notoriety.
Adding to this tumultuous period was the murder of Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth, known as Euronymous, by his fellow musician Varg Vikernes. The murder and its aftermath—the trial—captivated widespread media attention, casting an even darker shadow over the Norwegian black metal scene.
The media portrayal of the scene during this era was predominantly negative, emphasizing the violence and criminal activities that seemed to be entwined with the genre. This portrayal, coupled with the controversial actions of its members, solidified a largely negative public perception of the genre.
However, it was also within this period of turbulence and controversy that Norwegian Black Metal grew in popularity. Bands like Darkthrone, Emperor, and Immortal transcended the national scene, gaining international recognition. The raw, aggressive sound, punctuated by anti-Christian and misanthropic lyrics, struck a chord with many fans, resulting in the genre’s diffusion across Europe and North America.
In the Shadows of Notes
Norwegian Black Metal is distinguished by its unique musical style and deep-rooted philosophical themes. Known for its raw, lo-fi quality, the music often features high-pitched, shrieking vocals, fast-paced rhythms, blast beat drumming, and tremolo-picked guitar lines. A sense of darkness and atmospheric intensity characterizes the genre, with many bands incorporating symphonic sounds through the use of keyboards. The guitar work in Norwegian Black Metal can be intricate, often showcasing fast, complex riffs and melodic solos. Songs are typically sung in Norwegian or English, and the vocal style is predominantly a high-pitched shriek. Adding to the dark aura, both the album art and stage performances often portray grim and macabre imagery.
The lyrical themes and philosophical underpinnings of Norwegian Black Metal delve into the realms of darkness, death, evil, and the occult, coupled with a profound anti-Christian sentiment. Criticizing and mocking Christianity frequently appears in the genre’s lyrics. Moreover, many bands interweave elements of Norse mythology and folklore into their lyrics, further shaping the unique identity of the genre. The philosophical roots of the genre often circle around individualism, misanthropy, and nihilism, while some bands also explore themes of national and cultural identity, expressing a longing for a return to pre-Christian, pagan values.
The influence of Satanism, specifically LaVeyan Satanism, significantly permeates the Norwegian Black Metal scene, with Satanic imagery and themes frequently appearing in music and performances. However, it should be noted that not all artists in the scene are actual Satanists. For some, Satanism serves more as an aesthetic or a symbol of rebellion against Christianity and mainstream society.
Paganism, too, has a robust presence in the genre. Many Norwegian Black Metal bands draw on Norse mythology and pagan traditions in their lyrics and imagery. This focus on Paganism often intertwines with a broader philosophy of nationalism and cultural purity. Bands often express a desire to return to pre-Christian, ‘pagan’ values. Both Satanism and Paganism in Norwegian Black Metal are frequently employed to critique and challenge religious and societal norms.
The Evolution and International Impact
The Norwegian black metal genre has undergone significant transformations since its formation in the 1990s. Initially defined by a raw, lo-fi sound, bands often recorded in low-quality studios to achieve a distinct “necro” sound, a stark reaction against the polished sound of mainstream metal at the time. However, the genre has since evolved to incorporate a more polished and sophisticated sound.
From the 2000s onward, Norwegian black metal started witnessing an increasing trend of experimentation.
From the 2000s onward, Norwegian black metal started witnessing an increasing trend of experimentation. Bands began to integrate elements from other genres, such as folk, classical, and ambient music, resulting in a diverse soundscape. Bands like Ulver and Enslaved were among those leading this experimental approach. In terms of lyrical themes, there has been a shift away from the early focus on satanic and anti-Christian themes. Contemporary bands have explored a broader range of topics, including Norse mythology, nature, and personal introspection.
Norwegian black metal has not only evolved but has significantly influenced the global metal scene. The genre’s unique sound and aesthetic have been adopted by bands worldwide, giving rise to regional black metal scenes in countries including the United States, France, and Poland. Beyond the realm of metal, Norwegian black metal’s atmospheric and ambient elements have found their way into post-rock and shoegaze, birthing the “blackgaze” subgenre. Moreover, the genre’s theatrical visual aspects, such as corpse paint and elaborate stage shows, have left an enduring mark on the broader metal genre.
Several Norwegian black metal bands emerged in the 2000s, gaining recognition for their unique contributions to the genre. Dimmu Borgir, one of the most commercially successful black metal bands, released critically acclaimed albums such as “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia” (2001) and “In Sorte Diaboli” (2007). Known for their progressive approach to black metal, Enslaved released notable albums including “Below the Lights” (2003) and “RIITIIR” (2012). Other bands, like Taake, maintained a more traditional black metal sound, with albums like “Hordalands doedskvad” (2005) considered modern classics of the genre. The band Kvelertak successfully blended black metal with elements of punk and classic rock, while pioneers like Darkthrone continue to receive positive reviews for their recent releases.
As Norwegian Black Metal continues to evolve, its impact extends beyond the music industry. Despite its controversial past, the genre has gained mainstream recognition. Bands like Dimmu Borgir have not only achieved commercial success but have also shared the stage with full orchestras. Today, the genre stands as a significant facet of Norway’s cultural heritage, featuring in documentaries, books, and even inspiring a Black Metal sightseeing tour in Oslo.
The aesthetic and thematic elements of the genre have permeated into various cultural spheres. The use of corpse paint has evolved from a niche stage practice to a recognizable symbol that now graces the realms of fashion and visual art. The genre’s influence has also been felt in the world of cinema, with the 2018 film “Lords of Chaos” portraying the origins of the Norwegian black metal scene, along with several documentaries chronicling the genre’s development.
An Ending Note on Norwegian Black Metal
From its birth in controversy and violence, Norwegian Black Metal has metamorphosed into a globally recognized genre with a significant cultural footprint. Not only has it influenced myriad music styles, but it has also fostered a dedicated global following, highlighting the genre’s broad appeal and powerful resonance.
Despite its somber and tumultuous themes, Norwegian Black Metal is increasingly regarded as a unique form of artistic expression deeply rooted in ancient Norwegian cultural history. Continually evolving, it has ignited the creative spark in new generations of musicians and fans, underscoring its enduring influence and dynamism.
In recognition of the genre’s cultural impact, the National Library of Norway plans to open an exhibition in 2023 dedicated to Norwegian Black Metal. This exhibition will not only chart the genre’s storied history but will also highlight its cultural significance. Offering guided tours, the event aims to dissect Norwegian Black Metal as both a musical genre and a cultural phenomenon.
The future of Norwegian Black Metal appears brighter than ever. With emerging bands, increased recognition, and greater societal acceptance, the genre is set to continue its path of evolution.
The future of Norwegian Black Metal appears brighter than ever. With emerging bands, increased recognition, and greater societal acceptance, the genre is set to continue its path of evolution. Its influence extends well beyond the realm of music, making waves in fashion, visual arts, and literature.
Norwegian Black Metal continues to question societal norms, pushing the envelope of what is considered permissible in music. As it forges into the future, it’s likely to inspire new sub-genres and styles, building upon its rich and complex foundation.