In a winter covered forest, a small crowd of young men have gathered. The crowd is leather clad and masked by corpse paint. Their eerie faces are illuminated by a large flickering fire that is spitting and hissing legions of sparks deep into the night sky. They chant and laugh in bad Latin and ancient Viking language. In front of them, the source of the fire and reason for the gathering? A one thousand year old church is going up up in flames…in some sort of pagan ritual. Is this a scene from some B-grade Hammer Horror film? No, it is a real life scene that was re-enacted many times over in the early 1990’s at the behest of one of the strangest associations of musicians in the history of rock-the Norwegian Black Metal scene.
Rock n Roll has always been about rebellion and iconoclastic behavior. Satanism? Well that is another story. Apart from the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, there are few satanic trappings in rock until the late sixties, with Black Sabbath as the focal point for many. But most of the satanic shenanigans reside within the halls of heavy metal. The PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) in the United States famously went after rock music in 1985, and heavy metal in particular as a source of ‘negative influence upon our children’. Through their work in Washington, they organized a movement and finally Senate hearings to force record companies to put warning advisory labels on albums. Among their targets were what they called the ‘Filthy Fifteen’. Ensconced in the list, tipping in at numbers 11 and 14, were two very little known metal bands: Mercyful Fate and Venom. And here our tale begins.
In 1993, Norwegian Black Metal became an internationally known scene. The normally conservative Norwegian press became increasingly hysterical-I mean folks were getting murdered, ancient churches were going up like marshmallows at a weenie roast, and all fingers pointed to a small cabal of make up clad local heavy metal bands. Peculiar. What was even weirder was not only did the suspects not deny much of their misbehavior, they seemed uncharacteristically unrepentant. Unrepentant to the point of reveling in their notoriety and showing absolutely zero level of remorse for their actions. This was different for even the most Mad Max anarchist scenario, but for staid and egalitarian Norway? Unprecedented, unexpected, and highly troubling. Who the hell were these miscreants that turned a country on its ear? First, a quick guide to their influences:
What in the Hell is Black Metal?
Many look to Motorhead as the grandfathers and the blueprint for most genres of extreme metal. Motorhead pioneered a speeded up version of heavy metal that folks duplicated, put their own touches on and ran with-hundreds of bands by the early 80’s had copped the Motorhead formula. As the 80’s wore on, sub genres came and morphed pretty quickly. Thrash metal of the early to mid 80’s (Metallica, Anthrax and Overkill are decent examples) quickly changed into Death Metal (Death, Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and band costumes went from surfer shorts and sneakers to black on black with leather on leather, vocals became strangled and unintelligible growls, and lyrics got grimmer, bloodier and darker.
In 1981, an unassuming album was released in the UK, Venom’s Welcome to Hell. Light on musicianship, but heavy on the heavy with an accent on speed, it boasted an unprecedented level of Satanic philosophies. Critics savaged them in print. With songs like the title track and “In League With Satan”, Venom were the signpost for the future of metal. The back cover sports their mission statement:
“We’re possessed by all that is evil, the death of you God we demand, we spit at the virgin you worship, and sit at Lord Satan’s left hand…” This set an agenda that was taken quite seriously in Oslo and its environs. .
But it was the follow up that really got the ball rolling. 1982’s Black Metal is the one that kicked off a whole scene and provided a genre a name. Black Metal. Replete with more Satanic imagery, Black Metal laid it out. (Bathory also deserves credit for refining the sound further, and Mercyful Fate for pioneering corpse paint and furthering deep occult Satanic lyrics) Not many bought this hugely influential album when it came out, but people in Norway were listening. Here is a taste of Venom
Welcome to Helvete
The Black metal scene in Norway revolved around the Helvete (Norwegian for hell) record store in Oslo run by Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, founder of the band Mayhem, and the Deathlike Silence Productions label run by him. The list of characters in this scene is amusing to say the least. Euronymous’ best friend and chief rival for the leadership of the scene was the leader of a rival band-Burzum’s Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernenes. Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun (who murdered an innocent man in a park to “see what murder felt like”) was another young leader of the scene. (The maximum penalty for murder in Norway is 21 years) A myriad of fanciful names soon festooned the populace, seemingly comical but deadly serious… Metalion, the writer for the scene and publisher of an early Black Metal fanzine called Slayer; others went by the handles of Faust, Maniac, Necrobutcher, Occultus, Grim, Infernus, Storm, Samoth, Fenriz, Ihsahn, Blackthorn, Hellhammer, It, Mortiis and Dead (more about him later) You get the idea. Like characters from some kind of Satanic dungeons and dragons fantasy game, but acted out in real life, with real weapons and real deaths, the leaders gathered minions. The bands also had two other things in common: corpse paint and band logos that were impenetrably difficult to decipher. The Norwegian Black Metal scene took to corpse paint to indicate the difference between them and the death metal bands.(the actual difference between death metal and Black Metal is difficult for the novice to discern-much like the goth kids and the vamp kids on South Park) Here’s some corpse painted 1993 era Black Metalers and some logos:
These bands were different, but the country was not prepared for exactly how different they were from their predecessors. Hellish fantasies, flames, death and Satanic trappings were no longer the domain of lyrics and costumes-they were about to vividly bleed into a whole full blown lifestyle.
The first to go was Per Yngve Ohlin, better known to all as “Dead”. Dead was an other worldly person prone to sitting alone in the woods, cutting himself for attention at parties, and alienating most who came in touch with him. His devotion to death was admirable: he is credited for being the first to introduce corpse paint to the scene, burying his stage costumes in the earth before shows to appear and smell more corpse like, carrying dead animals around and inhaling them from a bag and rubbing them on himself before shows to “sing with the stench of death in his nostrils” He would occasionally bring decapitated pig heads to shows and put them on stakes around the stage He was the lead singer for Euronymous’ Mayhem, and soon soured on the whole life trip. He had insisted he had died on the table in hospital at age ten from a ruptured spleen and didn’t belong on this planet anymore. (partially true). He would cut himself on stage (years after Iggy had pioneered this trick). “Dead was a very private person, no one knew him very well” was a quote from an associate. When in 1991 at age 22 he found his depression too much to take, and at the urging of Euronymous, Dead cut his wrists and his own throat, and then when this didn’t seem to be working, blew his head off with a shotgun (the ammunition had been a Christmas present from Count Grishnackh.) Here is where the story gets weird. Supposedly Euronymous found the body and photographed it (this ended up as grisly bootleg album cover), took bits of his brains that had fallen into Dead’s lap and boiled them into a stew to sample human flesh, and finally took the sections of his skull that had scattered over the room, cut them up, and made necklaces for the inner circle of Black Metal acolytes. (this part has been confirmed by more than one member of the scene.) “Dead died for this cause and I have declared war!” exclaimed Euronymous weeks after the suicide. What was the war against? Poser false metal bands and their fans, only extreme black metal bands were permitted in this world, and the extermination of those deemed unworthy was planned. (cue Manowar here). Death threats flew around (mostly directed at Swedish metal bands). Dead’s death initiated a surge in interest and activity for the Norwegians. Mayhem was without a lead vocalist, but now possessed a legend. The next phase of Black Metal was initiated. The most dangerous music in the history of rock was about to make some real noise in the world. Here is a clip of Dead performing with Mayhem.
It was the March 1993 issue of the British metal magazine Kerrang that brought this stuff to the world. The article in here was so over the top it was very hard to believe. I bought this issue the week it came out and shared it with my friends. It strained credulity. I’d worked at a prominent metal store for a while and thought I’d literally seen everything. These guys were bragging about murder and church burnings like it was their latest one night stand conquest. The main characters Euronymous and Grishnackh fairly gushed: “We are but slaves of the one with Horns” and claimed they are part of a Satanic terrorist organization devoted to overthrowing society. Are they serious? The British band Paradise Lost came back from a Norwegian tour with tales of horror and Satanic terrorist aggression. The Kerrang article stated:
British Doom Metal band Paradise Lost were also victims of satanic Terrorist aggression. While on tour in Norway, the band’s tour bus was set upon by Black Metal followers.They were upset at the falseness of the band and lack of genuine evil.
“They’re fucking nuts!” exclaims Paradise Lost singer Nick Holmes, “but the attack on us was blown out of proportion a bit. The little disciples are all about 10 years old – fuckin’ embryos!”
“It is quite frightening,” he considers. “It’s a Manson-type cult thing. It’s like the fucking Nazis in East Germany… the same kind of power game.”
Nick was closer to the truth than he may have guessed. This scenario, a group of corpse painted early teens trying to attack and burn a tour bus is fairly far fetched. The police had ignored the many leads that led to the “Black Metal Circle” for a while, and dismissed it as all too implausible. But soon their attention turned towards the group revolving around the Helvete record store. Could it be possible that the current wave of violence, murder and arson were the work of a homegrown Satanic terrorist unit based in a record store? They began to take the idea seriously. And their attention was drawn to what the excellent 1998 Lords of Chaos book called “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”, as churches combusted regularly (also the aptly and prescient title of the seminal 1991 Darkthrone album). The cat was out of the bag.
The Attack of the Black Metal Circle
Things started to amp up after the suicide of Dead. The rebellion against clean sounding studio production values and staying true to rawness in sound now blurred into a rawness and rebellion against the cleanliness of society. Lawlessness and illegality were the new watchword as they seemed to dare each other to increasingly outrageous crimes. The circle gathered their main players and began to plan in earnest. Meetings were held, band leaders of Mayhem, Burzum and Emperor became leaders of arson squads… and churches started burn. Nine churches burned in 1992 and the country was stumped. Arson wasn’t even considered at first. But the pattern of burnings and some loose lipped teenagers pointed to the Helvete store as a possible lead. (over forty churches burned in a five year period). Varg and Faust began to brag along with Euronymous, and their dark hints of involvement became more brazen.
“There is no such thing as mindless violence,” comments Vikernes. “Just to walk down the street and kick a boy is stimulating.”
“Whenever I go out, I always have guns,” he discloses. “Right now, I’m wearing a chain mail, and have a big knife. People don’t dare to attack us, and if they do, they never survive. We are the Vikings, who kill for their own pleasure. We are not fucking humanitarian Red Cross idiots.”
The party ended as quickly as it had begun. In August 1993 Vikernes inexplicably murdered his rival Euronymous in his apartment, his chief rival for leadership of the Black Metal Circle. He claimed that Euronymous had planned to take him into the woods, tie him to a tree and torture him to death. He undertook a pre-emptive strike. Aarseth was stabbed 24 times. Whether this was a planned or spontaneous event, Vikernes seemed unconcerned. In an interview he said:
“Bam! Through his skull. I actually had to knock the knife out, it was stuck in his skull and I actually had to pry it out…” bragged Vikernes from his prison cell. “I hit him directly into his skull and his eyes went boing! And he was dead!”
Faust noted that he had been in the news twice in one day-once for the recent church burning, and on the same newscast for the recently discovered murder. And he wasn’t even a suspect in either crime yet. In an interview he said:
“I didn’t care much about the value of human life. Nothing was too extreme. That there were burned churches, and people were killed, I didn’t react at all. I just though ‘Excellent!’ I never thought ‘Oh this is getting out of hand’, and I still don’t. Burning churches is okay…”
Vikernes had bragged to him that he had burned a church and how cool it was, how anti Christian. This point is one little discussed. Many of the participants thought that Christianity had come in unwanted under 1000 years ago, and erased a far more ancient and powerful religion-an Asatru Nordic vestige of a tradition that ran through their ancestral blood. Many of the circle said in interviews that they thought Christianity was an abomination and the burning of churches was a logical extension of this rationale. It was quite logical to all involved that a short term interloper of a religion in their eyes needed to go to restore a religion that went back over five thousand years. Vikernes said:
“Christianity was created by some decadent and degenerated Romans as a tool of oppression, in the late Roman era, and it should be treated accordingly. It is like handcuffs to the mind and spirit and is nothing but destructive to mankind. In fact I don’t really see Christianity as a religion. It is more like a spiritual plague, a mass psychosis, and it should first and foremost be treated as a problem to be solved by the medical science. Christianity is a diagnosis. It’s like Islam and the other Asian religions, a HIV/AIDS of the spirit and mind.”
If this was an actual motivation, some of this makes sense. But I have my doubts…
The police closed in and over sixteen were rounded up. Police found Vikernes from a Burzum flyer that depicted a burning church and had his home address printed on it. He ended up being released but shortly after the murder, the net tightened, and the Count was nabbed once again. Bard and the Count took the main heat for murder and the country was aghast. Before his arrest he accidentally predicted his own future:
“What happens to us doesn’t matter. If I had a great enough reason to kill, I’d gladly serve 20 years in jail.”
This would come true far sooner than he would imagine.
Even in custody, Varg maintained his solid Satanic unrepentant outlook:
“It’s too nice in here,” he moans. “It’s not hell at all. In this country prisoners get a bed, toilet and shower. It’s completely ridiculous. I asked the police to throw me in a real dungeon and also encouraged them to use real violence!”
The scene fell apart in 1993 after Euronymous had been murdered (he had already closed Helvete in the face of growing police pressure before his death, much to the dismay of Vikernes who thought the current wave of publicity would translate into huge record sales). But the legacy of Norwegian Black Metal was secured permanently.
L-R Dead, Faust,
Count Grishnackh, Euronymous and Dead without makeup
In re-reading this article, it’s hard to believe this shit actually happened. Take a look at these guys (above-note the two Venom shirts) It’s too cartoonish, too over the top for anyone to believe that any of this was done by kids–bad-ass deluded metal heads who turned the word misanthrope into an art form–but kids nonetheless. Nobody in their wildest dreams or nightmares would imagine this could ever come true in such an anomalous outburst of criminally violent anti social behavior. What started as a theatrical over the top metal band scene was taken to a whole other level. Kids take heavy metal fantasies into a real Satan fueled terrorist war against society? How the hell is that even possible? Who is to blame for this? The fake theatrics of the 80’s death metal bands had been put into actual practice-no longer were bands singing about it, they were now doing it and encouraging others to follow their example, which I suppose is the next logical step. I mean where is there to go beyond heavy?. Bands in the scene were quick to point out that Venom had laid the blueprint down in 1981-1982. When told that Venom weren’t actually Satanists, but had done it for attention, that didn’t matter.
Well where are we today? Count Grishnakh and Faust are out of jail already (Varg in 2009 after 15 years in prison and Bard in 2003 after 9 years–Burzum albums were allowed to be released from jail with Varg on solo Synthesizer). Their legacy is a laundry list of PMRC nightmares and beyond: murder, self mutilation, corpse desecration, animal torture, arson, burglary, cannibalism, child abuse, weapons dealing, assault, suicides, church burnings, sedition, explosives (strangely drugs weren’t a huge part of the scene)-ticking boxes on a list that Tipper Gore never imagined could exist in real life. If she had been confirmed in her beliefs by the infamous teenage metal head “Say You Love Satan” murders of Long Island in 1984, this event would have made her head explode like the dude in Scanners. This cast of characters made Ozzy look like Mr. Rogers. But real life this was, and real life this is. Enough black magic was genuinely thrown in around in amateur fashion with predictable results-things unraveling quickly and ending poorly for the main players of the scene, ending in deaths and incarceration.
Is this Venom’s fault as the main players in the scene claim? It is clear that they played a major if unwitting part in the fertilization of the scene, and the lyrics were taken as gospel. The single mindedness of this group and unity of conception and purpose launched by Venom’s early releases could have inadvertently launched something bigger. Could it be that pushing the envelope of grinding rhythms, snarling vocals, Satanic trappings, unwitting lyrical spells….did this conjure up something that manifested as this nearly unique heavy metal nightmare? Perhaps. Norway is on the map musically to this day for this scene-but in the words of someone wise: “Be careful what you wish for”. Because apparently things sometimes come true. One wonders whether the names the players assumed invoked some kind of unexpected ‘familiar’ karma induced spell that hastened the events. But in the hazy world of black magick, wishing is fraught with peril, and sometimes things come true in a fashion that they would never conceive, but is exactly what they had conjured. Euronymous was correct in an interview before his death trying to explain Black Metal :
“There is an ABYSS between us and the rest…we must kick them in the face and be guardians of anti-morality”