Masking and Sonic Abjection in Norwegian Black Metal

Woodrow Steinken
Woodrow Steinken

In the late 1980s, the Second Wave of black metal was founded in Norway by the band Mayhem. This heavy metal scene was populated by bands such as Emperor, Darkthrone, Burzum, Gorgoroth, and Satyricon.

These bands performed chaotic music, often setting lyrics with themes of Satanism, anti-Christianity, murder, rape, and torture.

Extremely fast or slow tempos, unusual song structures, distortion, and lo-fi sound quality distinguished the scene stylistically from other European and American heavy metals. The individuals who created this music did so under the disguise of masks: pseudonyms and corpsepaint, a makeup style that makes one look like a corpse.

Members of black metal bands also engaged in extremely violent and criminal activities, including burning churches, murdering strangers and friends for various reasons, and committing suicide.

This article explores the connections between the music and the transgressions of this music subculture, with masking at the intersection between the two. Masking in black metal leads to the creation of a new persona, the “black metal double.” This double is the splitting of subjectivity between personal and public personas that black metal musicians enable through masking. The space between the two personas of the black metal musician is navigated by the voice. The black metal scream that splits and fuses the subjectivities also signifies the bodily and emotional pain of this process.

This bifurcated existence predicates an alternate, abject mode of being for black metal performers. Masking becomes a theoretical means for living two lives: one as private citizens and the other as black metal musicians who transgress criminal and musical limits. This abjection, however, is politicized and aestheticized in the acts of music and crime.

The masked lives of these black metal musicians often represent dead beings, and it is through this performance of non-existence that political impossibilities and abjections become possible and lived. By collapsing the boundaries between abjection and subjection, as well as musical and non-musical life, black metal musicians create new spaces of political and cultural meaning-making through masking.

In 1984, sixteen-year-old Øystein Aarseth — better known to black metal fans as Euronymous — founded the band Mayhem, which would come to be called “the most important and influential band in black metal history,” surely to the disagreement of very few black metal fans.

In 1988, Mayhem added Swedish vocalist Per Yngve “Pelle” Ohlin, who took on the ominous stage-name Dead, and drummer Jan Axel Blomberg, who named himself Hellhammer after the influential band from Switzerland. Mayhem began to form its reputation as a satanic, ritualistic band that utilized frenetic speed and melodrama to nearly fatal performative ends. Euronymous also operated Helvete [“Hell” in Norwegian], a black metal record store that opened in Oslo in 1991 where young musicians could gather with like minded individuals, record underground music for Euronymous’s label Deathlike Silence Productions, and even live temporarily.

Some of those young musicians included members of the bands Emperor, Enslaved, and Darkthrone, three of the most seminal Norwegian black metal bands. These bands took their musical, lyrical, vocal, and performative cues from the work that Mayhem did on the stage and in the studio, as well as the way they carried themselves off the stage and in the real world.

A unified scene began to take shape around Helvete and Oslo — where pseudonyms replaced birth-names, where bands took to the stage in very specific black-and-white garb often adorned with metal spikes or studs and their faces covered in white corpsepaint, where pentagrams or inverted crosses hung from necklaces, and where the vocalists screamed about malevolent debaucheries, including but not limited to murder, ritual sacrifice, rape, torture, worshipping the devil, and so forth.

The lyrical content was supported with extreme onstage antics. In 1990 (although some sources claim 1989), Dead described a recent Mayhem gig in Sarpsborg to the zine Slayer: “We had some impaled pig heads, and I cut my arms with a weird knife and a crushed Coke bottle. We meant to have a chainsaw […] that was not brutal enough! Most of the people in there were wimps and I do not want them to watch our gigs! Before we began to play there was a crowd of about three hundred in there, but in the second song “Necro Lust” we began to throw around those pig heads. Only fifty were left, I liked that!”

The musical, performative, and theatrical features of bands such as Mayhem were utilized with many goals in mind, but perhaps the most salient was the attempted creation of an exclusive scene, built by and for a group of elite, devil-worshipping white men, most of whom had come from middle or upper-middle class suburban homes.

As exclusive as such a scene was, its relatively marginal status to the outside world soon problematized its very existence.

Beginning in 1991, the black metal scene underwent a series of chaotic, but important events. Dead committed suicide with razors and a shotgun in August 1991 in a home he shared with other members of Mayhem.

The band’s response to finding his body lives in black metal infamy: Euronymous delayed calling the police, bought a disposable camera and took pictures of the corpse, the head of which was blown open and Dead’s brains were strewn all over the floor and walls.

These pictures later resurfaced as the album cover to the live bootleg ‘Dawn of the Black Hearts’ (1995). Euronymous also took pieces of Dead’s skull to make jewellery that could be distributed to “worthy” bands.

In 1992, a bomb was detonated at a death metal concert in Stockholm that was initially blamed on black metal musicians, and later that year a string of serial church arsons began in Norway that would later result in the incarceration of many black metal musicians.

One of those churches, the Fantoft stave church (medieval wooden church), even appeared in ruins on the album cover for Åske (1993), an album by one-man band Burzum (one-time Mayhem session bassist Varg Vikernes).

Vikernes, in an interview, once described the impetus for the scene’s madness as largely attempting to scare away posers; however, so many people wanted to take part in the scene that “we had to up the madness […] and go even further to alienate ourselves […] [and] ended up promoting pure insanity and stupidity, alias ‘evil’.”

Dead’s suicide has also been influential to successive black metal bands, but this article is particularly concerned with the church burnings — reportedly anywhere from twelve to sixty — as the black metal culture’s primary extra-musical activity that came to define the scene to the outside world, even though the scene began to pull apart after the arsons.

The terrors committed were not completely targeted at the external world.

In August of 1993, Euronymous was murdered — stabbed to death in his Oslo apartment by Vikernes, his own band-mate at the time. Further, Vikernes was also under contract with Euronymous’s Deathlike Silence record label.

Upon interrogating Vikernes, police also discovered that Emperor’s drummer, who went by the name Faust, had committed murder about a year earlier at a park in Lillehammer where the opening of the Olympic Winter Games had been held. The drummer had stabbed Magne Andreassen, a middle-aged man who had solicited sex from Faust and followed him home from a pub.

Other members of Emperor were similarly arrested at this time for church arson or other acts of assault. One would think the scene was faltering, at least due to a shortage of personnel.

Members of important bands such as Mayhem and Emperor were dead or incarcerated, all before the age of 25 and some before the age of 20. Yet, more outsiders than ever were interested in the scene, and some of black metal’s best-selling and most influential albums were also produced at the same time as these various acts of violence.

Among these albums are Mayhem’s ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ (1993), Emperor’s ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ (1993/1995), and Darkthrone’s three genre-defining albums: ‘A Blaze in the Northern Sky’ (1992), ‘Under a Funeral Moon’ (1993), and ‘Transylvanian Hunger’ (1994).

Emperor’s album also broke ground for Norwegian “symphonic black metal,” black metal music that uses symphonic instruments, organs, choruses and any other element that might not typically be found in black metal proper, but is more likely to be found in a piece of classical music.

Former Emperor bassist Mortiis would later work as a solo act and, perhaps building on the electronic/symphonic foundation set by ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’, continued after that to combine black metal with keyboards in a way that highlighted metal’s fascination with medieval and fantasy imagery.

Burzum’s ‘Filosofem’ (1992/6) is another important album from this period, one that challenged black metal’s predilections for speed and chaos by employing slow, ambient, and simple melodic riffs.

The chaotic Norwegian scene of the early to mid-1990s also inspired similar violent acts throughout the world, with church arsons and graveyard desecrations occurring in Sweden, England, Russia, Poland, Germany, and even Japan — all in the name of black metal.

A particularly strange murder case occurred in Finland in 1998 involving black metal musicians as well. Black metal had also reached Greece, France, and Italy, resulting in a number of influential black metal albums but far less destruction of property or individuals.

The circulation of black metal music to these relatively far-off countries existed almost entirely in the trade of CDs and cassettes.

In the early 1990s, black metal bands also rarely played live, let alone toured the way that their contemporary thrash metal cousins such as Metallica or Slayer did. When black metal bands did play live, it was often less a performance of music and more of a theatrical play or demonstration of violence/ritual.

Mortiis, in his solo keyboard material, would even pantomime to prerecorded music while a black-and-white film of him wandering through castle ruins played in the background.

As the decade went on, black metal’s global visibility required more live performances, and with those performances came rock n’ roll levels of stardom and a much more visible incantation of black metal’s masking practices, which for a time had only existed in album sleeves, promo photos, and stories.

Today, many outsiders discover the music due to its perceived connections to the church burnings, murders, and suicides.

I initially tried to avoid the perceptibly tenuous link between the music and transgressions, but unfortunately most research questions inevitably asked what that link might be, so I have decided to take it seriously.

First, I examine masking in the scene — how practitioners view the practice and its potential historical precedents — which leads to a discussion of black metal’s “double life,” i.e. how masking has contributed to a creation/split/destruction of individuals and subjectivity.

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