Black Metal and the Aesthetics of Pure Evil

Daniel van der Velden
Daniel van der Velden

Black metal shrouds itself in the darkest of blacks. Deeply unintelligible guttural sounds, illegible logos — the bands do everything they can not to be understood or appreciated. Yet black metal’s dedication to absolute darkness in no way hampers its increasing acceptance in the realms of visibility and the visual arts.

At this rate, headbangers can look forward to a perfectly legible future in spotless white cubes.

The song is called ‘War’, the band, Burzum. Backed by drums, the sound of massive guitar overdrive blares from the speakers. Then, a shrieking voice joins in. It sounds like a Muppet is being strangled, although I realize that someone is in deadly earnest here. The singer is alone. Varg Vikernes, the only member of the Norwegian band Burzum, plays the guitar and drums.

He is now in jail for killing Øystein Aarseth, the guitarist of black metal band Mayhem, and for setting fire to churches. In prison, he is devoting himself to the future of the Aryan race and his own Weltanschauung. His writings and portraits reach the outside world through a website hosted in Russia.

I first read about the Norwegian group Mayhem and their legendary demo album ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’ back in 1987, in the Dutch magazine Aardschok/Metal Hammer.

It was a time when bands recorded their own demos and distributed them on tape and an intensive network sprang up between small cells of bands and youths — mostly guys — who also wanted a band of their own: holding a guitar, reinventing yourself, making lots of noise, lulling your mind to sleep.

Band names were essential, but equally important were the photos, cover design and, most of all, the logo that put a band on the map.

Just like good restaurants in Rome are hard to find, the logo of an unknown black metal band is illegible — it is a symmetrical maze of jagged forms. According to the American designer Mark Owens, Mayhem was among the first bands to have such a logo.

The logos of predecessors like Venom (England) and Celtic Frost (Switzerland) were still legible, albeit just barely. As Mayhem’s logo took a tiny step over that line, it seems that that the illegible band logo came into being around 1985. The illegible logo functions as a password; it is a boundary, behind which the secret begins.

Culture likes metal. The soundtrack of Harmony Korine’s feature film ‘Gummo’, 1998, featured music by Scandinavian black metal bands, including Burzum and Bathory.

Fashion designer Lieve Van Gorp and graphic designers Experimental Jetset have also used visual elements from black metal. It is extremely hip to be seen in vintage t-shirts from Kiss, Judas Priest, and other hard rock bands. And artists like Jonathan Meese, Mark Titchner, and Steven Shearer, who borrow freely from metal aesthetic, are on the rise.

Dieter Roelstraete, a Belgian curator, philosopher, and musician in the metal-inspired grindcore genre, remarked in an article on Steven Shearer: “The broad ‘cultural’ attraction of grindcore is not only in the searing, destructive energy of the music (and the accompanying cathartic release) but also in the fiery passion with which this lifestyle has managed to embody a steely, evocative ‘NO’… and to propose this ‘no’ as a legitimate cultural position.”

The successful artist Bjarne Melgaard collaborates with the Norwegian collective Thorns Ltd. — formerly known as Thorns when it was a black metal band — to produce black-metal inspired experimental music.

So do artists like Banks Violette and Thorns’ founder, Bård “Faust” Eithun, is now serving a prison sentence for murder.

In 1993, Thorns band member Snorre Ruch was a witness — and according to the court, an accessory — to Varg Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem’s guitarist. But Ruch has made a successful new start, performing at art biennials all over the world since 2004 when Thorns, Ltd. made its debut in Playlist at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Roelstraete observes: “The art world looks with great envy and longing at the bizarre excesses of a handful of spoiled Norwegian teenagers because it thinks it recognizes a residue of ‘realness’ that can no longer be genuinely experienced in its own habitat, which has long been paralysed by the cult of irony. Enter the ‘Return of the Real!’ The longing for negation and/or negativity which is really and truly ‘bodily’ experienced — that is what interests the art world in its flirtation with the metal underground.”

In the art world, the citation of black metal serves as a negative symbol. Metal produces signs that are not meant to appeal to the masses. The artist who introduces black metal aesthetics thus refers to a phenomenon that is considered to be taking place beyond the consciousness of the viewer.

This artist becomes a messenger, trading between the creative elite of viewers paralyzed by irony and a dark subculture of abject and archaic symbols.

Here, the contradistinction between good and bad — beautiful vs. ugly, high vs. low culture, as rehearsed by pop art — has almost unnoticeably given way to the juxtaposition of Good and Evil.

The heavy postmodern artworks of Helmut Middendorf and Anselm Kiefer, and even the monolithic tombs of Hubert Kiecol, are distant relatives of the Wagnerian posturing of the recent wave of artists who cite black metal and Gothic aesthetics as the sources of their personal visual power.

The iconography of black metal has its origins in hard rock, which referred fairly systematically to the typography of the Third Reich. It represents what Alain Badiou calls “radical evil.”

Recall, if you will, the logo of Kiss, designed in the early 1970s by band member Ace Frehley, which unmistakably resembles the SS trademark. Yet, academics have been quick to cast doubt on any connection with Neo-Nazism.

Deena Weinstein, author of ‘Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture’, believes, for instance, that metal is apolitical, and only interested in the idea of power in the more general sense.

Fans, as well as musicians, behave rather naively, and Frehley and the other members of Kiss see the two s’s in their logo as lightning bolts.

Robert Walser, professor of musicology at the University of California, qualifies that image.

In ‘Running with the Devil’, he writes that heavy metal musicians make use of “images of horror and madness” in order to comprehend and critique the world: “Although they are continually stereotyped and dismissed as apathetic nihilists, metal fans and musicians build on sedimented musical forms and cultural icons to create for themselves a world with more depth and intensity. If in some ways heavy metal replicates the ruthless individualism and violence that capitalism and government policy have naturalized, it also creates communal attachments, enacts collective empowerment, and works to assuage entirely reasonable anxieties.”

The Utrecht professor of pop music Tom ter Bogt adds: “Metal is a form of escapism. Naturally, you see this more often in youths who are up against it. A metal concert is a celebration by people with problems. I think this is less true in the Netherlands, by the way. If you are a hard-core metal fan in the United States, you are extremely marginalized socially. Dropouts from school, if they are white, are always metal fans.”

In ‘Running with the Devil’, he writes that heavy metal musicians make use of “images of horror and madness” in order to comprehend and critique the world: “Although they are continually stereotyped and dismissed as apathetic nihilists, metal fans and musicians build on sedimented musical forms and cultural icons to create for themselves a world with more depth and intensity.

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