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Black Metal, Satanism, Evil, and the Essence of all Darkness

Black Metal, Satanism, Evil, and the Essence of all Darkness
© Photograph by Angélica Vargas

Black Metal emerged in the 1980s as the most extreme subgenre of Metal. The relation of Black Metal with the other subgenres is not one of total discontinuity. However, although occasional mentions of Satan and occult interests may be found in all the subgenres of Heavy Metal, the focus on Satanism became a trademark feature of Black Metal.

Generally credited with starting Black Metal is a British band, Venom. Formed in 1979 in Newcastle by members of previously existing bands, including Guillotine and Oberon, Venom introduced Satanism as a main Heavy Metal theme. Venom’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ (1981) was the first Black Metal album.

There was something new with respect to groups like Black Sabbath. The latter merely described scenes of Satanism and witchcraft. Venom wanted to move from the third to the first person and proclaim to the world that the band’s musicians were actually Satanists. As one of them explained, “I am not gonna sing about Satanism in the third party, I am going to fucking speak about it as if I am the demon, or I am Satan.” Guitarist Conrad Lant (Cronos) explained that two other members of Venom, Tony Bray and Jeff Dunn, took their stage names Abaddon and Mantas “from [LaVey’s] The Satanic Bible.” The cover art of their albums was also often borrowed from publications of LaVey’s Church of Satan.

Not everybody took all this seriously. In his fieldwork among Black Metal fans, Kahn-Harris found “a clear consensus that the band were not ‘really’ Satanists and that their attitude to Satanism was tongue-in-cheek.” Certainly, Venom’s satanic references were different from those of later Norwegian bands. They were to LaVey, who always included in his Satanism a note of parody. Later Norwegian Black Metal bands took their grim Satanism so seriously that they “claimed never to laugh.”

Venom started what is often called the first wave of Black Metal. In Kennet Granholm’s opinion, Satanism is normally more connected with the second wave, but this is only partially true. If anything, “the ‘first wave of Black Metal’ was far more explicitly Satanic when it comes to lyrical content.” On the other hand, one can ask whether the first wave bands really took Satanism seriously. There was, also, an ideological difference. The first wave was characterised by frequent references to LaVeyan Satanism, while the second wave was critical of LaVey.

After Venom, the most important groups of the first wave were Mercyful Fate, Bathory, and Hellhammer. Mercyful Fate was formed in 1981 in Denmark around Kim Bendix Petersen, who had already performed with other bands under the name King Diamond. Besides using on stage a microphone stand made of human bones, Diamond was the first Black Metal musician who actually joined the Church of Satan.

When LaVey learned that one of his Danish followers was a well-known musician, he invited him to San Francisco. “I was so fortunate, Diamond later recalled, to be invited to the Church of Satan in San Francisco and spend the whole night there with Anton LaVey.” The musician “spent two hours in the ritual chamber with him at a time when it had not been open to anyone but him. It was reenergizing energy and I believe I was the only one who had been there in the last year and a half at that time. It was very interesting and we became […] I cannot say close friends, but friends who had a high respect for each other.” “If you are referring to the philosophy that LaVey has in his book [The Satanic Bible], yes, I lived by that philosophy even before I read that book, if that makes me a Satanist, then yes I am.”

Bathory took its name from the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614), who killed hundreds of girls to bathe in their blood, persuaded this would make her younger. The band was started in Sweden in 1983 by Thomas Börje Forsberg (“Quorthon,” 1966-2004), and was very much influenced by Venom. Violent anti-Christian polemics and provocation were always a trademark feature of Bathory, but it was by listening to Venom that they “‘deepen[ed]’ the Satanic aspect,” as Quorthon reported. Members of the band, however, “were not serious Satanists,” according to an interview the same Quorthon granted to Per Faxneld in 1995.

The Swiss group Hellhammer, founded by Tom Gabriel Fischer, aka Tom G. Warrior, was in existence with this name only between 1982 and 1984 but was one of the bands that defined Black Metal. Their second demo, dated 1983, was called ‘Satanic Rites’. A decisive influence on Hellhammer was the Swiss surrealist painter Hans Ruedi Giger (1940-2014). Images of Satan and Baphomet often appeared in his paintings, including in the celebrated ‘Satan I’, where the Devil is holding the crucified Jesus in one hand and a string with a Catholic host wafer in the other. Although Giger gave a Jungian interpretation of Satan, as the shadow we need to embrace in order to complete our spiritual evolution, in late 1983 he answered a letter from Fischer and granted to Hellhammer the right to use Satan I in their shows and covers. According to Fischer, Giger “could indeed see parallels between our music and his work” and became “a mentor” to the band.

Hellhammer was renamed Celtic Frost in 1984, and its music evolved outside of Black Metal proper, while satanic themes continued to be present. Fischer, however, insisted that he hated all organised forms of religion, “including Satanism.” “At one time, he reported, we had problems with a local grotto of Satanists that tried to infiltrate Hellhammer to convey their message. Since they also had National Socialist tendencies, Martin [Eric Stricker, aka Martin Eric Ain, Hellhammer’s bass player, 1967-2017] and I completely blocked them off.” Later, however, they became friends with the “grotto” (a term used only in the Church of Satan) and “Martin was briefly involved with a female member of that grotto, she was his first girlfriend.”

Ain later recalled his first meeting with this girl, Lilith Wehrli, “a true Satanic witch” who “had long, straight black hair and wore leather booths with high heels, skintight black spandex, a tightly strung black corset that accentuated her breasts, and occult jewellery.” She was eighteen, and sixteen-year-old Ain lost his virginity with her. It came out, however, that Lilith’s main purpose was to persuade Hellhammer to include her brother Markus Wehrli, who went under the nickname Baphomet, in the band. When Fischer refused, “Baphomet prophesied that we would never get a painting from HR Giger. He said that Giger was one of the true adepts who would recognise that we were not willing to support the cause of Satanism.”

This prophecy, and another by Baphomet that Hellhammer “would not attain any success,” did not come true. When Lilith tried to introduce Nazi references in the Hellhammer imagery, Fischer refused, and in the end, Ain reluctantly ended the relationship.

Markus Wehrli, under the name Frater Sartorius, went on to establish an independent Satanist organisation, the Schwarzen Orden von Luzifer (Black Order of Lucifer). Fischer also claimed that in the world of Black Metal “all basically believed in Satan,” but there were several competing understandings of both Satan and Satanism. For Fischer, it was “infinite hatred for mankind […]. The misanthropic angle is very legitimate to me.”

What was Satanism for the first wave of Black Metal? A certain ambiguity was a distinctive feature of the movement. The bands that defined the first wave were all exposed to LaVeyan “rationalist” Satanism, where Satan was more metaphor than reality.

King Diamond even joined the Church of Satan and met LaVey personally. Despite these contacts, the Satan they were singing about had all the attributes of the traditional Christian figure and did not resemble the rationalist liberator portrayed by LaVey. Satanism, in Black Metal lyrics, was not LaVey’s human potential movement but a dark, terrifying, and nocturnal affair. Perhaps this was what the audiences expected. After all, as Venom’s Cronos put it, “we are entertainers. This is not Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan; this is a rock band.” The contradiction, however, would explode with the second wave.

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