From about the mid-1990s more sustained attempts to create a form of ritual black metal were in place, but it was not until the final years of the first decade of the twenty-first-century that the critical mass had been achieved and a scene of relative prominence, with several bands, record labels, fanzines, venues, and fans interconnected, emerged.
Ritual black metal represents development within an existing musical scene, resulting in the emergence of a new “sub-scene” which, while connected to the larger extreme metal scene, has its own identity and institutions, as well as more pronounced and focused connections and engagements with the occult milieu represented by esoteric orders.
Representatives of this scene not only claim a serious religious-philosophical attitude, but frame their artistic activities as religious-occult practice.
In interviews, the occult aspects are also commonly placed in the foreground.
Most bands in the scene self-identify as “Black Metal,” but musically, there is considerable diversity. For example, internationally, whereas bands such as Watain and Ofermod can easily be recognised as stylistically being black metal, others such as the Dutch The Devil’s Blood and the Finnish Jess and the Ancient Ones are stylistically most closely related to 1970s hard rock, and Saturnalia Temple could be termed as doom and/or stoner metal.
From my observations and discussions with scene members, confirmed by Tuomas Karhunen, the metal scene has moved towards a stronger occult and magical inclination in recent years.
According to Karhunen, this might be due to a number of artists becoming more deeply involved with occultism and the practice of magic, which in turn leads to other artists becoming interested as well.
Karhunen explains that this is a growing magical current evoking a collective energy, which leads to new musical expressions. However, while interest in practised occultism and magic has grown, the opposition has increased as well, with accusations that some bands claim a magical pedigree directly in order to increase their fan base.
While a transnational ritual black metal scene exists, and various local scenes throughout Europe and the Americas, I think that it is safe to say that the scene is most prominent in Sweden.
In Sweden, ritual black metal has also built scenic institutions such as networks and special venues. On the one hand, some fans may prefer ritual black metal but are unlikely to limit their engagement with metal to only this scene.
On the other hand, some scene participants may be less interested in metal in general and prefer other forms of musical expression, but participate due to their occult interests.
As for scenic institutions, most bands in the scene release their records on small independent record labels — though there are exceptions to this, Ofermod’s 2012-album ‘Thaumiel’ was released by Spinefarm Records, which is an independent business unit of Universal Music Group.
To my knowledge, however, there are no record labels that exclusively focus on ritual black metal in Sweden. Still, there might be labels that exclusively interested in bands with occult engagements, and who then release records by artists in many different genres, including ritual black metal. These aspects of the scene certainly warrant investigation, but lie outside the scope of the present article.
The scenic institutions I will look at are two venues that are exclusively for bands engaged in the occult; the festivals Arosian Black Mass in Västerås (100km West of Stockholm) and Forlorn Fest in Umeå (in Northern Sweden).
Forlorn Fest was first arranged in November 2010, with the second festival on November 30th to December 1st, 2012.
The first Arosian Black Mass was arranged on November 11–12, 2011, with the second festival on November 23–24, 2012.
Neither festival is presented as a place for “fun and party” as is the case with most other metal festivals in Sweden and elsewhere. Instead, a sombre attitude dominates.
As the organisers of Forlorn Fest write: “Forlorn Fest is an annual Death worshipping Black Metal festival […] aim[ing] to be a showcase for occult music, art, and other creative outlets. […] only bands who truly embrace Death and everything that comes with the spirit of Black Metal are welcome [sic] through the gates.”
The organizers of Forlorn Fest start their presentation on their Facebook page with “We welcome thee into the Church of Death”, and go on to state that the mission of the festival is “[t]o give the wanderers of the Left-Hand Path, a truly one of a kind experience of what the essence of black metal is all about.”
The organizers of Arosian Black Mass similarly present their festival: “Arosian Black Mass is not a ‘black metal festival’ but is centred around occult esoterism in art, music and dark spiritual practice. The whole event will have its focus upon an esoteric process within which all participating artists will play key roles. The visitors shall expect a complete arcane impression through visions, audio and atmosphere. It is meant to be an extraordinary experience that they will never forget!”
“Not a black metal festival,” as it is in quotation marks, should here probably be understood as the venue not being comparable to “regular” black metal festivals, and possibly even being a “true black metal festival” in contrast to those that do not operate with an occult grounding. Both festivals thus use an elitist rhetoric in which authenticity and an exclusive audience are valued overdrawing a large number of attendants.
I visited both festivals in November/December of 2012. While there were similarities, for example artists at both festivals being chosen on the grounds of them framing their music as closely and authentically related to the occult, there were differences as well.
Arosian Black Mass had a broad range of different acts, ranging from the experimental ritual ambient act Arktau Eos to the black metal of Ofermod.
The festival also included occult video showings, displays of occult artwork, and vendors selling occult books and ritual supplies. In contrast, the bands playing at Forlorn were of a more conventional black metal variety, and while they all framed their music as occult in philosophy and/or practice, the performances at the festival did not include traditional ritual magical elements in the same way as at Arosian Black Mass.
The band Ofermod was an exception, and included a magical ritual in its performance. Unlike Arosian Black Mass, no vendors of occult books and supplies or displayers of occult art were present.
Arosian Black Mass also seemed to attract a more international crowd, with people having travelled from around Europe, but also from example South America, in order to participate. The audience at Forlorn Fest was mostly Swedish, as well as being a more traditional metal crowd.
There are also scenic institutions that tread the border between occult fraternities and band activity. One example is the Luciferian Flame Brotherhood (also going by the name Serpent Flame Brotherhood), consisting of members of a number of black metal bands that operate on an occult basis.
Mika Hakola of the Swedish band Ofermod and one of the instigators of the Brotherhood says: “I work on bringing together adepts from different Left-Hand Path-traditions for cooperation on a more mundane plane […] to help spread the dark spiritual heritage and in that way help other dark-adepts to pave the way for a Draconian/Luciferian era where each tradition which is allied with the powers of darkness have a place and function.”
The goal with the Brotherhood is thus not to become an initiatory order in itself, but to direct the musical expressions of the occult to align them with magical ritual practice.