Ecological Thinking in the American Black Metal Scene

Kyle Koeppe

Kyle Koeppe

The emergence of Black Metal in Scandinavia in the early 1990s as a genre with pronounced ideological commitments to anti-Christian sentiments and Norwegian nationalism arose as a response to what the young, brash early Black Metal musicians saw as a puritanical, oppressively Christian social democratic state.

As heavy metal grows and spreads at a global level, the established metal genres maintain consistency in sounds while local variations on a theme alter their styles as they are conceived. In metal’s proliferation and with the ever-increasing sheer abundance of metal to listen to, many bands simply echo what has come before them, as can be seen in the advent of “retro” bands and genres; even when not a trend, for some genres mimicry is the normal state of things. However, some bands in the American Black Metal scene seek to innovate the genre as a whole by creating a distinctly American sound influenced by its roots in this different context.

The United States black metal, in defining itself as something distinct from other scenes, distinguishes itself from its European progenitor by incorporating local sounds, like the banjo or bluegrass fiddling, and more importantly ideas specific to the regional and cultural contexts that it emerges from while maintaining the original black metal sound.

The burgeoning American black metal scene has come to be discussed and defined, both within the scene and by the media, more by its supposed inversion of black metal politics from right to left and less for its musical qualities.

A particular example, the band Panopticon from the Appalachian region of Kentucky, incorporate Leftist politics, in the form of environmentalism and working class struggles, like themes, into their music as their albums grapple with issues of destruction, exploitation, and the excesses of capitalism through black metal with elements of American folk music.

Even when bands disavow any connection in their music to socialist or anarchist politics, these bands champion themes of rebirth and renewal as opposed to the apathy and nihilism of the Scandinavia acts, even if both share the trait of misanthropy.

This strand of United States black metal, albeit diverging from the ideological roots of black metal, maintains the spirit of the original Scandinavian subculture through the way that the music confronts the audience with the particular, contextualised truth of ecological ruin, troubling listeners and maintaining the genre’s distance from the mainstream.

In this chapter, I argue that when American black metal taps into very localized sounds, from the fiddle to the banjo, and social concerns, from coal mining to deforestation, it demonstrates the ability of the music to reflect specific lived experiences in a localized culture, providing not only artistic expression for the musician but a form of meaning-making for the audience.

This inquiry seeks to delve into the conditions of production and answer what is at the source of black metal’s form and content, the sound and the issues they address in the world.

Norway seems a rather unlikely site for the emergence of a genre like black metal so predicated on evil, violence, and hate.

Despite the region’s history of Viking rule characterised by bloody raids along European shores, contemporary Norway is generally perceived as rather mild-mannered if not altogether dull. The state-endorsed church shapes its civil society; much of the population opt not to participate in the religiously complacent and apathetic social body, while the rest seek spiritual fulfilment in other forms, in particular, the evangelical church.

Portions of the population have always been content with their personal secular orientations, but the southern and western coasts are gripped by a Christian conservatism that has established taboos against drinking alcohol in some places.

In the late 1980s, a growing number of youths alienated from society and blaming the Christian state for their predicament sought to utilise heavy metal as a political tool. Black metal in its nascent form was characterised by its extreme nature and overtly “evil” presentation.

Preceding the rise of death metal, black metal formed in Norway as a resistance to the light-hearted macabre that was prevalent in death metal. If death metal was heavy metal with deep indecipherable growled vocals, and fast-tempo blast beat drumming then black metal was to be something more sonically extreme to the point of being so abrasive it is grating.

Rejecting the increasingly banal lyrical violence of death metal that was characterised by a persistent one-upmanship to be more repulsive than the last band, black metal sought to break into history by creating a piece of truly maleficent music with a social agenda centred around actual violence not simply tales of it.

Death metal had become a parody of itself, according to black metal’s young progenitors, and they sought to transcend the boundaries that it had established as acceptable in metal. Black metal was to incorporate not simple stories, but the cultural and social milieu from which it was created, music rooted in their Norwegian lives.

Influenced by the heavy metal bands Mercyful Fate from Denmark, Venom from England and Bathory from Sweden, a small band of Norwegian teenagers would take the speed and intensity established in metal music further.

These kids utilised the traditional trope of Satanism in heavy metal, not for theatrical value like the bands mentioned above, but as a mantra in their war against Christianity; their primary weapon: arson. Black metal would not be purely entertainment, but an expression of deep-seated angst, resulting in a spree of church burnings in the early 1990s.

Much of the thematic and musical blueprint for black metal was laid out before its advent. Black metal is defined by its (intentionally) low quality of production, fast-paced tempos, and harsh shrieked vocals over top of tremolo picked guitar riffs and blast-beat drumming.

The shrill intensity of the sound in some way provides a sharp contrast to its intention to produce an evocative grandeur in its music. This disjoint originates in the band Bathory’s work before them: “Though not conscious of its influence, Bathory managed to create the blueprint for Scandinavian black metal in all its myriad facets: from frenzied cacophony to orchestrated, melodic bombast; revelling in excesses of medieval Devil worship to thoughtful explorations of ancient Viking heathenism; drawing inspiration from European traditions to deliberately flirting with the iconography of fascism and National Socialism”.

Quorthon Seth, the artist responsible for Bathory, created a wild contradictory collage of ideas that the burgeoning black metal scene was all too eager to consume and expand on in their own particular ways. What might have been passing interests or tangential influences for Bathory became the ideological core for the Norwegian black metal scene.

Christianity, perceived as the blight of their everyday routines, was to blame for the decimation of their Viking heritage, which they would reclaim through the rallying of Nazi symbolism and values towards their cause.

Black metal, as a form of culture, is necessarily polysemous in being composed by multiple voices and listeners; all of whom hear or get something different from the music. The work being done by this symbolism is less about what it might truly symbolise from the vantage point of upper-middle-class Norwegian teens, but in how it can absorb and support any reading that might be derived from it.

Black metal can simultaneously be anti-Christian or anti-Semitic, opposed to an organised religion or democratic politics, both individualistic and still hearken back to bygone Nordic imagined communities. The power black metal exerts over its listening audiences is how it rallies and organises these desires and anxieties.

What these desire and anxieties point to is left unanswered at the level of the symbolic: Nazi imagery, Norse myths, pagan emblems; all mask the social changes that undergirded the sources of anxiety for the Norwegian youth that would inspire the creation of black metal.

When bands like Darkthrone print “Norsk Arisk Black Metal”, which roughly translates to ‘Norwegian Aryan Black Metal’, on the back of their album’s packaging, what work is being done by this reference to a tradition of ethnic purity and racism?

When Varg Vikernes of the band Burzum describes his worldviews as shifting from Satanism to “pan-Germanic heathenism” with stops along the way at Nazism and occult mysticism, what is he, specifically with his racism, responding to?

In this light, black metal represents a moment in the long history of Europe trying to constitute its own identity as distinctly European, which is to say, in light of the cold war ending, globalization, and widespread migration, the polysemous nature of black metal signifies the anxieties of upper-middle-class young white males in Norway.

Throughout Europe’s history, there is a constant tension between the imagined purity of collective identity and the actual racial and cultural heterogeneity of the region. The Norwegian youth involved in black metal had a particular conception of what a European identity was to be, and the influx of raced minorities into their neighbourhood threatened such a notion.

When asked about racial matters, Varg Vikernes describes the changes he witnessed: “after I moved back to Norway it took years before [coloured people] started to move into the area, upper-class Norwegian society. In Bergen, it is a more aristocratic society I was part of, because of my mother mainly. I had very little contact with coloured people, really. In Bergen, we are still blessed with having a majority of whites — unlike Oslo, which is the biggest sewer in Norway.”

Obviously racist claims are being made here, from the privilege of a purely white population to the distinction between raced and upper class and the dismissal of Oslo as an urban “sewer” of coloured people. How Vikernes describes minorities moving into the area points to a homogenous Europe made up of solely white Europeans that these coloured people are invading.

The complacency of civil society enables this migration, which black metal is rallying against. Raced minorities become the threat against which a consolidated European history resists, against both contemporary minorities and the past Christian invaders that crushed the earlier Viking society. The social and political fears following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of globalisation become displaced onto the racialised Other and persist till today.

Even when Norwegian black metal is not being explicitly racist, there is still resistance against particular elements of Norwegian society that derive from globalisation and its spread of consumerism. Within the music and the ideas that circulate around it, within the feedback loop from artists to listeners and back again, there circulates a form of individualism.

Ihsahn, the lead guitarist and vocalist of the band Emperor, describes black metal in terms of its “opposition to society, a confrontation to all the normal stuff”. Black Metal was in many ways, for Ihsahn, a thrill of his youth, a way of creating excitement in an otherwise “boring” existence.

Interviewed years after the advent of the genre and the ensuing church arsons that he was implicated in, Ihsahn positions himself in critical opposition to the rest of society, a position he feels that others who enjoy the music do as well.

Black metal becomes a form of distinction; he describes this as, after dismissing the social problems of drug use and starvation: “people who think like me do not want to be associated with [those failures], so you have something that makes you different”.

The music becomes a way of distinguishing one’s self from the others who are too wrapped up in the material world of possessions and display, repetition and boredom. Rather than worrying about “the finest car and the loudest stereo”, black metal provides a source of identity challenging what the subculture sees as the real problem or less than ideal state of the world.

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