Metal has from the very beginning embraced occult notions and themes, as well as having been accused of being directly connected to occultism and Satanism by its detractors. Already the Blues that preceded it was surrounded by stories of deals between musicians and the Devil.
Black Sabbath had a certain flirtation with darker occult themes, apparent in the name of the band itself as well as in image and lyrics.
Led Zeppelin referred to occultist and magician Aleister Crowley in several of its songs, largely due to guitarist Jimmy Page’s long-lasting fascination with the infamous mage.
In the 1980s, Ozzy Osbourne, former lead singer of Black Sabbath, continued his exploration of the occult with the song ‘Mr Crowley’ on his first solo album, ‘Blizzard of Ozz’ (1980). Thrash Metal band Slayer included songs titled ‘The Antichrist’ and ‘Black Magic’ on the debut album ‘Show No Mercy’ (1983) and Metallica included the instrumental song ‘The Call of Ktulu’ on the 1984 album ‘Ride the Lightning’.
Swiss band Celtic Frost — two members of which started out in the “first wave” Black Metal band Hellhammer — included references to alleged Satanist Gilles de Rais (1404– 1440) on its first album ‘Morbid Tales’ (1984) and to Lovecraftian beings on the 1985 EP ‘Emperor’s Return’.
The occult was a common theme in early Death Metal as well, and Morbid Angel included songs named ‘Immortal Rites,’ ‘Visions from the Dark Side,’ and ‘Bleed for the Devil’ on its first album ‘Altars of Madness’ (1989).
The occult was virtually the dominating theme in the slow and brooding genre known as Doom Metal, exemplified by bands such as Saint Vitus, Pentagram, and Candlemass. Even Glam Metal band Mötley Crüe had allegedly planned on naming its 1983 album ‘Shout with the Devil’, but decided instead on ‘Shout at the Devil’ after negative occult experiences of bass player and lyricist Nikki Sixx.
It is, however, mainly with Black Metal that the engagement with the occult started to be more structured and sustained, with undertones that can more clearly be categorised as religious. Black Metal, at least in its Norwegian “second wave,” is commonly described as Satanic.
It is true that overtly Satanic themes, as well as Satanic self-descriptions and self-identification, emerged relatively early, but it has been argued, on good grounds, that this was largely due to the influence of the mass media portraying the genre as Satanic.
In short, in January 1992 Burzum’s Varg Vikernes (1973–) gave an interview where he claimed responsibility for several church burnings, which led to a moral panic and a media frenzy focused on stories about “Satanism in Norway.”
This escalated a year later with Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (1968–1993), and the convictions of several individuals involved in Black Metal for a number of the church burnings that had occurred in Norway in the early 1990s.
The Norwegian documentary film’ Satan rir media’ (‘Satan Rides the Media’) clearly shows how the Satanism-label was applied by the media, how dubious “cult experts” validated this, and how the number of arsons drastically increased in the process — from approximately one per year in the early 1990s to fifty arsons altogether between 1992 and 1996.
Satanism became an identity marker in Black Metal, largely due to the media-created Satanism providing a “script” that Norwegian “second wave” Black Metal musicians and fans could use for antinomian purposes.
In fact, the “first wave of Black Metal” was far more explicitly Satanic when it comes to lyrical content. To give a few examples: The debut album of Venom, ‘Welcome to Hell’ (1981), includes songs such as ‘Sons of Satan’ and ‘In League with Satan’ and most songs include references to things such as Satan, demons, and Hell.
All the albums of Swiss band Hellhammer, including the first demo ‘Satanic Rites’ (1983), include references to Satan. The same goes for Swedish band Bathory from its first album ‘Bathory’ (1984) to the late 1980s, as well as for most of the other important “first wave” bands such as Destruction, Sodom, Sarcófago, Tormentor, Death SS, and Blasphemy.
The references to Satan in Norwegian “second wave” Black Metal are far less frequent. Mayhem and Gorgoroth are the two bands that most frequently promote a Satanist outlook, and the latter only from its 1996 album ‘Antichrist’ onwards.
Early albums by most other bands do contain references to Satan, but the character commonly is used as a representation of the pre-Christian, in a heathen framework of “longing for a long lost pre-Christian past,” “nature-romanticism,” and the “importance of a ‘folk’.”
It is for this reason, and as I consider the term Satanism to be of little analytical value, that I have argued that early Norwegian Black Metal should be characterised as heathen rather than Satanic.
In addition to this general heathen discursive framework references to Old Norse, pre-Christian myth, religion, and culture are at least as plentiful as references to Satan in early Norwegian Black Metal.
Burzum’s self-titled debut album from 1992 contains an ode to the Babylonian God Ea and seemingly a cry of sorrow for an imagined lost pagan past (in the song ‘A Lost Forgotten Soul’). This theme of sorrow for “lost tradition” recurs in songs such as ‘Det som en gang var (Was Einst War)’ [‘What Once Was’] on the 1994 album ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’ [‘If the light takes us’].
Darkthrone’s album ‘A Blaze in the Northern Sky’ (1992) contains several explicit references to pre-Christian mythologies, and is infused with a similar longing for a pre-Christian past as apparent in Burzum’s ‘Det som en gang var.’ Emperor’s 1994 album ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ exhibits the same romantic longing, as it contains the song ‘Cosmic Keys to my Creations and Times’ with the following more general esoteric line of text: “They are the planetary keys to unlimited wisdom and power for the Emperor to obtain.”
Even Mayhem’s ‘Live in Leipzig’ (1992) contains the song ‘Pagan Fears’ and Gorgoroth’s debut album ‘Pentagram’ (1994) the song ‘(Under) The Pagan Megalith.’
The early 1990s Norwegian Black Metal was certainly anti-Christian, but an adversarial stance towards Christianity does not automatically equate to Satanism or Devil Worship.