Extreme Metal Origins, Occult, and Satanism: A Social Stain

Matthew P. Unger

Matthew P. Unger

Many scholars have documented that death metal and its siblings of gore grind, grindcore, and death grind focus explicitly on slasher style gore, featuring themes from horror movies populated by serial killers and replete with scenes of death, disgust, and mutilation (Purcell 2003 ).

Some extreme metal groups explore discourses of horror, profanity, gore, and the grotesque, constituting a modality of the contemporary experience of defilement.

In these subgenres, we witness the current trend towards increasing internalisation and even materiality of defilement. For instance, extreme metal often explores what is grotesque and horrifying to explore not only the fear of a metaphysical infection or corruption from outside but also of an experience of evil existing within us where our bodies or minds can threaten our sovereignty and undermine our will.

While much of extreme metal explores anachronistic, occult, esoteric, and mythological forms of divine justice, it also exhibits trends similar to that of horror movies with the increasing materiality of the experience of defilement that constitutes the transgression of the social and physical body.

An aspect of this is captured by two recent texts on the horror genre published in the past 15 years (Briefel and Miller 2011; Westmore 2012 ).

Other themes apparent within extreme metal include torture porn, remakes of the 1970s slasher films, and movies that explore despair and despotism.

Another theme in metal which Robert Walser ( 1993 ) has explored is that of madness. For example, many goregrind and brutal death metal bands explore an idea of “science has gone mad” or explore the horror of someone in a position of expertise gone insane. The danger associated with knowledge is another theme shared with horror movies. Bands such as Carcass, General Surgery, and Exhumed all explore in graphic detail the horror theme of mad, corrupted science.

The songs of the Edmonton band Death Toll Rising exemplify some of the themes within extreme metal, as they create stories and scenarios revolving around both horror and the grotesque.

Exploring fictional and bizarre scenarios of death and destruction, madness, serial killers, and torture, Death Toll Rising’s song lyrics and performance create scenes from horror films.

Death Toll Rising’s singer and lyricist, Jesse Berube, explains that the band’s latest album ‘Infection Legacy’ is thematically bookended by the enactment and recreation of a scene of survivors amongst a living dead post-apocalyptic virus outbreak (Exclaim.ca 2013).

The lyrics explore the perspectives of those committing atrocious, gruesome and heinous acts, as well as from those to whom these acts done.

Much of their lyrical themes are strictly horrific representations of certain scenes, but others are intended to elicit humour and disgust. For instance, on their sophomore release, ‘Defecation Suffocation’, the title track explores the disgusting experience of drowning by faeces.

A mixture of euphemisms and paradoxical connotations of purification make the lyrics both sick and witty, a common experience and mode of song writing in gore and horror-based extreme metal.

Drew affirms this interpretation with an interview he gave for the online Canadian Music News. He states of their newest album that “[m] any of our lyrics are quite satirical, or tongue in cheek, but veiled with gruesome and/or intense wording. For example, ‘Malice Incarnate’ is about a guy getting attacked by a polar bear” ( 2013 ).

Another modality of defilement expressed in some sub-genres of extreme metal, such as black metal, folk black metal, Viking metal, or National Socialist black metal, is the search for racial origins and a prior, more pure past.

The first wave Swedish black metal band Bathory moved from a primitive black metal sound to a more grandiose and melodic form of black metal by focussing on narrative themes from Norse and Viking cultures of the pre-Christian European past.

The black metal movement in Norway often evokes the symbolism of defilement in the use of extreme satanic symbolism in order to criticise what they understand to be the corruption of a strong Norse history through a complacent, middle-class Christianity.

Satan often stands in as a symbol of authenticity arising from the intentional use of mainstream transgression, whether to situate “the authentic” in the past before Christianity came to Norway, or in “the self,” as an expression of an individualist aesthetic and ideology.

Black metal evokes Satan in order to establish an ideology of an authentic self. These ideologies, however, motivated the burning of Christian churches as to indicate that Christianity had corrupted the original Norse paganism.

Swedish bands Bathory and Amon Amarth and Norwegian band Enslaved all sing about the historical period, conquests, and battles of the Vikings and specifically of the conflicts between Viking culture and Christianity. These themes are mixed with even more explicitly racist and nationalist lyrics with the band Burzum.

Several scholars have commented on metal’s connection to strange national and ethnic origins, politics and different statements of purity and authenticity.

Spracklen (2010a) for instance discusses this connection in black metal as a discourse of identity that produces and reaffirms a certain experience of whiteness. Taylor (2010) interestingly argues that the extreme right politics within marginal segments of the black metal community needs to be understood not independently of the various kinds of national identity politics that are endemic to a certain cultural context.

She writes that black metal bands participate in “the construction of a white Nordic national identity [and] hostility toward non-Nordic and especially non-white immigrants — Norway’s mainstream nationalism and xenophobia may be understood as directly related to black metal’s ultra-nationalism: extreme and everyday racisms intersect, the latter informing and enabling the former.” (Taylor 2010, 166)

Satanic, occult, and esoteric themes are also prevalent in extreme metal. Writers such as H.P. Lovecraft are a major influence for Celtic Frost and Morbid Angel.

The founder of Morbid Angel, Trey Azagthoth, is well known for exploring occult themes based on H.P. Lovecraft’s writings. His serious engagement with the occult and Lovecraft’s writing is indicated in his name, Azagthoth, a clear reference to Lovecraft’s demon, Azathoth (Norman 2013, 196).

His songwriting debt to Lovecraft’s work appears to be slightly more than just lyrical fancy; the album Heretic suggests a life philosophy that Azagthoth espouses in many interviews. Spirituality has become a significant aspect of some aspects of the genre with bands such as Negura Bunget seeking to rediscover the spirituality of the Transylvanian landscape.

Jacques Derrida suggests in the essay “Faith and Knowledge: Two sources of religion at the limits of reason alone” that the search for a pure, authentic identity is always a search for the “safe and sound,” for origins, and the sacrosanct (1996).

Similarly, Ricoeur believes that defilement always points to a transcendent, sacred experience. Possibly, the search for an authentic, sacred, and transcendent could be what much of extreme metal aims, which suggests that transgression, while situated undeniably in regression, also points to the possibility of a creative repetition towards an authentic experience.

We can see this with extreme metal as well; Mayhem’s singers Dead and Maniac claim to have reached transcendent and religious highs in their performances resulting from self-mutilation on stage (Patterson 2013).

The September 13, 2006, shooting in Montréal that killed two and injured many others is one of a long and familiar list of violent youth crimes that have evoked widespread discussions regarding the role of music in the lives of individuals and communities (CBC 2006).

A series of articles published in April 2000 in the Albuquerque Journal exemplifies how popular media responses expressed concern about people who listen to this music. While there is an attempt to understand the music from the musician’s perspective, these articles are marked with a distinct pathologising of the music and its grotesque imagery and lyrics.

Media critics aligned the lyrics of extreme metal music with actual violent and brutal acts such as school shootings and adolescent violence, ignoring the broader social contexts of the reception of the music and its listeners. These kinds of responses help perpetuate the idea that young people are increasingly at risk through this music, reflecting the antisocial attitudes of dejected and alienated young listeners, who are prone to violent acts and deviant behaviour.

The popular media, exemplified by these articles in the Albuquerque Journal, generally imply a causal correlation between extreme youth violence and an individual’s interest in counter-culture musical genres, lifestyles, and predilections.

While these articles and similar debates have derided extreme metal for the grotesque, abrasive, and transgressive elements in its sonic, visual, and lyrical material, most of the empirical sociological studies of the extreme metal show no direct correlation between lyrics, youth identification with extreme metal, antisocial tendencies, and violence. Rather, as Natalie J. Purcell ( 2003 ) writes, studies show that the ostensible correlation between extreme metal music and teen violence is entirely spurious.

According to Purcell, these studies show that many factors correlate with extreme youth violence, which defies simple causal explanations. From Purcell’s perspective, even though certain psychological and social predictors are coincidentally linked to certain lifestyles and musical preferences, this coincidence does not mean that youth who listen to this music are necessarily violent or criminal.

Recent qualitative scholarship has attempted to come to an understanding of this music and its fans without normative judgment (Mudrian 2004; Walser 1993; Weinstein 2000 ). Rather than attempting to determine or disprove causal correlations between extreme metal and youth violence, these studies seek to understand extreme metal and the extreme metal community as a distinctive subculture with unique values and beliefs.

Purcell alerts us to these values when she states that, “by its very nature, metal permits individualism by discouraging judgment and declaring acceptance of the socially unacceptable” (Purcell 2003, 159). Recent literature on extreme metal has suggested that its fans engage in this music for a sense of belonging based on an ethic of subjectivism and individualism (Purcell 2003, 123–139).

The popular responses towards early death metal and black metal show a tendency towards the judicial treatment of the music, including its banning, prohibition and related court cases (exemplified by the Parents Music Resource Center association).

Newspaper sources, like the Albuquerque Journal, offer sensationalist interpretations of the music.

Another significant aspect of the popular media response is the causal placement of youth violence and deviancy in the music itself when situations involving young people occur, suggesting that the fear of the music has to do with a fear of the music’s influence on younger generations.

We can examine, for instance, the manner in which censorship debates exemplify the symbolism of defilement by how they evoke the language of purification. Extreme metal, read through this interpretive framework, becomes the evil that taints the youth into committing evil acts: it makes the kids “less good” by the mere fact of their exposure to this music.

The juridical control of these discourses becomes modern western culture’s act of purification of the corrupted youth. In this sense, the structure of defilement reappears and informs the rationalisation of discourses of evil now expressed through meaningful juridico-discursive frameworks.

This transformation of defilement into guilt and purification into legislation has a genealogy within our consciousness of fault that is born out of a deep structural experience of the persistence of a language of defilement. Indeed, the articles within the Albuquerque Journal were evocative of a base-level guttural response reactive to the experience of evil and corruption. The media response to extreme metal is evocative of Ricoeur’s understanding that vengeance is internal to the archaic experience of defilement.

The particular understanding of influence suggested in the popular media response resonates with a few different symbolic origins.

First, the implication of causal origins has the general hue of psychological thinking of “cause”. This immediate experience/understanding of cause is the reason I chose the phrase “conceptions of causal relations” to designate the manner in which people attribute explanations to things in the world that are typically difficult to understand.

For instance, people find it difficult to explain why a young person commits extreme violence against his classmates, or why he would want to appear evil. Confusing events often force people to attribute motivations and explanations to those involved, reasons and explanations, such that violations of social categories of taste often repose on ethical issues.

Unsurprisingly, in the era of scientific explanation and the rational reason, these explanations reflect current cultural conditions. Yet, the idea of influence is a very difficult topic to explore with entire disciplines concerned with childhood influence. My contention is that conceptions of corruption, infection, and stain compound even the most scientific attributions of cause related to youth and music.

The popular media misrepresents disparate acts of violence as originating from a coherent group, thus giving these acts and those involved a coherence they lack. In other words, the public creates a coherent group of people — a subculture — by instilling the fear that these disparate acts are broad movements that threaten the public’s own children. The media reaction to these events is disproportionate to the numbers of people involved and thus misrepresents isolated individuals as part of a collective that might not have existed prior to the media reaction (Cohen 1972).

This social reaction provides fruitful grounds from which Stan Cohen’s notion of self-fulfilling prophecy takes root. By representing these acts as a product of a collective of individuals with a coherent structure that threatens the moral fabric of society, the media actually provides the structure of meaning and behaviour that people attracted to those acts can adopt.

The structures of collectivity and behaviour that were born out of fear and misrepresentation become the normative frameworks through which disparate people attracted to these structures and meaning frameworks find their own identification. Essentially, subcultures, according to Stan Cohen, are not merely an inevitable by-product of, and reaction to, socioeconomic disparity, but are also the product of a widespread fear perpetuated and solidified through favourite media sources.

According to the makers of ‘Calling 666’, the disproportionate media response to the murders and church burnings associated with members of the black metal allowed the black metal to find its foothold within Norway and discover its franchise around the world.

A recent history of black metal titled ‘Black Metal: The Evolution of a Cult’ by Dayal Patterson also suggests as much (Patterson 2013 ).

According to this documentary, the black metal movement began with individual acts of church vandalism and expanded when one of the more outspoken members of the black metal community, Varg Vikernes, killed a prominent member of the scene, the owner of the famous Helvete Records record store and Death Like Silence publishing company.

According to these sources, the black metal community was relatively small until the media represented these acts as an epidemic of Satanist rituals. Afterwards, the great amount of newspaper real estate devoted to covering these events inspired a wave of church burnings that essentially solidified a subculture that previously had not existed (Vain 1993).

An early documentary produced in Norway called ‘Satan rir Media’ (in English: ‘Satan Rides the Media’) (Grude 1998 ) explores early second wave black metal and its controversies.

This documentary suggests something similar to arguments put forth by Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies on whether subcultures create themselves or the media inadvertently creates them.

This argument asserts that members of the subculture can manipulate the media in order to create a moral panic, thereby increasing public attention to the movement or subculture.

According to the makers of this documentary, however, the small group of people who constituted the black metal scene in the 1990s intentionally exploited media’s penchant for spectacle in order to increase their international presence and notoriety.

The result was that the resulting satanic panic (very similar to America’s satanic panic of the early 1980s) and fear of satanic ritualism helped to create the genre.

While it is debatable whether the media reaction helped to establish a subculture that previously did not exist, or helped to motivate further destructive events because of their notoriety, documentaries such as these do help to examine moral panics that have developed around this music.

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