The Multiplicity and Obscure Identity in Black Metal Culture

Benjamin Hedge Olson

Benjamin Hedge Olson

I first became aware of black metal in an article in Spin Magazine in 1996. The Spin Magazine article told of devil worshipping Norwegians, burning churches and making cacophonous heavy metal music.

In those pre-internet days, I was unable to obtain any samples of this strange new music, although my fascination with the article stayed in the back of my mind for many years. In the fall of 2000, I discovered a copy of Emperor’s ‘Wrath of the Tyrant’ at a local record store in Missoula, Montana where I was an undergraduate and, remembering the band’s name from the Spin Magazine article, I bought the album.

My roommate at the time and I listened to ‘Wrath of the Tyrant’ every day for the next year, becoming totally enthralled by the passionate, unique and utterly captivating music therein.

I have since absorbed as much black metal music and culture as possible, attending concerts, reading books and interviews and occasionally accosting complete strangers in the street who were wearing black metal t-shirts, grilling them for information.

This article is, in many ways, the culmination of a long-standing fascination with a peculiar outpost of popular culture that most people are totally unaware of.

In 2001 and 2002, I attended a study abroad program at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik and experienced Nordic black metal first-hand for the first time. In 2001 there were numerous wild-eyed black metallers wandering the streets of Reykjavik with Mayhem t-shirts on their backs and self-inflicted scars on their arms.

To people from the Nordic countries and Norway in particular, black metal is not a witticism. I became friends with numerous Norwegians, many of whom remember all too vividly the days when black metallers were setting fire to every church that they could get their hands on; to these people black metal was something to be hated and feared.

In 2005, I travelled to Norway, seeing many of the re-built churches and sites of black metal activity with my own eyes. I also witnessed the overwhelming beauty of the Norwegian countryside that has provided so much inspiration to Norwegian black metallers. For many Norwegians, black metal is not an absurd manifestation of teenage angst, but rather a national trauma.

Very little academic work has been published on black metal. Prior to Michael Moynihan and Didrik Schjerven Søderlind’s history of black metal, ‘Lords of Chaos’, which was published in 1998, very few people outside of Scandinavia or the metal community had even heard of black metal.

Since the publishing of ‘Lords of Chaos’, several books have been written that deal indirectly with black metal, but nothing has addressed black metal culture exclusively. Numerous scholars have written books discussing heavy metal culture in a more general sense, but these do not address most of what I will be concerned with in my article. I have utilised previous scholarship wherever relevant, but due to the extreme lack of scholarship regarding black metal, I have concentrated primarily on first-hand sources.

While the lack of academic and secondary sources has in some ways made the task of writing this thesis more complicated, this reality has forced me to rely heavily on first hand-sources, which in many ways has proven to be this project’s greatest strength.

While academics have written very little about black metal, black metallers and metalheads in general, have written a great deal about themselves. Magazines, fanzines, ezines and documentaries within the metal community have provided me with a vast store of interviews and articles to draw from.

Major metal magazines like Decibel Magazine and Terrorizer Magazine have provided me with invaluable articles and interviews concerning black metal and its inner-workings. The seemingly infinite number of transcribed fanzines and ezines available online have given me incredible amounts of information and insight into the black metal culture, although the sheer number of interviews and articles available online proved to be an intimidating sea of information to sift through.

Interviews with black metal scene members offered particularly valuable information; I feel that the importance of allowing scene members to explain their culture and worldview in their own words cannot be overstressed.

In addition to interviews and articles published in magazines or online, I have spent the last year conducting ethnographic research. I have had the opportunity to interview numerous black metal scene members from countries all over the world, largely through e-mail, but also over the telephone and in person.

For practical reasons, face-to-face interviews with black metallers in distant parts of the world has not been possible, and in these cases, online interviews had to suffice. That being said, I have found face-to-face or telephone interviews to be far more productive and instructive than those done online.

The ability to ask to follow up questions, probe for elaboration and to comprehend intonation, humour and body language add a dimension to face-to-face interviews that are unavailable online.

I have discovered that for a community of people famous for misanthropy, Satanism and violence, black metallers are remarkably open, helpful and often friendly to someone like myself who is trying to understand their culture and worldview.

I have also had the opportunity to attend several black metal live performances and see the uniqueness and drama that is a black metal concert first hand. In the summer of 2007, I attended an Emperor concert in Chicago that drew black metallers from all over the Midwest, the only other Emperor United States of America dates being in Los Angeles and New York.

I witnessed enormous, brawny men with huge beards and Thor’s hammer necklaces. I saw inhuman-looking corpse-painted wraiths slouching in the shadows. I raised my hands, along with everyone else in the theatre, index finger and pinky extended in the metal salute and chanted the climactic ending refrain from Emperor’s song ‘I am the Black Wizards’, “I am them, I am them, I am them!” When confronted with a large group of black metallers in their element, participating in the culture that makes up at least a large part of their lives and identity, their earnestness and sincerity cannot be easily dismissed.

The conflict between individuality and group identity is one that particularly challenges contemporary culture and black metal in particular. Rhetoric regarding the importance of individualism, self-creation, and subjective morality is primary to black metallers all over the world.

Some of this rhetoric is borrowed from the Church of Satan, some from the ideas of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and much from a widely distributed social Darwinist discourse, but all of its attempts to address problems with group identity and the power of the individual that have been significant to much twentieth-century discourse.

This belief in hyper-individuality and subjectivity is problematized by black metal scenic activities that involve bands, scenes, audiences and other undeniably group-centric activities. Black metal culture constantly interrogates this paradox, attempting to reconcile its emphasis on unencumbered individualism with the pleasures and cohesions of the group.

This paradox can never be properly resolved, but black metallers attempt to do so through mystical experience. Mystical communion with nature, Satan, one’s ancestors or some other abstraction is a central component of black metal culture, ideology and scenic activity.

By transcending the physical self, and making contact with the divine, black metallers try to reconcile notions of self and other by dissolving their singular identity with the divine (whatever that may be to any given participant).

It is important to stress that black metal is not a unified, monolithic culture. It takes myriad forms in its numerous locales, scenes and ideological subgenres all over the world. It is also important to stress, however, that both musically and ideologically, the black metal must be understood as a coherent cultural/artistic framework that only properly makes sense concerning its various parts.

USGSBM and Nordic Satanic black metal, for all of the differences between these two factions, can only be understood concerning one another.

In my future articles, I will explain the discourses that define black metal, and the symbiotic relationship that exists between opposing factions. Scenic performance, discourse and ideological opposition are vital to black metal culture, and one of the primary tasks of my thesis is to guide the uninitiated listener/reader through these discourse and the identities being created.

It is difficult for many people encountering black metal for the first time to accept that anyone in the developed world in 2008 could believe in things like devil worship, and use something as seemingly absurd as heavy metal as a vehicle for their religious convictions.

Many observers with a superficial knowledge of black metal might suggest that many of its spiritual manifestations are merely for show; empty, tongue-in-cheek shock tactics to gain more attention.

The years that I have spent being fascinated with black metal have convinced me that this is simply not the case.

Black metallers all over the world are engaged in active, on-going projects to instil meaning and identity in their lives. While their project can never remain stable or static, black metallers are continually negotiating the precarious slope of cultural meaning and authenticity.

In my future articles, I will chart many of the methods used by black metallers to create identities that they can believe in.

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