Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unholy Black Metal

"On stage there was blood everywhere. About ten decapitated sheep heads and naked people, alive, on large crosses. Everyone was painted with 100 liters of sheep blood. Also there were Satanist symbols everywhere. One of the hanging female models fainted and an ambulance had to be called... This kind of thing should not happen on state TV and especially not in Krakow, which is the Pope's city." - Polish state TV station TVP director Andrzej Jeziorek on Norwegian Black Metal Band Gorgoroth's 2004 "Black Mass" concert in Krakow, Poland.

 Surely if there is a Hell, it would look and sound a lot like this Gorgoroth concert.  The razor-wire, tremolo picked guitars, screeched vocals, and blast beats are probably about as rough on the ear as the soundtrack of Hell would be.  The imagery is an amalgam of Christian, Satanist, and occult symbols.  The band members, adorned in corpse paint and animal blood certainly look like they could be Satan's little helpers.  This concert was so vile and offensive that it got the band kicked off the metal label Nuclear Blast.

This song is certainly violent in both rhythm and musical phrasing and the concert props are also unquestionably violent; but are the musicians violent?  In its incarnation in this 2004 concert, Gorgoroth was fronted by vocalist Kristian "Gaahl" Espedal.  Gaahl definitely has a contentious belief system, however his personal ideologies are largely separated from the themes in the band's music.  He has vocally supported the burning of Christian churches and writes music with Satanic themes, however he is not a Satanist, going so far as to denounce the Church of Satan.  This concert was not put on as an actual display of violent occult rituals.  Instead, it was probably largely a publicity stunt to generate notoriety and therefore sales for a band losing faith in its fans for its increasing commercialization.  To a lesser extent, the imagery extended the Satanic content of the band.

As a counter to this somewhat campy manifestation of Black Metal, I offer the music of Varg Vikernes of Burzum fame, who has been described as "the most notorious metal musician of all time".   Vikernes was a member of the "second wave" black metal scene in Norway, a scene as notorious for its music as it was for its artists involved in real violence and Church burnings throughout the 1990s.  The early Burzum albums are in a fairly conventional black metal style, with later works increasingly using synthesizers and elements of dark ambient. 

The Fantoft Stave Church, Before Black Metal (above), and after (below).

In 1994, Vikernes was arrested and convicted of charges on the murder of guitarist Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth and the arson of several churches, including the iconic Fantoft Stave Church.  Vikernes has criticized the handling of the case by both the media and the court.  From his account of the events, he had evidence that Aarseth had been plotting his own demise and he retaliated only after he was attacked first.  When Aarseth attempted to flee, Vikernes decided to end the ongoing feud between the musicians once and for all with a 3 inch pocket knife blade.    

Burzum - Dunkelheit, from Filosofem (1996)

When night falls
She cloaks the world
In impenetrable darkness
A chill rises
From the soil
And contaminates the air
Life has new meaning 

Filosofem was his last record recorded before the murder, and was not released until 2 years after his imprisonment.  This album is dark, possibly even disturbingly so, however it really isn't that violent.  The instrumentals in the song have an almost hypnotic quality.  The lyrics, likewise, have themes of death and terror, but are not really violent.  Unlike the music of most of his black metal contemporaries, it's definitely possible to fall asleep to this album, with later tracks straying into purely dark ambient electronica territory.  While in prison, Vikernes further explored the hypnotic aspect of his music with his two synth-driven jailhouse ambient albums Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf.  After his release from prison on parole in 2009, he has gone on to release two more black metal albums, that while having an orthodox black metal styling, are also largely nonviolent both musically and lyrically. 

Vikernes is, or at least was in his past, a violent person.  Certainly, his ideologies are offensive to many as well.  However, despite being pigeon-holed as "Black Metal", a genre notorious for its violent and destructive music, the music of Burzum is largely nonviolent.  The music is certainly dark, and possibly can be seen as evil, but it is more hypnotic and introspective than it is violent outright.  On the other hand, musicians such as Gaahl, who are not actually violent people, have created music and put on performances that were outrageously violent.  To create violent art does not imply that you yourself are violent, and neither is nonviolent art necessarily created by nonviolent artists.

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