I have wanted to write about black metal for some time, but a number of things have stopped me. Firstly, I am not confident that I actually know what black metal is. I understand almost nothing about the intricacies and technicalities of metal sub-genres. I can’t, for example, quite fathom what people mean when they state, as though it is obvious, that the album A Blaze in the Northern Sky isn’t true, unadulterated black metal. Secondly, I find music journalism to be tedious and/or pointless. I have little interest in the opinions and stories of musicians and I’m even less engaged by journalists describing the songs and albums made by musicians. There will, therefore, be limited space here given to explaining the murder of Euronymous, the meetings at Helvete, the church burnings, or blast beats, corpse paint, and arguments for the superiority of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss over In the Nightshade Eclipse. This will, all told, be a very short article. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether I even need to proceed beyond this one paragraph. I am an expert at writing myself into a corner.
It’s worth pointing out, at this stage, what I mean by black metal, or what kind of black metal stimulates me, as even within this sub-genre and scene there is a complex web of other sub-genres and scenes. I will not be attempting to untangle any of that, nor do I care for proto-black metal acts such as Bathory and Celtic Frost or new-wave black metal bands like Deafheaven. So, when I use the term black metal, what I am referring to is a very narrow sound and timeframe, which is early to mid 90’s Norwegian black metal. In essence, my passion for the genre really only extends to Mayhem, Emperor, Darkthrone, and Burzum, with the latter two being my true loves. What unites these bands, at least during that early period, is an aesthetic and a musical and political ideology. Moreover, they all knew each other personally. Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grishnackh) of Burzum, for example, was once the bass player in Mayhem (and stabbed their guitarist to death). He also wrote half of the lyrics for Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger album.
My first exposure to black metal came in my teens when I chanced upon an article in a magazine. I can’t remember too much about its contents, except that it, as these sorts of things do, focussed on the more controversial elements of the scene, particularly the arson and the violence. Of course, I did not advocate murder or the burning down of churches, but there was something about the danger, the bleak atmosphere, the outsiderness, the cultishness, that did speak to me. However, it was the accompanying black and white photographs that were the most affecting. There was, and to my eyes still is, something stark and unsettling, but also sad and moving about the corpse-painted figures in them. Viewed as art, divorced from any musical context, they are incredible, beautiful images. If I now try to understand the appeal of all this to me then, it would be that – as someone who looked for, and simultaneously sought an escape from, myself in art – I saw a reflection of my brutal circumstances in this black metal world; yet, at the same time, that world seemed completely alien and other.
It surprises me to recall that, for someone who was so poor, much of the music I wanted to hear was accessible to me as a child and teenager. If one of my friends couldn’t copy or loan me the album I was currently fixated upon, then more often than not they, or I, knew someone who could steal it for me. If that didn’t work out, there was a market stall, which set up on Tuesdays, where you could buy cheap bootleg, second hand or stolen CD’s. You could even put in an order. However, I never asked for Emperor (which was the only band name I could remember from the original article, even though I now realise that they were little more than a footnote in it), because it seemed perhaps pointless, but certainly inadvisable. Black metal at that time struck me as almost illicit, like a snuff film. In my immature imagination I attached all kinds of malevolence to owning and playing that music. I had convinced myself that it would bring misfortune to me; and misfortune was something I already had in spades.
It was quite some time before I actually heard the black metal music I had once longed for and yet been so wary of. As I passed through university and coasted into my early twenties, I focussed instead on my love of hip hop and abstract electronica. I didn’t, however, completely forget about my black metal; it – indistinct yet deformed – continued to creep around in the dark corners of my mind. It was the end of a relationship that prompted me to finally seek out that which had become legendary, and therefore perhaps best left alone, in my private history. I downloaded a dozen albums, and two of those possessed me: Filosofem by Burzum and Transilvanian Hunger by Darkthrone. I played them for hours, back to back, over and over again. One might assume that losing Sasha, the only woman I have ever loved, the woman who convinced me it was possible to love, had left me with feelings of anger and frustration. That was not the case. What I was left with was fear, loneliness, and pain. And black metal. The reality of it, the true sound of it: cold, relentless, crushing.
Which brings me to the present day. To COVID-19 and the end of civilisation. There is a cliche about black metal that its guiding principle is atmosphere, that to truly appreciate it one should isolate oneself somehow. Go to the woods by yourself or walk around an abandoned building. Or take a long train journey late at night, fixing your eyes on the barren landscapes you pass through. Whatever you do, it is important to be alone, to play the music, and to focus on the emptiness; let it envelop and soothe you. As I live, as we all live, in the time of corona, I often find myself in this situation and this frame of mind. I’ll play Jesu Død and look out of my window in the evening upon vacancy; and for a little while I don’t think about the following morning when I must go to work; and I don’t think about my friends, my past lovers, and the people I don’t know at all, who will risk their lives, and perhaps lose their lives, tomorrow.