While returning to his house in the Norwegian woods, young Øystein Aarseth was unable to open the front door, which was usually unlocked. He and his bandmates agreed to meet there to rehearse like they usually did. Pelle, the band’s vocalist and his roommate, was already there. He knocked loudly, waiting for his friend to open the door. But there was no response. Pelle had been acting strange the last few days. He would lock himself in his room, writing letters and drawing, becoming even more quiet and pessimistic than he used to be. An ominous suspicion crossed Aarseth’s mind. He knew his friend quite well. He hadn't nicknamed himself “Dead” out of the blue. He's claimed to have been dead inside for a while.
Seeing no response, Aarseth climbed one of the windows. He had no idea of the brutal scene he would find once he stepped inside. There was blood splattered everywhere, even the letter on the table. However, the scarlet stains on the paper did not make it illegible. The message was concise, “Excuse the blood”. That was something Dead would say. Aarseth looked at the slashed and shot body of who used to be his friend. After reading the letter and realizing the gruesome process through which Pelle took his life, he knew he had to so something. In these cases, people usually call the police. Maybe after overcoming the shock of finding a loved one in such a horrific state, one might call the deceased’s friends and family. But instead Aarseth’s reaction was not of mourning or shock. There was no police or friends, at least not for a while. But there was a disposable camera, a rearrangement of all the items on the table where the body lay, some posing, and a scandalous post-mortem photograph that would mark one of the darkest chapters in the history of one of the most infamous music genres in the world: Black Metal.
Euronymous, Necrobutcher, and Dead
The story behind Mayhem’s first album cover of Dawn of the Black Hearts –look it at your own risk, since it’s the actual photo Øystein Aarseth, also known as Euronymous, took when he found the lead singer's corpse– can turn an already controversial music genre into a synonym of violence and misanthropy, feeding the narrative of a music genre that is said to despise Christianity, idolize the devil, and invite the world to surrender to chaos and our lowest instincts. Indeed, since its beginnings in the eighties, black metal has recurred to the shock factor that other rock and heavy metal musicians had previously used, but they make it “even heavier” by introducing controversial topics such as Satanism and distorting the sound of their guitars, as well as their vocals. Nonetheless, this genre is more than just screams, growls, black masses, and unintelligible hymns to summon the devil. It is a rebellion against the idealized life of rock stars, consumed by the media. It's a scream against the oppressive discourse of powerful groups, and a means to question what we consider good and evil.
Among all these stories and myths, it’s difficult to distinguish facts from exaggerations or stereotypes created to discredit this music genre. So here are some common myths about black metal that, whether based on facts or not, have marked it as one of the most extreme and diabolic music genres in the world.
1. Black metal musicians burn churches
Status: Partially true
I say partially true because this fact remits to the origins of this genre. Let’s go back to Norway in the 1990s. The first wave of black metal artists mainly focused on Satanic lyrics intended for the shock value. However, the bands of the second wave –like the aforementioned Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, and Thorns– are one of the reasons why the genre got its infamous status. While some of these musicians say they recurred to the shock factor of the' bands of the eighties and used the lyrics to criticize the Christianization of their country, others, including Euronymous and Burzum’s leader Varg Vikernes, took this ideology too seriously and, in 1992, they began a series of church arsons, for which they were arrested. Nonetheless, these events are mostly exclusive to this generation of black metal musicians, which ended in 1993, when Vikernes was convicted for the murder of Euronymous. To sum up, these were isolated events that, however, ended up marking the genre and creating a legend that still surrounds it.
2. They are all Satanists
Photo by MetalBlade Records
Despite their Satanic iconography, most of these bands do not believe in the devil nor they practice Satanism, and if they do, they keep it to themselves. Ironically, there are even bands with Christian lyrics that call themselves white metal. Again, it all has to do with the shock factor and the critique against the oppressiveness of powerful groups.
3. This music promotes violence
I guess black metal is not the only genre –or the only media– accused of promoting violence among the youth. I’m sure you must remember when, after the Columbine massacre, Marilyn Manson was under the spotlights because his music was said to have caused this tragedy. As it happened to this singer, anime, and videogames, black metal has been accused of promoting violence without any credible basis. Of course it’s easier to find a scapegoat instead of thoroughly analyzing what are the actual sociocultural factors that make people recur to violence.
4. They kill animals on stage
Photo by Christian Misje
Again Norwegian black metal has to do with this myth, specifically the band Gorgoroth. In 2004, the band performed at Poland and the concert was aired on local TV. Gorgoroth usually performs with props that remit to black masses, like crucified human figures and severed goat heads. Although the band's vocalist at the time told NRK newspaper that producers bought the latter at a local butcher shop, the band members were falsely accused of animal cruelty. This event, as well as the allusion to black masses –which are commonly believed to involve animal sacrifices– and the use of fake blood has made people believe there is animal cruelty behind these performances.
5. All lyrics are about Satan or attack Christianity
Photo by Erik Wijnands
Although there seems to be an anti-Christian sentiment behind, most black metal bands, specially in Scandinavia, actually embrace the Viking and Pagan roots of their countries, so there are also lyrics about Scandinavian mythology and heroes. Following the “darkness” of their façade, there are also lyrics with gothic nuances, remitting to Romanticism’s awareness of humanity’s inferiority compared with the power of nature. Even the allusion to Satan himself could be considered an evolution of the Byronic hero, that is, an anti-hero type of character known for being rebellious, anti-social, and passionate.
Black Metal is not just an apostate parade of inverted crosses, black goats, screams, and blood. Indeed, it has had gruesome stories and radical believers in the ideology of its lyrics. But, just as it has happened with this music genre, extremism can be found in other ideologies, religions, or political views. However, the isolated cases are capable of staining the reputation of a whole group. Or in this case, of a whole type of music and generations of musicians, who end up being misinterpreted as promoters of evil. However, most of them embrace those themes that mainstream media doesn’t dare to explore because they are frowned upon, seen as taboo, or considered to go against morality. But as long as these topics are not questioned, discussed, or shown, ignorance will remain, and thus, fear.
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