Neither Norway: Black Death and Afterlife
I was warned. “Watch out for the death metal,” said my muso friends when I told them I was off to the wilds of Norway for a rock festival – as if I could somehow be mortally wounded by shards of satanic shrapnel. But when I arrived in Bergen, on the west coast of the country, supposedly the wettest place in Europe with over 200 days of rain each year, the sun shone brightly and the air was clean. The closest I came to the dreaded onslaught of Odinesque immolation were the matching Gretsch guitars of the Gore Gore Girls, from Detroit, who shimmied their way through a rocking garagic set that featured not one reference to black magick.
Indeed, the whole town was so benevolent and friendly that I wondered where this death metal might be hiding. Little did I know, and would soon learn, that Bergen was the scene of some of unlife’s most notorious incidents, from the beaning of an audience member by a severed sheep’s head flung into the crowd by Mayhem, to the 1992 burning of a 12th century gothic church that the singer of Burzum, Varg Vikernes, claimed was at his instigation. That Vikernes, once bass player of Mayhem, later stabbed to death Mayhem’s guitarist, Euronymous, who had supposedly boiled and eaten the brains of the group’s vocalist, Dead, who’d committed suicide; that Faust, drummer of Emperor, had stabbed a man to death in Lillehammer’s Olympic Park with no provocation; that the music wallowed in apocalyptic and misbegotten confrontations between Norse mythology and Christian infidelity and demonic sacrifice and grade-B horror shlock played at mind-numbing volume and speed, beset by convoluted fantasies of racial purification and ultraviolence and unrelenting retribution….
Scratch the Scandinavian surface, and the gates of hell doth open. The music isn’t confined to Norway – Sweden’s Katatonia and Craft (Total Soul Rape) are amongst the most fecund purveyors of the music’s extremities – but it is Norway that has popularized the peculiar sword-and-sorcery that is death metal’s uncompromising howl. “Skaol!” one is cheered in a country that lifts its glass to the Viking tradition – and you are reminded of the fact that it translates as “skull,” which those Vikings used as flagons to toast their destroyed enemies. In the land of the midnight sun, or the noon moon, let us quote Knut Hamsun, a Nobel Prize winner in literature, who in his 1890 novel Hunger describes a would-be writer wandering the streets of Oslo (then called, tellingly, Christiania): “I remained a while looking into the dark, this dense substance of darkness that had no bottom…What if I myself became dissolved into the dark, turned into it?”
Like any genre, death metal has its own readymades: massive sludges of distorto guitars, double-bass drums machine-gunning under guttural vocals, corpse makeup, stage shows featuring mock cruci-fictions and smoke machines on overload. It consists of equal parts Metallica and Slayer, large portions of Bathory and Celtic Frost, a dash of thrash mixed with a pomp and circumstance that sometimes hearkens to prog-rock; sometimes, even stranger to say, when the music descends to a maelstrom roar, the music’s texture is akin to sonic-atmosphere bands like Flying Saucer Attack, My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen Three. Lyrically, should one decipher the often rampant unintelligibility of the growled syllables, words rising up out of the malebolge in snatches (some of the groups do sing in English) only to be dragged back into the primeval swamp, it’s pure Dr. Doom, threats against unmindful humanity, an embrace of the Dark Lord, each circle of Inferno lovingly inscribed, as does Dante. Where would you like your torture to begin? Perhaps by sitting in front of these speakers for Eternity, pummeled by waves of jackhammer sound, until your very soul begins to shred and decay into that moment when the universe is made-over into what it once was, when Pagan gods ruled the fjords.
Or something like that. Personally I like my sturm with a little drang, rhymes with kerrang!, and a great metal band transcends its mythology, be it Thor-centric or alcohol-and-girls-centric (see Penelope Spheeris ‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II.) I’m up for a good headbang as much as the next modern-civilization male (I can locate no women in any of these bands, more’s the pity), and when the decibels and rpm’s rev up, I find extraneous accessorizing falls away, like the veneer of civilization that cloaks our bestial selves. This is the hardest of rock, no apologists need apply.
A working genre for close to two decades, the style has matured over the years, building on its notoriety to include an entire alt-universe of bands, most with several albums to their credit, and for the credulous seeker, eMusic is especially primed to provide an excellent map (printed on old parchment of course, detailing the pathway to the epic confrontation of good vs. evil that awaits in this world, be it Mordor or Gormenghast). Off the mainstream grid, it is the province of independent labels such as Nuclear Blast to provide fresh souls for the Devil’s maw, and following the twisting paths of reader’s playlists and “similar artists” and “formal” connections will guide you through the scorched-earth of this remarkably conceived fantasy world, for that is what it is, with the same unpronounceable names and cataclysms of When Gods Collide. It takes a pillage.
Mayhem began in the mid 1980s in the Venom vein and set the pentagramic parameters, for good or evil. They had hardly begun recording their first proper album (1994′s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas), when the homicidal mania of their blood vows overtook them, rendering their influence more symbolic than actually musical. Dead, their vocalist, was dead: what song could over-the-top that? But Mayhem’s rhythmic fortitude, a bludgeoning, powerfully fractious pummel of constant tom fill and stop-and-go flail, was generated from drummer Hellhammer, and he reconstituted the group shortly after the original band’s “break-up” in 1994, along with bassist Necro Butcher. Mayhem regained their mastery in 2000 with A Grand Declaration of War, a concept album that verges more on theater-of-the-damned than primal scream; and 2004′s Chimera is a stunning display of the martial art that is hardcore metal. While the recording of Chimera is outfront and in your face, 2007′s Ordo Ad Chao loss of fidelity seems a misguided attempt at regenerating their street cred, diluting the power of the band. It unfortunately signals the virtual demise of the group, as guitarist Blasphemer has just left, as has Hellhammer, the latter joining forces with Gnarr of the group Gorgoroth (who lives in a cabin outside of Bergen, much like Edvard Grieg in his composer’s hut, Grieg unwilling to leave the damp air of his birthplace even though it was fatal for his lungs) in an as yet untitled supergroup.
Emperor – the group that wielded the sadly departed Eurynonymous – is also the band that gave the Norwegian scene more than a shocking murder. In the Nightside Eclipse is a “foundational” record, in the words of editor J. Edward Keyes, who is a learned aficionado of this most alchemical formula for transmutation (and it is a formula, to be sure). In a song like “I Am the Black Wizard,” the group puts its beast-language to darkling use with soaring melodic lines and shifting tempos, a template that allows more creative freedom than is usual in that defining moment when molten metal cools and assumes solid form. Emperor lasted until 2001, reforming in 2005, but their classic era is represented with such epic phantasmagorias as Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, and in all the bands who took up their trident. Burning the torch of this lineal respect are the Various Artists (the many um’s of Abruptum, Mysticum, etc.) who salute their forbearer on Nordic Metal: A Tribute to Euronymous.
Then you’re on your own, one band name more encrusted with mania and encrypted with terror than the next, even as they differentiate. Some groups embrace the symphonic: Dimmu Borgir records with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on Death Cult Armageddon, and the Gothenberg Opera Orchestra on their epic 2001 release, Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, resulting in a cinemascope soar that ironically hearkens to religio-soundtrack composers like Alfred Newman (The Robe). Enslaved have more straight rockist outcroppings amidst their misanthropies, and like many Norwegian bands, have been a going concern for over a decade, despite constant personnel shifts: 2003′s Below the Lights and 2006′s Isa are good examples of their bludgeon. Some stay deep in the down and dirty: Darkthrone (1993′s Under a Funeral Moon) sounds as if they’re singing from the back of a cave. Sargeist spout ritual incantation amidst a swirl of guitar lines and haywire acceleration. In such an incestuous scene, members move freely between each other’s covens: “Grusom” Galder has played guitar for Dimmu Borgir, and has taken that group’s drummer back to his own group, Old Man’s Child. The two bands even share an album in the 1999 Devil’s Path / In The Shades of Life. Leviathan has the best song titles: I have to appreciate “Fucking Your Ghost in Chains of Ice” scrolling through my iPod even if I never play it (though I do, and live to tell the tale). My favorite of all this wandering in the Norwegian woods – they are very scary this time of night! – is Carpathian Forest. Strange Old Brew, their 2001 release, switches tempos and moodswings so that the music is never predictable (in the way this constant barrage of sound can be). But that’s just me, who likes an anthemic guitar line (“Thanatology”), a bit of punk self-immolation (“The Suicide Song”) and some genuine s&m spook (“House of the Whipcord”), with some eerie sax thrown in. Not for the purist, but who’s pure?
The deathly trail will lead the eager damned to England’s Cradle of Filth, who arguably are most successful in taking black metal to the world’s disaffected; Finland’s Impaled Nazarene; Austria’s Abigor; Hungary’s Ektomorf; and Nile, from the Biblical belt of South Carolina, who do the mastodon walk (“Eat of the Dead” from 2007′s Ithyphallic). The prime of evil.