Black Metal Is Sublime

In their propensity for corpse paint and murder, bands like Bathory and Gorgoroth are the unlikely fulfillment of Romantic ideals: absolute inwardness turned outward

In a now infamous interview at 2010’s Scion Rock Fest, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, the singer and guitarist of the Brooklyn-based Black Metal band Liturgy, explained why his band doesn’t “play grim music” or “wear corpse paint.” He said he was “sickened by reveling in negativity”: “There is a fundamental substratum of chaos that is very destructive [but] also a creative force … and I think the only way to deal with the void and the flux of chaos is to affirm it.” That is why Liturgy plays what he calls “transcendental black metal,” a posi-core anomaly in the otherwise wrathful subgenre of greater Black Metal.

“True” or traditional Black Metal—not what Hunt-Hendrix plays—is an operatically dissonant blend of screeching vocals, tremolo picking, and blast beats, played by musicians in spiked jewelry and the corpse paint Hunt-Hendrix disdains, with Hammer Horror-sounding stage-names along the lines of Count Grishnackh, Faust, and Nocturno Culto, typically espousing an antiphilosophy of misanthropic individualism. In the genre’s native Norway in the early-to-mid 1990s, Black Metal spawned a culture of criminal one-upmanship that left in its wake least three documented murders, several suicides, and a swathe of burned churches and grave desecrations.

But “beneath all the grim vibes of Black Metal,” Hunt-Hendrix insists, “there’s this kind of spiritual ecstasy.” The tremolo picking creates the effect of “a string orchestra.” The great “unacknowledged influence” of the genre? Nineteenth century Romanticism.

Below the YouTube clip in which Hendrix-Hunt makes this argument, the comments range from puerile and intolerant (“what a fuck. even his band looks like they want him to shut the fuck up. hipster fag”) to analytical (“Looks like it’s time for Cradle of Filth to retire as the whipping boys of Black Metal”) to outraged (“What a bunch of PRETENTIOUS BULLSHIT”) to menacing (“I personally want to go murder HUNTER HUNT-HENDRIX”)—which, given Scandinavian Black Metal’s history, is no empty threat. Only a few of the 200-plus commenters come to Hunt-Hendrix’s defense.

This is a shame, because Hunt-Hendrix has his genealogy right. Aesthetically, artistically, and ideologically, Black Metal and Romanticism are two sides of the same scuffed coin. Indeed, right down to the cherry-pit cleft in his chin, Hunt-Hendrix—who has written an 11-page aesthetics manifesto called “Transcendental Black Metal”—is a ringer for none other than Lord Byron, the 19th century bastion of what the poet Robert Southey called the “Satanic school” of verse. The Courier judged Byron as having “a brain from heaven and a heart from hell”—someone who “seems to have lived only that the world might learn from his example how worthless and how pernicious a thing is genius, when divorced from religion, from morals and from humanity.”

Byron, as did many other Romantics, courted what scholars have since come to refer to as “Satanic aesthetics,” a rebellious and sinister dandyism that manifested not only in their artistic creations but also in their personalities. Romantic violinist Niccolo Paganini–whose successor Franz Lizst maintained an “unbelievable” yet strictly heterosexual “passion” for fellow-heartthrob Byron—was rumored to have perfected his musical technique while imprisoned for the murder of his mistress, a skein of whose intestine had been repurposed as his G-string. The bejeweled and frequently open-shirted Bryon was the pointed inspiration for Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), whose “Byronic look” was marked by “the curl of the upper lip, and the scowl of the brow.”

Black Metal, of course, has a penchant for Satanic aesthetics as well. In the hooded, sword-wielding visage of Rob Darken of Poland’s National-Socialist-leaning Graveland we see a medieval specter worthy of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), or one that might have been conceived during the famous 1816 idyll of Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys on Lake Geneva, which ultimately yielded Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.  In the corpse-paint makeup, flowing hair, and scowling of Norway’s Darkthrone or England’s Cradle of Filth (whose Romantic stage antics are as reviled among partisans of “true” Black Metal as Hunt-Hendrix’s manifesto) we see an echo of the red waistcoats and green wigs of the followers of French poet Gerard de Nerval, who led a lobster on a string through the streets of 19th-century Paris.

The angular tunics of Norwegian band Immortal call up the Gothic Cologne Cathedral (though Immortal themselves would probably love to see it burn), whose construction was left unfinished in 1473 only to recommence at the height of the Romantic era. And Norway’s Gorgoroth, who favor spikes and bullet-belts and braided beards and livestock blood, would make fitting owners of the gem-encrusted pet tortoise from J.K. Huysman’s Against Nature (1884), a novel whose entropic dandy of a protagonist, Des Esseintes, keeps bejeweling the poor animal until finally it suffocates to death.

Hegel describes the Romantics as prizing “absolute inwardness” realized through “sounds and images, dreams and visions”—i.e., art—through which “the gate to understanding can be opened.” Black Metal has typically prided itself on a wholesale dismissal of “inwardness,” and the Black Metal movement has proved notoriously deadpan when it comes to the genre’s aesthetic, to a degree that verges on camp. As Joe McIver suggests in Extreme Metal (2000), “The cod-­devilry of [Black Metal] songs, coupled with the often hammy stage shows that [Bathory and Mercyful Fate] and a host of other imitators produced, led to mass ridicule.” Whether Black Metal artists and fans are aware of this ridicule themselves, however, is an open question. Black Metalers refuse to camp, no matter how “campy” they seem at first glance. They refuse to reflect self-consciously on their practice the way Hunt-Hendrix reflects in his manifesto. Black Metal musicians play Black Metal because it’s what they’re driven to play. Reflection is for “hipster fags”; it’s “PRETENTIOUS BULLSHIT” that invites a death sentence. I point this out not to condone the occasional intolerance of Black Metal’s musicians and fans so much as to highlight the fact that the widespread resistance to gazing inward has become as innate to Black Metal culture as “absolute inwardness” was to Romantics.

The Romantics gave vent to inwardness by way of art; Black Metalers take inwardness to its illogical extreme. For “true” Black Metalers more than dabble in Satanic and heathen “aesthetics”—they externalize their hate and despair in acts of violence and defilement that achieve (for them anyway) the Black Metal equivalent of the Romantic Sublime, which, as Edmund Burke argued in 1757, appears in the person who experiences it as a regenerative humbling of the soul in the face of inconceivable terror. In Black Metal, striving toward light becomes striving toward darkness. Regeneration goes to rot.

In 1991, Per “Dead” Ohlin, Swedish vocalist for the Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem put a shotgun against his forehead and pulled the trigger, leaving behind a suicide note that read: “Excuse all the blood.” Mayhem’s surviving members not only photographed the aftermath of Dead’s suicide for the cover of their album Dawn of the Black Hearts, but the band’s founder Euronymous courted rumors that he had cannibalized portions of Dead’s brain and crafted choice bits of Dead’s skull into morbid talismans.

In 1992, Bard “Faust” Eithun stabbed a gay man to death in a park in Lillehammer, Norway.

One misty night in 1993, beneath the black mark of Black Metal’s becoming, Euronymous himself was murdered by rival scenester, Burzum front man Varg Vikernes, in another stabbing incident for which Vikernes was locked up for 16 years. (He was released in 2009.)

Later in 1993, the founding members of German NSBM band Absurd strangled a classmate to death with a length of electrical chord under circumstances suggestively similar to Faust’s Lillehammer murder.

In 2005, five years before being named “gay person of the year” at the Bergen Gay Galla, Ghaal of Gorgoroth was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for “torture-like violence” against a stranger, though Ghaal claimed he was acting in self-defense.

And from 1992 to 1996, legions of Black Metal artists and fans set fire to over 50 churches around Norway and other parts of Europe, the embers of which would disperse and flare up as far away as Southern Florida.

The churches that burned and fell to Black Metal were none of them middling, one-room affairs. Fantoft Stave Church in Bergen (torched in 1992) and Holmenkollen Chapel in Oslo (also torched in 1992) were spire-cross-and-cornice-crowned behemoths situated on densely wooded outcroppings (and according to their torchers, on the bones of pre-Christian worship sites). In many ways, they were as suggestive of Black Metal aesthetics as they were of the Christian obeisance that Black Metalers had hoped to wipe from the earth by setting them alight. And watching these churches burn must have been in itself terrifying, as per Burke’s definition, in a way that served to bring the arsonists that much closer to what Emperor and Zyklon guitarist Samoth calls humanity’s “cosmic dust” status in the “big picture” of the universe.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the myopic antihero Victor describes a lightning storm he witnesses in the Alps on his way to meet his monster as “so beautiful yet terrific,” “a noble war in the sky” that lifted his spirits as “vivid flashes of lightning dazzled [his] eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire.” Nearly 200 years later, Bard “Faust” Eithun of Emperor recalls of the arson of Holmenkollen Chapel: “We rode up the mountain to watch it burn. It was very beautiful and exciting—when we got back to [the record store Helvete in Oslo] we could hardly sleep.” While Varg Vikernes says of the greater aim of the burnings: “It’s a psychological picture—an almost dead fire, a symbol of our heathen consciousness. The point was to throw dry wood and branches on that, to light it up and reach toward the sky again, as a growing force.”

Out of the mouths of murderers.

Both Bard Eithun and Vikernes’ accomplice to the murder of Euronymous, Snorre Ruch, recorded similar sublime experiences in the act of taking or abetting the taking of another human life. Writes Eithun: “It was like looking at this whole incident through eyes outside of my body. It was as if I was looking at two people who were having a fight—and one had a knife, so it was easy to kill the other person.” Of fleeing the scene of the crime in Bergen, Ruch writes: “I was sick with fever… So we drove with the heat on maximum and Dead Can Dance on the stereo real loud. It was quite atmospheric.”

The louder the better, it goes without saying. But also the louder the more terrifying, and the further one transcends one’s self. You need only listen to Darkthrone’s bulldozing Transylvanian Hunger, the mournful spikes and declivities of Angmar’s Zuruck in die Unterwelt, the ethereal blitzkrieg of Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage, the decayed invocation of Carpathian Forest’s Shining Black Leather, or the symphony of broadswords that is Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk to fully understand the aural sublimity of Black Metal, wherein—or wherefrom, as the genre would have it—you are driven to cower outside yourself in the coldest and darkest dimension of sound.

Or as the late Euronymous of Mayhem put it: “Fuck off! War and sodomy!”

What allows Black Metal to flirt with sublimity is also what tethers it back to the earth. The Romantics incorporated nature and earthiness into their conception of the sublime—specifically, the degree to which nature reigned over humanity—and advocated, as does Black Metal, a return to vital primitivism, which in the late-18th and early-to-mid-19th centuries meant a return to the Medieval period.

This sort of nostalgia helps explain the Romantic obsession with Gothic art and architecture (Cologne Cathedral comes to mind), as well as the overall Gothic Revival aesthetic—a melange of night and nature worship, supernaturalism, the touting of madness as a gateway into genius and, curiously, a return to clericalism. And this makes sense, given that the “Romantic Revolution,” as Tim Blanning calls it, served as a direct rebuff to the unlovely rationalism of the Enlightenment.  Many Romantics, in particular from Germany, would take their anti-Enlightenment stance to Black Metal-like extremes (albeit Christian ones): Case in point, the “Nazarenes” of Vienna, a group of Romantic painters that formed a “self-consciously backward-looking ‘Brotherhood of Saint Luke’ ” in 1809, then moved to a derelict monastery in Rome where they pursued communal living.

Romantic composer Richard Wagner drew considerable horn-and-helmet inspiration from so-called heathen myths, as well—such as Germany’s Song of the Nibelungs, and Iceland’s Edda and Volsunga Saga. In Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, written between 1848 and 1874, Wagner did his Teuton damnedest to realize the ideals of his early 19th century countryman Novalis, a poet who yearned for a time “when the world will be returned to a life free unto itself … and man will recognize in myth and poem the true eternal world history.”

That this notion of returning to some idealized state of Nature by way of populist myth resounds with the Valkyrian strains of proto-Fascism is no accident, especially given that Nationalism Socialism—another movement from which Black Metal borrows aesthetic motifs—is Romantic Nationalism undressed.

Nor is it accidental that Scandinavian Black Metalers would come to “throw goats” (a euphemism for making the devil-horns gesture) in the face of organized religion in a way meant to elevate heathen beliefs. For example, the Swedish band Bathory, named for Elizabeth Bathory, the “Blood Countess” who had supposedly bathed in virgins’ blood to reverse the effects of unwelcome old age and became for the Romantics a figure of interest.

The band thanked Wagner personally in the liner notes to their 1990 album Hammerheart. Bathory was one of the first “blackened” heavy metal bands to invoke a return to Asatru, the worship of pre-Christian gods such as Odin and Thor. Bathory’s first Asatru-worshipping album, 1988’s Blood Fire Death, depicts in its cover art the Oskorei or “Wild Hunt” of Scandinavian and Teutonic myth by way of Norwegian Romantic painter Peter Nicolai Arbo. In the painting, a horde of spear-and-hammer-wielding Valkyries and Vikings ride down out of the heavens on black horses dragging a nude woman, while carrion birds circle below. The picture is, to put it bluntly, so fucking metal it’s not even funny.

The Black Metal movement is more than allusive to Romanticism’s pet obsessions. It is the unlikely fulfillment of Romantic ideals: absolute inwardness turned outward, for lack of somewhere else to go. Given the relentlessness of Black Metal music, the showy necro-Baroqueness of Black Metal fashion and the ­hyper-masculinity of Black Metal comportment, absolute outwardness seems an apt characterization. The Romantic sublime gives us the soul humbled in terror before the greatness of nature or art; the Black Metal sublime shows us the terror inside us.

It’s no wonder that Black Metalers have been slow to embrace their inward-gazing ancestors. Black Metal is Romanticism’s uncanny double: It’s the face in the mirror, glimpsed dimly through corpse paint. The more that its followers try not to see it, the more resolutely it looks back askance.