Black metal is fun for the whole family


Even among metalheads, this subgenre is controversial

Tomas Borsa
The Sheaf (University of Saskatchewan)

SASKATOON (CUP) — What differentiates one subgenre of metal from the next is a combination of lyrical themes, the style of guitar work and the vocal style — from low growls to wailing falsetto screeches.

Among the more popular of these countless offshoots are thrash metal (fast, unrelenting and with lyrics concerning social issues); death metal (brutal, cacophonic and with lyrics concerning violence or gore); and doom metal (with heavy and droning instrumentation and lyrics generally concerning grief and suffering), as popularized by Black Sabbath.

But there exist some subgenres that, even among metalheads, are considered a bit much. None are as divisive or notorious as black metal.

Black metal’s lyrics revolve around anti-Christianity, Satanism, and death. The songs often follow an unconventional structure, production value is frequently low, and the vocals are shrieked, terrifying and grating. The few black metal bands that perform live also place a heavy emphasis on theatricality, and it is not at all uncommon for shows to include mock crucifixions, impaled animal heads, lashings of blood and corpse paint — the odd WWF-style face paint that guitarists with made-up names like Hellhammer or Abbath Satanicus are especially fond of.

All things considered, it’s safe to say that in terms of subtlety, black metal ranks somewhere near the bottom of the musical scale – just above bagpipes and line-drumming.

It’s misanthropic, it’s nihilistic, it’s evil as piss, and it can really creep people out.

In Scandinavia, the birthplace of black metal, an admission of appreciation for black metal is usually considered serious and legitimate grounds for re-evaluating a person’s character. Mind you, there’s a reason for that.

Varg Vikernes – a pioneer of the Norwegian black metal scene under the stage name Burzum – sprung to fame after being sentenced to 21 years imprisonment for burning down 14 churches, plotting to blow up a building and killing his band mate Øystein Aarseth. He’s also famous for being a bit of a dickhead on matters concerning “race purity.”

So yes, there is some merit to the belief that black metal is a morally-corrupting, soul-rotting, quasi-melodic path to hell.

But I can’t help but feel that this is – for the most part – a gross misconception, a wrongful conclusion many reach as a result of its glossy, provocative image.

Every subcultural movement has its tag-alongs — outliers who use their respective movement as a pretext to violence or personal notoriety. Punk had them. The G-20 protests had them. Even the civil rights movement had them.

Black metal is no exception. But off-stage, only an exceptionally small number of black metal musicians actually embrace the nihilistic ideals they espouse through their imagery and lyrics.

Vikernes, described as “the most notorious metal musician of all time,” donated all of the funds from his newest album, Belus, to victims of the Haitian earthquake. As wildly contradictory as this might be for a guy who openly embraces Germanic Paganism, it illustrates an important point. Like the people who listen to it, the culture of black metal is hardly homogenous.

For another salient example, consider Gaahl, lead singer of one of black metal’s most un-Godly acts of all, Gorgoroth. Sure, he’s a virulent anti-Semite, Satanist (duh), and a fan of torture – having been accused of assaulting a man, collecting his blood and threatening to make him drink it (charming!) – but he’s also a vegetarian, and his boyfriend, Robin Jakobsen, is a prominent Norwegian fashion designer.

Any child of the ’90s with a memory of Goosebumps, Spawn, or The Crow can attest to the fact that the occult, death, mysticism and the macabre all carry a strange sort of universal intrigue that will never stop being cool.

In the majority of cases, the lurid imagery, gruesome lyrical content and thundering sound of black metal are used for nothing more than shock-value. A quick listen to Triptykon won’t dissolve your soul, but it will expand your musical repertoire and knowledge of a fascinating underground culture. And if nothing more, it’s a great conversation starter.

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