Patterson covers all this without resorting to sensationalism. It makes for queasily fascinating reading. Mayhem singer Per “Dead” Ohlin, who would shoot himself before he could appear on the group’s studio albums, auditioned by mailing the band a crucified mouse. “He had issues,” says Kjetil Manheim, the group’s drummer.
But Patterson’s focus is on music, not criminal immorality. Mostly, he just lets the band members talk, a strategy that has the fortunate effect of keeping his own prose to a minimum. It seems never to have occurred to Patterson (and too many other metal critics, though of course there are exceptions—Ben Ratliff and Brandon Stosuy, for instance) that writing might be more than a vehicle for the conveyance of information. Often repetitive (“ … seemingly the first recorded example of either within rock culture. Now seemingly ubiquitous … ”), ungrammatical (“Varg Vikernes and Darkthrone, whom the article explained ‘describe themselves as fascist in outlook’ ”), and clichéd (“What the future holds for Master’s Hammer is all but impossible to say”), Patterson’s writing is almost charmingly amateurish. (As is the editing—someone from Colombia is not a “Columbian.”)
But who cares? Fans aren’t looking for good writing from a book like Black Metal—they’re looking for lore, for new and eviler bands to listen to, for absurd statements from their metal gods. (“Living off human blood, decorating your flat with tombstones, animal carcasses, digging up graves and shit, does something to you,” explains Emperor’s Terje Vik Schei, who is “no longer a Satanist and now married with children.”) On that score, as your average metal reviewer might have it, it delivers the goods and then some.
Many of these evil musicians come across as rather genial—normal, even. Anyone who’s seen the 2009 documentary Until the Light Takes Us knows that Darkthrone’s Fenriz is hilarious and sort of cuddly. (“Folk is good,” he says here. “Metal is good. But together? No. It sounds too merry for phat fuzz.”) But who knew that Mayhem’s Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud was so personable (or that one of his heroes is Jello Biafra)? Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost also turns out to be quite likable. (“I never personally said that I created the death grunt.”)
Patterson’s authorial restraint is regrettable, though, in at least one respect. A minority of black-metal musicians are white-supremacist fools. Graveland’s Rob Darken, for instance, says shit like “I am a warrior protecting traditional white man values.” And Patterson informs us that murderer Varg Vikernes, of Burzum, recently posted on his website about “Negroes and other inferior races”—which, according to Patterson, is “politically charged” speech.
This sort of nonsense should be countered with the mockery it deserves. But Patterson is more determined to explain that the term “National Socialist Black Metal” is misleading, since not every racist band espouses Nazism: “Indeed the pigeonholing nature of the label means that even many of the most openly race-conscious bands are hesitant to accept it.” Well, you sure as heck wouldn’t want to pigeonhole any “race-conscious” bands. You wouldn’t want to suggest, say, that they are as morally repugnant and intellectually crippled as the Nazis they hesitate to identify with.
To be fair, Patterson does allow nonracist black-metallers to slam their idiot brethren, quoting, for example, Erik Danielsson, of the not exactly politically correct band Watain: “Black Metal is a cult of Satan, its foundation is the cultivation of Chaos and Darkness, and no little pimple-ridden Internet-nazi movement can change that.”
As for the po-faced Satanism, one can sympathize with Venom’s Conrad “Cronos” Lant when he wonders what happened to the “tongue-in-cheek” aspect of his band, which invented the term “black metal.” Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth of Mayhem (who was murdered by Vikernes in 1993) claimed in an interview that “if a band cultivates and worships Satan, it’s black metal,” while Daniel Rostén of Marduk and Funeral Mist issues the following edict:
If it’s not Satanic, it’s not black metal, it’s “something else-metal”—there’s a million labels, choose one of them. Black metal is Satanic metal. I really don’t like to label myself, but if there would be a label for it, it would be devil worship.
Thankfully, most black-metal bands don’t take themselves this eye-rollingly seriously. It’s horror-movie stuff, and it adds a certain goofy frisson to the music, as does the famous “corpse paint.” (I’ve never understood why you’d wear clown makeup if you wanted people to take your occultism seriously.)
Even Euronymous later admitted that “I love Satanic bands, but I don’t care if they sing about eating carrots, if the music is great.” And while I might quibble about some of Patterson’s criteria (why doesn’t Immortal get its own chapter?), Black Metal is finally a book about great music. I know it’s only the cultivation of Chaos and Darkness, but I like it.
Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult by Dayal Patterson. Feral House.
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