RP/Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult

This is one of a series of recycled blog posts from my last blog project, Shapeshifter, thanks to web-archive.org. This post has not been modified from its original version. Original post date: June 10, 2015.

Halfway through this very comprehensive history of black metal, on the forefront of chapter 19, Death of A Legend: Norway Part III, which details the death of Euronymous, I figure I should start writing this review. And so, for some explanation as to why I am writing this review, or reading this book, or some indication I possess any degree of knowledge on this topic, I’ve decided to rehash a bit of my personal history and create a Metal page to this blog… perhaps also in the hopes of expanding on this somewhat forgotten part of my past (forgotten in the sense that many things have happened between then and now, in the sense that I am no longer a contributing member of the music scene in any other sense than attending an array of creepy forest festivals and other live events in and around the world). Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult is part of a multi-volume project, which is completely awesome. I’m not going to get too caught up in the writing style but Dayal Patterson is excellent.  There could not have been a better person to take on such a ridiculously ambitious project. The single flaw I could find stylistically is he reverts toward the end to using “me” and “I” where he began with “your author.” Which made me laugh, this is a book about metal. Probably no one else gives a shit.

Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult is probably the most complete, fair, organized and well-researched history of black metal available. This is a vast topic despite its largely (initially) underground nature, with details that come with increasing complexity due to its insular nature, and the rapid publicity swings throughout its history… not to mention a lot of its pioneers met gruesome ends. Additionally, over some 30 years its subgenres forked out like tributaries over thousands of literal miles and it is extremely difficult to prioritize the wide expanse of events, personalities and digressions from music into society; politics; religion; murder; suicide; drugs; animal sacrifice; prison. This book covers three decades of black metal; when you think about the magnitude of information there is to include to tell a cohesive story, it is truly astounding. Or maybe I just really like black metal and it’s only astounding to me. Three decades of church burning- dead animal sniffing- brain fragment necklace making- naked lady crucifying- goat head blood showers… there’s a lot. A lot of stuff. There is a drama, and hearsay, but also a significant amount of insight and cultural introspection.

The book is organized in varying ways at different times; in the beginning, primarily by band but secondarily by releases to some degree… I infer that some of these bands were chosen or placed where they were in history not due to chronology but due to the influence of their releases. Periodically the band focus pauses and a major event provides additional context to the timeline. As you progress through the book you see that the categorization is a sort of third priority here, but is more prevalent toward the tail end of the book, where bands are grouped into subgenres (and paired together). Some of the pairs don’t make sense to me: why give Gorgoroth and Trelldom different chapters but put Dissection and Watain; Graveland and Infernum together?

This is an ambitious effort, maybe it should’ve come with a Fenriz-esque map of black metal and its personalities. Or a literal map with bands allotted to countries, as it seems the origins of these artists are of varying importance to the story the author is attempting to tell. Some of the chapters stretch to post-2010; some have stories slow to mature, particularly the Mayhem and Burzum chapters (there is not a comeback chapter for Emperor/Ihsahn…?) Mayhem punctuates the entire book, but for good reason. Some of the bands listed in the beginning who are still around and are not noted in any present tense; the author focuses solely on the band’s contribution to the past, which sets the stage for the book’s longer shelf life, but would leave a bm n00b guessing. The constant swapping of members into other bands is probably also overwhelming if a majority of these bands are unfamiliar to someone who is reading this book, though I imagine the people who are reading this are reading for nostalgia, not new information. You get both. Get stoked.

I could waste another few pages debating the merits of the selected chapter-heading bands, but ultimately every single fan of this music is going to disagree on this shit to some extent. To put things in perspective, I’m 30; I was born in June 1984, when Bathory was recording their first album. In terms of this book, the stream of black metal most interesting to me begins in chapter 20, with Thorns, continuing with Arcturus, Shining, Fleuerty, Solefald, Ved Buens Ende, Virus, Dødheimsgard and continuing into post-. Outside of the avant-garde subgenre, I was surprised there was no more prevalent place for Immortal; you also have to read 84% of the book before you get to anything at all about Windir (though they are quoted prior to that), and I think that is a damn shame; this is actually due to the organization more than the chronology; the ‘folk’ chapters were simply saved for later, despite Enslaved having been around from the beginning. I think some bands deserved more than they received in this book, some deserved less, but I can’t say there are many that didn’t pop up somewhere. But anyone would say that.

Before I go on, the easiest way to describe the complete flow of this book and its contents is to explore the chapters– if you are well-versed in black metal, this will reveal a lot more than a two-page list ordinarily would.  The table of contents is as follows:

1 Roots of Evil
2 Venom
3 Mercyful Fate
4 Bathory
5 Hellhammer
6 Celtic Frost
7 The First Wave of Black Thrash
8 Blasphemy
9 Samael
10 Rotting Christ and Greek Black Metal
11 Tormentor
12 Master’s Hammer
13 VON
14 Beherit
15 Mayhem Part I
16 Mayhem Part II
17 (Re)Birth of a Movement: Norway Part I
18 A Fist in the Face of Christianity: Norway Part II
19 Death of a Legend: Norway Part III
20 Thorns
21 Darkthrone
22 Burzum
23 Emperor
24 Gehenna
25 Gorgoroth
26 Trelldom
27 The Opus Magnum: Mayhem Part III
28 The Beast Reawakens: Mayhem Part IV
29 Cradle of Filth: Black Metal Enters the Mainstream Part I
30 Dimmu Borgir: Black Metal Enters the Mainstream Part II
31 Underground Ethics
32 Les Legions Noires
33 Marduk: Sweden Part I
34 Dissection and Watain: Sweden Part II
35 Shining: Sweden Part III
36 Politics, Poland and the Rise of NSBM
37 Graveland and Infernum: Polish Black Metal Part I
38 Behemoth: Polish Black Metal Part II
39 Enslaved: Folk and Folklore in Black Metal
40 Moonfog and Ulver: Folk and Folklore in Black Metal Part II
41 The Proliferation of Black Folk Metal: Folk and Folklore in Black Metal Part III
42 A Turn for the Weird: Part I
43 A Turn for the Weird: Part II
44 Sigh
43 Dodheimsgard
44 Mysticum: Industrial Black Metal Part I
45 Aborym: Industrial Black Metal Part II
48 Blacklodge: Industrial Black Metal Part III
49 Lifelover: Post-Black Metal Part I
50 Post-Black Metal Part II

I think chapters 1-16 are fairly self-explanatory. Bathory, Venom, Mercyful Fate, Celtic Frost, etc. There are some outliers like Rotting Christ that I think are there solely because they were sort of seeds in a vastly different environment than northern Europe in a time little was happening outside of the UK and Scandinavia (not sure RC deserved a whole chapter in there, but…) I’m a bit mystified as to why Quorthon’s death receives minimal explanation (perhaps because it was pretty hazy from the beginning); Dead and Euronymous receive many pages; admittedly their deaths were directly related to the scene; while perhaps this is unavoidable it gives the unfortunate impression that more was lost with Dead and Euronymous… until the end of the book when the folk chapters pay homage to Bathory. Aaaand then Fenriz opines that folk metal is retarded… but, moving on…

Much like Euronymous, Quorthon was ahead of his time, and was brilliant in his own way (the chapters are peppered with bands continuously attributing their sound/influence to Bathory). He was also much less of a (charismatic) jackass than the others, and sadly for that reason he is often overlooked.* (see below) The Bathory chapter does him limited justice as a human being and contributor to the bm scene. While aloof in nature, Quorthon made the same magnitude of contribution as Euronymous or Varg; he was simply more of an introvert. Interestingly enough the author makes this very same point at the end of the Gehenna chapter (a band I never cared for, quite honestly): “[M]any […] have expressed surprise that Gehenna did not become as big as outfits such as Emperor. The reasons for this arguably illustrate the factors–aside from music quality–that can dictate a metal band’s success.” Even Dead, who was another socially anxious introvert, received far, far more airtime than Quorthon, simply because he existed more dramatically as a person. This sucks. It’s reality, but it sucks.

*Back to Gehenna– the chapter ends somewhat passive-aggressively. It’s not immediately clear from the prior paragraphs to what the author is referring (perhaps similar to the statement made above about Quorthon?) To this point, though, one of the many resounding successes of this book is drawing out the personalities of some of these people in a distinctly different way. The personal information is astounding; but the author’s interactions with some of these people are far more intimate than what has been portrayed in the past. By the end of this book I actually think that Niklas Kvarforth may not actually be the hugest asshole on the planet, he is so well spoken and honest and introspective and I completely agree with a lot of his opinions. I even found Gaahl to be charming and reasonable in this book, a far cry from the hypocritical freakazoid I’ve found him to be in most of the films that have been released about black metal.

People-wise, what is most pronounced in this book is the reality of all of these ideas, beliefs and actions: people change. They change their minds and their priorities and their desires. Many of these people who were demonized or idealized at various points in time were kids trying opinions on for size. Many of them have transitioned through series of beliefs, and will continue to do so. There are admittedly people in black metal’s history doomed beyond repair… but truthfully the majority of them are growing and evolving as we all are. This book paints an incredibly human portrait of these people, even the ones who have solicited terror or outrage from the general population at one (or many) points in time. As for people like Varg and Euronymous, the author tactfully portrays them in remarkably neutral light. You, the reader, are allowed to decide, and even when you go in thinking some of these people are reprehensible idiots (but you respect them as musicians), you end the book questioning your previous opinions. That is my favorite thing about Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult.

The book not only features an incredible amount of interviews but also a ton of clips and references to other articles; I found the quips about Dead’s fascination with decay and rotting animals to be particularly specific (and, admittedly, completely disgusting), but illustrative of the degree of insanity inflicting some of these people:

“I was in the studio when Dead recorded his only studio vocals for Mayhem and I will never forget it,” recalls Maniac. “His dedication was something that was very hard to come by even then, let alone these days. I had to hold a bag of dead crows for him when he was singing so he could sniff it for the right atmosphere. These crows has been in the ground for quite some time when he dug them up. His voice was really of another world. Those two are still my favorite Mayhem tracks.”

There is, again, such a wealth of information in here that the author collected independently. Some of it, even third party reiteration, is sheerly hilarious. This book is completely worth the read if only for the quotes and interview blurbs. The only video equivalent of the amusing information in this book is Attila talking about cutting down Christmas trees in Black Metal: The Music of Satan.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly given [Mayhem’s Pure Fucking Armageddon‘s] raw lo-fi barbarity, the reception to the demo was not entirely positive. ‘I thought it was terrible,’ laughs Necrobutcher, ‘ but that was the good thing. I remember one article– I can’t remember if it was Kerrang! or Metal Forces— but it said ‘This tape has no vocals on it at all, the bass sounds like [Celtic Frost’s] Tom Gabriel Warrior’s balls in a lawnmower and what they were talking about was actually the vocals!! But it was [next to] a review of [Thin Lizzy guitarist] Snowy White and the review was just ‘zzzzzzzzzz’ repeating itself. I thought this review about Tom’s balls was better than this other shitty one, so we felt like we had won.”

Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult takes a brief break from individual band chapters halfway through to delve into the church burnings and crime for which the genre is so well-known. The author seems to avoid too much of a deep-dive into the politics of burning thousand-year old churches to the ground and goes so far as to explain the reasoning; the chapters are peppered with many band members’ largely neutral feelings. There is a pattern that emerges–a bunch of bands, an overarching theme; a bunch more bands, another theme; this becomes a bit convoluted at the end when you begin to feel like the author ran out of space and had to start grouping shit together against his will; so, smattered amongst the individual bands & releases, you have: church burnings; Euronymous’ death; underground ethics (this chapter should’ve been longer); NSBM; folk metal. As previously mentioned I think sub-labeling Marduk and Shining as ‘Sweden’ is irrelevant; all the Finnish bands are thrown into the folk chapters (Moonsorrow, etc, though there are not that many Finnish bands included, and yet f’n Turisas ends up being included AGAIN! What is black metal journalists’ obsession with Turisas!??!) Also, why was Ihsahn’s side project Hardningrock mentioned, but Gaahl’s Wardruna was not? There are a lot of these small inconsistencies that are simply byproducts of sorting so much information. Maybe I only care because I also love neofolk.

I had a lot of fun repeatedly asking me where I would come across… Solefald… Pensées Nocturnes… Fleurety… In The Woods… Virus… Arkhon Infaustus… Alcest… most of them showed up. I was surprised Kovenant was only listed once in passing, and Thee Maldoror Kollective was not in any of the weird/industrial chapters. I was interested to find a vague but probably necessary chapter on French black metal, though I would’ve preferred for the author to expound on what is now a significant black metal scene; instead you receive a short chapter on LLN with Blut Aus Nord mentioned in the “weird” (ie, avant garde) chapters and Alcest in Post-Black Metal. There is also virtually no heed paid to Agalloch, which is disappointing: they have been around forever and deserve more than one or two passing mentions in a book about black metal. Agalloch was doing a lot of shit in the US that no one else was doing at the time, and yet Wolves in the Throne Room get a lot of ink even though they are living on some organic farm in Cascadia and slowly releasing some music.

I think the end of this book is riddled with haste: I don’t particularly care for anything more industrial than DHG but I am a little stupefied as to chapters 44-49. Mysticum, OK. Aborym, alright, I guess. Blacklodge and Lifelover? I don’t think so. How did each of these bands get their own chapters? Why are there three consecutive industrial chapters when Mysticum and Aborym were in the exact same time period? With regard to post-metal, the book perhaps should have ended before this: post-black metal was disappointing as a source of information.

More importantly, and perhaps not a question this book/series will answer, where did post-black metal come from? The descent into the post- style is interesting to me, although the author does make the point that there is no post-anything. There’s a part in the book where an artist names influences including (but not limited to) Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Swans, Dead Can Dance, Tenhi, Triarii, Of the Wand and the Moon, Death In June, Sol Invictus, Mono, Explosions in the Sky. Some of these bands can be traced back through other subgenres, specifically sludge. This is a unique evolution point for me, as I evolved toward black metal from hardcore, digital metal (Botch; Dillinger Escape Plan) and sludge (Neurosis, Isis, Year of No Light, most Hydrahead bands). My tastes have always bordered on the avant garde, as bands like Kayo Dot have punctuated many genres.

And so, I am looking forward to the sequel. I look, primarily, to France, though I’d like to see a bit more about American black metal bands… there are still some good ones lurking out there. He did mention Nachtmystium. Deafheaven deserves a place. Haethen is another band of significant talent lurking in the bowels of… uh, Philadelphia, I think? There are many, many unsigned, super kvlt bands that only play at previously mentioned creepy forest festivals. Black metal lives on, whether or not it is fused with different styles. In terms of France, he speaks about Alcest, Ameoseurs and Peste Noire (maybe the follow-up will include Lantlôs… Glaciation… Pensées Nocturnes…?) Speaking of Pensées Nocturnes, how weird can we go here? What about Carnival in Coal? There was an amusing exchange about circus metal in the book, I’d say there are quite a few bands that have ridden that wave even further. Would’ve liked to see more in the “weird” chapter about Ihsahn and the inclusion of jazz, courtesy of Shining (Norway); that would’ve created another nice past-present link.

I have to shut the hell up now. I will say I believe to some extent my disappointment in the final chapter stems from my infinite love of this subset of black metal, as well as my adoration for Blut Aus Nord and what has been happening in France for a lengthy period of time; alas, this is an incredible read that begins with the fundamentals and yet manages to present new, exclusive and insightful information in order to dive deep while telling a largely unbiased story, which has been an impossible feat for many others. Maybe his second book is out already, I wouldn’t know, since I am writing this review a year and a half after the first one was released. JK, it’s not. But when it is, I will be reading it. Immediately. In the meantime, you can get Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult here. I wish it came wrapped in a rotting animal carcass, but you can’t have everything.