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Black Metal: Evolution Of The Cult - Review And Interview
The Quietus , May 19th, 2014 06:21

Kim Kelly reviews Dayal Patterson's "completely essential" book on BM and John Doran interviews the author

Recent years have seen an uptick in the number of quality, well-researched books that take heavy metal as their subject, but the sonically and often ideologically extreme subgenre of black metal (forever the genre’s redheaded stepchild) has barely yet been given its due. It found itself relegated to mere chapters in generalized histories, finding a modicum of respect only within the pages of the perennially controversial Lord Of Chaos: The Bloody Rise Of The Satanic Metal Underground. Originally published in 1998 by Feral House (the same publisher behind Black Metal), the book presented a purportedly nonfiction account of the notorious church burnings and murders that took place in Norway in the early Nineties and surrounded black metal’s early days in a cloud of fear and suspicion. It was an interesting (some might say inflammatory) piece of work, but not without serious flaws, including a speculative, meandering second half. It also came under fire from both those who protested against the alleged political leanings of author (and founder of the neofolk group Blood Axis) Michael Moynihan, and Burzum’s Varg Vikernes himself, who claimed that Moynihan and co-author Didrik Søderlind lacked "insight into or even good knowledge about the subjects discussed." That’s been about it for black metal literature since a revised expanded edition of Lords Of Chaos hit shelves in 2003.

Meanwhile, the genre itself underwent a series of startling evolutions, leaving its bloody roots behind and pressing onwards into unexplored territories the likes of which genre forefathers Quorthon and Cronos could’ve never predicted. The past five years have seen a huge swell in popular interest and support from both curious new fans and the media. Whereas the bloody details of the genre’s early days were covered with slavering delight by magazines like Kerrang! who thrilled at the horror and theatricality of it all, nowadays we see quite extreme bands garnering praise on outlets like NPR, The Atlantic, and Pitchfork. When the New York Times is writing about black metal, you know that the times are a’changin. It’s high time that black metal had a champion to sing its praises, shed light on its failures, and tell the truth about its sordid past. Death metal had Albert Mudrian’s excellent Choosing Death, the genre as a whole was blessed by Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, but the existing published literature on black metal lacked the sort of in-depth, balanced reporting that this story cried out for.

In even more recent years, the notion of “black metal theory” has taken hold in several tiny academic-minded circles, but that’s hardly a substitute. That’s where veteran British music journalist and photographer Dayal Patterson comes in. Patterson aims to plug that howling void with this blackened compendium, and succeeds almost completely.

Deciding where to start on this exhaustive history of one of rock & roll’s most maligned and misunderstood subgenres is a daunting task, not least thanks to the sheer size and breadth of the thing. It’s a massive, weighty tome stuffed to the gills with interviews, rare photographs, and arcane knowledge culled from nearly twenty years of musical mayhem. From Black Sabbath to Beherit and many points in between, Patterson obsessively chronicles the rise of black metal in a manner that feels more academic than artistic. Black Metal is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination; even beyond the gruesome tales of murder and ritual, the bloody thing clocks in at nearly five hundred pages, and every page is absolutely packed with information. You’d not going to want to haul it onto a plane and cuddle up for some light reading, that’s dead certain.

What you or anyone else with an interest in rock music and its subcultures will want to do, though, it to treat it as the scholarly work that is it and delve deep into its pages. Though its contents boast a chimeric hybrid of oral history and historical record, more than anything else, Black Metal is a reference book. Patterson’s prose is utilitarian, occasionally to a fault; you may find yourself wishing that such a colorful genre had been painted in broad strokes of blood red and charred grey instead of methodically laid out in stark black and white. He is a journalist above all else, though, and more than succeeds in his goal of extracting information and anecdotes from some of the genre’s most influential figures.

He gets some damn good quotes, too, the kind that help to humanize these often larger-than-life figures. I’d love to have been present for the “rock contest” a very young Emperor played or hear a scratchy-voiced young Snorre describe his reasoning behind Thorns’ name - “Thorns was something pointy and sounded cool, I guess…” Patterson gets Sakis of Greek black metal gods Rotting Christ to describe how he and his comrades were so poor that they had to steal instruments - “I was feeling like a junkie who couldn’t get his smack, so I was forced to do that” - and Tom G. Warrior to explain how a former girlfriend inadvertently caused him to record the legendarily crap album Cold Lake. It’s so easy to forget that the people behind some of black metal’s greatest classics were just pimply teenagers when they wrote those songs, kids who thought KISS looked awesome and wanted their bands to seem evil, but Black Metal does its best to remind us.

The book itself focuses heavily on the nascent Norwegian scene, but takes plenty of time to discuss a variety of important regional scenes that are often overlooked or outshined by Scandinavian drama. Patterson follows a logical timeline, beginning, as one should, at the beginning. Robert Johnson, Deep Purple, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and KISS unwittingly conspired to create one of heavy music’s nastiest amalgams of speed metal, punk, traditional heavy metal, and Satan. He touches upon all the major players - your Venoms, your Gorgoroths, your Darkthrones - but Black Metal’s strength truly lies in the amount of attention Patterson pays to the more unsung or underappreciated masters, like Master’s Hammer, Blasphemy, and France’s Les Legionnes Noires, to say nothing of the loving detail he pours into chapters on Sweden’s melodic corps, folk music’s intriguing influence on the genre, and the strange spectre of industrial black metal.

Several chapters focus on ideology, aiming to untangle the ethics of the underground and the reasons why Satanism and heathenism have such a stranglehold on black metal’s belief system. In the pair of chapters that deal with the existence of the far-right political views and white supremacist ideology that infects certain segments of the underground scene, Patterson tackles the elephant in the room with grace and objectivity. He’s unafraid to call out scene pillars for certain unsavory statements made in their youth like Hellhammer’s infamous “black metal is for white people” quote or Darkthrone’s “Norwegian Aryan Black Metal” episode, and allows his subjects to speak their minds even when what they’re saying is obviously objectionable. The interview with infamous Polish white supremacist and black metal musician Rob Darken of Graveland (who is credited as one of the most prominent voices in black metal’s right-wing circles) is an illuminating, and often chilling read. It's an ugly subject, but one that must be addressed, and Patterson deals with it in the best way possible.

Of course, even the best effort sports a few flaws. In spite of the near-clinical detail with which Patterson treats his European subjects, there is a decided lack of representation of influential groups from South America, Asia, and Australia, and North America is only noted via Blasphemy and VON. Europe and the UK surely are and were the cradle of black metal, but the genre itself has become a global phenomenon, so Patterson’s Eurocentric view comes as a slight disadvantage. The chapter on post-metal in particular is lacking of any mention of Weakling, arguably the most important band to have propagated the now-ubiquitous atmospheric style, and USBM as a whole (save for the VON chapter) gets the shaft, represented entirely by Wolves in the Throne Room and a small, seemingly dismissive mention in the afterword. One profoundly hopes that the next edition of Black Metal will correct these errors, and explore the rest of the world with the same level of commendable depth that Patterson exhibits elsewhere.

Despite these minor complaints, Black Metal is overall a completely essential book for anyone with even a passing interest in heavy metal, and a highly recommended addition to your own collection. As Patterson has proved so well, the cult is alive…

Photograph courtesy of Ester Segarra

There have been a lot of books published on black metal recently; what marks yours out?

Dayal Patterson: I think there have been a large number of writers and film makers that have been drawn to the subject of black metal over the years, far more than any other genre of metal. And I can't blame them of course because there is a lot to be fascinated by. But the problem is that because they have no understanding of the history, context and wider culture, there is a tendency for the same story to be told again and again, so you have the same five bands being interviewed and the same events (usually Norway 91-93) every time, often with some slightly randomly-chosen contemporary bands to bring it up to date. This book is made by someone who has been involved in the genre since the mid-nineties and who is attempting to look at all three decades of the history and create something approaching a definitive document that traces all the various sounds, worldviews and meanings that black metal encompasses.

You talked to a lot of musicians when researching the book - who was the biggest coup and were there any near misses - people who you couldn’t quite nail down?

DP: Deathspell Omega and It of Abruptum politely declined. But to be honest, for the most part I was very encouraged and surprised by just how many people took part. There were a lot of musicians and bands who I think I could not have told the story without, whether it was the godfathers of the genre such as Venom, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate etc, or key figures in the reinvention of black metal such as Snorre Ruch of Thorns/Mayhem. And that's part of the reason this book took so many years to finish, because there was a huge amount of time spent on tracking down some of the more obscure and overlooked (but often most significant in terms of influence) artists and then explaining the concept of the project and working in a collaborative manner with them.

What was the first black metal record you owned or heard that really connected with you and what did you get from the scene when you were first into it?

DP: All of the albums I was initially leant (by the people who introduced me to the genre) connected at some level, and those included Gehenna's first albums, Cradle of Filth's first album, Emperor's In The Nightside Eclipse and Gorgoroth's first. I was already listening to 'extreme metal' by that point and bands like Bolt Thrower, Carcass, Entombed and so on, so it wasn't the heaviness that blew me away, but rather the depth and inclusion of non-heavy elements. To hear such aggression was nothing new, but to hear it juxtaposed with these more subtle and atmospheric passages was really a shock along with the darkness that the music (at its best) exudes. Black metal can be the most ferocious form of metal out there, but its the fact that there is space for moments of peace or transcendence within that maelstrom is what makes it truly a magnificent artform.

Did you have an overarching theme or concept for the book when you first started it?

DP: I suppose my aim was to track how the movement began, how it evolved and where it ended up - in that sense, the title is key, this is a study of how and why the culture and music has ended up where it is today. Too often people approach this movement with convoluted theories and try and hammer them onto the story at all cost. They start out with the idea (hope?) that black metal is really all about the reawakening of the Northern European Viking spirit, or Satanic belief, or self-destruction, or far right ideology or whatever else, and black metal is far too diverse and individual to be described like that. So I consider this a fairly objective historical work. That was definitely the aim.

How far back do you trace the corpse paint - to Arthur Brown or earlier? Who has the best corpse paint?

DP: Ah the old debate! Arthur Brown was the first to wear in that style but surely didn't inspire any significant black metal bands. But he was followed by Alice Cooper and Dave Vanian and KISS and it was probably Cooper and KISS that inspired King Diamond of Mercyful Fate, Venom (briefly), Sarcofago from Brazil and Hellhammer. And from all that came the Dead of Mayhem who is the creator of corpsepaint as we know it today. It was actually in Morbid in the eighties that he first began wearing it - and strangely it seems Euronymous was also wearing facepaint occasionally in the eighties - but it was when Dead joined Mayhem that the influence spread like wildfire.

There are some amazing nuggets of information in the book like Tom G Warrior revealing that the inspiration for his “death grunt” was James Brown. What was the most surprising thing you learned when researching the book?

DP: That most of the Norwegian black metal scene discovered metal thanks to a series of trading cards depicting KISS that were included in candy bags.

The use of the word ‘evolution’ in the title suggests that you’re not comfortable with the traditional Black Metal narrative of first and second wave and instead view it as more of a fluid and progressive continuum. Is this a fair assessment?

DP: That is a perfect way of explaining my position. People want to distance the first wave bands because they would the second wave (ie. Norway onwards) to be pure in a sense. But I wanted to show that although Euronymous and the Norwegian bands certainly did a lot to reinvent the genre, bands like Master's Hammer, VON, Samael, Rotting Christ, Tormentor and so on provide the link between the early eighties pioneers and the bands from 1991 onwards. Black metal is largely defined by this conflict between tradition and innovation, and that defines black metal's second wave - bands like Darkthrone, Hades, Mayhem, Marduk, Gorgoroth etc saw themselves as reawakening the spirit of the eighties as a reaction to death metal's stagnation. But at the same time they did create something new through completely new techniques and approaches.

From Blasphemy to Watain, there is a history of the Black Metal gig as spectacle of shock and awe or tranfomative magickal ritual. Which concert do you wish you had been able to attend and what are some of the most hair raising descriptions of BM gigs that you have been told about?

DP: It would be great to go back in time and witness the early shows of all those pioneering bands to be honest. And it's a great shame that noone documented those early days in the same way that the early punk scene was documented. Those early shows at the 100 Club or CBGBs with The Damned, Siouxie, The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols and so on... the early 90s black metal shows generally are just captured in disposable colour snaps.

I've seen some a lot of great shows over the years by bands such as Mayhem, Enslaved, Behemoth, Behexen, Taake, Archgoat, Black Witchery, Gorgoroth and so on. And some of the shows I enjoyed the most were when bands appeared out of context or shocked elements of the audience, because the effect is so much stronger and the herd mentality is shattered somewhat. In those terms I would mention Blacklodge (who horrify some fans with their techno beats), Shining's earlier shows, and Episode 13, a very theatrical and macabre group who I saw in Istanbul in front of a metal (but not black metal) audience.

I’ve always thought of Black Metal as the most avant garde of heavy metal’s subgenres from Mayhem teaming up with Conrad Schnitzler on 'Silvester Anfang' to Blut Aus Nord’s leftfield chord progressions and non-standard tunings. To what extent do you agree with this and what evidence can you provide to support the claim.

DP: Black metal is totally avant garde, but also very reliant on tradition. That's a defining factor and a huge part of what this book looks at, the groups who took the formula and nudged it into a new sphere. Could be black metal's use of folk music (Hades, Windir, Ulver), the integration of electronics (Mysticum, Aborym, Blacklodge), the employment of classical and symphonic overtones (Emperor, Gehenna, Dimmu, Cradle), the use of 'ambient' textures (Negura Bunget, Altar of Plagues)... you name it. And the work of Euronymous via Snorre Ruch in terms of guitar playing was very avant garde at the time even if that is now very familiar 20 years later.

With Wolves In The Throne Room gearing up to release a completely beatless, synthesizer driven album this year, do you think the so-called Hipster Black Metal scene is running out of steam?

DP: I'm still not sure I know what a hipster is. It seems a fairly despicable subculture, but I'm sure that some of the non-black metal-looking people that are sneered at by the long-haired, patch-jacketed hordes might actually be understanding the music better than some of these people who have entered the black metal scene and have done everything possible to fit in with it. What I do find ridiculous though, is the 'hipster' fans who proudly say they only listen to new bands from the USBM scene, and try and claim this is some sort of third wave, or reinvention which is superior to anything that came before. That's like listening to Soulja Boy and turning your nose up at Public Enemy or listening to Steel Panther instead of Guns N'Roses.

I think there’s an argument to be made for Bathory being the best and most important Black Metal band ever; what is it about their first four or five albums that gives them such perennial power?

DP: Conviction and vision I think. I don't think they're the best black metal band but of course they are great, and perhaps the first band to play what might be labelled 'modern' or 'second wave' black metal. The vocals, the darkness, the coldness, the production, the theatricality, the use of hypnotic repetition... those are seeds being planted right there.

Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult by Dayal Patterson is out now. The book can be ordered signed and with extra material at Evolution Of The