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Beyond The Vast Nineties: Exploring Extreme Behaviour In Black Metal
Ben Handelman , February 4th, 2019 09:47

In February 1994, Darkthrone and Emperor released albums that are regarded as some of the most influential and important black metal ever created. Both acts also became enmeshed in controversies that would likely end a career if they happened today. Ben Handelman examines these albums and how we've distinguished youthful missteps from unacceptable and dangerous behaviors in this community over the years

Twenty-five years ago, Norwegian black metal reached peak notoriety. In 1994, many of the bands in this small yet productive scene released albums that are considered genre-defining masterpieces to this day. Among the essentials from this one community in a single year came Mayhem's eerie De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Enslaved's opening salvo of Vikingligr Veldi and Frost, Dimmu Borgir's massive For All Tid, Darkthrone's vicious Transilvanian Hunger, and Emperor's ethereal In The Nightside Eclipse. Today we examine the latter two on this list, as both celebrate their 25 year anniversaries this month. The influence these albums and artists wield is undeniable, yet their legacies became tainted by some because of the actions of the band members at the time, from homophobic murder to blatantly anti-Semitic statements. As part of tQ's ongoing series exploring extreme views in underground music, we will do our best to untangle these controversies and their impact for the modern listener.

Recorded in 1993 when vocalist/guitarist Vegard "Ihsahn" Tveitan was 17 and guitarist Thomas "Samoth" Haugen, bassist Terje "Tchort" Schei, and drummer Bard "Faust" Eithun were 19 years old, In The Nightside Eclipse was Emperor's debut LP, packing two songs from 1993's self-titled EP release alongside a handful of new compositions. While the band's prior EPs were strong and remain pillars of the genre, the material displayed here became a blueprint for atmospheric and symphonic black metal bands of every stripe. From fan favourites 'I Am The Black Wizards' and 'Inno a Satana' to the lush, spacious 'The Majesty Of The Nightsky', there was a sense of beauty to Emperor's fiendish black metal that many of their peers either failed to capture or hadn't sought out to begin with. Despite the sheer brilliance displayed, however, at least one of Emperor's members was taking the dark aesthetic of the newly forged black metal scene to heart in a gravely extreme fashion. In 1992, Faust stabbed Magne Andreassen, a complete stranger who allegedly made a pass at him, to death in the woods. While the crime remained unsolved for two years, he eventually came forward to confess and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

While the band replaced Faust with former Enslaved drummer Trym and admitted that they hadn't known of Faust's actions at the time, there's still a clear sense of tolerance and forgiveness that has been afforded him. In 2014, he rejoined his former bandmates to celebrate the 20th anniversary of In The Nightside Eclipse. It's possible that prison time and the years of growth since his early adulthood crime have changed his views and behaviours, but it's hard to say that this matters when there is another human who will never get a chance to experience the life that was stolen from him. While there have been no incidents that resemble an inclination towards a recurrence of the homicidal or homophobic tendencies that led to this, does that even matter? Furthermore, should one feel that Faust is beyond redemption, it becomes harder to decide what to make of his bandmates who elected to return to the stage with him some decades later. Emperor bandleader Ihsahn has spent most of his life peacefully teaching and recording music in a solo career that has been marked with neither controversy nor violence. His capacity to forgive and work with an old friend doesn't seem to damn him in the public's eye, and indeed Emperor have collectively indicated that they feel Faust has done enough. It's true that Norway's prison system is based on rehabilitation (and significantly more successful than that of the UK or USA), and Ihsahn's remarks in an episode of The MetalSucks Podcast last year indicate that the band believe that the time served (nine years and four months) acts as the necessary full punishment.

While Emperor were offering up vicious bombast in 1994, Darkthrone, had just lost a member and recorded their first album as the duo of Ted "Nocturno Culto" Skjellum on vocals and guitar, and Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell on all instruments. On Transilvanian Hunger they honed their raw black metal sound into something lightning-fast and stripped to its purest, most feral essence. With three albums released beforehand, the band had swayed from death metal into increasingly focused and jagged black metal territory, culminating in what the band ultimately dubbed "True Norwegian Black Metal." Initially, however, this phrase was predated by the considerably less tasteful "Norsk Arisk Black Metal," or "Norwegian Aryan Black Metal." Pairing this with a statement ["We would like to state that Transilvanian Hunger stands beyond any criticism. If any man should attempt to criticize this LP, he should be thoroughly patronized for his obviously Jewish behavior] deriding any "Jewish" criticisms of the album or its contents, Darkthrone appear (by modern standards) to have made a clear hateful statement in the release and promotion of the album. To complicate matters further, four of the eight songs' lyrics were credited to Count Grishnackh, the alias of Kristian "Varg" Vikernes, sole member of Burzum, former bassist of Mayhem, convicted murderer and outspoken "race realist" (a term synonymous with "racist" to most clear-headed individuals). While Vikernes' racial views had yet to become a part of his increasingly attention-seeking persona, the vileness of his crimes at the time would have been enough to spark scepticism in most.

Yet seen from their perspective at the time, things are not crystal clear. Murder and church arson have never been normal acts, but in this newly forged community entrenched in an ever escalating nuclear arms race of extreme and transgressive behaviour at that time, they quickly became accepted as something of rites of passage into these darker paths (or the fire starting was at least). Associating with a murderer and arsonist (who justified the killings as acts of self-defence) may have seemed less troublesome to Darkthrone's members than it would have done to a none BM partisan at the time. Either way Darkthrone seemed to have pause for thought almost immediately afterwards when it came to the fascistic/anti-semitic statements.

In the aftermath of the album's release, the band released clear-cut statements denouncing hate speech and attributing their language to a cultural misunderstanding. They expanded on this in a short statement on the sleeve of their following album, Panzerfaust, saying: "Darkthrone is not a Nazi band or a political band." Fenriz has gone even further since, acknowledging the racial element to the sleeve message, expressing regret while decrying his youthful behaviour as "disgusting".

Such terminology used by musicians in their early twenties in 1994 may have been offensive to outsiders but seen as no more than provocative slang to their Norwegian peers. Things had been the same in other countries too, if one pays attention to the speed at which popular social conventions change. In 1978, the 20-year-old Siouxsie Sioux was criticised for using the lyric "too many Jews for my liking" ('Love In A Void'), using the word Jew as a synonym of businessman. After receiving some forthright criticism from the music press and taking this on board she went on to write the stand alone single 'Israel' in 1980, which featured the Star Of David on the sleeve and reveals the development of a more liberal and tolerant world view. 'Love In A Void' surfaced as the b-side to 'Mittageisen' (a tribute to anti-fascist artist John Heartfield) in 1978 but with the lyrics changed to "Too many bigots for my liking". The song was covered by Darkthrone in 2006, complete with updated, anti-fascist lyrics delivered in a most zesty manner.

There are inherent challenges to viewing the past through the modern lens which are only complicated by cultural differences. The Norway of 2019 is arguably less attuned to racial sensitivity and political correctness than the United States or the UK. While the people may not hold overtly hateful or racist biases per se, it's clear that there are different cultural factors used to determine what is inappropriate. When one looks back twenty-five years, it can seem that certain actions, may have been less shocking in the cultural context from which they came. Whether that makes them acceptable for today's audience isn't as clear, as the past is not a vacuum and the present is not a constant.

Additionally, black metal itself has grown quite a bit. While the roots of rebellion remain firmly intact in much of the music, the things being rebelled against have changed just as society has shifted over the decades. While religion has long been an easy target for heavy metal bands of all stripes, there are many greater social ills being addressed by black metal acts today. Quietus favourites Panopticon, a staple of the current American extreme underground, have taken a firm stance in support of workers' rights and in addressing the struggles of the working poor - as well as addressing ecological concerns on Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness. This is truly extreme music addressing a truly extreme set of circumstances that many real humans face, which is more brutal and relevant than bands continuing to sing about Satan nearly 50 years after Black Sabbath first arrived. Times have changed and black metal should change to reflect that.

Because there is a large gulf of apolitical bands separating leftist acts from the minority of white nationalist bands that have tried to hide within the ranks of black metal's fandom, it's often something of an internet game of detective work to figure out which artists are espousing hateful views and which ones are merely playing with imagery that is close in nature to certain dog whistles. With such diversity of sounds, artistic aims, and fans, it's little wonder there's more infighting and scrutiny among black metal's fans than there once was. While many decry the blatant insensitivity and outright harmful views, just as many are quick to accuse these same people of missing the point of an inherently subversive and rebellious art form.

In this day and age is it more subversive to rally behind the withering status quo as it shifts towards a more accepting and open world or is it not truly subversive to challenge old views? When we look at bands like Darkthrone and Emperor, whose histories are inextricably woven through with troubling elements but whose present-day activities actively celebrate the best in heavy metal and denounce harmful views, we must decide whether the ugly aspects of the artists' pasts are enough to cloud our enjoyment of the art and the artists as they stand in a modern context. Fenriz from Darkthrone may have been too comfortable using powerful derogatory language when he was in his early twenties, but as an elder statesman in heavy metal today he seems more interested in highlighting young musical talent and being a Hiking Metal Punk with his old friend Nocturno Culto and even becoming something of an expert on progressive house music than he is in upsetting or hurting others. Similarly, Ihsahn now shares an artistic sensibility with progressive musicians more than with black metal artists and seems so far removed from the wayward violence of the 1990s that it's hard to view his past without knowledge of his gentle present. As we acknowledge these changing images of Darkthrone and Emperor, however, we must also be mindful that not everybody sought or received public redemption and this is where the clear division lies.

When we look at the growing popularity of Varg Vikernes as a meme-ready YouTube personality, it's clear that the notoriety of the past hasn't had the same impact on all viewers. While one would hope that far more people are disturbed by the blatant racism spouted by Vikernes from his wooded property and the back of his jeep, often with his children in the frame, there is a growing audience eager to interact with and support him. Some of these people are surely members of the apolitical groups of fans, whose main interest is the art, but there are just as many young minds being shaped by the warped theories of race and society that Vikernes shares on his channel. To deny this impact or pretend it isn't there is to turn a blind eye to very real and dangerous influences in a counterculture that does not itself have roots in white supremacy nor does it have a need to make room for white supremacists.

With all this taken into account, it's clear there's no absolute answer for a concerned fan of the music. On the one hand, it's effortless to denounce or ignore someone like Varg Vikernes. He's made it easy for the average listener through his consistent actions and words over the decades. Acknowledging the pasts of artists who have changed, becomes more complex and personal. For some, there is a line that cannot be uncrossed. For others, however, there's an understanding of people as growing and shifting beings who may be better today as a direct result of their pasts. Neither of these are for anybody other than the individual to determine, although as we see the world opening up, it becomes harder to imagine a space for such public mistakes.

A twenty-something artist today cannot possibly act without an awareness of the larger world. This makes for a better, more tolerant environment most of the time, but also creates an environment where young people who would've learned from a mistake at one point are now written off as irredeemable. This isn't to liken youthful stupidity to overtly condoning fascist and racist views, as the rift between the two is apparent, yet when faced with the pasts of artists whose youthful indiscretions stretch far beyond the normal threshold, we appear to have set up a double standard. And yet...isn't it right? We must naturally be at arm's length from the past, yet the present is crystal clear. Old excuses no longer apply, which makes a conflict where the answer should be simple.

This, ultimately, is the issue laid at the feet of any black metal fan who considers the art and artist to be entwined. Most fans aren't writing off new Darkthrone releases, nor are they concerned about what people may think if they rush off to buy Ihsahn's latest solo album. Indeed, it would seem rather weird to do so, as the artists have had both good judgment and good fortune on their side. Darkthrone's mid-90's shift against their own words was the right response to a bad decision and they've never crossed that line again. It'd be hard to question their conviction at this point. Similarly, Ihsahn and Samoth of Emperor continued their careers without any statements or actions celebrating the cruelty of their former bandmate. The best thing one can do now is to simply be aware and to learn from the past, just as the artists themselves have displayed. Whether one elects to avoid the art or cherish it dearly, the poorest choice would be to act as if none of this happened and allow the past to repeat itself as another generation of young, reckless artists tries to shock its way into the public eye.