Published June 15, 2018
In February 2016, the Grapevine profiled the burgeoning Icelandic black metal scene in a feature entitled, “Welcome To The Circle.” The piece documented the birth of Icelandic black metal and the newfound domination of the scene worldwide through the efforts of acts like Svartidauði, Misþyrming, Sinmara, Naðra, Wormlust, Auðn, and Mannveira.
The photos accompanying the feature, taken by Hafsteinn Viðar Ársælsson—who is also the founder of Wormlust—form the basis of a new photo book and exhibit at the Reykjavík Museum of Photography called ‘Svartmálmur’ (‘Black Metal’).
Hafsteinn talks in a soft mumble, spouting thoughts so fully formulated and enthralling that you focus all your attention on him. In one sentence, he’ll often weave a thread connecting archaic philosophies to, say, a modern photographer, all ending with a joke delivered in a shockingly deadpan manner. He’s incredibly introverted, so much so that even in an interview, you feel like you’re impinging on him.
While he’s been involved in the Icelandic black metal scene in some capacity since the early 2000s, Hafsteinn’s interest in photography emerged only years ago. “It was actually in this building,” he says, motioning to the museum. “I saw a photo book called ‘Popcorn’, it was about the Icelandic 60s scene. I knew all these bands but I had never seen these images, and it was like they were being brought to life before me.”
The book deeply inspired him. “I thought there is nobody doing that for this scene, so I decided, I might as well do it,” he says. Going off of the ‘Popcorn’ model, he started casually snapping photos of bands. Once the Grapevine feature dropped, and he saw his work in print, he kicked the project into high gear.
A new Norway
Loosely, black metal can be defined as an extreme type of metal characterised by shrieking vocals, fast tremolo riffs, blast beats, and low-production recording. The genre was most prominently defined in Norway in the early 90s, where bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone started creating raw, brutal music with misanthropic and anti-Christian themes. On stage they wore corpse paint and used satanic imagery. The music first came into the public eye when these guys burned fifty churches around Norway. But arson was only the beginning—eventually more extreme acts, like suicide and murder, followed.
In the 20 years since, black metal has continued to hone an extreme reputation, from pro-suicide messages, to ideological radicalism, to arrests for grave desecration and murder. At the same time, the scene has also continued a legacy of anonymity. Black metal musicians are notoriously faceless, using pseudonyms and obscuring their appearances in photographs.
The Icelandic scene was born from this legacy, but has since pushed it to apotheosis. From the carnal fury of Misþyrming, to the slow melancholy of Auðn, to the grandiosity of Sinmara, to the raw anger from Mannveira—it’s a clear golden age for the genre. In the past years, the eyes of the world have turned to Iceland as the hotbed of the genre—a new Norway.
For Hafsteinn though, the genre ascends pure aurality. “Black metal is more of an internal feeling,” he says. “I’d liken it to getting into Hinduism [sic], when you attain enlightenment.” He pauses, delicately searching for words. “It’s like when you get into a hot tub, you acclimatise. [Black metal] is really harsh and atonal, but after a while you see that it isn’t, that there’s melody.”
He took to documenting the Icelandic scene with this same comprehensive attitude. “You have an inner world, and music is so ephemeral, you can’t capture it,” he says. “I treat it holy. I studied it. Lyrics. This is a sacred truth that these musicians have for themselves.” He motions to a photo. It’s the band Carpe Noctem, with a reproduction of their album art. “I’ve been asked, is it fantasy or documentary?” he continues. “Well, I am documenting their inner fantasy.”
Much of Hafsteinn’s success with this book and exhibit is due to his position in the scene. Black metal musicians are notoriously standoffish to outsiders, but Hafsteinn is one of them and was thus, as he explained, allowed into their inner fantasies. That said, Hafsteinn still views himself as separate from the others. “When I joined the scene, I was the youngest one and now I am the oldest one by far. I am the elder,” he says. “So maybe I’m documenting everything because I am the one aware of age and time creeping.”
Above all else, Hafsteinn wanted to approach the photos with respect. He contrasts his book with the famous “True Norwegian Black Metal” by Peter Beste. Hafsteinn admires Beste’s aesthetics, but finds his works derivative. “I didn’t want to be humorous, and what he did was humorous,” he says. “That devalues it and makes it less important and it undermines the whole point of black metal. I wasn’t going to put them next to their mom in corpse paint. Of course, those photos are visual catchy, but I think the philosophy was thrown out. There should be nothing humorous about it.”
Always a ritual
Hafsteinn does, however, have a small laugh about one part of the exhibition—but not at its expense. In the corner of the exhibition lies a mural painted in human blood by NYIÞ. It’s covered in runes. Across from that is an altar with two goblets: one holds wine, the other human blood.
“They were offering people the cups to see who would drink,” he says, before softly smiling. “It’ll smell amazing by the end of the summer, I’m sure.”
Info: The exhibit ‘Svartmálmur’ will be open until August 16. The book “Svartmálmur can be bought there or online.