Loosely, black metal can be musically defined as an extreme type of metal characterised by shrieking vocals, fast tremolo riffs, high distortion, and low-production recording. But this description is vastly insufficient—there’s not only an aesthetic legacy to the music, but an infamous history inseparable from the genre itself.
Black metal—as it is known today—was most prominently defined in Norway in the late 80s and early 90s, where bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Burzum started creating low-production, raw, brutal music with misanthropic and anti-Christian themes. On stage they wore corpse paint and used satanic imagery. The whole package is iconic, and this is evident when I ask Sturla of Svartidauði to define black metal. He smirks and responds quickly, “‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’”—the title of Mayhem’s first record. Dagur of Misþyrming and Naðra says the same thing.
The scene first came into mainstream media, spreading the genre’s sound and ideas worldwide, when these guys began to burn churches around Norway. This wasn’t just one or two isolated events: fifty churches were eventually destroyed. So even from the start, black metal was heavily connected with ideology and action, giving it a more sinister edge than the already kind of creepy image death metal bands had cultivated.
But arson was only the beginning—eventually more extreme acts occurred. First, Per “Dead” Ohlin, the singer of Mayhem, shot himself in the head. The band took a picture of his corpse and made it an album cover. It was also rumoured that the band took his skull and made necklaces out of it. Later, Varg Vikernes, aka Burzum, killed local scenelord Euronymous, Mayhem’s lead guitarist, stabbing him 23 times. The international news showed the long-haired 20-year-old smiling unaffected as they read out his guilty verdict. On YouTube, the clip has millions of views.
In the 20 years since, black metal has continued to hone an extreme reputation, from the pro-suicide messages of bands like Shining 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. Many don’t play live. And, as we’ve confirmed, most refuse to give out their full names in interviews.
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