Stulli and Gauti sit opposite me and sip their coffee. Black coffee. Stulli is in the midst of outlining the philosophy behind his band, Svartidauði (Black Death), one of Iceland’s more accomplished Black Metal bands of today. They are wearing all black. Outside, the northern November sky is black too.
“I’m not sure who said it. But humans are a flawed design and that just… yeah, we’re not so much singing about burning churches, a lot of our lyrics are focused on self discovery and the like. They’re very introverted, but at the same time, we’re using things we see every day, the horrors we’ve all witnessed, as inspiration for our music. If there’s any one thing we’re promoting with our music, it isn’t necessarily Satanism so much as an extreme sort of hedonism. A philosophy that emphasises new experiences and knowledge of the self, yet also fights the weak, Christian slave mentality that sickens us so much.”
Stulli handles vocal and growling duties for Svartidauði. He is 21-years old, and already a Black Metal veteran of six years. He has been performing with various bands for much longer. He is markedly more interested in espousing his allegiance to the Dark Lord than Gauti, nine years his senior, although Gauti also professes to follow his teachings. “I’m more of an egotist, really. I believe in myself,” he says. When prompted, Stulli will say that he doesn’t agree with the Golden Rules and morals – the sympathy and brotherly love – of a Christian society. That is herd mentality, the agenda of the weak. “I go by absolute selfishness, and I don’t feel I owe anybody any consideration. If it benefits me, then I’ll do it, whatever it is.”
I ask him if that includes committing murder, if that were to benefit him.
“Not really. I am not interested in spending the next eighteen years behind bars. My reasons for not committing murder are purely selfish – but if I were guaranteed to get away with it, I’d definitely give it a shot. I do not offer the other cheek – I do not believe in that at all.”
Misanthropic Blasphemy of the Christfucker
What bothers me is that these guys I am interviewing on the current state of Satanic Black Metal in Iceland, they’re too nice. They smile too much. They’re too happy, and they light up when they talk about Black Metal and their love for the relatively (or: wholly and intentionally) obscure genre. This will be equally true of all the other Black Metal scenesters I’ll meet for the purposes of this article; although their favourite song might be a 13 minute cassette demo noisefest epic named “Misanthropic Blasphemy of the Christfucker” performed by convicted murderers such as Count Grishnack (or people called Necrobutcher or Gaahl), they are all genuinely nice guys that actually seem more modest and down to earth than most of the halfassed garage bands I’ve interviewed.
I finally reach the conclusion that the only thing that sets them apart from your average music nerd is their unlimited devotion to their genre of choice. Take Gauti, for instance. The 30-year old has been heavily into Black Metal since the early nineties, when the excruciatingly heavy style got its first taste of notoriety outside its native Norway (those crazy Norwegians kept getting themselves in the spotlight by burning churches, murdering one another and being generally unpleasant to associate with –Google it for further info: this ain’t no primer).
Gauti never formed a Black Metal band. However, his affection for the style has led him to publish a plethora of fanzines and newsletters for the last decade. He has trouble remembering the names of many of them, and doesn’t even have copies of his first zines. In what must be acknowledged as an extreme labour of love (for nobody is rewarding him financially, and it doesn’t really impress girls that much,) Gauti has spent countless hours corresponding with BM figureheads across the globe, trading tapes, reviewing demos and even releasing some in extremely limited (or “trve kvlt”-style) numbers of 50 or less. And although he admits that family and fatherhood are limiting his time for it lately, he’s still at it.
How the Internet Killed the Underground and Made Black Metal 27 New Fans
While many would find it frustrating to strive laboriously on their particular passion with the outside world giving it nary a glance of interest, except for maybe to poke fun at some of the more (and, dare I say, intentionally) comical aspects of it, Gauti and Stulli seem happy to keep it that way. In fact, along with almost everyone else I met with, they express annoyance at how accepted and widespread Black Metal has gotten in the past few years. It seems one of the key tenets of trve Black Metal is its inherent mystique and obscurity. This is not meant to be for everybody, this is meant to be special.
“When I was first getting into the music, young and inexperienced, the theatricality of the whole thing was a real factor. Murder, church burnings, corpsepaint, how you had to really struggle to get your hands on the music, let alone badly Xeroxed interviews with the bands or any piece of information on them – all of these things contributed to my fascination with Black Metal,” says Gauti, and Stulli agrees. “One of the bad things about the Internet is that as all of that information becomes readily accessible and available, the music loses a lot of its mystique and charm. It is a really important part of it – Black Metal has always been about more than just the music.”
Icelandic Doom Metal band Sólstafir were among the first wave of Icelandic Black Metal bands during the mid-nineties, although they’ve since mostly abandoned the style. Their drummer, Gummi, is an avid Black Metal enthusiast and, unsurprisingly, shares Stulli’s and Gauti’s feelings towards the Internet. When asked, he agrees that Black Metal is a kind of shadow scene that has the vampiristic tendency to disappear the instance some light is shed on it.
“Nowadays, anyone can go out and record a shitty demo in their basement and it’ll be on-line within minutes. They can look up Black Metal on Wikipedia and know everything there’s to know about the whole genre, while I had to furiously order underground magazines from abroad for over five years to gather even half of that info. When anyone with a computer can fart something onto the Internet, searching for pearls in all that shit becomes a fearsome task. The Internet ruined the underground, yeah, kinda.”
This all gets kinda weird considering that all of those interviewed estimated the number of Black Metal fans in Iceland to include, at most, all of 200 people. Actually most of them guessed the scene to be around 30-100 person strong – even considering Iceland’s meagre population, those really aren’t sell-out numbers. If they are close to accurate, us at the Grapevine could conceivably host our very own Black Metal festival, in our office kitchen.
Our Fjords are Just as Böring
But why did Black Metal blow up in neighbouring countries like Norway, Sweden, and the rest of Scandinavia, while never catching any real foothold over here? Iceland has for long been a source for fascination for Black Metal acts and fans alike. Norse mythology – Ásatrú and Vikings and Odin and whatnot – plays a large part in many BM bands’ aesthetics. In fact, one of the biggest (and therefore not really trve BM anymore) Black Metal bands in the world is named Dimmu Borgir, after the Icelandic nature reserve. And some misguided Black Metal souls have actually recorded whole albums in a not-really-understood-by-themselves- at-all form of Icelandic.
In the early nineties, all the conditions were right for a big Black Metal uprising. Much the same as in Norway, Death Metal was extremely popular in every fjord and cranny of the country, with bands such as Sororicide, Strigaskór Nr. 42 and Cranium all gaining notoriety among Icelandic teens. In fact, members of the Icelandic Death Metal scene are known to have corresponded with key players in Norwegian Black Metal circles, infamous folks such as Euronymus of Mayhem and his killer, Count Grishnack (AKA Varg Vikernes) of Burzum.
Icelandic fjords were just as böring as Norwegian ones, and Icelandic teenagers were just as rebellious as their Scandinavian cousins. Teen drinking was just as big over here, as was teen spraying-upside-down-crosses-and-pentagramson- walls. Not to mention teen wearing-black-onall- occasions-and-having-really-straight-long-hair. So what went wrong (or right, depending on who you ask)? Why were there no church burnings, no satanic rituals – no larger than life cult figures named after Orcs from Tolkien books – in Iceland?
Waiting for a Black Metal Mínus…
Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen, long-time music scribe for Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, host of nationally broadcast metal-themed radio show on Icelandic National Radio 2 and avid BM enthusiast agrees that it’s certainly strange that Black Metal all but surpassed Icelandic audiences. He has followed the Norwegian BM scene since its very first controversies surfaced, and counts an extremely rare Mayhem LP, the Deathcrush EP, among his most prized possessions – he is an authority on the shape, size and history of Death and Black Metal in Iceland. But he offers little in way of an explanation.
“You would have thought we had all the right ingredients for a Black Metal scene over here. But maybe our scarce population worked against us in this respect. There were, and are, so few of us that we can’t really afford to close ourselves off in small scenes. Death Metal bands like Sororicide were associating, sharing drummers even, with indie fare like Kolrassa Krókríðandi (later Bellatrix). The Icelandic Death Metal scene rather went on to play a type of indie or grunge music than progress into the heavier Black Metal style. Nobody really thought of forming a band like that while that whole freakshow was going on in Norway.
“I am really happy with the output Icelandic Black Metal bands have put out thus far, make no mistake. It’s quality stuff. But I kept waiting for a full-blown scene to take shape here. All of the BM bands we’ve had have kind of stayed on the fringes of Icelandic music, and often they don’t even play concerts. I still feel we need a band to step forward for the genre, sort of like Mínus did for their brand of metal, four guys in corpsepaint, doling out controversial statements, shocking interviews, etc.
“I used to think Myrk were really promising in that respect, before they evolved into Momentum, which isn’t really a Black Metal band. But we still have lots of folks who are really strong in the field, and have a large output of great music. Einar Eldur, of very notable BM acts such as Potentiam, Curse and others is a good example in this respect. He releases all of his albums internationally, good strong albums that actually make an impact in the international world of Black Metal [more on him later].”
Satan’s Foul Trickery Goes Unnoticed, for the Most Part
Another explanation for Black Metal’s apparent lack of impact in Iceland is offered by an Icelandic theology scholar-slash-long term BM fan that wishes to remain incognito. It is a simpler one. Namely:
Nobody cares about Satan in Iceland.
True, there might be the occasional fundamentalist Christian sect here and there that will care; their preachers will warn their flock of Satan’s foul trickery, and they will spot the mark of the unholy beast in all the right places. However, those people form a very timid minority. Nobody cares about Satan in Iceland, and this is probably why Black Metal has had less of an impact here than in other places. At least according to our nameless theologically inclined friend.
“Ideology has never been big in Iceland. Not Communism, Fascism, Environmentalism, Christianity nor Satanism. Icelanders are utilitarian; they care about getting food on their plates and taking care of their families, being able to afford a vacation away from the snow every now and then.
“This is why no matter what anyone tells you, and regardless of the fact that almost every Icelander is a registered member of the State Church, Icelanders aren’t really religious. At all. And, furthermore, they don’t care about religion. In fact, that’s probably the reason that they don’t care if they’re members of that church, or any other church for that matter. This is a very different scenario from the staunchly Christian Norwegians, who have a long and deeply rooted tradition of Christianity, especially in the remote regions of the country where many of the influential Black Metal bands come from.
“Icelanders are very down to earth in that manner. It is often said that Icelanders never really let go of their paganism when Christianity was thrust upon them, and this is probably true to some extent. Just ask all the folks walking around believing in elves and the like. And this is why it is my firm belief that the threat of a satanic uprising is something most people wouldn’t really concern themselves about so much. And this is why Satanism, or Satanic Black Metal, doesn’t seem like such a big threat to society, and incidentally why it isn’t as exciting to our rebellious teens to wear corpse paint and desecrate graves. Their mothers would probably laugh it off, and rightfully so, as juvenile behaviour meant to raise attention.”
A Given Central Tonic and the Tritone Interval
And then there’s the fact that if you leave all the church burnings, Orc names and murders out of the equation – when you eschew the ideology, Black Metal actually seems kind of… boring. Try looking up “Black metal” on Wikipedia and skip to the part labelled “Characteristics”. Do you understand some of the words? Does it feel like you’re reading a particularly boring physics textbook? Do you feel like you are at Juilliard, studying to be a composer of obscure modern classics?
“There is a frequent use of chromatics shifted up and down by semitones from a given central tonic to create an uneasy atmosphere (commonly featuring the tritone interval).” Pendulum strumming may be applied to fully voiced chords (usually minor, sometimes diminished) in a denser portion of a piece, and an altering of already established scales for a more dissonant, “evil” sound (such as the harmonic minor).”
Mind you, this is from Wikipedia. It was written by fans and scholars of the style, and you’ve got to assume that they were trying to educate and ensnarl the masses on the greatness of their beloved genre. And it sounds about as interesting as a geometry test.
Like, “Fuck Jesus!” Was a Big Statement
Einar Eldur has sold more albums than most of the great white hypes of Iceland Airwaves. Combined. And no one knows about this in his native Iceland. He truly is a fairly well known name in some international Black Metal circles, and all of his albums get released abroad, and they sell out. Mind you, as Black Metal is a very exclusive genre, most of them are only printed in runs of 1,000 and none of them are available in major Icelandic record shops. But all of them sell out sooner or later, and he has had an incredibly productive, if totally invisible, career. He’s actually been called the most productive person in Icelandic metal, and the evidence seems ripe. Just ask anyone who’s bought an album by Curse, Potentiam or Fortíð (although you probably won’t find them in Iceland.)
Eldur has released seven full-length albums, a single, a split album and an LP under his various chosen monikers. As well as six demos. All of them have been released by record labels in Germany, Italy, and the U.S. And he guested as a vocalist for Norwegian BM band Sykdom. He estimates that he has sold around or over 10.000 records worldwide.
He is as friendly and welcoming as the rest of the Black Metal crew I’ve met, but for some reason (perhaps since he’s been involved in Black
Metal since the beginning) manages to give off a macabre vibe as well. And when he talks about Satanism, about how some members of the very small mid-nineties scene flirted with burning down churches and occult ceremonies, you believe that he’s not just being sensationalist. You’ll believe they were that close.
“It’s always about the music, first and foremost,” he tells me. “It’s about making good music. Oh, of course the events in Norway were what got me interested at first. And people toyed around with the idea of burning churches over here, even going so far as attempting it, and desecrating some graves. But the main difference is that Norwegians are very Christian, especially on the west coast, and thus it was a much bigger issue there. Like, “Fuck Jesus!” was a big statement. Icelanders have never been very Christian, much more heathens in disguise. Now, if somebody would have successfully torched a church back then, maybe we would have gotten a stronger Black Metal scene. But it doesn’t really matter. This music, it’s a certain form of art; it involves certain philosophical investigations and certain modes of thoughts. But at the core, it’s about music. Good music”
And in the end, I must concur. Try giving A Blaze in the Northern Sky ten or twenty listens and see if you don’t agree.