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Black Metal’s chaotic sound reflects genre’s dark history

Ben McKone

Contributing Writer

The sound is loud, aggressive and chaotic. Guitars jangle with furious tremolo picking. Drums are a constant onslaught of machine-gun beats. Vocals are inhuman shrieks. Bands bear names like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Rotting Christ and Funeral Mist. Musicians adopt pseudonyms and appear in publicity photos adorned with ghoulish corpse paint, bullet belts and inverted crosses.

Welcome to the world of black metal.

Black metal is a culture unto itself, deliberately inaccessible to the mainstream of modern society. The genre’s extreme sound, hostile image and lyrical themes of nihilism, chaos and anti-Christianity keep most listeners at an arm’s length. However, to its devoted fans, myself included, black metal provides an invaluable escape from the crushing realities of modern life. In a time when authoritarianism and moral policing are seemingly on the rise, black metal stands against it; a furious scream of primal, pagan anger against those who would tell us what to do with our minds and bodies.

To understand black metal, one must understand the brutal crime which punctuated its birth. The genre came out of an underground music scene in early-90s Norway. At its epicenter was a pale, gangly guitarist named Oystein Arseth, better known as “Euronymous.” He was, in a word, a character. An inveterate showman, he courted media attention with comically exaggerated misanthropic statements, in which he declared himself to be against compassion, happiness and fun.

From his record shop, Helvete (Norwegian for “Hell”), Euronymous held court over what he called the Black Metal Inner Circle, judging whether aspiring musicians were worthy of being signed to his Deathlike Silence record label.

Unsurprisingly, Euronymous’ massive ego, along with his atrocious business sense, made him numerous enemies. Chief among them was his former Mayhem bandmate Varg Vikernes, of the one-man project Burzum. Euronymous had initially acted as a sort of mentor to Vikernes, but over time their relationship soured. In particular, Vikernes grew incensed with Euronymous for his refusal to pay royalties (In dire financial straits, Euronymous had been forced to close Helvete).

The animosity between the two men grew, until the night of Aug. 10, 1993, when Vikernes appeared at Euronymous’ s apartment at nearly three in the morning. What happened next varies depending upon who is telling the story, but the result was Oystein Arseth’s body laying at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood. He had been stabbed  23 times.

For his part, Vikernes claimed that Euronymous had plotted to tie him to a tree and torture him to death, while filming it all. Jurors were not convinced, and Vikernes spent 14 years in prison before being paroled.

This crime is not something I wish to defend. It was an act of senseless brutality. Varg Vikernes is a psychopath who never should have been released. And yet, it stands as a defining moment of one of my favorite genres of music. This act catapulted the once-underground scene into the international spotlight, forever cementing it as a boogeyman to the majority. And it is in this where black metal gets its power. Conceived in violence and populated with frightening characters, it will never be understood or appreciated by most, because they simply want nothing to do with it. And that is precisely what makes it so wonderful.

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