‘Lords of Chaos:’ The Backstory

Dead (left) and Euronymous
Dead (left) and Euronymous

Rebellion is a refusal to accept the mores of one’s society, and an embracing of an alternate value set that is diametrically opposed to those rejected conventions. Accordingly, rebellion indirectly reflects those norms, providing a negative image of the values of a society.

As societal mores vary from culture to culture, rebelliousness necessarily manifests itself differently from culture to culture as well.

In a country of Puritanical origin, like the US, rebellion is often manifested, in whole or in part, as debauchery and hedonism, particularly debauchery of a sexual nature. Pleasure in general, and non-procreative sexuality in particular, are long-standing taboos in our society; we have laws prohibiting nudity, restricted ratings on movies with strong sexual content, and laws regulating sexual activity.

Debauchery is the biggest, easiest middle finger to our cultural status quo.

Violence, on the other hand, is as American as apple pie; it is part and parcel of our history, and thus our cultural identity. The media that we consume is fundamentally violent. Our metaphors are fundamentally violent. Our approach to day-to-day life is fundamentally violent. We don’t think twice about it.

Contrast 1990’s Norway, where Violence occupied the taboo throne that Sex occupies in the US. Weapons were tightly controlled; movies were restricted for depictions of violence. Outside media was scrutinized for violent content with an almost xenophobic zeal.

No surprise, then, that an outburst from a fringe extreme-music sub-culture in early-90s Norway would be especially violent.

That was the story that roared out of Norway in the first half of the 90s: hordes of black-clad metal-blasting Satanists running wild, burning historic churches and killing themselves, innocent civilians, and finally each other, just for the Hell of it.

As with all stories, the truth depends on who you ask.

What is known is that churches were burned, and people were killed, including the creator and de facto godhead of the Norwegian black metal scene, Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous, guitarist for the pioneering Norwegian black metal band Mayhem.

People were tried; people were convicted; people went to prison.

The other established fact is that the musical impact of this small scene in Scandinavia was huge, creating echoes that reverberate throughout Metaldom to this day. In fact, given the prevalence today of hybrid-genre bands that utilize aesthetics from this particular style of black metal, I would argue that its influence has increased in the last decade in some sort of necromantic ripple effect.

Black metal is an oddball genre to talk about, because in some ways it is not really even a genre. With what we today call thrash, or death metal, or power metal, or speed metal, you can list defining musical characteristics that would allow a skilled outside observer to say “this is thrash” or “this is death metal.” What makes something “black metal” is not so much the music itself as it is the philosophy underlying the music.

What a lot of black metal experts (and I am not an expert, and don’t claim to be) consider to be the “first wave” of black metal is a group of bands that were quite disparate sonically, but that were philosophically linked by a fundamental anti-Christian ethos. Lord Vic, who is a black metal expert, considers Bathory, Mercyful Fate, Venom, and Hellhammer to be the foundational pillars of black metal, and all of them were certainly fundamental influences on what happened (musically) in Norway in the early 1990s.

Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz, best known as half of the band Darkthrone, credits guitarists Euronymous and Snorre Ruch, aka Blackthorn, with taking the foundation laid by Bathory and developing the riffing style that would become a part of the trademark “second wave” Norwegian sound. When Euronymous opened his now-infamous record store Helvete in Oslo in May of 1991, it was, according to Slayer fanzine writer Metalion, “the creation of the whole Norwegian Black Metal scene.”

Helvete became the gathering point for a loosely-knit group of disaffected early-twenties metallers, bound together to some extent by music and philosophy. Euronymous referred to this group as the “Black Circle.” His trip, publicly, was theistic Satanism and misanthropy, and he represented the Black Circle to be an organized, militant group. The degree of congruence between Euronymous’ public and private character is one of many currently contested historical points, as is whether or not the Black Circle was just “something Euronymous made up,” as Burzum founder Varg Vikernes put it.

There was already at least one casualty at this point. Ironically (or not), his name was Dead.

mayhem_dawn_of_the_black_hearts_350
Scene of Dead’s suicide, photographed by Euronymous

Dead, born Per Yngve Ohlin, was, uncharacteristically, a Swede; he moved to Norway in 1989 specifically to sing for Mayhem after having sent them a demo tape and a crucified mouse. He actually considered himself to be something dead; he would wear corpse paint when he performed— according to Mayhem drummer Hellhammer, Dead started that black metal trope— and would also wear clothes that he had previously buried. Sometimes he huffed a dead raven prior to going onstage. Sometimes he would cut himself while onstage. These were not affectations to garner scene cred; by all accounts, Dead was mentally ill, and his condition worsened with time.

By 1991, Dead was living with Euronymous and Hellhammer, and there was a good bit of friction between Euronymous and Dead. Some claim that Euronymous encouraged Dead to kill himself, possibly to promote the image of the band; regardless of whether or not he was prodded to do so, kill himself Dead did, cutting his wrists and throat and shooting himself in the forehead with a shotgun on April 8th. His suicide note read, in part, “I am not a human being. This is just a dream, and soon I will awake.”

Euronymous’ previous treatment of Dead had rubbed some people the wrong way; what he did upon discovering Dead’s body proved downright divisive: he went and bought a camera to take pictures of the gory scene, and then collected pieces of Dead’s skull to keep as souvenirs. The picture would end up as the cover of a live Mayhem bootleg called The Dawn of the Black Hearts. The skull fragments would be made into necklaces and distributed to the “worthy.”

Cover of Burzum - Aske, depicting the burned church at Fantoft
Cover of Burzum – Aske, depicting the burned church at Fantoft

The church-burnings started in 1992 at Fortun, when the venerable Fantoft Stave Church was burned on June 6th.

Even if most of those then involved in the Norwegian black metal scene were not actual Devil-worshippers— theistic Satanists— they were certainly anti-Christian in outlook; even in that context, church burning makes perfect sense. Compounding this modern anti-Christianity, which is common to a lot of metal (and metalheads), was an undercurrent of nationalistic paganism that cast Christianity in the light of an usurper religion that had violently displaced the True Old Ways. Not just a bothersome, detrimental modern bore, but an ancient enemy in an as-yet-unfinished battle for the soul of the Folk. An enemy to be destroyed.

By the time things came to a head between Euronymous and Varg, at least nine churches had been burned, many of them historic structures.

But before that, there would be more blood.

Faust
Faust

On August 21st, 1992, Bård Guldvik Eithun, aka Faust, drummer for scene giants Emperor, went drinking at a pub in Lillehammer. After leaving the pub to head home, Faust was approached by a man that he would later describe as “obviously drunk and obviously a faggot.” The man propositioned Faust, who agreed to accompany him to some nearby woods, having “decided that I wanted to kill him.” Magne Andreassen was stabbed and kicked to death, the 37 stab wounds speaking to the viciousness of the attack. Other than the fact that Faust was a black metaller, there is no solid connection between the murder and black metal. Faust denies having been a Satanist or a fascist, and that either of these was the motivation for the killing, for which he has provided various rationales that collectively boil down to “shit happens.”

The murder would go unsolved for a year, and would prove to be a footnote compared to the scene-shattering killing that happened on August 10th, 1993.

Varg Vikernes
Varg Vikernes

With all of the idealistically-swollen early-twenties egos bouncing about in one of the most extreme musical scenes then existent on the planet, it is not surprising that there was static. And there was, plenty of it. Norwegian black metallers beefed with Finnish and Swedish black metallers. Black metallers beefed with death metallers. Bands beefed with other bands. Friends beefed with each other.

Having honed his chops with Norwegian death metal band Old Funeral, Varg went his own way in 1991, founding (at 18) the still-hugely-relevant black metal solo band Burzum. Over a span of a few years, Burzum would release three demos, an LP (the self-titled Burzum), and another demo, all on Euronymous’ label Deathlike Silence Productions. In 1992, Varg would take up bass duties in Mayhem from Necrobutcher, who left the band after Dead’s suicide because of conflict with Euronymous.

Issues would arise between Varg and Euronymous as well; static and Euronymous seem to have gone hand-in-hand by this point. There are as many stories about why it happened as there are people to tell them. There’s only one story about what happened, and that’s Varg’s, because he was the one that lived to tell it.

On that fateful night in August, Varg and Blackthorn went to see Euronymous in Oslo. Blackthorn stayed outside; Varg went up to Euronymous’ fourth-floor apartment. The encounter ended with Euronymous, dead, in the stairwell on the first floor; he had been stabbed 23 times, 16 times in the back. Arrested on August 19th, Varg claimed self-defense: Euronymous was plotting to subdue him and torture him to death, and had attacked him at the door.

Major scene players seem to be pretty evenly divided as to who believes this version of events. The jury didn’t.

On May 16th, 1994, Varg drew the maximum Norwegian prison sentence, 21 years, for Euronymous’ murder, three church burnings, an attempted church burning, and possession of over 300 pounds of stolen explosives. Blackthorn drew eight years as an accomplice. Two churches were burned the day of Varg’s sentencing.

The same month, remaining Mayhem members would release their first LP, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, with guitar and bass tracks by victim and killer, respectively. Quite fitting, I think.

Varg is out of jail now, and is actively writing and blogging, although he put an end to Burzum in 2018. He has also published a tabletop role-playing game. Faust is also out of jail, and is drumming for a handful of metal bands. Blackthorn is involved with black/industrial band Thorns. Most of the other convicted church-burners remain unrepentant.

In 1998, authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind released Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, an in-depth look at the early Norwegian black metal scene. Unsurprisingly, it drew criticism from all quarters. Various scene members have disputed the authors’ versions and interpretations of various events. Some other critics have depicted Moynihan as a member of the fringe-right and accused him of using Varg’s fringe-right beliefs as a brush with which to tar the entire scene.

I make no representations as to the validity of these criticisms.

More recently, Jonas Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson have decided to stir the ol’ black metal pot again, writing a screenplay based on the book. The resulting movie made its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and was released in the US on February 8th.

Needless to say, the film has been criticized by many of those it depicts.

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