Recently, after watching Lords of Chaos (dir. Jonas Åkerlund, 2018), the recent pseudo-biographical film about the adolescent rise and murderous “fall” of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene of the 1980s and ’90s, I began to think about how black metal, in particular, as a musical genre, fits into Keenan’s reappraisal of adolescence. On the surface, it appears to be a music scene that falls somewhere between the parameters that Keenan lays out in the introduction to his book — between aesthetic glorification and formless destruction, arising from the ground of a virulent adolescence.
The film, based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book of the same name, tells the story of seminal black metal band Mayhem and the music scene that formed around them in Norway in the mid- to late 1980s, as well as the controversies which both “killed” and immortalised the scene in the 1990s.
Formed in Oslo in 1984, Mayhem were the self-described pillar of Black Metal’s so-called “second wave”. Led by Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth on guitar, with Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg on drums and Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud on bass, the band would establish a local music scene seemingly single-handedly, and largely on hype alone. Although not without their predecessors, Euronymous was prone to voicing loud-mouthed assurances that his innovations in the genre and his radical attitude towards the creative process would change the world, long before he’d officially released a single shredded note.
Despite this lack of recorded material, many believed him, and even once their early seminal records were released it was the scene’s various non-musical activities that would spread their notoriety around the world. Chief amongst these notorious moments were the suicide of Mayhem’s one-time lead singer Per Yngve Ohlin, better known as “Dead”; the church burnings carried out by Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, Mayhem’s one-time bassist and the sole member of another seminal black metal band, Burzum; the scene’s flirting with a smorgasbord of seemingly paradoxical ideological affiliations, including Communism, Satanism, Nazism and paganism; and Varg’s eventual murder of Euronymous, along with a number of other serious crimes that occurred in orbit of the group and its dedicated following.
In providing the reader with a detailed chronological account of True Norwegian Black Metal’s creative and criminal development, Lords of Chaos is considered by many to be the guide to the birth of the music scene, but it is also a book that is quite obviously flawed.
The book — more so than the film — is a strange mixture of writing styles. It is, on the one hand, an oral history written by two fans and, on the other, a sensationalist and mythologising tell-all written by two journalists. It charts the hysteria of an intensive moment in great detail but the book only occasionally gives this moment the appropriate sociocultural context it deserves, explaining only in passing how Norway was, at that time, a very Christian and conservative country.
A repeated pull back from this point means that the book fails to dig much deeper than the headlines and tall tales. It stops itself from making too profound a social commentary, as if the authors don’t want to appear too journalistic or too fanatical, fuelling the notoriety of the crimes committed or downplaying their impact in favour of a decontextualised music. As such, the prose often appears anxious about overstepping the lines they have drawn around themselves, instead meandering somewhere in the middle. All gossip, no depth.
In this sense, Lords of Chaos reads like a middle-of-the-road True Crime novel (which is also how it was initially marketed by its publisher). Whilst their intentions are good, hoping to contend with, solidify and account for this scene’s auto-mythologising tendencies, the book — perhaps inevitably — succeeds only in removing the mystery and the productive vector from its subject matter.
The Lords of Chaos movie, to its credit, retains this mythological quality and improves upon the book in a number of other ways, doing well to dramatise its subject matter and bring to life a story that is so often buried, paradoxially, under the weight of its own narrative.
It succeeds, for instance, in establishing the time and place in which its story is set and the overbearing atmosphere of moralism in 1980s Norway that weighed so heavily on the central character’s late adolescence. As such, so many key moments within the mythology of True Norwegian Black Metal — like the Mayhem boys hearing Dead’s voice for the first time in their car, on a demo tape received in the mail — take place against a backdrop of tourist-brochure family-friendly scenery and imagery, with nuclear families frequently repelled by their chaos, spurned by the wake of the boys’ incessantly antagonistic outbursts.
It’s a clumsy contrast at times but its persistence begins to solidify their actions into a very familiar shape that is internal to, but nonetheless views itself outside of, the blanket moralism of Norwegian culture at that time. In this way, much like punk before it — and UK punk, in particular, was a major influence on those Norwegian teens — the True Norwegian Black Metal scene’s cartoonish behaviour and hyper-adolescence were direct protests against the time in which they lived. However, whereas punk remains inseparable from its sociopolitical context, True Norwegian Black Metal seems to exist in a vacuum of manic adolescent hysteria within the popular imagination. In fact, just like the noise and industrial genres that preceded it, described by Keenan, True Norwegian Black Metal plumbed similar depths of a very real darkness and attempted to present itself accordingly, with a tandem sonic and visual aesthetic that hoped to look and sound more evil than anything that came before it. Whilst this aesthetic often flirted with the cosmic nihilism of Bataillean formlessness, we must acknowledge its beginnings as an attempt to produce an inverted image of the Christian moralism that otherwise defined the young men’s lives.
Here we see two distinct interests, so often conflated, pulling in two different directions — between a desire to experiment and a desire to establish new traditions. The initial ambition of those Norwegian teenagers, who sought to test the limits of their cloistered world in a truly adolescent fashion, by defining themselves by all that was supposedly antithetical to the status quo, followed a communal desire for the outside of present sociopolitical hegemonies and the all too real consequences of heading for such an exit. As such, the musical genres that preceded them became an anchor amongst the turmoil of their own desires. The overbearing moral conservatism of Norway at that time was understandably something to be rebelled against in their eyes but they also retained a deep respect for their musical predecessors, presenting themselves as not so much lords of chaos — although that is undoubtedly how they would have liked to be perceived — but rather as apprentices of chaos.
The Lords of Chaos film is useful for us in this regard, as its dramatisation highlights these tensions better than the more journalistic form of its source material. The film exacerbates and even extends the flaws of the book on which it is based, making them far easier to contend with. Because what instead becomes the focus of this story, in being shifted to another form of (explicitly non-journalistic) narrative expression, is an emphasis on the fact that these infamous musicians were just kids — and kids who were increasingly out of their depth.
To be continued…
 For what it’s worth, it’s the opinion of this blogger that Dayal Patterson’s book Black Metal: Evolution of a Cult is a infinitely more interesting and comprehensive book, which starts in Newcastle, England, with Venom and ends up in Olympia, USA, with Wolves in the Throne Room — all the Norwegian activity getting a look-in in the middle, telling all the usual stories but within their appropriate local and global contexts. There is also an argument to be made that these activities are inherently resistant to any sort of considered analysis, which explains the novel approach of “black metal theory”, a para-academic approach to the music genre which both considers and deploys its aesthetic, philosophical and political undercurrents in written form.