Friday, February 16, 2018

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Lords of Chaos

Christopher Owen once again delves into the world of music to review:

Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Underground by Didrik Soderlind and Michael Moynihan

The world of black metal seems an unlikely subject for a major bestseller, but clearly the appetite of the public for chaos and metal knows no boundaries. 

First published in 1998, Lords of Chaos was one of the first books to look at the black metal scene that had spawned in Norway a few years previously. Discussing the music, philosophy, actions and controversies (murder, church burnings) that lie at the heart of the genre, it gave the music and the scene a much wider platform than it had been accustomed to, and has now being turned into a Hollywood movie.

So it's an apt time to revisit this book. But some local context is needed.

Heavy metal (and all it's various offshoots) has long been a subject of derision in Ireland. The general perception is that it is a form of music that socially awkward teenagers get into in order to shock their parents, and that anyone over the age of 21 still into it must have mental deficiencies. This is a very typical Irish attitude.  I think it's a societal thing really. There's a social conservatism in this country which makes people reluctant to stand out from the crowd. And in the case of metal fans, most give into the pressure all around them to cut their hair, grow up and fit in. Irish people by our very nature are begrudgers and pisstakers, and individuality or anything different from the norm is frowned upon here a whole heap more than anywhere else.

Of course, this stifling conservatism doesn't just apply to music. Do you think Joyce would have been able to publish 'Ulysses' if he'd still lived in Ireland? What about the various tales of journalists "taking a stand" in order to not be perceived as "fellow travellers?" Even the Belfast Project? The subsequent reaction to it and the ones involved in it is a prime example: what are you doing that for? Why waste your time?

And yet, in spite of this, think of the rock/metal bands who have emerged from this country and made an impact: Taste, Thin Lizzy, Sweet Savage, Mama's Boys, Therapy?, Gama Bomb, Primordial. Meanwhile, we have a bourgeoning underground scene with the likes of Coscradh, Owlcrusher, Stereo Nasty and Nomadic Rituals.

In many ways, the basic story is a typical one: guy feels an outcast in his settings, indulges his hobbies to such a great deal that he becomes a figurehead before it all falls apart. However, it's also a story that stretches back centuries, with resentment towards Christianity in Norway stretching right back to their Viking ancestors, manifesting itself in the mid/late eighties.

Oystein Aarseth (later to rechristen himself as Euronymous) formed a band called Mayhem who became one of the first Norwegian black metal bands. After the underground success of the 'Deathcrush' mini LP, and suicide of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (known as Dead), his cult following (known as the Circle) flock around his shop in Oslo.

The appearance of Varg Vikernes (Burzum) moves things up a notch. Churches are burnt, people are murdered. And, finally, Euronymous is murdered himself by Vikernes. Several reasons are trotted out by various people. None of which are probably true and probably lie within the petty rivalries considered important by young men.

What's immediate from reading the book is just how deeply felt Vikernes and Aarseth's loathing for Norwegian society was (and remains in the case of Vikernes) and how it twisted their psyche (Euronymous photographing Dead's corpse). It has been argued by many that this was a reaction to Norway's liberal society which also forced people to conform to social niceties. So while the parents were probably against the Vietnam War, the only route for the likes of Euronymous and Vikernes was to be "evil." And, with the progression of extreme music throughout the mid/late 80's (from hardcore punk to grindcore and death metal), black metal was the next logical step.

The discussions with the likes of Vikernes, as well as bands like Emperor, Mayhem and Darkthrone tend to focus on the events before and after Euronymous' death, and their individual beliefs. And while this can be interesting at times (certainly, Ihsahn from Emperor is a fascinating interviewee, especially when talking about his own beliefs leaning towards Satanism), it's also a downfall. The book really lacks a proper discussion of the music. 

Sure, bands like Venom, Bathory and Hellhammer did set the bar, but it's important to stress just how important and genuinely "out there" this music was when it first emerged. While grindcore and death metal saw their productions become more glossy and streamlined (and found increased press and MTV coverage because of it), black metal retained a certain primitivism, a truly outsider's worldview and a genuinely creepy atmosphere. It would have been nice for this to have been framed properly.

The other problem I have is that some of this book is more than a little silly. This ranges from the passage about Euronymous' video collection (read about it and try not to roll your eyes), to genuinely serious discussions about UFO's (surely a by-product of the era the book emerged in). Coupled with the esoteric beliefs and extra curricular activities of some of it's main movers, it's not hard to see why so many would consider the average metal fan to be "challenged." 

So, to conclude, it's a landmark book, but also a patchy one. 

Didrik Soderlind, Michael Moynihan, Lords Of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground Feral House. ISBN-13: 978-0922915941

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212


PaulJPMN said...

Ireland has a great literary tradition but theatre of the visual senses is much more an English and particularly London thing. Years ago watching Killing Joke at a now demolished London theatre in central London Jaz Coleman stalked the stage in harlequin headgear, shrouded in atmospheric lighting to a KJ cacophony summoned up from hell. In Dublin he would have been laughed at for daring to cast himself in such a show, but in London it made perfect sense in the tradition of the stage he stood on and was a memorable spectacle. The only band in Ireland with any sense of that were the Virgin Prunes. Being ‘authentic’ was the thing for Irish bands, the results being predictably dull. That was one symptom of life in a Catholic country where being like everyone else was a currency to get on in that society. Over the water in a post religion England there was the afterglow of a fading Church of England and it’s individuality and dissension could inspire and offer room to grow in that society. I think Phil Lynott had to remove himself (like Joyce) from Dublin for his talent to flower.

For Norwegian black metal the antagonism towards Christianity obviously plays a huge part. But did they take someone like Anton LaVey too seriously? There is that old cliche about Scandinavians having no sense of humour. On a more serious note were they continuing the tradition of Hells Angels/biker gangs murderous rivalries? And there must be a temptation to out do your peers in the evil deeds stakes to achieve your position in an elite of ‘evil’. I have only been to Scandinavia once in the early 1980s but the blandness, orderliness and cleanliness of the place made me long for dirty chaotic old London or Dublin. John Lydon supposedly wrote ‘No Birds Do Sing’ for PIL after the Sex Pistols Scandinavian tour in 77. Is it possible that the view Scandinavia has of itself as a progressive safe place is a conceit that might have allowed black metal extremes to go so far. In a way that could not have happened in England where the gap between society and it’s outsiders is not required to be so extreme by either party for effect?

Patti Smith described artist Robert Mapplethorpe as ‘a good boy trying very hard to be bad’. In New York as an artist he didn’t have to be too extreme to do that.

Christopher Owens said...

Jesus, the Virgin Prunes. What a terrible band. Although I liked the idea of them, the music fell all too short.

Interesting take on Scandinavia and it's potential influence on the scene. I would say yes to the idea that it's view of itself did contribute to the creation of black metal, but no to Anton LaVey. Sure, metal bands like Mercyful Fate and industrial/noise artists like Boyd Rice were flying the flag for the Church of Satan in the mid 80's, but the early Norwegian black metal scene would have looked down on LaVey for being a Hollywood byproduct. Vikernes even states that "...he was a f***ing Jew. I detest that Jew and all his teachings; they are created to break down European morals, ideals and ideas, just like Christianity was, much earlier by the Jew Paulus (alias Saul). Levey's Satanism is just another form of Judaism for non-Jews, just like Freemasonry, Christianity, Islam, et cetera." Make of that what you will.

Ultimately, for all the fantastic music and fascinating sociological observations, it's important to remember that they were really just edgy weird teenagers when the black metal scene first came up in the late 80s.