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Beautiful Brutality

Vice gives black metal the coffee-table treatment.




It's hardly unusual for musical subcultures to shun attention from the mainstream—the hardcore kids I rolled with in the 90s, for example, considered popularity outside the scene highly suspect. But nowhere is this aversion more intense than in the Norwegian black-metal scene.

Everything about black metal seems designed to scare off the maximum number of outsiders. The music is a dark gray blur of blindingly fast, insanely aggressive noise, free of hooks or choruses and often so stubbornly lo-fi it might as well have been tracked on a boom box—extra points for vocals that sound like they were sung by something angry, hungry, and inhuman. A lot of the musicians have a fondness for black leather armor forested with steel spikes, and many also wear corpsepaint, a style of makeup that makes them look like members of Kiss who've been exhumed from shallow graves. The genre is wedded to an extremely misanthropic worldview, and every so often somebody tacks on a little racism, fascism, or homophobia, sometimes for shock value and sometimes as an actual point of pride.

As a result, in the quarter century since the formation of the first proper black-metal band, Mayhem, the genre has produced only faint pings on mainstream culture's radar—except within Norway, where a few overzealous adherents earned the scene widespread notoriety by burning down medieval churches and committing a couple well-publicized murders.

Ironically, though, the same traits that work as popularity repellents also make black metal very attractive to certain people. Musical avant-gardists find it fascinating, especially the juxtaposition of brutal ugliness and Wagnerian ambition in the subgenre called symphonic black metal. Visual artists go for the illegibly ornate logos that are de rigueur for black-metal bands and the grainy photos of forbidding Norwegian landscapes that frequently show up on album covers. And lots of pop-culture junkies with a taste for irony love black metal because the sheer ridiculousness of a bunch of scowling Scandinavians putting on makeup and waving broadswords around is too much to pass up.

Of course, black metallers are aware of these dilettante fans and contemptuously refer to them as "false," a grave insult in a scene where authenticity and dedication count for more than actual talent. (This may be why a long-haired guy in black spit on me at a Watain show last year—I suspect he had issues with my all-white summer-casual wardrobe.) This obsession with orthodoxy makes it especially impressive that photographer Peter Beste had the audacity to title his new book True Norwegian Black Metal.

Beste has a passion for black metal, but he's hardly a corpsepaint-wearing diehard. Which is why it's so surprising that his book presents such a deep and insightful portrait of this guarded community. Since 2002 he's spent a total of seven months in Norway immersing himself in the scene, slowly gaining the trust of its prime movers—including members of Mayhem, Gorgoroth, and Emperor—and drawing them out of the shadows to be photographed.

Beste is a photographer first and foremost, and there's very little text in the book. Aside from an intro he wrote with his editor, Johan Kugelberg, another brief essay he did himself, and a genre primer by Metalion, founder of the fanzine Slayer, it includes only a black-metal timeline and a smattering of quotes from authors (Lovecraft, Camus) and musicians. The captions are all gathered at the back, which lets the photographs speak for themselves. In a phone interview Beste admitted that his main inspiration for the book was that he finds black metal "visually amazing," and his pictures are gorgeous.

Much of TNBM simply shows black-metal dudes doing what they do—playing shows, hanging out in the woods, drinking insane amounts of beer. Watching these guys (and as with most metal scenes, it's almost all guys) go about their day-to-day has the effect of coaxing out a touch of humanity from behind the corpsepaint. Normally a long-haired, goateed dude like Grutle of the band Enslaved would be fairly intimidating in his archaic-looking demon mask—especially photographed in the bleak black-and-white Beste favors—but the effect is severely undercut because he's throwing the horns with a plastic shopping bag from a gas station awkwardly slung around his wrist. The shots of black metallers hanging out in their bedrooms listening to records make them look less like murderous church burners and more like music geeks, albeit music geeks with a penchant for using severed sheep heads as stage props.

For the more dedicated, though, the artifice of black metal appears to have become part of their "real" personalities. Kvitrafn of Wardruna is shot standing on a narrow cobblestone street in a quaint neighborhood of Bergen, shirtless and defiant in his smeared corpsepaint while an older woman walks by giving him the evil eye. He looks like he'd stand around all day soaking up hatred from normals if he could.

A large part of TNBM is given over to landscapes, surprising in a book nominally about music until you consider the outsize influence that the geography and climate of Norway have had on the development of black metal. The bitter cold, the wild, barely populated countryside, the short days—and, in the far north, the weeks of uninterrupted winter darkness—all feed into the music's solipsism, harshness, and fascination with extremity and death. Album covers tend to feature the same rocky, wooded hills that Beste shows us—stark, primeval-looking environments that are also a major influence on the unlikely-sounding genre of ambient black metal, which combines ethereal washes of synthesizer with guttural shrieking.

Beste's landscapes radiate a sense of isolation, of civilization as a tiny island in a vast unforgiving wilderness—and if anything the shots taken in bedrooms, at concerts, and on busy sidewalks intensify that feeling. Isolation is a close friend to xenophobia (hello, Japan), and it's here that TNBM perhaps inadvertently provides a bit of insight into the iffiest parts of the black-metal philosophy. Church burnings and the like are an extreme manifestation of a belief you encounter pretty often in the scene: that the importation of Christianity and the integration of Norway into the modern multicultural world have weakened the Nordic people's connection to their ancient roots. And of course the Nordic people are white—there are few people of color in Scandinavia and none in Beste's book. I'm not saying black metal is a racist genre any more than I'm saying Norway is a racist country—I know better than to take shock reporting like Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind's Lords of Chaos at face value—but the scene's antinomian nature means it tolerates some pretty questionable views in its outliers. The ultranationalistic embrace of a pre-Christian pagan past by some black metallers has an uncomfortable amount of overlap with, well, the ultranationalistic embrace of a pre-Christian pagan past by the Nazis.

True Norwegian Black Metal is essentially an apolitical book. There aren't any photos of dudes flashing swastikas in it, and Beste says that's because he never saw anything like that during his time in Norway. (National socialist black metal, or NSBM, does exist, but it's almost exclusively an American phenomenon—I guess countrymen of Vidkun Quisling know to be discreet about such sentiments.) The book does address black metal's anti-Christian ethos, both explicitly in its introduction and implicitly in the pictures of burned churches, but the racist, homophobic, and fascist attitudes that exist in the scene never come up. A lot of people who listen to black metal have seen evidence of those attitudes, though, both in bands from Norway and in their descendants around the world—Darkthrone, two members of which are pictured in TNBM, has some arguably anti-Semitic lyrics—and like me they'll probably wish the book had been able to address them.

That is, we agree there's a lot to celebrate about black metal—the defiantly antimainstream stance, the mind-blowing visual aesthetic, and of course the music itself—but is it responsible to pay attention only to the positives? Can we love the art but not the artist? Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, the most notorious man in black metal, is in prison for arson and murder (he stabbed Euronymous of Mayhem to death), and he's written publicly that he has a lot of respect for the Nazi "blood-religion." I know African-Americans who are into the music he's made as Burzum, but does that let me off the hook for liking it too? If I steer a friend toward a politically responsible black-metal band like Xasthur or Wolves in the Throne Room and he ends up listening to NSBM, do I deserve a share of the blame?

I know I'm not the first to ask questions like this, and I doubt I'll get closer to a definitive answer than anybody else. I suppose I could take a point of view closer to Beste's, and just try to appreciate the paradox that the opposite of beauty can itself be beautiful.v

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