The threshold at the edge of a subculture is often difficult to discern. The unaware and the well-versed can be sitting right next to each other, unbeknownst to the other’s knowledge, or lack thereof, until that threshold is breached. Every few years a percentage of the population learns about the violence in the Norwegian black metal scene of the 1990s, endlessly annoying those who’d already crossed that threshold. It’s a story that’s been told over and over but only incrementally ripples through the culture at large, like a rock blown to bits before it drops into a lake.
And why not tell it again? Once one gets past the tabloid terror, the music is as mesmerizing as it is menacing, the bands look as hilarious as they do horrendous, and the genre has a rich history that reaches back over 30 years.
No matter. Writer Dayal Patterson has done the impossible: His Black Metal: The Evolution of the Cult (Feral House, 2013) is a literal encyclopedia of the dark genre that is not only perfect for the clueless but also essential for the connoisseur. If you know about black metal’s tumultuous beginnings from Lords of Chaos (also from Feral House; 2003), then let Patterson fill in the blanks. At nearly 500 pages, this is the definitive source of information on all things black metal, from the roots (Venom, Celtic Frost, Bathory, Mercyful Fate) through each country’s heavy weights (Poland’s Behemoth and Graveland; Greece’s Rotting Christ; Sweden’s Watain, Dissection, and Marduk; and of course Norway’s Darkthrone, Emperor, Burzum, Gorgoroth, and four chapters on the mighty Mayhem) to post-black metal (Lifelover, Alcest, Wolves in the Throne Room). Patterson truly leaves no cross unturned.
Though it’s been thoroughly documented above and elsewhere, Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness (Black Dog, 2012) manages to bring something new to the literature on black metal. The oddities include a brief piece by Nicola Masciandaro on black metal theory, a brief oral history of American black metal, the ubiquitous Hunter Hunt-Hendrix on transcendentalism, an essay by Diamuid Hester on black metal in American writing, rare interviews with such people as Andee Connors of Aquarius Records and the tUMULt label (Weakling, Leviathan, etc.), John Hirst music manager of HMV retail stores, Adam Wright of experimental American label Crucial Blast, who’ve released some of my favorites over the past few years, including records from Gnaw Their Tongues and a harrowing three-disc release from Light. There are also essays on ‘zines (by no less than Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen of Slayer ‘zine), art (by Jerome Lefevre), those wacky, illegible logos (by Christophe Szpajdel), the look (by Nick Richardson), and the design (by Trine + Kim Design). The book also includes a selected yet extensive black metal discography. This one might be a bit much for the new or uninitiated, but it’s essential for the hardcore helvete enthusiast.
If you’re just looking for a coffee-table book full of big, scary pictures to frighten visitors to your couch, it gets no better than Peter Beste‘s True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice, 2008). This huge (11 x 14), hardback book is full of beautifully disturbing images. Peter Beste’s work here, and in his new book on Houston rap scene, is reminiscent of Glen E. Friedman‘s classic photos of the early American hardcore and hip-hop scenes. See Darkthrone’s Fenriz rocking out in his room playing records, waiting for the train, and riding the train; see Frost of Satyricon and 1349 posing in front of various churches; see Kvitrafn of Wardruna roaming Oslo, Norway (above); see Gorgoroth, 1349, and Ragnarok playing live, and the aftermath of many such shows; and see lots of cold-ass trees, mountains, and dead animals, among other such lovely horrors. It’s black, white, and red all over.
Just past all of the big pictures are a bunch of clippings from various publications, fliers, and letters chronicling the bloody rise of this scene. Editor Johan Kugelberg did an excellent job of editing together what could have been a pile of complete chaos. From the black-and-white pages of Metalion’s Slayer ‘zine to Kerrang‘s hyped coverage of Varg Vikernes’ trial, as well as a makeshift Mayhem photo album, it’s a nice little archive of artifacts from the very early days of what has become a global cult interest several times over.
So, if you’ve yet to venture into the darkness that is black metal or if you’re already wearing the paint, there are plenty of new guides to help you on your way.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.