A Blaze in the Northern Sky (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Black Metal)

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“We are a Blaze in the Northern Sky
The next thousand years are OURS” -Darkthrone- A Blaze in the Northern Sky

The 6th of June 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the burning of Fantoft Stavkirke by members of the Norwegian Black Metal movement. So in anticipation of this, I intend to give my thoughts on this much maligned form of music, as well as my history with it. Bear in mind that this is not a review of the Darkthrone album that I have purposed my title from.

The arson sparked a string of church burnings in Norway, and was what initally gave the genre of Black Metal international attention, so I thought it fitting (if indeed in bad taste) to highlight this (for me upcoming) anniversary, and base my retrospective on my history with Black Metal music around it.

My introduction to Black Metal music came in 2005 or 2006 through the more watered down early 2000’s style, the usual suspects as it were (Dimmu Borgir and Satyricon). I can’t rightly remember what my initial reactions to the music were, but the ultimate effect was so that I sought out the early 1990’s Norwegian originators, such as Darkthrone, Mayhem, and of course, the infamous one-man band Burzum.

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While I can’t remember what my first reactions to Dimmu Borgir were, for instance, I can very clearly remember what my reaction to Burzum was. It was one of utter disgust and loathing (I made the mistake of listening to the track War as my introduction to Burzum). Still, something made me seek out more songs, and eventually I listened to one particular song, which not only changed the way I viewed Burzum, but changed my entire view on music as a whole. The song in question is Key to the Gate from the 1993 album Det som engang var. At first it sounded as silly as the previous songs I had heard by him, but then around the one minute mark, the character of the song changes completely. It went from being an abrasive and violent metal song, to being a melodic and very moody and atmospheric one flawlessly. More importantly perhaps, I felt something inside me awaken, something unexplainable. I had found something that truly represented me, as I were then at that time, as an insecure and troubled teenager. I had found something that expressed my emotions back to me; my anger and frustration and sorrow.

“When night falls
she cloaks the world
in impenetrable darkness.
A chill rises
from the soil
and contaminates the air
Suddenly…
life has new meaning” -Burzum-Burzum (Dunkelheit)

After that I was hooked completely. I bought every Black Metal record I could get my hands on, and downloaded everything I couldn’t get my hands on from the internet, and became obsessed by this music, and the surrounding controversy. I still remember vividly the day I found a second-hand copy of Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky in a local electronics store. When I played it on my stereo back home, I was astonished by the ferocity of it.

I imagine a huge factor in me falling so head over heels for this music was the fact that most of the prominent bands and musicians were Norwegian, and sung (I use that term very loosely) their lyrics in Norwegian. It gave the music an esoteric quality, and gave me a feeling of being one of very few who could understand and appreciate it. I was an insider to this music. It was clearly an elitist thing; I was one of the few who got it, who understood it.

Many bands (such as Enslaved, for instance) based their imagery and lyrics on Viking Age Scandinavia and Nordic mythology. It was probably something that made the music more relatable to me. As did the blasphemous, anti-Christian imagery. At the time I was an ardent, obnoxious atheist, influenced by Nietzsche.

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Of course, an equally significant factor was the criminal element. Back then it was still seen as a dangerous, corrupting force by the media and the general public. That view was in the process of changing, but the genre hadn’t quite reached an accepted position yet; as it does now more or less. It still held an aura of the forbidden.  Many of the musicians involved in this musical style were convicted criminals. There were church burnings, murders and suicides; endlessly exiting stuff for a teenaged boy. It was also, at this time, a music genre the Norwegian press tried its best to sweep under the rug, but failed to. Its worldwide appeal was undeniable.

I don’t condone church burnings, as anyone who has read my previous posts no doubt can imagine; nor do I necessarily agree with the viewpoints of most of the involved parties. However, I think that the arsons are an important part of  recent Norwegian history; and that Black Metal music is a worthwhile and unique part of our musical export. The music from that period (the early 1990’s) still hold an incredible amount of emotional value to me personally. It was something to identify with when I desperately needed it.

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For those interested in the genre and are curious as to where to start, I will give a short list of recommendations at the end of this post. Bear in mind, however, if you are new to this sort of music that it is extreme even by Heavy Metal standards and that landmark albums (such as those I am about to name) often contain low (or non-existant) production values. The music is a furious howl of pummeling, severely fast-paced drums, ice-cold guitars playing harsh and often mournful, tremolo-picked riffs, and screeching vocals. It is not for everyone. Nor does it try to be. Instead it seems to try to appeal to as few people as possible, at least at the genre’s inception. The bands focus heavily on creating a menacing, oppressive and haunting atmosphere that brings to mind an atomic winter. I think they succeeded well in this. Here follows a list of albums that I think are good for an introduction to the genre:

  • DarkthroneA Blaze in the Northern Sky
  • DarkthroneTransilvanian Hunger
  • EmperorIn the Nightside Eclipse
  • MayhemDe Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
  • UlverBergtatt
  • BurzumFilosofem

Note: these albums are ranked by release date, not by any preference on my part.

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