Lords of Chaos
By Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind
One topic of which I have written somewhat extensively (well, relative to the number of write-ups I have at this date) is the wonderful genre of musical carnage known as black metal. Though it has been gaining popularity in recent years, most black metal elitists (such as myself, admittedly) don't see this as a particularly positive development. However, this isn't the "ohhhhhh, it's popular, so it can't be good!" way of whining coming into play here. What gets me -- and many others -- is the fact that black metal's rising star is based almost entirely on a total misunderstanding of the deeper concepts at work. Although this may sound a little corny, I assure you it's not. Have you ever met someone who likes Fight Club because of its gratuitous violence and general misanthropy rather than its plot or social commentary? I know you have. Do you frustratingly think something to the effect of "gah, no! Why do these ignorant plebs have to like this movie!?" Well, now you know how I feel in reference to black metal. Many people get into it because they like the pseudo-Satanic imagery associated with it or, as John Chedsey claims, it's "just fun music." These weekend warriors therefore lend support to the lowest common demoniator of black metal and lower-profile bands with better music are neglected in favor of ones that loudly profess "shocking" beliefs. Of course, I'm not trying to suggest there's a causal connection between being obnoxiously provocative and sucking, but I question the validity of any self-proclaimed "artist" who has to use controversy as a place-holder for talent. This is where Lords of Chaos comes in.
Lords of Chaos is a book that the black metal "community" is not just a little divided over. On the one hand, some people view it as a decent chronicle of the rise of extreme metal around the world, with a particular emphasis on the Norwegian scene. On the other hand, just as many if not more people see it as sensationalistic propaganda that has done nothing more than increase the ranks of the middle schoolers seeking a way to offend their parents and neighbors with progressively more extreme music and beliefs. And still to others, it's a factually inaccurate piece of historical fiction at best and biased journalistic fraud at worst. Controversial by default, this book is almost guaranteed to remain a potent lightning rod in the metal scene for years to come.
Lords of Chaos is a book that seeks to accomplish many objectives in a short space of time, and actually succeeds on most fronts. The main subject of this book is the controversy surrounding Burzum-frontman Varg Vikernes, especially as it relates to his murder of Mayhem guitarist and song-writer Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. Before jumping headlong into this, however, Moynihan wisely chooses to give a brief history of black metal's emergence as a formidable subgenre of metal from some schlocky flash in the pan. (Of course, some people contend it still is a flash in the pan, just a bigger one than before.) This, I feel, is where Lords of Chaos is at its most competent. We're shown how black metal evolved from the darker side of late-60s American stoner rock with bands like Coven, towards the not-so-missing link common to all metal known as Black Sabbath, travelling then to the snarling aesthetic of Motörhead, and finally seeing its first culmination in the first wave of black metal with bands like Venom and Mercyful Fate. From there, we're shown the geneaology of second wave black metal with the primitive death-thrash typified by Slayer and refined by the inimitable Bathory.* At this point, we are introduced to the hellish Norwegians known as Mayhem. By combining the altogether evil aesthetic of Venom with their own twisted lust for speed and brutality, Mayhem was able to revolutionize the Norwegian -- and later the world's -- black metal scene. After a series of line-up changes involving suicide, prison, and then ultimately murder, the Norwegian scene (and the remnants of Mayhem in particular) was catapulted to the front of not just the independent metal press, but to that of the overall international media as well. Beyond Mayhem and Burzum, we also learn about the actions and motivations of Emperor guitarist/Burzum session bassist Thomas "Samoth" Haugen, Emperor/Thorns drummer Bård "Faust" Eithun, Dissection vocalist/guitarist/song-writer Jon Nödtveidt, Absurd vocalist/bassist Hendrik Möbus, and a host of other extreme metal luminaries through exciting adventures such as church arson, random murder, more random murder, and some less-random-but-still-not-really-intelligent murder (respectively). Though these sordid details are obviously the book's big selling points, we are by no means finished with its content.
As I mentioned earlier, much of the book is centered around Varg Vikernes and as such contains numerous interviews with him. In these interviews, Vikernes comes off sounding quite articulate, especially when one considers that the interviews were conducted in English -- his second language. In these rather revealing interviews, he discusses his opinions on race, religion, culture, nature, the role of women in politics, music, and any other subject that may wander into his mind. Unfortunately, he comes off as somewhat inconsistent and says things that simply are not true. For example, he attempts to downplay his friendship with Aarseth -- whom he murdered -- by claiming he never liked him at all. It's a known and established fact, however, that the two men used to hang out a lot together, and that Burzum was signed to Aarseth's label (Deathlike Silence Productions), and that Vikernes played session bass for Mayhem and wore Mayhem shirts, and that he even referred to Aarseth as a "musical genius" in one magazine interview. I don't think I would do that for someone I despised.
Some attention is also given to the American band Deicide and their rather...interesting...frontman, Glenn Benton. Similar brief synopses can be found for the scenes in Britain, Germany, Poland, Russia, and other countries. I've been informed that later editions of this book include an appendix detailing the Finnish scene, but since I have the first edition, I can't comment on the quality of this new section. Chapters are also dedicated to the relationship(s) between black metal, Satanism, Asatru, Odinism, (anti-)Christianity, Nazism, and so forth. Included in these sections are interviews with members of bands like Emperor, Darkthrone, Enslaved, as well as discussions with significant figures in the scene (for example, Metallion of the once-prominent Scandinavian extreme metal rag known simply as Slayer Zine). Concluding the book is a series of relevant newspaper and magazine articles written "back in the day," including one somewhat hilarious interview with Varg Vikernes where he is referred to as "the Devil Worshipper" and in which he proclaims "our intention is to spread fear and devilry."
Well, where to start? Though I consider myself knowledgeable about metal in general, I have to admit there were some things in this book that were quite new to me. I had greatly underestimated the influence of psychedelic stoner rock on the genesis of heavy metal, and it was particularly interesting to read about the band Coven, of whom I had never heard before picking up the book. There were also bits of minutiae that would be of no interest to most people (the fact that Vikernes gave Per "Dead" Ohlin the ammunition with which he ultimately shot himself) as well as some even broader topics, such as the chapter dedicated to the connection(s) between Germanic/Norse mythology and the ideological formation of the black metal aesthetic and more specifically its influence on Varg Vikernes.
On the other hand, there were a lot of the things in the book that were not new to me, and at times I felt almost bored since it was more or less a review of everything I already knew. Going along this same line, there were things in the book that I knew to be factually incorrect which were apparently accepted without question by the authors. For example, there's the infamous gaffe in which in the identity of Quorthon from Bathory is revealed as being Pugh Røgefeldt. This may not mean anything to most people outside of Sweden, but it's a joke that's been going around for years now that everyone else seems to miss. Pugh Røgefeldt is the name of a relatively successful prog rock musician from that country, and it causes no small amount of hilarity over there. (Of course, to be fair, a German magazine claimed Quorthon's name was Runka Snorkråka, which translates to something like "masturbating booger," so Moynihan and Søderlind don't have the distinction of making the biggest fuck-up regarding that man's name.) Likewise, Moynihan makes some really far-fetched logical stretches to support his claims of the prevalence of Nazism in black metal. Though the assertion is well-founded, he picks some really poor evidence to show it. For example, in the section of the book dealing with former Eastern Bloc countries, one Russian band he specifically mentions is Korrozia Metalla. While it's true that Korrozia Metalla has some rather fascistic songs and a worldview to match, the band is categorically not black metal. Korrozia Metalla is sort of like a happier version of Slayer, if you can possibly conceive of such a thing. There are any number of black metal bands in Russia (Temnozor', Rossomahaar, etc.) that Moynihan could have used to prove his point, but for some reason, he simply chose to go with that which was easiest to see. It's like someone writing about the anti-commercialism of punk and using Nirvana as an example.
There are also other minor mistakes that make me cringe. For example, Moynihan repeats the claim that the band VON is an acronym for "Victory Orgasm Nazi," which Vikernes made a decade ago. The only problem is that he never actually said that. What he was trying to do was spell it out for the person interviewing him at the time, as it was done over the telephone with a rather poor connection. The interviewer apparently thought he was saying "Bond," so Vikernes spelled it out in the "d as in 'dog'" method. (For the record, "VON" doesn't even stand for anything.) These various errors aren't enough to kill the book, but if you don't know much about the subject at hand, you're likely to become confused or misled by the mistakes here. How is the uninformed reader to know what's real and what's not when the only source they have at hand is this book that's littered with errors? With that said, I recommend this book with a word of caution: it's a good primer for those who are unfamiliar with black metal and are curious to learn more about it (because it really is an interesting subject) but as with most things in life, don't believe everything you read. If a statement seems odd or there is little or no evidence to support it, do yourself a favor and look it up. Your intuition about bullshit may be stronger than you know.
* This is sort of misleading; Bathory is actually one of the most imitated bands ever, but nobody has ever done it particularly effectively.