The myth of Norwegian black metal
The music and performance phenomenon that for many is synonymous with Norway is neither as extreme nor as pervasive as some foreign fans would like to believe
Kaycee Boe & Rachel Levy
High Plains Reader
For many people, black metal is as synonymous with Norway as snow and fjords. Imagery of young men with dark painted faces burning down churches and causing trouble in the gray Norwegian winters often comes to mind. The legacy of black metal draws fans from all over the world, who hope to learn more about the history and find out if the music they love still exists in Norway today.
Many are interested to find that black metal only existed in a small community throughout the 1990s and may not be as prominent today as they hoped.
Anders Odden, 44, has been around the black metal community since the genre was born. He was drawn into the black metal world when he was only 13. Living on a farm created an isolated universe for him that drove him to create.
“You basically don’t have any friends around, so you can turn to music or something else to get busy or get inspired,” Odden said. “That was my case and the case for many others actually.”
In 1988 Odden formed Cadaver, which he says was the first death metal band in Norway and first band to sign with a label in the UK. Now Odden plays guitar and bass in multiple metal bands, including influential and major label black metal band Satyricon. He has watched black metal grow and evolve from its inception.
The black metal community was small throughout the 1990s. According to Grete Joanne Neseblod, co-owner of Norway’s black metal music shop and museum Neseblod, most of the culture was centered around 15 to 20 key people. Bands such as Odden’s communicated by meeting in each other’s rehearsal rooms and trading tapes.
“I got like 10 letters a day from people everyday at the peak of it—magazines and tapes and demos and contacts around the world,” Odden said. “It was inspiring to be a part of a world movement that was very unique and that nobody knew about.”
As with many extreme music genres, black metal was never meant to blow up. It was born in Norway’s underground, and according to Odden, it wasn’t supposed to leave the underground.
“Back then, nobody cared really,” Odden said. “That’s the thing that people don’t understand; it didn’t get any attention in music magazines. At the time, most people were into grunge or more polished American stuff.”
It was anti-establishment attitudes and authenticity that drove the genre forward.
“These were just young people who were 16 to 17 years old who just wanted to do something really new,” Grete Joanne said. “They had these guts because in the beginning, people thought that it was weird and strange.”
The brutality that is often associated with black metal came later, when Varg Vikernes of fellow black metal band Burzum attracted media attention through what Odden refers to as publicity stunts such as the burning of churches. Odden believes that artists like Vikernes hurt the genre musically.
“People doing this were really looked upon as animals in society for a really long time,” he says.
While black metal may have been known for being filled with tales of arson and murder, that is no longer the case. According to Odden, the legacy of the genre is much more prominent than the scene ever was. This is a common perspective on black metal culture in Norway.
“I think the history of it draws people in,” Kenneth Neseblod, owner of Neseblod records, said. “The murder and all the mystique around it. They want to see how dark and evil it all is, but it was more back then than it is now. It is not so dark and evil anymore.”
Peter Beste, who has been studying black metal for years and published a book on the subject, notes that many artists no longer stand by the aspects of black metal that made it so brutal.
“It’s part of the sensationalistic story of it,” Beste said, “but it isn’t really the essence of it.”
Through exposure and developments in production, black metal has transitioned to a more mainstream genre.
“Black metal is more clean; it’s not so underground now,” Kenneth said. “But you have some of the same people who still play in the bands and are pretty dark.”
Fans and those who have followed black metal notice this as well.
“I think the best Norwegian bands are, like, Mayhem and Emperor,” says Sanvik, a young member of the black metal community.
As for Odden, he is currently touring internationally with Satyricon. However, while they may be touring at a more professional level, Odden notes that there is still an edge to their music. For them, their music has changed, but it still fits their definition of black metal.
“For us, it’s about the vibe and how we think it should be, not how others define it,” Odden said. “We are defining what black metal is to us, and we never care for other people’s definitions.”
As for the fans, most will agree that the black metal and metal communities are very tight knit.
“They like to wear the clothes and the patches to show that they are outside of society,” says Grete Joanne, “but also that they are a part of something.”
For young fans Emilie Sandal and Jone Hoftun, who sit on a hillside at Tons of Rock Festival clothed in band t-shirts and high tops, the metal community in Norway could be described as united and also, surprisingly, friendly.
From an onstage perspective, Odden says that black metal fans are generally quite mellow. “Metal fans never approach you like a crazy person,” Odden said. “If they recognize you from a band, they approach you very politely. They just want to talk to you about music.”
People still come from all over the world to Norway to see where black metal started even though the genre has moved more towards other countries. Black packers, as they are called, travel to Norway to visit many of the spots where black metal formed.
Up until 2012, Odden conducted a black metal tour during Inferno Festival, a black metal festival held during Easter each year. Black packers would take a bus to Neseblod Records, a record store once owned by Mayhem’s Euronymous, then to Holmekkon to see the church burnt down by Varg Vikernes.
“I think it’s strange for them to come here to realize it’s quite normal people doing this,” Odden said. “I don’t know what they think, that people live in cages or in caves or in castles, people have all kinds of weird expectations, so it says more about them than the reality.”
Kenneth also notes that some black packers may be disappointed to see that the people of Norway aren’t actually walking the streets in corpse paint.
People from all over the world heard about everything black metal bands did in the 1990s and believe that all black metal bands were alike. According to Odden, the point of the tours were to teach people about the background of black metal and what really went on during that time—how it was not all church burnings and satanism.
“They are really interested in that,” Odden said. “Somehow they were caught up in the myth of it so if you try to tell them how it really was, you can’t really get their heads around it, so I stopped doing it.”
While to outsiders, it may seem that black metal is still an integral part of Norwegian culture, the general consensus is that the genre lives mainly in its legacy.
“The people that are in the original bands are still making new music,” Odden said. “We’re just going to continue on our paths regardless of what’s going on.”
Kenneth Neseblod agrees. “A lot of the music was invented in Norway by black metal bands,” he said. “They were the first to start black metal, but there’s not so many people who are very black metal anymore.”
This article was originally published as “The Original: Norwegian Black Metal” in High Plains Reader and is reprinted with permission. You can read the original at hpr1.com/index.php/arts-entertainment/music/the-original-norwegian-black-metal.
This article also appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.