Sophie Kernachan gives us a gruesome look into the 90’s black metal scene of Norway, a subculture rich in the macabre.
When Lords of Chaos, a film detailing the antics of the Norwegian second-wave black metal scene, premiered earlier this year, it was met with many contentious opinions from metal fans everywhere. Some celebrated it for its borderline satirical portrayals of black metal artists and wider black metal culture, others admonished it for being a cartoonish depiction of real people, real events and real tragedies, mocking the music that came from a place of depraved passion. Amongst the latter was the band portrayed in the film, Mayhem, arguably the most popular band in the Norwegian black metal scene, and even the most popular black metal band internationally.
For all of Lords of Chaos’s hyperbolised depictions of elitist teenagers and Satanist rebellion, there is naturally a grain of truth to the events shown within the film. From the burning of Christian churches, to graphic suicides memorialised as album covers, to band members being stabbed 23 times in “self-defence”, needless to say there are many events that have made this scene as infamous as it is today.
Norwegian black metal is an interesting mutation of the metal genre, a more extreme, colder variation of the punk-influenced black metal scenes that began in the UK and Sweden with Venom and Bathory, eventually sweeping Europe to include Germany’s Sodom, Switzerland’s Celtic Frost, and Greece’s Rotting Christ. Mayhem themselves were heavily influenced by these bands, who they often covered in their earlier work. Certainly a different type of Mayhem to what they are remembered for nowadays.
Mayhem was certainly a band of strong personalities, for better or for worse. Per Ohlin (AKA Dead) was vocalist of Mayhem from 1988 until his suicide in 1991. He is often remembered today for his eccentric behaviour that granted Mayhem infamy in their early live shows. He made it his goal to become as physically and even psychologically similar to a corpse as possible. He would bury his stage clothes for days before digging them up the night of the show, emulating the look, feel, and smell of death. He would regularly self-harm during concerts, coating himself, band members and the audience in his own blood. He was severely depressed, and possibly suffered from Cotard delusion, a mental condition that causes one to believe they are dead. A living, sentient, but still putrefying corpse.
Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (AKA Euronymous), was a completely different type of personality. In the book Lords of Chaos, Euronymous was described as seeming “stern and serious, sometimes with pomposity verging on the theatrical”. Indeed, Euronymous’s entire persona seemed very much theatrical. Always clad in black from head to toe, sporting a long moustache and knee-high leather boots, he crafted a look to match the persona he claimed embodied what Mayhem was all about. In interviews he would claim to be against individualism, happiness, fun, peace and compassion. However, despite this, his bandmates Jørn Stubberud (AKA Necrobutcher) and Louis Cachet (AKA Varg Vikernes) claimed that this extreme image of evil that Euronymous put on was little more than an act. They stated that this was a projection of what he wanted his music to represent, bearing little resemblance to his introverted yet somewhat playful personality. The only characteristics the two personalities had in common was a great degree of charisma, charisma that grabbed the attention of young Norwegian musicians, who came to idolise the theatrical façade Euronymous had crafted. However, after a string of events including Ohlin’s suicide in 1991, this elaborate façade became more and more intense to the point of alienating his fellow bandmates.
Upon seeing Ohlin’s dead body, before calling the police Euronymous left the house to go to a shop and buy a disposable camera, in order to take photographs of the corpse. One of these photographs, featuring Dead, covered in his own brains and blood, knife, shotgun and slit wrists on full view, would become the infamous album cover of Mayhem’s bootleg live album, Dawn of the Black Hearts. It didn’t stop there however, as Euronymous took pieces of Dead’s shattered skull and had necklaces made out of them, to be given to musicians that he had deemed “worthy”. Rumours also arose that Euronymous had had a stew made of Dead’s brain, however Mayhem later denied this rumour. He quite shamelessly used Dead’s suicide to push forward the image of evil and darkness he always wanted Mayhem to be associated with, to the revulsion of others in the scene. He quickly made himself unpopular with his fellow bandmates who felt he was tastelessly capitalising on the tragic suicide of a man they had considered to be their friend.
During this internal conflict between the bands of the Norwegian black metal scene, the impact of the scene itself began to spread beyond the members themselves. One of the most famous instances of such were the various church arsons that occurred around Norway, by not only band members from the scene such as Burzum mastermind and temporary Mayhem bassist Varg Vikernes, but also younger black metal fans who idolised the theistic Satanic image of black metal perpetuated so heavily by Euronymous.
In 1993, animosity between Varg and Euronymous arose, partially due to Euronymous’s reaction to these church arsons that had occurred. Euronymous decided to close his popular record store Helvete as it began to draw the attention of police and mainstream media, which Varg reprimanded him for, believing that he should have used the involvement of law enforcement to take advantage of the publicity. This animosity climaxed to its peak on the night of 10 August 1993, when Varg arrived at Euronymous’s apartment. A confrontation occurred, and Euronymous was stabbed to death. Varg would go onto claim that the murder was in self-defence, claiming that Euronymous planned to attack him and eventually torture him to death while filming it. However, there has been much scepticism from many members of the black metal scene, including Mayhem’s own bassist Necrobutcher, as Euronymous was stabbed 23 times, two to the head, five to the neck, and 16 to the back.
A final infamous image associated with the Norwegian black metal scene is that of Varg Vikernes receiving his sentence for the murder of Euronymous in 1993. As the judge sentences him to 21 years in prison, a disinterested Varg turns to the camera filming him, looks directly into it, and smirks smugly.
Cannibalism, arson, murder. This is the true musical horror story.