Black metal is perhaps the most bizarre, esoteric movement in modern music. The subgenre, a predominantly Scandinavian phenomenon, skyrocketed from the dingy basements of Norwegian black metal bands to worldwide notoriety on the back of a series of disturbing offenses in the early '90s. The music itself is abrasive and relentless with its iconography, lyrics, and harsh instrumentals.
Surely some of this must be hyperbole? In some cases, yes. But in fact, the annals of black metal are filled with creepy occurrences and bizarre behavior, such as musicians provoking distress with flying animal heads. It's a rare instance of reality aligning with the imagery and culture projected by an art form, which has perhaps helped black metal experience something of a resurgence in the 2010s. With bands like Deafheaven gaining accolades from hipster tastemakers like Pitchfork and a 2019 feature film based on the book Lords of Chaos starring Sky Ferreira and Rory Culkin (described as Trainspotting for millennials), the subgenre is having a moment.
Parents are understandably concerned about the social implications of the genre's hype. Scientists with Macquarie University's music lab set out to discover if such apprehensions were warranted by conducting an experiment to test whether black metal desensitizes listeners to violence. Their theory essentially states, "Death metal fans are nice people." By contrasting Pharrell Williams's "Happy" with Bloodbath's "Eaten," researchers found that "the dominant emotional response to [black metal] is joy and empowerment" and fans are not, in fact, desensitized to disaster. Bloodbath's frontman, Nick Holmes, described his band as the music equivalent of an '80s horror film. There are, however, exceptions to this rule.
Read on to learn about some of the most violent, infamous, and notorious crimes and figures in the history of black metal, and determine for yourself how deeply you want to delve into the dark forests of Northern Europe.
Mayhem is the most notorious group in the annals of black metal, and rightfully so. The subject of the film Lords of Chaos, the band's history is soaked in violence and extreme anti-social sentiment, an image the members of Mayhem cultivated for themselves in an effort to define what would eventually be known as True Norwegian Black Metal.
The wave of sordid violence involving Mayhem's members kicked off in 1991, when lead singer Dead (real name Per Ohlin) slit his wrists and shot himself in the head. He left a very short note: "Excuse all the blood."
Varg Vikernes, Mayhem bassist, sole member of the one-man band Burzum, and the most notorious man in black metal, was convicted of murder and burning three churches. In 1994, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Norway. He was released on parole in 2009 after serving 15 years.
The year before his conviction, a confrontation between Varg, also known as Count Grishnackh (because black metal names), and Mayhem guitarist Euronymous ended with Varg stabbing Euronymous 23 times; the wounds proved fatal, and Varg's motive remains unclear to this day.
In the 2005 Canadian documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, then-Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl gave a very candid and bizarre interview that has since become the stuff of legend. He was immediately investigated by Norwegian police after the film premiered, as he advocated for more church burnings:
Church burnings and all these things are, of course, things that I support 100 percent and it should have been done much more and will be done much more in the future. We have to remove every trace from what Christianity and the Semitic roots have to offer this world. Satanism is freedom for the individual to grow and to become Superman. Every man who is born to be king becomes king. Every man who is born to be a slave doesn't know Satan.
In 2004, Gorgoroth recorded a DVD at a show in Poland entitled Black Mass Krakow, and, in the process, broke all kinds of laws. As it turns out, staunchly Catholic Poland, birthplace of the then-pope, has laws against blasphemy (which has gotten Nergal, of Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth, into all kinds of trouble).
By including crucified nude models and countless Satanic icons in their show, Gorgoroth violated Poland's anti-blasphemy laws. The use of severed sheep's heads and about 20 gallons of sheep's blood also violated Polish animal rights laws. However, because the band was unaware of these laws, and the show's promoter neglected to mention them or stop the show, they were cleared of all charges.
You can watch the entire show on YouTube.