Finding metal music in the villages of Kerala, India was not an easy task in the 90’s. A connection to larger cities or music magazines obtained from distant sources were required to have contact with this genre. I was introduced to extreme metal music when I was 13 years old while visiting my cousin in the big city of Mumbai, very far away from my village. I could not understand how music could be so “noisy”, heavy and textured, but something about this music was in harmony with me. I returned to the village with a metal CD compilation given to me by my cousin. Back in the village, I had to travel 110 kilometres to get to the nearest music shop in the city that had an international music section. Very often they did not have any extreme-metal genre, and had to pick what they had to offer, not leaving much room for choice. Accessing music via internet was an absurd process with a 64 kbps dial-up modem. However, lyrics were looked up using the available internet sources and were handwritten in a book dedicated to metal lyrics. Travelling a hundred kilometres every three months to the city to buy metal music was not accepted by parents and had to be done with meticulous planning. The whole process was so real and was done with a lot of commitment in search of wanting to know more about this music and its culture.
Four years later, at the age of 17, I moved to Bangalore, a bigger city in India, to pursue higher education. Bangalore was considered the metal capital of India and had platforms for everything from mellow to extreme underground music. Rather quickly, I absorbed everything they had to offer, bought myself an electric guitar, and joined a band. I remember listening to Norwegian black metal back in 2006, wondering why they sounded and looked so different from other forms of metal that I knew until then. They were fast, aggressive, and had a notoriously violent history to go with the music. My young mind was perplexed, and was taken by curiosity. I dug deeper into other black metal bands such as Darkthrone, Burzum, Satyricon, etc., and they all seemed to have shared the utter seriousness of the genre that I initially felt. They were arguably strangers within the metal community. My fascination grew as I learned more about the mysteries surrounding black metal. The journey began in 2006, after I attended a concert given by the Norwegian black metal band Satyricon in Bangalore.
My initial search began with trying to understand what makes such an extreme subculture emerge from a particular country, in this case, Norway. The only things I knew about Norway up until then were ‘The Land of the Midnight Sun’ and ‘The Norwegian Woods’. In my search, I was awestruck by the pristine landscape that surrounds Norway with mountains, fjords, and woods. My curiosity was now at its peak. In 2016, I moved to Norway to be in this landscape and to experience the nature and the mysterious black metal community. Even though the genre has left many scars in the past, it is accepted as a genuine art form in Norway, even at the state level, even though it has left many scars in the past. It was no longer looked at as an estranged form of subculture, which may have been the case in the 90’s. Black metal seems to have almost melted into the culture so far that one does not even notice it anymore.
Enter Black Metal
This process led me to look at black metal not just from a musical perspective but also from a sub-cultural one. The personas that emerged from black metal seemed extravagant and transgressive in nature. Black metal has been at the centre of controversies and gruesome events during the formation of the genre. Popular media brought the genre into the limelight after a series of murders and church arsons that occurred in Norway during the early 1990s. Surprisingly, the artists from the underground Black Metal scene who have committed this crime seem to have been fuelled by a source of inspiration least expected by the public. The identities that this group possessed were either satanic or of the pagan and heathen belief system. Their songs were imbued with the concepts and gods of Nordic mythology. Some bands went on to borrow artwork from Norwegian folk painters such as Kittelsen, who depicted the famous “SvarteDaun”(Black Death) series. Many went on to record tracks and publish them without the help of modern amenities, and they refused to play live. Anonymity and pseudonyms became more apparent in the scene. It was a community rooted within an insider’s circle. Even within this circle, they did not consider each other to be friends, but rather remained partners. While this is not strictly true in its essence because of the evidence of friendship and loyalty in the black metal circle. However, it does reflect a tendency towards misanthropic introspection. The seriousness and hostility that the black metal community held was unmatched by the other metal-genres. Although black metal has its roots in heavy metal, it has expanded beyond the confines of metal culture to explore religion and the occult. Rejection of modernism and contemporary culture were the naval point of this movement. They escaped into the romantic vision of mountains and woods, the forgotten legends and darkness of the Nordic winter.
The Black metallers seem to gate keep the community using shock tactics and disassociation from the so-called ‘mundanity of modern society’. Black metal is now a global phenomenon and has taken up local characteristics wherever they have rooted themselves. However, their essential nature remains intact at the bottom. They are irrational and primal in their approach to modernity and are drenched in the conflict between radical individualisation and group identity that they try to pull simultaneously. They hold an intertwined concept of an idealised path and a romantic view of nature. By establishing the most transgressive and absurd identities existing in contemporary culture, black metal keeps its foot on the ground in search of meaning and empowerment.
Due to these characteristics of the black metal community, it has become a topic of interest for both academics and visual artists around the world. There has been a steady effort to bring black metal aesthetics to the public in the form of visual arts and literature. It has slowly become an evolving global phenomenon. Numerous sub-genres branched out of the core, showing acceptance of the “outside genres”. A very peculiar style of academic literature was also formed in 2008 called Black Metal Theory.
Black metal is considered to be one of the most extreme and violent metal subcultures that exists. Every act of violence committed in society has an undercurrent that stems from either personal life situations or larger societal issues. Black metal’s fierce personality undoubtedly grew from the dissatisfaction of the modern world. From the perspective of the black metal community, the values and belief systems that lay the foundation for modern society are both mundane and devoid of meaning. Their reverence and fascination for the mediaeval is unmatched by any metal genre that exists. Lyrically and visually, the majority of black metal floats on the spectrum of mythology, nature, religion, and negation of the modern. They represent what they exalt by emphasising and ultimately immersing themselves in the worst characteristics of the opposite. Black metalers seek transcendence by creating transgressive and extravagant identities to find meaning in the mundanity of the contemporary society that they find themselves in. What makes the identity of this group take on such animalistic forms of expression? Why do scholars and visual artists find it of extreme importance to dwell on the thematics and aesthetics of black metal since its inception?