For many, black metal is like the corpsepaint worn by its creators: one-note, monochromatic. Once you've heard a few bands with chainsaw guitars and shrieked vocals who wear their own weight in spiked leather, you've heard them all. For British metal journalist Dayal Patterson, however, black metal is a bottomless pit of enlightenment.
While many readers might recognize his first book on the genre, the epic tome Black Metal: Evolution Of The Cult, many might not realize that Patterson has continued his series on black metal, writing three more books on the subject. His fourth and latest, Black Metal: Into The Abyss, takes its cues from classic Nineties genre zines like Slayer Mag and S.O.D., emulating one-on-one interview narrative to provide an oral history of some of black metal's lesser known bands and the fascinating—and sometimes shocking—characters behind them.
Below is an interview with Patterson, followed by an excerpt from Into The Abyss regarding the controversial Estonian band Loits. The views expressed here are those of the author and musicians in question, and do not reflect the opinions of this journalist or the Noisey staff.
Noisey: Was there a band that particularly surprised or impressed you when you interviewed them for Into The Abyss?
Dayal Patterson: I think every band I interview, I walk away with a deeper appreciation for them than I had before. That's something I feel about black metal that I don't feel about all kinds of metal—the artists involved always have very strong vision beyond simply the music. There's always a deeper meaning to things. Why I've continued to write these books is that all the people I've talked to have had some greater ambition than making songs. It's not just about banging your heads.
For this book, the Forgotten Woods interview meant a lot to me, because it's probably the last interview they'll ever do. They've only done two or three, ever. Mystifier meant a lot to me because it took so long to make happen—I think I started talking to them in 2009. And even 1349. 1349 are obviously the biggest band in the new book, and they've done a lot of interviews in their time, but I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of that interview.
1349 do hold a special place in the book. What did you get from them? What is 1349's vision?
Well, I'd interviewed Ravn before, so he wasn't a stranger to me. He's someone who's very serious. I think they're quite interesting because they are very commercially successful—they're one of the bigger bands in the scene—but they formed as a reaction to what they perceived as the commercialization of black metal at the end of the Nineties. Their aim was to resurrect the spirit of the early Nineties. So there's a kind of irony to a band that exists only to create uncompromising black metal becoming one of the more successful bands in the genre. A lot of bands don't analyze their music while they're making it—it's more an instinctual thing—whereas 1349 are quite self-aware when it comes to the music itself. I don't think artists always think about their art while making it. I don't think you could write a book like this about deathcore.
It seems like the go-to place for these bands is "old-school", but that plenty of the bands actually feel as though that implies they aren't doing anything new.
Black metal is really defined by this meeting of two different impulses, one to be innovative and experimental, the other to be conservative, traditional, and to pay homage to a specific style. And I think that keeps black metal moving but also consistent, because you have bands taking one idea or representation of the genre and either resurrecting it or doing a twist on it. And you have everything in between, like One Tail One Head, who are inspired by very traditional bands. But then their members are also in Vemod, who are pushing older techniques in new directions, spiritually.
It seems like black metal as a genre draws people with controversial and right-wing politics. We rarely hear about 'NSDM', but 'NSBM' is a term known across metal. Why do you think that is, as an author who's written extensively about black metal?
It's something I've thought about before, and the question I still ask myself is, Is black metal attracting more people with "far-right" political views, or is it that black metal encourages people to be totally honest, and there are no taboos? Because there are a lot of death metal bands, particularly in the states, who have, on a personal level, racist or conservative views. In black metal, you can say there's a higher-than-average percentage of those views, but I think maybe it's that people in black metal express controversial views more than people in other genres of music, generally.
We don't find people in pop bands expressing their political beliefs a lot, because it can damage their market, and it can damage their sales. Well, black metal is anti-sales. It's anti-market. So fans almost go against that. You can contrast with the attitude in other genres, like hip hop. In the first Wu-Tang album, they talk about making a business out of it, but you can't talk about making a business out of black metal. That would be frowned upon. So economically speaking, black metal has 'left wing' attitudes too if you want to look at it in those terms. Black metal attracts and accepts extremity. I've met so many people with so many political views in the black metal community, from left to right, that it's too simple to say that black metal is more racist or more right-wing than other metal or music genres. If you have an extreme opinion, you won't be censored the way you will in other rock music.
Loits from Estonia are one of the controversial bands in your book, notably because they wear German SS uniforms. But their explanation of why they do that reads as very well thought-out and introspective, in a way that some black metal bands aren't.
With Nationalism, it's really on a band-to-band point of view. But you can say that about everything—misanthropy, Satanism, basically anything. That's why it's fundamentally an apolitical movement. There were attempts by the far right to try and unite black metal people alongside the skinhead movement. Resistance Records is one example of that. But it doesn't work, because even the most racist of black metal bands has no interest in working with the next very racist black metal band. In the second book, Cult Never Dies Vol. 1, Einar, formerly of Gorgoroth and now in Wardruna, summed it up well: black metal is not a herd of sheep that can be steered in one direction. It's a tribe of goats, who all go off in their own direction.
_The following is an excerpt from the interview with Loits in _Black Metal: Into The Abyss.
As you mentioned, the album is defined by a strong theme, namely an exploration of the period in which Estonian soldiers fought alongside the Germans during the Second World War. As you discuss within the album itself, this was a strange and complicated situation, with much animosity existing between the two countries even during the alliance. Can you explain a bit more about this curious episode of history?
Estonia gained its independence in the turmoil of the First World War in 1918. First it was occupied by the Germans, then Soviet Russia attacked and triggered what became our Independence War, during which, with the help of allies (mainly England and Finland) Estonians kicked out both Germans and Russians and people could start building their own state. Unfortunately, this didn't last long. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Europe into their spheres of influences. Estonia tried to avoid war and allowed Soviet military bases on its soil, which were then used by Russia to occupy the territory. Mobilization into the Red Army and massive deportations followed. Both of these meant a trip to the death camps, where most of the people lost their lives. Those who could, escaped into forests and organized local resistance. As Germans advanced to the Estonian border in 1941, half the territory of Estonia was already free of Russians. A lot of the local resistance, the Forest Brethren, saw a chance for revenge and joined the German Army. Like the famous commander Alfons Rebane – my grandfather's half-brother Lembit Lehtmets fought under his lead in the Wehrmacht and later in the Estonian Legion.
It was a question of choosing the lesser of two evils. Initially the Germans were perceived by most Estonians as liberators from the USSR and its repressions, having arrived only a week after the first mass deportations from the Baltics. Those who didn't want to wear German uniform joined the Finnish Army instead. Although hopes were raised for the restoration of the country's independence, it was soon realized that they were but another occupying power. Estonian men in Wehrmacht did not like the way Germany forced them to fight in Russia and Ukraine. In January 1944, the front was pushed back by the Soviet Army almost all the way to the former Estonian border and the newly formed government President Jüri Uluots delivered a radio address imploring all able-bodied men to report for German military service (before this, Uluots had opposed Estonian mobilization). The call drew support from all across the country: 38,000 draftees appeared at registration centers. The most significant event was the Battle of Tannenberg Line: Estonians and German army volunteers (22,250 men) held back the Russian army (136,830 men) and thanks to those battles Finland had the opportunity to step out of war and tens of thousand of Estonians had an opportunity to escape from the Red Terror.
The reds were kicked out of Estonia. Soon several thousand Estonians who had joined the Finnish army came back across the Gulf of Finland to join the newly formed Territorial Defence Force, assigned to defend Estonia against the Soviet advance. It was hoped that by engaging in such a war, Estonia would be able to attract Western support for the cause of Estonia's independence from the USSR and thus ultimately succeed in achieving independence. As the Germans retreated in September 1944, Uluots appointed a new government, headed by Otto Tief. On 20 September, the Estonian national government was proclaimed. Estonian forces seized the government buildings in Toompea and ordered the German forces to leave. But then reds attacked from the south and occupied Estonia again – this time for half a century. Taking into account these facts, these brave men, Estonians who wore German uniforms, were not condemned as war criminals, even at the Nuremberg trials. That was clearly a fight for a free country!
What was the situation like for Estonia after the war ended and the country fell under Russian rule?
The Red Terror filled the land in all sorts of hideous forms. That is one of the topics I would like to touch on the future album. The whole society was a target for repressions. Once again people got deported in cattle carriages to Siberia. Once again political murder, torture and incarceration. Soviets wanted to eradicate all traces of a functioning civil society. Some people joined guerrilla resistance, the 'Forest Brothers' but their fight was futile. It was only after a few decades that the Red Terror started to show signs of weariness. Stalin's death marked a significant change. Brainwashing lasted until the final moments of the USSR, but the 60s were already a more lenient period. As I mentioned before, that's the period when small windows started to open in the Iron Curtain and in the end the same curtain was in shreds. And Estonia was really like the Western world for the Russians; as discussed, despite the efforts of the Russian authorities we had an opportunity to listen to Western radio stations and look at Finnish TV. It all seemed unreal, all this Western world, but we had an opportunity to be a part of it. No other CCCP countries had that opportunity.
It must be said that the photos that adorn the sleeve of Vere Kutse Kohustab are really remarkable, being very authentic depictions of the band members as Estonian soldiers (and a nurse) from World War Two, both on the battlefield but also resting and even enjoying a smoke. At what point did you decide that you were going to make such bold steps with the aesthetics of the album?
If you look at our seven-inch EP trilogy back covers, you already see us in kind of paramilitary uniforms. Our stage wear with Estonian Legion symbolic stitched on. So to use German uniform replicas with Estonian Legion symbols – quite the same that our grandfathers wore in WWII – was quite an organic development. Of course we were not naive. We clearly acknowledged what that kind of move might bring to us. Those themes were still very touchy even here in Estonia back then. But you cannot tell the whole story without digging as deep into it as possible. All this German uniform stuff was still very untold and fragile back then. For us (Estonians) this is kind of second freedom war but it's very hard to understand in The West because the German uniform has kind of an aura noir, as you know yourself.
Of course. And perhaps predictably (and not entirely unfairly) some people were confused by the fact you were dressing up in these disreputable uniforms and presumed you were celebrating National Socialist ideologies. Did you expect this and did it cause any problems? In general, did people get what you were doing or was there confusion abroad and at home?
Yes, we clearly foresee most reactions to what followed back then. Maybe that fact even fuelled our actions. That story had to be told. It still was a fragile theme even here in Estonia. But at the same time the first 'statue war' happened: a statue for soldiers who fought against the Red Terror in German uniform was opened in Lihula and 13 days later the government started to remove it during the night. Local people came out to defend it and things went viral. The news went viral and it was frontpage news in every magazine/newspaper—I think thanks to that night many things changed in Estonian's minds. We still had tons to explain here and we have to explain it in every interview we make for press abroad, even now. And it is fine for us. If they will understand us then we have reached the goal. And most people understand because we use clear historical facts and left the propaganda and politics for others. When we gave an interview for one Russian webzine things went berserk. I must thank that bold guy who made that interview with us and defended Loits on that page, but he had to cut that interview down soon and we got tons of hate mail. Also with death treats, and 'we know where you live' messages. Even here, Estonians and Russians have totally different viewpoints about what happened back then. Local Russians are still heavily under strong Russian propaganda even nowadays."
And then we were invited to play in Germany. Of course the gig was cancelled and the German police wanted to speak to the organizer about possible right wing activities. Even German TV made a short cut about this event. The organizer nearly lost his job back then. Internet is still full of Antifa articles about those Magdeburg events. When we played a biker's event in Lithuania years ago, Antifa torched the club. Loits video for 'Aeg ärgata' was on a TV show where known people give points and comment about music videos. A guy who gave us positive points and said that this was the right thing was almost beaten up on the streets of Tallinn. So it really mattered what we were into. It is the worst thing when you work hard for an album and then nothing happens when it is out – if you talk and fight for the right things, you always get enemies.
Does it bother you that even today some people might think that you are a racist band or sympathetic to the ideology of National Socialism because they haven't looked into this complicated matter?
It bothers me less with each passing day. My mind is set and all these years have given me quite a thick skin. I don't strive to hinder people who want to see an enemy in everything they don't understand – haters will hate. You cannot let people like that affect you. And in a way they are helping us to spread the world, giving us more and more chances to tell our story. Maybe I should be grateful for their stupidity?
But to clarify and avoid misunderstandings as to your meaning, can you explain what being a nationalist means to you exactly, not least as an Estonian, and how that would differ from those with self-described nationalist/National Socialist sympathies, for whom such terms are linked with race issues and so on?
We all should spend some more time asking ourselves what is it that makes us who we are. Nation has a big role to play in our personal development, even more so if you belong to a tiny ethnos. A self-conscious person who is aware and respectful of his culture is confident and therefore able to accept and respect other cultures and nationalities around him. The deeper you dig into different cultural layers the more you understand how little all the racial topics and daily politics (including National Socialism) matter. Today's politics seem to work against ethnic culture. But this doesn't mean that National Socialism could be some kind of path to salvation.
But let's take a look at the more interesting topic—what in my opinion makes an Estonian what he is. First of all, we are deeply rooted in where we live and our memory spans a long period of time. We have stayed on these lands for ages. One could probably say that Estonian nature; language and culture originate from the same era. Therefore this very place has influenced our ethnogenesis the most. Our soul has two homes – the forest and the sea. At the outskirts of the forest and on the stony beaches we have stood between two different worlds. The seas and farming brought us everything that is new and innovative. But behind us has always been the peripheral forest, safekeeper of old traditions. Today we are living in the Western world, all the while retaining the animalistic senses of the forest people. Senses of the inner hunter-gatherer. This has given us the unique chance to be the original inhabitants of the land we live on, preserving our culture and traditions in our own country.
"Before the camps I regarded the existence of nationality as something that shouldn't be noticed – nationality did not really exist, only humanity. But in the camps, one learns: if you belong to a successful nation, you are protected and you survive. If you are part of universal humanity, too bad for you." - Alexander Solzhenitsyn