The most Norwegian thing ever is black metal. Just hearing someone say "Norway" conjures up the image of a man-troll screaming in a dark cave and the ear-bleeding sound of double-kick drumming at hyper-speed. Which is hardly surprising, given that black metal is Norway's largest musical export.
When I hear "Norway" I think of bands like Mayhem, Burzum, and Darkthrone; of the 1993 murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous by Burzum's Varg Vikernes; and of the series of church burnings in which some of the bands were caught up. It's been over 20 years since all that happened, and now black metal is more mainstream than ever.
That enduring association – between Norway and black metal – is what interested Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen, a Norwegian himself. For his new series "Singing Norwegian Singers", commissioned by Leica, Bendiksen rounded up a bunch of local black metal singers and photographed them screaming directly into his lens. The shots are uncomfortably close: nostrils flare; saliva glistens on their tongues, everything captured in the cold glow of the camera flash.
I gave Bendiksen a call to learn more about his tribute to Norway's brutal music, whether or not Satanism still exists within it, the lack of women in the scene and why it wasn't intended as a who's-who of black metal.
VICE: Hi Jonas. What drew you to the subject of Norwegian black metal singers?
Jonas Bendiksen: I've always been fascinated by how big Norwegian extreme metal is around the world. I've traveled to villages all over, from Bangladesh to Venezuela, and I meet people who are like, "Oh, Norway, oh yeah!" And then they'd list all these guys and they'd know all the personal histories of these people. It might be the only thing they know about Norway. And it's just really, really big. Here in Norway they call black metal Norway's biggest cultural export. Just in terms of pure numbers of how much is sold and distributed around the world, it's truly massive. It's not really a fringe thing; in a way, it's bigger outside of Norway, and in the strangest places.
Do you see black metal on TV in Norway? Is it always in the public eye?
It wanes, on and off. The thing is, back in the 90s, when black metal first came on the radar, it was a really sort of a shocking thing. Some of these early bands, like Mayhem, they were kind of the most shocking thing you could imagine: one of the guys committed suicide, one of the guys killed the other band member, one got arrested for that murder, and burning all the churches – all that stuff.
So it's kind of been softened since then?
In a way it's become mainstream. It's got huge commercially – big labels. And there are many people who think that's not a good thing, in the sense that it's watered down, the whole philosophy of it. Anyway, just because it's so widespread I wanted to do something that engaged with that. And many of the guys I photographed, they're not all necessarily traditional, pure black metal; there's lots of sub-categories. Some purists say: "There's only this way that matters and the other way is fake." So black metal, death metal, thrash metal – basically I just wanted to photograph Norwegian brutal music in a brutal way.
Is this project a sort of tribute to the bands?
Maybe it is, yeah – a tribute to that energy of this way of making music. There is something about this really hard Norwegian music that strikes a chord all around the world, and I wanted to somehow photograph it.
Mayhem and Burzum are probably some of the better known bands. But where do these younger guys fit into the story of Norwegian black metal?
Some of them are from that old era, but yeah, a lot of the younger generation too. In a way, what people abroad associate with Norwegian black metal would be the early guys, like Varg Vikernes and those guys who did the whole satanic thing and burnt churches. But in reality, most of these guys doing the stuff today – even those from that era now – a lot of them are fathers and are going hiking on the weekend, you know, they drive nice cars.
Does the whole satanic thing not exist any more, then?
It exists, but... it definitely exists, and some of these guys are definitely still on that track [laughs], but a lot of them are also not. Some of the traditionalists would say if you don't have a satanic message it's not black metal; others say no, it doesn't have to have those elements – it's about a completely different thing.
Did you approach any of the older black metal artists?
Yeah, some. Some are very hard to reach. Some are not into attention, you know. Some I did, and some didn't want to be a part of it. For me, it wasn't really that important that it was a compendium of all the greatest performers ever. I just wanted to photograph people who are passionate about this music. I wasn't that concerned with showing all the most famous people involved.
What did they think of your idea to photograph them?
The reaction was like, "That looks really crazy." Many of them thought it was kind of fun to see photographs in a slightly different way, because the aesthetic of the photography of these kind of things is often very formulaic. I can't say they all like it, but a lot of them found it interesting.
One thing that stands out is the lack of female singers. Are women a part of this culture, too?
There are a lot of women among the fans and enthusiasts; there aren't a lot of women on the performing side. I'm not sure why, but there are some. It is a very sort of male scene, and I guess there was something about the maleness of it that intrigued me.
Magnum is usually associated with hard-hitting photojournalism. How do you feel your work fits in there?
At Magnum you find all sorts of things, and people do all kinds of different things all the time. I don't know what's serious and what's not serious. Some of it is very loaded and serious, I guess, and some of it is more lighthearted. This is just an exploration of our cultural phenomenon. I don't know if you can call that serious or lighthearted, or whatever. I don't care what you call it. Of course, Magnum is known for its war photography, but all through from the beginning of Magnum people have been exploring different cultural trends, artistic trends, and trying to photograph that.
'Singing Norwegian Singers' by Jonas Bendiksen is on display at the Leica Gallery, Mayfair, until the 27th of October.
More photos below: