I met Metalion during a drunken night at Oslo’s Inferno Festival in 2003. I was impressed by his kind nature and unparalleled knowledge of extreme metal, so we stayed in touch over the next few years, occasionally geeking out over cameras and records. My friend Johan Kugelberg, the essential editorial force behind my new book of photos documenting the black-metal scene (True Norwegian Black Metal, published by Vice Books), was also in touch with Metalion and suggested bringing him in to help put together the book.
In 1985, Metalion started Slayer, which would become Norway’s most influential and essential metal fanzine. Metalion is kind of like the Virgil of black metal. He was there for all the notorious events, and his first-person understanding is reflected in his brilliant fanzine. There is no better authority on this often misunderstood and misreported genre.
What follows is Metalion’s primer on the unholy history of Norwegian black metal. —PETER BESTE
This is a personal list of what I experienced during the formative black-metal years in Norway. This is not a complete list, just a review of some of the essentials, along with some impressions of the overall scene. I guess most people will think of murder and church fires when they hear the words “Norwegian black metal,” but let’s concentrate on something that actually matters—the music. Let it be known that black metal is not just a Norwegian phenomenon. What brought the rest of the world’s attention toward Norwegian black metal was an article that appeared in the UK publication Kerrang! in 1992 that documented bands like Mayhem, Emperor, and Burzum. Since then, our underground cult has spread worldwide and continues to grow. For historic purposes most of these releases are worth looking into. Besides that, the music is absolutely thrilling. Darkness it will be! —METALION
VENOM HELLHAMMER There is no way to start this without mentioning Venom. They started it all with their second album, Black Metal, though it is not black metal as it sounds today. But I say that this is black metal and everything else is fake. Their 1981 debut Welcome to Hell is equally important. The fire was lit. (Being from Newcastle, England, they should technically be on the non-Norweigan brethren list at the end of this article, but fuck that. They are Venom.) From Switzerland came Hellhammer, who in ’83 released a trilogy of demos: Death Fiend, Triumph of Death, and Satanic Rites. I remember being 16 years old when these came out and never having heard anything like it. I got the Satanic Rites demo directly from the band, and in my opinion it is still the most important release as far as extreme metal goes. Luckily, anyone can now get this demo trilogy on the Demon Entrails set. It is funny to see this in “ordinary” shops now, knowing how demented it was once considered.
BATHORY CELTIC FROST It took a band like Bathory to push the evil in metal even further along. They debuted with two tracks on the Scandinavian Metal Attack compilation back in ’84, and they were much more evil sounding than Venom. Their second album, 1985’s The Return..., is a vicious slab of destructive metal. With the release of the Morbid Tales mini album in 1984, they brought a slightly different avant-garde influence to the sound. For me their best release is the To Mega Therion full-length from ’85. If you listen to any later black-metal bands you can always hear the influence of Celtic Frost and Bathory. Celtic Frost are still alive and their comeback release Monotheist is worth picking up, although I’m sure a lot of purists will disagree.
MAYHEM MORBID In ’86, Mayhem released their first demo, Pure Fucking Armageddon. After suffering many lineup problems, Dead joined Mayhem in ’88, followed shortly after by Hellhammer on drums. Dead decided to end his earthly life in ’91, but Mayhem went on. They recorded the legendary album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which was released after Mayhem guitarist Euronymous was murdered by his former friend Christian “Varg” Vikernes of Burzum. This record is still a timeless classic that will forever stand the test of time. This is probably the most important release in the second generation of black metal. Morbid featured Dead on vocals before he moved from Sweden to Norway to join Mayhem. Morbid made their mark with the December Moon demo in 1987. Dead was very serious about the concept of what black metal should be. His corpse paint was a trademark in both Morbid and Mayhem. He was a very strong character and quickly became a role model for many aspiring black-metal vocalists.
BURZUM DARKTHRONE Christian “Varg” Vikernes entered our scene in 1991, funded with money from his well-meaning mother. His one-man band, Burzum, was quickly signed to Euronymous’s Deathlike Silence label. The debut was released in ’92 and made quite an impression with its shrieky vocals and primitive black-metal sounds. This debut is perhaps his best release. I think that when it comes to Burzum, people seem to be more interested in church fires and murders than his music. Darkthrone took a long route. Starting out under the moniker Black Death, they released a handful of demos and rehearsal tapes that spread in the underground. They released the Soulside Journey album in ’90. Musically, it was more in the realm of Swedish death metal than Norwegian black metal. Their musical ideas changed with the release of their second album A Blaze in the Northern Sky (’91), which was to become a black-metal classic. I remember getting an advance copy of it and being floored. Because it was released on a large UK label, this album was considered a breakthrough release for second-generation black metal.
EMPEROR GORGOROTH Emperor released their Wrath of the Tyrant demo in ’92 and I was quickly drawn to the extremity of it. Years later I was happy to release this demo on vinyl on my label Head Not Found. Emperor quickly signed to the Candlelight label and released their first mini LP in ’93. You could hear their raw black metal mixed with a more symphonic sound on this one that only became more evident as the band continued. To my ears Gorgoroth have never made a bad album. The three first albums, Pentagram (’94), Antichrist (’96), and Under the Sign of Hell (’97), are bona fide classics. Also worth mentioning is the 1993 demo Sorcery Written in Blood. Gorgoroth deliver no-compromise black metal the Norwegian way.
BLACK METAL MEDIA
Slayer is my fanzine. The first issue was released in early 1985. It was a small photocopied zine, but as things progressed it turned into something slightly more professional. Issue 3/4 (’86) was the first metal fanzine to feature Mayhem. By the time issue 10 was released in 1995, I had all the right black-metal bands featured. The interest in it was huge and to this day it was the biggest seller. Slayer took a little nap starting in ’03 but it has been decided that the beast will rise at least once again sometime during ’08.
When I started doing this, fanzines were the lifeline of the underground. The media pretty much ignored our music, so our zines were the only way to spread the news besides letter writing and tape-trading. Remember, kids, this was before the internet. Many people tried to make fanzines and many failed. For instance, Euronymous of Mayhem wanted to make a fanzine called Harmony Dies. It was going to be completely handwritten, but it never happened. Bård Faust (of Thorns and Emperor) did a very good fanzine called Orcustus that lived a short life between ’90 and ’92.
Our fanzines were always run by independent editors, so they were not controlled by record labels. Granted, the journalism was in many cases not too impressive, but the enthusiasm behind the written words spoke for itself. The importance of fanzines should never be forgotten.
I can’t really think of the early days of black metal without mentioning demo tapes. So many names were spread through the tape-trading circuit, and many of them have become forgotten over the years. There weren’t that many legendary demos from Norwegian bands, but if we look to Sweden there are a few good examples. Obscurity released two legendary demo tapes—Ovations to Death (’85) and Damnation’s Pride. As the name predicted, they are not well remembered today, but their demos have been released on the Damnation’s Pride compilation. It might not be easy to locate, but it’s worth trying.
Another prime mover was Mefisto from the Stockholm area. They only released two demos: Megalomania (’86) and The Puzzle... (’86-’87). The interesting thing about this band is that they included very skilled guitar work with small classical pieces here and there.
NON-NORWEGIAN METAL BRETHREN
SARCOFAGO SODOM Sarcofago was a Brazilian band that released their debut album, I.N.R.I., in 1987. There were several bands in Brazil taking up the influence of the early extreme bands in Europe like Sodom and Hellhammer. The thing with Brazilian bands was that they always sounded “worse” than their European counterparts. What I mean by this is that the production was very raw and primitive, but of course that added to the atmosphere. Sarcofago had a blasphemous image and also wore corpse paint. This album was huge among Norwegian black metalers. Another almost equally good band was Vulcano, also from Brazil, with their Bloody Vengeance album from ’86. It is funny now to think that a band like Sepultura was once a part of this scene. I have to mention the German masters of blasphemy. Sodom debuted on vinyl with the EP In the Sign of Evil in ’84 and followed up with the full-length Obsessed by Cruelty in ’86. Their music was very primitive and raw, thus appealing to die-hard metal freaks. On Obsessed by Cruelty, one of the songs was called “Deathlike Silence”—a name that Euronymous of Mayhem chose as the name of his record label.
MERCYFUL FATE SLAYER Also one of the first black-metal bands, this time from Denmark. And yes, I do call them black metal! Mercyful Fate’s approach to black metal was musically different and had more in common with Michael Schenker or UFO than Venom. They were more like a traditional metal band with the obvious satanic lyrics. Singer King Diamond had a falsetto vocal style that made them stand out. Their brand of metal had a very eerie quality. Their most important albums are Melissa from ’83 and Don’t Break the Oath from ’84. That is personally one of my favorite albums. If you want to know which American bands were big in Norway in the heyday of black metal, we have to mention Slayer. Of course they were not a traditional black-metal band, but they had some satanic touches. Most people will always rate Reign in Blood (’86) as their magnum opus but I think that Hell Awaits (’85) and the Haunting the Chapel EP (’84) were more interesting. We also cannot ignore Possessed, with their overly satanic imagery and awesome Seven Churches album (’85). It was in those years, while the rest of the metal world was listening to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, that I began to feel nothing in common with ordinary metal anymore.
A brand new issue of Slayer magazine is in the works now.