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Protecting the Precious Flower That Is Black Metal

Black metal hasn’t produced a new voice as exciting as Myrkur in years, so why does she provoke a collective howl of discontent from the metal community? Is it because fans have the same "authenticity" issues indie music fans had with Lana Del Rey?

Earlier this summer, Relapse Records—the extreme music label responsible for breaking, among others, Mastodon—announced that it will release the debut album by mysterious black metal project Myrkur, which is Icelandic for “darkness.” Pitchfork compared Myrkur’s sound to Norwegian black metal staples Ulver, our own Noisey added on to the praise, and MetalSucks said, “She should have dubbed herself whatever the Icelandic word for ‘awesome’ is.” Black metal hasn’t produced an exciting new voice in years, so why did Relapse’s announcement provoke a collective howl of discontent from the metal community?

Somebody smash this cunt's face with a brick. It's a fucking weak Wolves in the Throne Room rip by some cunt who doesn't even fucking listen to black metal. Drums sound terrible. Hobbes, you might listen to "black metal," but you have got to be the weakest representation of a true black metal fan there is. Fucking false-ass poser bitch, go listen to Conqueror or Beherit or fucking Blasphemy, you fucking pussy piece of shit. I would kill you IRL for saying this is almost good, bitch motherfucker.

—Commenter "Hussie" on Lambgoat about a month ago (grammar has been corrected)

Myrkur’s careful and enigmatic PR campaign has kept a very tight lid on the identity of the person behind the album; pretty much the only thing we know is that Myrkur is an unnamed Danish woman’s solo project. Cultivating a mystique around one’s artistic identity isn’t unusual, but Myrkur, as one writer puts it, “seems to have dropped from the sky.” Who is Myrkur, and why does she make metalheads so furiously angry? The answer has to do with some unsurprising old problems and a handful of disturbing new trends in the world of extreme music.

Once online speculation had narrowed down the list of candidates, internet savvy metalheads figured out that Myrkur is probably the pseudonym of Amalie Bruun (this interview with collaborator Brian Harding from last year is certainly compelling evidence), a New York–based Danish scenester best known as one half of Ex Cops, a duo dealing in slick, frankly boring Brooklyn alterna-pop. Still shrouded in confusion, this semi-revelation nonetheless sparked controversy, re-igniting the tired conversation about authenticity, the dead horse that extreme music fans most love to beat. As one Stereogum pundit put it: “We can only assume that this is a product, not art.”

Let me be straightforward and state for the record that I am one of the people incredibly psyched for Myrkur’s debut. Myrkur’s two singles, “Nattens Barn” (Danish for “Child of the Night”) and “Latvian Fergurð” (that crossed ‘d’ at the end is the Viking letter ‘eth’; like a lot of black metal acts, Myrkur seems to be really into Norse mythology) hold incredible promise. This is well-crafted, melodic, bare-bones black metal in the Scandinavian tradition (think Mayhem, Enslaved, and Ulver, whom Myrkur cited as influences in a brief interview earlier this month). As a female black metal practitioner in an extremely male-dominated world, Myrkur has the potential to be more than an appealing oddity; the strength of her music suggests that she is an emerging innovator in the field.

A guy having metal feelings. Image via Flickr user Ramsey Beyer

Rather than condescendingly argue that Myrkur’s music is “feminine black metal,” I bring up Myrkur’s gender because, as part of her signal value, it has game-changing potential to bring black metal to a listening audience beyond the extreme metal community. There have always been women in black metal and extreme music, but few have had complete control of their public image (Laina Dawes's book What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is an excellent discussion of that very problem). Myrkur’s impact is possible thanks to the generations of female metal musicians and fans who have endured the scene’s disinclination to afford them respect, let alone a voice to make the form in their own image. For too many, being a famel metal fan has meant coping with the label of “metal chick” and other infantilizing diminutions that echo the scene’s general discomfort with women.

But Myrkur is not the first all-female black metal project to make an impact; in 2003, Japanese power trio Gallhammer (the name is an homage to early Swiss extreme metal masters Hellhammer) burst onto the stage. Despite producing three solid studio albums of gloriously primitive black metal (including 2007’s Ill Innocence, which belongs in every decent record collection), Vivian Slaughter, Risa Reaper, and Mika Penetrator were for a long time viewed as an aberration in the scene, primarily considered a novelty act: Look, girls playing black metal!

It matters because Relapse have made a point to hide the authors’ identities because they knew nobody would support them otherwise. Authenticity matters a lot to the metal world. Metal fans want to feel as though their passion for the music is shared by those creating it and not manufactured like commercial music. Since the people behind Myrkur are pop musicians with the backing of a PR agency and the project has no history or real reason for why it would be signed to Relapse, we can only assume that this is a product, not art. Relapse Records is deliberately misleading consumers."

Commenter Joe Smith on the Stereogum article

Perhaps wisely recognizing that it is impossible to negate her gender’s impact on her place in the scene, Myrkur has taken a different approach to her public image. The release of Myrkur’s second single was accompanied by a short film in which Myrkur wanders around a nature setting best described as an animated Caspar David Friedrich painting—probably Upstate New York—while expounding on her profound appreciation of Norse goddesses and arch Romantic truisms about how truth springs from nature. Appearing in a ghostly white nightgown, her identity concealed by the unkempt blonde hair covering her face, she is unmistakably female, even if the styling is more “unsettling wood sprite” than “hot metal babe.” But by controlling the focus on her gender—by attempting, as it seems so far, to make it part of her otherworldly claim on darkness instead of an impediment to her sonic brutality—Myrkur makes an effective attempt to redirect her listeners’ attention to her music.

It’s hard not to read the nearly immediate backlash against Myrkur as a reminder of the scene’s seemingly bottomless capacity for misogyny, but the black metal community’s beef also has to do with a misguided belief in authenticity. There’s a long proud tradition of nerds claiming ownership of their particular cultural niche in the face of a potentially broader audience (I’m sure Rome’s cultural elite were into orgies way before the Caesars discovered them). What sets black metal apart from most other subcultures is its dubious claim to fame.

Twenty years ago, a handful of Norwegian basketcases loosely affiliated with record-store owner and Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (better known as Euronymous) burned down a couple of ancient wooden churches and were for one hot minute the most feared teenagers in Scandinavia (due largely to predictably hyperbolic news coverage). When ringleader Kristian “Varg” Vikernes brutally murdered his former friend Euronymous (and went to jail for 15 years—the maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years), the origin myth was solidified. These days Vikernes lives the survivalist life in rural France, spewing racist shit and posting photos of himself brandishing Viking weaponry online, but his legacy has been established. By murdering Euronymous, Vikernes gave black metal the power to do exactly what shock rocker GG Allin said was his mission all along in the last interview he gave before his death in 1993: “I want rock and roll to be dangerous again.”

In an essay about bands and labels that have begun catfishing audiences by concealing the identities of recording artists (Swedish Ghost B.C. and its faceless mass of Nameless Ghouls being perhaps the most prominent example to non-metalheads), Stereogum’s resident metal scribe Michael Nelson describes Myrkur’s first single with careful praise. “It shouldn’t matter if the entity called ‘Myrkur’ is in fact one woman living in shadowy Danish isolation or if it is an elaborate, market-tested experiment emerging from the darkness of the Scandinavian studio owned by Max Martin.” It shouldn’t matter, but it does. I would argue that the coming of Myrkur is making rock ‘n’ roll, or specifically black metal, dangerous again because it challenges the genre. Myrkur is creating a new persona within the rigid confines of black metal, and so far she’s been pretty convincing.

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