October 31, 2016
It’s Halloween – Dayal Patterson delves into the darker side of Metal, courtesy of Music For Nations…
For most of us, the appeal of music lies in its ability to move us emotionally; its ability to provoke joy, excitement, nostalgia, and even melancholy within us, and to be able to do so again and again, no matter how familiar we are with a composition.
But what about fear? The most obvious example of contemporary music that is primarily designed to unnerve the listener is course is that of the horror soundtrack, themes written specifically to build an atmosphere of dread and complement whatever scares are occurring on-screen.
In the most effective cases, such works have become as recognisable and iconic as the films they accompany: It is all but impossible to think of Hitchcock’s Psycho without also remembering the violently stabbing strings utilised by Bernard Herrmann.
Or John Carpenter’s Halloween without recalling the creepy (and strangely catchy) piano refrain. And any prolonged discussion of Spielberg’s popular shark-maligning movie Jaws is very likely to provoke a mental or hummed rendition of the bassy theme that accompanies the terrifying attacks in the movie.
But while such works are fairly contextual – rarely listened to outside of the films they are created for, except by the most devoted fans – composers and musicians have sought to cause dread in their listeners, and frequently without visual aid. Accordingly, people have begun to fear the power of music itself.
One of the earliest examples (at least in the popular imagination) is that of the ‘diabolus in musica’ or ‘devil’s tritone’ (the interval of three tones whose dissonant qualities have a naturally unsettling feeling) which was supposedly banned by the Church prior to the Renaissance, due to its inherently unholy and godless properties.
There’s not actually much evidence that this happened, but it does appear, at the very least, to have been discouraged due to both the technical challenges and the fact that its eerie qualities ill-fitted the mostly religious-themed subjects inspiring the music of the time.
Still if it wasn’t used then for godless purposes, it certainly was with the emergence of heavy metal. In fact was introduced at the very birth of the genre by Birmingham legends Black Sabbath, the band using it to great effect in their song of the same name, a magnificently doomy and despairing tale of damnation that has provided a template for numerous musicians ever since.
From that point onward heavy metal would continue to grow in popularity and in doing so managed to confirm many of the worst fears that had always surrounded rock music – a movement which had been scaring well before religious fanatics began burning Beatles records in protest of their supposed blasphemy.
By the eighties, heavy metal was a definite force to be reckoned with and bands like W.A.S.P., Venom and Mercyful Fate began worrying parents in earnest with tales of sex, drugs, violence and, worst of all, overtly devilish subject matter.
Many of them would end up on a list called ‘The Filthy Fifteen‘ for their trouble, a list created by a group called the Parents Music Resource Centre as part of their draconian crusade of censorship.
This debacle actually resulted in a senate hearing before it collapsed, a highlight being a memorably eloquent defence by Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, one of the bands being accused.
While the members of Twisted Sister and W.A.S.P. were actually about as Satanic as Elvis (another musician who found himself under attack by censors decades earlier), Mercyful Fate were, in fact, led by a committed Satanist, namely the charismatic showman King Diamond, a man with links to the Church of Satan.
Such connections made songs like ‘Into The Coven’ and ‘Desecration Of Souls’ all the more worrying for Christian authority figures but naturally also all the more compelling for fans. The band’s songs already had an eerie and disconcerting quality but a line had also been drawn in the sand – there were now Satanic/occult metal songs being created by genuine practitioners and not merely for shock value.
Stylistically-speaking, Mercyful Fate’s music was in many ways a more ‘evil’ take on Judas Priest’s progressive and melancholy early works and not particularly ‘heavy’ musically, but like the aforementioned Venom (a band who helped push metal into more extreme music territories generally) the group are also considered godfathers of the black metal genre.
And it was black metal, more than any other form of rock or metal, that would consciously harness Satanism, occultism and misanthropic sentiment, creating purposefully sinister and punishing music that would prove all but impenetrable to outsiders, the wonderfully illegible logos of the bands echoing a similar ethos.
In the years that followed bands such as Samael, Blasphemy, Beherit, Master’s Hammer and the memorably-named Rotting Christ kept the spirit of Venom, Mercyful Fate and Bathory (a Swedish outfit that would likely have given the members of the PMRC heart attacks had they been a bit less underground) alive. Nevertheless it was in the early 90s in Norway that the movement really exploded, creating an international swell in activity.
Both the music and the culture were given new gravity, not least thanks to scene godfather Euronymous of Mayhem, who as well as promoting and helping bands, also made clear that black metal should be genuinely Satanic and encouraged a wave of church burnings from his store Helvete (‘Hell’).
In many ways this was only the tip of the iceberg, and key musicians in the scene were ultimately also involved in grave desecration, assault, suicide and murder, not least Euronymous himself who unfortunately was murdered by his bandmate, a musician then known as Count Grishnackh whose project Burzum also had an enthusiastic following.
Yet, just as the quality of many punk recordings have outlived the controversy and colourful circumstances of their creation, so too is black metal now recognised by many for both its originality and artistic merits. Today the movement is bigger than ever, with bands such as Sweden’s Watain and Poland’s Behemoth bringing blood, fire, Satanism and epic, well-played extreme metal to an increasingly large audience.
Meanwhile, beneath the surface, a legion of underground artists from around the world remain busy in the scene’s ever-expanding underground. And though not black metal by any means, the Swedish metal band Ghost have more or less managed to enter rock’s mainstream, channelling the spirit of Mercyful Fate and Italian occult outfit Death SS among others, their subtly creepy songs and imagery winning over fans across the world.
It’s a cliché of course, but perhaps the devil does have the best tunes…
Dayal Patterson, author of Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, The Cult Never Dies and Into The Abyss
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