“Long Live Death!” — A battlefield map for black metal ideologists
Heavy metal is changing.
Liturgy plays the MoMA. Wolves in the Throne Room gets admiring write ups in the New Yorker. National Public Radio consistently spotlights edgier and edgier music, thanks in no small part to people like Lars Gotrich, an assistant producer at NPR Music who worked his way up from college radio. He and others like him are providing my parents with surprisingly good coverage of acts like Lord Mantis, an outlandishly gruesome blackened sludge outfit hailing from a very different kind of frozen north: Chicago.
Accusations are flying that extreme metal has lost touch with its roots, and amid the furor, many bands in the scene are backtracking to the lo-fi production techniques which defined the style twenty years ago. In spite of this, Njord, a veteran of black metal’s Lower Silesian underground in Poland, seems confident enough in his musical vision that he is willing to let his current studio project, Flame of War, exist completely outside of any of these discussions the stylistic zeitgeist.
Njord can’t tell you his real name. In fact, his music is so controversial in his home country that he could face legal penalties if his true identity were ever revealed. In spite of this, he has devoted years of his life to the genre, variously providing guitar, bass, and vocals for several different bands. His other projects include Slavecrushing Tyrant, Winds of Hyperborea, and Dark Fury– all of which are with populated Polish black metal artists who, like Njord, can’t let their identity be known.
His established presence in this tightknit underground is probably part of the reason why he has remained so unmoved by the present rush backward towards retro arrangements and noisier, home-recorded styles. At this point in his career, such gestures would be somewhat irrelevant. His most recent release, entitled Long Live Death!, is the work of a mature musician, whose credibility comes not from an alignment between his personal approach and the present quirks of popular fashion, but instead from the confidence he displays in his own artistic vision.
The production on Long Live Death! is basic and crisp, and Njord’s versatile guitar playing is unambiguously showcased as a highlight of the recording. Several times when he has run through his lyrics all the way, he simply goes into a long instrumental break before starting them over again. His venomous rasp is expressive, albeit difficult to follow, but his repetition and the transcript of the lyrics which he provides in the CD booklet make sure that his message is thoroughly stated. Even without studying the words which accompany Flame of War’s music, the caustic sterility of the sound we are hearing gives us a fairly clear impression of the bleak, apocalyptic subject matter.
Aside from its stylistic appropriateness, the clean production is likely due (at least in part) to the perfectionist standard at which this collection of recordings was executed. All the lyrics and music on the album were written by Njord, and with exception of the drums, all of them were recorded by him as well. The man knew exactly what he wanted to hear, and session by session, he assembled it during the winter of 2011-2012.
The result is impressive, and makes no apologies for its indulgences. Song structures are long and winding, and often considerably more technical than the second wave black metal which clearly lies at the heart of his influences. Along with clean production, the concept of being a “technical” performer has acquired a sort of stigma in extreme metal circles. To be a musician focused on technical mastery is to be a kind of irrelevant show-off with nothing interesting to say– somewhat akin to the Ivy League underclassman who has recently discovered a few fancy ideas in his philosophy course and corners you at a party to practice talking about them. It’s true that Flame of War’s compositions are undeniably long-winded, and that, inevitably, some listeners will find that their attention waivers during Long Live Death!’s seventeen minute finale, “The Iron Age of Europa.” However, given the unavoidably personal nature of any one-man project, it’s hard to hold these kinds of excesses against the artist. It takes guts to ignore the standards of popular taste in a style increasingly partitioned by narrow subgenres. In any case, the man can play guitar.
Aside from his firm footing in the camp of meticulous production and technically ambitious arrangements, one of the main dividing issues that Njord chooses sides on is an old rivalry between black metal’s Satanist and Pagan camps. In the correspondence I had with him in preparation for this article, he opened a letter by stating his religious beliefs outright.
“I am a Pagan” he affirmed. “I believe that the Gods exist and that it is possible to achieve contact with them (or with the metaphysical, the transcendent, in general) through rituals.
“I also believe,” he continued “that art may be a form of ritual, or be just as meaningful in the metaphysical sense as rituals. I believe that Black Metal is a form of art that, due to its spiritual character, allows one to transcend the “here and now” — just like rituals — and that is why I started Flame of War.
“The spiritual aspect of Black Metal is only potential; there are many so-called Black Metal bands that play meaningless music which people listen to to have a good time, just like they listen to rock music.
“I and the people that I cooperate with in religious practices are strongly inspired by the works of scholars such as Georges Dumezil, Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, Aleksander Gieysztor, as well as Integral Traditionalists (Evola rather than Guenon), and sacred texts – definitely the Rigveda, the Poetic Edda and other sources on European mythology, and to a lesser extent the Upanishads and other writings of Hinduism.
“We believe that the Gods of all Indo-Europeans are the same, although they have been called many names across lands and centuries. We believe in cyclic time. We believe that now we live in the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, which is obviously the reason of the decadence we witness every day, hence the importance of Ragnarök and death. Rituals – i.e. offering the Gods their due sacrifice at the correct times of the solar year – are central to our spiritual life.
“We usually perform them at the Ślęża mountain, which has been the site of Pagan cults since the times when the Celts dwelt there. The rituals are based on those described in Rigveda and on sources regarding medieval European Paganism – the rituals are, therefore, performed around a sacred fire with the use of sacrifice of milk, grain, and butter, and occasionally meat and human blood. The structure of a ritual depends on the character of the particular celebration, so the symbols and the forms of sacrifice performed depend on whether the celebrations are solar or chthonic and nocturnal, whether they are related to fertility or to death and war.”
Like his technical approach, Njord’s statement here puts him unambiguously on the less popular side of a hotly contested argument. On this particular issue though, his side is rapidly picking up speed.
Many of the most promising young bands coming up today are also rejecting a Satanic stance in favor of religious commitment. What began as whisperings among a fringe element in Scandinavian circles has recently exploded into a surge of excitement over these kinds of spiritual perspectives: groups such as Drudkh, Eluveitie, and Korpiklaani have attained a level of mainstream success which not long ago might have seemed impossible. It shows the powerful appeal these outside alternatives to both Christianity and Satanism hold for many who might have once rallied against the perceived hypocrisies of modern faith under the banner of the Antichrist.
To outside observers, this sudden swing away from the devilish trappings which have traditionally surrounded heavy metal must seem puzzling. A widespread revival of religious interest among young people would be remarkable enough; in a subculture of leather-clad delinquents, it is absurd. To fully understand the implications of this surprising shift, it is necessary to know something about the origins of the argument that caused it.
Øystein Aarseth, the founder of Mayhem and chief organizer of Oslo, Norway’s seminal scene, was squarely in the camp of those who despised anything holy, Christian or otherwise. Varg Vikernes, on the other hand, was (and remains) a leading voice among black metal musicians for the adoption of traditional Indo-European Religion. In Vikernes’ reasoning, the Heathen practices of his forefathers stood as the ultimate antithesis of not only today’s politically-correct Christian morality, but all incarnations of the Abrahamic faiths throughout history. Though he was notably preceded by Bathory and others, Vikernes was perhaps the first to totally dispense with black metal’s blasphemous preoccupations in favor of devotional subjects. Certainly, he was no Stryper: like the rest of his scene, darkness was the operative word in Vikernes’ music. This tension between his religious subject matter and conventional notions of what holiness looked like were, however, quite revolutionary. We can credit a good deal of present day metal’s religious content to the fact that this young musician had enough imagination to look beyond the standard formulas for spooky music– and that in doing so, he had the foresight to realize the new dimensions of possibility which might be opened by painting holiness itself black.
In a DVD extra for the 2008 documentary “Until The Light Takes Us,” which chronicles the much mythologized goings-on around Oslo in the early 1990s, Gylve Nagell of Darkthrone recalls parties where members of the local metal scene would gather to listen to cult favorite Merciful Fate and debate the merits of a Luciferian philosophy versus the emerging Pagan position. This story is presented in the context of an exhaustive symposium (complete with a pointer and four chalkboards) on the history of heavy metal from Black Sabbath onward. It is by turns amusing and engrossing to see the aesthetics and ideologies that gave rise to extreme metal as we know it dissected from such a scholarly and matter-of-fact vantage point. The academic setting of this lecture seems strangely appropriate– black metal has secured its place in the history classroom by marking the first time in recent memory that Europeans have burned buildings and killed one another over the subject of religion.
Most readers with any knowledge of these bands will know of the incidents to which I am referring. Though Vikernes was, in general, a lone wolf who recorded alone under the name Burzum, he joined Mayhem from late 1992 to early 1993 in order to record the bass guitar parts for the band’s legendary album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. During this time, Vikernes became a key player in a group of militantly anti-Christian youths who succeeding in razing several of the oldest churches in Norway. These young men saw what they did as justice for the well-attested Christian acts of destruction which were visited upon the holy sites of Norway’s indigenous population from the mid-tenth to thirteenth centuries.
Soon after the recording on Mayhem’s album was finished, the bad blood between Vikernes and Aarseth on numerous subjects came to a critical point. A confrontation occurred, leaving Aarseth dead and Vikernes in prison.
Though Vikernes’ devotion to pre-Christian religion is self-evident, it remains to be seen how sincere and lasting the religious beliefs that pagan music is presently fostering in modern youth will turn out to be. In the case of Njord, I found both his music and his correspondence to be remarkably convincing– at the very least, the passion for Norse-Germanic mythology expressed on Long Live Death! seems considerably more authentic than the lip service which is generally paid to Satanism by so many contemporary metal bands.
The fact is, Satanism has lost a good deal of its bite since the glory days of the Satanic Panic, when Boyd Rice (and later his protégé Marilyn Manson) had the moral majority so wound up they were publishing books like Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy to help the imaginary victims of “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” Today, the Baphometic pentagrams and open blasphemy popularized by LaVey’s atheistic “Church of Satan” are standard fare for bands so commercial they make Manson look like Zero Kama. Perhaps this is because Satanism is, by its nature, an irreligious viewpoint. As such, the use of its imagery simply has broader marketing implications than emblems with the potential to symbolize a genuine religious commitment.
The situation is not without irony: Satanism’s lowered status as a harmless wink-and-nudge gesture toward rebellion has made religious conservatism into the most transgressive act possible for a modern young person. This is an important facet of what makes black metal distinct from any of the religiously themed popular music that came before it. Whereas prior to black metal, religious bands tended to take a more modern, liberal perspective on spirituality, religious black metal is almost without exception intensely conservative.
Christian rock has always been difficult for either the secular public or the community of the devout to take seriously. It is almost without exception a recycled, guileless copy of the most harmless secular music available. It tends to address divine subjects with unfocused, uninteresting generality, and stirs nothing in the Christian soul in the way that a toccata by J. S. Bach might. As such, the religiously uninclined rocker can hardly be expected to convert on the basis of music that meekly follows his lead, rather than commanding his attention with the power and glory it is supposedly in touch with.
Religious black metal, as it has come down to us from Norway, represents a totally antithetical approach. From the beginning, Vikernes was always openly judgmental of his secular contemporaries, and he and his progeny have always been more ready to wage holy war on people of other faiths than waste time trying to convert them. As in the Muslim world, modern youth with religious inclinations are displaying a tendency to be more conservative than their parents, and to regard less committed members of their faith as a threat to the health of the spiritual community. Manowar’s now universal rallying cry of “Death to false metal!” has become, by extension, “Death to false paganism!” or even “Death to false religion!”
Like radical Islam, radical paganism is fast becoming a unifying force for young people who perceive the modern world as alienating, oppressive, and morally bankrupt. In making themselves a vehicle for these kinds of ideologies, bands like Flame of War are standing at the crossroads of art, religion, and politics. Though most of Flame of War’s lyrics are easily interpreted as retellings of Norse-Germanic mythology, the end-times imagery sometimes takes on a glimmer of harsh realism. The song “Lunar Plains” in particular, in which the lyrics turn most explicitly to address the all-too-real threat of nuclear war, paints a nightmarishly lucid image of image the Earth’s surface as a barren waste of ash, the product of a raging inferno that leaves the Earth as lifeless and empty as the moon.
This picture flows continuously back and forth in the listener’s mind from myth to reality as the flames of Ragnarök are referenced from track to track, suggesting that the Æsir’s gift of foresight might have revealed man’s fiery end all too clearly, though not exactly through the supernatural means the ancients imagined. When we replace the giant with a flaming sword with a nuclear bomb, the Norse apocalypse myth is not only less fantastic– it is plausible.
Unlike so many other exercises in traditionalist thinking, which generally rhapsodize the returning perfection of the ancient world after the violent end of our modern age, Long Live Death! offers no such hopeful assurances. Although it is clear that he longs for some kind of violent event to shake man from the clutches of modernity, Njord is nothing if not a realist. His preoccupations with the Jungian symbolism of a world-annihilating cataclysm are by no means an indicator that he is blind to the horrors of war. There is no new Golden Age to speak of at the end of this album. As he puts it:
“The flames do not purify. The mad battle the weak, the maimed, and the raped.”
This line holds special relevance in discussions of the relationship of black metal with its various ideologies, most of which are misanthropic, megalomaniacal, or fascistic to one degree or another. Indeed, it is because most would characterize him as “the mad” that the artist behind this line must remain anonymous. Though he has personally spent the better part of his career exploring the same far-right philosophies that have earned Varg Vikernes his overblown reputation as an evil, warmongering racist, I believe the line quoted above illustrates a key difference in their work.
In his identity as “Njord,” the man behind Long Live Death! has used his spiritual perspective to step outside the role of the apocalyptic soldier. He has turned to examine the nature of his struggle against the modern world– a struggle which Mr. Vikernes and so many other black metal luminaries have spent their lives so absorbed in that it might be understandably difficult for them to see anything else.
In stanza 39 of the poem Vafþrúðnismál, the Poetic Edda describes Njörðr (Anglicized “Njord”) as a future survivor of Ragnarök in. It states:
“In Vanaheim the wise Powers made him and gave him as hostage to the gods; at the doom of men he will come back home among the wise Vanir.”
From where Njord stands, war’s victims and victimizers are both products of a sick world, and the “strong” who oppress the masses are merely weak people driven mad by a world going from bad to worse. The real keeper of tradition, and the rightful heir to black metal’s true spirit, must reckon the cost of failure if he is to find his way home. He must proceed with caution along a path littered with empty ideologies or, in letting his True Will be overcome, see all his striving lead to an end where the world is well and truly destroyed, and a new Golden Age proves not to be forthcoming.
As we examine the intersection of religious and political ideologies in heavy metal today, I think it is as good a time as any to point out that Flame of War’s Long Live Death! is the second black metal album by that title to come across my desk in as many weeks. Even in light of all that has been said here about the remarkable paradigm shift occurring within the metal community, it will likely come as a substantial surprise to readers on all sides of the discussion when they learn that this phrase comes from a source which is deeply Christian.
It was originally coined in Spanish as “¡Viva la Muerte!”by José Millán-Astray y Terreros, the founder and first commander of Spain’s Foreign Legion. Modeling themselves after the historical Catholic knights of the Reconquista, as well as the tercio formations which made Spain the leading military power of the Renaissance Era under the Hapsburg Emperors, the Legionarios of Spain were one of a number of militant religious orders which sprung up across Europe after the end of the First World War. The members of these “Legionary Movements” operated like a kind of Western samurai, placing death in the service of Christ over all other honors.
During the Spanish civil war, Millán-Astray’s Legion accepted the aid of a symbolic team of seven Romanian Orthodox Legionaries, all high ranking members of the Legion of the Archangel Michael– a group which pledged its undying loyalty to the charismatic religious mystic Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. Unlike their Spanish counterparts, Codreanu’s men faced extreme persecution in their home country. Most of the Romanian Legionaries were students and peasants with no previous military training. Units of volunteer “Death Squads” regularly risked their lives by singing Legionary songs in public, a crime punishable at that time by torture, execution, and imprisonment without charges or trial.
After the Legionaries experienced success in Romania’s 1932 elections, they were banned from holding office. With the Legionaries cut off from any democratic alternative, violence escalated on both sides, and retaliation from the Legion of the Archangel Michael came in the form of numerous political assassinations, including that of the Prime Minister. Death was always close at hand for these young fanatics, who were known for rituals involving the writing of oaths in blood, as well as the drinking of blood in a kind of grim communion.
It is no wonder that when two of the seven volunteers sent to Spain were killed by a Republican shell, the legend of their martyrdom quickly became the subject of a hero cult unlike any since classical antiquity. Parallels could perhaps be drawn with a certain group of death obsessed teenagers mentioned earlier, though I’m sure that Øystein “Euronymous “ Aarseth and Per “Dead” Ohlin would both be rolling in their graves if anyone so much as suggested it.
The presence of a Christian slogan like “Long Live Death!” on two black metal albums dealing largely with Norse mythology speaks to the developing awareness of present-day people of European decent with regard to their place in a unified and continuously developing spiritual trajectory. The realization that our ancestors have been by turns nomadic animists, settled sun worshipers, Romans, Heathens, persecuted Christians, lordly Catholics, schismatic Byzantines, revolutionary Protestants, and religiously and culturally apathetic modernists, gives assurance that we have always moved forward in the face of cataclysmic spiritual turmoil, and will continue to do so.
The very idea of black metal taking steps toward embracing any sect of Christianity, even when that sect drinks blood and lives by a warrior code, creates such cognitive dissonance that it all but defies comprehension. Still, it is not without precedent.
Many of the earliest black metal recordings bear the influence of Italian heavy metal act Death SS, founded by Frater Steve Sylvester of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a pseudo-Masonic Order dedicated to promulgating the teachings of the most notorious mystic in history, Aleister Crowley.
The true implications of Crowley’s religious ideas often prove difficult to explain to the uninitiated. They neither Christian nor Satanist, though one can find a surprising mix of both approaches in his Law of Thelema. Though there are Thelemic orders devoted to actual instruction in ceremonial magic, the OTO is not one of them. They do, however, impart upon their members many of the hidden meanings contained in occult symbolism. It was with the aid of this knowledge that Sylvester, along with guitarist Paul Catena, pioneered the use of serious magical emblems in heavy metal as early as 1977. Although the involvement of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page with Crowley’s followers predated this by several years, Death SS was different in that, from the beginning, they were completely undisguised in their devotion to the Great Beast.
It was in 1984, just as the black metal was really getting started with the first Bathory album, that something strange happened. Paul Catena left Death SS to start Paul Chain Violet Theatre, a band that sang only in glossolalia and titled their first EP Detaching from Satan. The album cover showed Catena wearing a clerical shirt with a white collar tab and a large Latin cross around his neck. Their band logo itself featured the Chi Rho, an early Christian symbol. It isn’t clear what provoked this drastic change of heart, but clearly he viewed Sylvester’s involvement with the OTO as having a decidedly Satanic character that he no longer wanted any part in.
It is worth noting that Catena did not form a secular band after “detaching,” but instead one of an opposite religious character. Like the modern youth currently turning toward pre-Christian religion, Catena had not lost interest in music’s potential to provide a transcendental experience– only in the Satanic mystique which is continually revealing itself to be a silly fiction invented by imaginative priests, bored teenagers, and over-concerned adults.
As we look back at the core beliefs of the indigenous religions of Europe, it seems clear that Njord’s perspective on the unitary nature of all Indo-European theology does not preclude the possibility that Christian manifestations of these persistent ideals are also possible. Legionary philosophy held that that the nation included both the dead and the living, and that fallen warriors would come to the aide of their brothers in arms when invoked. This belief finds a particularly strong analogue with the ancient Norse belief in the Einherjar, the eternally battling souls of fallen warriors who prepare daily in Valhalla for the coming of Ragnarök.
On the day when the eternal spirit of heroism makes a final stand against the forces of entropy, I somehow doubt there will be time to argue by what name to call it. Looking ahead, it seems that many of the divisions currently being drawn between factions of style and content in the various underground genres may turn out to be more superficial than they presently appear. A far greater rift is opening between secular music and that of a spiritual character. Bands like Flame of War are ahead of the curve, and the would-be ideologists are first going to have to catch up them … and second, choose a side.
01. The Hammer Of Ragnarok
02. Lunar Plains
03. The Pulse Of The Void
04. The Fates And The Usurper
05. Mare Tenebrarum
06. The Iron Age Of Europa
Stuart Sudekum writes for a number of online publications, including Examiner.com (where he provides coverage of New York City’s underground music scene) and Ritual House (an online resource for investigations into ritual magic). You can follow his work on Twitter, or email him with your comments and questions.