Thanks to bands like Dimmu Borgir, black metal has bridged the once-frozen divide between underground obscurity and mainstream acceptance. But has it crossed to the other side intact? Decibel travels to Norway and investigates.
Norway is surely many things to many people, but to black metal enthusiasts it is nothing less than the one true Unholy Land. The anti-Bethlehem, if you will [or even if you won’t]: a latter-day Bikini Atoll. Standing in the hills of Holmenkollen in February, overlooking Oslo, one sees snow in almost every direction. The Oslofjord, former home and painting subject of Edvard Munch, spreads its frozen tendrils to the south. The towering Holmenkollen ski jump, which dates back to 1892, looms in the distance. Further on, another, more pertinent landmark appears: Holmenkollen Chapel, which was famously burned to the ground in 1992 by three of the most notorious figures in black metal: Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes, Mayhem guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth—who was later murdered by Vikernes—and Emperor drummer Bård “Faust” Eithun, who had himself killed a man just two nights before the arson. Restored in 1996 through the pecuniary goodwill of Norway’s Princess Astrid and a handful of other well-to-do philanthropists, the chapel stands as a reminder, for some, of not so much the fire that blackened its hide and razed its rafters, but of a different blaze—the one In The Northern Sky, as it were—that ignited a small but decidedly global musical revolution.
Having cut a swath across Scandinavia, England, mainland Europe and eventually North America, the results of that conflagration are now hosting a banquet at the Holmenkollen Park Hotel. Thirty journalists from all over the world have converged upon this site to hear In Sorte Diaboli, the seventh and latest album from symphonic black metal sorcerers Dimmu Borgir. All six of the band’s members are in attendance, sans corpsepaint: vocalist Stian Thoresen (a.k.a. Shagrath, also of Chrome Division), guitarist Sven Atle Kopperud (a.k.a. Silenoz), bassist Simen Hestnæs (a.k.a. ICS Vortex, also of Arcturus), guitarist Thomas Rune Andersen (a.k.a. Galder, also of Old Man’s Child), keyboardist Øyvind Mustaparta (a.k.a. Mustis) and drummer Jan Axel Blomberg (a.k.a. Hellhammer, also of Mayhem), as are various representatives from the band’s label and management, Ulver mastermind Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg and famous Norwegian cartoonist Lise Myhre. After a three-course meal accompanied by the merciless consumption of untold quantities of Norwegian øll, the party moves upstairs, where the bar remains open until the last glass is emptied. If the prevailing image of black metal is a couple of dudes dressed up in spikes and corpsepaint posing for a black-and-white picture by torchlight in two feet of snow, this is about as black metal as a dinner party at an Aspen ski lodge.
And therein lies black metal’s dichotomy: While Varg Vikernes scrawls pornographic images of big-dicked hobbits on the walls of his Tromsø jail cell, penning screeds denouncing Lords of Chaos authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind and biding his time until the next installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is screened in the prison day room, the genre he helped create has, like many genres before it, split into at least two distinct factions: the mainstream and the underground. On the mainstream side, bands like Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth and (to a slightly lesser extent) Satyricon sit like corpsepainted kings, lording over a modest musical empire complete with major label record deals (Cradle and Satyricon), slots on Ozzfest (Dimmu and Cradle; Satyricon actually turned Sharon down last year) and hundreds of thousands of records sold. On the other side: just about everyone else. There are those with higher profiles than others, of course—Enslaved, Emperor, Mayhem, Darkthrone, Immortal—but even these world-class sons of northern darkness haven’t achieved the kind of semi-ubiquitous Hot Topic status that Dimmu Borgir and (especially) Cradle seem to enjoy amongst the great unwashed. More to the point, perhaps, is the widespread perception amongst black metal enthusiasts that Dimmu and Cradle are somehow manipulating black metal for commercial purposes—or are even no longer “true” black metal musicians at all.
Which is pretty much where tonight’s feature presentation begins.
Enter the Death Cult
To date, Dimmu Borgir’s 2003 album, Death Cult Armageddon, has sold over 111,000 copies in the US. Its successor, Stormblåst MMV, a re-recorded version of their 1996 album of the same name (minus the MMV), has sold 31,000 units. Which is why the release of In Sorte Diaboli is such a big fucking deal; with the ridiculous tab Nuclear Blast is presumably footing—wining, dining, flying in and putting up 30 journalists from all corners of the earth—expectations are clearly high. And the marketing dominoes have already begun to fall: The band recently shot a Braveheart-style video for the album’s first single, “The Serpentine Offering”; a three-track iTunes single (including two non-album tracks) was made available three weeks prior to the album’s official release, and a five-week North American tour (with Unearth, DevilDriver and Kataklysm) will be underway by the time this article hits the stands.
This kind of full-bore, tits-out marketing scheme is a far cry from the decidedly underground dissemination of Dimmu Borgir’s mud ‘n’ treble 1994 debut, For All Tid, which was released like an errant fart via No Colours Records, the German home to some of Nazi black metal’s heaviest hitters—Graveland, Nokturnal Mortem, etc. Silenoz and Shagrath are the only members of Dimmu Borgir who remain from that era. “If you listen to the first album and the new one, it sounds like two different bands today, and that’s a good thing,” says Shagrath, sitting in one of the Holmenkollen’s many dark-wood dining halls. “We have black metal ingredients and concepts, and what we stand for is kind of black metal-oriented, but I think we have gone beyond that term. It’s still extreme music and can be related to as black metal in many ways, but it’s much more than just black metal.”
Of course, public perception of Dimmu Borgir has changed just as much as the band itself, and their transformation from vaguely grim underground notables to slick symphonic superpower has been a slow but steady process. “We’re not a pure black metal band,” Shagrath admits. “We never have been. There have always been a lot of people saying bad things about us: We’re sellouts, blah blah blah. It was never our intention to be a pure black metal band anyway. That’s probably also the reason why a lot of people can actually find something they like in our music: It’s varied. It’s extreme, but you can find a lot of elements that you cannot find in other extreme music. That’s probably why we have more followers than many other bands. So maybe there’s jealousy from small bands that say Dimmu are sellouts, but we never paid attention to those people. We’ve always done our own thing and gone our own way.”
Shagrath’s statements ring true with Nachtmystium vocalist/guitarist and Battle Kommand Records founder Blake Judd, a.k.a. Azentrius, a keen observer of and active participant in underground black metal culture. When Decibel calls him, Nachtmystium are in a van somewhere in the Midwest on tour with Norway’s 1349. “Ironically enough, before you called me we just finished listening to [Dimmu Borgir’s 1997 album] Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, so I obviously don’t hate them,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not really into their newer stuff, but I wouldn’t call them sellouts—it’s just that their shit happens to be trendy right now.”
Still, Judd points out that neither Dimmu Borgir nor their mainstream black metal counterparts from the British Isles are regarded as black metal in underground circles. “I think both Dimmu and Cradle are great metal bands, but I don’t even really consider them black metal anymore because there’s nothing really intimidating or provocative about their music to anyone over the age of 16 to 18 years old,” he says. “I think that’s the main reason why you see the separation of the underground people: Things have to get more extreme. People are always looking for the next extreme mindset or next extreme approach to music. So it doesn’t really surprise me that you could probably talk to 10 dudes in corpsepaint and probably not one of them would own a Dimmu Borgir record.”
Erik Danielsson, a.k.a. E., vocalist/bassist for cult Swedish black metal horde Watain, sees the dichotomy between underground and mainstream black metal as a matter of bastardization: “I think black metal is to be defined by whomever, unfortunately,” he says over the phone from Madrid, the latest stop on Watain’s tour with Celtic Frost and Kreator. “Black metal, no matter what we would like it to be, is a rebellious subculture based upon music. It started out good, and it went very wrong. There is a stem that I can still relate to with a lot of branches that I cannot relate to.”
The Principle of Evil Made Cash
Back in the States, Dimmu Borgir guitarists Galder and Silenoz are being chauffeured around Los Angeles by their manager in a rented PT Cruiser (“At least it’s black,” Galder laughs). Upon their arrival at Nuclear Blast headquarters in Hawthorne, they seem well aware of the fact that Dimmu Borgir has little-to-no “true black metal” status amongst the self-nominated underground elite. “People say Dimmu is not real black metal, but once the topic of black metal comes up, they always mention us,” Silenoz points out. “We’re born-again anti-Christians—I guess you could say it that way. We still have a traditional black metal riffing style, but we have evolved it around our own expression. We’re on a totally different level musically and in mentality than what’s considered old school black metal. I mean, that’s the type of black metal I prefer to listen to, but it would be boring to play.”
“There will be some people who won’t like the new album,” Galder adds, “but if you turned it around and For All Tid was our new album, you’d get a totally different reaction. You can’t please everybody—there are some magazines that hate this band. But it’s always the same people [who] give us the bad reviews…”
“I don’t mind that,” Silenoz cuts in. “I think it just gives us more promotion. And once we’ve recorded the new album, we’re satisfied, you know? Otherwise, we wouldn’t give it to the label. Once the label has it, it’s out of our hands and out of our control, and people are entitled to think whatever they want. Of course it’s great to be liked—don’t misunderstand me—but it’s great to be hated, too.”
If Dimmu Borgir are hated in underground circles, Cradle of Filth are loathed. According to England’s Metal Hammer, Cradle are the most successful British metal band since Iron Maiden (2004’s Nymphetamine has sold over 147,000 copies, while last year’s Thornography has already moved 50,000 units). They’ve been the perennial subjects of self-induced “controversy” (in particular the infamous masturbating-nun/“Jesus Is a Cunt” shirts of the mid ’90s and the band’s decision to wear “I Love Satan” shirts to the Vatican) and near-constant derision.
“I look at a kid in a Cradle of Filth shirt the same way as I look at a kid in an Insane Clown Posse shirt,” says Judd, “And I worked in a Hot Topic when I was 16, so I know what I’m talking about to a certain extent. Cradle of Filth have taken marketing to a whole different level. They’ve always been on an offensive-imagery merch[andising] campaign—they know how to market shock value. I think of them the same way I think of Marilyn Manson, who, to a certain degree I have a ton of respect for. He captured the minds of 14- to 17-year-old kids throughout the late ’90s and made a fucking mint off it.”
Danielsson of Watain also has some choice words about the differences between his own band and Cradle of Filth. “While I see us all as musicians, the main difference between Watain and the members of Cradle of Filth—even though I do not know them personally—is that they make their art out of taking pieces of what other people have done before because they know it has been successful. They know that people are a bit fascinated by darkness—they know what the kids want, so to speak. They know that horror sells, and that’s how far their ideology goes. We, on the other hand, are the artists that make the art that they are inspired by. What they do as businessmen, we do because our lives are based upon horror and darkness. What we do is take a knife, open a square around our hearts, take the heart out, put the microphone to the heart and let it speak.”
Calling England, anyone?
Unsurprisingly, Cradle of Filth ringleader Dani Filth has heard all this before, if not in person from disgruntled “fans” or quoted from the pages of magazines, than certainly on every Cradle of Filth-related message board discussion that hasn’t taken place on the band’s own forum. And even then… well, who knows? “I think we’re really too busy now to worry about what other people think,” Filth says dismissively. “But it doesn’t bother us, because when we were ‘true underground black metal’—our first demo and the first Darkthrone album came out at the same time—these people weren’t even a glint in the eye of the milkman. Why would you have a 16-year-old rant at you, ‘Oh, you’re not true black metal.’ Well, you were a fetus when we were making our demo, mate.”
While neither Danielsson nor Judd were fetuses in 1990, Filth’s point is taken: The concept of “true black metal” is limiting and exclusionary at best; ridiculous at worst. “I think there’s only one true black metal fan, and he lives on the edge of a cold lake on a cold mountain in the middle of Norway just moaning to himself,” Filth offers. “He’s gone insane, because he’s been living on the streets of Oslo for so long whilst Dimmu Borgir and Satyricon drive around in flash cars drinking loads of beer.”
And what about Satyricon? The Norwegian tag team of Frost (drums) and Satyr (everything else) did put out Volcano on a major label in 2002, winning a Norwegian Grammy in the process. Satyr declined to be interviewed for this article, but did send us a brief, if predictable, statement. “Despite of our achievements and commercial success, Satyricon have never compromised our music, image or lyrics. We have always firmly stood up for what we believe in and are passionate about. Regardless if people like us or not, most people recognize and respect that kind of attitude in a band. The only obligation we have is to follow the direction our hearts point out. We know no other way and our fans are aware of that.”
But let’s not confuse motivational assumptions or disdain for shock-tactic marketing with the shunning of fame and fortune. In fact, Danielsson, Judd and Filth are in agreement when it comes to the subject of maximizing one’s potential. “In Watain, we have no limits as to how big we want to become,” Danielsson admits. “Slayer said it already in ’83: Evil has no boundaries. If you have boundaries, you cannot pretend to play Satanic music. We know what we do is strong enough to burn the world. And if we sit with the key to something that can actually change the course of history, why hide in the cellar and release a demo? In the end, frankly speaking, we are not here to play black metal—we are here to fuck the world.”
“It’s easy to shun success when you’re not successful,” Judd points out. “If you’re true to your heart and you know when you track your shit that you’re making something that means something to you, if other people like it that should only make you happy. And if it doesn’t, don’t make it available. But don’t put records out and get upset when people like it. That ‘cult’ black metal shit—I don’t get it, man. Those people don’t realize that they’re just as much of a herd as people who shop at Hot Topic for Cradle of Filth shirts.”
Like Judd, Filth views the elitist attitude of the underground as the antithesis of the Satanic ethos in which black metal is steeped. “People don’t have a god-given right to give rules to bands,” he seethes. “Music is supposed to be about freedom. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law; every man is a star,’ blah blah blah. The whole thing is about freedom. Satan equals adversity, not being told what to do by a select committee of people saying, ‘Ooh, that’s not evil enough!’ It’s like, fuck off. We’re supposed to be a black metal band.”
What Would Satan Do?
When Filth quotes Old Man Crowley, he makes a cogent point about Cradle of Filth’s—or any truly or even pseudo-Satanic band’s—rise to success. One of the prevailing themes of Crowley’s The Book of the Law, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, or even “Ragnar Redbeard’s” Might Is Right (the 1896 book that inspired LaVey and, possibly, Hitler) is the unfettered facilitation of the will to power and/or success. Whether it’s by dispensing with the moral standards of the day, good old-fashioned Social Darwinism, or simply crushing one’s enemies, driving them before you and hearing the lamentations of their women, all imply a flagrant and often calculated disregard for The Rules, whatever they might be. Clearly, Satan would approve.
“Satan is limitless, so you must never limit to yourself to the rules of a genre, of a subculture, of a scene or of an underground,” says Danielsson. “As soon as you do that, you become just as much of a sheep as Cradle of Filth are to the music industry. You must always be there with a torch in one hand and a knife in the other, ready to strike down everything that is in your way. And that goes for the underground mentality as well. You need to be able to sacrifice everything—even your underground credibility—in order to reach certain goals. We are prepared to sacrifice a lot more than underground credibility to do what we have to do.”
Judd echoes Danielsson’s sentiments about limits when talking about his own band, Nachtmystium. “We’re gonna make music that we like whether one person or a million people buy it,” he says. “But if more people get into it, yeah, we’re gonna take those steps to ascend to a higher level. I mean, that’s what a Satanist would do—fully excel and sit above those around him. Be a king amongst your peers. That’s not where I’m coming from, but if you put it together with something that a band like us is doing, that’s the real shit, if you ask me.”
Ravn, vocalist for acclaimed Norwegian corpsepaint commandos 1349, totally agrees—even if, like Judd, he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a Satanist. “If you put rules on black metal, it’s not black metal,” he says. “Rules are for religious people to follow. Guidelines are one thing—if you have a vision, you can use the guidelines to achieve what you want. But if I’m going to do something, I have to do it for myself. I have to do what I feel I need to do. That might be seen as a Satanic way to think by the Church of Satan’s definitions, but I’m not a religious person.”
Although he wouldn’t call either Dimmu Borgir or Cradle of Filth “true” black metal bands, Ravn recognizes their ability to function as gateway drugs that may eventually lead fans to his own band. “I don’t count them as black metal at all, but they do their thing and make a living, and I totally respect that,” he says. “But they can have a way of opening up the doors to black metal because people see the corpsepaint and everything, and they might dig into it more. So these bands might also have positive effects as well.”
Ravn says 1349 aren’t necessarily gunning for the commercial successes of Dimmu or Cradle, but they’re not rejecting it, either. “Whatever happens, happens,” he offers. “We’re not working toward a goal like we want to be as big as any of these bands. That’s not the reason we do it. We do it because we have a vision and a feeling that we need to create this art. If people want to listen to it, then good—whether it’s one person or 10,000 or 100,000.”
Of course, then the question becomes: What makes certain black metal bands commercially successful, and what keeps others underground? The prevailing wisdom points to obvious contributing success factors like melody, clean vocals, slick production and highly financed marketing campaigns, but none of those things account for “true” one-man American black metal units like Xasthur, Leviathan and Draugar, who are happy to stay underground: They don’t play live, rarely give interviews and often limit how many copies of their albums are pressed. And that’s before you even address the issue of What the Music Sounds Like.
One of the oldest and most respected of the fiercely “true” black metal outfits is undoubtedly Darkthrone. Formed in Norway in 1986, the band hasn’t played live in over a decade (despite having released half a dozen studio albums in the same period), gives few interviews and even turned down a Norwegian Alarm Award nomination in 2004. “There is no guidebook for Satanism or black metal ‘success,’” Darkthrone drummer/lyricist Gylve Nagell (a.k.a. Fenriz) tells Decibel. “We never made any plans. Darkthrone is led by coincidences. Trying to control nature is definitely Christian. But of course, we know our trade.” For Fenriz, the elements of black metal success are purely arbitrary, and one only has to peruse heavy metal history for proof. “Motörhead and Venom had underground production [and] sound but became huge,” he points out. “Many soft black metal bands with plastic sounds remain unknown. Those in the know are constantly supporting what matters.”
When it’s suggested that the Cradle/Dimmu axis enjoys little to none of the underground credibility that Darkthrone has maintained for two decades, Fenriz lives up to his reputation as a dude who does not give a flying fuck: “That’s their problem,” he says. And with that, our interview is over.
The Hellhammer Factor
Perhaps no single person straddles the frozen divide between black metal’s mainstream and underground factions more prominently or successfully than Jan Axel Blomberg, a.k.a. Hellhammer, who has not only been playing drums in Mayhem for nearly 20 years but who has been Dimmu Borgir’s official session drummer since 2005, playing on both the re-recording of Stormblåst and In Sorte Diaboli. Having spoken only informally in Oslo, we have our first on-the-record talk via telephone. “Of course, Mayhem will never sell 300,000 copies of a record like Dimmu Borgir has,” he laughs. “We’re lucky if we sell 40,000, but we have a solid fan base. But Dimmu Borgir’s success is due to hard work—they’ve been working harder than most other black metal bands, and they’ve taken a lot of shit from the so-called ‘true’ people. They may not sound like Mayhem, but who are these people to decide what is ‘true’ or not? Dimmu Borgir have been true to their style of music and their lifestyle. That’s different than jumping on a bandwagon and claiming to be evil.”
Thoughts from our man in England? “People always groan when anything gets too popular,” Filth points out. “Now people are moaning at Darkthrone, and I love it. When people accuse Darkthrone of selling out, it’s like, where are they gonna go next?”
Incidentally, Filth has this to say about Dimmu Borgir: “I think they’re great—always have. Beneath us, they’re the next thing along. They always get blamed for copying us, but sometimes that’s a bit untrue… sometimes. But they’re a great band in their own right.”
Beyond his own aspersions, Filth cites as a source of contention what he feels is a fan-generated beef between Cradle and Dimmu based on the fact that the two bands both previously included blastmaster Nick Barker amongst their ranks: “I think what fueled the fire was the fact that Nicholas was a member of their band, so everybody thought, ‘Oh, there must be a bone of contention there,’ but that never was the case. I’m sure it’s exactly like Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe—or Maiden and Ozzy. It’s like, ‘Go on, you fuckers! Have a fight!’ I think people want to see that happen. Maybe it’s just because we’re the two most popular bands.”
Hellhammer’s subsequent assumption of Dimmu Borgir’s drum throne comes with its own public perception issues. “I’m sure I’ve ruined Mayhem for some people by joining Dimmu,” he jokes. “But then again, I don’t care. Of course, Mayhem has always been underground—there is no point denying that. But, honestly, I don’t think the commercial success of Dimmu is doing any harm at all for me personally. And I know for sure it doesn’t harm Mayhem in any way. I’m sure there are people who think I should only play in Mayhem, but they don’t get to decide that.”
Besides, those who bemoan Hellhammer’s involvement with Dimmu Borgir could find far more questionable material in his lengthy session résumé: This is the man, after all, who played drums on the Kovenant’s disco-tastic S.E.T.I. album. “That was the worst piece of shit I ever played on,” he laughs. “They tried to be commercial and they thought they were going to sell a hell of a lot of records, but it really flopped. That was really selling out. We’re all friends and that kind of stuff, but when I heard the finished record I just said, ‘I’m sorry—I’m out of this shit.’”
In a perfect world, somewhere over the rainbow, as it were—or at least over the phone from Norway—it is the creator who decides what to call his art. “The word ‘true’ has been destroyed by idiots,” Hellhammer says. “The people who claim this are actually putting restrictions on themselves. It’s funny for me to read someone claiming, ‘this is true black metal’ or ‘this is not true black metal.’ I mean, who the hell invented this black metal stuff? It was we, you know?”