Does Evil Have a Sound? Reflections on Vecna’s Playlist, Black Metal & the Banality of Evil
Both Kate Bush and Metallica are having a moment, thanks to Stranger Things—a show that makes old flowers bloom whenever it waves its nostalgic magic wand. But neither Bush’s sumptuous weirdness nor Metallica’s crunchy fretboard dance are quite as foreboding as the corpse-painted crew hammering their gauntleted fists on the back door. Which is to say, Jamie Campbell Bower1, the face behind the show’s arch-villain, recently revealed Vecna’s playlist. Has the hour finally arrived for bands like Darkthrone, Mayhem, and Carpathian Forest to quit breathing fire in forgotten Norwegian caves and start dominating the US charts?
Click play on Darkthrone’s “Where Cold Winds Blow,” and a very reasonable question might be, “Why?” The same thing will happen if you check out Mayhem’s “hit” song “Freezing Moon.” “Why would anyone listen to this?” “Why would anyone go to the trouble of recording it, for that matter?” “Does it even qualify as music?” We’re gesturing at something a bit ineffable here. Notice how different these “why” questions are from simple expressions of distaste. It’s one thing to say, “I can’t stand Doja Cat’s music,” and quite another to ask, “Why does Darkthrone even exist?”
Take Darkthrone’s seminal album, 1992’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Since this record offers a near-perfect distillation of what would come to be described as “True Norwegian Black Metal,” let’s ask why it exists and what gives it such staying power. Perhaps more urgently, is it evil? How did these sonic convulsions fuel the chaos raging inside of Vecna? Not even the mighty Kate Bush could pull that off, right?
In one of my favorite essays on the metal genre, poet Michael Robbins argues, “Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction.” Like all art, black metal is for and against something. For our purposes, it’ll be instructive to begin with Darkthrone’s accusations against the commercial habits of their peers.
Accusation number one: Clear branding. One morning, in between purposeful sips of coffee, my mom slowly informed me that I would eventually reach an age when metal would just sound like noise to me. Much to her chagrin, I’ve yet to outgrow bands with indicipherable logos. Squint and see if you can make out “Darkthrone” in the tangle of moss on the album cover of A Blaze in the Northern Sky. As metal scholar2 Ross Hagen puts it, “[These obscure logos] function almost like occult sigils, confounding non-metalheads while communicating information to those who are in the know.”
Naturally, the blabbering hegemony of the internet has effectively obliterated most of these rites of initiation—any poser can collect patches from the most kvlt of bands without ever darkening the cigarette-strewn doorway of a single venue3—but these indecipherable logos were originally designed to function as passports to underground authenticity.
Accusation number two: Cartoonish cover art. What is this, Tom & Jerry? Between KISS, Iron Maiden, King Diamond, Megadeth, and, yes, Metallica, so many metal records from the ’70s and ’80s give the distinct impression that you’re diving into a comic book. These vivid images, no matter how grim, introduce an inevitable element of fantasy, allowing listeners to distance themselves from the sensational material.
In sharp contrast, the image on A Blaze in the Northern Sky features a grainy black and white photo of rhythm guitarist Zephyrous in stark chiaroscuro. His hand grips a wooden fence post as though he has alighted there, like some forlorn creature of the night. His long, windswept hair flickers above his head like a flame. Sporting corpse paint, he has the face of a howling ghoul. The picture is eerie, forbidding, ominous, and voyeuristic, perhaps a shot of a crime in progress or a still of some arcane pagan ritual. Coarse as the photo is, it’s not lacking in formal sophistication. Both its primal terror and its spectral qualities make it look like something cooked up in the fevered imagination of an Edvard Munsch or a Goya.
The threadbare production of A Blaze in the Northern Sky matches its artwork. We’re talking about Darkthrone here, so naturally they’re going to call the recording style “necro” instead of lo-fi. Whether this sounds more grim than goofy is up to you to decide, but it’s meant as a sweeping indictment of all slick studio production4. Deliberately opting for cheap instruments and sound equipment, A Blaze in the Northern Sky blasts out of your speakers like an obscure demo tape, replete with thin guitar tones, clunky drums, and lots of piercing feedback. Above the din of this lackluster ensemble, we hear a voice that shrieks like somebody being pursued down a dark alley.
Once again, the record is deceptively crude. True, the instruments sound harsh, but the mix is also professionally balanced. The effect is not unlike that conjured by movie directors who recognize the atmospheric possibilities of foregoing high production values. Part of what makes a film like The Blair Witch Project so unnerving is the crudity of its visuals. You get the distinct impression that you’ve stumbled on something forbidden, something dangerous, like a secret government tape or a snuff film. When Blair Witch debuted, every other horror flick was “just a movie.”
Darkthrone’s release had a similar effect in the metal world. For all their Satanic antics and dramatic getup, Alice Cooper and King Diamond were just playing dress-up. Despite the internet’s glaring spotlight, A Blaze in the Northern Sky still manages to sound like some esoteric recording circulating in underground circles that will hunt you down if you blow their cover. It may not be exactly noble, but it’s definitely an achievement.
Is there any room for a positive vision here? For the sake of clarity (and sanity), let’s bracket all the juvenile Satanism, CliffsNotes Norse mythology, and Viking cosplay that characterize a small faction of black metal and focus instead on some of its austere beauty. (If the notion of beautiful black metal strains credibility, listen to the last forty seconds of Darkthrone’s “In the Shadow of the Horns.”) Edmund Burke argues that when pain and danger are experienced from a safe distance, they yield a kind of feverish delight. What else would drive someone to go skydiving or watch Deliverance? It’s that frisson of mortal danger that pushes people to climb treacherous mountains or to run with the bulls in Pamplona.
Because it comports seamlessly with our desires, Burke doesn’t think pleasure is a fitting word for this odd delight. We’re talking about pursuits that overpower our desires. The prospect of getting gored by a bull may not go down as easily as a margarita, but it does offer a much higher degree of intensity. Burke dubs this the sublime, a category that includes all the hallmarks of black metal: power, vastness, depth, intensity, and obscurity (to name a few). If most pop music resembles a well-manicured garden, black metal is a fierce winter storm raging in a dense forest. It’s magnificent from a distance, but you’ll freeze to death if you’re caught in the middle of it. A quick note on black metal’s basic sonic template, courtesy of Hagen: “The tremolo-picked arpeggios in this music create a distinct effect, initiating a slowly undulating movement beginning on the lower strings before moving through several higher strings and then returning to the lowest pitch.” Transposed to the natural world, it’s the sound of hammering hail and howling winds. Take a listen to Darkthrone’s “Where Cold Winds Blow” for a crash course.
But I suspect the sublime had precious little to do with Bower’s decision to listen to this music. Black metal will probably never live down a notorious string of murders and church burnings perpetrated by some of its most esteemed members in the ’90s5. Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is an album with the dubious distinction of featuring both a murderer and his victim in the recording. But the mayhem (pun intended) wasn’t limited to the ’90s. In 2004, black metal tyrants Gorgoroth got themselves banned from Poland for staging a black mass onstage. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but needless to say, animals were harmed in the process. Speaking of Gorgoroth, their former lead singer, Gaahl, also spent a year in jail for nothing less than torture. If Bower was looking for “evil” inspiration, it’s likely he had these kinds of antics in mind.
Illustrating the importance of obscurity in maintaining a sense of the sublime, Burke argues, “Those despotic governments which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye.” In other words, don’t let the soldiers see Atilla the Hun stroking a puppy. A picture of Putin shirtless on a horse is great, but don’t let anyone see him tucking into a sorbet or making silly faces at a baby. Gaahl onstage in full black metal regalia is a fearsome sight to behold. Gaahl cooking dinner is something else. All the corpse paint in the world can’t change the fact that this is just a dude in his kitchen. He doesn’t look particularly menacing either. With his neat ponytail, he could just as easily be a sound engineer as a brutal frontman.
Peter Beste’s astonishing photography also sheds light on the surreal discrepancy between the exotic and banal aspects of evil. One of my favorite shots from his book, True Norwegian Black Metal, features Tom Visness (aka, Ov Hell), his handsome face painted and screwed into a demonic grimace, flashing devil horns in an old station wagon. True, he’s a nightmare, but the car is probably his mom’s.
I offer these observations at the risk of downplaying behavior that is truly evil. We human beings are natural born mythmakers. Feed us sordid stories and we’ll conjure monsters. But the devil truly is in the details and, in the case of the crimes that took place in the ’90s, the details are ultimately sad, ugly, stupid, and boring. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem remains the best meditation on the ultimate lifelessness of evil. Anything that smacks of vitality is on borrowed credit, so to speak. Hannibal Lecter is what we dream up; Adolf Eichmann is what we get. Crazed Satanists murdering people and burning churches are what we dream up; bored upper middle class teenagers are what we get. (If you’ve got a (very) strong stomach, Jonas Åkerlund’s misunderstood Lords of Chaos offers the best onscreen depiction I’ve seen. It’s largely hated in the metal community because of its steadfast refusal to mythologize its subjects.)
I part ways with Michael Robbins when he says:
A pop song—and metal for all its f*** no is pop music—is a commodity, and its market conditions are written into its chord structure. It is caught up entirely in capitalism’s circuits. A wash of guitars and a blast beat do not have the power to erase the contradictions they expose and express.
I definitely agree that metal is pop and that it’s a commodity, but I still think it can change your life, for better or for worse. This power isn’t due to any dark magic inherent in the song structure—no subliminal messages, demonic chords, or Satanic rhythms. Rather, it’s that people are transformable. Romantic art—and black metal for all its hail Satan is romantic art—makes a direct appeal to human desire.
Does evil have a sound? Of course. Whatever offers the most beguiling vision of selfishness. In this sense, I think black metal is a poor candidate for Vecna’s playlist. It’s simply too antagonistic. There’s no illusion of harmlessness. Anything overtly confrontational runs the risk of provoking serious thought and serious thought gets in the way of wanton selfishness. So no, if Bower really wanted to create an evil playlist, then I’d suggest a collection of saccharine tunes that celebrate unbridled hedonism and go down as smooth as light beer. In other words, play the hits, man.
1. They better not remake A Clockwork Orange, but if they do, cast this guy as Alex.
2. Yes, it’s a thing.
3. Says the guy listening to Darkthrone while cutting his suburban lawn.
4. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Beyoncé here. In the world of extreme metal production, precision is frequently prioritized over musicianship, particularly where the drums are concerned. The intense speed and rapid tempo shifts demanded by these songs can tie up hours of valuable studio time. Much to the dismay of sincere headbangers worldwide, many of those double kicks are programmed to keep the budget down and to spare drummers from carpal tunnel. Darkthrone’s decision to trade in professionalism for a more stripped down sound is of a general piece with the whole retromania craze. Instead of channeling the Beatles and the Stooges, however, they’re nodding at Venom, Hellhammer, and Bathory, all bands for whom a crude sound was a necessity, rather than a luxury.
5. If you’re interested in the grim details, Lords of Chaos is still your best bet.