The New Romantics: Norwegian Black Metal and National Identity (En)

 

THE NEW ROMANTICS:
NORWEGIAN BLACK METAL AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

 
In the 1990s, a musical sub-culture known as Norwegian Black Metal made an artistic and sonic impact with its shrieking tones, evil aesthetic, and transgressive ideology. It also made international headlines with a wave of domestic terrorism across Norway. Between 1992 and 1996, members of the scene were responsible for approximately fifty instances of church arson, two known murders, and numerous unfulfilled criminal threats. However, offering no apology, Norwegian Black Metal has since been re-contextualized and embraced as an expression of the “imagined community,” in the Benedict Anderson meaning,[1] of Norwegian national identity. This cultural acceptance as a vehicle for national identity is due to the sub-genre’s appropriation of familiar cultural touchstones: the nineteenth-century “national imaginings”[2] which were the building blocks of Norwegian collective identity.

The evidence of this re-contextualization is plentiful. Twenty years on, black metal is Norway’s number one cultural export.[3] The Norwegian government offers black metal education for diplomats and the scene is praised for promoting Norwegian language, culture, and tourism.[4] In 2001, Norway’s Grammy Awards, Spellmannprisen, introduced a “Metal” category with the first award going to black metal band Dimmu Borgir. Most nominees and winners since have been from the sub-genre. The band Taake was nominated in 2012 for the album “Norges Vaapen” (Norway’s Weapon) and was defended by the awards committee when the album was criticized as offensive and intolerant.[5] Museums have hosted black metal performance art exhibitions and visual artists have taken inspiration from the sub-culture for their paintings.[6] On May 28, 2011, Dimmu Borgir took the stage at the Oslo Spektrum arena alongside the Norwegian Radio Orchestra with the sold-out concert broadcast on Norwegian television. There is even a Norwegian Black Metal coffee table book of iconic photography.[7]

Understanding this eventual cultural acceptance begins with exploring the motivations for the scene’s violent beginnings. Norwegian Black Metal’s introduction to the world as an expression of identity was actually its headline-generating crimes. Contrary to popular belief, it was not anti-Christian sentiment in the name of Satanism which inspired the incidents. Though a satanic aesthetic and philosophy would be used symbolically, it has been stated, and to this day steadfastly maintained by participants and ideological apologists, that the arsons were acts of revenge against the religion which eclipsed Norse culture a millennia prior.[8] The acts were performed in the name of Germanic Neo-Paganism by those feeling a sense of duty to an Old Norse heritage.[9] Though the actions were met with public disdain and denouncement, perspectives changed once the fires had died out and responsible parties were sent to prison. The music marched on to international commercial success and acclaim allowing attention to shift from the sub-culture’s transgressions to other attributes.

Among these attributes are expressions of heritage and nationalism in the music’s lyrics, artwork, merchandise, and stage performances. The conceptualizations of Norway as a nation and of the citizenry’s “Norwegian-ness” are rooted in the country’s nineteenth-century “romantic period,” and with Norwegian Black Metal artists being raised with those cultural constructions defining their sense of national community, it is of no surprise that it is from this era that these artists have found inspiration. The period began with the drafting of the Norwegian constitution in 1814 giving Norway self-governance for the first time in centuries (though still recognizing the Swedish crown). A cultural explosion in art, literature, language and more helped Norwegians define who they were going forward. The combined cultural output offered the sociological “fixity” required for an imagined community as the world created inside these constructions became the imagined shared experience in the outside world, just as Andersen explains using the novel as such a device.[10] These constructions still resonate as they created a “steady, solid simultaneity through time”[11] allowing the contemporary imagined community of a nation to imagine itself in the present the same way the community was imagined in the past, therefore seeing itself as part of a timeless national singularity.

When looking at Norwegian Black Metal appropriations, three constructions of romantic nineteenth-century nationalism stand out as being of particular importance. This by no means implies that other romantic era constructions were not of interest or of use to the metal community, but the most representative examples are to be found in three dominant expressions: paintings (and within them specific themes), literature, and language. From there, specific examples of lyrics, album art, and other modes of expression can be seen in the context of championing a collective identity.

Paintings of the period did more than any other medium to inspire a sense of nationalism. Norwegian artists such as Hans Gude, Adolph Tidemand, JC Dahl, and Christian Krohg , literally illustrated Norwegian life. A common trait among their work was a display of love for, and relationship to, Norway’s natural wonder. Compared to the flat lands of Denmark and Sweden, Norway’s dramatic landscapes became a point of pride for Norwegians as was the relationship they had to their unique environment.[12] Natural surroundings, in the form of majestic fjords, vast forests, mountain ranges, or sweeping fields, were the painter’s settings of choice. The Gude and Tidemand 1848 collaboration, Brudfarden i hardanger (The bridal procession in Hardanger), depicting the waterway procession framed by the deep fjords of the region, stands as the most internationally famous example.

Within these scenes are most often depictions of rural peasantry; a symbol of Norway’s history of egalitarianism and pride in the frequently illustrated farming or fishing communities around which Norwegian life had been based. Adopted in 1821, the Norwegian flag was also a common detail making the point that this was a scene from Norway on display. This ultimate symbol of nationalism appeared primarily in depictions of peasant celebration or mourning as in Gude’s Likferd på Sognafjord (Funeral procession at Sognefjord, 1853). Krohg’s 17. Mai 1893 (1893) is one of the few urban examples (based on manner of dress) featuring a crowd of people with a flag waiving high celebrating Norway’s Constitution Day, but most maintained a romanticized, even mythic, rural way of life.

The origins of an imagined nation depend strongly on the manufacturing of a ‘founding myth.’ This is a narrative aggrandizing the roots of a nation and the creation of national heroic figures to which a population can trace shared values, customs, or ancestry.[13] The nation is comprised of a “selective” shared historical memory and the myth is a vital part of that selection.[14] While Norwegian romantic period painters were working to create such a myth, heroic narratives pre-existed in the Nordic world easing the reach further back into history to establish a richer national narrative. Viking history became a popular “selection” as painters did their part to stretch the history of Norwegian culture to long before the periods of union with other kingdoms. This was a method of not only claiming a longer history, but also of claiming the accomplishments of the Viking Age as that of the imagined nation. The voyages of Leif Eriksson and the “discovery” of North America as told in the Vinland Saga, brought to canvas by Krohg in 1893, is perhaps the most well-known example, making the epic voyage and the source literature a part of the national narrative. Depictions of Odin and the Norse pantheon were also cultural hits and best exemplified by Peter Nicolai Arbo’s 1872 painting Asgårdreisen (Odin’s Wild Hunt).

These works were inspired by the literature of Snorre Sturlason, the medieval Icelander who authored The Prose Edda, Skáldskaparmál, and Heimskringla, which all became popular reads in nineteenth-century Norway. The Prose Edda kept alive stories and traditions of the Viking Era and clearly articulated the Norse pantheon of gods. Skáldskaparmál, a collection of Nordic poetry, was a dialog between gods offering Old Norse wisdom and humor. Heimskringla explained the lineage of kings of the realm of Norway through the medieval period, again creating a clear pre-national history ready for the taking by romantic constructionists. These literary works were not constructions of the time, but their newfound mass popularity as part of the nationalist conversation most certainly was. The first widely available public copies of all three were published in Norway in the mid-1800s, and in 1900, the Norwegian parliament approved government funding for new translations of Heimskringla.[15]

Norwegian folklore was also a vital literary contribution to the national imagination. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe collected tales from around Norway with the purpose of standardizing and preserving these stories so that they reflected the Norwegian Volkgeist (the spirit and soul of the people). The works were published in segments between 1840 and 1852 and “bridged the gap between the proud past of sagas…and the national awakening.”[16] The early illustrated editions even made use of the talents already at play in the public imagination with Gude, Arbo, Tidemand, and other famous Norwegian painters contributing to the work. In later editions, Theodor Kittelsen’s haunting illustrations became synonymous with the tales and are still accompanying editions today.

Asbjørnsen’s and Moe’s work had additional influence on the Norwegian language. A language of the country’s own was considered an essential characteristic of its budding nationhood and the folktales helped make that a reality.[17] The tales were written down in local dialects, but printed in a Dano-Norwegian style retaining local flavor while still being understandable to a Danish speaking public. This was a primary component of what became contemporary bokmål (book language), the official language of Norway. Local dialects also became important for the development of nynorsk, Norway’s second official language. This was a romantic era construction rather than an organic linguistic development as Norwegian philologist Ivar Aasen aimed to develop a language to move Norway away from Dano-Norwegian. Aasen studied dialects from around the country which were combined and formalized into a written language. The Norwegian parliament approved nynorsk as the second language of Norway in 1885, though it has never been used by more than 15% of the population.[18]

By the early 1990s, the emerging Norwegian Black Metal scene had begun taking these themes to heart using lyrics and imagery familiar to all who identified with Norse heritage and Norwegian nationalism. Oslo’s Darkthrone appears to be the first band of the scene to make lyrical references to a collective identity in the title track of their 1991 seminal album “A Blaze in the Northern Sky.” While this song does not explicitly borrow any obvious romantic themes, though there is a reference to a northern king likely known through Heimskringla, an unmistakable attempt is made to connect the audience to a larger identity:

Where the days are dark and night the same
Moonlight drank the blood of a thousand Pagan men.
It took ten times a hundred years before the king on the northern throne
was brought tales of the crucified one
Coven of renewed delight
A thousand years have passed since then
years of lost pride and lust
Souls of blasphemy, hear a haunting chant
We are a blaze in the northern sky
The next thousand years are ours [19]

Here there is a shame in having a thousand years of “lost pride” under Christianity and a call to claim the next millennia for the “Pagan men.” Ending the last sentence with “ours” connects the vocalist and the audience to history by taking ownership of that shame and the selling of a shared experience. The “Pagan men” become kinsman and the fight becomes personal for the members of the collective, not just the artist.

For an early example establishing a specific connection to Norway, the lyrics to “Vikingland” (1994) from Satyricon is rich in romantic period references:

Far between high mountains and deep valleys
Through the Norwegian forests and dark cabins
Behind here, a dream over a thousand years ago
To Hordaland came the plague and brought death and suffering
In the witch forest was planted roots for a kingdom that would come
Pagan country, Viking country
Black souls country, Viking country
While waterfalls and streams of Telemark still flowing in swift currents as eternity itself
A new time came where the thunder rumbled and the earth trembled
Like when the wars of the trolls over who will rule in Jotunheim
A new time came where the winter blows and whips
There is no shelter to find for the lonely
Wanderer who sought peace in Nordland
Up here near the midnight fire you can still see
They come as wild animals out of the dark forest over the hills of slavery [20]

There is the celebration of nature taking center stage here as the listener is placed amidst high mountains, deep valleys, alongside streams, waterfalls, and within forests, bringing to mind the nineteenth-century paintings. Hordaland, Telemark, Nordland, and the Jotunheim mountains all reference specific regions of Norway rather than Scandinavia in general. The reference to trolls is yet another familiar romantic construction with a nod to Norwegian folktales. There is also mention of the wars for Jotunheimen – the home of the giants in Sturlasen’s Prose Edda.[21]

One of the many groups which became known for writing lyrics inspired by Snorre Sturlason’s awaking of the Viking past is Enslaved. They have even included a few songs in Icelandic, though most are in Norwegian, and adopted passages in Old Norse from the Edda, namely Gylfaginning (the tricking of Gylfi) which follows the Edda’s prologue. The band’s 1992 demo was titled Yggdrasil after the world tree central to Norse cosmology and a later studio album revisited the title: Return to Yggdrasil. Their 1994 album Frost then connected the band to the romanticized theme of nature featuring a cover photograph of a fog enshrouded fjord towering over a river.

Use of romantic images on the cover of albums is widespread. The band Windir (“warrior” in their local dialect) has exemplified this as all of their albums feature ‘romantic’ cover art. Their fourth album, Likferd, uses the previously mentioned Likferd på Sognafjord by Gude as its cover. Burzum’s 1996 release Filosofem features the Theodor Kittelsen painting Op under Fjeldet toner en Lur, showing a peasant woman with a birch trumpet calling out to the hills as if to say that the music within is also a call from the past. Kittelsen’s paintings have been used often, particularly his work depicting the arrival of the Black Death (Svartedauen) in Norway around 1350. These images combine a morbid atmosphere with homage to Norway’s appreciation of nature while reaching back into pre-national history for national myth-making.

Kittelsen’s personification of the plague was a haggard old woman dressed in a black robe, known as Peste (pestilence).[22] Burzum’s album Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (If the Light Takes Us) uses a portion of the Peste image Hun farer landet rundt (She Goes Around the Country) on the back cover while the front features Kittelsen’s Fattigmannen (The Poor Man). The image is of the clothed skeletal remains of a beggar on a forest path with a flock of birds overhead and the body dwarfed by his imposing natural surroundings.[23] The band Taake has also used Kittelsen’s Svarteduen imagery both directly and indirectly. Their 1995 demo cassette, Manndaudsvinter (Dead Man’s Winter), features an image of Peste as the cover and two later Taake album covers are inspired by Kittelsen: 2002’s Bjoergvin (one of the dioceses of the Church of Norway) and 2008’s self-titled Taake, each depicting a forest drawn in Kittelsen fashion.

Taake is perhaps the most nationalistic of the scene bringing together pre-national aspects of the nation’s myth, just as the romantic constructionists, to add to the nationalistic expressions of Kittelsen and the vocalist’s pension for draping himself in the Norwegian flag for concerts and promotional photos. The pre-national is achieved through the band’s insistence on using old runic script, the written language of the Viking Era, for its logos and all of their printed lyrics and liner notes. Taake then brings their linguistic approach into the nineteenth-century with vocal performances in an older local dialect and song titles printed in nynorsk. Windir must be mentioned again here as they too perform lyrics in local dialect, Sogndal, while the song titles, lyrics, and liner notes are all printed exclusively in nynorsk for all of their albums, regardless of country of distribution. The commitment to use the convention speaks of the artist’s dedication to representing their collective identity rather than a more commercially viable choice of language. However, this choice has become a recognized aspect of their brand.

Additional representations of identity are easy to come by. Folklore can appear as the template for bands such as Ulver (Norwegian for “Wolves”). The group’s 1995 debut, Bergtatt (“mountain taken”) is based on the folktale theme of people wandering into the mountains, lured by trolls or other mythic creatures of the Asbjørnsen and Moe tradition, to their peril. The Norwegian flag appears on t-shirts, as stage backdrops, or on patches, most notably on merchandise by Dimmu Borgir, the most commercially successful and internationally famous band of the scene. Black Metal has even birthed additional sub-genres: Viking Metal, dedicated to Old Norse representation in song and appearance, and the politically active National Socialist Black Metal movement, taking the representation of identity to contemporary political extremes.

Identity is thus the most articulated aspect of this music and its sub-culture, distinguishing it from other sub-genres focused on constructing and entertaining their own imagined communities of self-referential fandom.[24] Norwegian Black Metal elevates the articulation of identity beyond its own imagined borders to national and cultural levels enabling Norwegians to look past the controversy of the scene’s origins. These bands have become an extension of the nineteenth-century national imagining while adding their own twists to how those imaginings can be used to express their belonging: the music itself. For this reason I view them as a generation of “new romantics” providing continuity to themes that have resonated with Norwegians for two centuries.

Notes:
1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (Verso: London, 2006, 1983), 6.
2. Anderson, 9.
3. CVNorway.no, http://www.cvnorway.no/News%20archive/About_Norway/news-277.html. (Accessed 24/12/13). Also Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, (documentary) directed by Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen, (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2006) see also C. Campion, In the Face of Death, The Observer: February, 20 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2005/feb/20/popandrock4. (Accessed 3/12/13).
4. Learning Norwegian Through Black Metal, ”Typisk Norsk” (television program), February 2007.
5. Kjersti Nipen, Islamkritisk musikk nominert til Spellemann, Aftenposten, 01/02/2012.
http://www.aftenposten.no/kultur/Islamkritisk-musikk-nominert-til-Spellemann-6733946.html. (Accessed 13/12/13)
6. Until the Light Takes Us (DVD documentary), directed by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, (Gravitas Ventures, 2007).
7. Peter Beste, True Norwegian Black Metal, (Brooklyn, NY: Vice Books, 2008).
8. Finn Bjørn Tønder, ”We Lit the Fires.” Bergens tidene, cover story, January 20th, 1993.
9. Michael Strmiska, “Ásatrú in Iceland: The Rebirth of Nordic Paganism?”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, October 2000), 106. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.2000.4.1.106. (Accessed 24/12/13).
10. Andersen, 30.
11. Andersen, 64.
12. Silva Linn and Lars Aase, ”The History of Norway: A Long Term Perspective,” Norway: Society and Culture, ed. Eva Maagerø and Birte Simonsen, (Portal Books: Kristiansand, Norway, 2008), p. 40.
13. Abizadeh, Arash, “Historical Truth, National Myths and Liberal Democracy: On the Coherence of Liberal Nationalism,” Journal of Political Philosophy, (Vol 12, issue 13, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 292.
14. Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?,” Oeuvres complètes de Ernest Renan, ed. Henriette
Psichari (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1947 (1882)), vol. 1, p. 902.
15. Tormod Kinnes, Introduction, “Chronicles of the Kings of Norway,” http://oaks.nvg.org/hkio.html.
16. Elise Seip Tønnessen, “Norwegian Myths and Tales,” Norway: Society and Culture (Portal Books: Kristiansand, Norway 2008), 230.
17. Mette Rudvin, Norske Folkeeventyr A Polysystemic Approach to Folk Literature in Nineteenth-Century Norway, (University of Warwick, 1994), 3.
18. Eva Maagerø, “The Norwegian Language – Democracy in Practice?”, Norway: Society and Culture, ed. Eva Maagerø and Birte Simonsen, (Portal Books: Kristiansand, Norway, 2008), 208.
19. From “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”, by Darkthrone, © Darkthrone, Peaceville Records, 1991.
20. From ”Vikingland,” The Shadowthrone, by Satyricon, © Satyricon, ICAR 1994. Translation by Christopher Morris.
21. Snorre Sturlasen, “Gylfaginning” 1.2, The Prose Edda. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm, (Accessed 24/11/13).
22. Ivar Libæk and Øivind Stenersen, Norges Historie – fra istid til i dag, (Norway: Dynamo Forlag. 2003), 42.
23. Birds were also used as a symbol for the plague as seen in his 1894 work, Peste Kommer (The Plague Comes) where a single bird is floating above the forest.
24. Benjamin Hedge Olson, “I am the Black Wizards: Multiplicity, Mysticism, and Identity in Black Metal Music and Culture,” (Master’s Thesis: Bowling Green University, Bowling Green, OH, 2008), 125.

Author – Christopher Morris, source – Academia.edu

FacebookVKTwitterTumblrShare
Copyright © Militant Zone 2017