For more of Peter Beste's photographs, view the slideshow.
Norwegian black metal is the country’s most controversial musical export — and bane of the wooded Scandinavian enclave’s existence. Dealing as it does with Satanism, arson and murder, the music remains mostly underground; America’s general knowledge of Norwegian rock still starts with a-ha and ends with Royksopp. But recent interest in the notorious subgenre, including the new documentary Until the Light Takes Us and Peter Beste’s just published True Norwegian Black Metal, is shining a new light into the darkness.
As with most metal offshoots, the Norwegian strain can be traced back to England, specifically to Venom, which coined the term “black metal” on its eponymous 1982 album. The ’80s and early ’90s saw black metal spread through Europe, from Norway’s Mayhem to Switzerland’s Celtic Frost to Denmark’s Mercyful Fate (former front man King Diamond’s glass-shattering falsetto made him the genre’s true king). And though they’re more operatic-themed and pop-oriented, current acts like Dimmu Borgir are even enjoying some commercial success.
But the bands Beste photographed for True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice) are the blackest of the black: apolitical and anti-Christian separatist self-preservationists who’d sooner make a lampshade out of their own skin than to try to convert fans.
“Metal makes up a very small percentage of what I listen to,” says Beste on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “It was more of a sociological exploration, a concept in a world that I was so fascinated with. I just couldn’t believe no one had done this kind of investigative study before. Nobody had ever really done any documentary photography work on this cultural black metal, which I find fascinating. It’s kept my attention for so many years.”
After making enough contacts in the black metal community online before the dawn of MySpace, Beste started traveling to Norway in 2002 (13 times to date) to zoom in on his subjects, from bars and backstages to living rooms and mountaintops. He came away with more than 200 images of both the silly and deadly serious, real and fake blood, church crosses and inverted ones worn as the jewelry de rigeur, all set against the splendor of the country’s landscape.
“I just read these bizarre accounts of what was happening in Norway throughout the ’90s. The images I saw, the albums I saw. Somehow, some reason, I really related to the aesthetic. I found it really romantic and alluring in a way. The deeper I dug into it, the more interesting elements I found. These guys are fun to photograph, but there’s a whole other side to it. The fact [that] it has such a connection to ancient Norwegian culture. They’re fighting the fight against Christianity based on their forefathers from a thousand years ago. Then, also the nature of Norway is amazing and majestic.”
Take, for example, Immortal singer-bassist Abbath strolling through the woods surrounded by moss-covered emerald trees (“That’s essentially his backyard”), or Gorgoroth singer Gaahl standing in front of a snow-capped log cabin. Every turn of the page is a moving postcard of brooks, lakes and forrests. Which begs the question: With all the serenity and breathtaking views, what’s to rebel against? Apparently, Mother Nature makes mean Vikings out of little boys. If Black Sabbath were a product of bleak, industrial Birmingham, it should be no surprise that music this extreme thrives in a country with such high precipitation and so many months of either uninterrupted daylight or darkness.
So don’t let the scenery fool you. These are some disturbed and disturbing fuckers, whether it’s guitarist Ymon of Perished with his arms covered in branding marks, or Nattefrost of Carpathian Forest smoking heroin off tin foil or a nude female model being painted in cow’s blood before she’s about to be hung from a cross for a Gorgoroth show in Krakow. Nearly everyone is wearing a scowl, corpse paint and spikes. And Beste’s grossest moment has him shooting Nattefrost smeared in his own shit.
Of all the bands featured, Beste focuses on the Tolkien-inspired Gorgoroth and its lead troublemaker Gaahl, who’s been arrested twice for alleged assault and torture, and whose face, with its sunken cheeks, looks even creepier without makeup. And that Krakow gig in 2004 not only included human crucifixes but sheep heads mounted on sticks. (Dude, one photo of decapitated sheep heads would’ve been enough.)
For stateside metalheads who grew up on Kiss, Alice Cooper, GWAR and every other shock rocker, not to mention the suicide court cases that dragged in Judas Priest and Ozzy, black metal probably seems like nothing more than a coven of Count Choculas and Beelzeboobs using the same gimmickry as their old men. You might be grunting a different tune, though, if you’ve watched Beste’s accompanying documentary on YouTube. In the five-part series, Beste and a small crew from Vice travel to the village of Espedal to interview Gaahl, a strong, silent type who speaks in a soft baritone, has an unblinking stare and lives in near-isolation in a house without plumbing.
“Christianity is based only on stolen souls and lives, so, of course, every trace of them should be erased,” Gaahl says in the video.
“He fancies himself a shaman,” Beste says. “He definitely has, I don’t wanna say healerlike qualities, but the guy has a special energy about him, there’s no doubt. He prides himself on guiding people.”
In his book, Beste also includes a black metal history timeline, from the Norway’s conversion to Christianity to the arrival of every classic band and landmark album; plus, more photos and articles from Norway’s Slayer magazine, and tabloid stories on some of the music’s infamous events, including the church burnings in the ’90s and the murder of Mayhem founder Euronymous in 1993 by band mate Varg Vikernes, who’s currently serving 21 years in prison.
Even in all his macabre imagery Beste manages to find the goofiness and camp: the very rotund Carpathian Forest bassist Vrangsinn smiling like a Satanic Buddha; a group of passersby on a cobblestone street quizzically looking at former Gorgoroth drummer Kvitrafn; and Gorgoroth bassist King ov (what else) Hell raising the Devil horns in a white station wagon.
“I have to show both sides,” Beste says. “I can’t always show them as these tough, stoic, serious guys. There is a vulnerability. There is a dorkiness to it.”
True Norwegian Black Metal | By Peter Beste | Vice | 208 pages | $60 hardcover. The book appears as part of an exhibit at Zune Gallery, 8275 Beverly Blvd., Nov. 21-Dec. 18.