Blood, fire, death
Review of ‘Lords of Chaos’, directed by Jonas Åkerlund and out on general release
The story of the Norwegian black-metal band, Mayhem, is unusual. Its first long-term vocalist - the aptly nicknamed ‘Dead’ (Per Yngve Ohlin) - shot himself in the head, putting an end to years of crippling depression and self-harm. Later the band was joined by a bassist called ‘Varg’ (born Kristian Vikernes), who allegedly initiated a wave of Christian church burnings, earning the early-90s Norwegian black-metal scene international notoriety. Before Mayhem’s debut album was even released, Varg stabbed the guitarist and band leader, ‘Euronymous’ (Øystein Aarseth), to death in what he claims was “self-defence” - he delivered 23 stab wounds, including two to the head. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994) is probably the only album in music history where a murderer and his victim can be heard playing together.
1998 saw the publication of Michael Moynihan’s true crime book, Lords of chaos, which recounted the Norwegian black-metal scene’s rise to infamy - focussing, of course, on the seminal Mayhem. This year’s biopic of the same name is an account largely based on the book’s interviews with musicians and their contemporaries. By its own admission, the movie is “semi-fictionalised”, carrying the by-line, “based on truth, lies and what actually happened”. We shall attempt to separate the real-life characters from their movie representations (in an attempt to reduce the number of death threats issued by Varg Vikernes to this paper!).
Lords of chaos was directed and co-scripted by Jonas Åkerlund, who served as a drummer for the early black-metal band, Bathory, from 1983-84. Although it is to some degree a typical biopic with thriller elements, it partially succeeds as a reflection on hypocrisy and the desire to live an authentic life.
In the 1980s-90s, Norway is a wealthy and sedate Christian country with a pastoral self-image, alternately governed by moderate Christian Democrats and milquetoast Social Democrats. Mayhem’s band members hail from decidedly middle class backgrounds: Euronymous opens a specialist record store using his parents’ money, while Varg’s family funds the studio recording of Mayhem’s debut album. With the exception of Dead, who apparently suffered horrible bullying as a child, their upbringing was unproblematic. Lacking in hereditary street credibility, then, they seek to carve out a name for themselves through the pursuit of aesthetical extremism, which eventually spills over into actual crime and violence.
The real-life Euronymous claimed to identify as a Stalinist, earnestly posting Mayhem demo recordings to the governments of Romania, Albania and other such “bullshit countries” (as a surviving band colleague would later recall). His choice of ideology was predicated, he said, on the fact that he regarded Marxist-Leninist regimes as more efficiently tyrannical than fascist ones. Having visited Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the People’s Republic of Poland, Euronymous briefly joined the youth league of Norway’s Red Party, only to discover the comrades were “a bunch of humanists”: unlike him, they did not “hate people” or want to “see them rot under a communist dictatorship”1. Varg, on the other hand, considered himself a Nazi and pagan - although both musicians also claimed to be theistic Satanists.
On the face of it, Mayhem and its milieu were archetypes of what children of a post-conformist society term ‘edgelords’ nowadays - except they took this a great deal further than most. So why do well-bred, middle class boys wallow in nihilism, suffering and death? While only touching on their professed political and religious ideas - swastika flags and pictures of Mao and Erich Honecker decorate the protagonists’ respective living room walls - Lords of chaos casts Euronymous and Varg as motivated by different objectives.
Euronymous wants Mayhem to succeed in an international market increasingly saturated with extreme metal bands. Every incident of violence, destruction and self-harm is eagerly documented and shared with relevant publications. He takes pictures of the freshly departed Dead and supposedly makes necklaces from pieces of his skull. In what resembles a parody of hardcore punk elitism, Mayhem refuse to go on tour or press too many copies of their debut EP because only a select few ‘deserve’ to hear the band. But this too merely serves to stir international ‘underground’ interest in the band. The real Euronymous changed his tune the moment opportunity knocked, quickly thinking up ideological justifications for ‘selling out’.
Varg, in contrast, sought authenticity for the sake of authenticity - and, according to Lords of chaos, to outdo Euronymous. He, who is initially derided as a ‘poser’ for wearing a Scorpions band patch, emerges as the driving force behind the scene’s radicalisation. Whilst Euronymous is all talk, Varg goes out and torches historical churches, which in his mind symbolise the subjugation of pagans (read Aryans) by ‘Judaeo-Christian’ invaders. “From then on, everything was a competition,” recalls the narrator’s voice. When challenging Euronymous, Varg - now a rising star on the black-metal scene - outdoes his erstwhile master in every respect.
What the real Euronymous and Varg shared was contempt for the evolution of extreme metal music, which by the early 90s had gained broader exposure, but had also become open to relatively progressive attitudes. Bands like Napalm Death, crossing over from leftwing hardcore circles, and intelligent death metal albums, such as Death’s Human, were signs of the rot setting in. In Euronymous’s words, metal was becoming “trendy”, by which he meant ‘liberal’. To use an analogy, Norwegian black metal was a ‘conservative revolution’ in the spirit of Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who defined conservatism as “holding on not to what was yesterday, but to that which always applies”2. Pushing metal to new extremes, bands like Mayhem did break musical ground - aiming, however, to reassert the master morality of traditional ‘Satanic’ metal beyond its original forms. Euronymous and Varg were determined not to let the meek inherit their earth.
In Lords of chaos, Euronymous’s mission is compromised by the fact that it is ultimately all show business to him. The movie’s interpretation is confirmed by various contemporaries. “Euronymous ... wanted the glamour and the showbiz,” opined ‘Faust’ of fellow Norwegian band Emperor; “with him, there was a lot of smoke, but not so much fire.”3 More than anything, though, Euronymous was a cultural mover and shaker, who had a good understanding of the metal genre’s inner laws. But there was more to him than that. Once, he went on a pilgrimage to West Berlin, talking a former member of electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream, Conrad Schnitzler, into providing the intro for Mayhem’s Deathcrush EP. Real-life vignettes like this suggest a more culturally rounded and - well - nerdier personality than Euronymous’s bloodthirsty and moronic public persona would imply.
Varg, in contrast, is real - or dumb enough to take black-metal ideology seriously, if you prefer: “I really believed in it”, he tells Euronymous in an Oedipal face-off. Unlike with Euronymous, Varg’s pre-political rejection of liberal values is more than just aesthetics: it commands him to pursue spiritual rather than material interests, rendering him unwilling to strike a deal with the world. Later in life, when serving 15 years in prison, the real Varg’s rightwing anti-materialism assumed firmer political contours.
The real Varg supposedly took Euronymous’s life because he had heard rumours that Euronymous was planning to kill him. In the murder sequence - necessarily the most speculative scene in Lords of chaos - this is dismissed as empty talk and typical of Euronymous’s posturing. The more Euronymous apologises, sobs and protests that he was not serious, the more he provokes Varg’s contempt and homicidal rage - he is killed for being a fraud at all levels. As Varg towers over his victim, about to deliver the final deadly blows, the viewer has mixed feelings. The fascist’s brutality is repulsive. Yet, at the same time, his act resolves the tension between hypocrisy and sincerity that had been the movie’s central theme. There is a troubling sense of justice to Varg’s actions.
It is perhaps for similar reasons that people who are not misanthropes or fascists can relate to ‘true Norwegian black metal’. Many are familiar with the sense of dissonance and alienation that the contradictions between ideology and the realities of bourgeois society elicit at a very elemental level. Whether we act on this, and what path we choose, is a different matter - yet, surely, the hate-fuelled antagonism to falseness and inauthenticity that runs through original Norwegian black metal is a widely relatable emotion.
For much of its running time, Lords of chaos is an unambitious, yet entertaining rock ’n’ roll biopic, ticking all the expected boxes with scenes of metalheads partying, indulging in orgies or throwing ‘devil horns’ while burning churches. As befits the subject matter, it is also very gory and violent: whenever someone cuts themselves or a hapless victim, the camera zooms in like in a Lucio Fulci movie, perhaps in tribute to the 1980s video nasties the protagonists spend a great deal of time watching. Thankfully, the movie also has a sense of humour about its anti-heroes’ pompous nihilism without simply ridiculing them.
There are moments of nuance: a homophobic murder, committed in real life by ‘Faust’ of fellow black-metal band Emperor, is masterfully directed. When a middle-aged cruiser makes sexual advances to a teenage ‘Faust’ in a park, there is some hesitation and ambiguity in the killer’s body language, allowing us to read the murder as a possible response to Faust’s own latent homosexuality, yet without hammering this home.4 Although neither the killer nor his victim are depicted particularly sympathetically, the barbarity and pointlessness of the murder still have a depressing effect.
Although pioneering, Mayhem was never the greatest Norwegian black-metal band: almost all of its contemporaries, from Emperor to Satyricon, recorded superior and more musically influential albums. As ‘edgelords’, however, Mayhem truly took things to the next level. Nowadays, the convicted murderer, Varg Vikernes, is a white nationalist blogger and neo-Nazi idol - and indeed, some reviewers have criticised Lord of chaos for “downplaying the severity of the scene’s truly unsavoury politics”.5
Yet the world Varg once set out to destroy has long embraced black metal without suffering significant damage - apparently, people are quite capable of enjoying problematic art without endorsing its messages. Red and Anarchist Black Metal (RABM) has been doing the rounds for years, although I sometimes hear leftwing kids relish the un-PC stuff just as much. Interestingly, some left-leaning black-metal bands, such as Wolves in the Throne Room, have surpassed the Norwegian originals.
Since 2010 at the latest, when groups such as Deafheaven and Liturgy started recording what detractors unkindly term ‘Starbucks black metal’, the music style has become acceptable to hipsters and assorted liberals too. Gentrification is probably the wrong term, though: unlike Euronymous and Varg, many of these bands cannot rely on mum and dad to fund their musical exploits.
‘Euronymous as Kafka’: http://surrealdocuments.blogspot.com/2008/04/euronymous-as-kafka.html.↩
Der Ring Vol 4, No22 (1931), p408.↩
The ‘repressed homosexuality’ explanation for hate crime is now considered un-PC, as it appears to blame gay men for their own persecution. In this author’s view, such offence is only justified if one assumes that homosexuality is exclusive to homosexuals. Having said that, relevant research is inconclusive and usually neglects structural causes of homophobia.↩