Documenting Norway's 'Black Metal' Underworld
RACHEL MARTIN, host: The parts of Norway above the Arctic Circle don't get any sunlight for months at a time. Darkness is more than a metaphor there. Yes, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world and was rated the most peaceful country in the world in 2007 by Global Peace Index.
(Soundbite of heavy metal music)
MIKE PESCA, host:
But Norway is also home to "black metal," a particularly intense and violent genre of music. You don't just play black metal. You live it. Band members cover their faces in makeup called "corpse paint," festoon their leather jackets with huge spikes, adorn their stages with sheep's heads, real sheep's heads.
In the 1990s, the black-metal scenes drew the fury of the rest of Norway, when members of the scene burned down several churches and even committed murder. Photographer Peter Beste has been to Norway 13 times in the past seven years, documenting the black metal scene. His huge book of those photos is called "True Norwegian Black Metal." It's a work of photography and anthropology.
He was in the BPP studios to help us understand the black-metal subculture. How'd you first encounter this type of music?
Mr. PETER BESTE (Photographer and Author, "True Norwegian Black Metal"): Well, as a child, I kind of grew up on more mainstream heavy metal, so it's always been - I've always been very interested in it.
As a young child, never anything this extreme, but I guess through my adolescence, I started reading about these bizarre accounts in Norway of these super-extreme heavy-metal musicians that were taking these satanic ideologies way further than any of their American counterparts.
And each article I read seemed more and more fantastical and bizarre and just sort of painting this picture in my head of dark Norwegian landscapes and these guys living in the forest, and all these sort of kind of way-over-the-top ideas. So I guess, in the late '90s, around 2000, I started taking it more seriously and thinking, well, you know, I could actually turn this into a photography project...
PESCA: Because in the U.S., I don't know what kind of metal you're into, but they would get hauled before Congress every once in awhile, and you found out that, for instance, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister is like a really smart, charming guy who essentially was saying, we love the music, but it's more or less a pose.
And you know, I don't know if there was like actual true satanic worship among the people who are known in American metal for worshiping Satan. But in Norway, are they really, honestly believe in Satan, and really worship him?
Mr. BESTE: Well, that was - when I first went over there, that's what I thought. It was either all satanic or Odinist, you know, because of course, there's a huge influence from old pagan mythology.
PESCA: Right, because Paganism and Christianity have an interplay in Norway and we see it in their music, is that right?
Mr. BESTE: Absolutely, and in their whole reasoning behind all these crimes they committed. You know, they're essentially angry at Christianity for coming in a thousand years ago and converting them by the sword. So, when they burn down - when they burnt down a 900-year-old church, that's their reason behind it, you know, some retribution.
PESCA: And so, are there U.S. bands that influence them?
Mr. BESTE: Ah, yeah, I mean, old bands like Slayer, I think, was a big influence. But most of their, black metal's, influences aren't American. There's this Swiss band Celtic Frost from the early '80s.
The band before Celtic Frost, which was called Hellhammer. Bathory, which is a Swedish band. So it's these - and Venom, of course, was the first black-metal band, an English band. So they were the first to really take this satanic look and lyrical content and really take it way over the top.
MARTIN: How were they perceived in their communities? I mean, they're living this. This is their real life. They are - dress like this all the time? I mean, do...
Mr. BESTE: No, that's a performance dress. I mean, the face paint is only for stage or for photo opportunities.
Mr. BESTE: Their regular, day-to-day getup, I guess, is like a standard heavy-metal leather jacket, black jeans, metal shirt, long hair, like any metal guy that we've all seen a hundred times...
MARTIN: OK, so they're not walking around with big, you know, spiked collars...
Mr. BESTE: Not during the day.
Mr. BESTE: I mean, a lot of these guys have day jobs of kindergarten teachers or these - another thing I found very interesting that the education levels were way higher among these guys than I expected, and way higher than their American counterparts. A lot of them have masters' in philosophy and religion. And they're incredibly civilized and mild-mannered and well-spoken and friendly. I mean, they just...
MARTIN: They don't look friendly...
Mr. BESTE: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: I've got to be honest with you, they don't look so friendly.
Mr. BESTE: Friendly, I think in the right context, I mean, not just, like, you know...
PESCA: Not outgoing, but...
Mr. BESTE: Not outgoing, but genuine.
PESCA: Did you wind up liking any of them?
Mr. BESTE: Yes, yeah I've established friendships with a handful of them that I'm still in touch with, actually.
PESCA: Mm hm. Could you put into words, apart from what we just hear, but what are the musical differences between black metal, what we would call "death metal" and, you know, even some of the harder genres of heavy metal?
Mr. BESTE: Yeah. I'd say black metal has a much more raw and cold feeling. Death metal is much more low-pitch, growling vocals.
Mr. BESTE: You know, low-pitched vocals. This isn't always true, but black metal usually has higher-pitched vocals. There also can be a symphonic element to black metal, which adds to the eerie quality. Sometimes with synthesizers, although a lot of these older bands are completely against synthesizers. And they just want it to reflect kind of a raw, cold, isolated, depressive, lonely feeling, I guess, is the best way to describe it.
MARTIN: Peter, what are the shows like?
Mr. BESTE: Well, the one show that I have the most photographs in here was from a Gorgoroth performance in Krakow from 2004. It was being filmed for a DVD. They had 120 freshly-decapitated sheep's heads on stage. They had four naked models, two boys and two girls, covered from head to toe in cow's blood, with hoods over their heads, hanging from crosses on stage, you know, barbed wire all over the front of the stage.
It just reeked like death and it was just like a real, like, display of blasphemy. I think that's the point. And that is kind of an extreme example. But the Pope apparently commented on it, and they were charged with some religious offense, criminal charge. But they were already out of Poland once it really hit the fan. So there was no real consequences, except that the footage was never released. And these are really the only photos that exist from it.
PESCA: Wow. And when you go to a show, do you have to dress the part to some extent?
Mr. BESTE: No, no. I stick out like a sore thumb.
MARTIN: We should point out, you are kind of a clean-cut guy.
Mr. BESTE: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BESTE: There's the girl getting painted in cow's blood.
PESCA: Yeah, yeah. What are these shacks? Some are barely standing.
Mr. BESTE: That house is - the guy on the right, there? Gaahl, that is his house, yeah. I stayed there for about a week, on the west coast of Norway, about an hour from any town. He lives in a valley named after his family. They've lived there for a dozen generations. And down the dirt road, his parents live.
And a couple of blocks in the other directions, his aunt and uncle live. So it's all family members living in this valley. And he's probably one of the most infamous men in Norway, definitely the most infamous musician in Norway.
MARTIN: Peter - I'm sorry, but did you ever have nightmares? I mean, did this scar you in any way?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BESTE: No. You know, going over there, I had no idea what I was in for. And the first time I went to go stay for a number of days at Gaahl's house, I must admit I was a little bit nervous. But...
PESCA: I guess there were no Motel 6s, but to stay at Gaahl's house?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BESTE: Yeah. But it turned out to be a great experience. And some of the most, you know, one of the most peaceful weeks I've ever spent. You know, coming from New York City and going out there where it was, you know, raining for 75 days in a row, we're in the mountains and went on hikes up the mountains, and it was just breathtaking.
PESCA: So he was a real sweetheart to you?
Mr. BESTE: Yeah, "sweetheart" is probably the wrong word, but he's very respectful, very quiet and just a very thoughtful, intelligent guy.
PESCA: So he had some, well, not rules, but there was a way that was clear that you needed to comport yourself around him. He wanted to be taken seriously and to be respected.
Mr. BESTE: I think he liked my attitude and therefore he gave me what I wanted. But he usually is very - he is infamous for being really disagreeable in interviews, one-word answers and just not being very friendly. But for some reason, you know, he opened up to me.
PESCA: Why do you think these guys get so angry? Do they come from an oppressed part of society? Is it anything psychological?
MARTIN: I mean, life in Norway is pretty easy, right? Like...
Mr. BESTE: It is pretty good, yeah.
MARTIN: It's some of the world's lowest unemployment rates and there's no crime.
Mr. BESTE: There's high depression, but yeah...
MARTIN: It's dark a lot.
Mr. BESTE: I mean, it's dark, yeah, and also, until recently, everybody was born into the National Church.
Mr. BESTE: So there's like an element of, you know, you are forced into religion into a certain extent, although, many people don't actually go to church. You belong on paper, but that's recently been changed. So other than that, I mean, it's pretty...
MARTIN: What's the seat of the...
Mr. BESTE: Upper-middle-class kids...
Mr. BESTE: That are relatively well-to-do, that are, you know - it's their form of rebellion, and also, another point that I think is important to make is that there's very little separation between church and state in Norway. So when one rebels against the state, you know, the church is like a real obvious target.
PESCA: You know, the way this book is presented, tons of photos of guys in their regalia and their face paints, then photographs of guys against the harsh landscape and sometimes against the beautiful landscape, and you have photos of fans. And it's sort of just left there for the reader to find, and I almost felt like I was putting together a puzzle or it was almost like I was an anthropologist or something. I got a document. I couldn't really figure out the full picture. Now, was that the effect you were going for?
Mr. BESTE: Yes, because there's been books written about black metal. There's films being made about black metal, and there's thousands of websites that tell these stories over and over again. And so we didn't really feel it was necessary to retell all these stories. Sure, there's bits and pieces told throughout the text and throughout the interviews, and in the photos, of course. But I think it's - we really wanted to keep it open for the viewer to make their own interpretation.
PESCA: When you asked these guys to pose, were you blown away by just the possibilities of the landscapes and the backgrounds that you had to choose from in order...
Mr. BEST: Oh...
PESCA: As a photographer?
Mr. BESTE: Yeah. It's perfect. I mean, it's a photographer's dream come true. Not only the landscapes but the way they look with the - I mean, the way some of them present themselves with the makeup and spikes and so on, which, of course, is really fun to photograph, and then that with the beautiful Norwegian landscapes is - you know, the possibilities are endless.
PESCA: All right.
(Soundbite of cracking book spine)
PESCA: Well, Peter Beste has put together this book, whose spine you hear cracking, because it's how many pages?
Mr. BESTE: Two hundred and eight pages.
PESCA: Two hundred eight. What's the dimension of each finely-bound page?
Mr. BESTE: It's 11 and a quarter by 14 and a quarter, good ol' hardback.
PESCA: It is a beautiful book about a terrifying, but more importantly, very interesting, subject...
MARTIN: Well-photographed. They're...
PESCA: Well-photographed, true...
MARTIN: Really provocative photos.
PESCA: "True Norwegian Black Metal," photographed by Peter Beste. Thanks, Peter.
Mr. BESTE: Thank you.
PESCA: And you can check out a slideshow of some of Peter Beste's photos on our website. Go to npr.org/bryantpark.
MARTIN: And no reflection on the interview, great conversation. It's a great book, but you know what? Jacob, I need a palette cleanser!
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