Only a Northern Song

When he wasn't writing about hobbits, J.R.R. Tolkien studied Northern European languages at Oxford, and the most important thing he did as a scholar was to transform our experience of the old Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Before Tolkien, academics treated the work as a linguistic ruin, historically useful but too full of stupid monsters to count as literature. In contrast, Tolkien not only argued that Beowulf was a fully realized work of imagination, but that the poem's power derived precisely from the presence of the monsters. Tolkien pointed out that, unlike the baddies in Homer, where even an asshole cyclops like Polyphemus could still be the son of a glorious god like Poseidon, the monsters of the Northern imagination were irredeemably horrible—a chaotic, almost Lovecraftian crew that would, at the end of time, gobble up men, the gods, and the cosmos itself. The fact that the monsters were destined to win the ultimate battle explains the peculiar melancholic power of the Northern heroes, who fought with courage but without hope.

Something of this imagination is still alive and kicking, at least in black metal, a thoroughly globalized music that nonetheless comes mainly from the land of the ice and snow. The glory days of Scandinavian black metal began over a decade ago, when Oslo gloomsters like Mayhem, Emperor, DarkThrone, and Burzum hoisted the Satanic banners nicked from '80s bands like Venom and Bathory over the ever mutating engines of extreme riffage. While embracing the postmodern nihilism of death metal, with its speed, atonal aggression, and growled, unintelligible lyrics, Norwegian black metalers also tuned into the more spectral energies of, well, evil. Cookie Monster was still on the mic, but now he was wearing corpse paint.

In terms of Tolkien's reading of Beowulf, you could say that black metalers identified with the monsters of chaos—the most obvious and available one being Satan. But as the scene mushroomed across the North, many bands shifted their allegiance from the enemy of God to His pagan predecessors, especially Odin and Thor. In other words, the groups didn't just identify with the monsters, they also wore the grim mask of the Northern warrior. By combining bummer vibes with righteous gloom, the subgenre's evil pose could become as extreme as its sound, leading to a dark aesthetic so fantastically over-the-top that it neutralizes all attempts at satire from the get-go. It's easy to make fun of the Scorpions, but where do you start, for example, with a Finnish band that calls itself Impaled Nazarene?

Opeth in the (possibly black) forest
photo: Harry Valimaki
Opeth in the (possibly black) forest

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Blessed By The Night: The Dark Metal Compilation
SPV/Angelstar import

Opeth
Blackwater Park
Koch/Music for Nations

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Writing in the esoteric journal Aorta, the Austrian occultist Kadmon calls black metal "a werewolf romanticism." Obviously, this sort of mythic indulgence can go south fast: Black metal has played a role in the recent resurgence of Germanic pagan fascism, and racism continues to dog the fringes of the subculture. But the more lasting outcome of this romanticism is inclusive, at least musically speaking. Because once black metal opened the door to romanticism, it could not prevent the Gothic from waltzing in, spoiling the Viking gruff with absinthe and lace. Though genre-splicing is an endless game with metal, a lot of music now marketed as black metal embraces gloomy melodies, epic keyboards, female vocals, Hammer-film ambience, neomedieval acoustic guitars, even flutes. Though often "progressive" in feel, these steps are really moves toward accessibility, or at least listenability—in other words, pop.

That's why the German label Angelstar was wise to subtitle its recent two-CD Blessed by the Nightcompilation as "dark metal" rather than black. Like the Nuclear Blast compilation series Beauty in Darkness, the Angelstar discs highlight the more hummable wing of the music. The first cut, by the Americans Aesma Daaeva, shows how far we have come from the Beelzebub bop of the early Oslo scene: A superbly trained female voice chants "O Death" over a classical guitar, whose arpeggios are soon overtaken by mild blastbeats and keyboards lifted from the first Halloweenmovie. Songs like Tristania's "Beyond the Veil" and Vintersorg's "Svälivinter" feature wailing Valkyries, Renaissance pluckings, and thoroughly gendered duets of beauty and the beast. Both metal and Goth have long had classical fixations, and their fused drive toward the operatic reaches its apex in the contribution by Therion, a glorious slice of pomp that not only sounds like it's from Carmina Buranabut actually is from Carmina Burana.

Blessed by the Nightstill features plenty of gut-shrieks, Satan chants, and mispronunciations of "Samhain." Satyricon serves up an admirable death metal bass-drum blur, memorably characterized by the Heavy Metal FAQ lodged at www.anus.com as "an undulating wall of sound that conditions listeners to act out the diabolical bidding of the bands and their master, Satan." In their cut "Fallen Skin Dimensions," the Austrian act Third Moon present a perfect blend of conventional tunesmithery and nihilistic mess, pushing their syncopated beats and witchy melodies to the edge of incoherence. And Dimmu Borgir, a band popular enough to have garnered a nomination for the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy, bring an appealing trollish swing to their relatively blistering "Moonchild Domain." Chords slide by like broken slabs of ice, while evil elven keyboards play eighth-note melodies that skitter around like dolls in a mad Santa's shop.

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