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Norway offers seasonal stretches of little to no sunlight; stark, rocky landscapes; and a religious bent that until a few years ago immediately delivered its newly born citizens into the church. Little wonder, then, that it was the anti-Christian cultural misfits of that country that fully realized the potential of black metal—the most sinister subculture of an already grim genre. In the early '90s, the group nabbed its fair share of headlines with grisly tales of violence, church burnings, suicide, and murder. And while the current crop of musicians has thankfully toned it down, many still engage in Satanism, self-mutilation, and the examination of incredibly dark subject matter. They take themselves so seriously that my nature prevents me from doing the same.
Houston-born Peter Beste, though, has taken it seriously for the last six years, making several trips to Norway to document the black-metal scene from the point of view of both photojournalist and fan. Those journeys culminate this week with the release of True Norwegian Black Metal, a large-format coffee-table book of Beste's photos, released by Vice Books. (Johan Kugelberg provides the text; there are also around 30 pages dedicated to select archives pulled from Jon "Metalion" Kristiansen's extreme-metal zine Slayer.) An exhibit of the book's photos is also on display through Saturday, June 7, at Steven Kasher Gallery.
Beste's images of the black-metal community—spiked with lots of blood, drugs, drink, and hair—are juxtaposed with shots of the country's gorgeous landscape. The scene's tattooed denizens wear necklaces made from bones and proffer inverted crosses while walking along the banks of rivers and among lush forests; in one picture they're carrying enormous scythes, in the next they're playing with their kids. They're also a famously secretive bunch. So how did Beste get access?
He says it all began with his childhood love for heavy metal, and it stuck with him even after he grew out of it. "Although my tastes changed in high school and beyond, I still maintained a fascination with the culture and the aesthetic," the photographer explains. "It was something that really got my imagination going." In 2002, following graduation from St. Edwards University in Austin, Beste booked a trip to Norway for five weeks to document as much of the scene as its members would allow.
"It was lonely and strange, being by myself in a foreign country," he says. "And I knew they were a reluctant, reclusive, media-shy group. But by that time I had a handful of connections—I thought I could at least hang out and observe." To his surprise, they allowed that and more. "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why," he continues. "I'm not even a metal fan—I mean, I'm not motivated by the music. Some of the guys were skeptical, yeah, but others embraced me right away. I think they could tell that I had honest intentions."
He returned the following year and started getting work there (photos for album covers, pics in Norwegian tabloids, group exhibitions), which in turn funded more trips: 13 in all, totaling about seven months. By 2007, Beste had developed a visual narrative out of his unprecedented access, which offered an unlikely opportunity to document how much the scene has changed from its sordid beginnings.
"In comparison to the early behavior, they aren't terribly violent anymore," he says. "They maintain similar [political and social] views, but they just . . . well, I think they mostly just kind of grew up. They saw that burning churches didn't really serve a purpose—if anything, it made the Christian community stronger. To rid Norway of Christianity . . . it's just not a realistic goal."
I understand the retaliation against the church's organized belittling of Norway's historical pagan religions. And I don't want to suggest that violence authenticates a counterculture. But these grown men in scary face paint snort and growl their way through performances, release some testosterone, explore the dark side for a couple hours, and then what? Wash up and head home to the wife and kids? Doesn't it seem a little farcical?
"There are plenty of juvenile things about black metal," Beste admits. "My saying that would probably piss a lot of people off, but the costumes alone—these are 35-year-old guys in leather vests, makeup, spikes. It's a fantasy-based culture. That said, metal is huge. It's Norway's largest musical export. Everyone there knows about it, regardless of age." (Even the old, he means.) As Kugelberg writes in the book, bands with their roots in the events of the early '90s now regularly reach gold and platinum sales and sell concert tickets in the thousands.
"And they take it very seriously," he continues. "For the most part, it's a humorless endeavor. Not that the guys don't have senses of humor, that's not what I mean—but they don't poke fun at themselves."
The costuming is a ritualistic process, Beste explains: "It gets you in the mood for death and darkness." But it's only for the shows, and the musicians rarely participate in staged photo shoots. The performers also typically keep their families away from their stage personas. When I ask why, he hedges. "I don't know," he admits. "But I mean, if I were in their world and I had kids, I'm not sure I'd want them there, either. It's kinda gruesome, you know?"