A casual glance at the album art for Witchfinder General’s seminal first offering, Death Penalty, kind of tells you all you need to know – a comely maiden sprawls suggestively over a crucifix gravestone; her ample bosom exposed, only to have the members of the English doom metal band fawn over her with malicious zeal. Keep in mind, this is 1979 and the religious right is still very much the guardian of censorship and morality. It’s safe to say the band received their fair share of criticism.
Rock bands have flirted with Satanism and the occult for decades, and while there were acts before WG who certainly played homage to the horned prince of darkness (Black Sabbath were…well, Black Sabbath) things picked up right around the time the wizardry and magic of ‘70s prog rock and doom metal gave way to a more frantic, raw and overtly evil ‘80s sound.
When another English band, Venom, released their debut EP Welcome to Hell in 1981, there was little it could be compared to in terms of tone, pace and most obviously, imagery. Here was a band that didn’t as much as flirt with satanic imagery as they did slit its wrist, drink its blood and turn the devil into a sonic effigy determined to snuff out morality with every blast beat and buzz saw guitar riff. Of course, this was all pantomime and the band would go on to refute their satanic image and claim it an act to sell records. Whatever the case, as a result of Venom’s early foray into the dark arts, black metal was born.
What began in northern England in the early ‘80s eventually found its way to Sweden. In 1983, black metal pioneers Bathory would take use the framework established by Venom and create something more stripped down and sinister. On their 1984 self-titled EP, the band delivered a frantic, lo-fi assault on listeners through grating guitars, tremolo picking, relentless blast beats and the wretched vocals of band leader and guitarist, Quorthon (real name: Tomas Börje Forsberg). Even the album artwork is a template whose imagery and type font are still used to this day: a black and white (or black and yellow depending on your pressing) goat head sitting below the band’s name printed in Old English typeface. In its totality, Bathory gathers all of the tropes and signature imagery that would eventually define a musical genre and packages is it into 27 minutes of all out sonic assault.
With black metal now firmly entrenched in an ethos and that ethos firmly entrenched in the adolescent minds it would hope to conquer, the scene in which it spread its tendrils to include most of Scandinavia, Bavaria, North and South America and even Japan. In the mid ‘80s, the infamous Norwegian band Mayhem took black metal to new depraved depths. Satan was their muse and they took showed no quarter in making their demonic figurehead the fixture of both their music and live show. From displaying the disembodied heads of sheep in concert to self-mutilation and eventually murder, the media had a field day with the band, their exploits and the bastard child of heavy metal that they claimed as their own. And that was just the beginning.
As the ‘90s began to unfold, black metal and the satanic counterculture that it was so intrinsically was everywhere. Metal publications like Kerrang! and Metal Hammer ran detailed stories of church burnings, clandestine rituals and murder – and it sold. All the while, Norway acted as the proverbial hell gate, churning out bands like Gorgoroth, Immortal, Darkthrone, Burzum, Satyricon, Carpathian Forest and Emperor. While not all these groups overtly courted a satanic image, they did flirt with similar occult ideals, especially with regards to their stage presence and overall packaging. As the decade progressed, this ‘second wave’ of black metal artists (the first wave belonged to Venom, Bathory and a handful of others) began to evolve their sound and, in turn, their image. This saw a drastic shift away from overtly satanic themes with the exception of a notable few.
Today, it’s almost comical when black metal bands try and market themselves as satanic. We get it – you released your album a limited run of 666 copies. Dude, you’re so cold – you drew blood from your arm and mixed it into the vinyl batch. While all of these marketing ploys (and they are just that) attempt to legitimize the band and their place in the echelon of satanic devotees, there are still a few that are generally into Satanism as a life path rather than a gimmick.
Black metal stalwarts Gorgoroth are the real deal, as is their former lead singer, Ghaal. Swedish black metal outfit Watain identify as theistic Satanists and Finnish group Satanic Warmaster are as far right as right wing can go when it comes to their beliefs, which are…not politically correct.
So there you have it. I could have written this better and I could also go on forever about the capital ‘d’ Devil and his place in the world of music, but why bother? Instead, go out and give this music a listen. Some of it will make you laugh, some of it will make you turn away in disgust, but there’s also a fragment of substance out there. So hail Satan and go listen to his music, minions!