The Unblackening Of Metal: A Look At The Role Religion Plays In Anti-Religious Music
Band Photo: Megadeth (?)
From the very beginning, heavy metal has been about rebellion against established norms and restrictive social institutions. That theme has never prevented metal from being influenced by the greatest of mankind’s various systems of organized repression, however. Using a guitar and a microphone to express discontent over the actions of parents and governments inevitably led to bands expressing their disgust with the beliefs behind those actions. Whether musicians are singing about it, railing against it, or just simply partaking of it in their free time, religion has an undeniable role to play in nearly every sub-genre of heavy metal.
Plenty of bands have been built up around an anti-religious atmosphere, whether a simple general sentiment or a full-on fervor that drives the music. Despite metal being frequently identified with an anti-religious standpoint, the style has more than its fair share or religious spokesmen. Famous musicians such as Dave Mustaine of Megadeth have never been particularly quiet about their Christian faith, even if they don’t expressly promote it in any given song. Explicitly Christian metalcore acts are also rapidly gaining widespread attention, with groups like August Burns Red taking over Hot Topic and acts like I The Breather touring the U.S.
In general, it would seem the thrash metal world either doesn’t care about Mustaine’s religious affiliation or is willing to overlook it for the sake of the music. Thrash certainly has its share of anti-Christian songs, but it’s a genre that’s more concerned with social issues or an overall aggressive musical feel than anything dealing with supernatural belief systems.
As any fan of metal can easily attest, not all genres are built equal, and what appeals to one metal head is a serious turn off for another. Black metal is easily among the most infamous of all metal styles, having cut its teeth in the early ‘90s across a back drop of church burnings and sensational media stories of power struggles between Satanic leaders. Names like Emperor and Mayhem were starting to make waves and become recognized in the underground not only across Europe, but also in the U.S. and abroad.
Thrash fans may not be particularly bothered by Dave Mustaine thanking God for his success or refusing to play with a band called Rotting Christ, but black metal is a whole other world with completely different ideals. The so-called “second wave” of black metal created itself almost entirely around rebellion against religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Whether it was an adherence to Satanic beliefs, or frustration over Christianity destroying their native pagan traditions, or even anger over the atrocities committed in Christianity’s name, the pioneers of black metal ensured the genre was permanently linked to a specific premise. Like it or not, black metal’s lyrics and philosophical stances are entwined with its music.
Adding A Christian Element To An Anti-Christian Medium
Or are they? Ask sole member Fire of solo black metal act Elgibbor the meaning behind black metal, and he’ll give a very different take on the subject. According to Fire, “Black metal is a style of music. The philosophy of black metal has many different ‘genres’ so to say; such as rebellion, religion in general, the occult, mysticism, paganism and so on. It depends really on what each individual band believes and stands for.” Fire’s band is an anomaly in the world of black metal, and one that has good reason to see a distinction between lyrical content and music style.
Elgibbor is a project that uses the same distinctively frozen style that would be expected of black metal, but puts forth a pro-Christian worldview. The band belongs to a further sub-category frequently referred to as “unblack metal,” which turns the standard anti-religious themes on their head. Explaining how he can resolve the seeming contradiction of preaching Christianity in a decidedly unreligious medium, Fire went on to say, “For me black metal or unblack metal is pretty much the same music. Yes the lyrics are different and the source of their inspiration varies. I guess it depends on what you categorize as ‘religious.’ Satanism is also a form of religion.”
Black metal most definitely isn’t the first musical style that features bands who exist solely or primarily to spread the teachings of Christianity. From pop and rap to country and nearly any other musical tradition imaginable, if it exists, there is a Christian version of it. Further discussing why a genre like “unblack” metal even exists, Fire commented, “Metal bands who sing Christian lyrics are trying to provide followers of this music genre with an option of listening to the type of music they like without the negative lyrics, and in the same breath are able to learn about what they believe.”
The black metal legions may see this as blasphemy of the highest order and hope Elgibbor is just a short lived fluke. But Fire isn’t alone, as Christian leaning bands have a small, but dedicated, presence in all the major black metal strongholds. Horde, Lengsel, Crimson Moonlight, Antestor, and Extol are probably some of the most well known (relatively speaking) Christian bands in the extreme metal arena, but there’s also a flourishing underground filled with modern bands.
Vocalist Syhirious of Chilean unblack metal band Diamoth further expanded on the idea that black metal isn’t restricted to one specific image by adding, "Imagine that a man bought an outfit that can only be used in a single occasion; the occasion happened and the outfit ‘can't be used again.’ Imagine a fire occurs, and his entire house with his belongings was burned in that fire, except him and his outfit that was used. What would do the fool? The fool would say: ‘I'd rather be naked than use this outfit that was used,’ but what would do the wise? The wise would say: ‘the dress had a purpose and it was used, now I will re-signify his function.’ The wheel can be always a wheel, and the person who invented the wheel certainly has it's copyrights in prehistoric times, but you can take that element and turn it into something new with a new function, the same thing happens with the music."
Besides showing the Christian propensity to come up with overblown analogies that don’t completely apply to the situation to make a point (a better analogy might be that someone wanted to wear a black metal corpse paint outfit to church, even though they had plenty of other outfits that would better fit the scenario), Syhirious does bring up an important question that is relevant to all music, and not just black metal. Can, or should, a musical style outgrow its roots and drastically change without giving up its name and heritage?
A Changing Genre
To be fair, the number of bands still carrying on the typical “necro” black metal sound are dwindling as musicians try new things. Even some of the black metal bands that had the staunchest anti-religious stances have changed their lyrical themes. Extreme metal has come a long way since Samael screamed “I spit at your god's face/I piss on the cross/I vomit on the holy bible/I shit on the blessed whore and her bastard son” back in ’94 on the “Ceremony of Opposites” album. Fast forward ten years and Samael had a very different lyrical focus, with lines like “Focus on, optimize/Rearrange, reorganize /Define new borderline/See how bright, bright you can shine” on the “Reign of Light” release. While the band remains opposed to Christianity, it now tends to express those thoughts in more positive and uplifting ways. Certainly there are bands like Belphegor still harping on weird sexual perversion with Satan, and the oddball act like Deathspell Omega which seems to be serious about theistic Satanism, but overall the genre is growing up along with its members.
Even musicians involved in bands of an anti-religious stance today can agree with the sentiment that black metal can, and perhaps even should, change. When asked if black metal could change from its beginnings without becoming something else entirely, front man Eric Horner from Throne of Malediction responded, “In order to evolve, it must separate to some extent. Though there were a lot of great albums of black metal in the 1980's and 1990's, it is not the only time good black metal was made, however. Elitest assholes who say true black/extreme metal died in the 1990's remind me of a middle aged dude who glories in his high school football days. Those were the beginnings and the bands of today need to grow from that foundation more, rather than try to re-hash old shit.”
Matthew Kelly of Dehumanation seemed to agree, adding that “The forerunners of most ‘extreme metal’ styles were not social butterflies and they didn't really give a shit either way what other people thought of what they were doing - they did it to satisfy an inner craving for music of a type they didn't hear coming from any other bands around them at the time. That being said I think the most apparent thing that's wrong with black metal in particular is the idea that there's some peer-based review board of people somewhere in Norway who meet on a weekly basis to decide what's black metal this year and what's not.”
That doesn’t mean the black metal bands of today necessarily have to accept Christianity creeping onto their domain, however, even if they accept that black metal is a somewhat fluid concept. Asked if he would make a distinction between black and unblack metal bands, Eric Horner explained, “I do see a vast distinction, in one is serving a master and the other serves no-one (even most Satanists do not believe in a real, actual being called Satan, just the ideals and virtues of individuality). One is for individuality and one is for bowing to a master. A huge difference.”
Matthew Kelly threw in his thoughts on unblack metal with the statement, “I think the idea of ‘unblack metal’ is preposterous and we should kill it with fire. Christian death metal was ridiculous enough (remember Mortification?) - the same people who wanted Slayer lyrics censored in the late 80s decided it'd be a good idea to go the Deicide route and try to shock people into listening to or appreciating them just to get their message of proselytization out or earn an imagined place in heaven when they died. The idea that black metal can be anything other than misanthropic and somehow ‘save’ people... it's just ludicrous to me. At its core black metal doesn't give a fuck about anyone else.”
Zaragil of Ophidian Forest also took a rather dim view of Christianity intruding on black metal, stating, “If they really made that amazing music I'd listen to them a few more times, but something like that has not happened yet. Which is strange since demented people tend to make good music, but I guess Christianity doesn't go well with black metal. It might be more suitable for Goth bands and all that fallen angels, candles, sins, and redemption stuff they are singing about.”
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just Christianity that seemed to bother the musicians polled on the subject, as many of them took issue with any religion attempting to infiltrate black metal. For example, take Zaragil who said, “Admittedly, I can still enjoy some Satanic bands as an entertainment, but for example I can't really listen to Deathspell Omega as their brand of Satanism is theistic – as if they really believe in all this and actually want to burn in hell. I find that laughable.”
Common Ground Between Opponents
Although there were exceptions on both sides of the fence, several of the unblack metal bands who responded to a survey made it clear that Christians were just as likely to completely write off music that didn’t agree with their world view as non-Christians. For instance, Amnon of Winter’s Dawn shared his thoughts on the topic by saying, “The lyrics of a band have a big influence regarding whether I will listen or not. Being a Christian I don't want to listen to songs that are blasphemous towards the God I worship. Some say they are just listening to enjoy the music alone, but I prefer to embrace a band completely, including the message they present."
Syhirious of Diamoth concurred, giving the following answer to whether or not he’d continue listening to an amazing black metal band he later discovered was anti-Christian: “No, I’m strong in my feelings about Christ, I don’t like to be incongruent with my decisions. Personally, I don’t care if a great band exists with anti-Christian, my life doesn’t depend on if I listen to a band or not. A person has to be congruent with himself and with the others.”
Further showing how either side is just as capable of using the same tactics, themes, and pitfalls as the other, it’s important to note that not all Christian bands are the polar opposite of anti-Christian bands. While many may hear “Christian” and assume it means lyrics about love and forgiveness, such is not always the case. Some unblack metal bands take just as much of a hard line against unbelievers as did early black metal bands against Christians.
Frost Like Ashes is a prime example, with songs about God punishing those who don’t turn to Christianity by tearing open pregnant women, ravaging mothers and daughters, crushing babies, and having dogs eat their flesh. Forget Cannibal Corpse singing about weird murders or corpse paint covered kids burning down churches in Norway, because these are the folks you should really be scared of. Musicians who take this tack truly believe the things they are screaming about and base their entire lives around these beliefs. Whether that’s terrifying or “metal as fuck” (or maybe a little of both?) is up to any given metal fan to decide. The lyrics resonated with at least one YouTube user named “philaboston” who commented on the “A Cruel Verse” track from Frost Like Ashes: “Awesome song. To kill Satan, you have to act like him to get close to him, then when he is not expecting, stab the beast in the back. That is the spirit of unblack metal. Kill Satan!”
Guitarist Sebat Frost from Frost Like Ashes explained his band’s aggressive stance by saying, “Now with Frost Like Ashes we always approached the music in a warlike manner. I always thought that black metal was quite warlike in nature, so I felt it was right to approach it in that way. Of course this is not meant to be a form of hatred towards people, instead it is just an artistic expression of what I believe to be a very real war. I believe in the spirit realm, I do believe that there is a God and a Devil so our music is done in a way to reflect that. We also really have felt a need to be aggressive in this, which as a result can leave people thinking we are too intense as a Christian band and so forth.”
Clearly the presence of either Christian or anti-Christian themes in black metal causes a strong response from either side of the debate. The reason it seems to be an issue that provokes such strong reaction is because of how personal music can be for people, especially in a genre like black metal. Many people in the modern metal scene grew up with metal as a main outlet for their hate and disgust and sorrow when all other avenues were closed. Take the following description given by Kevin Seawell of Frames, when asked what black metal meant to him: “Whether extreme or not, metal to me is the perfect aural stimulant. If you are one to believe in souls, then metal gives my soul an orgasm. It is the best way to express my day.”
Sebat Frost from Frost Like Ashes shared a similar sentiment, albeit in a drastically different direction, by adding “I have been involved with playing extreme metal for over 20 years now. I was in a thrash band in ’87. I love the music with a passion. I love it so much that after I became a believer in Christ the only logical thing to do was to continue making the music I love and do it for the Glory of God instead.”
Ophidian Forest’s Zaragail also offered this poetic take on black metal: “And black metal, if done right, is the most natural music I can imagine. It feels spontaneous, fluid, as if reflecting the sounds of nature, the beauty and the dangers of it. It evokes the sounds of rain, wind, waves, rustling of leaves, distant echoes across the mountains and, naturally, beasts lurking in dark places. Might be too loud for some people to notice, but it's their problem, not mine.”
Taking A Look At Both Sides
What sends shivers up the spine of one metal fan may make another want to hit the “Stop” button as quickly as possible, and religious differences only further spread that divide. Take this interesting mental image from Matthew Kelly, discussing what sets passionate black metal apart from other musical styles: "If I had to choose between seeing Aura Noir drunk and tripping on LSD at Elm Street with a deaf guy running the sound or see Slipknot at 100% on the greatest soundstage with the best sound guy in the world... well, man, I'd have to choose Aura Noir at Elm Street. Why? Because it's real. Because you can hear the difference in the music. There's passion in real art that transcends the value of the dollar or kroner or lyra or whatever the fuck, and in the end the church is just out to get your dollars. I'd say the same must be true of religious-driven media of all types."
Christians would likely disagree with the sentiment about the church, but they could also probably get behind the overall idea that passion in real art transcends the medium itself. Ultimately Christian and non-Christian black metal bands will probably remain divided forever over what constitutes “real art” and whether or not a pro-religious stance can be displayed without changing the music itself.
Both sides of the debate could easily learn a little from the other, as it would seem that both camps exhibit an immediate unwillingness to hear out the other that prevents the divide from ever being closed. Both also had a certain level of hypocrisy in believing they were the most open minded, while refusing to acknowledge or listen to the other. While black metal may be forever rooted in rebellion against Christianity, one still has to give credit to unblack metal bands for having the courage to pursue a course that causes them to take fire from all sides, as churches are just as likely to label them as blasphemers as are adherents to traditional black metal.
All music fans have the right to refuse to listen to certain bands based on lyrical content, but they also need to realize that music is universal and no one philosophy has the right to claim total control over a genre. Expanding a musical style means that style will be more likely to experience breakthroughs and see new talent emerge that evolves the sound in surprising ways. Ultimately it’s a good thing that diverse groups are hearing metal music they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise, even if it does mean sharing with those we disagree with or find distasteful.
Guitarist Skaven from the band Nierty perhaps summed it up best when he said, “And I’ll set the record straight for pro-Jesus music, if it’s gonna be pro-Jesus fine, make me fear his wrath to the point where I shit my pants or make me want to hang myself for him. Don’t be passive about it. This is the cold intent black metal is founded on, you either got it or you don’t got it."
At the end of the day the lyrics are not the music, and while lyrics can and should influence listening decisions, they shouldn’t prevent earnest musicians from making the music they want to make while ignoring the detractors.
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