I’m halfway through Lords of Chaos, a book about the establishment of the Black Metal music genre and its attendant subculture among Northern European youth in the 1980s and 90s. It puts particular focus on Varg Vikernes, one of the Nordic scene’s founders, and a very eager interview subject. At the time of the book’s original publication in 1998, Vikernes was a few years into a long prison sentence for burning several ancient Norwegian churches, and later stabbing to death one of his fellow foundational metalheads. The book’s authors found him quite happy to pass the time sharing his memories and experiences of the scene, right up through his own bloody exit and beyond.

Despite our obviously opposite natures, I feel an uncanny entanglement with Vikernes and his world. Born within a year of each other, he and I both experienced formative years in cold places, he in Norway and I in Maine. As a rather vanilla geek-o-nerd, I never associated with any kind of music scene, but certainly my hobbies put me in contact with inland Maine’s own thriving metal culture, which loved fantasy role-playing games as much as I did. I made friends with several long-haired, zine-reading knuckleheads who looked just like the many photographs of 20-year-old Vikernes and his colleagues found in Lords. They, too, had a tendency to dress in all black, own things like chainmail and spiked maces, and sometimes pass the time just walking into the woods with two-handed firearms and blasting away at nothing in particular.

Strangest of all, Vikernes and I share a common self-chosen name. Discarding his given name “Kristian” as that of the religion he came to despise, he initiated himself into Black Metal by renaming himself “Varg” — Swedish for “wolf”, and rich with the Nordic-heathen symbolism he treasured. In 1991, as a teenager discovering the internet, I chose the same thing for my all-important online handle, and probably right around the same time. (I Anglo-transliterated mine as “Worg”, of course, per the entry in the D&D Monster Manual.) While I shed the silly pseudonym with the delayed onset of adulthood some ten years later, it still seems a bizarre coincidence.

But for all these eerie parallels, and for the quite engaging way that authors Moynihan and Søderlind relate his story in Lords of Chaos, I find no call to kinship with Vikernes. My young friends were harmless, but the book paints the darkest parts of the early-90s Scandinavian metal scene as a nihilistic swirl of arson, murder, and suicide — rather too sensational to easily believe, but all well documented in the contemporary press and corroborated by interviews of Vikernes and others.

Beyond that, most any modern reader would quickly dismiss him and many of his colleagues as Nazis, and find strange the way the decades-old book sort of tiptoes around the fact — up to the point of spelling out “National Socialist” far more often than using the much more efficient term. I did find interesting the story of how the earliest wave of Nordic Black Metal based itself on popular notions of Satanism, but then many bands pivoted on its anti-Christian tenet and began embracing a brand of neo-Odinism instead, one that saw itself as a sort of Aryan anti-colonialist movement striving to return Scandinavian society to its pagan roots. Adopting fascist, racial-purity philosophies atop this remained optional, but bands like Varg’s own Burzum took them up gladly.

I just now chose to skip a whole chapter featuring young Vikernes ranting from prison about Nazi UFOs in order to get the the book’s next major section, which promises to examine the music itself. But before I dive back in, I had to look up how life has treated Varg in the 20 years since Lords of Chaos first hit the shops. Obviously, I found his Wikipedia entry, which links to his blog, whose most recent posts mix the same blood-and-soil talk of his younger self with excited news-links to new role-playing game materials. That discovery more than anything cemented my feeling of uncanny and unwilling connection with him, I think.

And Burzum remains on Spotify, with all the albums Vikernes produced through the length of his 21-year sentence and up through the present. The book describes his mid-career output as moody electronica, what with the artist losing access to bandmates or instruments other than his in-prison computer. I find myself interested to listen to it, the impressively flexible work of an unstoppable passion, despite my utter repulsion from the personality driving it. Spotify, too, doesn’t quite know how to host or handle this artist, straight-up calling him a racist in its own blurb — alongside photos of the now 40-something Vikernes posing gray-bearded in ridiculous Viking regalia, staring right out at my 40-something self.

I amuse myself to think that we are the world’s least effective arch-enemies, along multiple axes.

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Jeremy Cherfas

Quite by coincidence, I'm sure I just yesterday listened to Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Hill talking about Lords of Chaos and the black metal scene....

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