Who invented black metal, that hateful, unholy, visionary genre? Potential candidates include bands Venom, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, or, most likely, the revolutionary Bathory. But exactly 100 years before Venom’s 1982 album “Black Metal” codified the term, the world saw a work similarly infused with perverted religiosity, hatred, mutilation, darkness, extreme ideological stances, blood, racist undercurrents, occultism, revolutionary soundscapes, a yearning for transcendence, and an unyielding aesthetic totality. That work, of course, was Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal.”
If black metal is “a musical genre based on epic gestures and dark romanticism,” as Ika Johannesson and Jon Jefferson Klingberg argue in their 2018 book Blood, Fire, Death, then Wagner invented it first. If you take their elaboration that “black metal soon becomes synonymous with elitism, emphasis on the concept of the übermensch, and various other proto-fascist notions borrowed from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,” Wagner still did it first, especially considering his well-documented friendship with Nietzsche (a bond broken when “Parsifal” out-edged Nietzsche, the original edgelord). The philosopher Slavoj Žižek called Wagner’s opera a debased version of Christianity. Its “temple scenes are, in a sense, Black Masses, perverting the symbols of the Eucharist and dedicating them to a sinister god,” he writes. Such imagery proliferates in black metal lyrics and on its album covers and band T-shirts.
Black metal is often overlooked by musicological studies, likely because of its intentionally shocking ethos, bloody theatricality and often politically incorrect sentiments. A shame, as it’s some of the most sonically engrossing music within the overarching genre of metal. It’s also one of the last unexamined tendrils of contemporary Wagnerism. Much like Wagner’s works, black metal possesses a strong nationalist ethos and a disdain for the other, is infused with a libidinal death drive, and hinges on an all-or-nothing mentality geared toward the Gesamtkunstwerk. Early black metal operated with distinctly Wagnerian tropes: its own long-suffering hero; a Klingsor-like enemy; a longform conceptual Norse myth on the rise and fall of the gods; and warnings about the perceived influence of “Jewish” music. It even saw pseudo-Nibelungs in the form of twin brother duo band Nifelheim.
In a 2002 interview, Thomas Börje Forsberg, better known as Bathory’s founding (and often sole) member Quorthon, said:
I began to listen to classical music shortly after forming Bathory, and from 1985-1986 it was all I would listen to. I had been playing various types of rock in various constellations since 1975, so picking up Wagner, Beethoven, Haydn, and others really broadened my musical awareness extensively. The motif signature naturally comes from the world of opera.
Quorthon thanked Wagner in the liner notes for various Bathory albums, and he wasn’t the only black metal musician to do so. In a 1996 interview, Varg Vikernes—onetime bassist of Mayhem, sole member of the groundbreaking Burzum and a central figure in black metal’s resurgent second wave—cited among his influences “classical, baroque, folk music, romantic music (Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ for example), and techno.” Vikernes went on to call Wagner one of his favorite “bands.”
Bathory typified both the sounds and themes of the genre. Its trajectory is that of black metal itself. Bathory’s initial fascination with satanism and an aesthetic inspired by thrash metal evolved into a focus on folklore, myth, and romanticism, while carving out a sonic style more vast and atmospheric than anything the extreme metal scene had heard before. Viewed through a Wagnerian lens, black metal’s focus on a prevailing feeling—rather than the high-tempo, rapid-fire brutality of the death metal from which it sprung—parallels what Nietzsche disparagingly called Wagner’s “endless melody,” musical structure dependent on repetition and amorphous stagnancy. Motifs blend into others, repeating themselves into an undefined haze. Simply put, it’s A Mood.
The prelude to “Das Rheingold” is an archetypical example of Wagnerian ambience. It begins as a low rumble, basses playing an E-flat more felt than heard. Then bassoons hover above with a B-flat, the rumbling growing into a drone. Finally, a G natural at the top creates an E-flat major triad, and the droning becomes monumental. From here springs the first leitmotif: that of nature, an undulating, slow-moving line. In the 49th bar, the nature motif becomes the arpeggiated Rhine motif, the line building into waves. It swells like the river, creating a sonic impression of the primordial waters from which the entirety of “Der Ring des Nibelungen” arises, and to which its heroes will return.
There is a similarly ambient slow build in Burzum’s “Filosofem,” an album that revolted against black metal’s remaining vestiges of thrash and death to carve out a “Norwegian” sound. The result is drone-like, with a soundscape created from diffused repetition. “Jesus’ Tod,” for instance, is composed of over eight minutes of variations on a single chord. It opens with an arpeggiating riff structure floating around a high C until another motif enters, of half steps slithering around the dominant G. The effect is atmospheric, elemental, as arpeggios circle above the swirling mists of the earth. The original riff then returns an octave lower, overlapping with the half-step undulations: earth and sky as one. This continues until the drums finally come in and the song takes off. This slow-moving, repetitive song requires meditative commitment, but rewards the listener with the effect of worlds materializing.
The defining ambience of black metal is sonic impasto, sound operating at levels broad and minuscule, guided by the flux in between. “Filosofem” strips down the aesthetic cultivated by Bathory over the course of its Viking trilogy, which was completed by the time of Burzum’s formation. That trilogy—“Blood Fire Death,” “Hammerheart,” and “Twilight of the Gods”—completely reformulated Bathory’s sound. In Lords of Chaos, a history of early black metal, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind described “Twilight of the Gods” as an album that “further emphasized the musical elements of European Classical composition. Lyrical themes were drawn from Nietzsche’s dire warnings about the spiritual malady afflicting contemporary mankind.”
This was a stark evolution from the aesthetic established in Bathory’s self-titled debut and subsequent “Under the Sign of the Black Mark,” trading high tempi and compressed sound density for longer track times and more effused, complex structures. “Hammerheart” is the trilogy’s defining album, forgoing the transitional undercurrents of “Blood Fire Death” into longer structures. As Johannesson and Klingberg note in Lords of Chaos, “On ‘Hammerheart,’ Bathory’s music undergoes an epic restructuring. Most of the songs clock in at ten minutes apiece, the vocals are clearly sung and even surrounded by chanted choral backdrops. Richard Wagner is thanked in the credits.” “Blood Fire Death” debuted in 1988, and as Quorthon said, “from ’86 and thereafter, the only thing spinning at my place was classical music in general, and Wagner and Beethoven particularly.”
The first track of “Hammerheart,” titled “Shores in Flames,” opens with the sound of waves breaking. When guitars enter, they arpeggiate in acoustic mode until the first proper riff comes in, an engulfing, monolithic sound—almost three minutes into the song. The rest of “Shores in Flames” consists of variations on the same repetitive refrain, a force overwhelming even the guitar solo, which is less a sonic focal point than accompaniment for the central musical motif. The track ends the way it started with sounds of waves hitting a riverbank, now overlaid with horns and crackling embers— the title made literal (similarities with the end of “Götterdämmerung” likely intentional). The structure of “Shores in Flames” has a Wagnerian counterpart in the Verwandlungsmusik from “Parsifal,” a passage in which the four-note Monstalvat bell leitmotif dissolves into others, finally doubling back to the initial motif. The Verwandlungsmusik appears later in the opera as a corrupted version of itself, a self-nullifying bookend bringing the musical conclusion back to the beginning.
Ambience—in both black metal and Wagner—depends on this stagnancy, simultaneously ever-changing and immutable. It’s Nietzsche’s eternal return. The sonic aesthetic reflects ideological stance, a focus on constant reterritorialization. As the critical theory scholar Benjamin Noys explains in his black metal study “Remain True to the Earth: Remarks on the Politics of Black Metal,” “Black Metal is a Kampfplatz [battlefield], a fissured site of ‘constant return to buried antagonisms,’ that tries to produce the clearing away of a final war of Armageddon but can only constantly reiterate an ‘impure apocalypse.’” Wagner’s works operate with a similar philosophy: The “Ring” details how the gods bring about their own destruction; “Parsifal” studies the burden of unending suffering. Both conclude with the birth of a new world.
This search for new antagonisms births the more unsavory side of Wagner and black metal: If there’s no tangible enemy to struggle against, it’s easy to raise the specter of an imagined other marked through difference. It also brings about the shift from satanism to folklore in black metal. The satanic trend arose from rebellion against the perceived middle-class niceties of Nordic Lutheranism, a dissent that segued into “RETVRN TO TRADITION” tropes. Satanism still acknowledges Christianity, so true repudiation of Anglo-Protestantism is a return to pre-Christianity. Speaking about his pagan inspirations, Quorthon wrote in the “Blood on Ice” liner notes, “I was also a long time fan of the life and works of Richard Wagner, addicted to his operas and aware of what he read when finding inspiration for them, I turned to the same books and legends…. from the works of Wagner I more or less stole the legend of Siegfried and the dying gods of the ‘Götterdämmerung,’ as well as the sword Nothung.”
Quorthon, and black metal more widely, followed the trajectory of Wagner’s late works in reverse. Wagner first delved into recreating a pre-Christian Germanic identity, then moved to restructuring the Christian story into the same site of eternal re-creation. The “Ring” ends with the view that existence is struggle, even for gods, and in the words of musicologist Ernest Newman, “the centre of his ethic now was pity for everything doomed to carry the burden of existence; and it was from this centre outwards that he had already come to survey the Parzival subject afresh.” Christ brought down to the earth, in a “sinister” Black Mass.
This “burden of existence” turns life itself into a battlefield. If existence is a “burden,” it’s also a site of struggle, the ceaseless “impure apocalypse.” Hence why the Wagnerian hero yearns for release from the strain of life. As Noys notes, “Black Metal articulates itself on the earth, on the chthonian and telluric, to establish its aesthetic identity,” a perpetual rearticulation to the same earth it aches to destroy. In “Parsifal,” that which smites can heal, but conversely, healing demands that first blow. In the words of Burzum: “When night falls, she cloaks the world in impenetrable darkness. A chill rises from the soil, and contaminates the air. Suddenly life has new meaning.”
In some ways, the experiences of Wagner and black metal are the same: Listening requires a degree of endurance, but rewards patience with transcendence; fan bases are notoriously rabid and elitist; the subject raises eyebrows (and occasionally voices) when mentioned in certain circles. It’s music that compels participation in the same Kampfplatz from which it operates. As the critic Alex Ross writes in the conclusion of his book Wagnerism:
What we hate in it, we hate in ourselves; what we love in it, we love in ourselves also. In the distance we may catch glimpses of some higher realm, some glimmering temple, some ecstasy of knowledge and compassion. But it is only a shadow on the wall, an echo from the pit.
Maybe it’s not only an echo from the pit. Wagner, like black metal, necessitates those shadows on the wall, those uglier impulses, the dark undercurrent. It’s music that could only ever emanate from the mystic abyss, Bathory’s “dark endless forest, where the day hides the shadows of the night.” ¶
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