When I initially learned of Vice’s plan to publish True Norwegian Black Metal, I tempered my expectations, half expecting a hatchet job on one of the most significant music genres to develop over the past 20 years. Vice, after all, is well noted for its hipster status and sardonic treatment of subject matter -- both factors, combined with black metal’s rising popularity, leaving me with uneasy feelings about the project’s sincerity. I had no plans to pursue the book upon its release, but after learning about its presence on the shelf of a local bookseller, I soon fell to temptation and found myself in possession of a powerful piece of music history.
Compiled by documentary photographer Peter Beste, True Norwegian Black Metal is a collection of images captured over a five-year span during which Beste made some 13 trips to Norway to pursue his interest in the country’s notorious and reclusive metal scene. For those not up to speed on metal affairs, Norwegian black metal dates back to the early ’90s and can be generally identified by its extreme musical approach, as well as its aggressive anti-Christian ideology and nihilism. Founding members popularized the practice of wearing medieval-looking armor and introduced the wearing of “corpse paint" -- heavily applied black and white make-up, often highlighted by real or fake blood splatter. Many of the scene’s most prominent members have been convicted of a variety of crimes, including murder, church burning and violent assault. Among these is Gaahl, lead vocalist for Gorgoroth, who is one of Beste’s main subjects and in recent years has become sort of an unofficial scene spokesperson.
Black metal does not take kindly to strangers, so it is no small feat then that Beste was able to shed his outsider status and gain the kind of access that led to these unguarded and sometimes disturbing photos. Nattefrost’s offering of his upside-down cross on the book’s cover is a commanding introduction of what follows inside. Beste’s photographs are shot in a variety of contexts: live in performance, backstage and behind the scenes, candid and close up, and posed in the midst of the Norwegian wilderness. Striking images of the graven-faced Gaahl and the wary stare of a passerby at the corpse-painted Kvitrafn represent some of the book’s strongest work, but perhaps the most impressive of Beste’s shots is a two-page spread of Immortal’s Abbath lumbering down the path of a moss-covered forest.
Beste’s photography, presented both in color and black and white, contains a grainy haze that adds gloom to an already grim world of black metal and expresses in image a misanthropic perspective words would fail to articulate. Some of these photos have already appeared on the sleeves and in the liner notes of various recordings, but brought together in this collection they become part of a fluid narrative that illustrates Norwegian black metal’s complexity, from its isolationist tendencies and angry desperation to its prepubescent absurdity. Frankly, this book accomplishes what other attempts to document black metal’s sordid history have failed to do: allow for individual layers of interpretation without tabloid fanfare or scripted narration, a level of participation that both the bands and Beste would certainly encourage and invite.
And as if 157 pages of massively-sized (11.25” x 14.25”) photos was not enough, the book also includes 25 pages of noteworthy documents from Norwegian black metal’s early days, including various news clippings, letters, pictures and fanzine excerpts. The folks over at Vice should be commended for their commitment to this project, for it has resulted in a crucial piece of musicology.