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“More down to earth, and in a way more Finnish: straight talk from no-bullshit men.”

One of the more interesting and appreciated items I’ve been asked to review is a recent release from Svart Records’ publishing arm, namely a book focused specifically on the history of Finnish black metal.

Originally published in Finnish (as you might expect), the translation is rather good, with little if any of the stiltedness that often accompanies published transliterations between languages.  While a bit didactic at times and not always as smooth as might be hoped in terms of phrasing and colloquial usage, chances are the average reader would be hard pressed to tell this wasn’t originally written for the idiom…already nice work, before we even get into the meat of the matter.

The book in question is The Devil’s Cradle by a Tero Ikaheimonen, a 550 plus page monster of a book, filled mainly with interviews, but also some more omniscient critical discussion and even a bit of related research in the sections on crime, et al.  But the bulk of this rests on its interviews, as was the case with one of the more recently published of the books I’m about to mention.

While impressive and admirably comprehensive, it may be just a bit different from what the more literary minded of black metallers (and those outsiders curious about same) have come to expect.

It’s hardly as erudite, well written and comprehensive as a Gavin Baddeley book (Lucifer Rising, Goth Chic, The Gospel of Filth), not as sensationalist as Lords of Chaos, as blatantly proselytizing as Wolves Among Sheep* or as contemplative and searching of the bigger picture as Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult.

* though things do swim a bit deeper than one might expect into that territory, most particularly noticeable by the time you get through the Goatmoon interview and the chapter which follows, though underlying traces continually rear their heads throughout.  If nothing else, the regular referencing of Julius Evola in later chapters should ring a few warning bells in that respect.

But it is pretty comprehensive in its attempt to interview many of the major players (and several you’ve likely never heard of) on the Finnish scene, from its very dawn (Beherit, Impaled Nazarene) to the most interesting of its more recent heirs (Satanic Warmaster, Saturnian Mist)…many of whom have been reviewed and/or oft referenced in these very pages, month after month.

Ikaheimonen even speaks to bands somewhat far afield of black metal proper, like the retro-minded blackthrash of Urn (whose recent “comeback album” The Burning we offered duly high praises to) or the oddball experimentalism of …And Oceans.  Suffice to say, few if any stones are left unturned here.

I also much appreciated Musta Surma’s “Strigoi Mort”‘s opinion of the modern (black) metal scene, which deeply echoes that of this veteran metalhead and long time black metaller:

“The ratio is wrong: you must listen to a hundred albums or demos to find just one that’s interesting. Previously, at least every fourth or fifth demo was reasonably good.

I often also think that we’ve heard this before – in the bad sense, I mean. On the one hand, bands don’t have any new points of view to offer, but on the other hand, they can’t offer the traditional ones in any glamorous way, either…but then again, thanks to re-releases, there are a lot of forgotten gems to be discovered among old albums and demos.”

Could have been spoken from my own lips, I tell ya…and probably has been, month after month in these pages.  I appreciate the current generation’s respect and veneration for the classics, and moreso their attempts to recreate and keep the sound vital…but I tell ya, the gems seem few and far between, and unlike the author’s implication that this hasn’t happened yet in the very same interview, it’s clear that the hipsters have taken over, not only, but especially in terms of black metal, where the prefix “post-” is a regular application.

Along the way, you get some amusing schadenfreude road stories, concert mishaps, bad reactions from locals, poorly paid tours and label/distribution stumbling blocks…but that’s just the icing, part and parcel of what it means to be in a band, particularly in a more divisive and underground arena like black metal.

I was especially amused by the band (True) Black Dawn‘s* rather teenaged rebellion tale of trying to get local government funding for their demos (!) which along the way involve a rented truck with a frozen gas line, faking sick leave from school to record, faked, “less offensive” covers (that still managed to piss off city hall) and a rehearsal space “vandalized” by local bible thumpers with bible verses (insert hearty belly laugh here…”ooooh, snap!”).

Reciprocally childish, but hilarious…did I mention their attendance at an ostensible public school run by religious fundamentalist types? Much fun ensues…the same band later winds up using a local water tower as a rehearsal space!

* Whose Come the Colorless Dawn we reviewed last March – all links referenced herein will refer the interested reader to reviews of the respective bands’ coverage elsewhere in these pages.

One thing that becomes apparent is the continuation of what veteran metalheads have seen over the decades with other subgenres of metal, from the US power metal scene to a far more obvious and often quite impactful degree in the thrash and death metal scenes: namely, the interconnectedness of bands in a given subgenre, and their predilection towards swapping members on a regular basis…and the corresponding changes, for better or worse, on the bands they left or joined.

Connections both within and outside of the scene that may or may not have been apparent come to light – Children of Bodom to both Impaled Nazarene and Thy Serpent, Nightwish and Horna to Darkwoods my Betrothed, Satanic Warmaster and Battlelore to Horna.  Some of those were pretty well known, but (perhaps understandably) the more internationally famed, less underground bands are unlikely to trumpet their various members’ past involvement with concerns of this particular bent…

On the other hand, one thing that is peculiar to black metal is the nigh-fascistic singularity of vision of a given founding member on a band’s sound and direction, regardless of how profoundly membership changes impact the quality of subsequent albums.

Almost as a mantra, you’ll find bands like Beherit, Impaled Nazarene or Horna not only continuing the name and legacy of their band despite only one man serving as point of continuity through the years, but more or less maintaining the same approach, sound and focus, companions or no be damned.

While the author does recognize the dips and peaks in quality* in each band’s individual discography, the fact remains that none of these bands have fallen into reunion circuit “prop up the corpse” affairs as pallid imitations of what they once were…and this tends to be due to their unusual focus on the vision and abilities of one man (even apart from the “one man bedroom band” thing so endemic to the genre as a whole).

* and often quite accurately, as when he recognizes Horna’s greatest albums to be the Corvus-era Envaatnags Eflos Solf Esgantaavne and Sanojesi Aarelle, with all others falling somewhere well below those high water marks in quality and worth.  While I’d put the Viha Ja Viikate EP and arguably even Musta Kaipuu above the latter, he’s dead on with the first, and in the base assertion that the Corvus era was the band’s unarguable heyday. Nice to see that acknowledged in print outside of these very pages for a change.

There’s also some attention to the often quite frankly confused spiritual/philosophic underpinnings of the genre and those who make a name for themselves within it. While noting the proliferation of day trippers and poseur post- and “false” types of recent years, you also see just how many of these men, in their own words, display a garbled search for, and jumbled eschatological bases of what outsiders tend to see as “hardcore dedication to satanism” as both function and pillar of what black metal is, existentially speaking.

One after another, you see these men speaking of vague distaste towards mainstream society and canned religion, perhaps atheism or a vague attraction towards darker or more gothicized inclinations…but that’s about it, until they make some brief acquaintance of (generally LaVeyan) satanism or some self-invented “ritualism”, oft later abandoned in favor of anything from folkish or Viking-style paganism (Darkwoods My Betrothed) to Buddhism (Beherit) to even the crudities of national socialism, however blatantly or border-skirting the individuals in question may embrace that rather questionable stance (Azazel, Diaboli, Clandestine Blaze,* Satanic Warmaster, ** Goatmoon).

* though you’d never know it from here, where much attention is given to his label Northern Heritage and associated record store, and Apsa actually comes off rather philosophical.  Note his (deeper and more inverse than what appears at face value, if fascinatingly accurate) volte-face on the usual vehement anti-religious face of black metal:

“In a good situation, [with help of religion] a person can see their own place: their special status, but also their insignificance. That can give birth to something interesting. (But) at worst, religion is an excuse for total thoughtlessness and for having no possibilities to question official truths. If you remain caught in some man-made concept and can’t get rid of dogmatism, then your belief begins to turn sour.

Religion is one of the last ways of being in contact with something greater. You can always flatten it to some psychological joke, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole truth. We haven’t gotten rid of religions, not even with various social experiments, and in the modern world, we have tried to fill that void with who knows what. Still, the need always exists.”

** Penttila too skirts around the issue of his past imagery and splitmates, and is also given to at least one moment of philosophical introspection which yours truly found both amusing and somewhat apropos:

“When you look at how the church and Christianity have degraded themselves, then there are times when I feel a little bit ashamed for that honourable adversary.  If you regard yourself as an opposite of a certain thing for such a long time, then, of course, it will become a special cause of interest for yourself, too.

Sometimes, I get the desire to go up to them and say that, ‘It’s cool, just try to get some kind of a grip on yourself, so that we could have some friction once again…The intention of spiritual rebellion wasn’t to become fully secular and become completely down-to-earth people.”

In fact, there’s quite a bit of philosophizing and introspection to be found along the way here, as when Harald Mentor of Ride for Revenge muses about his break from hardcore and the politics of punk:

“For a while, I also participated in the hardcore and punk thing politically. In my 20s, I began to become aware that things don’t really go that way, at least not for me. That these things, which are considered good, might not be the whole truth. I began to see some sanctimoniousness in all of it, which drove me to nihilism for a while.”

Or IC Rex’s more mature musings about the inevitability of religion (or some substitute thereof) in human nature, regardless of whichever direction one chooses to channel or sublimate such:

“First of all, I would make a clear distinction between the words religion and spirituality. They aren’t the same thing. Religion as this kind of official, institutional thing, raises quite negative feelings. As a personal matter, in turn, religion is seen as quite a good thing.

I absolutely consider a human being to be a religious creature.  It is an inevitable and necessary factor in the structure of man. Even those who call themselves anti-religious are very often really religious in their own processes and in the way how they express it.

The current times are also full of various kinds of fake religions, phenomena that people react to quite religiously, even though you couldn’t find any spiritual aspects in them. For instance, football fanaticism, or sport fanaticism in general, is a good example of a ‘religion without a god’.”

“Shoo” of Charnel Winds also chimes in on this topic, noting how “…in our times, everything has been turned into entertainment, and people are living in a nihilist vacuum without values,” so there is an undercurrent of deep thought running throughout, however individual or skewed each particular interviewee’s personal interpretation and chosen path – and that much we can get behind unreservedly.

While there is often a juvenile desire to shock and offend outsiders (as oft expressed by Miika from Impaled Nazarene, or in earlier interview excerpts and clippings from Horna/Sargeist‘s Shatraug), the Finnish scene seems marked far less by the direct action of the Norwegian or Polish scenes* than a more benign schoolboyish outsider vain plotting or unfulfilled threats against their local churches and suchlike (as in the chapter on “satanist crimes and black metal in Finland).

* with the possible, arguable exception of a few extremists around the town of Kotka, mostly those in the circle of the demo act Vornat.

Seldom do we encounter more than a teenaged tendency to blow things up bigger than they actually are, or any deep seated spiritual or magickal apprehension and practice…with a handful of notable exceptions (Saturnian Mist,* IC Rex, possibly “Moonthorn” of Alghazanth and “Eorl Tort Tyrannus” of Warloghe, from some of their references herein).

* and among all of these, it’s probably no surprise that the most obvious indications of gnosis and the esoteric understanding and practice that lie behind it spill from the mouth of “Fra. Zetekh” – by comparison to other discussions contained herein, he’s speaking on a different level entirely (be that attractive or serving as warning).  If you will, selah.

The juvenalia…or if you’re one of those Intersectionalist assholes, “privilege” of playing at being eeeeevil and shocking the subsceptibilities of the uptight around you is well stated by Kenny of …And Oceans, who’s clearly had to face up the realities of a more adult, less protected and insular life than most teenagers would yet even understand (much less have to deal with on a daily basis) from his insight here:

“I believe that it had a lot to do with the fact that we were working or studying, we had a roof over our head, cars and all that jazz, and didn’t have any problems in life, really.

It was a kind of ‘elitists looking for the down-the-drain’ feeling. Excitement in life, drama and melancholy. We maybe wanted to be more in trouble than what we were in reality. People should realize what difficult conditions one might face in life and to what extent things can go to hell. In life, it’s never going to be just a walk in the park.”

In point of fact, all this sinister playacting and faux-to-neo-occultism of black metal per se really seems to boil down to a more basic individualism – at least a Social Libertarian or Anarchistic stance (minus the political associations thereto), if not a sort of misguided attempt towards existential authenticity per se.

As (True) Black Dawn‘s “Wrath” puts it, “It would be quite contradictory to speak about individualism and spiritual strength, and then limit what you can do for fear of what others might think,” sentiments those of us raised under the mantra “question authority – question everything” should take (and strive to live by) as a matter of course, spiritual inclinations in any direction be damned.

Of course, there is always something underlying, however nebulous and unformed…but listening to most of these scene leaders speak, precious little speaks to serious esotericism of any sort.  So much for “satanic elitism”…

The bottom line is, however serious a few parties are about all of this, the Finnish scene seems marked by a far more casual, considered, melodically inclined approach to black metal – one more centered on the music than any coherent “message”, more focused on making a uniquely quite listenable music than in carrying out violent crimes on peers and society at large.

And while that may sound less “dangerous” and “exciting” than the juvie hall scandal-baiting of a Lords of Chaos, it’s a far more rational and insidious form of delivery – making whatever deeper meanings or intent easier to swallow and digest.

Which in its own way, can be far more dangerous…not to mention effective…than the more blatant and headline grabbing nonsense kids and newbies tend to consider the most important element and “draw” of the black metal movement.

No, it’s not the best book on black metal and related scenes and subjects I’ve read.

But it’s certainly a damn good one, and one that finally, and it must be said, quite definitively redresses the often sidelined, barely noted status of the Finnish scene in published historographies to date.

Moreover, diving into this book has brought me to the realization that my growing distaste towards the current black metal scene (and concomitant loss of vitality of even the classics as an extension thereof) was, like everything else in life, cyclical.

As with a magickal retirement, the winds blow and the river of Tao flows as it will, and there are times and seasons for everything…but seldom is anything truly abandoned or parted with entirely – and what seems long dead may well return with a vengeance.

So let this much be clear: if you release a lame, derivative, on a trendy “occult” pose album and find yourself getting mercilessly slammed, it’s on your own damn head, not due to any utter rejection of black metal per se on my part.

Like “Strigoi Mort”, I’m dusting off some neglected corners of the collection and even finding a few old gems I’d previously managed to overlook or dismiss. Maybe it’s time for the scene to revisit what made the great albums and demos actually work, rather than running off on stupid tangents that ultimately lead nowhere.

So yeah, somewhere amidst all its speculations and perambulations and discussions with Finnish black metallers of all stripe, this book had some practical value, above and beyond the expected historographical end of the equation.

Hell, if nothing else, it got me pulling out the Horna again…

Raise the horns.