In the face of death
Ten years ago, Norway was rocked by a brutal murder and a string of arson attacks linked to the Black Metal band Mayhem. Now, on tour with the group, Chris Campion asks what really happened - and finds that even the darkest Satanists have a human side
Sunday February 20, 2005
Backstage after the first show of a whistle-stop winter tour of Norway, Necro Butcher, bassist with Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem, is already a bit tipsy. He is gleefully reading back his own words from an article about the band in the local newspaper. 'I promise not to throw animal heads at the audience in Bergen,' he preens.
The last time the band played in the city, a sheep's head thrown from the stage smashed into the skull of an audience member. 'He wasn't watching the band,' shrugs Necro Butcher. 'He was talking to a girl,' he says, implying that the man should have known better. Animal heads speared on microphone stands are de rigueur for a Mayhem show. 'We usually use pigs' heads but we couldn't get one that night. We like to throw them to the audience at the end of the show so they can, y'know, play around with them.'
He returns his attention to the double page spread, holding it aloft with outstretched arms. 'Fuckin' excellent!' he slurs. 'This 'is the first positive article ever written about Mayhem in Norway.'
To put that in context, the band have been around for more than 20 years. Their peers acknowledge them as the originators of Norwegian Black Metal (often referred to as its country's biggest cultural export), defining both its antagonistic sound and attitude. Black Metal relishes its position as the most extreme form of music imaginable.
In the early Nineties, a spate of church burnings and three grisly deaths stoked blazing headlines that described the nihilistic rampage of the satanically-minded youth. The limits of tolerance in this largely secular society were sorely tested by sensational stories centred not on the music's fans but the bands themselves. And, as far as the Norwegian media are concerned, when it comes to Black Metal all roads lead to Mayhem, whose terrible and bloody history eclipses the debauchery of even the most hardened rock bands.
Before Mayhem had even released their first studio album in 1993, a creepy masterpiece called De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, singer Dead had committed suicide and founding guitarist Euronymous had been brutally murdered by session bassist Count Grishnackh (with second guitarist, Snorre Ruch, acting as his accomplice). Grishnackh was already suspected of initiating the church burnings that began in 1992.
'We couldn't really buy better publicity,' Necro Butcher acknowledges sagely. 'But every time we lost a member we had to find somebody else to replace them and start the whole rehearsing process again. We suffered in that way as a band.'
Gnomic and gnome-like (the band's road crew affectionately refer to him as 'Micro Butcher'), Mayhem's 36-year old bassist is in some ways Norway's answer to Lemmy; a stoic veteran who has helped steer the band he co-founded in 1984 through personal tragedy and public vilification.
Drummer Hellhammer is the next longest-standing member of Mayhem. He's also the quietest. A compact figure with darkly handsome (but distinctly un-Scandinavian) features which are immaculately groomed, he always seems to be at the centre of his own party backstage. 'He may look quiet,' says one member of the crew, 'but he's the most twisted of the lot.'
Euronymous's replacement is a tightly wired guitarist by the name of Blasphemer. With his long, dyed black hair and a tuft of beard that curls underneath his chin which he is for ever absent-mindedly stroking, he looks like a Black Metal dandy. He also has a rapier wit and a refined taste for red wine, amphetamines and sweet revenge.
One hapless journalist who had the knives out for Mayhem every time they played Bergen found this out the hard way. 'One time he made some personal comments about myself and Hellhammer,' says the guitarist, 'so after the show, we drove to a slaughterhouse, picked up a pig's head and dropped it off at his house with a dagger stuck between its eyes. 'We never heard from him again,' he says, pursing his lips with pleasure.
Despite the tour schedule - four dates in four days, requiring them to cover more than 1,200 miles of treacherous mountain road up and down the country in a cramped 16-seater mini-van - spirits in the band are high. It's the first time they have toured with Hungarian singer Attila Csihar (his real name), a surprisingly mellow guy who comes across like a stoned Bela Lugosi. Recruited after Dead's suicide to record vocals for the Dom Mysteriis album, Attila lent his own touch of madness to the project with a possessed vocal style that swings from the operatic to a bestial growl. At its grotesque best, his singing sounds like vomit. Attila's initial tenure with the band was cut short by Euronymous's death.
Another frontman, called Maniac, left the band in 2004 through mutual consent. But not before Blasphemer had made his displeasure known, at what he felt was Maniac's lack of commitment, by kicking him down a flight of stairs as they came off stage - and twice slamming his head facefirst into a wall. 'Blasphemer actually came and asked my permission beforehand,' an amused Necro Butcher confides. 'Maniac had terrible stage fright. He'd get so drunk beforehand that he couldn't remember the words.' Perhaps not surprisingly, that was his last show.
In the insular world of Norwegian metal, Attila's return to Mayhem is a major event. The Bergen show has brought some local heavyweights out to see the band. They include a bellowing man mountain called Abbath, guitarist with Black Metal stalwarts Immortal, and Gaahl, 28-year old vocalist with Gorgoroth, a tall, thin fellow with piercing eyes and a wizard-like beard tightly plaited at its tail.
Although exceedingly polite and softspoken, Gaahl has a history of arrests for violence that would make any gangsta rapper blush with shame. He's currently awaiting sentencing on charges of torture and committing ritual acts. It is alleged he beat his victim - a man who had turned up uninvited and inebriated to an after-hours party at his house - threatened to sacrifice him and gave him a cup into which to bleed. Acting as his own defence, Gaahl claimed in court that he had been attacked first and his assailant was only provided with a cup 'so that he wouldn't make such a mess in my house'. The singer refuses to discuss his version of events in detail now for fear of prejudicing the outcome of the trial, but insists he was attacked as part of a hit organised by a man with whom he had a prior dispute.
The use of violence, according to Gaahl, is only necessary when people cross his clearly defined borders. 'Everything deals with respect. The way I think of it is that you have to punish ... or teach,' he corrects himself, 'anyone that crosses your borders so that they won't do it again.'
Gaahl's ethical code derives from Odinism, the pagan religion of the Vikings that predates Christianity in Norway and is also the occult philosophy that underpins Black Metal. Many in the scene have adopted or adapted names from Norse mythology.
'Black Metal was never meant to reach an audience,' Gaahl says. 'It was purely for our own satisfaction. Something entirely selfcentred. The shared goal was to become the true Satan; the elite human, basically. The elite are above rules. So people did what they wanted to do. And they had a common enemy which was, of course, Christianity, socialism and everything that democracy stands for, especially this idea that every man is alike and equal to his neighbour. That, of course, is a fake.'
Gaahl's extremist outlook is undoubtedly influenced by his surroundings. He lives on a farm three hours outside of Bergen, isolated from the mass of humanity. 'My family owns three mountains,' he says. 'There's not much else around there. Love of nature is a big part of Black Metal. It's easy to feel isolated in nature. And solitude and distance from everyone else is very important to us.'
As Mayhem's tour bus winds through plateaus and fjords for hundreds of miles on its way from Bergen (a western port town) to Kristiansand in the south, it's easy to see what he means. Norway is a country in which nature has the upper hand. At times blizzards make it impossible to see more than a couple of metres in front of the van. When the skies clear, the awesome landscape communicates its majesty through an eerie silence. Trees laden with snow are contorted into obsequious poses, as if compelled to bow down by forces beyond their control. And with the onset of dusk, the craggy profiles of the black mountains take on a malefic aspect, casting a dark shadow across the land.
This epic geography bleeds unabated into the harsh, cold and unforgiving mood of Black Metal. It's hard to think of a music that sounds more appropriate to the environment from which it emerged. Its chief characteristic is a chilling vibrato guitar style developed by Mayhem's Euronymous and Snorre Ruch that provides an oddly harmonious counterpoint to the stark brutality of the rhythm section.
Fenriz, the anaemic-looking drummer and lyricist for Darkthrone, has a wealth of opinions about what constitutes the true Norwegian Black Metal sound. A self-deprecating music geek whose arms are covered with intentionally bad heavy metal tattoos, Fenriz can sometimes be found, beer and fag in hand, lodged behind a table at Oslo's Elm Street Cafe, a drinking den popular with metal musicians.
He is obsessed with maintaining the rawness and purity of early Black Metal. To that end, he is endlessly compiling mixtapes that seek to define its influences. The first was released on CD through British label Peaceville as Fenriz Presents ... The Best Of Old School Black Metal.
'There wasn't a generic sound back then,' he explains. 'We had to decide ourselves what we deemed worthy of the Black Metal stamp. There were many "Thrash" releases with a lot of "Black" in them, whereas others had no "Black" at all. This is not maths, so I can't say one plus one equals 30. It had something to do with production, lyrics, the way they dressed and a commitment to making ugly, raw, grim stuff.
'I started out with a simple kit: just one snare, a floor tom and a couple of cymbals. But then, I've been pushing the envelope for years. I work in the post office,' he deadpans. Despite having an extensive back catalogue - 'We're currently working on our "difficult" 13th album,' he says - and selling several thousand copies of each new release, Fenriz, like many of Black Metal's leading lights, still holds down a regular job. (When he's not touring or recording with Mayhem, Hellhammer also works; as a night watchman in a mental hospital.)
'Before the whole Black Metal thing blew up in 93/94, it was all very DIY,' says Fenriz, who decries the watered-down approach ofcommercial Black Metal. 'After that you could just call up [German metal label] Nuclear Blast and get a deal. It was very underground before then. We could walk the streets looking like insane motherfuckers and no-one knew what the hell was going on. We just looked like freaks. But then the media got hold of it and suddenly everyone knew what we'd been up to ... unfortunately.' He laughs.
The event that brought black to the world occurred on Saturday, 6 June 1992. On that day, the Fantoft Stave Church near Bergen, a magnificent 12th-century gothic structure made of wood and acknowledged as a historical landmark, was razed. Lightning strikes and electrical failures rather than foul play were thought to be the chief suspects. But in January 1993 Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, summoned a journalist from a local paper, Bergens Tidendes, to a loft apartment decorated with 'Nazi paraphernalia, weapons and Satanic symbols'. The windows were blacked out with carpet. Vikernes gave a gloating interview in which he claimed that the Black Metal scene, having effectively declared war on Christianity and Norwegian society, was responsible for some eight church burnings so far and intended to continue its campaign of terror.
No physical evidence ever emerged to connect Vikernes to the crime, but he brazenly used a photo of the church's charred remains to promote Askes (Norwegian for 'ashes'), an album by his solo recording project, Burzum. Despite repeatedly denying his involvement, he is widely believed to have taken the photo himself.
In one fell swoop, he also brought the full force of the Norwegian authorities down on the Black Metal scene. Mayhem, their associates, and members of other bands were rounded up and arrested for questioning. A special police intelligence unit was set up to investigate criminal happenings within the scene.
'The threat was that we were organising a lot of loonies with this type of music,' says Necro Butcher. 'You could also say that the church burnings were a sort of attack on homeland security. I was against the church burning and so was Hellhammer.'
Nevertheless, Necro Butcher was initially blamed for two of the attacks by police. 'Soon after, I met this chick at a party and ended up taking her back to my place,' he recalls. 'The next morning, she told me that she'd burnt those churches. I said, "That's good because I was framed for your crime but it was nice to meet you anyway. And nice to fuck you too!" She was a Black Metal girl. Now she's a Nazi girl. She was the daughter of another loony. Her mother was involved in one of those women's groups that storms into stores and throws out the pornos. So you can see the type of insanity that was around.'
Once the spotlight was cast on the scene, it never left. Necro Butcher's family farm outside Oslo was raided just three years ago. Police discovered a stash of weed and an assault rifle fitted with a sniper's scope and a silencer. When asked why he had it, he grins, 'Boys like their toys, y'know. I've always collected any kind of weapon that came my way.'
A further search of the farm revealed a hoard of hand grenades and tear gas canisters. 'My grandfather and uncle stole them from the army,' he claims. 'But the police tried to pin that on me also. They wanted to throw the book at me.' He ended up serving a year in prison.
'The secret police actually called me up three months ago,' he continues. 'They said, we want to have a talk with you. But they didn't really have anything to say. I think they just wanted to check up on me.' The stakes were never so high back in the early days, when Necro Butcher says that the impetus to form Mayhem was 'just a stupid boy fantasy'. He and Euronymous met in 1983, They lived in the same Oslo suburb and bonded over their shared love of Motörhead and Venom (a Satanic-themed group from Newcastle with a punk-metal sound who coined the term 'Black Metal' in 1982).
'We just decided immediately that we were going to start a band. But it was always a cat and dog thing between me and Øystein,' he says, referring to Euronymous by his familiar, first name. 'We had one similar interest - the band - but everything else was different. While I was out raising hell with all my drug friends, he was home writing letters. He was the quiet type with all the strange friends, listening to Brian Eno and all this "bing, bong, bing bong" music. I didn't have time to fuck around with all of that.'
Ever-shifting line-ups meant that Mayhem rarely played live. Instead they recorded cassette demos, which they traded with other bands and sold by mail order through fanzines. 'That's how we corresponded with our audience,' says Necro Butcher. 'It was the way of the times. This type of music didn't have a stage to play on. So we got it out by dividing the world between us. I had Australia and America. Øystein had everything that was obscure, like Russia and China.'
As well as being an ardent music fan, Euronymous was an enthusiastic adherent of communism and was once a member of a local Marxist-Leninist youth organisation; adirection that created an uneasy tension with his band-mates.
'Any correspondence with Euronymous quickly escalated into very long letters,' says Bård Eithin, former drummer with another early Black Metal band called Emperor. Eithin was just 13 years old and living in almost cultural isolation in a town of 500 people, 400 miles from Oslo, when he first became pen-pals with Euronymous in 1987. 'He was very enthusiastic about the idea of releasing music to people in countries that otherwise wouldn't have the ability to hear it, especially in the East.'
The letter-writing also brought Mayhem into contact with Dead, a Swede who joined Mayhem when his band Morbid folded in 1988. Serious illness as a child and a near death experience convinced him that he had died and was now a being from another world. His beliefs are preserved in the vampiric lyrics he wrote for De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Dead reputedly carried around the carcass of a crow in a jar and would inhale fumes from it before taking the stage so he could perform with the stench of death in his nostrils. He also took to donning a white greasepaint visage, designed to mimic the pallor of 13th-century plague victims.
'It wasn't anything to do with the way Kiss and Alice Cooper used make-up,' says Necro Butcher. 'Dead actually wanted to look like a corpse. He didn't do it to look cool. He would draw snot dripping out of his nose. That doesn't look cool. He called it corpse-paint.
'When Dead first arrived in Norway, Necro Butcher took it upon himself to make sure their new singer had somewhere to live and was looked after. Euronymous, on the other hand, apparently did his best to make him feel uncomfortable. 'He tried to psych him out,' says Necro Butcher. 'He would tell Dead, "We don't like you. You should just kill yourself." Stuff like that.'
And then, one day in the spring of 1991, Dead did just that. Euronymous came back to their house to discover his body slumped against a wall. He had slashed his wrists with a butcher's knife and blown his brains out with a shotgun. His suicide note had a morbid humour . It read, 'Excuse all the blood. Let the party begin.' For reasons best known to himself, Euronymous took pictures of Dead's remains before notifying the police.
'Øystein called me up the next day,' recalls Necro Butcher, 'and says, "Dead has done something really cool! He killed himself." I thought, have you lost it? What do you mean cool? He says, "Relax, I have photos of everything." I was in shock and grief. He was just thinking how to exploit it. So I told him, "OK. Don't even fucking call me before you destroy those pictures."'
Several years later a lurid photo of Dead, lying in a shabby room in which the only splash of colour was provided by his blood, somehow found its way onto the cover of a Mayhem bootleg produced in South America. By resigning as bassist of Mayhem, Necro Butcher fatefully left his position open for Varg Vikernes, Euronymous's eventual killer, to enter the picture.
'In retrospect,' Butcher muses. 'I think Øystein was shocked by Dead's suicide. And taking the photograph was the only way he could cope with it, like, "if I have to see this, then everybody else has to see it too".'
'Afterwards, there was a change in mentality,' says Bård Eithin, who believes that Dead's suicide marked the point at which, under Euronymous's direction, the Black Metal scene began its obsession with all things satanic and evil. Two months later,
Euronymous moved to Oslo. He opened a shop called Helvete ('Hell'), from which he also ran his own label, Deathlike Silence Productions. The walls of the shop were painted black and hung with medieval weapons, pictures discs and band posters. In the window was a tombstone crafted from polystyrene. Euronymous began to create a persona as the embodiment of an ancient evil. Promo photos from the time show him dressed in a black cloak holding a rapier. The corpse-paint has become more stylised; his gaze, distant and remote. He looks like a character from a German expressionist movie.
'I think it was then that Euronymous discovered he had the power to influence people in any way he wanted,' says Eithin, who worked in the store for the year that it was open for business and lived in an apartment at the back. 'If you have a group of people like that who are very close, they start to create their own rules, their own morals and, at the end of the day, end up with a twisted philosophy built on hatred and frustration towards the rest of society. It's the archetypal way to create mass psychosis. A lot of people say it must have been the desire to rebel against Christianity and conformity in Norway. But I think it was just coincidence, people meeting each other at the right or wrong time.'
The catalyst was the introduction of Varg Vikernes into the mix of characters. 'No one knew who he was when he first came to Helvete,' Eithin says. 'He came out of nowhere, this serious-looking guy from Bergen who doesn't drink alcohol but milk. He would always be drinking from cartons of milk whereas a lot of the others were almost alcoholics. It was a party scene. And he stood out from the crowd.' (Butcher claims that Euronymous was also not much of a drinker until he moved to Oslo: 'At the age 24, he discovered that beer was actually pretty good.')
Euronymous took Vikernes, who was five years younger than him, under his wing: inviting him to play bass with Mayhem and offering to release his music as Burzum. 'Vikernes was a very productive guy and also very enthusiastic like Euronymous,' says Eithin. 'He was able to record two albums a year while Euronymous was struggling to finish his first full album with Mayhem.'
Predictably, their friendship turned to rivalry. The newspaper interview in which Vikernes took credit for the burning of the Fantoft church gave him extra kudos in his struggle for position as leader of the scene. 'It's sounds really silly,' Eithin says, but I think there was a little bit of a contest between them to see who could be more evil. It created a very difficult situation, especially for Euronymous, who wanted the glamour and the showbiz. With him, there was a lot of smoke but not so much fire.'
But it was Eithin who raised the stakes for transgressive behaviour. In August 1992, while visiting his parents in Lillehammer, he killed a man who had propositioned him in the Winter Olympic Park, stabbing him 37 times with a pocket knife. The body was discovered the next day. Eithin was not caught for a year, despite his guilt being an open secret within the crowd at Helvete; no doubt, this contributed to the feeling that they were now able to do anything with impunity.
'The destructive side of the scene encouraged the criminal happenings,' says Eithin, who served eight years in prison for the killing. 'It became very difficult for Euronymous. I think he felt he had to prove that he could be a part of it and not just in the background.' Euronymous reacted to the insecurity he felt about his position in the scene by resorting to the tactics he had used on Dead. 'Øystein was always sending death threats to people,' says Necro Butcher. 'It was his reaction to everything. But he didn't put so much into it. And then when he met you, he was like, "OK. You're cool!". Then you were best friends. So when eventually he got to be unfriendly with Varg, he threatened him like he did everyone else. Øystein told him, "I'm going to send some people to torture you. Until you die." But Varg Vikernes saw this as a real threat. He probably thought, "better him than me. I'll just go down and do him".'
Although this last statement is purely speculation by Butcher, it tallies with Vikernes's claims that he killed Euronymous in self-defence. Euronymous was in his underwear when he answered the door to Vikernes at his Oslo apartment at 4am on 10 August 1993. In the melee, Vikernes chased Euronymous through the stairwell stabbing him 24 times in the chest, back and head.
Again the police arrested Vikernes and he was charged in September following a confession by his accomplice, Snorre Ruch. The darkly charismatic and articulate Vikernes commanded the front pages during his spring 1994 trial for murder, arson and possession of illegal weapons (police found 150 kilos of explosives at his home). 'The Count', as he was known, quickly became Norway's answer to Charles Manson.
Sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum term under Norwegian law, Vikernes soon renounced Black Metal and embraced his own heathen neo-Nazi philosophy. Recent photos show him sporting a blond Hitler haircut. In November 2003, just six months before he was due to be released, he absconded during weekend leave. Police arrested him two days later in Oslo.
'I think that as events rolled on, it became evident that people wanted it to go as far as possible,' says Eithin, who now works as a driver for a recycling company. 'It was hopeless for everyone as the crimes carried on. We all realised it had to end sometime. It was probably a good thing that a lot of us were taken out of the scene when we were.'
Mayhem, though, refused to bow to destiny. 'Me and Hellhammer got together at Øystein's funeral and decided to carry on with the band,' says Necro Butcher. Their first order of business was to release the almost-completed De Mysteriis album.
'Because Vikernes played bass on it, Øystein's parents didn't want it to come out.' says Hellhammer. 'I thought it was appropriate that the murderer and victim were on the same record. I put word out that I was re-recording the bass parts. But I never did .
'With Attila's return, the band's fortune seems to have come full circle. The last date on the tour (Trondheim) feels eerily appropriate. Mayhem are due to play in a labyrinthine student building that sits directly opposite Nidaros-Domen, the grand cathedral whose silhouette graces the cover of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. ('We used it because it was one of the most beautiful churches in Norway,' says Hellhammer. 'And Vikernes, of course, had planned to blow it up.')
Two crew members emerge from behind a long red curtain and theatrically hold up the pigs' heads before impaling them on microphone stands lined up at the front of the stage. As they do so, 1,000 wild-eyed metal fans, fuelled by 96 per cent proof home-made moonshine (the preferred drink of Norwegians up north) and drunk on blood lust, let out a delighted roar. When the curtain rises, the stage looks like a slaughterhouse. Another 16 slack-jawed pigs heads leer out from atop the amps. Attila stands front and centre, wearing his own take on the corpse-paint; an abstraction of the satanic goat of Mendes design transposed onto his features, distorting his face in a serpentine fashion. Black horns jut out from heavily shadowed eyes and up into his temples. He holds aloft a fearsome double-bladed dagger that looks like it could disembowel a horse; his lyrics emerge in an incomprehensible stream as a moaning death rattle. Behind him Mayhem sound like a band at war with the world. And possibly even themselves.
At the close of the show, Blasphemer puts down his guitar and furiously hurls a pig's head into the audience. Backstage he spits bile at his bandmates: the performance hasn't lived up to his exacting standards. Out front though, the crowd seem calm, satiated. One lucky teenage fan has secured a trophy. Girls surround the tall, handsome youth, cooing at the pig's head that hangs his side, as he grips it by the ear like a cherished toy animal.http://observer.guardian.co.uk/omm/story/0,13887,1415240,00.html