The Serpent and the Pentagram: The Official Chronicles of Necromantia by The Magus and Aris Shock (2023)

Most popular music memoirs fall into either criticism or worship of the phenomenon of popular music itself, focusing more on the fan response and megalomania of musicians than the reasons behind the creation of this music. The Serpent and the Pentagram takes a different approach.

Fortunately for those who like to read about metal, this retrospective focuses on the psychology of the participants, the music and art that influenced them, and the process by which they got to where they are. It seems almost disinterested in selling the band or glorifying the grandiose rockstar dreams that are shot through metal, rock, and just about anything else at this point.

Cowriter Aris Shock knows when to simply write a few lines of introduction for context and framing, then quote The Magus (also known as Morbid and Magus Wampyr Dalaoth) at length for several pages before throwing in quotations from others in the scene, basically allowing an organic process for the reader instead of a guided narrative bent on making a point. That is the great thing about this book: the point is what happened, and the book is like a discussion over coffee and cigarettes of how it came to be.

We used to go to a mountain area near Corinth, because my father was an employee of the observatory there. There were guest rooms in that place and my father permitted us to stay on the mountain for a couple of weeks. I recall that The Worshiper of Pan and Dave, the guitar player, joined us once. It was a great experience, because the place was fenced all around. It was many acres of land encircled with a fence, so it was just us there. Sometimes we were also working as watchmen of the place. We had the keys and we didn’t allow other people to enter. So, we were the only people on that mountain, in a radius of thirty or forty kilometers. On a few occasions, we even brought our amplifiers with us. We would plug them in at maximum volume at two o’clock at night and play, because it was just us and the mountain. We would create new music that way. We would also explore the mountain area and do some hiking.

When we stayed in the room, we had a VCR player and we would watch video tapes. It was mostly horror movies, which we hadn’t seen during winter. We had copied them from several VHS rental stores, so our summer holidays were a good chance to watch them together. In the past, we had also done some horror movie marathons, watching four or five movies in a single night, from ten o’clock at night to ten in the morning. We loved directors like Argento, Bava and Fulci and zombie movies. Actually, Baron Blood and I prefered occult horror movies, but The Worshiper of Pan was obsessed with zombie movies. So, our horror marathons included watching movies, eating junk food and drinking for twelve hours. These were great times and I miss all that… We watched some crap movies as well, because we didn’t know what to expect. We watched them all until the end, nevertheless. That was our pact. (193)

Much of this book serves to capture the “feel” or psychological state of those approaching black metal: a fin de siècle sensation of the passing of an old era, the failure of the new, and the need to get in touch with what is eternal, even of the everyday variety such as friendship, nature, and looking into the dark amorphous space underpinning all life, whether secular or metaphysical.

The Magus serves as an ideal candidate because he is a polymath — musician, producer, martial artist, writer — who reveals a broad cross-section of the lifestyles, ideas, and personalities behind black metal. Much of this book, ostensibly about him and his work, focuses on the work of others as a type of context framework which explains what he is doing without having to explicitly state it.

Organized into sections based first time periods and then on the released to which The Magus has contributed, the book serves to explain the non-“puritan” approach of Necromantia, which was almost a pure music project designed to project a certain atmosphere of the collision of the ancient and the modern.

As others have observed, one normally throws on an album for an experience, but Necromantia albums are more like lots of little experiences, with each album having a concept and within it, each song having a concept. This makes the songs more demonstrative than many would like, but injects variety and covers a wide range of ideas.

Then, me and Baron Blood decided we should do something really epic with it, because the lyrics are so intense and show the desperation of a human trapped in religion; especially one of the morally conscious religions. These people always ask for Satan to have mercy on their long distress and misery. It’s like they are seeking help from Satan, to liberate themselves from the misery and stupid morality that religions have imposed on man. (68)

The question of “what it all means” is mostly relegated to the lyrics of the band or an implicit sense that life is good, the supernatural is real, and therefore we are all in a struggle of order versus disorder (not quite “chaos”) in which sanity, balance, discipline, and clarity must prevail for function to exist, which if you see life as basically good, is close to the idea of the transcendental good, beautiful, and true but with a bit of an occult, hermetic, and pagan twist.

Watching The Magus grow up from a confused teenager seeking a sense of power and excitement in metal music to become a bassist creating his own works and working synergistically with others to render a vision in sound provides a sort of everyman view to the metalhead story: we have all walked this path to some degree, going from outsider to insider to someone wondering what it all meant.

His description of daily life in Greece, as well as some of the generational aspects of exploring the occult and dark sounds in music, will resonate with each metalhead on Earth, since to sign up for antisocial-sounding music means stepping outside the easy path to careers, socializing, and having “normal” lives that most people not just take for granted but seek as the easiest option.

We wanted to honour what many people call paganism, a term I personally find wrong. We were thinking of the ancient Greek pantheon, the Scandinavian pantheon and all religions that were present in Europe before Christianity spread over the continent.

…Christianity was not imposed peacefully; it was actually imposed by fire and blood. Some ancient traditions survived in a more underground way and some are even practiced today. It seems funny when some people ask ‘how can you believe in fairytales like the twelve gods of Olympus?’. I think it’s even funnier if someone believes in the fairytale of an all-existing god, a messiah, the angels and an apocalypse to come. It’s just a different fairytale.

…The song has the lyrics ‘Our gods became your Satan and Satan became our god’, because Christianity viewed every older tradition as being connected with Satan. Everything that had to do with earthly pleasures and wasn’t regarded as Christian was considered evil and satanic. So, these two verses of the song are symbolic about what happened when Christianity was imposed, first in the European continent and then the rest of the world, dominating completely the western world and imposing its own version of ethics on what is evil or divine. (137)

Through this angle, he elaborates on much of what made Necromantia stand out on a lyrical level, namely the Burzum-style “syncretic eclecticism” applied to the study of ancient beliefs and modern hermeticism of many forms, spanning the countries and ages of the world.

Creating songs around concepts can be a daunting task because it subtracts from the uniformity of sound that makes it easy to enter the environment of a band, but it also allows the musicians to signpost what they find resonant, namely concepts of a world before modernity and its now-demonized beliefs slowly coalescing into a view for the next age.

Actually, even from the early days of forming Necromantia, both me and Baron Blood shared a similar view on the occult world. We had a very broad perspective and we used actual traditions that existed before Christianity. We also incorporated fictional traditions, like the Lovecraftian ones. I believe that the Cthulhu mythos in Lovecraft’s cosmology was so intense that it actually became a real tradition in its own, in a way. Some of his concepts existed in other pre-Christian traditions before. We wanted Necromantia to be in a broader spectrum of the darker side. Despite Venom being my most favorite band ever, we never approached their angle on blasphemy and profanity, because we thought it was too childish. Maybe we did that when we were teenagers, but we were already in our twenties when we recorded the first Necromantia demo. So, we had matured in our view on the occult and the metaphysical. We kept exploring the occult in all its aspects. (84)

Because it covers so much ground, The Serpent and the Pentagram will appeal to a range of audiences. Anyone getting involved with music would do well to read the musings on production and songwriting; someone curious about the world of underground metal will find a pathway to a history; the average fan might discover insights into the world outside safe suburban existence and a nine-to-five job.

What makes this book stunning is its use of long-form quotation by the subject and related actors in the field in which he worked, giving unique voices a chance to portray the four dimensions of any topic without drowning us in personality.

Aris Shock knows when to write a few descriptive paragraphs and then let his interview subjects take over, and this provides an organic insight into the past and its connection to the present. Through this, the book serves more as a grimoire on metal and related topics than a personal memoir.

Nonetheless, its primary subject shines through with enough personality and biographical detail to make the abstract come alive. A fast and obsessive read, The Serpent and the Pentagram will most interest the underground metalhead, but provides a feast of passages of thought for any reader.

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2 thoughts on “The Serpent and the Pentagram: The Official Chronicles of Necromantia by The Magus and Aris Shock (2023)”

  1. Seax says:

    Looks like a fun book.

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