To Hell and Back Again: My Black Metal Story (Norway 1991-1993)
by Varg Vikernes
150 pages, Ancestral Cult Productions, $13
This short book serves as a teaser for a longer work, since most Burzum fans want to know the origins of the events described here. To Hell and Back Again speaks most of the signature events of black metal, namely the murder of Euronymous, and interactions between Vikernes and other bands.
Vikernes seems to be a natural writer, with good rhythm to his sentences and an innate ability to know how much detail to give in most scenes, avoiding the twin entropy tipping points of too much detail and too sparse of a narrative. There are hooks here for our minds to attach to.
Contrary to mainstream narrative, we see a very open-minded fellow considering his mistakes, and acknowledging where his worldview is wholly incompatible with normal society. While much of the book concerns the tabloid headlines stuff, we also get gems of the concept behind the music:
If you will, I can explain how Burzum was intended, by me. First of all, when I produced the albums, the microphones for the drums were set up so that when you put on a headset and started listening to it, you would hear it from the perspective of the musician playing the music. Mainlyh from the perspective of the drummer. You were that musician, in a sense, playing the music, when you listened to it. (124)
Perhaps this book is a starter volume and later the author will return to chronicle his childhood, classical influences which are mentioned but not named, concept of art, knowledge of honor, and how he entered his political and philosophical realm, as well as how he learned music before metal.
There are many areas of interest in not just the black metal story, and not just the Burzum story, but the Varg Vikernes story. Like it or not, he is a cultural signpost, both for embracing Darwinistic politics and for his uncompromising lack of tolerance for peer pressure.
The centerpiece of the book, the killing of Euronymous, combines the narrative of self-defense (“he wanted to kill me”) with retaliation against someone who used social pressure to cage the music of Burzum, resulting in a provocation that begat an unplanned but long-idealized murder.
I killed, or if you like their version better, murdered, a guy who planned to murder me. In fact, a guy who planned to torture me to death whilst filming it. Damn! I had all the right in the world to kill/murder that piece of shit!
“It is praiseworthy to do what is right, not what is lawful,” as the Romans put it. (62)
Vikernes offers numerous reasons for the conflict, but explains it best as a “status” conflict: only one person could be the leader of the black metal subgenre, and Burzum had seized the lead, so Euronymous suppressed Burzum so that Mayhem could remain relevant, creating enduring resentment.
Even under common law, the Varg narrative has some legal troubles, mainly that he responded to a fistfight with a knife, and that he pursued a fleeing aggressor. He addresses these somewhat indirectly and points out that he admitted to murder two at his trial.
However, democracies are still following the Jacobin agenda, and so when black metal bands were associated with church-burning and killings, a scapegoat had to be found and beheaded, or in this case given a twenty-one year sentence.
Interestingly, Vikernes does not address the escape attempt in 2003 nor his daily life in prison, but he intuits (probably correctly) that the audience for this book have seen Until the Light Takes Us and read other metal histories.
There is much more of the story here, since a full history of black metal and Burzum would bring in more of the events leading up to his viewpoints that led to some of the clashes in the book. There is also the question that all want to know, namely how he converted metal from bombast to transcendent introspection.
Some has asked me if I had any musical training, and whenever someone asks me this, I always stress that if I had any formal training in this context, I would probably not have been able to make any music at all. Or if I had been able to, it would not have been any different from other music in any way. Formal education removes originality, different ways to look at things and basically ruins your ability to make original music. You learn how to play well, but you learn how to play just like everybody else do it…
The truth is that Burzum was indeed fairly original. Not everything was, and you can see clear influences there from “un-typical” genres, in this context. I was influenced more by classical music than by other metal, and more by Balalaika than by other metal bands when it came to how I played the guitars. (132)
Like many of the best books that have crossed this desk, To Hell and Back Again (yet another Tolkien allusion) runs on a steady diet of adrenaline provided by these little side-notes and observation.
The author tells his tale but tells of life in the margins, like how Knut Hamsun penciled his great works between the lines of other books to get around prison authorities. Much of the story is not about some great external influence, but a massive internal one.
To Hell and Back Again can be seen as the story of one totally alienated person stranded in a dying civilization, making one last stand for sanity and appreciation of our world before plastic humanism took over and eradicated any last naturalistic realism with rote symbols.
It brings to mind some words from T.S. Eliot:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Black metal cannot be characterized as a form of metal alone because its biggest influence was spiritual, a desire to un-do and push back against the sickness of not just conformity but illusion based in individualism that took over the West and ate it from within.
In this book, you can see black metal more as an artistic movement than another variety of entertainment, and this view is too heady for most, so Vikernes side-steps into it and lets us absorb it rather than face it head-on.
For that reason, this book — which reads like a hybrid between Ernst Junger and Hunter S. Thompson — may serve as the best introduction so far to black metal from a top-down view, answering the question of why before how, excepting our FAQ of course.