If You Burn A Church, You’ve Learned Nothing From Black Metal
In the past month, there have been reports of three separate church burnings tangentially related to metal. While the arsonist of one, a teenager from Orem, Utah, who set fire to two buildings and left satanic graffiti on one, insisted that she was acting out due to a troubled home life, the others appear to be targeted crimes: in Christchurch, New Zealand, a metal drummer burnt Mormon chapels, while in Louisiana, a man who the media insists is a black metal fan burned three predominantly black churches. The proximity to which of these events and the release of Lords Of Chaos, a biopic about black metal’s second wave that involved the burning of several churches in Norway, feels like more than coincidence.
But to blame black metal’s history for this would be foolhardy for one specific reason: the whole point of Norwegian black metal’s story is that the movement was taken too far. At the end, all of the heroes died, went to jail, or became racist folk artists. Burning a church as a fan of metal just shows that you learned absolutely nothing from the story behind the music.
The beauty of the second wave of black metal is that it came from somewhere deep, dark, and oppressively normal. It’s the sound of young people yearning for an uncomplicated world where they could be pure and extreme and powerful, and their lament that they would never reach it. That, coupled with the fact that the second wave was made up of isolated young dudes totally unequipped to express their emotions, resulted in all of the drama and violence within the scene. Burning a thousand-year-old church was these metalheads’ way of showing the world they could change it forever, and making it known how little their souls meant to them.
Above: Varg Vikernes in prison, 2008. Photo by Rustem Adagamov, via Wikipedia.
But then those guys all killed each other and went to prison. The leader of the movement was murdered by his Stalinesque apprentice for reasons ranging from being an unsavvy businessman to deranged paranoia. Those artists involved in the black circle terrorism never fully recovered musically, and their bands became weird throwback acts who would only ever be interviewed about crime sprees they started as teenagers. And the whole time, Christianity soldiered on in Norway, saddened but unhindered by the loss of some legendary architecture.
“The reason we were never involved in the church burnings was because if you burn a church, the government builds it up again,” says Abbath from Immortal in an infamous interview with Reality Check TV in 2002. “And the government takes our money to build it up. We were never part of those activities. And the politics… we’re living in our own world. We don’t want to…” Then Abbath looks in the camera as though locking eyes with Varg Vikernes in his prison common room, and breaks into a hilarious grin. “…end up in jail!” And then he laughs his ass off.
Today, Immortal and Abbath are considered some of black metal’s most important artists. The same can be said for acts like Emperor, Enslaved, and Darkthrone, who, though friends and contemporaries of Euronymous and Varg, weren’t active players in the sensational terrorism (Emperor was nearly scuttled when its whole rhythm section went to prison — Samoth for arson, Faust for murder — but managed to survive due to Samoth’s parole and a new bassist). These bands all recognized that the politics and destruction surrounding black metal were less important than the music itself, and focused on honing their craft to perfection. As a result, black metal fans today recognize them as the most important artists of the genre, standouts on the basis of their talent rather than some attention-seeking expressions of transparent frustration and bigotry.
Something notable about the arsons we’ve seen in the past month or so is how obvious they are. The fires in Christchurch were set by a minor metal musician who only attacked Mormon churches. The Louisiana church burner focused on black churches, making his racist motivations very clear; he is also a member of a band of very little note. These, plus the honest confession of the arsonist in Utah, shows how these people aren’t motivated by anything other than their own troubled lives. Much like Varg, they aren’t furthering a cause or championing darkness, they’re just acting out and trying to prove that they have some control over their lives. And like Varg, the only people who will applaud them are myopic, angry people who care more about others’ pain than heavy metal.
This week proved how much a burning church can bring people together — just not in the way black metal terrorists might think it would. When Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames — a fire that, for the record, appears to have had absolutely nothing to do with heavy metal — millions, including metal fans, mourned. If anything, metalheads saw the destruction of Notre Dame’s elaborate architecture and iconic gargoyles as an attack on an inspiring piece of dramatic art. On top of that, the fire at Notre Dame garnered the Catholic church millions in donations, and brought more recognition and a spike in donations to the churches in Louisiana. It seems that satanic metal fans who’d grown the fuck up are mature enough to enjoy blasphemous music without wanting to cause unnecessary suffering, and those still focused on setting churches on fire did nothing but line the pockets of their enemies.
In his stand-up routine The Top Part, comedian John Mulaney wonders why people love the movie Scarface so much, saying, “I wonder if they’ve seen the end of the movie… Spoiler alert: Scarface dies snorting a comical pile of cocaine in a tacky-ass mansion that looks like the Golden Girls won the lottery.” The same can be said for Lords Of Chaos, in relation to anyone thinking of burning a church these days. At the end of the day, you can either celebrate awesome music that makes you feel less alone and rebel spiritually with the power of dark art, or you can burn a church and spend 8 to 10 years wishing they’d let you wear a Carpathian Forest longsleeve in county while a new church is built on the same spot as the old one. Up to you.
If you’d like to donate to the churches burned down in Lousiana, you can do so via GoFundMe.