A while ago I was chatting with a mate about recent music we’d listened to. I mentioned that the track I’d probably played most often last year was from an album called Why do the Heathen Rage? The album is the work of a dance-music project called The Soft Pink Truth, which is masterminded by Drew Daniel – a fellow who’s simultaneously a member of the electronica duo Matmos, an Assistant Professor of English at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and a gay man. (His partner forms the other half of Matmos.) Meanwhile, the track in question is a cover version of the 2003 song Satanic Black Devotion by the Finnish black metal band Sargeist.
Now black metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal that’s known for its shrieking and guttural vocals, its fevered guitars, its demented drumming and a lyrical emphasis on the dark, the unwholesome, the macabre and the utterly hellish – an emphasis reflected by the fondness among the sub-genre’s earlier practitioners to come onstage with their faces ghoulishly slathered in ‘corpse-paint’. However, while The Soft Pink Truth’s take on Satanic Black Devotion starts out in a suitably sinister and menacing fashion, Daniel’s dance / electronica aesthetic soon comes to the fore and the track gets unfeasibly funky. And incidentally, the famous sample that pops out of the mix after one minute and 45 seconds was so unexpected that I burst out laughing.
In fact, Why do the Heathen Rage? is a whole album of covers of black metal standards that Daniel has interpreted them in his own inimitable, dance-electronica style and I find the album a lot of fun, although I’m sure there are old-school fans out there who think it’s sacrilegious (which is ironic considering that black metal, with its long tradition of Christianity-baiting, is about the most sacrilegious music you can get). In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of the ground-breaking black metal band Venom, there are probably Geordie fans who’ve heard Daniel’s playful version of Venom’s agenda-setting anthem Black Metal and who haven’t been released from hospital yet.
However, when you write about black metal, there’s an elephant in the room. This is an elephant that speaks Norwegian, has a big swastika painted on its side and smells strongly of burning churches. Because the general public, if it’s heard of the term ‘black metal’ at all, normally associates this music with the unsavoury antics of some Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s. These include Pelle ‘Dead’ Ohlin of the band Mayhem, who in 1991 decided to honour his nickname by blowing his head apart with a shotgun; Oystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, also of (the aptly-named) Mayhem, who made a necklace out of pieces of Ohlin’s shattered skull; Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes of the band Burzum, who feuded with Euronymous and ended up murdering him in 1993; and Bard ‘Faust’ Eithun, of the band Emperor, who in 1992 stabbed a gay man called Magne Andreassen to death. For their crimes, Vikernes and Eithun received prison sentences of 15 and nine years respectively.
In addition to acts of murder and suicide, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s was accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies, although this seems to have been largely due to the influence of Vikernes, who described the music as “a nationalistic (Norwegian-centric), racist… revolt.” Last year, nobody was surprised when Vikernes – who’d finished his Norwegian prison sentence by then – was tried and imprisoned for another half-year in France for inciting racial hatred. Also, the scene’s enthusiasm for northern-European paganism and theistic Satanism made it anti-Christian to the point where, by 1996, hardline black-metallers had been blamed for some 50 arson attacks on Norwegian churches.
In an interview in the Guardian last July, Drew Daniel was asked about the paradox of a gay man recording a set of cover versions of a musical form whose most notorious proponents committed crimes that included the slaying of a gay man. Daniel admitted to being both fascinated by black metal in its ugliest, early 1990s, Norwegian version – “I couldn’t believe the power of it. It’s so single-minded and energising… It was such a strange mixture of undeniably compelling music attached to deeply repugnant behaviour” – and obsessed by it – “You know the way pitbulls bite something and their jaw locks and they can’t let go? That’s kind of the way my mind works with things.” In a gesture designed to both subvert and atone for the activities of Vikernes and co, Daniel dedicated Why do the Heathen Rage? to the memory of Magne Andreassen, Bard Eithun’s gay victim 23 years ago.
I should say that black metal has come a long way since those grim Norwegian days. The Guardian piece on Drew Daniel also quotes the music journalist Dyall Patterson, who describes the modern black metal scene thus: “It covers a huge spectrum, from left-wing to right-wing, from atheist and Satanist, and even Christian and Muslim. There’s more to it than just the sensationalist aspects, because it’s entered a demographic that would be turned off by a lot of those things.” And for the record I’m a fan of it myself. I like bands like Altar of Plagues, Darkthrone, Deafheaven, Leviathan, Rotting Christ and the brilliant Wolves in the Throneroom. I’m also a connoisseur of County Suffolk’s greatest cultural export, Cradle of Filth, who were once regarded as a seminal black metal act – though these days I hear they’re considered more ‘goth’ metal.
Anyhow, The Soft Pink Truth’s take on black metal has made me ponder the role played by gay culture in heavy metal music generally. Of course, some people would assure you that gay culture has never played any role in heavy metal because such music is reactionary, sexist and racist, performed by and listened to by artless people who are exclusively and thick-headedly masculine, heterosexual and macho. Which is nonsense. The theatricality of heavy metal contains a quality that’s androgynous at its mildest and downright homo-erotic at its most extreme.
Yes, there are morons like Sebastian Bach, front-man of the woeful 1980s American glam-metal band Skid Row, who once wore a T-shirt saying AIDS KILLS FAGGOTS DEAD. But if you look at heavy metal since it was forged in the early 1970s, you’ll soon realise that despite all its red-blooded braying about straddling big motorbikes, and straddling hot women, and slaying dragons, and entering Valhalla, and worshipping Satan, there’s bubbled beneath its sweaty, warty surface a great amount of camp-ness that would appeal to many gay sorts. (Not all gay people like camp things, of course, but I know a few who do.)
After all, one of the music’s greatest icons has been Angus Young, a chap who hops around stages wearing shorts and a schoolboy uniform whilst twiddling a guitar for a band called AC/DC – which according to the LGBT activist website Queers United is “a queer code used in chatrooms to indicate that someone is bisexual and sexually interested in both men and women.”
(c) Chronicle Books
Even the strand of heavy metal that I find most annoying, the boorish, laddish and shag-happy glam-metal movement that emerged from America’s west coast in the 1980s and gave us the likes of Mӧtley Crüe, Poison, Ratt, Cinderella and Warrant – thanks for that, America’s west coast – is really very sexually ambiguous. You only have to look beyond its lyrical obsessions with sultry babes and observe the huge amounts of eyeliner, mascara, hairspray, jewellery, high heels and ultra-tight leggings worn by its practitioners. Mӧtley Crüe might have sung Girls Girls Girls, but not every male who was drawn to the band’s photograph on the record cover was necessarily thinking about girls.
Plus, of course, some prominent heavy metal folk are gay.
Nowadays, 1970s rock legends Queen are celebrated for their football-terrace chant-alongs, their mock-operatic epics, their Noel Coward pastiches and their off-the-wall soundtracks for movies like Flash (“Ah-aaah!”) Gordon; but once upon a time the band had a heavy side too. If you don’t believe me, check out tracks like Death on Two Legs (on 1975’s A Night at the Opera) or Stone Cold Crazy (on 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack). The latter song was covered by Metallica, and indeed Metallica performed onstage at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992 after Queen’s much-loved singer died of AIDS. Other metal bands and performers who turned up at the concert to pay their respects included Guns n’ Roses, Extreme, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi.
As well as casting a long shadow over heavy metal, Freddie Mercury was, of course, shamelessly camp. Interestingly, in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell, Marilyn Manson – a performer who cuts a sexually ambiguous figure himself onstage – recalls that at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils were regularly lectured on the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music. But the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most of all was Queen, due to the effect that the prancing, preening and cheerfully gay Mercury might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.
Meanwhile, when Judas Priest’s front-man Rob Halford came out of the closet in 1998, it wasn’t exactly a big surprise. Early on, the band had cultivated a ‘biker’ look, a look that later became influential in heavy metal generally; but as Halford’s figure became increasingly bedecked with black leather, silver studs, spikes, chains, gauntlets and peaked caps, he looked less like a heavy metal singer, or a biker, and more like a member of Village People or Frankie goes to Hollywood. By 2014, Halford felt comfortable enough in his own skin and in his own musical groove to describe himself to the Guardian as “the stately homo of heavy metal.”
Other gay metal performers include Doug Pinnick, vocalist with the progressive / funk metal band King’s X; Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, respective singer and drummer with the progressive metal band Cynic; and Roddy Bottum, keyboardist with another metal band who’ve taken an interest in funk (and in hip-hop, punk, jazz and God knows what else), the mighty Faith No More. Bottum announced he was gay sometime after he’d been involved in a heterosexual relationship with Courtney Love. Inevitably, there was some scurrilous speculation that these two events might have been related.
Also, heavy metal has at least one prominent lesbian, Otep Shamaya, founder and front-woman of the nu-metal band Otep. She’s a much-needed antidote to those macho lunkheads like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst who’re found elsewhere in nu-metal. And by 2014, heavy metal had acquired its first transgender performer – Mina Caputo (who until 2011 had been known as Keith Caputo), the singer with the New York alternative metal band Life of Agony.
Finally, and brilliantly, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s that I described at the beginning of this post has produced a gay icon too: Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal, who’s been vocalist with the bands Trelldom, Gorgoroth and God Seed and who ‘came out’ in 2008.
Despite his sexuality, Gaahl has seemed happy enough to keep some of the bad old attitudes of Norwegian black metal alive. Interviewed in Sam Dunn’s 2005 documentary Metalheads: a Headerbanger’s Journey, he described the Norwegian church burnings as “a thing that I support 100 percent. It should have been done much more, and will be done much more in the future.” In 2006, he was also accused of torturing a man for six hours, during which time he allegedly drained a cupful of the man’s blood and threatened to make him drink it. Gaahl’s claim that he was acting in ‘self-defence’ was disbelieved and he spent nine months in prison.
On the other hand, he won Norway’s award for Gay Person of the Year at the Bergen Gay Gala in 2010, and he turned up to accept it, which was nice.
Even if you’re the type of person who’d sooner saw off one of their arms with a rusty knife than listen to black metal, or to heavy metal generally, I would urge you to sample the work of one of Gaahl’s recent musical projects, Wardruna. Described by the music website The Quietus as “a truly remarkable outfit… focussing on immersive and ritualistic folk acoustics, making use of traditional instrumentation and clean sung vocals, and taking all its thematic inspiration from the Elder Futhark, the oldest set of Norse Runes”, Wardruna make a sort of medieval Scandinavian folk music that’s haunting, hypnotic and epic. Actually, it sounds like the Wicker Man soundtrack re-imagined by ghost-musicians in Helheim, the Norse underworld.