The umbrella of metal encompasses a myriad of sub-genres, and the majority of them have some devil in their DNA, but in the case of black metal Satanism is the essence of its very spirit. Anti-Christian values in black metal are about as subtle and ambiguous as a burning church, but, like Satanism itself, the Satanic themes within the genre are complex. Most commonly, the Devil is used as a symbol for bands who oppose religion, while others even use Satan as a symbol for the Norse mythological and cultural roots they truly embody. However, there is a strong, legitimate Satanic heart pumping the blackest blood through this genre’s veins; it just isn’t black and white (like the choice of makeup many of the bands choose to wear).

Black metal was born as a result of Venom’s eponymous sophomore album in 1982, and along with other acts, paved the way by laying the foundations for what was to come. The album is pure thrash, but it was a progenitor for the wave of black metal artists that would follow and usher in their age of corpse paint, tremolo picking, blast beats and a tendency to be overdramatic from time to time. Venom’s imagery and lyrical content would feature Satanic themes in a bid to shock and appall decent folks; they’ve admitted countless times that it was their goal to offend as it was all part of the fun and garnered them some attention, which ultimately helped them sell a few albums here and there. Of course, Venom were “In League with Satan’’ before they came up with the black metal moniker and birthed a movement; their debut is titled Welcome to Hell and considered a pivotal body of work in establishing black metal. (Mayhem adopted their name from the track “Mayhem with Mercy’’ after all, and they’re as black metal as it gets).

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With Venom, however, their Satanic themes were nothing more than a show; a facade inspired by horror flicks for the sake of entertaining and provoking. Reflecting on their career to The Guardian, guitarist Lant likened their words of evildoing and use of pentagrams on their album covers to the macabre thrills of cinematic scare fare, which at the time, also bore the brunt of Satanic Panic controversies for being a misunderstood genre of entertainment. “[We] used subjects like Satanism and Paganism to entertain people, like horror movies do. Listening to a Venom album is the same thing as watching an Evil Dead movie.’’ Except for the fact that Evil Dead movies are enjoyable, he makes a valid point, but while Venom’s incorporation of Satanism in their music was merely for pulp entertainment, it did inspire a generation of bands who really were in league with authentic Satanic principles.

Danish band Mercyful Fate, whose vocalist King Diamond is a card carrying member of the Church of Satan, were one of the acts during the first wave of black metal to gain notoriety for adhering to Satanic philosophy. Diamond is an advocate of the LaVeyan school of thought, which is essentially atheism, and he proclaims to have lived by these ethos long before he ever read the Satanic Bible and knew who Anton LaVey was and what his Church represented. Mercyful Fate and King Diamond have never been strangers to theatrics either; they were one of the first bands to wear corpse paint and, like many of their peers during the first wave, featured lyrics about the occult. Mercyful Fate’s lyrical content contains LaVeyan themes as it often questions religion and promotes self-fulfilment, but the King Diamond project explores this philosophy more in-depth and enjoyably.  

You can’t discuss the history of black metal without mentioning Venom and Mercyful Fate, even though both bands lean towards a more thrash and traditional heavy metal sound. It wasn’t until 1983’s self-titled debut album by Swedish pioneers Bathory that the tectonic shift would happen, building the bridge for thrash and heavy metal to crossover into blacker terrains. 

Bathory is arguably the first ‘real’ black metal album and it is considered the grandaddy for the subsequent Scandinavian style that emerged afterwards. Like Venom, Bathory were never a Satanic band; they were provocateurs who used the Dark Lord as a symbol to oppose the Christian establishment, which is a more common trait than in black metal than abiding by any set Satanic discipline. Later, Bathory’s lyrical themes would draw influence from the pre-Christian Viking and Vendel era of Scandinavian history in a bid to distance themselves from any Christian or Satanic connection, even if in the eye’s of the media they were just another band serving as the Anti-Christ’s earthly messengers.

Mayhem, on the other hand, have a much more personal relationship with the Beelzebub. Guitarist and co-founder Euronymous identified himself as a theistic Satanist, meaning he believed in the Christian God and a horned Devil, and he chose to obey the latter. Basically, theistic Satanism is the real deal: the act of devil-worship and hatred for God.  Euronymous ardently opposed the Church of Satan, Thelema and other atheistic, self-liberating branches of belief. He believed that real Satanists were slaves to the cloven-footed He-goat from Hell, and his soul belonged to Him. I’ll be exploring theistic Satanism and its history in next week’s article, but for now let’s just say that Euronymous was the real deal—until he was murdered by Varg Vikernes in 1993 anyway. We’ll have more on Vikernes later…unfortunately.

Mayhem have a disturbing history to say the least. In addition to Euronymous’ murder, original vocalist Dead—who, while he was alive, believed he wasn’t a living being – shot himself. The image of his corpse was used on the cover for Mayhem’s 1995 live album Dawn of the Black Hearts at the order of Euronymous, which ultimately caused a rift between him and his disgusted bandmates. Euronymous, along with Vikernes, was also attached to the church torchings that made headlines in the early ‘90s and propelled black metal into the mainstream consensus as evil personified.

To understand how Satanic beliefs are complex and often opposing, you only have to look at the band Gorgoroth. Founder Infernus believes himself to be “Satan’s Minister on Earth’’ and is a strong proponent the theistic ideology of literal devil-worship, while his former bandmate Ghaal adopts an atheist humanist approach, proclaiming himself his own God and Devil, and viewing Satan as a metaphor for freedom.

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In an interview with Tartan Desire, Ghaal associated the label of Satanist as an antithesis to the Christian society he was a part of, despite disagreeing with its rule of spiritual law. “To the world I am a Satanist, which means resistance to everything that holds you down. Satanist is what wants to grow. But my language has no word for Satan in that manner.’’ You can see why him and Infernus didn’t see eye to eye. One is all about liberation, the other believes he was the Pope for a demon who lives in a pit of flames.

In addition to church burning and murder, black metal’s sordid history includes white supremacist and fascist beliefs —which brings us back to Burzum. Vikernes is a nationalist with affiliations to the Heathen Front, a defunct far-right organization which held anti-semitic, anti-Christian and pro-Odin beliefs. In the past, Vikernes has identified as a “National Socialist’’ and an “Odinist’’ with pagan ideology. Furthermore, he’s previously referred to himself as a “Nazi,’’ but stopped doing so because he didn’t hold socialist values.  These days, he establishes himself as an Odalist, which encompasses Paganism, traditional nationalism, racialism and environmentalism. He believes in race hygiene, although he doesn’t proclaims he doesn’t hate those of differing skin color despite being a self-confessed racist. To summarize: he’s pro-white supremacy but he doesn’t hate the other colors that make up the rainbow of humankind.

Often accused of being a Satanist, Vikernes has stated that his Satan is a symbol for Odin, as a way to reject Christianity. He has described Christianity as a “spiritual plague’’ along with Islam and other “Asian religions’’ and believes that Satanism is an extension of Christian and Jewish tradition. Which takes us to National Socialist black metal…

As the name suggests, NSBM is all about Aryanism and Nazi values, and it’s a whole other story for another day as, like Satanism, its myriad of belief systems—despite all sharing unifying traits like anti-semitism and Aryanism—often conflict. Theistic Satanism is embraced by some NSBM acts because the Devil is interpreted as a counterpart to Yahweh, the god of Christians and the Jews. However, there are countless bands which dismiss this school of thought and either embrace Pagan or atheist ethos and see Satan as an extension of the Christianity they oppose. Most of the time, bands with differing viewpoints are often regarded with contempt from their whitey-loving peers, and they all sound like the worst people in the planet to hang out with.

As we’ve established, Satanism is complex and diverse, a tree comprised of individual branches only connected by the occasional crossover theme. Black metal might embody the term ‘the Devil’s music’ more so than other metal subgenres, but its relationship with Satanism can’t be categorized as a singular thing. Whether used as a tool to shock, a rejection of doctrine, a metaphor for human liberation or a literal entity, the conflicting Satanic schools are as apparent in black metal as they are anywhere else. But given the crimes atrocities associated with black metal’s history, its relationship with Satanism comes attached with a sinister stigma, and while in some cases it’s warranted, for the most part it’s misunderstood; for better or worse.

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