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Deader Than Thou - Corpsepaint And the Shock Aesthetics of Black Metal

Editor's Note: the following essay was submitted to Heavy Blog by Violet Palmer, who is also a phenomenal black metal artist working under the name Wolven Daughter. We&

a month ago

Editor's Note: the following essay was submitted to Heavy Blog by Violet Palmer, who is also a phenomenal black metal artist working under the name Wolven Daughter. We've been friends online for a while now and I've always enjoyed her perspective on not just black metal music, but also the rituals and aesthetic that make the genre tick. I was delighted that she wrote to me pitching this essay then because I find the existence, and the persistence, of corpsepaint to be an ever fascinating topic. Please enjoy this brief historical overview of the origins of the practice as well as some thoughts on why it still exists today!

-Eden Kupermintz

“They look like KISS.”

Any fan of black metal has probably heard some variation on this. Whether it's the “war paint” of Immortal (who are particularly prone to the above comparison) or the ghoulish pancake makeup of Dead and Euronymous, the response to the traditional black metal look from non-fans usually ranges from polite bemusement to outright mockery. The normies just don't seem to get it.

But for those of us that do, the aesthetic of black metal, the corpsepaint, the leather and spikes, the (only ocasionally silly) stage names, it's all a huge part of what we like about it. While it's not exactly true that you can't have one without the other, as plenty of black metal groups rip while foregoing pseudonyms and painted faces, for a lot of us, the music just wouldn't hit the same without it. Certainly, black metal wouldn't have gotten nearly as much attention in the early days without that striking, ghostly, black-and-white look (or at least might have had to light up a few more churches to do so).

So let's take a look at one of the most iconic and often-derided aspects of black metal, see where it came from, and what, if anything, it can tell us about the music and the people who make it.

A Brief History of Shock Rock

Yes, black metal is arguably shock rock. Or at least, took plenty of influence from it. The genre began when a radio DJ offered Screamin' Jay Hawkins $300 to open a performance by rising from a coffin. Hawkins went with the idea and began to employ a voodoo-inspired costume and bizarre (for the time) stage props, incuding a fake skull named Henry that he would set on fire as part of his act. While he is perhaps best remembered for his guttural, howling performance on “I Put a Spell on You,” the booze-soaked story of which would have been enough to earn him a place in rock history on its own merits, Hawkins's persona would prove tremendously influential and go on to help pioneer a wave of outlandish, theatric music.

One of the artists Hawkins inspired was a young man from England named Arthur Brown. Taking additional inspiration from such diverse genres of art as Japanese kabuki theater and the tribal dances of Burundi, Brown developed a mythology for his new music project, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, which used robes, flaming headdresses, and a now-familiar style of black and white face paint to delineate different characters such as the God of Hellfire and the God of Pure Fire.

Brown would go on to be hugely influential in his own right, and more commercially successful shock rockers like Alice Cooper and Kiss have cited him as inspiration. Cooper and the members of Kiss, and later King Diamond of Mercyful Fate (himself reportedly influenced by both Kiss and Cooper),through their own memorable looks and performances, would plant seeds in the minds of a couple young Norwegian men that would erupt forth into some of the most iconic imagery in heavy metal history.

“He Wanted to Look Like He was Dead”

Per Yngve Ohlin, better known to black metal fans by the stage name “Dead,” was according to black metal legend the first person to employ face paint in an attempt to resemble an actual corpse, as opposed to the stylized makeup of Brown, Simmons, and King Diamond. According to Mayhem bassist Necrobutcher, “[t]he term 'corpse paint' was actually not introduced before Dead. Back in Morbid [Ohlin's band before he joined Mayhem] he was very fascinated by death, and wanted to look like he was dead, so he painted his face to look like a corpse.”. Dead himself cited certain traumatic childhood experiences as possible roots of this macabre interest, including turning white in his sleep as a baby, and an instance of severe internal bleeding that once nearly killed him. Regardless of the causes, he ran with it and the result was an eerie, haunting look that remains striking to this day.

Part of what made Dead's cadaverous look so iconic was his commitment to the bit, which extended to burying his stage clothes to get them to rot and smell of dirt, and collecting dead animals in plastic bags, smelling the completely unpreserved, decomposing carcasses before singing “to get the right feeling of death.” He even went so far as to cut himself onstage with a broken bottle. According to his bandmates, this helped him get into character, to stop being Per Ohlin for a time and truly become “Dead.”

Getting into character is often cited as a motivation for adhering to black metal traditions. Black metal legend Abbath describes his corpsepaint as a representation of an “inner demon character.” Bruxa, singer of Hekseblad states, “it's all about getting into character, getting into the mindset of what black metal is.”

When asked what black metal meant to them, Bruxa responded, “Black metal is struggle, pain, and darkness, distilled to its most raw and visceral form.”

The aesthetic of black metal is iconic in its own right, but perhaps no aspect of the genre is so well known as the infamous philosophy associated with it. And as Bruxa intimates above, the two are inextricably linked. The corpsepaint, blood, and spiked black leather look is nothing less than a visual representation of the anti-social, anti-everything philosophy of black metal.

After Dead's suicide in 1991, his bandmate, Mayhem guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth opened the legendary Helvete record shop, and there the “Black Metal Inner Circle” was born. Euronymous quickly became the driving force behind the scene, and the primary person shaping the all-important philosophical base of the burgeoning genre.

Disgusted by what he saw as the trendiness and commercial viability of death metal, and inspired by Kiss and the leather-clad, eye-blacked look of Brazilian band Sarcófago, Euronymous helped develop an aesthetic that, in his mind, was totally antithetical to the everyday “jogging suit” look of the death metal of the time.  Black from head to toe, spiked and studded leather, and the cadaverous face paint that he and Dead had developed (Dead undoubtedly popularized the look, but Euronymous was an early adopter also, allegedly painting his face as early as 1985), the look was intented to help drive home the message that Euronymous wanted to spread. Anti-life, anti-trend.

In interviews and correspondence (and in a clear attempt to add to the mystique that was already beginning to develop around the band) Euronymous claimed that Dead's suicide was the result of black metal becoming too trendy, and the bands looking too normal.

Dead killed himself because he lived only for the true old black metal scene and lifestyle. It means black clothes, spikes, crosses, and so on...But today there are only children in jogging suits and skateboards and hardcore moral ideals, they try to look as normal as possible. This has nothing to do with black, these stupid people must fear black metal!

Euronymous was a skilled marketer, and knew that for the genre he was helping found to gain traction, it needed an image that would live up to the hellish music. He made outrageous public statements, turned the record shop that was fast becoming a meeting place for the growing scene into a gloomy edifice lit by candles, and made himself into a walking advertisement for the new genre, always photographed in black from the roots of his dyed hair down to the tips of his combat boots, except for the ghostly white of his face. 

“I don't want to see trend people respecting me,” he said shortly after the opening of the shop. “I want them to HATE and FEAR. If people don't accept our ideas as their own, they can fuck off because they belong to a musical scene which has NOTHING do do with ours...there is an ABYSS between us and the rest.”

This carefully cultivated persona was effective. Even before the shop opened, Mayhem's image was already attracting individuals with a taste for darker fare than death metal could provide. Bård “Faust” Eithun, drummer of Emperor, recalls, “I remember I thought that [Mayhem] were very mysterious...they didn't do many interviews, but they were always in magazines and I saw pictures of them. They had long black hair and you couldn't see their faces, it was mysterious and atmospheric.”

The philosophy of black metal would, of course, manifest in acts of violence and crime as the scene grew and the big personalities of the scene came into conflict. But before the church burnings and murders, it was a reaction to the trends of the time, reflected in the grim aesthetics of the majority of its adherents. Ghoulish corpsepaint, identities hidden under stage names (inspired by first wave bands such as Venom and Bathory as well as a way to obscure their relative youth and add to the mystery), completely anti-everything popular in extreme metal at that point.

Conclusion - Our Corpsepainted Moment

Black metal is the theatre of shock rock combined with an anti-social, anti-trend philosophy. It was, and to some of its adherents remains, a musical and aesthetic expression of war against all, reflected in its inaccessible sound and grim trappings. While, given the propensity of the prominent members of the scene for provocation, the extent to which these beliefs were deeply held should be taken with a grain of salt, the charred remnants of certain Norwegian churches indicate that some, at least, took the philosophical side quite seriously.

But what does the black metal look signify today? Euronymous arguably failed in his goal of creating completely anti-social, elitist music; black metal quickly became widely popular and was subsumed into the extreme metal fold as just another subgenre. So with the mystery and the sensational news articles gone, and the churches rebuilt, why don black and paint your face?

If nothing else, it fits the sound. Black metal will always be somewhat of an outcast genre, even among extreme metal. When done right, the thin production, eerie melodies, and throat rending howls are just a world removed from anything else going on in the metal world. And such darkly unique music needs a dark, unique look. Just as GWAR's success comes just as much from their outlandish costumes, just as Viking metal and brutal death and other genres focused on agression hit best when played by large, hairy men, so is Hell's own music most effective when played by those who look like the Devil.

In addition, the aesthetic serves another purpose, intentionally or not. The ghostly faces and spiked leather may have been intended as a warning for trendies to stay away, but today I believe they function less as a prohibition and rather more like an invitation, for those who might be looking for that something else in metal. The music is certainly not for everyone, but by being so aesthetically different from anything else in extreme metal, its look signifies to those able to appreciate it that something darker and colder than they may be used to lies ahead. Something not necessarily interested in appealing to the masses, but appealing to itself.

And there lies the real value of corpsepaint in this day and age. The weird, alien look of a weird, alien genre, it is a statement to metal and to the world that black metal is quite happy, would even prefer, staying extreme metal's outcast. It may not be spoken of in whispers of fear the way Euronymous wished, but the undercurrent of his and Dead's anti-social philosophy remains. In the same way as its unlistenable sound, the blood, the spikes and leather, the ugly painted faces, all these things combine to say, “we are simply not concerned with what you think.” Black metal will continue being just as it is, and people may appreciate it or not as they see fit.

References

Divita, J. (2020, June 5). Who really invented corpse paint? Loudwire. https://loudwire.com/who-invented-corpse-paint/

Metal Injection. (2016, Febuary 19). A visual history of corpse paint. https://metalinjection.net/black-metal-chronicles/black-metal-history-month/an-illustrated-history-of-corpse-paint

Moynihan, M. and Søderlind, D. (1998). Lords of chaos: The bloody rise of the satanic metal underground. Feral House.

Sharma, A. (2018, September 4). A brief history of the world's greatest shock rockers. Kerrang. https://www.kerrang.com/a-brief-history-of-the-worlds-greatest-shock-rockers

Wiederhorn, J. and Turman, K. (2013). Louder than hell: The definitive oral history of heavy metal. Harper Collins.

Wise, L. (2015, June 24). The god of hellfire speaks: 73 years inside the crazy world of Arthur Brown. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/695kpv/crazy-world-of-arthur-brown-interview

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