Perfect Sound Forever


The bad & the ugly, no good: Cradle of Filth, Ghost, Gorgoroth

Speak of the Devil
Is it really Satanic?
By Trevor McNeil
(December 2019)

There are some reputations that can be very difficult to shake. Especially if it is one that has been carefully developed over time. Such is the, rather dubious, link between Heavy Metal music and devil worship. Starting almost from the beginning with the likes of Black Sabbath, metal and satanism have long been linked in the cultural imagination. Something creators in the Metal genre have done little to discourage, in many cases inviting the controversy, and publicity that satanically theme imagery and lyrics could garner, especially from the Religious Right, who have never been know for their sense of humour or skill for spotting nuance. Even relatively clean bands such as Iron Maiden, who never even used profanity were doing tracks such as "Number of the Beast." Though, even here, if one looks closely, the song is actually about fear of demonic possession, not a hymn to the glory of the Great Beast. It was thus swift if misunderstanding that led Tipper Gore and the Parent's Music Resource Center (1985) to target heavy metal during their music censorship campaign. One of their main targets, hilariously enough, was Slayer, a band who had clearly anti-Christian lyrics and imagery, and a bassisr and lead vocalist, Tom Araya, who is a devout Catholic.

The PMRC's reign of terror was mercifully short-lived, most people coming to their sense in the mid-1990s. The notion that all Heavy Metal music was Satanic in nature was falling out of the mainstream at the time, being pushed to the extreme fringes. The likes of televangelists and Right-wing commentators were the only ones to still taking such accusations seriously. Yet there are cases in which the distinction is less clear and everything about a band promotes and reinforces the idea of them being serious Satanists. One of the main sub-genres where this is the case is Black Metal.

Originally started in Britain by the band Venom, the term coined by their album Black Metal released in 1982, the genre gained notoriety in its far more extreme Norwegian version. Bands like Mayhem and Gorgoroth left little doubt about their extreme and violent leanings. The latter went so far as to line the front of the stage with severed goats heads on spikes and have nude models tied to large wooden crosses behind them during live shows. They were once arrested in Poland for violation of that nation's anti-blasphemy laws. A Satanic aesthetic was only strengthened by the addition of Gaahl who infamously said "Satan" when asked in an interview what his driving creative force was. Ihsahn, the frontman of seminal Norwegian Black Metal band Emperor, has publicly expressed views in support of both Social Darwinism and Satanism. It was, and is, clear to all and sundry that the entire scene was full of dangerous Satanists. Except that it wasn't.

Satanism is a bit of a tricky term because it refers to two very different things. There is Satanism in the theological sense and Satanism in the philosophical sense. Satanism in the theological sense refers to what is basically inverted Christianity, with the Devil taking the place of God. While potentially extremely dangerous, this form is also extremely rare. Satanism in the philosophical uses the metaphorical figure of the Biblical Satan as a symbol of rebellion and freedom, those who follow it, generally, having no spiritual belief whatsoever. This form of Satanism has, in fact, been referred to, not unfairly, as "Atheism with a floor-show." Despite the efforts of some to imply otherwise, neither of these definitions really apply to anyone in the first generation Norwegian Black Metal scene. Ihsahn has also expressed support of traditional Paganism, leaving his own religious affiliation fairly vague and the vast majority of the musicians in the scene were either Atheist or Pagan. It was this last fact that was the root of much of the confusion, particularly at the time.

One of the primary incidents raising the Black Metal scene to infamy was a rash of church burnings blamed on members of the scene. Despite there being very little physical evidence against them or anyone else, the main evidence that the arsons occurred at all being that the churches weren't there anymore, mixed in with the occasional footage while they burned. There were those in the Black Metal community that said it was them who burned the churches and it was therefore assumed that they were Satanists because church burning was the sort of thing Satanists were assumed to do. Even those who claimed it was the community who did it, such as Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes say it had nothing to do with Satanism and the media were wrong. According to Vikernes, the burnings were done in retaliation for the desecration of traditional Pagan areas by the Christians who invaded Norway. One of the main forms of disrespect shown to the native Norwegians was building churches on sacred Pagan sites. The arsonists saw the burnings as getting their land back. There were also those in the scene, such as Ihsahn, who were very clear in their opposition to church burnings and other such acts of criminality, preferring to keep their rebellion on the intellectual level.

Even in modern times, there are Metal bands being accused of Satanism, or at least Satanist leanings, though again, not for no reason. The British extreme metal band Cradle of Filth is a prime example. Formed in Suffolk England in 1991, CoF quickly gained a reputation as one of the darkest and most intense acts going. There is clearly no love lost between frontman Dani Filth and the church. This is particularly clear in tracks such as "Tearing the Veil From Grace" and "Her Ghost In the Fog." Though it is not as simple as it seems. There being many other songs that really say notions about or really against God or Christ. Mostly, itís just the worst of their followers. There are still other songs, most of them in fact, that do not mention Christianity at all. They are sick and scary as all heck but in no way Satanic. While still others, such as "Heartbreak and Seance" and "Blackest Magick Put To Practice" are element and tragic. In both cases, the lyrics tell the story of people trying to reconnect with lost loves through the use of arcane magic. Not exactly clergy-friendly but not quite "hail Satan!" either.

In the modern Scandinavian scene, there is the Swedish band Ghost. Taking the form of a Satanic cult, the anonymous backing musicians wearing disguised by devil mask and having an upside down cross as part of their official logo, it seems quite clear where their loyalties lie. Except it's not. The band's founder and sole lyricist Tobias Forge is on record with as meaning Satan "in the pop cultural sense," meaning the version presented in music and movies, claiming to have been interested in such versions since he was five years old. At most, this would make him a philosophical Satanist in the LaVeyan sense and even that is debatable.

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