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Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult

Dayal Patterson

(Feral House; US: Dec 2013)

In late 2009, UK-based metal journalist Dayal Patterson set himself a Herculean task of chronicling 30 years of black metal history. In Patterson’s favour was a rolodex stuffed with contacts from his years contributing to many metal and rock magazines, and at over 600 pages, with scores of photos and interviews, the resulting Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult is an exhaustively researched and encyclopaedic compendium.


Patterson’s book isn’t the first work that his publisher, Feral House, has released about the black metal subculture. In 1998, Feral House issued the infamous Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, but that book, last revised in 2003, concentrated in the main on the villainous personalities of the European black metal scene in the early ‘90s. Black Metal is far more ambitious in reach. Patterson’s mammoth tome tracks the evolution of black metal from its primordial years to its ferocious second wave, and then travels its byways and offshoots to illuminate a handful of today’s post, industrial, and avant-garde black metal artists.


Black Metal does an admirable job of tracing the scene’s development, while tying tendrils of tales together. Fans will surely quibble about who is absent, or what corner of the globe is overlooked or underrepresented, but the book presents the most comprehensive overview—and, in many cases, the most in-depth personal examination—of the black metal scene yet published. 


In essence, Black Metal uncovers the artistic and personal motivations behind many of the luminaries and/or grotto-dwelling misanthropes from the black metal scene—with Patterson’s role being navigator for a cast of well over a hundred interviewees. Innovators such as Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost all feature. Expected bands like Mayhem, Behemoth, Emperor, Ulver, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, Satryricon, Darkthrone, Watain, Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth all turn up. And, of course, there’s an extensive roll call of wholly iniquitous and/or cryptic figures such as Marduk, Rotting Christ, Beherit, Thorns, Primordial, Sigh, Funeral Mist—and the list goes on and on. 


Via new and archival interviews, Patterson’s interviewees tell their own version of black metal’s evolution, with all its complex meshing and clashing of ideologies and histories. Many talk extremely frankly about lives and artistic endeavours that have often been tainted or distorted, or even handsomely exaggerated, by rumour, speculation and legend, offering a glimpse behind the corpse paint and sensationalism.


Patterson’s interviews construct a multi-perspective portrait of black metal, where previously unheard exploits and opinions offer new details on influential and innovative bands. (The book also opens the tomb to hear from figures shrouded in mystery.) Accordingly, for long-time black metal fans, there are new insights to be found, and while Patterson can’t avoid the oft-told tales of arson, desecration, assault and murder, he avoids hyping the scandal or concentrating on only a few key figures.


That means Black Metal isn’t a simplistic fable of destruction and hatred. Rather, it presents a more complete and honest portrayal of black metal, from its roots to its increasing aesthetic and musical diversity, than any previous book or documentary film on the subject.


That said, for all the book’s positives, there are two points that might be problematic for readers. Patterson’s own voice is, in the main, in the background here. Reducing his presence is clearly a deliberate decision to allow his interviewees to speak unhindered, but minimum editorialising makes the pace of the book sluggish.


That might not be an issue for many, because that style mimics some of the best books on metal built around personal anecdotes. However, Patterson’s decision not to interject, or to fully explain his own opinions, does leave one section feeling desperately incomplete.


Black Metal includes lengthy passages on far-right and National Socialist black metal, and the deeply prejudiced viewpoints go unchallenged by Patterson. His neutral position has attracted criticism, and Patterson responds to that in the fanzine, Black Metal, which was published to supplement the main book’s roster of dramatis personae and adds even more prickly characters to the overall tale.


Patterson’s argument for not challenging artists boils down to not wishing to “censor” his interviewees, and believing his readership is intelligent enough to make their own decisions about the material therein. Clearly, many black metal fans don’t care about lyrical content, using the stock standard argument that it’s “all about the music”, but Black Metal isn’t a recording drenched in riffs and noise.


The book posits repugnant views in plain print, and while black metal is hardly a genre given to sunshine, hugs and flowers, Black Metal does present the perfect opportunity to challenge issues such as fascism or racism. Obviously, Patterson’s book was never going to solve any dilemmas—that’s not its function, and sidestepping corrosive views is routine in the metal media at large. However, with such a large portion of its spine dedicated to far-right thought, Black Metal would have benefited from some robust backbone to that conversation.


Putting aside any quandaries the book might give rise to, it’s bound to be regarded as a near definitive tale—and praise from the metal media and community has been effuse. Patterson writes from deep within the black metal scene, negating any sense of touristy titillation that so often accompanies the journalistic gaze on black metal. As mentioned, grumbles about who is featured or what is said are likely, but that was always going to happen in a subculture with such a fierce sense of ownership. In the end, what Patterson does best is create plenty of space for his subjects to unpack (and often demolish) the regurgitated clichés about black metal that the media so love to revel in. 


For those uninitiated to black metal’s charms, or those already well versed in its scriptures, abundant entertaining and informative tales are to be plucked from the pages of Black Metal. If you sit the book alongside the five other best books on extreme metal in print—Lords of Chaos, Metalion, Only Death Is Real, Swedish Death Metal, and Choosing Death—then you’ve all the makings of a hellishly illuminating six (six, six) pack.

Rating:

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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