Metal is famous for including a large amount of subgenres. But do you know exactly what the term "pagan black metal" refers to?
It may often appear challenging to highlight the characteristics of a specific music trend. New ones are appearing every few months, fueled by the creativity of artists from all over the world. Yet this heathen variant of black metal is already quite old and tends to refer to something rather precise and obviously acknowledged.
In this article, I will give you an overview which I believe to be rather complete, although I cannot feature all the bands I would like. May you agree or disagree with my assertions in this text, please leave me a comment at the bottom of this page so that we can discuss further on.
The Birth of Pagan Black Metal
Viking thematic has been used very early in the history of heavy metal, possibly because of the dynamic fast-paced guitar riffs somehow evocating the Scandinavian warriors quite inaccurately depicted in many books, comics, and movies (I have in mind The Vikings from 1958 - although some details are historically realistic). Already in 1983, Manowar was singing "Valhalla the gods await me / Open wide thy gates embrace me / Great hall of the battle slain / With sword in hand".
As the First Wave of Black Metal was about to give place to bands like Mayhem or Darkthrone, Quorthon, the mastermind of Bathory, was probably one of the firsts to stray away from pseudo-satanic Devil-worshipping lyrics which had been previously induced by Heavy Metal trends. With the album "Hammerheart" released in 1990, he definitely contributed to shape a subgenre of black metal which was to be labeled as "pagan" later on.
Very quickly some bands of the Second Wave started focusing their lyrics on the ancient Scandinavian culture, most of the times with a rather anti-Christian approach but often putting some distance with the characteristic vehement satanic texts written by Mayhem or Marduk. The rich history of Northern Europe, quite well documented by Christian monks around the 13th century, appeared to be an interesting creative basis that matched well the black metal sounds.
Behemoth's demo "The Return of the Northern Moon" (1992) might be a turning point for the subgenre. Although they mostly follow a Satan-praising approach in their lyrics, they are one of the firsts to label their music as "pagan black metal".
However, Enslaved's full-length masterpiece "Vikingligr Veldi" (1993) is probably much more representative of the newborn trend. Its lyrics exclusively refer to the ancient Viking culture and beliefs, praising ancient gods and depicting evocative esoterism-filled sceneries inspired by the great Nordic sagas.
Nowadays, paganism in music has become somewhat of a trend, but it has allowed the genre to reach further out of Scandinavia, even though relatively few extra-European bands seem sensitive to this thematic.
Moreover, in addition to writing lyrics about old Scandinavian lores, pagan black metal can now be rather easily identified within the graphical universe of a band or even based on the type of sounds used in the music. And as the subgenre broadens and grows, local beliefs and myths are also being taken into account: bands do not only sing about the Eddas or about the beer-drinking Viking warriors, but also about their countries' own folklore, bringing in new audial experiences and highlighting ancient symbolism and esoterism which I think is something particularly enlightening and enjoyable.
Pagan in the sound
Obviously black metal refers to an already well-defined kind of sound. It is harsh, cold, and tends to easily create a sort of dark ambience. Within the genre analyzed in this article, and although it is not true for all the bands, it is sometimes possible to find pagan elements in the songs' composition or in the choice of instruments.
There are clearly less disharmonies in pagan black metal. Less hate. The "evil" sound is usually put aside. There is often a focus on producing what I would call folk-influenced melodies that contribute to the medieval atmosphere that bands are trying to summon.
In addition to that, some traditional or folk-sounding instruments are sometimes used to give a feel of authenticity, regularly also combined with clean vocals or manly choirs. I am thinking for instance of Windir or Falkenbach. Acoustic guitars, accordions, stringed instruments, flutes: there is a wide range of possibilities. Negura Bunget, for instance, is using a self-made wooden percussion instrument which really gives an earthly touch to the sound.
However, at least for musicians focusing on the Viking aspect of the genre, it is funny to note that there are few historical traces left about the Viking's music - at least in terms of scores - and the few written accounts made by travelers are not often so positive.
Pagan in the imagery
Along with the choice of referring to ancient lores comes, for many, the choice of a pagan symbolic imagery.
On the pagan black metal scene (and at the contrary of other pagan metal subgenres), bands tend not to have promo pictures referring to war-like Vikings. It is mostly the bond between Man and Nature that is brought to the fore, with pictures taken far from the city, in places which convey an almost magical emotion, in opposition to what most of us experiment in our daily lives.
In terms of artwork, the range of possibilities is endless and strongly depends on the musicians' concepts. While some bands go for fantastical mythology-driven or epic iconography (gods, Viking or Gaul warriors), many choose to focus on barren lands photography, giving a sensation of loneliness and communion with the Nature.
I also noticed a recurrent use of old magical symbols. In particular, Futhark runes are rather commonly used and sometimes mixed with more modern Icelandic magical symbols, even if the ultimate meaning of this combination could be challenged. Thor's hammer appears also quite often, sometimes in the bands' name.
Black metal album covers also regularly include hidden references to the mythology, folklore or stories of the culture the bands are dealing with. For instance, Odinn or his Germanic counterpart Wotan is sometimes praised on the artworks, just like the two ravens, Huginn and Munin, who accompany him. Yggdrasil, the world tree of whom you can find mentions in many pagan belief systems, is also often pictured. Falkenbach's logo is for instance a good example of pagan symbolism.
Even though folk-inspired sounds and heathen-themed artworks can become indicators of what is pagan black metal, the lyrics are definitely the core of the subgenre concept.
Similarly to their visuals approach, bands tend to follow different trends in their lyrics. Some of them sing about ancient epic battles (just like Windir on their "1184" album, which refers to the Battle of Firmreite) or about beer drinking warriors (I am definitely thinking of some Black Messiah's tracks here).
Many others write about gods and myths, often collected from the Scandinavian/Germanic cosmology, sometimes even taking some distance from the initial stories in order to increase the epic feel, while for instance Skyforger try to pay attention to the historical aspects of their tales. The Voluspaa (probably the best known part of the Poetic Edda), and in particular the Ragnarok (to put it simply, the end of the world) are very often mentioned in the pagan black metal lyrics. There are also numerous references to Yggdrasil, Fenrir, Odin, Thor and Freya.
Finally, some bands decide to somehow transcend the history or the recorded texts in order to propose a more spiritual interpretation of lores and of pagan beliefs. This attempt at restoring the magic of the ancient texts is often driven at first by the choice of language. Some bands sing in extinct language: with Askrinn, for instance, I am singing in Old Norse in order to stay close to the primeval meaning of the prose or poems I am composing songs about.
Finally, many lyrics are dealing with nature spirituality, old traditions and forsaken rituals, without clearly referring to a particular belief system. The texts are sometimes cryptic, sometimes not. But for sure they convey an atmosphere to which, I think, most of us (black metal listeners) are sensitive.
Paganism and anti-Christianity
Although Black Metal has initially been fueled by Satanism, it is not completely true for its pagan subgenre. Although anti-Christianity is still present, Satan is put aside. Pagan gods are revered, but not the Devil. Rituals connecting to the Earth and the Universe are brought to the fore.
However, many bands still consider themselves anti-Christian. This is due to the fact that there are deep oppositions between the existing heathen beliefs and the Christ's teachings.
In other words, pagan black metal is not about destroying the monotheist religions, but many bands subscribe to some sort of anti-clerical way of thinking. But there is neither one way nor one belief: each band adopts a different position on this question, based on the spiritual paths they follow.
A genre with blurred limits?
If we look at the discography of many pagan black metal bands, it often appears that, musically, they started out doing what I would be tempted to call "true black metal". It is correct for the oldest bands, like Enslaved or Borknagar, but also for more recent ones. However, nowadays, their music has lost some harshness (but not power), and they have diversified their influences and the instruments they use. There is usually more ambient parts, or a more avant-garde, technical musical approach. The production quality is often higher in the latest albums, which is sometimes despised by metalheads who prefer the lo-fi metal sound.
This sonic evolution is most probably directly linked to two facts. First, there is a growing interest in the underground scene for neofolk music and pagan-sounding ambient sounds (I am in particular thinking of Wardruna, who create a quality acoustic music dealing with runes and Norwegian lores). Then, bands simply enjoy experimentation: pure black metal may sometimes sound repetitive, and the musicians now more and more enjoy looking for uncommon sounds.
Therefore the limits of the genre are blurred, as many bands are moving from harsh sounds to softer music, which gives great results but is difficult, if not impossible, to label as "black metal".
Overall, pagan black metal is a genre that I enjoy a lot, both because of the variety of the themes and approaches and for the numerous quality bands it contains. Some older bands, like Bathory, Windir, or Enslaved, have prepared a path which is now followed by many newer musical acts, who all express their heathen beliefs or interests in a different way. Indeed, the underlying message of following ancient teachings while attuning to Nature is, I believe, rather evocative for many metalheads - and also a real source of creativity.
Eventually, we can only but look forward to what this music style will bring in the upcoming years. I would not be surprised to have more and more bands from outside of Europe getting interested into it, and producing some killer albums. I even recently heard about metal bands dealing with Javanese mysticism. As stated before, the possibilities are almost endless.
So, what do you think of this musical genre? Do you agree with my definition? What are your favorite bands?
Just leave a comment below to let me know.