Next to horror movies and conservative Christian literature, the most significant source of diabolical images in contemporary popular culture is heavy metal music and some of heavy metal’s darker musical relatives. This pattern began earlier among certain rock music groups. The initial motivation for adopting Satanic trappings was simply to increase record sales, particularly among rebellious adolescents who wanted to shock family and friends. Few of the early rock musicians were actually interested in promoting Satanism.
As one might anticipate, many Christians took such infernal images with deadly seriousness. According to some conservative Christians who disliked the genre, rock music companies routinely incorporated Satanic rhythms into their albums for the purpose of leading innocent young people into the service of the Prince of Darkness. This was supposedly accomplished via the unconscious influence of what was described as rock music’s “Druid beat.” The Druid beat strategy for denouncing rock became unnecessary after musicians began flaunting their association with the Devil.
The Rolling Stones was one of the first major rock groups to flirt with Satan. The pivotal event in this flirtation was the Altamont Rock Festival in 1969. The Stones had hired members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club to handle security during the festival. Although there are conflicting accounts about exactly how it transpired, the Hell’s Angels murdered a young black man while the Rolling Stones were performing “Sympathy for the Devil.” The group subsequently backed away from the Prince of Darkness.
Heavy metal came into being in the late 1960s, through the music of groups like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It was rumored that Led Zeppelin had entered into a pact with the Devil, but the group’s association with the occult derived from interest in Aleister Crowley and other non-Satanist occultists. Black Sabbath, on the other hand, actually sang about matters associated with Satanism, but not in an approving manner. Their song “Black Sabbath,” for instance, is a song of terror about witnessing a Black Mass. Listeners are, furthermore, advised to turn to a loving God.
Although neither Led Zeppelin nor Black Sabbath came close to pretending to promote Satanism, the Australian group AC/DC did. Even in AC/DC, however, it is clear that the Devil is being used more as a symbol of rebelliousness than as a deity to be invoked. This is reflected in the title of their popular song, “Highway to Hell,” which refers to a dissolute lifestyle—not to Satan worship. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that AC/DC will ever shake off its infernal associations because of their association with the serial killer Richard Ramirez. Ramirez, better known as the Night Stalker, was a fan of the group, and claimed to have modeled some of his crimes after the AC/DC song “Night Prowler.” Other heavy metal groups associated with the Devil were Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and sometimes even KISS.
Satanism became something more than a symbol of rebellion with the emergence of so-called black metal. Black metal—sometimes termed Satanic heavy metal—was a blend of Gothic music and heavy metal. The first black metal band was Venom, an English group originally called Oberon. Venom popularized the cult of death and Satanism as metal themes. Their tune “Black Metal” became a sort of theme song for the movement. Observers of the metal scene have debated the question of whether a distinction should be drawn between black metal and later trends such as death metal, speed metal, and doom metal. One difficulty is that different musical groups have changed over time. In the early 1980s, the Swedish group Bathory, for instance, started out in the Venom tradition. By the late 1980s, however, the group’s style was moving in the direction of what was eventually dubbed modern or “Northern” black metal. Other groups such as Hammerheart introduced an appeal to the Viking tradition. One band that helped to define black metal was the Swiss group Hellhammer, though in the mid-1980s they changed their name to Celtic Frost and distanced themselves from black metal.
In some European countries, black metal became popular in the Gothic subculture. In contrast to “mainstream” Goth, however, black metal is often extremely anti-Christian, especially Northern black metal. Some groups identify themselves as Satanists and/or as Nazis. In a few cases, the antagonism to Christianity has boiled over into actual attacks, such as vandalizing graves and burning churches. These extreme acts are referred to as esoterrorism, or esoteric terrorism. At least two black metal bands, Burzum and Emperor, were involved in such activities. The leader of Burzum, who had converted from Satanism to a neo-Nazi form of Norse neopaganism, was eventually sent to jail for his involvement in the burning of at least ten churches and the murder of another musician. He continues to be popular among black metalists, writing articles and music from prison.
Mayhem, the band who lost a member to the founder of Burzum, is perhaps the most influential Northern black metal group. One of their most well-known songs is “Carnage,” another Mayhem tune is “Deathcrush.” As indicated by the burning of Christian churches and other antisocial acts, for some black metal groups violence is more than just a topic for sensationalistic song lyrics. More characteristic than violence, however, is black metal’s sustained assault on Christianity. For example, black metal bands often sport such names as Fallen Christ, Diabolos Rising, Impaled Nazarene, and Rotting Christ.
Although black metal is deeply interested in Satan and Satanism, black metalists typically despise organized Satanic groups such as the Temple of Set or the Church of Satan, viewing them as moderate or even as liberal organizations. This “liberal” strand of Satanism initiated by the work of Anton LaVey is viewed as overly individualistic, as being in bed with capitalism, and as being more interested in words than in actions. In contrast, black metal sees itself as more aligned with Nordic racialism and neo-Nazism, and thus opposed to the liberal, capitalist, and individualistic orientation of the LaVeyan tradition. The majority of such organizations are overtly Nazi. For example, the Order of the Nine Angles’s Black Mass asserts that “Adolf Hitler was sent by the Gods to lead us into greatness,” and Hitler is worshiped along with Lucifer. Thus almost all of the tiny Satanist religious groups active in black metal circles—groups like the Order of the Nine Angles, the Ordo Sinistra Vivendi, and the Black Order—are new organizations that have arisen among black metalists for black metalists, and represent a strand of spirituality distinctly different from, and even at odds with, LaVeyan Satanism.
– James R. Lewis, Satanism Today: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Folklore, and Popular Culture
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