How a music genre known as black metal came to be related to church burnings

When three historically African American churches were burned down recently in southern Louisiana, it evoked memories of the violence of the civil rights era.

A 21-year-old white male, Holden Matthews, was later arrested on charges of arson. As media reports noted, Holden may have been influenced by a subgenre of heavy metal music – black metal. The Daily Beast reported that a Facebook page “that appeared to belong to Matthews showed he was active in pagan and black metal pages.”

The church burnings are still under investigation. But as a scholar who studies religion’s connection with several genres of popular music, including heavy metal, I know that a small subset of black metal came to be linked to sensational violence in its early days.

History of metal

Heavy metal has its roots in the 1960s. To early bands and listeners it provided what musicologist Robert Walser called “a ‘harder’ sort of hard rock.”

The rock genre of metal distinguished itself from other genres through its dark worldly outlook. Many of its lyrics dealt with themes of demonology and death that contrasted with the popular music of the times.

Some early bands like Black Sabbath explored Satanic imagery in their songs and reveled in the controversy that they generated. Many parents were concerned that young listeners would be seduced into evil with such songs.

[embedded content] Black Sabbath.
By the 1980s, metal as a genre had become commercially successful in Europe and North America. Around that time, other bands also emerged that believed metal should shock listeners rather than seek only commercial success.

One such band was England’s Venom. Scholar Titus Hjelm has argued that the band’s 1982 album “Black Metal” was the starting point of black metal as a subgenre.

Obsessed with Satanic imagery, Venom’s noisy and aggressive style became the musical template for subsequent bands.

The bands following Venom often combined extravagant theatricality, such as makeup and props like pentagrams or inverted crosses, with fiercely anti-Christian lyrics.

Black metal

Among some black metal bands that sprang up in the mid-1980s, reliance on Satanic imagery was often replaced by an interest in alternate religious themes that were opposed to Christianity. These ideas took hold most deeply in Scandinavia.

Many of the younger Scandinavian black metal bands believed that the “purity” of their ancient Norse culture had been diluted by the influence of Judeo-Christian religions. Many of these musicians publicly embraced religions like Asatru, which worships the old Norse gods that predated the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia. They professed admiration for Viking resistance to Christianization and for the strength of Norse deities like Thor.

Some bands also called for purging metal of the influences of American rock. What they emphasized was shifting to a purely European musical form that expressed their reverence for their culture.

But beyond aggressive song lyrics, there were no links to violence until this period.

Ideas spread in Norway

In early 1990s, these ideas caught on with a small group of Norwegian musicians. These young men often gathered at Oslo’s record shop Helvete, meaning Hell, for conversation and music.