Pagan (including the Viking subgenre) aesthetics is a part of the black metal scene, almost as archetypal as antichristianity (which is obviously related to paganism) and satanism. From Quorthon’s thematic turn in “Blood Fire Death”, and especially in “Hammerheart”, to Varg and Hades’ members burning-churches and posing-with-chainmails,-Mjolnirs-and-swords romanticism, it was a turn to a romanticized past, an anti-modernism current, an understandable longing for the past. Since then, pagan black metal has spread far and wide, but has also been corrupted, both by NS bands (especially from Eastern Europe) and by groups of clownish quality, suitable for medieval fairs, groups that have nothing in common with black metal music. Blacklisting is an ongoing process in this field, but here I will focus upon some positive examples of pagan black metal albums, some monumental works.
Enslaved – Frost
Frost. A namesake intro, crystalline like the Northern Lights’ suspension. Beyond the hamlet. Beyond the edge of the Arctic, there where Fire and Ice are tied in an eternal tug of war. Listen to “Loke”’s first notes and experience the dry mixing, thin yet strong, like the bridge spanning the worlds of Gods & mortals. A change of course compared to the thick warmth of “Vikinglir Veldi”. A laconic, shamanistic approach.
“Glem alle lover, all orden og fred
Kaos er allt; ingen tid eller sted”
“Forget all laws, all order and peace
Chaos is everything; no time or place”
The debut album’s technicality is not absent, but it has been customized to the band’s ascetic vision. Sometimes wielding preparatory mid-tempo rhythms, sometimes a fiery snowstorm of utter velocity (pay attention to the drum kit’s copper weapons), “Frost” is nevertheless an experiential course in the Idea of the unadorned Scandinavian Mythology. “Yggdrasil” closely follows Odin’s ordeal upon the tree, the adept’s role personified in the acoustic bass. The Scald recites the myth on clean vocals. The first rest from the battlefield. The second one is the amazing fairytale-esque “Isoders Dronning” closing track. Frost is Enslaved’s most bountiful yet grim album.
Behemoth – Sventevith (Storming near the Baltic)
There is a thing about bands coming from countries around the Baltic sea. When they set their mind on pagan black metal, they perform it in a most authentic manner, a matter that could be blameable to the late christianization of the areas, as well as to the surrounding environment.
Before they change their music orientation towards a path that has little in common with black metal, Behemoth debuted with a masterpiece of “floating” black metal sound. The whole album seems to be precariously balanced upon oaken shields and war axes. The listener almost certain that the album’s momentum will make it topple itself, but each time it manages to rise unharmed. There are riffs here, floating like the Svarog-greeting morning air. A forest atmosphere that breathes hidden in a fog. From the Pagan Vastlands. Unpolished yet proud soundscapes, reminiscent of an imaginative past, a thought-form transmittable to the inner sensors of the listener.
Graveland – Thousand Swords
We remain in Poland. There is something in the air, things stir in the Baltic waters. Darken’s sophomore album is a battle ode. Here, just like in Enslaved’s “Frost”, percussion’s focus is centred on the metal parts of the drum-kit, which are calling out like war bells. Likewise, the production is dry and flat. A feeling of nostalgia hovers, deeply imbued in the guitar sound. Extreme vocals, with no will to shock; they only wish to describe the hopeless deeds of Men. Listen to the namesake track, listen to its soul-inspiring riff-turns that invoke a steady ascent to a mountainside, slide among the burning ruins of pillaged villages. There is no complex (and unneeded for) attempt at complexity or display of musicmanship. Only a raging soul emitting genuine screams about an imaginative past – the one sought out by Behemoth too. This is the sound that encompasses the battle, before-now-afterwards. “Thousand Swords” is romanticism refracted through the graceless prism of the cover artwork’s armoured figure.