An Inquiry into the History and Evolution of Metaphysical Satanism in Black Metal
“Deathspell Omega is one of my favorite bands, and I know almost nothing about them.”
“Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave, are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonors his conquest in the victor. Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.” —P.B. Shelley
Deathspell Omega is one of my favorite bands, and I know almost nothing about them. They have never been a typical black metal band, but in recent years they’ve evolved, contrary to all precedent both within and outside of their own peculiar aesthetic, into a horrifying unification of visual art, written word, and sound that towers over their intellectually shallow, image-obsessed contemporaries. Many acknowledge Deathspell’s superiority, but no one understands it. Admittedly, what follows is a failed attempt, but one that I hope holds intrigue.
First, to fully appreciate DsO’s monument as cobbled from the ruins of black metal, one must look to the bastard structure they masterfully bent to their will and everything it once stood for. Black metal has a pretty insane history: birthed in Norway and arguably practiced as early as 1984, it wasn’t really a viable creative force in underground extreme metal until almost a decade later, with the rising popularity of the band Mayhem.
Mayhem brought shock rock to a whole new level — performing clad exclusively with leather and spikes, donning so-called “corpse paint,” impaling severed sheep and pig heads on spikes surrounding the stage, bloodletting with hunting knives and shards of glass, etc. After discovering their original vocalist Dead (that’s his name; everyone in black metal has evil-sounding pseudonyms) from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the dome piece, guitarist Euronymous immediately went out and bought a Polaroid camera to snap some photos, one of which ended up as album, uh, art for their next live release. He also collected fragments of Dead’s obliterated skull that he fashioned into a necklace, which he wore to his death at the hands of bassist Varg Vikernes a.k.a. Count Grishnackh a.k.a. Burzum. Vikernes was convicted a couple of years later for the murder, as well as for his involvement in a number of church burnings in the early-to-mid 90s, and sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Norway (which notably has the lowest homicide rate and highest Human Development Index score in the world, an odd location for the inception of such evil… or is it?).
Deathspell Omega’s metaphysical take on black metal has eclipsed their grim-and-gore-obsessed predecessors along with 99% of everyone else claiming to be in it for the music or the message.
I mention all this ridiculous stuff because all of it — all of it — is thought by its practitioners to be symbolic of a rejection of the Judeo-Christian society that has all but obliterated the last traces of the Norse paganism that these artists seek to return to. They conceive of it as revenge for the hundreds of years of mental slavery for which they hold the Church responsible. However ridiculously over-the-top, it’s almost noble when you don’t think about it too much. It is on these passionately fertile and morally barren grounds that the seed of Deathspell was planted, though its maturation was initially less likely than a walnut growing into a serpent.
Which brings me to the main focus of my inquiry.
A lot of this stuff on Deathspell Omega I was forced to take at face value; they don’t have any PR or management that I can contact to confirm or deny anything. They don’t have a website, a Myspace page (it’s fake), or even a physical address for fan mail. They don’t play live, nor are there any publicity shots or “In the Studio” videos floating around the internet. They do not issue promotional copies of new releases to be distributed to reviewers prior to a wide release. In fact, apart from vocalist Mikko Aspa (who joined in 2004, coinciding with the lyrical and aesthetic shift I will discuss later), nobody even knows who’s in the band. Encyclopedia Metallum, the largest and most complete metal resource on the internet, reports “there is no concrete information on the band members, only rumours.”
They have fielded only two interviews since their formation in 2000 (conducted impersonally through letters with the heads of their current and former label, the only people who have their contact info). Their first, given in 2000 following the release of their debut album, established the context necessary to view them as true innovators in a genre that, by this time, had long abandoned any pretensions of creativity. To be perfectly honest, while Deathspell Omega were, even in their infancy, intellectually and artistically head and shoulders above their contemporaries, the bar had been set so low that the distinction is hardly commendable. The interview, much like their first few releases, is a semi-coherent rambling rife with the deepest hatred and rather unsettling conventional depiction of evil, which I will spare you. However, there are important clues here that help to peel back DsO’s mystery.
The unnamed Deathspell spokesman begins with his definition of Satanism. Bear in mind that this is a French band being interviewed by a Finnish label for their zine published in English, so translation is precarious.
Satanism is the worship of death, which is the only reality, all you build up will sooner or later be swallowed by the ultimate void. We take clearly distance from the “organized” forms of so called Satanism, as they’re nothing but mere excuses for life-lovers to gather and to be happy like fucking hippies. Satanism is to feel pleasure when you see living beings suffer, bleed, and die. Satan has its manifestations in deadly diseases, civil wars, and rapes. All that destroys the human dignity, that reduces humans to what they are: worthless pieces of meat.
Thankfully, this obtuse interpretation of Satanism did not stick around very long. What did stick was their attitude regarding public image:
“Image was a good way to illustrate your beliefs in the early days of Black Metal, but nowadays, image is probably one of the biggest problems of Black Metal, as it helps its commercialization.”
They neatly solved this problem by simply having no image — even their album art at the time was nothing more than a trite, evil-looking image with no abstract or esoteric meaning (skulls, a cloaked rider on a dark horse). All that mattered was the music, and that the music was as Satanic as possible. “Black metal is purely a celebration of Satan through music, and our role as musicians and Satanists is to compose the most hateful odes to the Lord.”
What is most interesting about this phase in Deathspell Omega’s development is their deliberate failure to be either popular or understood by anyone other than a very specific audience. Their demo was limited to a scant 66 copies on tape; their debut, 200 copies on vinyl. No CDs. The limited quantity and medium of their releases, coupled with their extreme secrecy, allowed DsO to purge their creations from societal and economic interests, carving out an impenetrable ecosystem for their creations to inhabit.
I will leave this interview with the following quote, which I ask you to keep in mind: “It’s mostly teenager that still have a need of evolution. We know who we are, what we think and what we fight for. Black metal is a tradition, and to experiment musically or lyrically should be punished by torture.”
Time passes. Deathspell Omega release another album, as well as some splits with the handful of musicians around the world evil enough to coexist on their wax. Lyrics consist exclusively of boundless hatred and obscene blasphemy, released solely to vinyl and tape. Then, suddenly, drastic changes occur. The limited nature of their releases up to this point, combined with the extreme secrecy surrounding the band, boost them into the spotlight according to the “limited release by a secret band” law that applies to all forms of hipsters the world over (even the “trve kvlt” black metal ones).
Coinciding with the release of their third album, Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice, Deathspell Omega entertained their second and final interview, which betrays the interviewee’s exceptional cogency and awareness in marked contrast to the first interview (I use the word interviewee because, for all anyone knows, it could be two entirely different bands — you’ll see why I entertain that possibility momentarily).
Eventually we realized that the potential someone like Euronymous [that guy in Mayhem who was stabbed to death by Varg Vikernes] had underlined by placing sovereignty as a preamble to liberty and the religious dimension as the key to the Logos had not been materialized. No excuses were valid anymore, we had to admit the experiment was a bitter failure… The main problem of Black Metal is precisely that its only influences, thus only perspectives, are Black Metal, or Metal in general. Perspectives close to zero, to put it like that.
What is most interesting about this phase in Deathspell Omega’s development is their deliberate failure to be either popular or understood by anyone other than a very specific audience.
This is in contrast to their previous claim that “Black metal is a tradition, and to experiment musically or lyrically should be punished by torture,” quite a common viewpoint in black metal. When asked about their decision to reissue their prior releases, an apparent reversal of their position on the importance of limiting the quantity of the copies of their works, they reply:
Things evolve. [Remember from their first interview that “evolution is for teenagers.”] We were reminded increasingly about senseless speculations, the obvious lack of deeper understanding for our standpoints by most and a stronger focus on the limited nature of our releases than on what they are truly consisting of. Not being able to adapt oneself in such a situation equals to being dispossessed of one’s creations, and this is by no means acceptable (responsibility is the keyword, here). The re-editions will not be limited. To those who want to confront themselves with the breath of the beast, blessed be.
I have never heard a band take such a staunchly anti-commercial stance. Deathspell Omega really don’t give a damn about anything but the greater glory of Satan — Ad Majorem Satanae Gloriam.
This reply underscores the failure of their deliberate failure to be popular while simultaneously illuminating an even greater failure to be understood. Perhaps this is desirable, even inherent, given the esoteric nature of their aesthetic, but a plummeting mean understanding of those who now possess DsO’s creation is both their greatest success and greatest failure, depending on how you want to look at it.
More significant than their flip-flop on reissues is their unification of word, music, and art into one indivisible aesthetic:
We do not share this common conception that music and words are separate things, to us they are deeply linked and complementary. An evolution of one of these aspects necessarily implies an evolution of the second aspect, and obviously, of the visual aspect as well; because the origin of these manifestations is the same, and this origin is an all-embracing phenomenon, to say the least. Before writing a single note of music, a foetal structure of the lyrical aspect has to appear clearly, because the origin of our inspiration communicates — or shall I say imposes? — through intellectual concepts first and foremost, sensory elements are subordinated. Of course, this initial structure is bound to grow, to be mutilated or enhanced during the actual work, but this is the starting point that later on guides the creation of the musical support.
Through this unification of word, music, and art, Deathspell Omega successfully overcome Laura Riding’s critique of music (which opines that music’s exclusively sensory nature invalidates it as an art form) by forging these three heretofore disparate pieces into a synergistic whole far greater in scope than that of their previous works, to say nothing of their peers (who, four years later, are still standing around in armor and spikes holding battle axes). DsO would agree with Riding’s critique of such a limited idea of what music can be, which is partly why they do not even consider live performances: “What Deathspell Omega conveys cannot be understood in such a restrictive, purely sensorial, environment.”
This unified aesthetic, far from their older releases “drowned in useless story-telling… a primitive and redundant litany,” would, beginning with SMRC, be wielded like a laser beam. SMRC was the first in a trilogy of albums that would establish Deathspell’s evolved philosophy of metaphysical Satanism through an exploration of the relationships between God, Man, and the Devil. In accordance with this metaphysical approach, each of the three components (word, music, and art) was radically different from past releases. This surprised and pissed off a lot of their old-school diehard fans, but:
In a way, the material of all [our old] releases is interchangeable as we burnt out up to the last drop of energy that could be extracted from that static viewpoint… Traditionalism is a valid aspect, but when no alternative to traditionalism is open anymore it is called stagnation, and stagnation equals artistic death. “SMRC” may appear as surprising, but it is an extremely logical move. Barely the expression of a new, higher level in our metaphysical struggle… Satan as a metaphysical entity, this cannot be said loud enough. All other interpretations of Satan are intellectually invalid, for people need to realize that mere etymological arguments or, worse, small-minded rationality cannot be considered as a finality, but merely minuscule fragments of a metaphysical phenomenon, of the most dangerous thing among all: Truth.
So what exactly is this metaphysical struggle they speak of? The critics don’t have the slightest idea, and they love DsO for it, which is almost predictable despite the obviously steep learning curve of extreme metal (even NPR liked this album). In fact, nobody outside of DsO’s label’s short-but-growing roster of like-minded musicians, nobody understands anything that they’re doing. It’s almost like a code that only a select few can parse, despite little prior communication between one another. The label head begins the interview with one word: bereshith, Hebrew for Genesis. The interviewee replies with fas, Latin for divine law, command, fate or destiny, which conspicuously happens to be the first word in the title of the second album in the trilogy. They refer, possibly, to Hakim Bey’s idea of Chaos as the proverbial fas of the land:
The great serpent (Tiamat, Python, Leviathan), Hesiod’s primal Chaos, presides over the vast long dreaming of the Paleolithic — before all kings, priests, agents of Order, History, Heirarchy, Law… In effect, chaos is life. All mess, all riot of color, all protoplasmic urgency, all movement — is chaos. From this point of view, Order appears as death.
In between these first two albums of the trilogy, DsO released the EP Kénôse, French for kenosis, defined by Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence as:
…a breaking device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions; kenosis then is a movement toward discontinuity with the precursor. From St. Paul, who uses the term in regard to Jesus’ empties the divine out of himself to assume human form. Similarly the poet empties out the poetic afflatus of the precursor. The precursor too is emptied out.
Both definitions, Christian and poetical, apply all too well. DsO themselves claim to take deep influence from the Christian Bible, though they stress that it’s but one of many influences.
Encyclopedia Metallum, the largest and most complete metal resource on the internet, reports “there is no concrete information on the band members, only rumours.”
Chaining the Katechon, their second in-between-trilogy EP, refers to New Testament Pauline theology of the one (the Katechon) who prevents the rise of the Antichrist. Chaining the Katechon, then, amounts to restraining he who restrains the Antichrist, so that He can be set free. It is obviously DsO’s supreme mandate to restore the throne to the metaphysical Antichrist, and they invoke the Bible even though it establishes the Antichrist’s fleeting reign as heralding ultimate defeat at the second coming of Christ in Revelations. Though to quote Georges Bataille:
To choose evil is to choose freedom. What evil in essence rejects is a concern with the time to come. It is precisely in this sense that the longing for the summit — that the movement toward evil — constitute all morality within us. Morality has in itself no value (in the strong sense) except inasmuch as it leads to going beyond being — rejecting concerns for a time to come.
But it is still unclear what exactly metaphysical Satanism is. Is it an individualized bricolage of all these disparate influences?
Satanism, or Devilworship, is not a revealed religion, like just any other monotheistic religion. Or better said, it is a revealed religion, but at this stage, there is no such thing as a Book of Books like the Bible is for the Christian tradition. Actually, the whole religious literature, from the old Jewish sects to the agnostics, from the St. Augustinian approach to Christianity to radical Wahhabi pamphlets, is only a fragment of what we have to be aware of to finally find the spiritual pearls disseminated here and there for those who have eyes to see… Not being limited by morality, a smile, or the vilest rape can both be vital contributions.
To quote Beauvoir on Hegel, followed by a Hegel quotation found in DsO’s lyrics: “Hegel tells us in the last part of The Phenomenology of Mind that moral consciousness can exist only to the extent that there is disagreement between nature and morality. It would disappear if the ethical law became the natural law.”
“Death is the most terrible of all things; and to maintain its works is what requires the greatest of all strength.”
Perhaps, then, Satan is the terrible marriage between natural and ethical law. Such might explain DsO’s utter lack of moral consciousness. The only conclusion that can be soundly drawn, without their peculiar cacophony of influences to draw upon, is that Deathspell Omega’s metaphysical take on black metal has eclipsed their grim-and-gore-obsessed predecessors along with 99% of everyone else claiming to be in it for the music or the message. They remains true to the core of the black metal ethos — a notoriously difficult task — while simultaneously repurposing traditional black metal structures to their own end (anathema to black metal on paper, epitome of black metal and AMSG in practice), almost sidestepping into an alternate reality where Satan reigns, bleeding their world into our own until it’s hard to tell which is which.
Last November, Deathspell Omega released the third and final album in their trilogy, Paracletus. Their way has been shown, regardless of our limited ability to understand it. Since their second interview in 2004, they have done nothing in the public eye but silently release a handful of albums and EPs. To date, they have produced a total of 66 songs. We will probably never hear from them again.