Satanism, burning of churches, murdered musicians… Few rock genres have been so reviled and have given as much play to the chronicle of events as extreme metal, a stylistic umbrella that has its greatest global power in Scandinavia. The exhibition Der harte Norden (the hard north) examines this unusual sound phenomenon… at the headquarters of the Nordic embassies in Berlin! Organized by the five legations (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland) that share a building in the heart of the German capital’s Tiergarten, the extensive exhibition studies their origins, their local variants and the success of bands like Entombed, Bathory or Mayhem. And without sparing the trickiest details, which are not few.
“It was the Embassies themselves that contacted me,” explains Swedish journalist Ika Johannesson, curator of the exhibition, which can be visited until September 29. She is the author of the book Blood Fire Death. The Swedish Metal Story, she remembers how a movement created in the bedrooms of some Scandinavian teenagers conquered the world. “It’s very easy to denigrate it as something childish, something you should forget about when you grow up. But I want attendees to understand why this community is so strong,” she notes, pointing out the connections of these sounds with literature, mythology or philosophy. She grew up within the Gothenburg death metal circle in the nineties. “It was a magical moment. Nobody understood what we were doing. At first there were very few women and you had to prove more than the men.”
With stops at doom and pagan metal, the exhibition focuses on the birth of the two main Nordic currents, ultra-aggressive daughters of heavy and thrash: first, death metal, and later, the (even more radical) black metal. Using vinyls, fanzines, ritual objects, clothing and a lot of memorabilia, the differences between the two are analyzed in terms of rhythm, lyrics and attitude towards society. Johannesson explains: “In short, death is collectivist and black is individualistic. Many black metal fans live by the motto of occultist Aleister Crowley: Do what you want, that will be your whole law.
And so the problems came. Pelle Dead Ohlin, the lead singer of Mayhem, committed suicide in 1991. When his body was found by his partner Øystein Euronymous Aarseth, he took photos of the corpse to use as promotional material and distributed parts of the skull to a faithful few. The atmosphere became even more clouded when Norwegian musicians were linked to the burning of churches, attacks that soon spread to neighboring countries. In 1993, things became even more unhinged when Varg Vikernes, the leader of Burzum, murdered Aarseth and became something of a myth. Johannesson had serious doubts about whether or not to include this genre in the exhibition. “Black metal is provocation and violence, it wants you to react and feel disgust. The general reasoning for bringing in an artist was: if he received a sentence and served it, his crime is atoned. But if he continues to incite hatred, then he cannot be here.”
How do you explain the strength of extreme metal in these five nations that together do not reach 28 million inhabitants? “One theory is that it adapts to our climate, with dramatic changes between light and dark. Another is that we are a taciturn, introverted people, with a history linked to Protestantism that oppresses us, which makes these sounds an outlet for repressed feelings,” says the curator of the Berlin exhibition. Although, now, those guttural growls are no longer so indigestible. “People get used to it,” she concludes. “In the ’70s, Kiss was considered very tough, which is ridiculous today.”
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