Reawoken wrath of the Norsemen – welcome to the Scandinavian extreme metal scene

This is my first column ever for Metal as Fuck and my mission is to be your guide to things metal in Scandinavia. Trust me when I say this column, like all I write here, will be very personal and it will not be the complete guide to all things rock/metal in this region. This is a quite personal view but I will include links to other sources to help you dig deeper and find your version of the 'truth' as well.

 

To me, the music scene in this region is all about extreme metal and hence I will most likely leave out things that I simply never heard, or more likely, never really cared too much about. I am not a journalist or a person who claims to be objective; I am a lifetime metalhead and I live and breathe for metal in general, and for black and death metal in particular.

 

Dismember, still going strong, Live at Gates of Metal 2006 - Photo Daniel Falk
Dismember - still very death metal - Live at Gates of Metal Festival 2006. Photo by Daniel Falk.

First things first: I will try to place this, my region of origin, on the map. Scandinavia is situated to the far north of Europe and includes Denmark, Norway and Sweden. These rather small nations share a long history and our past is very much intertwined when it comes to politics (spelled warfare back in the day), culture, and language. This region also is also where the Vikings originated and spread our culture and worked hard to secure trade across Europe and beyond. Occasionally they also killed, raided and raped people. I will return to these guys later.

Scandinavia is part of what is, at least locally, referred to as 'the North', a region to which also Finland and Iceland belong. However, my column will focus on the distinct Scandinavian metal scene so, though it sometimes is also closely linked to activities in these two countries, I will not cover much of Finland or Iceland in any greater detail. But if you are interested in metal, you must promise to learn more about the Finnish scene since it does offer some of the best bands in the world. It really does. But those bands are for someone else to write about.

The three countries that constitute Scandinavia are similar, with some differences when it comes to language, but all of us living here can fairly easily understand each other, at least when drunk. Scandinavia has been at peace since the end of the Second World War, but for centuries the nations of Scandinavia have been to war more times than any pupil in school could ever learn. So though this region seems rather peaceful today, our soil is drenched in blood. 

Dark Tranquillity - Live 2008
Dark Tranquillity - Live autumn 2008 - Photo by Daniel Falk

When it comes to the rise of the metal scene it can be quite strange to note that this region, which has been so very peaceful and relatively prosperous during the last 50 years, with a very high standard of living, social security for everybody and so on, could give birth to some of the most extreme metal the world has seen. One can discuss the reasons for this, but to me I would say that the main reason is that people (the youth, the only factor of real change in any society if you ask me) became bored, frustrated and angry. It is hard to rebel in a place so tolerant, where you are met with understanding almost no matter what you do. So I think the extreme metal got its foothold not because life was hard, but rather that it became dull and pointless. 

The over-protected kids of Scandinavia became restless - and without much warning rose a scene so extreme that it would resound throughout the world. It seems almost like the vikings of old had only been slumbering and that Christianity never quite got the job done. And we knew they hadn't succeeded to erase the old pagan ways in reality. Few people, and in the metal community almost none, really do believe in god in the biblical sense. And once again the wrath of Scandinavia is unleashed and pouring out from onto a rather unsuspecting world. The old ancestors are headbanging in Valhalla with joy, I am sure of it.

Enough of my own thoughts about the reasons why the metal scene rose, because it did and it happened first in Stockholm with the primitive raw death metal sound hailing from the now infamous Studio Sunlight. Early bands were Nihilist, Unleashed and Dismember but those where just the tip of an iceberg. There where literally thousands of bands starting out and it spread like fire throughout Scandinavia. So when people say that this region has given birth to a lot of bands they are only counting the well known: there are so many that only got a limited recognition. On the west coast (now often referred to as the Gothenburg sound from the biggest city there) sprung bands that incorporated a bit more melodies in their music. To name some bands that I was immensely impressed by: Grotesque, Dissection, Dark Tranquillity and In Flames. If you count sales figures, the bands from this part of Sweden are perhaps the most successful ones in the long-run. Back in the day, I can honestly say that I didn't really see that coming, and I didn't even see the differences between the 'sounds' people talk about today. To me it was all just metal. Damn good metal. 

In Flames - Live 2008
In Flames - Live 2008 - Photo by Daniel Falk

But the rise of the most extreme scene was still to come. In Norway the most black metal sound scape was chiselled out and became as rugged and cold as the mountains that make up most of this beautiful country. If I remember it correctly, some of the major bands in the Norwegian scene sometimes also talked about it as, at least partly, as a reaction to the 'trendy' death metal scene in Sweden (and in the US where the Morrisound bands were quickly gaining a lot of attention). Bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum all came like lightning from the night sky, and us being into extreme music couldn't earn enough cash to get all the albums that suddenly started to be released. The rise of the black metal scene in Norway has been covered in great detail in both books1 and documentaries2 so I will not elaborate on it here, I couldn't do it justice. But I can just say as a metalhead I didn't really see it as much different for me personally. I listened to both black and death metal, and I still do, and it didn't take long before sounds began spreading. Today it is impossible to say that black metal is limited to Norway, or that death metal is a Swedish thing. 

Mayhem - Live at the Gates of Metal festival 2006
Mayhem - Live at Gates of Metal festival 2006 - Photo by Daniel Falk

The rise of the extreme metal scene in Scandinavia was indeed a phenomena in hindsight, though we didn't fully understand it at the time. I guess it is hard to see history in the making, and being drunk and banging your head doesn't help. History has proved that this wave of death and black metal (and also a fair number of thrash and doom acts) would once again make sure the rest of the world put Scandinavia back on the map. The bands that would soon reach legendary status were people the same age as their listeners. That made everybody see that it could be done, and in every city, town and village people started to tune down their guitars, buy an extra bass drum and start their own band. So did I in 1990, and it is still like that today.

Of course, this development wasn't has rapid as it might have seemed to me growing up in the countryside, but to 'us' it felt like it all happened over night. In all honesty brilliant metal acts like Heavy Load, Bathory and Mercyful Fate had been around for a long time, but few were fortunate enough to have heard them outside the circle of people in the earliest extreme metal movement. The big push came in the late '80s and the early '90s. Personally, I consider 1990-1994 to mark the most important years in the Scandinavian music output. Ever. Here are some releases no extreme metalhead should live without, sorted alphabetical after year of release (below). I think they all are brilliant and some are on my personal top-ten of all times but I cannot finish that list until I am on my death bed...

Entombed (Swe) – Left Hand Path 1990

Dismember (Swe) – Like an Everflowing Stream 1991

Grave (Swe) – Into the Grave 1991

Unleashed (Swe) - Where No Life Dwells 1991

At the Gates (Swe) – The Red in the Sky is Ours 1992

Darkthrone (Nor) - A Blaze in the Northern Sky 1992

Dark Tranquillity (Swe) – Skydancer 1993

Dissection (Swe) – The Somberlain 1993

Unanimated (Swe) - In the Forest of the Dreaming Dead 1993

Satyricon (Nor) - Dark Medieval Times 1993

Dimmu Borgir (Nor) – För all tid 1994

Emperor (Nor) - In the Nightside Eclipse 1994

Marduk (Swe) – Opus Nocturne 1994

Mayhem (Nor) - De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas 1994

And now you will also note one serious thing with the listing above: there are no Danish bands there. Correct. Denmark has indeed sported some interesting bands early on like Artillery (thrash) and Illdisposed (death), but in my opinion they were not a result of a scene with a distinct sound. It seems like few caught on the early works of Mercyful Fate and King Diamond in Denmark. I guess the youth of Denmark listened to something else or did something else than caring about music. I could be wrong, and I guess a couple of Danish people will let me know. Good thing, I like to get tips so don't hesitate to educate me! And don't get me wrong, Denmark has a lot of interesting bands, and to name one very interesting, though not very extreme, is the brilliant Volbeat. But when it comes to more extreme metal I think the best Denmark has to offer is still to come. 

Volbeat - Live at Arvika festival 2008
Volbeat - Live at Arvika festival 2008 - Photo by Daniel Falk.

So this is my unbelievably biased introduction to the extreme metal scene in Scandinavia. If you get this on your school test it would in be in short: Vikings – nothing – extreme metal. Some people might say weird things like design, sports, beautiful nature, but they would be dead wrong. All of that comes second to the music and the people who play and listen to it. It is all about metal and this is the region where some of the most extreme noises came to life. The wrath of the Norsemen didn't die with introduction of Christianity. We were looking for new axes, and this time we have increased our reach thanks to the strings and the global metal community.

All photos in this column by Daniel Falk, metalasfuck.net/zine/users/framednoise

1 For example "Lords of Chaos, the bloody rise of the satanic underground" (Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind). This is an interesting book but I think it is also a bit “sensationalistic” and it lacks some analysis but still well worth reading. More info about it here (wikipedia).

2 For example “Until the Light takes us” is a rather new documentary that I saw early 2009 on the Gothenburg film festival. Packed with interviews with some of the leading figures in the Norwegian black metal movement, both old interviews and some more recent, it does give some perspective on things. Fenriz is in it so be prepared for some well thought through reflections! More info about it here (imdb)