Book review of Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult by Dayal Patterson

Ever since 1998, when a girlfriend made for me a black metal compilation tape with the likes of Emperor, Satyricon, Cradle of Filth, Marduk and Dark Funeral, I have been intrigued by this genre without ever becoming a die hard fan. If we leave aside the church burnings, murders, crime and all controversy surrounding black metal, there has always been a mystical, atmospheric element to the music which strongly appealed to me, a spirituality not found in death or thrash metal.

While my own journey has taken me into slower and heavier musical territories, I must confess that I have always reserved some envy for this musical genre that always seems to find a way to evolve and reinvent itself while at the same time retaining its traditional core sound and ethos with ease. This wonderfully detailed book further illustrates this point in its colossal 600 pages. I liked Lords of Chaos as it gave a convincing account of some of the personalities and peculiarities of the people who are at the forefront of the genre, but in retrospect it almost feels like no more than an intro to black metal after reading Dayal’s book, which is much more exhaustive in detail and thematically very cleverly structured.

The book follows more or less a chronological outline of the genre’s history and events, but only inasmuch the timeline illustrates the main branches of black metal. After a short but essential course on the founding fathers of heavy metal and the satanic philosophy which came to be so closely associated with the genre, the book slowly unfolds a history which started with the first generation bands such as Venom, Bathory and Hellhammer, before it goes on to explain how black thrash played -in retrospect- a significant part in black metal’s development. The South/Central European and South American scenes -both flourishing before the Norwegian explosion- are not forgotten either. The second generation of bands -with the Norwegian scene at its epicentre- is then exhaustively recounted. Mayhem serve as the main protagonists whose story is broken up in three parts which illustrate how their philosophy and mentality have been interwoven with the evolution of that second generation of bands.

The story of black metal is told through countless interviews with the protagonists of the genre themselves and while it’s impossible to do everyone justice, I don’t think that there are any reasons to complain, even for diehard fans. The main characters appear to be as eccentric, challenging and unpredictable as the music they play, which makes for very entertaining and at times even humorous reading. An extensive photographic section in the middle of the book -in chronological order- gives a visual spin to the story as well, and those who tend to only read headlines of chapters and parts featuring bands they are interested in, will still find a convincing guide of the visual evolution of black metal simply by browsing through some chapters and looking at the photo’s.

The story then takes us to the weirder and more avant-garde sub branches that have evolved more recently, as well as the cross-pollination of genres. However this is without failing to warn us that the term ‘post black metal’ (the prefix ‘post’ is nowadays annoyingly used in conjunction with most metal genres, as if there is a whole new generation of bands that have reinvented warm water) doesn’t necessarily mean that traditional black metal is dead: it’s merely a different approach.

Dayal has a detached and confident writing style that successfully manages to retain its neutral stance despite certain controversial -and quite frankly ethically repulsive- views voiced by some of the main characters in the book. His approach is that of a scientist, or more accurately a cultural anthropologist who merely describes and outlines some general tendencies of this subculture, without judging or moralising. He doesn’t shy away from controversies either, and discusses in detail the commercial explosion of the genre in the mid nineties and the rise of NSBM in countries such as Poland.

It’s somewhat pointless seeking for highlights as the book flows extremely well and can be read in one go, but personally I will retain mostly two things. Firstly the clever way in which Euronymous managed to inspire a whole scene by defining it conceptually rather than musically (in his view black metal was all about literal devil worship) which freed up its artists to explore shockingly diverse musical paths that are often incompatible with each other. And secondly the assertion that black metal never really accepted NSBM, not because it thinks its views are too extreme or unethical, but because -quite the opposite- they are too positive(!) as they focus on the procreation of the race, brotherhood and loyalty rather than the genre’s inherent individualism and unrelenting misanthropy.

In summary, this is probably the ultimate black metal encyclopaedia, or is bound to become this over the next few years, simply because I really can’t see anyone else taking up such a massive challenge to write a similarly gargantuan book. Whether you are a fan of the genre or not, it offers a highly engaging and thoroughly entertaining read about a genre that unlike many others, speaks to the imagination and the equally extreme and controversial subculture related to it.
Fiendishly recommended.