The headlines of the nation’s newspapers scream with the revelations of a sinister plot to slaughter progressive politicians and religious leaders in Norway. The perpetrators, possessed of not only weapons but significant sums of money, allegedly planned further actions beyond the list of assassinations. On their agenda is the liberation of an imprisoned comrade, whom they hope to safely smuggle out of the country. Is this prisoner-of-war another extreme nationalist with a long history of underground political activism like themselves? No. He is 24-year-old Varg Vikernes, the most infamous Black Metal musician in the world.
With those words Lords of Chaos establishes itself immediately as a work of sensationalist media, however entertaining or informative it may otherwise be. First published in 1998 – when few musicians had a personal presence on the internet, and news within the genre was still conveyed for the most part by old fashioned print journalism – Lords of Chaos became an instant classic by very virtue of being the first widely available summation of this seemingly sinister Norwegian subculture, not to mention its tabloid-like dwelling on the more nefarious deeds of its participants.
Indeed, it was this very playing up of the criminal mischief behind the black metal scene that led to accusations of author Michael Moynihan peddling literature sympathetic to the extremist politics he was covering. That wasn’t the case, of course; he was simply trying to sell books (although there are those who would argue differently).
A case could be made that the very reason that Lords of Chaos has maintained its essential status over a decade later – a second edition was issued in 2003, which added 50 pages of new material to the original text, and a film version has long gestated in Development Hell for years – could be attributed to the fact that there is no real competition… if you want an overview of the early Norwegian black metal scene, Lords of Chaos is pretty much it. Now, that isn’t to say that poring over dozens of individual band interviews won’t give you a more nuanced portrait, but as far as easily digested tomes go, Lords of Chaos is still the go to reference manual for neophytes to the genre.
Why is this? Well, it’s entirely possible that the uniformly divisive reception the book received amongst black metal musicians themselves has impressed upon later authors a specific consideration: the futility of attempting to sum up Norwegian black metal as having much more than geography and a few 80s metal influences in common. If there was any unity in the scene toward the beginning it certainly seems to have dissipated no later than the murder of Euronymous, and more reasonably the closing of his Helvete shop some time earlier.
Politically and religiously, these artists tend to be all over the map, with only a tendency toward extremism and contempt for mainstream society as a common bond. Yet these political and spiritual elements are intrinsic to the music itself, and as such one cannot write intelligibly on the subject without placing these subjects front and center. In that regard, for whatever its faults as objective journalism, Lords of Chaos continues to be difficult to improve upon… a situation exacerbated by the fact that many of black metal’s key players tend to play their cards close to their vests, which often makes ascertaining their motives and inspirations educated guesswork, at best.