The anthropologist is a girl of the 80s, musically speaking, which means that she grew up listening mainly to synthpop. She moved from her beloved Canada to Scandinavia where she (re)discovered Heavy Metal in 2009 following her husband’s Academic career.
Heavy Metal’s roots are fascinating and surprising. Of particular interest is heavy metal’s connection to classical music. During the Baroque and Romantic Period, composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner revolutionized the modern musical scene by freely adopting the tritone.
Theirs was a bold step, for, until that moment, the tritone’s restless intervals and consequent dissonance had been associated with the devil, avoided accordingly. Heavy Metal’s characteristic dense bass-drum sounds, distorted guitars, emphatic rhythm, and vocal styles – see in particular the nearly operatic vocalisms of Judas Priest's Rob Halford and Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson – derive from the new form of orchestration that saw its birth right before and during the Romantic Period.
Nonetheless, modern Heavy Metal was officially born in England and the United States in the 60s. Sam Dunn, a Canadian anthropologist and filmmaker who has done extensive research on Heavy Metal’s history developed the now famous Heavy Metal Family Tree.
Dunn’s chart shows Heavy Metal’s historical evolution from Early Metal (1966-1971), whose main representatives were Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath, to Trash Metal (1983-present) with Metallica and Megadeath – to the widely controversial Norwegian Black Metal (1990-present).
Norwegian Black Metal has become one of Norway’s biggest exports. According to Dunn, Norwegian Black Metal evolved from punk and a new wave of British Heavy Metal and its sound is harsh, epic, and theatrical, “like punk rock meets Wagner dressed as Alice Cooper”.
Norwegian Black Metal is often associated with Satanism. Bands such as Gorgoroth and Mayhem epitomize the total reaction to all forms of Christianity: “We have to remove every trace of Christianity” says Gaahl, Gorgoroth’s former frontman when talking about the numerous episodes of church burning that plagued Norway in the early 1990s.
Norway does not exclusively produce Black Metal despite this extreme and controversial form of Heavy Metal, and, I need to add, the great majority of Norwegian Black Metal fans do not approve of killing and church burning.
Norwegian Heavy Metal’s devotees and their Nordic neighbors have also found different ways to express their musical talents.
They have created sub-genres that closely relate to their own history and are definitely less bloody than Black Metal, particularly Viking-Pagan Heavy Metal and Symphonic Black Metal.
I am referring in particular to Viking-Pagan Heavy Metal and Symphonic Black Metal. Viking-Pagan Heavy Metal developed in the early 1990s as a strong reaction to Satanism to which the most extreme form of Norwegian Black Metal belonged to.
In the case of Viking-Pagan Heavy Metal, the quest for authenticity and rebellion to Christianity inherent in rock and heavy metal music is combined with heathenism, a contemporary revival of historical Germanic paganism with its Nordic folk music and mythology. The Norwegian cohort of Viking-Pagan Heavy Metal is represented by bands such as Kampfar and Borknagar.
Symphonic Black Metal, on the other hand, merges symphonic and orchestral instruments such as piano or cello and an operatic vocal style with ‘traditional’ black metal elements such as fast tempos and high-pitched solo guitars. Dimmu Borgir is among the most notable Norwegian Symphonic Black Metal bands and their experimentation through the years exemplifies the passage from pure Black Metal to a more progressive and symphonic style.
Norway’s Heavy Metal scene is rich and progressive; which one will you pick?
Sam Dunn, 2995 Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. This documentary film is a great introduction to the history and evolution of Heavy Metal.
Consuelo Griggio, PhD candidate in Social Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. The anthropologist is currently undertaking doctoral fieldwork on the island of Vega, Helgeland.