All artforms have their specific subcategories. Horror has its comedies and torture porn, while R&B can claim soul, funk, New Jack Swing, and hip-hop, just to name a few. So it's not surprising to see heavy metal mutate from its Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin formative years through the British reinterpretation (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest), speed, thrash, and the ever-puzzling fusion known as "nu". Now we have a documentary, partially pitched by recording label Cleopatra Records, which hopes to uncover the truth behind the most odd and sinister of all musical subgenres. Inspired by a hatred of Christianity and love of Nordic mythology, the Scandinavian driven Black Metal scene has become more infamous for issues outside the music than anything contained on any record. And as the intriguing film makes clear, conviction and strong beliefs are not the only reasons why murder and mayhem seem to follow this frightening, fatalistic movement.
Via a standard talking head approach, director Mats Lundberg interviews several important participants in the European Black Metal faction, including those on both sides of the situation. We learn that the subgenre is actually divided into two competing camps. Both disavow the arrogance and horrors of a Judeo-Christian dogma (and the organized version of same) for an alternate, almost atheistic view of life. But that's where the similarities end. There is a solid segment that uses Nordic mythology and the various Valhalla-based gods as the foundation for their philosophy. They make it very clear that it has nothing to do with faith, or a polytheistic ethos. Instead, Thor and Odin become the inspiration for humanistic views of fate and personal responsibility/dignity. On the other side are the Satanists, those who belief the Devil represents a more realistic way to plot one's existence. From these believers, we also learn that most black metal practitioners only pay lip service to the mangoat. Most use the imagery and symbolism within Satanism as a means of shock value only.
Though it doesn't arrive until the last half of this stunning, superb documentary, the most horrific element of Black Metal Satanica is not the various stories of slaughter and arson, church burning or grave desecration and robbing. Looking about as mild mannered and unassuming as any young man his age, Niklas "Kvarforth" Olsson, lead singer and founder of the group Shining spells out his pro-suicide, pro-self mutilation agenda, and we are instantly taken aback. As with many of the musicians in this spellbinding effort, his soft spoken rationality stands in sharp contrast to the decidedly deranged things he is putting forth. While advocating his peculiar point of view, he marvels at the "beauty" of pure white bone sticking out of a jagged and bloody wound, arguing for a world where everyone is dead or destroying themselves, and sees himself and his songs as kind of a reverse Messianic missive for same. In his cool, calm, and collected reasoning, we see just how dangerous and potentially seductive this kind of anti-social strategy can be - and why there is still so much scandal surrounding it.
Olsson is not alone. The other startling aspect about this film is that the participants in Black Metal Satanica are all very thoughtful, articulate, and introspective. This isn't punk posing or Halloween mask marketing (are you listening, Slipknot???). These incredibly Nordic men (they look remarkably like their Viking ancestors, even in upside down crucifixes and pentagram tattoos) truly live by the code they've created, and never once pretend to be confrontational for the sake of publicity and CD sales. As a matter of fact, the one element barely discussed in Black Metal Satanica is the music. Certain concrete facets of the genre - guttural vocals, fast riffing guitars, abundant death/horror/blasphemous imagery - are put forth, but aside from some intriguing soundtrack selections, very little about the aural approach to Black Metal is laid bare. It's as if, by osmosis and incessant overplaying, we'll pick it up by rote. However, one does envision a documentary overloaded with self-important posturing by neophytes bragging on their theological dissertation and deconstruction. Luckily, none of that exists here.
No, Lundberg simply lets his subjects talk, and broken English or not, they are wildly interesting and highly engaging. Someone professing a hatred of Christianity and a love for all things secular and satanic has the unhappy possibility of being pictured as a stereotype, and yet no one onscreen is typical or clichéd. Our responses, of course, are probably the most emblematic of Black Metal's many misinterpretations. Unless you are willing to drop your prejudices and actually LISTEN to what these artists have to say, you'll probably wind up angry and off put. Of course, Lundberg doesn't help matter much, especially when an album cover featuring an actual photo of Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin's suicide is shown in graphic, up close detail (it's truly nasty). Yet oddly enough, it's the only gruesome, gratuitous material offered here. Even during the discussion of grave robbing and corpse desecration, no offensive imagery is used. In fact, the entire approach toward the subject of Black Metal is solicitous and non-confrontational. And when dealing with a subject as controversial as this, it's truly the right approach.
Presented in an unusual letterboxed full screen format, Black Metal Satanica has a real shot on video, post-production revamp over to film feel. The colors are crisp, the details easy to define, and the overall impression is one of professionalism and polish. On the down side, the lack of an anamorphic transfer is troubling, especially when you realize that the black bars on the top and bottom of the 1.33:1 image are being used to highlight band names, subject monikers, and the occasional inclusion of subtitles. It makes the whole visual presentation kind of surreal.
On the sound side, all the interviews are conducted in what is clearly an internal microphone dynamic. As long as the camcorder is capable of picking up the individual's voice, we hear it loud and clear. Otherwise, there are times when some of the sentiments get lost inside a limited technological set-up. The music is also given a good representation, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix offering solid bass and clean contrasts. While some might argue for a 5.1 version of the title, such a set-up would only illustrate the documentaries lo-fi budgeting.
Sadly, there are none, and this is the DVD version of Black Metal Satanica's weakest aspect. Since many of these bands are unknown to most music fans, some manner of biography or individual write-up would have been nice. After all, why feature these groups without giving potential devotees the information they need to understand and follow them?
Don't get the wrong impression of this title. Black Metal Satanica is not just for the converted or lover of loud, fast, and hard heaviness. While the songs will take some getting used to, the information and ideas proffered by the individuals interviewed makes for an amazing documentary experience. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Black Metal Satanica is one of the finest area-specific films about a particular subgenre of music ever made. While the sounds may not be everyone's cup of tea, the conversations reveal amazing insight into Scandinavia, its long and tortured history with Christianity, the strong theme of Nordic mythology, and the ever-present alienation and angst experienced by young people around the world. Black Metal may not be the most extreme music in the whole of said sonic media, but thanks to a film like this, it definitely deserves more than just a fringe-dwelling dismissal.