by Tony Ware
The year was 1991, and there were those who felt the decade-old black metal genre had yet to realize its dark potential. So with some corpse paint and controversy and Odin on their side, Norwegians emerged as the torchbearers — sometimes literally — of extremism. Following a mid-'90s spate of medieval church burnings, a grisly suicide/band-on-band murder or two, as well as a "Dark War" with Finnish metal over who was more satanic, the Norwegians quickly gained a grim reputation. And in the maintaining of that blasphemous status, Norwegian black metal was its own worst enemy (and best ally), PR-wise.
Norwegian metal has been Spinal Tap-ian in its quest for there to be "none more black," resulting at many times in obsidian absurdity — and at others in truly alarming acts and imagery. Photographer Peter Beste has compiled seven years of capturing fake blood and real shit, inverted crosses and mixed messages that reveal Norwegian black metal bands to be the Ramones of death metal: simple and conceptual, an expression of acceptance and rejection, cartoonish and dead serious.
Beste is not the first to look intently at this genre and subculture; among others, the 1998 book Lords of Chaos and 2006 DVD Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (which features some of Beste's portfolio) addressed the more contemptuous points of Norwegian black metal's history. But Beste's True Norwegian Black Metal favors images shedding enough light on the black throughout 180 oversized pages (another 30 or so pages are dedicated to select archives pulled from Jon "Metalion" Kristiansen's extreme-metal zine Slayer). Sure, the arms race to look evil sadly became one to act evil for some, but Beste's lens both celebrates and balances out the sensational with a sense of camaraderie.
Beste began this project in 2001, immediately following his graduation from college. Approaching Norwegian metal on his own accord, not as a photojournalist, the U.S.-based Beste paid out-of-pocket to visit the country several times over the following years. In the process he gained contacts, trust and material in this misanthropic underground, culminating in this collection of images. Paying homage to a country and culture of vast contrasts, this coffee-table conversation piece opens primarily in stark black and white before transitioning to more saturated colors, portraits, and live shots spiked with intensity and hell-bent for leather.
Throughout Beste's book, painted scowls and decapitated sows both have their place, as do serene forests and urban crosswalks. Captured in and simultaneously taken out of context by the picture's frame, Beste's subjects — including members of Gorgoroth, Darkthrone, Mayhem, 1349, Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir and more — are locked between reality and mythology. Those featured appear a little less immoral and a little more immortal, which might or might not suit them just fine depending on their connection to Viking or heathen heritage. As pictured, the figures present as perfect a commentary as any on this derisive subset of a socialized nation. Parts pensive as well as perverse, True Norwegian Black Metal functions as a capstone to tabloid frenzy. Black may be the absence of all light, but it's also the presence of all color, and this tome is certainly richly hued.