Norwegian black metal becomes a Nordic cultural venture

Over four episodes, the new NRKdocumentary series explores a musical subculture originating in Norway.

Collage on the wall of legendary music store Neseblod (Nosebleed) in Oslo.

During the 1980s, Norwegian rural areas gave rise to an innovative musical subculture: Norwegian black metal.

The music was at once primitive and sophisticated, with rhythmic subtleties crammed into a cold, hard wall of sound. Deafening drums, booming bass and grating guitars were ear-piercing – a protest against the melodic norms of popular music.

Vocals sounded like primal screams, almost drowning out lyrics bursting with existential agony. Young guys expressed their feelings of exclusion through black metal music, with black symbolism to match.

This rich and dramatic part of recent Norwegian cultural history has been of interest to Håvard Bråthen and Thomas Allkär for several years. Both are NRK journalists and dedicated music fans. They got together in 2018 to develop their idea for a documentary series, initially presenting it at the in-house pitch event for the NRK Culture editorial team.

Things moved on swiftly with two rounds of discussion at Nordvision – the last one resulting in broad Nordic support for their project. At the start of 2019, stage manager Bråthen and joint stage manager Allkär are well underway.

“A lot has been written and said about Norwegian black metal, and opinions differ wildly. The massive media coverage of burning churches and killings has shaped many people’s view of the scene. We want to tell the full story about the actual musical genre, while getting to know the people who created what is now Norway’s greatest contribution to modern popular culture,” says Håvard Bråthen, adding that the Nordic support provides real inspiration for their work.

“Perhaps this will also help to open doors when we reach out to sources who aren’t always that keen to be interviewed.”

Stage manager Håvard Bråthen (left) and joint stage manager Thomas Allkär. As NRK journalists and dedicated music fans, they have been interested in this dramatic part of recent Norwegian cultural history for a number of years. Photo: Robert Rønning/NRK

A musical climb up the social ladder

Visual effects such as skulls, blood, barbed wire and satanic images intensified the feeling of alienation.

Certain followers of the scene made no distinction between image and lifestyle – and in the early 1990s, this resulted in newspaper headlines about Satanism, killings and arson attacks on churches. Such news shook society to its core, and for several years, the music itself became marginalised by mainstream audiences and media.

But in the decades since, Norwegian black metal has managed to climb several rungs up the musical social ladder. This detested subculture has grown into a musical export with a huge international following.

Norwegian hard rock bands tour all over the world, and every year, thousands of fans from around the globe – known as ’blackpackers’ – make a pilgrimage to Norway. They want to experience for themselves the place where their beloved music was first conceived, and where it is still created to this day.

The massive media coverage of burning churches and killings has shaped many people’s view of the scene.
– Håvard Bråthen

Produced for the NRK web player

The aim is to complete the four episodes in this series by the end of the year. Like most new NRK documentary series, Helvete will primarily be published on the station’s online service, NRK TV.

Although there will also be a traditional, linear broadcast, the online availability takes priority. The target audience are 35-year-old men with an interest in rock music – a segment the national broadcaster considers hard to reach.

However, it is not an impossible task, as proven by the documentary series Takin Ova – Historien om norsk hiphop. This too was first launched on NRK TV, and this is where it reached its greatest audience.

A broad range of genres is important For Managing Editor of the NRK cultural department, Ingerid Nordstrand, the changing media habits of the audience are a good guide.

“The fact that today, more so than ever, we depend on a picky audience actually choosing our content, means that we must produce it in new ways,” she explains.

Documentaries are in a strong position when audiences make active choices, while live music transmissions do not always find their mark online. Concerts seem to be most popular with audiences on linear TV, often at holiday times such as Christmas, and even more so when presented in an entertaining style.

“Covering a broad range of genres has become important to us as communicators of Norwegian culture. We continue to produce shows about and featuring more traditional musical styles such as classical, folk and jazz, but it feels very natural and important to us that we take all genres seriously,” says Ingerid Nordstrand.