“The New Satanism” in heavy metal

Pelle Forsberg, guitarist for black-metal band Watain. Photo by Flickr user Tiffany Peters/TiffanyFoto.

Heavy metal has always had a reputation for being Satanic. That reputation came from a number of places: the stage makeup used by Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, KISS, King Diamond, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral panic sparked by folks like Bob Larson and Tipper Gore (and echoed in churches nationwide), the explicitly Satanic lyrics of bands like Slayer.

But how many heavy-metal musicians are Satanic? Fewer than you might think. Many bands play up the demonic/evil angle because it’s theatrical and emotionally resonant. But these are metaphors; it would be a mistake to assume the musicians themselves practice Satanism in any form. As in mainstream society, among metalheads there are Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans, Hindus, and so on — in proportions that are not widely out of sync with the culture they live in. The primary exceptions may be among those in the early Norwegian black metal scene. There, a number of musicians claim loyalty to Satanic ideals, in part to rebel against the dominance of Christianity and the takeover of old Norse and pagan traditions.

Over at Invisible Oranges this week, Joseph Schafer examines what he calls “The New Satanism” in heavy metal. As Schafer points out, metal and Satanism actually had very little to do with each other until recently:

Only a handful of pre-’00s metal musicians profess to be actual Satanists. Even fewer claim to worship the devil—most out-Satanists in metal music follow(ed) Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, which does not believe in Satan as an actual entity.

More contemporary bands talk about satanism than ever—the Decibel tour celebrated theistic satanism as much as the magazine that sponsored it. And art fueled by genuine faith has a powerful character -— one distinct from music just about opposing the conventions of others.

And perhaps theistic satanism is the most interesting thing about these bands. Musically, Watain, The Devils Blood, and In Solitude all harken back, instead of pressing their genres forward. Performing in live animal blood is not new, neither is torches—that’s all descended from Mr. Brown. Their individual knacks for excellent songwriting is overshadowed by their collective ability to work the press in their favor while keeping up mystique.

Still, what’s behind that “mystique?” Many fans claim it’s just smoke and mirrors; that Watain, for example, probably really isn’t Satanic, they’re just trying to maintain an image. Still, many outside — let alone inside — the scene would be hard pressed to tell the difference. How do you know when all the blood and animal bodies are there for theatrics, and how do you know when they’re there as part of a genuine ritual?

In an interview with Invisible Oranges in 2010, Watain frontman Erik Danielsson had this to say:

These things have been used throughout all of mankind’s existence as a way to commune with something that is greater than life. What we’re using is, as the way I see it onstage, not a bunch of dead animals. … The important thing is that it has lived, and now it is dead. And therefore it represents a state of in-between. It represents a state of putrefaction that is very relevant in the magickal context, in the context where you actually can correspond with something that is beyond life, that is beyond reality. That is what these things are onstage for.

On the one hand, that sounds like a perfectly legitimate spiritual explanation. On the other hand, it seems like Eriksson is tipping his hand, since on the whole, Satanists do not practice animal sacrifice. Watain isn’t claiming they kill the animals (and they certainly don’t do so onstage), but the use of these animals seems to serve the same purpose. So perhaps it’s primarily theatrics, after all.

Ultimately, does it matter if heavy metal musicians are practicing Satanists? Satanism, whether it’s LaVeyan, theistic, Setian, or something else, is a legitimate and protected spiritual practice in many places (even though it is also in a minority position in those places, and is treated very poorly). Will these bands “convert” listeners to Satanism? That’s not particularly likely — listeners who were already drawn to the faith are probably also going to be drawn to music that echoes what they feel, just as Christian metal bands don’t make fans Christian; Christian fans seek out Christian metal.

We have to remember that there is no harm in listening to music, in celebrating music in the arena, in engaging in theatrics to express shared feelings about the world. For every example of “Satanism” in heavy metal, there are other examples that we revere: Greek Tragedy, Japanese Noh theater, horror movies. It is our understanding of heavy metal music, and of the use of Satanic imagery within it, that is the problem — not Satanism itself.


15 responses to ““The New Satanism” in heavy metal

  1. “Watain isn’t claiming they kill the animals…”

    No, they’re not – but I have heard behind-the-scenes stories from relatively sound sources (i.e., former roadies) about members of Watain trapping live animals (pigeons, to be precise) to be killed and drained of their blood, which was then later used in onstage ritual.

  2. i like satanism i wish i was a satanist.

  3. Aleck Bennett

    This is a great response to the IO post, and I’m glad to have discovered your blog through it. Coming from a magic(k)al perspective, I’d like to comment on this bit:
    “How do you know when all the blood and animal bodies are there for theatrics, and how do you know when they’re there as part of a genuine ritual?”
    A good question. Here’s my take on it — does it really matter? Ritual, largely, *is* theatrical. Any ritual act is designed primarily to put the participant(s) in a magickal state of mind. To divorce oneself from the mundane. To engage in psychodrama, and to utilize that to achieve an intended result. Watain’s use of blood or animal carcasses is symbolic, as E admits, and thus theatrical. But even a purely symbolic and theatrical event can serve to alter one’s mindstate in the same way that a more solemn ritual performed in solitude (no Decibel tour pun intended) might achieve.
    Either way, whether Watain or the Devil’s Blood or In Solitude are actual practitioners of Satanism of any stripe is, as you say, pretty much a moot point. The bands’ sincerity to one side, if Satanists get something out of their music (or utilize the live performance as ritual), then that’s as valid a reaction as someone enjoying the act on a purely theatrical level (much like how I can listen to Al Green or the Staples Singers despite not sharing the same theological POV). There’s PLENTY of stuff I’ve utilized on my own that could properly be labeled as “Not For Ritual Use,” but the intent of the artist is neither here nor there.

  4. i dont no how to join.

    • Kaoma, there’s nothing to join (unless you want to be part of the Church of Satan or Temple of Set, in which case, see their Web sites for details). Read LaVey’s books and Vera West’s site to see whether you prefer theistic Satanism or atheistic Satanism, and do what feels right for you.

  5. Joseph Schafer


    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. It does my frigid little heart good.

    FWIW I was a theatre kid in HS. I’m not sure, really, where art ends and religion begins since quite honestly music is the closest thing to religion I have. When I attend a catholic mass it’s not because I appreciate christ (I do not, nor Mary, nor any saints), it’s because i appreciate the state of mind the music and chant me put me in. Am I Catholic? I don’t think so, but some would say I am.

    Perhaps watain are Satanists in the same way I am Catholic.

    Or Perhaps they really do want to summon a black hole to swallow all matter and end reality so they can be free from existence.

  6. Pingback: Exactly how many kids has heavy metal sent to Hell? | Backward Messages

  7. For starters that isn’t a photo of Pelle Forsberg. At least learn to tell the difference between a bass & an electric guitar before you claim any authority to speak about any form of music let alone Black Metal you witless morons. Stick to stories about Rhianna & Coldplay instead of pretending that reading a few internet articles makes you musically educated.

    • That’s gud…I would like to join church of satan and sell my soul to satan,be rich.I dot no were church of satan is.who can help me?

  8. Pingback: Top 10 backward messages of 2012 | Backward Messages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s