The news broke this morning that Burzum frontman Varg Vikernes was arrested in the Correze region of France after his wife, Marie Chachet, after Chachet purchased four rifles (which she was licensed to own). The couple, who have three children, were charged on suspicion that they were fostering a terrorist plot, based in part on the fact that Anders Breivik sent Vikernes a copy of his 1,500-page manifesto before he went on a terrorist spree near Oslo, killing 77 people.
For readers who don’t know, Vikernes is one of the most famous — and most divisive — figures in the Norwegian black metal scene, to the point that it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about that scene’s early days without his name cropping up. In 2009, Vikernes was released from prison after serving 15 years of a 21-year sentence for the murder of his friend/rival, Mayhem guitarist Oeystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, as well as for the arson of several historic churches in Norway. His involvement in these crimes, and the subsequent coverage in international magazines like Kerrang!, put black metal on the world stage for the first time.
I recently finished reading “Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness,” an anthology of essays and interviews regarding the scene and its progression in the 20+ years since Vikerness stabbed Aarseth to death. Vikernes’ crimes cast a long shadow; they were mentioned in almost every piece in the book. Given that those crimes have now almost become synonymous with black metal’s origin story, it’s easy to see why. However, the book showed again and again how wrong it is to view all of the genre through the lens of Vikernes’ actions. By and large, the musicians and fans involved in the scene are not violent, destructive criminals. Sure, some adore theatrics, simulated rituals and references to Satanism (either real or metaphorical). But that’s another matter altogether.
It’s also worth noting that many, particularly within the black-metal scene, actively boycott Burzum’s albums both because of Vikernes’ actions and because he’s an avowed racist and adherent to neo-Nazi beliefs — which may be part of what attracted Breivik to him, though that’s speculation on my part. Even fans find supporting him complicated.
Euronews’ headline today reads, “Neo-nazi and black metal star Varg Vikernes arrested in France.” They’re not wrong to do so, given that Vikernes’ identity as a black metal musician is his claim to fame. This isn’t like calling Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris “goths,” or Breivik a video-game lover. Those facets, true or not, aren’t what made those figures known to the world.
What would be a mistake is to once again paint all of black metal with the Burzum brush, as happened in the mid-1990s after the arsons and Aarseth’s murder. Again, the genre has largely moved on, incorporating other elements, other philosophies. It’s still dark and harsh and rebellious in plenty of places, but the overwhelming majority of folks in the scene, musicians and fans, are focused on music, philosophy and community; not criminal mayhem.