This story was originally published in 2008.
Winter is a drag. Heating bills are expensive, shoveling snow sucks, and just try getting your car started when it's 10 below zero. Yet every year when December hits, Christmas fever kicks in, and no matter how cold it is outside, hordes of people delight in leaving their homes and going shopping for the holidays. They even pray for snow.
However, there are those — besides Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch — for whom Christmas is something to endure rather than enjoy. For many a black metallist, setting a Christmas tree on fire would prove far more satisfying than decorating it. After all, black metal denounces the precepts of Christianity and embraces both the nature-worship of paganism and the indulgent pleasures of Satanism. In other words, celebrating the birth of the lord Jesus just isn't on the agenda.
Black-metal adherents have families, too, though, and just because you've dedicated your life to battling what you feel are the infernal lies of Christianity doesn't mean your parents, siblings, and children have done the same. Behemoth frontman Nergal, Dimmu Borgir singer Shagrath, and Cradle of Filth leader Dani Filth have all spent many a Christmas opening presents — and squabbling — with family members, and you can bet lots of other black-metal warriors, both famous and obscure, will reluctantly gather round a well-dressed table sans corpse paint and spikes come December 25 to partake in some ham and eggnog.
So, in an effort to discover what a black-metal Christmas truly means, we asked the aforementioned artists to take part in a roundtable discussion about the holiday, and particularly to conjure up the ghosts of their own Christmases past. Some of what they said was surprising. Sure, black metal is all about thwarting expectations and spitting in the face of convention, but who would have guessed that Cradle of Filth's music stems mostly from love, Shagrath is a fan of Black Label Society, and Nergal has a sense of humor? So read on, O blasphemers — and may all your Christmases be black.
MOST PEOPLE LOVE CHRISTMAS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE HOLIDAY, WHICH BRINGS JOY TO SO MANY?
NERGAL I do everything I can to avoid it. We'll be touring Australia and New Zealand in December, and I'm actually scheduling my flight to return in early January so I won't be in Poland during Christmas. Everyone there just freaks out, and to me, as an outsider, it's depressing. There are these two weeks when everyone's supposed to be nice to each other. Well, how about the rest of the year?
SHAGRATH I just don't like the stress factor. There's this pressure of buying presents for your family. You end up doing all your shopping the day before Christmas, and it's so crowded in the stores.
DANI FILTH I'm slightly on the other foot. I agree with what you're saying, Nergal, about the hypocritical principles of Christianity, but I like Christmas because I'm on tour for most of the year, and it's an opportunity to actually relax for once and spend some time with my wife and daughter.
DO YOU HAVE A TREE?
FILTH Of course. It's usually black.
SHAGRATH I have kids, too, and naturally you have to buy presents for your children.
NERGAL Maybe if I had a family it would be different. But you have to know that the Christmas tree actually comes from paganism. Like most of these Christian principles, it was stolen when the Christians were taking over all these countries and cultures. It was a way to trick people by making new things seem familiar.
IS SANTA DERIVED FROM PAGANISM, AS WELL?
FILTH I think there are some aspects of it in there, but I always thought "Santa" was just an anagram of "Satan."
NERGAL Speaking of wordplay, instead of saying "Merry Christmas," I like to say "Merry Christless."
WHAT WAS YOUR WORST CHRISTMAS?
NERGAL About 10 years ago I was visiting my parents, and after I entered the room it took only 20 minutes until I got into a massive fight with my father. You're supposed to be really close to each other on that day, but it changes nothing. People are who they are.
FILTH One of my most enduring memories of Christmas was my mum giving me Slayer's Reign in Blood and Dark Angel's Darkness Descends. Then, of course, there was the subsequent, "Turn it down!" on Christmas Eve.
SHAGRATH My worst Christmas memory was eight years ago when we were on tour. I was in some really shitty country. I just slept all day long and had some terrible dinner in a really bad restaurant in the hotel.
HOW IS IT BAD TO HAVE A DAY THAT'S SUPPOSED TO ENGENDER BROTHERHOOD AND GOOD CHEER?
FILTH Well, there can't be anything bad about German and English soldiers stopping shooting at each other in the trenches during the World War I and having a game of soccer because it's Christmas.
SHAGRATH I just think Christmas is all about false promises, and that's stupid.
WHEN DID YOU LOSE FAITH IN CHRISTMAS?
NERGAL It lost meaning for me when I was 14 and I started listening to heavy metal. It became more important to sit in my room and celebrate this music and not just do what tradition told me. That's when I stopped being a follower.
SHAGRATH From a very young age, I decided Christmas wasn't for me. All the Christian values around it are just so wrong.
FILTH I don't want to denounce Christmas in a magazine, because my daughter will read it. And if she stops believing in Father Christmas, she's going to stop believing in vampires and werewolves.
DID YOU EVER VANDALIZE PEOPLE'S CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS?
SHAGRATH Oh yeah. When we were kids, we'd ruin Christmas trees by knocking them over or taking out the lights. Silly things like that.
FILTH In our neighborhood, a man dressed as Santa came around on a sleigh as part of an organized charity drive. So we would hide and throw stones at him to try to break his lights.
WHAT SHOULD BLACK-METAL FANS DO ON CHRISTMAS EVE TO SHOW THEIR ALLEGIANCE TO THE DARKNESS?
FILTH They should listen to "No Presents for Christmas" by King Diamond.
NERGAL It's not about what black-metal fans should do on Christmas. People should do whatever they feel like doing and be whoever they are. That's what metal is all about.
CHRISTMAS SYMBOLIZES THE BIRTH OF CHRIST. IF CHRIST HAD NEVER BEEN BORN, WOULD THE WORLD HAVE FOUND SOMEONE ELSE TO CALL THE "SON OF GOD"?
FILTH I'm sure they would have found someone else to act as a symbol of their salvation. If it was nowadays, I think Christ would be Paris Hilton.
SHAGRATH Of course we would be better off without the birth of Christ, because whatever it symbolizes is just crap.
NERGAL Well, maybe if Jesus had known what was going to happen, he would never have let those guys crucify him. But if it wasn't for Christ, I wouldn't be sitting here and talking to you. It gives us enough reason to go on doing this angry music.
NERGAL, YOU SAID THAT BEHEMOTH IS ROOTED IN HATRED. IS THAT TRUE FOR CRADLE OF FILTH AND DIMMU BORGIR AS WELL?
SHAGRATH There's a lot of different feelings. It's not just hate.
FILTH Not to sound gay or anything, but I actually think the core essence of our music is love. A lot of Nordic bands say, "Oh, we are pure hatred." But they're not really hating what they're doing, are they? They love what they're doing. And I love and immerse myself in everything that surrounds our band.
CLEARLY YOU HAVE ALL BEEN INFLUENCED BY BLACK METAL, BUT WOULD YOU CLASSIFY YOUR OWN BANDS BLACK-METAL?
SHAGRATH Dimmu has never been a traditional black-metal band. We are so much more than that, so it's wrong to categorize us as pure black metal. We make extreme music, wear corpse paint, and have strong imagery. In that sense we can be linked to the black metal scene. Still, our music is so much more.
FILTH In its ideology, I would call Cradle black metal. As the main core of our belief system, that's how we started out. But to us, the highest accolade would be to stand alone like Iron Maiden. No one calls them "that New-Wave-of-British-Heavy-Metal band Iron Maiden." Definitions are really just there for people who buy magazines or rack CDs in stores.
NERGAL I pretty much agree, but then you should ask us what black metal really is. For me, early Danzig albums, Mercyful Fate and Darkthrone are all black metal. But these three bands are all so different.
FILTH It's more about the mentality, but along the way people have tried to corner the market by saying black metal equals blast beats, shoddy guitar sounds, Nordic claws — as opposed to Santa Claus. When the Norwegian thing blew up, it was heightened by church burnings and the murder ... That's what everyone saw from around the world, so immediately, because that was the most popular definition, that became the definition. But I remember when the first Mayhem album, Deathcrush, came out, people went, "This is shit. It's the worst thrash metal I've ever heard." Then everything happened, and he went from anonymous to Euronymous.
SHAGRATH It was Euronymous, actually, who introduced me to the Deathcrush album. I wanted to buy it from his record store, Helvete ["Hell"], but couldn't. It was a limited edition. I was never a part of the criminal aspect of that scene, but I was into the music.
FOR KIDS WHO HAD NEVER BEEN EXPOSED TO EXTREME MUSIC, THE FIRST RECORDINGS BY MAYHEM, DARKTHRONE, BURZUM, AND EMPEROR WERE REVELATORY, SO ISN'T IT ONLY NATURAL THAT THEY'D CONSIDER THAT THE ESSENCE OF BLACK METAL AND WANT EVERYTHING ELSE TO SOUND SIMILAR?
FILTH I think everybody just tries to replicate their first perfect moment — like your first kiss or your first Christmas present. It's all about nostalgia. But you can't live on nostalgia, because it's just one moment frozen in time, and whatever you do, you'll never be able to replicate it fully. To me, Sodom and Bathory are true black metal, but if you play that for kids today, they won't get it, because they're not surrounded by all the parts of the ritual that made it so important to us.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPOSURE TO BLACK METAL?
FILTH I heard Don't Break the Oath by Mercyful Fate when I was 13, and I just felt like I was listening to ghosts captured on vinyl. I was elated, because it seemed like something I had been searching for. I grew up in a "witch county," so it was like Halloween most of the year. People would come to our village to try to find the graves of Matthew Hopkins, the "Witchfinder General," and the Christian martyrs that were burned. We'd feel that vibe, but you could never quite put your finger on it. At the time, I was listening to horrible Eighties pop music like Ultravox, which I thought was dark. And then somebody introduced me to metal, and I thought, "Fucking hell, that's cool." Two or three weeks later I got to hear Don't Break the Oath, and that was the trigger for everything else.
NERGAL When I was 10, I was getting into metal, and I remember my brother's friend said, "Hey, I have this record of music made by Satan. It's a black mass." I was scared when he put it on, and it was the intro to "A Dangerous Meeting," the first song on Don't Break the Oath. He never said what band it was, and when I bought the record years later, all the memories came back. Then I got into Venom when I was 12, then Destruction, Sodom and Bathory.
SHAGRATH For me, it started when I was a kid with bands like KISS, W.A.S.P. and Twisted Sister, who had strong imagery. Then I started to pay a lot of attention to bands like Bathory, Celtic Frost and Venom. I didn't like the music of Venom so much, but the imagery and lyrics were really fascinating.
IT SEEMS LIKE BLACK METAL HAS BEEN SEEPING INTO MAINSTREAM CULTURE OVER THE LAST COUPLE YEARS. THERE'S EVEN A FASHION DESIGNER IN BRAZIL, ALEXANDRE HERCHCOVITCH, WHO PROMOTED A CLOTHING LINE WITH MODELS WEARING CORPSE PAINT.
SHAGRATH That's kind of weird. I knew black metal had become a lot more popular in the last couple of years, but that's new to me.
FILTH I find it very odd that it hasn't gotten further into the mainstream. In Britain, we get invited to be on television, but the closest you get in America is Metalocalypse, which is a cartoon about the ideal band that I see every day of my life when I'm on tour. So, you've got a whole nation capitalizing on an idea, and they're ignoring the bands that actually are doing it without that comedy aspect.
FRANK ZAPPA ONCE ASKED, "DOES HUMOR BELONG IN MUSIC?" DOES HUMOR BELONG IN BLACK METAL?
SHAGRATH Not really, because it's a music form that should have been taken seriously. But there's a lot of unserious people in this business who probably have a good time making a lot of fun of it. There's nothing funny about it. It's a way of life.
FILTH Well, I think there's humor in everyday life. Sometimes people say, "Oh, you're a comedy band," because in interviews we sometimes just act like ourselves. But there's no humor or comedy in our lyrics or the music. It's just that some bands take themselves so seriously they go clear up their own asses and forget how to laugh.
NERGAL We have a serious message. I am a serious person. But I agree that sometimes it's good to be goofy and make jokes. That's what we did when we put out a DVD. One DVD is two of our concerts that is very serious, and then the other DVD is like black-metal Jackass.
IS THE BLACK-METAL SCENE GOING STRONG OR HAS IT BECOME SELF-PARODY?
SHAGRATH It has gotten ridiculous. I think there are only a few quality bands left in the scene. Watain and Carpathian Forest are good. Darkthrone, Mayhem and Satyricon are still making strong music. But I don't pay attention to the music genre any more. I'm much more into rock & roll music like the Carburetors and Black Label Society.
NERGAL I see new hope here and there. Deathspell Omega from France are fresh, new and very serious. I also like Watain. But there's very few good bands left.
FILTH But that's good. It's like how after nuclear warfare there are a few stragglers coming back to life. That's what interests me. I don't like the hype before the storm. I like what happens afterwards.
HOW DO YOU SEE BLACK METAL EVOLVING FROM WHERE IT IS TODAY?
SHAGRATH I think it needs to go more underground. A lot of black-metal people are into the underground scene and they want it to vanish a little bit more because it's been in the spotlight for so long.
FILTH I think the very zenith of where black metal could go would be a TV show where a smattering of black-metal artists are marooned in Australia, and we all have to fend for ourselves, but it's filmed and watched by millions. Music wouldn't even come into it, of course. But you would see if Atilla Csihar from Mayhem could build a raft on his own or learn to tame sea turtles. That's the only way it could become big, and the irony of it is it would be so stupid that it would just mirror contemporary television and what people are into nowadays anyway — watching other people's lives instead of getting on with their own.
WOULD YOU DO A BLACK-METAL SURVIVOR, DANI?
FILTH I've been asked to do a normal Survivor, but I'm on the list with dozens of candidates. But a black-metal Survivor? I think it would be fucking hilarious. I probably wouldn't do it, but I would certainly watch it.
WHAT ABOUT THE PERCEIVED RIVALRIES BETWEEN MODERN BLACK-METAL BANDS?
FILTH You mean that eternal myth about us and Dimmu Borgir? Everybody wants us to hate each other because it sells magazines. They've always played us off against the Norwegians because we're separated by huge bodies of water. Ironically, we've always been friends with the bands over there.
SHAGRATH The press made it up because both bands are very successful in their own way. So some people say we're trying to copy Cradle, and other people say Cradle tried to copy us. But we're totally different.
NERGAL That's what is happening to us and Nile these days. People give us shit for putting out a record the same day and because we went on the same Ozzfest.
FILTH Well, try not to put an image of Tutankhamun on the cover of your next album.
NERGAL But we're friends with them. The same thing happened in Poland with Vader.
WHEN THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA COVERS BLACK METAL, IT'S USUALLY LINKED TO A SCHOOL SHOOTING OR SOME OTHER FORM OF VIOLENCE. IS THAT ULTIMATELY HARMFUL FOR THE GENRE?
NERGAL I don't think it's going to hurt you because it gets you some recognition. Anything that gets your name out there is good.
SHAGRATH Yeah, but you can't feed on that attention. For us, it's about the music. It's not about criminal aspects.
FILTH Also, what kind of recognition do you want? Do I want to sell another 20,000 records because of that and have people I know in my family and at my child's school knowing that's how we make our money? I'd rather not have the money.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO CONCERNED PARENTS WHO WANT TO KNOW WHAT COULD BE POSITIVE ABOUT BLACK METAL?
SHAGRATH The good stuff is quality music with really good musicians. And it's satisfying for the soul.
NERGAL It's mind-stimulating. When I was a kid, I learned about Egypt by listening to Iron Maiden's Powerslave. Go find any other music genre that speaks to so many different aspects of culture, history, mythologies, religions, politics. You name it and it's in heavy metal.
FILTH Right. Love might be the most important message, but it gets fucking boring when you listen to Britney Spears go on about it mindlessly in song after song. Where's the wisdom in that? What's going to inspire your child to go out and start using their brain? Kids I talk to today that listen to black metal are way more clued-in than half the kids I knew growing up — slightly more deaf, maybe, but definitely smarter.