Check the guest list of any New York City Fashion Week runway event, and you'll probably find a bevy of movies stars, a gaggle of television personalities, and maybe even a few arena-filling pop stars. But felonious black-metal practitioners? Not so much.
Here in rainy central Bergen, Norway, at a show by designer Sonia Wu, however, it's a different story altogether. The two long-haired, leather-jacket-clad figures occupying a place of honor near the catwalk are none other than Kristian Espedal and Tom Visnes—better known as Gaahl and King ov Hell—vocalist and bassist, respectively, of legendary black-metal outfit Gorgoroth.
It may be difficult to conceive of a place where being in a black-metal band makes you a de facto V.I.P., but ever since the infamous Oslo-based group Mayhem inspired a renewed interest in the underground genre in the early '90s, black metal has arguably became Norway's greatest cultural export, even holding a place of honor in travel guides on the country. Bergen's most-notable groups included Burzum, Immortal, Enslaved, and, of course, Gorgoroth. Founded in 1992 by guitarist Infernus, the volatile band quickly established itself as one of the most musically distinguished, violently anti-Christian, and sometimes just downright violent of the lot. With that came jail sentences, political flaps, and internecine conflict so bitter that the band has now split into two factions, both engaged in a bitter dispute about who deserves to keep the Gorgoroth name.
At the fashion show, the awkwardly tall Gaahl studies the models, his piercing blue eyes analyzing each woman's movements. He is known in fashion circles for the perspicacity of his gaze, and he often visits friends in the modeling industry and offers advice on how models should conduct themselves. (He jokingly calls this the "Secret Life of Gaahl.")
King's lustrous, long black hair, meanwhile, is slightly more stylish than Gaahl's unkempt mane, but he clearly takes less of a professional interest in the proceedings. Throughout the evening he chats with Enslaved guitarist Arve Isdal and Tomas Tofthagen, who has played with King in stoner-metal group Sahg, among others. They laugh and rate the girls as the ladies hit the runway. As the post-disco classic "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life" by early-'80s New York crew Indeep comes on, King asks what the singer means by such the bizarre titular statement. And while he clearly has difficulty grasping the vapidity of a bygone era's pop hit, he relentlessly raps his hands on his thighs with the beat, more out of compulsion than enjoyment.
As the show ends, the fashion elite approach Gaahl to converse. Model agent Dan DeVero, who works for DXD Management Models, which cast the show, is especially curious for the singer's opinion. And Gaahl, who had used DeVero to cast Gorgoroth's "Carving a Giant" video (and who is known for his unabashed honesty), critiques each girl's poise, confidence, and grace.
The question that none of Gaahl's interlocutors seem to get up the gumption to ask, however, is what recent developments there have been in the bitter dispute over his group's moniker.
The origin of the name goes back to founding member Infernus, born Roger Tiegs. "Back in 1992, when I started the band and picked that name, I was—as many others at that time were—fond of fantasy literature," the guitarist says about finding the name "Gorgoroth" in J.R.R. Tolkien's sword-and-sorcery classic The Lord of the Rings, where it refers to a lifeless desert of ashes in the evil land of Mordor. "When reading about that place in which those powers of darkness dwelt, it immediately came across as a good option for a band name. Terror and fear. Fear of the powers of darkness! Nowadays, I am not much into fantasy literature. Nevertheless, I still believe it was a good choice at that time and a name that has suited the band since then."
Gorgoroth's debut full-length, Pentagram, came out in 1994, when the only official members were Infernus and vocalist Hat (Norwegian for "hate"). Their mission was clear from the onset: to abolish religion. Lineup troubles began almost immediately when original bassist Kjetter was imprisoned for burning down an 800-year-old church, forcing Infernus to hire Emperor guitarist Samoth to play bass on the album. Samoth, too, was later imprisoned for a similar act of arson, thus ending his involvement with the band. After that, a long sequence of departing band members began. "I am the first to admit that I can be a difficult person to get along with, personally at least," Infernus says. "This must have played an important role when it comes to the fact that many people chose to leave the band through the years." He laughs. "We've had three vocalists, and quite a lot of bass players—six or seven, I believe. It looks pretty ridiculous in retrospect."
Gorgoroth's second full-length release, Antichrist, featured two vocalists. The sleeve bore the controversial line: "Antichrist is released in support of [Mayhem-affiliated record label] Deathlike Silence Productions' 'Never stop the madness…' campaign for legalizing the use of hard drugs, etc." This "campaign," to glorify hard-drug use was a sort of anti-D.A.R.E. parody of the D.A.R.E. anti-drug warnings that graced Roadrunner albums released by Roadrunner in the late '80s, glorifying hard-drug use. As members came and went, this would become a contentious sentiment.
1998's Destroyer, Gorgoroth's fourth album, was the first to feature Gaahl, frontman No. 3, though only on the title track, while 2000's Incipit Satan was the first to feature both Gaahl and King, the group's "sixth or seventh" bassist, as full-time members. These three members would go on to make two more albums together, each with a different drummer.
Gaahl served time in prison in 2001 for assault, a crime that he says was committed in self-defense. In February 2004, when Gorgoroth played Kraków, Poland, their concert, steeped in antireligious imagery (real severed goat heads, mock live crucifixions, and a bevy of Satanic symbols), was televised, and the group was brought up on criminal obscenity charges. That April, Gaahl was accused of "ritually abusing" a man at his home and threatening to drink his blood. His mother testified in court in her son's defense, saying her boy was a vegetarian and wouldn't be interested in blood (though Revolver did pay for Gaahl's reindeer dinner while in Bergen). He again served jail time, but has since produced evidence that he acted in self-defense.
"If you get attacked, you protect yourself and punish," King says. "And that's allowed in America. Apparently not in Norway. If Gaahl had been in America and attacked in his own house and he decided to defend himself and punish the attacker, the aggressor, he would get a medal."
In November of that same year, riots broke out at a Gorgoroth concert in San Salvador, El Salvador. The scandals continued the following year, when in February 2005 a young woman accused Infernus of assisting in a gang rape, a sentence that was later reduced to "gross negligent rape," meaning that because of his intoxicated state he was unaware of his accomplice's malicious acts. Despite the lesser charge, Infernus was sent to jail for a few months in late 2006. As a result of Gaahl and Infernus' prison sentences and the heightened Department of Homeland Security restrictions after 9/11, this Gorgoroth lineup only played the United States once, in 2001 in Milwaukee.
The band regret this. "We want to spread our message in America, because [the country is] so Christian," King says. "We need to teach people. America is without history. We need to teach them history, and we need to give them soul."
"Black music," Gaahl says, laughing.
"We give them a little bit of soul."
By keeping their name almost continuously in print, these nefarious events would make the band black-metal superstars. This was not the sort of success they had been seeking, though. "I had to be with Infernus for three years while he was going through a rape charge," King says. "I've had my picture in all the newspapers all around the world connected to rape. Which I hate. And still I stood by his side. He's not the easiest person to stand by."
As 2006 came to a close, King had had enough. He'd written the entirety of the group's seventh full-length, Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam—which garnered a nomination for a Spellemann Prize (Norway's version of a Grammy Award). He believed Infernus was no longer contributing an equal share to the band, and most infuriating, he felt that as much as he had put into "making" Gorgoroth, it was all for naught.
"In Gorgoroth, Infernus was just earning fame and respect on stolen fruits, because he hadn't done anything," King says. "He just sat around abusing everything. He didn't partake or do anything about anything, and then it's like, OK, let's get rid of you. Because you have no place in this band at all. If Gaahl and I decided to leave Gorgoroth, what would be left? Infernus. A parasite. There's nothing left in the Gorgoroth name." So he quit. After a while, Gaahl realized that he didn't want to be in a duo with Infernus, so he called up King and put an end to these "ideological differences," as their website euphemistically described the falling out. The problem, they both agreed, was with Infernus.
"I want to represent black metal as the elite," Gaahl says. "It should deal with elitism, not filth. When you have people working with you who don't represent that, you have to get away from it. It's sucking the life out of you, basically. The way one speaks in interviews, Infernus always spoke as a 'we.' It's one of the things that annoyed me. It's so disrespectful to put his opinions in my mouth. For instance, he knows I'm against drugs and the drug-user mentality, which is the mentality of a parasite, basically. But still, when I was in prison, he posted on the website, 'Gorgoroth supports the Never Stop the Madness campaign.'"
"I don't support it, because it's for retarded people," says King.
"If you do something like that, don't hang out with me as a friend," says Gaahl. "You have to go."
(Asked why he has supported Never Stop the Madness for so long, Infernus responds: "I regard drugs, and especially harder ones like heroin and cocaine, with their addictive impact on people, as a gift from God, and a good and practical test for showing what kind of material people are made of. From the experience I have had here, around Norway and in the black-metal scene, it's not exactly the brightest and most valuable persons who tend to end up with a drug problem anyway. And who would actually need these people or feel sorry for them? I would not.")
Gaahl and King had a meeting at King's house and decided they would reclaim Gorgoroth. Since they had become the creative forces behind the band, they concluded Infernus was no longer welcome to attach his name to their art, or fit to remain in the band he had created.
Despite their intentions, they felt that the occasion of Infernus' release from jail was not the right time to carry through with their intended split. The guitarist was paroled in March 2007, and the band scheduled tours and appearances in the months following. Infernus seemed to them even more withdrawn and antisocial than before. Jail had changed him. Gaahl and King decided it would be best to keep the guitarist in the band until after they had recorded a live-in-the-studio album at Bergen's Grieghallen Studios, consisting of that year's live set. Shortly after, they struck.
On October 21, 2007, Infernus posted a message on the band's MySpace page that said, "I am writing to inform you about the fact that there has been taken a decision to split up the band, Infernus on one side, Gaahl and King on the other. We cannot continue working together any longer. What is still not agreed upon is who rightfully gets to keep the band's name. Since this will be a question of legal affairs, I am afraid this might take time to get sorted out. I am sorry for that." Four days later, King and Gaahl announced that drummer Hellhammer (Mayhem, Dimmu Borgir), would join the band. The guitar position would likely be filled by long-running guitar tech Teloch and King's friend Arve Isdal from Enslaved. Then on Halloween, Infernus announced his own plans in the form of a new Gorgoroth album titled Quantos Possund ad Satanitatem Trahunt. "When being an adult trying to balance the need to promote the projects one works upon towards maintaining a certain sense of seriousness and dignity, it goes without saying that one should try to avoid controversy," Infernus says. "The situation we're in right now is nothing but embarrassing, and I will not try to make it any sillier than it has already become."
On December 13, the band's label, Regain, which had claimed neutrality in the split, announced it would back Infernus, saying it "recognizes Infernus as the rightful owner of the band's name, logo, and trademark, and is prepared to take any legal steps necessary to prevent any third party from exploiting it, artistically and commercially."
"It is a matter of principles for us. Infernus started the band and has been the spine of Gorgoroth since 1992," says Per Gyllenbäck, Regain's label manager. "Also, looking on the contractual side of things, we have an agreement signed with Gorgoroth and it is signed solely by Infernus. The other part of Gorgoroth has given Infernus a written 'power of attorney' to negotiate and close deals on their behalf."
But unbeknownst to Infernus or Regain, King had filed paperwork to trademark the name and logo for Gorgoroth in September 2007. On December 19, Gorgoroth.org (now under the control of King and Gaahl) reported that Patentstyret, Norway's patent office, had awarded ownership of the band's name and logo to King and Gaahl.
"The battle is over," Gaahl says.
"Neither I nor Gaahl is thinking about it at all at this point," King says. "It's over. It's all over. The only thing he has left is to use the name to create some kind of confusion, but for the record label, everything is gone. We own the trademark. They can't use it. Infernus can't use it." Infernus has vowed to challenge the legality of King's trademark. "I have lawyers and label support for [challenging the patent office]," says Infernus. "Time will tell who is right and who is wrong. That's a promise."
"To play in a band like Gorgoroth, you need to be strong," King says. "You have so many forces working against you all the time. It's been a struggle since day one. Now there are two left standing. That proves something—that we've been able to keep up with it. We've fought against everything, and that's also why we parted ways with Infernus, because he was a part of the struggle. We had to remove him to be able to go on."
"It would have never been possible to continue with him," rejoins Gaahl.
The day after Christmas, Infernus announced that his version of Gorgoroth would include Obituary bassist Frank Watkins and drummer Tomas Asklund, who has played with Swedish black-metal group Dark Funeral and blackened death-metallers Dissection. "I knew both of the guys for a while, and I am fond of them not only as persons but also for what they have been delivering as musicians," Infernus says. "As soon as this opportunity arose, I was on the phone to both guys and immediately got a positive response. They have a very serious approach to what they do, and I expect we should be able to deliver something tremendous, something brilliantly evil. Something with impact."
What this something will be called remains, at press time, to be seen.