Gedas AUDRONAŠAS | Controversial Black Metal in Lithuania: The Art of Darkness Awaits Open Hearts and Minds

Black metal – an extreme gust from the North

Black metal, as a separate branch of metal music, is associated with the second album of the British band VENOM, released in 1982, which was titled the same, Black Metal. The so-called First Wave of Black Metal is associated with bands like VENOM, HELLHAMMER, BATHORY, and SARCOFAGO. Compared to its contemporaries who chose wild rock 'n' roll parties and social themes, it was characterised by much harsher singing, dealing with Satanism, occultism, and the essence of death. However, the Second Wave, born in Norway and Sweden in the 1990s, left a much stronger imprint, united by their disgust for mankind, hatred towards religion and everything that was acceptable to the established norms. This contempt quickly turned into action: threats, church burnings, murders. The combination of extreme music and extreme action has made black metal, since the early 1990s, arguably the most controversial branch per se of the controversial heavy music genre.

Euronymous (real name Øystein Aarseth), a legend in Norway thanks to his communicative and active nature, gathered a circle of like-minded people who proudly called themselves The Black Circle. In Sweden, the founder of the black metal duo ABRUPTUM, IT (real name Tony Särkkä), formed the True Satanist Horde, which included such names as Jon Nödtveidt (DISSECTION) and Morgan Håkansson (MARDUK). Although this group of even underage youths is often mentioned for burning churches and murdering innocent people, their contribution to the development of extreme music cannot be underestimated. MAYHEM, DARKTHRONE, EMPEROR, BURZUM, DISSECTION – these Scandinavian bands set the canons of modern black metal, which are still followed by thousands of musicians all over the world.

And what about Lithuania? How did black metal reach Lithuania and what is its place here?

The beginnings of Lithuanian black metal

During the Soviet occupation, under the oppression of Soviet marasmus, many processes in Lithuania were delayed by several years due to Soviet censorship of information and a profound technological lag. While a generation grew up developing in Western society behind the Iron Curtain listening to the first wave of black metal bands (VENOM, HELLHAMMER, CELTIC FROST, BATHORY), metal music in Lithuania was on the fringes of society under the Soviet repression. However, after Lithuania regained its independence, a circle of active people also formed in our country, who kept in contact with foreign metal musicians and zine publishers, so black metal is probably the first wave of metal that reached these shores and spread at a similar time as in the West.

Tadas Kazlauskas, in the local scene better known as Tadas Ledas, took part in the formation of the local black metal scene by playing in the band VALEFAR and releasing the zine Ledo Takas, and later creating the record label Ledo Takas, which is still in operation today. He recalls that black metal came to him in a quite natural way – by releasing a zine and deepening his knowledge of this frightening and unfamiliar branch of music. Later, his attempts at music brought him together with Vytautas Stankus "Xe Xe Chax Heyatha Zhaiyrhous" and Marius Lekečinskas "Mega'on Hera Crarihus" from NAHASH, already a well-known black metal band in the Kaunas underground, as well as with the founder of ANUBI, Martynas Meškauskas aka "Lord Ominous". The friends shared their records and exchanged knowledge from the black metal scene, and Tadas himself started to receive albums by Norway’s BURZUM, MAYHEM, DARKTHRONE and ENSLAVED. Dark, extreme music that despises the real world and its order has slowly become music No. 1.

“I was playing with Marius and Kiaunė (NAHASH guitarist Giedrius Markauskas – author's note), ‘something’, then VALEFAR was born, and even later Vytas suggested joining NAHASH. The contacts with foreign groups began to expand, until finally, within a year or two, this direction took over completely, putting aside what I had been listening to before,” Tadas recalls. “Most interesting were the visits to Martynas’ on Rimvydo Street in Kaunas, because he always had something special in his arsenal of new music, and often it sounded unusual and his interests were often surprising."

One of the key figures in the local black metal world, NAHASH vocalist and guitarist Xe Xe Chax Heyatha Zhaiyrhous, revealed to Forgotten Path magazine that he was drawn to the music in the early 1990s by his frustration with the prevailing metal trends of the time. "Death metal was moving in a commercial and self-repeating direction. It became uninteresting and boring to play and create. We started searching for something new. I was strongly influenced by KING DIAMOND, SABBAT, DEATH, MORBID ANGEL, DEICIDE, PARADISE LOST, and wanted to play a kind of mystical graveyard metal, with ghosts, with unaccountable satanic and witchy stories. I tried to lead NEMESIS (Vytautas’ first band, the predecessor of NAHASH – auth. note) in that direction, but only managed to do it on a low level... At the time of NEMESIS’s crisis, in a period of several months I was eager to receive the first albums from BATHORY, NECROMANTIA, MORDOR, DARKTHRONE, EMPEROR and BURZUM. That was something incredible and unique. I wasn’t able to gain so much mystique even while watching all those cult horror movies in the 90s. But at that time in Lithuania, few people knew about the first appearance of black metal.”

Death metal's musical stagnation, as one of the main reasons for turning to black metal, has also been highlighted by Evaldas Babenskas "Sadlave" – founder, guitarist and songwriter of one of Lithuania's most influential metal bands, OBTEST. He told the radio show Audronaša: "We always talked about the band, that we needed to form. In the autumn of 1992, I was still singing in BURYING PLACE, but then I realised that there was nothing more for me to do and I needed to start something of my own. I got together with Deivis (Deivis Andrejevas aka "Baalberith" – auth. note), and we started to meet at his place or mine and write our own songs. Once we had some melodies, I tried to write the lyrics in English and by then we needed a full band." Black metal was the beginning of OBTEST's journey back then. “On the first demo tapes, our work was Scandinavian-type black metal. The lyrics corresponded: nihilism, disappointment with everything, dark sides of the human soul, spiritual experiences, suffering, meaninglessness, eternity, etc. The texts were, I would say, adolescent (that's what we were then),” Evaldas recalls. “Everything turned around in 1996 when I wanted to do something completely different. Of course, it was possible to stay in the same black metal genre, to improve something, to search for something, but everything turned in another direction. The concept of the lyrics changed completely and new layers opened up, which were almost untouched in Lithuania at that time. There was the Utena camp, which started to sing and interpret ancient Lithuanian culture in its own way: POCCOLUS, HA LELA, ZPOAN VTENZ. And that was it. We, with the album Tūkstantmetis (released in 1997 – auth. note), "hooked" this topic from a different angle and did it very fiercely, because at that time we wanted something very radical and ass-kicking.”

Inspired by black metal pioneers

Kaunas’ ANUBI, NAHASH, VALEFAR, Vilnius’ OBTEST, JUODARAGIS and Utena’s POCCOLUS, HA LELA, ZPOAN VTENZ gave an impulse to the new generation of black metal, of which the most prominent representatives are probably LUCTUS, who call themselves Kaunas’ Black Metal Brigade. Guitarist Darius Laurinavičius aka "Shatras", who was initially an observer of the formation of the Lithuanian black metal scene, and now draws its contours himself, when asked how Lithuanian black metal has evolved over the years, sees a tendency of a decline in authenticity.

“If you think about the period 1991-2000, there is a mix of the first (VENOM, HELLHAMMER, BATHORY) and the second (MAYHEM, DARKTHRONE, BURZUM) waves of black metal and the presence of the personalities and the artistic approach to their work,” he said. “To be honest, the quality and sound of the recordings were more based on the fact of what and how you could squeeze out of the conditions, but creatively, and artistically, we had talent. It's hard to assign ANUBI’s avant-garde black metal to any particular style. This band was and still is second to none. The rather primitive but infinitely deep pagan black of POCCOLUS also had a distinct identity at that time, and NAHASH is a black volcano worthy of its own discussion. MERESSIN in its early period also published releases full of black'n'roll music, which have not yet been replicated in any similar way on our scene. Later on, our scene more or less followed the global trends: depressive, bestial, post and other branches of black metal, but here I would like to say that the importance of the personalities is diminished and it's more about the general trends, both in the sound and in the emotional picture." 

Daividas Kurlis, an old-timer of the metal movement in Lithuania and the organiser of the metal and Baltic culture festival Kilkim žaibu, which has been going on for almost a quarter of a century, draws the same picture: "Today, black metal, as well as the music industry in general, is focused on quick success. The focus is more on performance technique than on originality and finding one's own identity." 

From its first steps three decades ago, black metal today is a genre that has already earned its place. When asked to name the most prominent black metal bands of today, the names mentioned by the interviewees were often repeated: LUCTUS, AU-DESSUS, SISYPHEAN. Shatras, who is not only a musician but also one of the founders of the club Lemmy in Kaunas, which has become one of the key focal points of the Lithuanian metal subculture, is cautious about the new black metal bands that could potentially occupy a significant place in the history of Lithuanian heavy music: "Only time will show. I'm not guided by the effect of a one-day appearance, but by longevity, productivity. There were a lot of names that were supposedly promising, but where are they today? When you search through the archives, you get names that I've never heard of before, but if you only find them in our small scene when you're trying to dig through the sources yourself, it raises a lot of questions about the continuity of those bands, about the seriousness of their approach. Today, MAGYLA is the most active of the young and new bands. I'm not thrilled with what I hear on their recordings, but live they have a touch of the right kind of element. I'll mention ANAPILIN too, but I would wish their members not to be distracted by other projects, scattering their potential, and focus on the band."

Kurlis is even more categorical, but, as befits a man with a metal heart, he doesn't lose hope. “If we were talking about completely new and promising black metal bands, we would already know about them, right? If they exist, they are good at hiding in the blackest of dungeons. Unfortunately, I, an ordinary citizen of the earth, have never heard of them. I would like to wish that Lithuania will finally give birth to metal names that will be world-famous, and it doesn't matter what genre they represent, as long as it's worth calling it metal.”

Are we ready to accept the music of Darkness?

Global recognition would be a definite boost to talk about Lithuanian black metal more often and more widely. While we are waiting for a breakthrough for local metal musicians, the attention of other countries to emerging metal music can be an example of how the common attention of society and its important representatives, respect for even controversial art emerging in a country, allows it to be discovered by people in other countries. In Norway, the public has realised that the black metal music that emerged on its soil is something unique. It not only generates endless debate but also represents Norway worldwide, which has today officially recognised the significance of black metal for its culture. Future Norwegian diplomats preparing to represent their country in the world have to take a course that introduces them to black metal, its history and its role in the image of this great Scandinavian country.

“We now have 106 representative offices in foreign countries and they receive a lot of enquiries from people who want information about Norwegian black metal as a phenomenon. In our trainee programme, we have a broad cultural spectrum so that candidates have a good understanding of Norwegian cultural life and the Norwegian cultural industry. Black metal is definitely a part of this,” Kjersti Sommerset, Director of the Norwegian Foreign Service Competence Centre Department, told the newspaper Dagens Næringsliv. What's more, the National Library of Norway has included a first edition print of DARKTHRONE’s  ablum "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" in its permanent exhibition on Norwegian cultural history, which sits alongside the local classics as part of the Nordic nation's cultural legacy.

Shatras is convinced that even in Lithuania the darkest music deserves proper appreciation: "Black metal can and should be considered as part of Lithuanian culture! But whether it will be considered as such is another question. I would like to see that day because then we will enter a new cultural level. As an example, this year the Wacken Open Air Festival (one of the biggest heavy music events in Europe, attracting up to 80,000 visitors – auth. note), which was drowning in a massive downpour, was visited by the President of Iceland! Wearing rubber boots, he wandered around the muddy festival grounds, met all the Icelandic bands that played and thanked them for representing the country. And it happened naturally because the President of Iceland listens to metal music – it is so incredible! It's a role model of the cultural level I would like us to be at as a country, as a society."

When asked which Lithuanian black metal album, in terms of its significance and identity, and its lasting value, should be considered part of Lithuania's common cultural heritage, Shatras doesn't hesitate for a second: "All the releases of NAHASH should be considered part of the common cultural heritage. No discussions. This is the oldest and most fundamental black metal band of our scene, in capital letters."

Black metal – like metal music in general – is still a cultural field in Lithuania that has received too little research and public attention. Martynas Meškauskas' graphic works, ANUBI's metaphors of death or NAHASH's world of wanderings – we have the depth and the content. The music that once marked the edges of the extreme has not only left a violent, perhaps even meaningless footprint, it has also opened up a completely new musical landscape, which is recognised and appreciated in an open society that understands that culture is not only about the beautiful and the lovely. More importantly, this music has stood the test of decades, and the admiration for it has not diminished. It is only a matter of opening our hearts and minds to embrace the cultural layers that have been born where the Black reigns supreme.

Read more texts from this Lithuanian Music Link issue here.