The music genre known as black metal doesn’t register on the radars of most casual music fans, but for those devoted to the subculture, it can literally be a matter of life or death. Black metal has had a tumultuous history, one filled with arson, violence, and murder. In 1992, a member of the band Emperor murdered a gay man and was sent to prison. The singer for the band Gorgoroth was sent to prison in 2002 for torturing a man for several hours at a party. But the most high-profile case involving members of this unique subculture occurred in what many consider to be the epicenter of the black metal movement: Norway.
Varg Vikernes is a veteran of Norway’s black metal culture – and he is also the most well-known murderer to come out of the community. Vikernes was born in 1973 in Bergen, Norway and started getting into the local death metal scene when he was still a teenager. In the early 1990s, Vikernes started his own one-man black metal project that he called Burzum. In 1992, Vikernes joined Mayhem, a pioneering Norwegian black metal band that had been around since the mid-1980s.
The black metal scene is known for its extremes: loud, aggressive music, evil or Satanic imagery and lyrics, and the bizarre and hardcore appearances of some of its musicians. But Varg Vikernes took the subculture to a whole new level when he started setting fire to historic churches across Norway. Vikernes even used a photo of the remains of one of the destroyed churches on the cover of a Burzum album. Needless to say, the musician was very opposed to organized religion, and he was not shy about his feelings.
Police eventually realized a serial arsonist was at work, traced the fires to Vikernes, and he was found guilty of several of the church arsons – but this all occurred after he had committed worse crimes still. Vikernes said of the church fires, “for each devastated graveyard, one heathen grave is avenged, for each ten churches burnt to ashes, one heathen hof [a Germanic pagan temple] is avenged.” The investigation into the church fires brought attention to Vikernes and Norway’s black metal scene, but it was an incident in 1993 that made Vikernes infamous.
On August 10, 1993, Vikernes traveled from Bergen to Oslo, Norway to see Mayhem guitarist Euronymous (real name Øystein Aarseth). The two got into an argument and during the confrontation Vikernes murdered Euronymous, stabbing him over 20 times in the head, neck, and back. Vikernes was arrested nine days later, but he claimed the murder was self-defense. According to Vikernes, Euronymous had been planning to capture and torture him, and, when Vikernes confronted him about it, he attacked.
Vikernes’ 1994 trial brought the black metal scene to the masses. Sensational media coverage of the trial made Vikernes out to be Norway’s “first real boogeyman in fifty years.” A jury found Vikernes guilty of both murder and arson (for the churches), and he was given Norway’s maximum prison sentence: 21 years behind bars. Vikernes served 15 years of his sentence before he was released from prison in May 2009.
Vikernes’ post-prison life has not been free of controversy. He has been accused of being a neo-Nazi, and, in 2013, Vikernes and his wife were arrested in France on suspicion of planning a massacre after buying a number of guns. Due to lack of evidence, the couple was not charged, but Vikernes received a fine and six months probation for inciting racial hatred against Muslims and Jews.
Varg Vikernes continues to release music, and he continues to be a controversial figure due to his past crimes and his extreme beliefs.
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