Now that Lords Of Chaos, Feral House’s seminal (yes, seminal!) book on the Satanic origins and violent history of Norwegian black metal, has become a major motion picture, it’s time to welcome the next book in the publisher’s extreme metal series, Blood, Fire, Death: A Swedish Metal Story. Written by Swedish journalists Ika Johannesson and Jon Jefferson Klingberg, both longtime chroniclers of the wilder corners of their typically mild-mannered country’s music scene, the book traces the musical and cultural developments that led to the rise of death metal—and black metal, which is a whole other thing— in Sweden in the early ‘90s.
It also grapples with a difficult issue that, frankly, keeps many away from the extreme metal scene: The racist, sexist, and homophobic views of some of its members. Throughout the book, Johannesson and Klingberg profile bands who reject fascism, Nazism, and white supremacy, and devote a chapter to women in this extremely male-dominated world. They also spend a surreal afternoon drinking natural wine with Gaahl, former frontman of the Norwegian band Gorgoroth—a band which, to be clear, has had its share of controversy over the years—who shocked the Scandinavian metal scene when he came out as gay in 2008.
Shortly afterwards, he starred in a black metal musical funded by the Norwegian government, possibly the most bizarre thing about this story. Or maybe it’s the part where a guy who served jail time for torture takes selfies with fans on the street. You can decide for yourself in the exclusive excerpt below.
Blood, Fire, Death is out now wherever books are sold.
Like in many other male-dominated circles, there’s a deeply ingrained homophobia within metal. It’s difficult to determine how seriously the fleeting homophobic comments are meant to be taken, but it’s clear that many have difficulty handling same-sex feelings. It’s worthy of note that to this day, despite metal being a massively popular genre, only a handful of musicians have come out of the closet. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford is the most famous example; he revealed he was gay in a 1998 MTV interview. Dan Martinez, the vocalist and guitar player for American grindcore band Cretin, transitioned into a woman in 2008, and is now living as Marissa Martinez. It is possible there simply are no other bi, gay, or trans men within the top echelon of the metal world, but it hardly needs to be said that statistics render this highly unlikely.
Kristian “Gaahl” Espedal—the vocalist for Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth who’s known as a violent hermit who’s spent time in prison for torture—came out in a 2008 interview with the German magazine Rock Hard. The reactions were immediate. One faction dismissed him as a wimp who never made good music anyway—typical that he should happen to be gay as well. The other bloc proclaimed him even cooler than before, since fucking guys in the ass [sic] must be the most ultimately Satanic act one could perform.
Rob Halford never felt he had hidden his sexuality. The leather and studs he wore in Judas Priest, the foundation of classic metal fashion worldwide, was something he borrowed directly from gay clubs in Soho, London.
For Gaahl, the development has been entirely different.
Born in a small village on the Norwegian west coast in 1975, he joined the black metal band Gorgoroth in 1998. Known for both voicing controversial opinions and committing violent acts, he’s been sentenced to prison twice. In 2002, he was found guilty of assault, and in 2004, he received 14 months of jail time for aggravated assault and torture after holding a man captive in his home and collecting his blood in a cup. Gaahl himself claims he was acting in self-defense after being attacked by a hitman, due to a grudge with connections to the earlier prison sentence.
Gorgoroth soon established themselves as one of the most extreme bands in the Norwegian scene. In 2005, Gaahl became a household name in the international metal world through the American documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. In the interview, Gaahl sits in a dark basement, sipping a glass of red wine. When asked what inspires Gorgoroth, time seems to come to a halt as he ponders in complete silence while giving reporter Sam Dunn a blank stare. Then he simply answers, “Satan,” and takes another sip of wine.
The short clip can be seen on YouTube and is a great example of the potentially hilarious clash between dead-serious black metal and unsuspecting curiosity. In 2007, American magazine VICE sent a film team to Gaahl’s cabin in Espedal, a tiny mountain village owned by Gaahl’s family that bears their surname. The rumors of his crazy and erratic behavior were quickly affirmed. The documentary shows conversation to be very forced, and the crew members are clearly frightened of him. The scene gradually worsens as Gaahl takes the lightly dressed Americans on a hike to his grandparents’ hunting cabin on a nearby mountaintop. The weather takes a bad turn, heavy snow is falling, and visibility is minimal. Gaahl marches on up the mountain, in boots and a leather coat, while the crew begin worrying about getting out of there alive.
So, when this immensely dark and frightening black metal icon suddenly came out as gay, a shock wave went through the metal community.
Gaahl meets us in central Bergen on a summer day in 2010. He leads the way to Stenersens samling, a museum for contemporary art, and we take a seat in the café. He’s a regular.
“I suppose I broke all stereotypes of what a homosexual man ought to be like,” he says.
The barista serves him an Americano.
“I can’t understand this need to divide people into stereotypes like that. The homo[sexual] milieu is just as rigid—many are afraid to be themselves. They fear breaking the norm.”
Shortly after the Rock Hard interview, it became known that Gaahl spent a lot of time in the company of a young clothing designer named Dan DeVero. Norwegian magazines immediately began printing articles about how Gaahl was about to leave music for a career designing clothes with Dan.
This commotion surrounding Gaahl’s sexual orientation was crowned by news of him being cast in the leading role of the black metal musical Svartediket (The Black Ditch) in the esteemed National Theatre in Bergen. These days, he’s dating 20-year-old Robin, who’s currently on a holiday in the mountains with his family.
When we ask why black metal appears to be such an asexual music style, he doesn’t understand the question.
“What do you mean? I’m not a sexual person; I don’t think in terms like that.”
But surely, you have sex?
“No, actually, I don’t. I can’t comprehend that urge at all, because I don’t understand sex. I call myself a homophile, but I’m not homosexual. To me, it’s an aesthetic attraction. I think people are too obsessed with sex.”
We finish our coffee and go out on the town. Gaahl is a quiet man, but he’s polite and attentive. People stare at him in the streets. At the National Theatre, a young man in a white shirt and heavily waxed hair asks if it’s really Gaahl. “Yes,” Gaahl answers, and he is then asked to pose for a picture. “That’s all right,” he agrees, and the two are photographed by the young man’s eager friend. As we resume walking, the two are still giggling with excitement.
“That happens all the time. I’ve become something of a celebrity, and I’m not quite sure how to relate to it,” Gaahl says with a wry smile.
It’s not every day that a man with several convictions for violent crime becomes a popular household name.
One likely explanation is the exciting mixture of condoning church burnings—which Gaahl did shortly after accepting his role in Svartediket, with outraged debates as a consequence—and on the other hand entirely breaking all preconceptions about gay men.
Gaahl claims all of his sentencings clearly state that he acted in self-defense, albeit with a disproportionate amount of force. He says black metal is about being a warrior and about waging war against oneself.
“There’s no room for soldiers in black metal, because soldiers follow orders—a warrior fights with his heart. There’s a huge difference between the two.”
He points out that there are, of course, female warriors—though not as many, since women are rarely brought up to fight for themselves.
“There’s a lot of romanticism in black metal—not between people, but toward things like nature. And perhaps the love for the ego.”
Gaahl mentions how he fell in love for the first time in his life at 31 years old. He says he’s attracted by aesthetics rather than sexuality and explains it as being drawn to his boyfriend Robin’s essence as a whole.
But you’re dating a 20-year-old—doesn’t he want to have sex all the time?
“Yes. If there’s an absolute emergency, I suppose I’ll have to rise to the occasion,” Gaahl laughs.
Gaahl brings us to a wine bar he often frequents. He’s a huge wine enthusiast and primarily drinks natural wines, without additives. As we enter the combined bar and restaurant, we’re welcomed by the American owner, Joseph, who happily greets Gaahl. A somewhat tipsy lady in the bar gives Gaahl a big hug and a playful tug on his beard. As we sit down to order, he says he’s still not quite used to physical contact.
“A few years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have let anyone pull my beard, if you know what I mean.”
Dining with Gaahl is an experience. He orders hake with cauliflower puree, clarified butter, radishes, and pickled red onion. Joseph pairs the food with Arcese, a white wine from the Piedmont region. Gaahl sticks his nose in the glass to check the bouquet, first looking somewhat skeptical. He ultimately decides to try a glass of the cloudy wine.
The sensation is so overwhelming, he’s rendered speechless. After a moment of silence, he looks up with misty eyes.
“Really, this is ... it’s so perfect.”
When Joseph comes by to ask how it tasted, Gaahl is bubbling with praise.
“At first, I thought something was missing, but with the onion now in my mouth, it’s absolutely perfect. I cannot praise this food enough.”
Joseph gives a nod of satisfaction.
“I thought so.”
At the Bergen Gay Galla in January 2010, Gaahl was named Homosexual of the Year for his contributions in broadening the image of what a gay man can be. He says the award made him happy.
“The main reason I accepted the homo prize [sic] is that I can see how a lot of people are struggling with coming out. I’ve been contacted by many individuals, both in metal and outside, who haven’t found the courage to open up yet. No fellow musicians, though—only fans.”