by Niklas Göransson
Spirited theological discourse with Swedish black metal band Monstraat – a conversation about the legacy of Judas, and whether the Devil’s music allows for freedom of artistic expression.
– Our musical formula is pretty straightforward, says Joel. Like Fenriz once said: all my riffs are rooted in the same tritone interval first popularised by BLACK SABBATH‘s eponymous 1970 track. That should serve as the basis for any decent black metal riff – played naturally with frenzy, intensity and a general contempt for ’tightness’ in a manner that invokes the boundless primal madness of the old masters. While our 2013 debut and 2015 EP were both recorded in what might be termed a professional studio – for “Scythe & Sceptre” (2017) we finally went full caveman. We recorded the entire album on a portable studio in our rehearsal space, using cheap instruments and a single drum-microphone suspended above the kit.
Joel – who plays guitar, bass, and drums – describes the resulting racket as undoubtedly being the most ’MONSTRAAT-sounding’ of their releases thus far. While the album is indeed charmingly savage, it definitely doesn’t sound like a simple rehearsal recording.
– That’s mostly thanks to the mixing and mastering by Isengrim of WAN, Sweden’s premier purveyors of musical filth and a strong recommendation for readers. Coupled with cover art courtesy of Drakh from my all-time favourite band KATHARSIS and once again the excellent logo by Mörk of MALIGN, there’s no way I could be more content with the small roster of collaborators enlisted for this release.
This sonically searing approach of theirs is peddled as the audible manifestation of MONSTRAAT’s two-man crusade against the ’ceaseless pest’ that is overproduction.
– Black metal was never meant to sound ’good’. A reasonably rough and lo-fi production has been an essential cornerstone of the genre since the days of BATHORY and, overlooked as this fact may be, remains so to this day. Consider the finest album to ever come out of Norway – “Transilvanian Hunger” (DARKTHRONE); imagine what it would sound like produced similar to “Master of Puppets”. Granted, its main strength may lie in the compositions themselves, but I’d wager that any worshipper of that album would agree that its production is absolutely fundamental to the music’s ambience.
For those who wish to challenge this contention, there are clips online featuring tracks from “Transilvanian Hunger” – remastered with enhanced treble and bass frequencies. Joel is not amused.
– This evokes in me the same emotions as if I were a hard-line Wahhabi Muslim who’d just beheld every inch of the Kaaba covered with self-adhesive purple dildos. I can’t even begin to fathom the massive mental and spiritual shortcomings behind such a total defilement. If you don’t like the album, fuck off and listen to something else rather than twisting it to conform with your own shitty tastes. Anencephalic maggots!
While researching this article, I noticed that MONSTRAAT’s 2009 demo, “Beyond Angel Eyes”, featured lyrics by Judas Isaksson – the vocalist and guitarist of Swedish black metal band NECROPLASMA. I also realised they’re from the same town, Köping. Isaksson, who passed away in 2008, was quite the colourful character with a well-earned reputation as an absolute maniac. One could say he was somewhat of a personification of the Never Stop the Madness attitude. Also present in the conversation is MONSTRAAT’s founder and vocalist, Johnny, who knew the man intimately.
– Judas could be summed up with the following three words: unhinged, impulsive and unpredictable. I knew him since the time we were born, our families have been tight since forever. My old man and his uncle would get up to all sorts of shit in their youth, and I suppose we just followed in their footsteps really. It was the usual stuff – various drunken antics, knives here and there – just total chaos. As we got older, I was rarely along for his most notoriously idiotic escapades; he was far more interested in going to gigs and meeting people left and right, whereas I preferred staying at home. He’d get an idea in the middle of the night, ‘I’m getting the train to Gothenburg!’ Then he’d wake up in a holding cell somewhere the morning after; ‘Oi! Where the hell am I?’ … ‘You’re in lockup.’, ‘Yes yes, I know that – but where?’
– Wasn’t he threatening to kill you at one point?
– That was in 2000, I think, around the time when I for various reasons had to cut off contact with all the destructive… well, basically everyone I knew. That certainly stirred the hornet’s nest – Judas rang me up, drunk and hollering about his weapons collection. From then on, there was no contact for seven years until we finally sat down and sorted out all the nonsense. After that, we were hanging out almost daily. We even had plans of getting NECROPLASMA going again, but he died before that could happen.
Judas Isaksson’s earthly existence ended on May 8, 2008, in what the autopsy would determine to be an overdose of various psychotropic drugs he was prescribed.
– We were supposed to go to the gym but he wasn’t answering his phone when I called, so I got hold of a spare key from his grandmother and went up there. I found him sitting in front of his computer, as if he’d just suddenly dropped dead while checking email.
I was only familiar with Judas’ extroverted side; how would you describe his person?
– He was very unstable; his mood could switch from one extreme to the other in a heartbeat. Introvert when sober. His medicines were mostly against anxiety and shit like that – the usual small-industrial-town syndrome.
– It’s actually this patented Köping-anguish that truly defines the core of MONSTRAAT, Joel chimes in.
– But look, Johnny continues, it’s really fucking important to me that Judas doesn’t come off as some complete idiot here… well, I mean we all are in a way – but generally speaking he was a man of vast depth who thought about and pondered things to far greater lengths than what would be deemed healthy. While I really miss him, it’s good to know that he’s gone home. It might sound weird but that’s how I feel.
– Musically speaking, says Joel, I feel that large swathes of the contemporary black metal milieu can be summarised by the following maxim: too much black, not enough metal. So much energy is invested into creating droning, hypnotic black mass atmospheres that the fundamental impact of a well-written, crushing riff is often completely lost. Without that, it’s just ritualistic ambient music performed with traditional rock instrumentation rather than metal.
That sounds like an excellent description of nineties BURZUM – is this not black metal?
– Well, “Hvis lyset tar oss” and “Filosofem” perhaps but the previous releases are more riff-oriented, wouldn’t you say? Anyway, I don’t particularly care for Vikernes‘ post-prison antics but I’ve enjoyed all the early BURZUM records for many years and definitely consider them a part of the essential Norwegian black metal canon. And I readily admit to thoroughly enjoying a great deal of meditative and ritualistic bands with more atmosphere than hellfire: PAYSAGE D’HIVER, NIHILL, URFAUST, and so on. What I oppose is the contemporary trend I see where ceremonial and ritualistic aspects take over to the extent where performances turn into solemn religious services with a few robed figures standing still on stage and a few hundred attendees standing still in front of it. This is black metal, for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying that the entire audience needs to be rearranging each other’s dental anatomies, but something in-between the two shouldn’t be beyond the realms of reason.
A potential solution could be to simply perform whatever music tickles one’s fancy, garbed in attire of one’s own selection, whilst seeking to stir interest amongst listeners with the corresponding aesthetic and sonic preferences. I fail to see much benefit for anyone involved if every single band which fits Joel’s description were to disregard personal artistic penchants – disrobing and casting aside incense holders – only to embark on a journey of rehearsal-room black metal orthodoxy. If even a single one of them did exactly this, the same people who are now deriding their output as false would be veritably aghast that unbelievers would dare infiltrate their sub-scene.
– Surely, the visual manifestation of black metal should not be a cloaked and hooded figure, prancing around with hands waved melodramatically through the air in trance-like mannerisms, shrouded by veils of smoke while invoking ancient deities through monotonous prayers in forlorn tongues. It should be an emaciated, contorted, rabid figure – leather-clad and intoxicated, wide-eyed and frothing at the mouth. All limbs tense, torn, and ravaged by the senseless ecstasies, joyous horrors and devastating pleasures that the Lord so hedonistically bestows upon us. Fleshly worship over scholarly devotion, faith over reason, glossolalia over prayer. Chaos over ritual, madness over ceremony; ANTAEUS over NIGHTBRINGER.
Not a big fan of wizardry then, I take it?
– Negative. We espouse a primitive form of spirituality and are not practitioners of any occult, arcane or esoteric rites. MONSTRAAT exists solely to sing the Devil’s praise; to extol virtues of madness, possession and fanatical devotion. We have no need for candles, capes, sandalwood, or Sanskrit dictionaries; the band is our congregation, our instruments are our altars and wherever we pick them up our church. Our music is our sacrament, and through it we feel Him permeating every fibre of flesh.
Excellent, Him. Let us get to the bottom of this.
– As far as we’re concerned, any further elaborations really only serve to soil the holiness of the subject. I believe that an intrinsic quality of the left-hand tradition is that the theological intricacies of one’s belief system are both highly personal and best left unspoken, so as to preserve that nature.
I’ve gradually come to notice how it’s often theistic Satanists and ‘devil-worshippers’ who take this secretive-cultist route in refusing to discuss the religion that supposedly dominates their existence. If black metal truly is an infernally sanctioned vessel for Satanic gnosis, and none other need apply, then surely there must be more to elaborate theologically than deflecting all incoming inquiries with the same lofty recycled late-2000s French Him-references. One might be tempted to note how such an approach would be ideal for musicians wishing to project the image of spiritual arsonists, despite not wielding much celestial fire themselves. If there’s far more to be said about what others are doing wrong than the righteousness of one’s own cause, I’d be inclined to regard it as more petulant than adversarial.
– A solid point. In keeping with the individuality of these matters, I believe personal takes on this would be more fruitful than speaking on behalf of the band – even though our ideologies generally intersect. But fair enough, I concede to being thoroughly influenced by the late-2000s French scene to which you refer. I was born in 1991 and was at the apex of youthful malleability around 2006 and 2007 when Norma Evangelium Diaboli made a substantial name for themselves with KATHARSIS, ANTAEUS, and DEATHSPELL OMEGA. I found “VVorldVVithoutEnd” (KATHARSIS) and “Blood Libels” (ANTAEUS) much in the same way your generation discovered the BURZUM debut, or “A Blaze in the Northern Sky” (DARKTHRONE). While I fully respect the elder, admittedly much more hard-working black metal generations’ rightful scepticism towards their millennial successors, the magical and otherworldly experiences of first hearing such formative records are shared by us all. No-one eludes this aspect of nostalgia, which I believe should be separately factored into any attempts at objectively appraising musical quality. Hence, I wilfully admit to being influenced by the linguistics and symbology of this current, watered down as it may be today.
Joel says that ever since childhood, he’s been beset by extreme restlessness, sleeping problems, and the constant sense of an all-encompassing destructive presence around him.
– My interest in music grew steadily and upon taking up drums, guitar and bass at age eleven, I’d finally found a working outlet for this restlessness. Some years later, upon first hearing the aforementioned albums, something aligned within me that I to this day cannot fully explain. It resonated and reverberated through this previously untapped inner sphere of ethereal presence, it dislodged my mind from my body and I descended into apocalyptic visions of raging fires, demonic faces appearing and dissolving in strange patterns, skeletal shadows, and contorting featureless shapes.
He adds that while similar transcendent states are still accessible to him under optimal conditions, these experiences remain the most spiritually intense, genuine and formative of his life.
– Granted, you’re probably thinking that I’m just an ADD-riddled millennial who uses abrasive music to stun the hyperactive parts of my brain into silence, and then interpreting the ensuing hypnotic effects as something metaphysical. And admittedly, I’m neither a neurologist nor a theologian. There are vast numbers of men and women, both within black metal and especially outside, who are more knowledgeable and experienced than I am in matters of the spirit. All I know is that I’d go mad trying to rationally or scientifically explain these phenomena, but there’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that they are religious. What other word could there be for something which is so clearly and unequivocally beyond this world, that surpasses rationality and the confines of our cosmos?
It certainly sounds like the proverbial mystical experience, but this phenomenon doesn’t necessarily require a theological backdrop.
– I had my first religious experience at four or five years of age, says Johnny. I was suddenly made acutely aware of death and came to realise how I and everyone I know will vanish one day. It was a feeling of sheer terror. I would lie down and hold my breath for as long possible, just to see how my mind would react. My childhood wasn’t easy; empty, one could say. At nine years old I was stricken by absolute panic and prayed to God, but never got an answer – only silence. It was when turning the opposite way that I found something. A strength, an endurance. Fuel for the fire.
Johnny says his youth became one long search for answers – for a community of like-minded – and this is what black metal provided.
– People in town general considered me mentally ill – I was never invited to parties or anything like that. The many deaths close to me also left their mark and affirmed my belief in the unpredictable and unavoidable end everything must face. Death has always been present; I lost my seven-year-old little brother, my twenty-six-year-old big brother, my father, and several friends. In the end, I realised that the only alternative was to go my own way. Only I see what I see, only I have wandered where I’ve been.
While no one’s fervour is being called into question, I still find it peculiar to be fanatically proselytising a religion without doctrine, teachings, or inherent message. It sounds more like an infatuation with the actual notion of worshipping something malevolent that frightens ordinary people than spiritual exaltation evoked by divine truth.
– I have no desire to scare ‘ordinary people’, Joel objects, not that I’m conscious of anyway and besides – I believe the time when espousing left-hand ideologies in this part of the world was truly controversial to have been over for decades. I’m on an inwards journey and the music serves to propel me down this road; whether it repels others, interests or even aids them in their own quest makes no substantial difference to me. However, I willingly admit that I’ve shed the compulsive misanthropy of youth and definitely consider it a good thing if our music resonates with others.
But why the need for Abrahamic nomenclature?
– Quite simply because to me, the Devil represents lawlessness, chaos, decadence and disorder; the solitary inner path to gnosis and the ever-impending, all-consuming fires of annihilation. My accumulated religious studies and experiences have led me to the conclusion that the Devil is by far the most appropriate name for and incarnation of this presence. Bearing in mind this very intimate and almost exclusive connection between religion and music, I guess one could be forgiven for thinking of me as the archetypal black metal Devil-worshipper – a metalhead who compulsively adorns himself with all the requisite physical and spiritual baubles. This music has given me unequivocally religious visions and experiences, as clear as the hands I see before me now, something that nothing else has hitherto been able to do. So in this instance, I’ll wear that badge with pride.