It is an infamous episode in heavy metal culture: the Norwegian church arsons of the early 1990s. The media attributed them to Satanic heavy metal bands, and indeed in 1994 four heavy metal musicians were convicted of the burning of historic churches. This, and the accompanying murders, is well-known in the heavy metal community to the point of tedium, but I, as an architectural historian is partial to both church buildings and kvlt as fvck riffs, decided have a closer look from an historical angle. What churches were lost? Who was behind it all? Let’s find out…
Firstly: what is black metal? Well the initial thing is to clear up its differences to its sibling in extreme metal: death metal. It’s fair to say both are an acquired taste. Both feature extremely distorted guitars, harsh vocals and unremittingly rapid drumming.
However, black metal vocals are very different: whereas death metal vocals are a guttural growl, black metal’s are more of a high-pitched scream. Also, while rarely features down-tuned guitars, and instead of choppy, rhythmically complicated riffs, the sound is often based on tremolo (the same note rapidly picked), and concentrates on creating a grimdark atmosphere through hypnotic repetition. Indeed, black metal has frequently pushed beyond its original rock boundaries into ambient and folk music: you might be familiar with Wardruna, established by former musicians in Bergen-based black metal band Gorgoroth, who worked on the soundtrack for Vikings on the History Channel/Netflix and have been played on BBC Radio 3.
While death metal was an international phenomenon right from its start, with key bands in its development being from Florida, Sweden and England; black metal’s major flowering – the so-called second wave – is indelibly linked with one country: Norway. The so-called “first wave of black metal” was as wide-ranging as Switzerland’s genuinely innovative and experimental Celtic Frost to Newcastle’s Venom but was only a retrospective appellation. At the time Celtic Frost and Venom would be called speed or plain ol’ heavy metal, but they were highly influential on the Norwegians in the late ’80s.
Norwegian metal bands were keen to distinguish themselves from the Swedish death metal scene, which was developing from the influence of grindcore as started by those West-Midlands legends Napalm Death along the same lines as the Sunshine State death merchants Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, and, uh, Death. Therefore the Norseboys developed certain distinctive elements from “first wave” bands to create a unique sound we now know as black metal. While bands such as Venom were really just about using Satanism in a shock-rock manner just like Arthur Brown or Alice Cooper (or, if we go back further, Berlioz, Liszt and Saint-Saens with their various parodies of the Dies Irae melody to musically express the occult), the youth of Norway started to take it all very seriously indeed.
In black metal, the lyrics are often more meditative on concepts of darkness and evil, rather than slasher-film gore and violence of death metal: if death is instant horror, black is slow-boiling terror. Whereas death metal bands take the stage with just jeans and T shirts, black metal often has elaborate costumes and make-up (known as “corpse paint”) as de rigeur. Authenticity – “kvlt” and “grim” – is considered a big part of a band’s image. Generally, there’s a big theme of blasphemy, Satanism and anti-Christianity in the lyrics, and the idea of the return to nature-worshipping paganism: survival of the strong and primitive aggression. Even though most of them will never admit it, the whole thing for the most part is an elaborate and highly entertaining pantomime. It was only really in the early ’90s in Scandinavia that, much like thugs who hijacked punk rock in the late ’70s and early ’80s with violent and racist agendas, the scene was poisoned by the malicious actions of a few individuals, taking advantage of a disenfranchised youth looking for a place to belong in an uncertain new world.
The destruction of churches came from the radical ethnonationalist influence of a few individuals: most prominently Varg Vikernes (then often going under the pseudonym Count Grishnackh). The role of the now-deceased Øystein Aarseth (generally referred to under his stage name, Euronymous), and the circumstances of his murder by Vikernes is a subject of endless debate. The cover of the 1993 EP Aske released by Varg Vikernes under the moniker Burzum featured the burnt-out shell of Fantoft stave church (which we’ll see below). Although never convicted of this burning on the 6 June 1992, it is almost certain he committed it, and kicked off a wave of arsons that would last four years.
Vikernes later joined Euronymous in Mayhem, the most influential band of the scene, to fill a gap left by the departure of bassist Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud after the suicide of their lead singer Per “Dead” Ohlin by self-inflicted gunshot. Euronymous took a photograph of himself with Dead’s body, and kept pieces of his skull which Necrobutcher (perhaps ironically, given his moniker) found legitimately disturbing and didn’t want to associate with him anymore. Necrobutcher in fact was very affected by the loss of his bandmate and friend Dead, even attending his funeral at a medieval church in Dead’s home country of Sweden. Dead’s suicide is usually taken as the event that pushed the scene from rambunctious youth counter-culture into the realms of dangerous extremity.
Vikernes and Euronymous allegedly plotted to bomb Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which appears on the cover of their much delayed debut album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. However, by the time it was released on 23 May 1994, Euronymous had been murdered by Vikernes at an altercation in the former’s apartment in Oslo 10 August 1993, and subsequently he was sentenced to 21 years in prison. The media interest around the case developed into hysteria, and with the arguable side effect of encouraging more copycat attacks. If you don’t believe the height of the moral panic, check out a BBC local news report where a vicar from Tunbridge Wells (no, seriously) calls for Black Metal music to be banned because it sends a shiver up his spine (sounds like he really gets it then, because that’s what it’s supposed to do).
Of course, the thing is that church fires in Norway were already relatively common, due to the sheer amount of wooden churches compared to most European countries. If you lose the roof of a wooden church to fire, you’ve basically lost the building. However, during 1992-1995, the number rose dramatically. Although only four churches were torched by members of black metal bands, according to a reputable source in Norwegian heritage, there have been around 20 arson attacks that have been linked to satanist/pagan motives between 1992 and 2000. As is typical for arson, many attacks were committed by minors and thus details of the court cases not public. I’m sure Norwegian heritage have big files on this, but obviously they have restricted the available information to discourage copycat attacks.
But looking at the variously reproduced lists, what actually was been lost to black-metal arson? I have no claims of being comprehensive (except in the case of the canonical four 1992 arsons Vikernes was charged with), but these all the churches that were destroyed or severely damaged by arsons related to the black metal scene that I have located.
Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen – 6 June 1992
This is the most notorious, also the most significant, and only medieval building robbed from us by the black metal scene arsons. However, its story as a medieval church is unique, to the point where one might question its claim to having been medieval at all.
The church was originally in the remote mountain village of Fortun and was threatened with demolition due to redundancy in face of a new church with higher capacity and better suited to modern Lutheran worship had been built. In 1883 the building was saved by its removal, funded by Consul Fredrik G. Gade, over 100 miles away to be reconstructed on a new site in the coastal city of Bergen.
The first thing you will notice about the old photo of the building in Fortun, is that it looks nothing like the Bergen monument. This is because the tower, of the 17thc and the log-work chancel, were not part of the consul’s purchase, and discarded. What they were after were the parts that were constructed around the mid 12thc in the traditional Norwegian “stave” technique: where the load-bearing logs are all placed vertically. Fortun’s interior was of Borgund type, where the internal staves were tied together, to give the sense of a triforium storey inside. The lantern over the main nave roof, the distinctive dragon finials, and two-storey chancel were in fact copied from the epynomic church at Borgund (below). So Fantoft church as almost certainly torched by Vikernes, was largely a 19thc confection.
There’s a number of ironies though, for what was then taken as black metal’s greatest victory. Firstly, the fact that it wasn’t even on its original location anymore, so the claim of reclaiming a pagan site was nonsense. Secondly, it was privately owned, a national monument, so he was attacking the country, rather than the Christian Church (which in Norway, is a state Lutheran Church rather than anything to do with Rome). Thirdly, the preservation of the church was due to national pride in the uniqueness of the stave church to Scandinavian architecture. In its reconstructed form, stripped of its Lutheran additions, the form it takes looks extremely pagan: indeed it has been forwarded that these stave churches reflect the form of the lost temples of the first millennium. Some of these traditional stave churches were replaced by more international Romanesque or Gothic stone buildings, and even more were lost after the Reformation as Lutheranism demanded brighter, less cluttered interiors and replaced them with glorified log cabins. The few surviving stave churches, in their almost totemic grandeur, are actually the closest you can get to an authentic pagan temple in Norway. This is because the Christian Church made good use of syncretism rather than obliteration: the missionaries of the first millennium adapted existing beliefs they encountered rather than destroying them. To be honest, it was all about state-building more than anything else.
Anyway, Fantoft church was rebuilt as a pretty much exact replica after the arson. By which we mean replica of the 1883 installation: none of the shingling and dragon ridge ornaments were medieval.
Revheim, 1 August 1992
This church was built from 1864 as a new foundation inside the existing parish of Håland on the eastern side of Stavanger, and consecrated 20 September the next year. The building was extended and modernised in 1954. It looks pretty standard, but the original architect was Hans Ditlev Franciscus von Linstow, who was the architect of the Royal Palace in Oslo.
The fire was caused by two minors. It was restored and reopened in 1994. The biggest loss was the altarpiece by Thoralf Gjesdal, an artist from Stavanger who created a new painting for the modernisation of the church in 1954. A competent local post-impressionist, but judging by this surviving Risen Christ at Orre Church in Klepp, Rogaland (right), his religious work was hardly remarkable stuff. A replacement was painted by Svein A. Berntsen of Stavanger’s Madla district in a similar style.
Holmenkollen Chapel, 23 August 1992
This was a rather impressive stave church, but built completely anew in 1903; again part of a expression of national identity rather than a parish church on an ancient pagan site. It was for its isolated nature, as a refuge for hikers, that it was probably targeted. Vikernes was convicted of arson of this church, and it is known that Euronymous also participated. Also convicted was Bard “Faust” Eithun of the band Emperor. Faust is more infamous for his apparently homophobic murder of a man in a park in Lillehammer in 1992, for which he was given a 14-year sentence. He was released in 2003 and has resumed his career as a heavy-metal drummer. His views on the murder seem unrepentant. Therefore I wouldn’t dare ask him about the church.
The church itself was again rebuilt as an exact replica. It is also just next to the Holmenkollen Ski Museum, and a collection of Olympic-class ski slopes.
Skjold Church, 13 September 1992
This was a big Evangelical Lutheran log-built church built in 1887 burnt by Vikernes with another accomplice. On a break from the recording of Aske, he took out session-bassist Tomas Thormodsæter “Samoth” Haugen for a spot of church burning. Samoth ended up being convicted of arson and served 16 months in prison. Samoth’s bandmate in Emperor, Ihsahn, said (while he was a bit stuck for stuff to do since his two bandmates were in prison)
“Skjold Church was a large wooden church about 100 years old. The church contained an alter [sic] board and preaching chair from the 16th century. All this was said to be of historical, Christian value. So it was to be reduced to a pile of ashes. The material damages are set to be of 13 million Norwegian Kroners. The church was still being used by a large flock of blind followers. It became a victim for true Norwegian spirit on the 13th of September Anno 1992 during a stormy night. Witnessed by the moon, this symboic act of anti-Christian war enlightened the night with pagan flames. Heathen barbarism is one the rise. We will bring back the forgotten past of strength, pride, and victory.”
Oh yeah well maybe if you were so strong maybe you wouldn’t have crept there in the middle of the night and set fire to the meeting place of an Evangelical Lutheran congregation when there’s no one there? You great big blouse.
Samoth shows regret for his acts (at least that they lost him of 16 months of his life and all the other hassles that come with having a criminal conviction: it’s pretty annoying if you want to tour other countries, for instance) and seems to want to put them down as puerile follies in adolescence, when even the best of us can be led astray.
A new church was built at Skjold, by Nils A. Vikanes, in 1998. It actually looks more interesting than old one, and begins a rejuvenation of rather typical Lutheran boxes into more creative, modern spaces.
Hauketo-Prinsdal, 3 October 1992
Again this seems to have been a copycat arson committed by minors, but I could not find a picture of the pre-fire church. Considering that Hauketo was only really developed as a suburb in the 1980s, and that the only description I can find of it is as a “portable church brought from Lambertseter” ( flyttbar kirke som kom fra Lambertseter) I can assume it was of no architectural merit whatsoever. However its burning did encourage the building of this Po-Mo monstrosity, which may be the black metal scene’s greatest victory, as it might even turn the Pope into a pagan. Or at least make him think “oh no, I wish I’d brought my swimming trunks”.
Old Åsane Church, 24 December 1992
Interestingly, this is the only of the black-metal arson churches that was not predominantly of wood. It was a simple church that replaced a timber medieval one in 1795. This means that although the furnishings were lost, it could be reconstructed using the original masonry.
Along with Vikernes, Jørn Inge Tunsberg was convicted of the arson of this church and served two years in prison. Unlike Samoth, he absolutely regrets nothing. He still works as a musician, in the band Hades Almighty.
Sund, 13 March 1994
The burning of a Methodist church in Sarpsborg on Christmas Day 1992 caused the death of a firefighter, which may have lead to 1993 being rather a quiet year for the church burnings, when some of the kids caught up in the scene realised people might get hurt and they’d like, be in serious shit. Vikernes was arrested on 19 August 1993 for the murder of Euronymous, which also must’ve put a damper on things as band members were incarcerated. However, there was a resurgence of church arsons in Norway through 1994. Sund church was on a medieval site but but much replaced and replaced by a plain Gothic log-church designed by Conrad Fredrik von der Lippe in 1876. After its destruction by arson, it was replaced by a postmodern appropriation of the stave-church style to a modern, centrally-planned worship in 1997.
Seegård, 27 March 1994
The other church destroyed by arson in 1994 was built in 1781. Again, its replacement had a traditional shape but with modern flourishes, and benefits greatly from the use of local materials. It was designed by Arne Thorsrud, and opened in 1997. The spire actually fell away from the building and has been partly retained in the build: the original weathervane is mounted on the new spire.
Såner, 25 May 1995
1995 was the last resurgence of the arsons. Såner was on the site of a medieval church, replaced in 16thc, expanded in 18thc, but totally demolished and replaced by the brothers Furuholmen in 1880 with, as you guessed it, a big white neo-Gothic log church. All the worthwhile fittings from the old church (which was a box with the 18thc additions to the ends, as these two early 19thc images agree on) had been moved to the Norsk Folkemuseum, Bygdøy, Oslo.
The replacement was built primarily of stone, due to the requests of the congregation, again in a manner sympathetic to local style and landscape, but also practical and modern.
Innset Church, 3 November 1995
The last of the churches lost to black metal madness was also the perhaps the most authentic genuinely old church. It was a Baroque building, dating from 1642 and attributed to the builder Palle Joensen: the oldest timber church in Trøndelag county. It has since been rebuilt closely, if not a perfect replica. This was one of the last successful church arsons in Norway, and perhaps the most significant other than Fantoft. It was presumably committed by minors as I can’t find any details of the case.
As much as it might horrify a lot of black metal fans, Vikernes’ goals with the church burnings was essentially exactly the same as religious extremists such as the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. When police arrested him for murder, they found he was hording explosives, lending credence for the alleged terrorist attack planned in Trondheim. He was worse than a mere vandal or pyromaniac: he was a terrorist, in that he was aiming to spread fear and hysteria in support of his hateful ideology. The idea that he was reclaiming pagan sites (patently untrue in the case of Fantoft and Holmenkollen chapel, which were state owned and on virgin sites) was really a cover for his synthesis of Odinism and National Socialism. Essentially, Vikernes promoted white power, pure and simple. Many impressionable young people were pulled in by this hateful national identity he pedalled because of the mystique it hijacked. Since he was released from prison in 2009, he has lived in France, mostly due to the Norwegian government still badgering him on the debts of 13.5 million kroner the court ruled he incurred for his arsons. In 2014 he received a further conviction and six months probation for inciting racial hatred against Jews and Muslims.
Of course the extremist aspect that hid itself in the black metal scene is essentially extinguished from it now, although it remains fiercely counter-cultural and defiantly anti-mainstream. Mayhem are still going, with Necrobutcher on bass and Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg on drums, both who were at the centre of the infamous early ’90s scene. Both Necrobutcher and Hellhammer regret the church burnings as orchestrated by the extremely persuasive and deceptive Vikernes. Some bands, like the ever-kvlt Immortal (who, you might notice, pop-pickers, I’ve consistently used to illustrate this article), don’t even touch on Christianity, preferring to concentrate on a grim and frostbitten world, much like the celebration of Nordic landscapes and climate by Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl or the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. But with more spikes.
So in conclusion, the infamous black metal scene of the early 1990s only claimed one medieval structure, the rebuilt and already extensively recreated Fantoft Stave church in Bergen, Norway. It was mostly led by one man – Varg Vikernes – an unrepentant racist to this day, and a media hysteria encouraged copycat attacks and general mass panic. Most of the churches lost were architecturally unremarkable, and themselves had often replaced an earlier building.
While the upset and fear that their loss caused is to be lamented, the modern buildings that rose in their place are to be celebrated as new landmarks in Norway’s rich culture, along with the now world-famous sound of black metal. And the fact that every church was rebuilt either the same or better than before, is testament to what a miserable failure Vikernes’ terrorism ultimately was.
This entry was initially published 13 January 2018 and was revised May 2022 with full image attributions and extra details partly because I went to go and see Mayhem live. Necrobutcher is a great bassist btw, it was quite a night!