Dreaming of Black Metal

Satyricon plumbs the depths to produce The Age of Nero, its darkest — and catchiest — disc yet.

As far as genres go, it doesn’t get a whole lot more extreme than black metal, which is known for satanic themes, church burning, corpse paint, and a ferocious sound that can peel the wallpaper. But several years ago, the pioneering band Satyricon ditched the face paint, slowed down its tempos, and started writing more rock-oriented songs. On its latest CD, The Age of Nero, a particularly poignant moment comes in this lyric: Snow covered mountain/I gaze in awe/Wondering who and what was here before. It’s especially transcendent considering that singer Satyr wasn’t even awake when he wrote it.

As the frontman tells one night it from his home in Oslo, Norway, the band had just landed in Tokyo for a show in late 2007. Severely jet-lagged, he crashed early. “In my dreams, I was listening to a Satyricon song that did not exist,” he recalled. “The interesting thing was, I wasn’t just dreaming a melody or some words or crap like that, I was listening to a full song with bass, guitar, drums, vocals. … I was hearing my own voice as it sounds in Satyricon, hearing lyrics that did not exist, on top of lyrical themes that did not exist either. I woke up and was like, what the fuck! I’ve never experienced anything like that.” Satyr said he immediately began jotting down notes and working the melody out on his guitar until it sounded just as it did in his dream.

The resultant song, “My Skin Is Cold,” anchors The Age of Nero — a 42-minute collection of seductive minor-chord riffs, snarling vocals, furious double-bass drumming, and epic flair. It’s more dynamic than a lot of metal albums, so it’s not all unrelenting blast beats (though, thankfully, those are present, too). At times, the pace becomes sticky-slow, and many of the songs are constructed around deceptively simple, catchy guitar riffs that work into a groove. Yet such restraint allows the band to stretch out and relish in its blackened glory. The result? Its darkest — and catchiest — disc yet.

Besides “My Skin Is Cold,” most of the album was written by Satyr in his friend’s cabin in the Norwegian forest about three hours north of Oslo. He holed up there for days at a time with his guitar, a mobile recording unit, and bottles of wine. He also had input from his longtime friend Snorre Ruch of the band Thorns (who, most notably, served an eight-year sentence for being an accomplice in the 1993 murder of Mayhem member Øystein Aarseth). Later, Satyr worked out the tracks with Frost, Satyricon’s other core member and one of black metal’s finest drummers. Being amongst the quiet of the trees, Satyr says he was able to tap into another side of himself. “Sometimes silence in itself can be an extreme source of inspiration because it makes you connect with yourself in a way that’s just not possible in the city,” he said.

Satyr says this made for an even darker album. As indicated by the title, The Age of Nero isn’t exactly an optimistic record. Rather, it’s Satyr’s take on the troubling state of the world. Musically, it’s a fitting soundtrack for the end times. The album’s closer, “Den Siste” (or “The Last,” the only track sung in Norwegian and not English) is a seven-minute-plus, ominous, repetitive dirge punctuated by defeated trumpet blasts. In an online interview, Satyr says the song made an engineer who worked on it so utterly depressed that he resorted to burying his head in his hands while listening to it.

Darkness pervades even the catchier, more-straightforward tracks such as the sinister-sounding “The Wolfpack” and anthemic “Black Crow on a Tombstone.” The latter was inspired after an all-night writing session at Ruch’s place that involved ample wine. The next morning, Satyr went to get a drink of water and peered out of the frosty kitchen window upon the cemetery next door, where, yes, a black crow on a tombstone engaged Satyr in a sort of Exorcism-like staring contest. “It kept on going for such a long time, it became slightly creepy and very, very fascinating,” he said.

The album marks a triumphant, almost defiant stand for a band that has received its share of criticism for turning toward more “commercially accessible” black metal, or “black ‘n’ roll,” in recent years. If anything, Nero cements this change even further. The track “Sign of the Trident,” which Satyr has said is about the band itself, appears to rebuke the band’s critics: Opinions rise and opinions fall/At the end of days/The trident stands tall.

Compared to Satyricon’s 1994 debut, Dark Medieval Times, The Age of Nero almost sounds like a different band. Besides the improvement in production values, Nero also has far less distortion, more enunciated, up-front vocals, and big guitar hooks. To those who might criticize this, Satyr points out that the “rock-oriented” sound is actually more in line with early black metal bands, which were influenced by the thrash sound of the 1980s. “Personally, I’m not so preoccupied with being traditional — or modern for that matter — but it’s quite relevant to be contemporary, and that’s always been the spirit of black metal,” he said. “If you look at black metal back in the day, it wasn’t traditional at all, it was groundbreaking. Satyricon would rather be a band leading the way.”

And, indeed, it appears to be. Nero, which was engineered by Joe Barresi (whose credits include Queens of the Stone Age, ISIS, and Tool) and produced by Satyr, sounds like few other metal albums out there. That’s undoubtedly helped them garner a wider fan base, too.

Still, while Satyricon’s influence in Europe has been undeniable, they’ve had a harder time breaking into the US market, which has been traditionally tough for black metal bands because of the well-entrenched popularity of death metal, whose rivalry with black metal goes way back. Earlier this year, the band played the states for the first time since 2004, opening for Cradle of Filth — a somewhat odd billing considering the English band’s more theatrical, gothic sound. Yet, as evidenced by their San Francisco appearance, the band has no shortage of fans willing to shell out $25 to see just 45 minutes of Satyr wielding his trident-shaped mic stand. “Being special guests for Cradle of Filth was a little bit weird … but we looked upon it as an opportunity in a way to start to reestablish the Satyricon name a little bit in America,” said Satyr. “It went quite well, I think. The reception was way beyond what we could expect, really.” So much so that Satyricon has now returned to headline its own shows.

If anything, Satyricon’s insistence on following its own muse — subconscious or not — has allowed it to sustain a nineteen-year career while becoming increasingly visible to a wider audience. Last year, the band played its first shows in India, where the masses sang along to its classic hit “Mother North.” “The band has grown a lot in terms of record sales, despite the fact that it’s getting more and more difficult to sell records every year,” said Satyr. “To me, that’s a sign of good health. … We feel that The Age of Nero is the best record we’ve ever made. Looking at record sales, we have no reason to think otherwise.”

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