Detractors often dismiss Gorgoroth as an also-ran of Norwegian black metal. Serviceable but ultimately superfluous to the achievements of their contemporaries. This position is only entrenched – and justified – by the Gorgoroth entity as it became under the stewardship of Gaahl and King ov Hell at the turn of the century. A slew of flat yet self-insistent albums positioned Gorgoroth as a Venom stand-in for 2000s era cynicism, replacing musical substance for faux Nietzschean platitudes and contrived esotericism. Edgelord pandering before such a thing was formally documented by popular academia.
To make matters worse, the Gaahl/King insurgency was able to useful-idiot its way into a Nuclear Blast signing, something of a death knell for credibility in certain circles. Slash and burn documentaries on black metal history soon followed, serving to hammily resituate the Gorgoroth brand as pivotal to the black metal story, an affront to anyone acquainted with its evolution and their – charitably characterised – orbital status in the movement. This era culminated in an infamous documentary curtesy of those reliable cultural safarists at Vice magazine and a predictably undignified legal battle with founding member Infernus over what remained of the Gorgoroth brand. Such cynicism regarding the correct legacy to assign this outfit is therefore not without merit.
Gorgoroth’s spectacularly protracted self-sabotaging invites its public to insert a hero into this tale. A thwarted genius obstructed by lesser minds before their vision could be truly brought to fruition. The temptation would be to cast Infernus in this role. As the founder and sole continuous member throughout, it would be all too easy to position him as the genius behind it all, whose crown was wrongly seized by Gaahl and King who promptly installed their clumsy provisional government, allowing them to gradually side-line any input from Infernus. But this story may be too convenient and simple to be true, not least because the quality of Infernus’s comeback era material is highly contestable.
Despite the fact that other silver backs of the genre had undisputable control over their artistic vision, there is still a strong case to be made for the artist as curator and synthesiser of materials as much as creative visionary. They are arguably more at the mercy of whatever technology, influences, and circumstances they are required to marshal in service of their works than they are a wellspring of artistic intent. Infernus may be an underrated guitarist in the Norwegian pantheon. But he deserves credit first and foremost as a lightning rod around which the early Gorgoroth entity was able to grow and sustain itself for a brief period.
Praising artistry as an exercise in sound middle management might be deeply unsexy, but it’s a perspective that arguably gets us closer to the sober facts of the matter than does blind adulation. And as is apparent from the Gaahl/King incarnation of Gorgoroth, buying into one’s own mythology with the help of fans and press rarely leaves dignities intact.
Artistic intent aside, what remains beyond dispute is the compelling purity of execution at play behind Gorgoroth’s opening salvo of albums. For a brief period in the mid-1990s they managed to bottle and articulate a certain brand of black metal that perfectly balanced indiscriminate animalism, a near total surrender to unchecked rage and formless spite, whilst maintaining a reflective understanding of some higher, cosmic order, a formalism that tempers the id into a malevolent, calculating, and above all efficient machine of pure, dark energy in sonic form. This looks all the more remarkable when considering the “they” that made up this era of Gorgoroth was a revolving door of clientele only loosely collected together under the guiding hand of Infernus.
For a brief period such informality worked, and produced one of the most compelling debut triptychs in the history of the genre. The fragile collective of staff orbiting Infernus in gentle equilibrium only stumbled with the faltering rage metal of ‘Destroyer, or About How to Philosophize with the Hammer’. Released in 1998, this album brought the winning streak to an abrupt end. It’s failure was not total however, merely a lapse into lack of focus, brevity, or purpose. A different line-up appears on every track. And Infernus proved incapable of marshelling this entourage of competing personalities – a veritable who’s who of b-tier Norwegian black metal, including the first appearance of Gaahl – into a purposeful stylistic entity.
So we are left to ask: what gave ‘Pentagram’, ‘Antichrist’, and ‘Under the Sign of Hell’ their magic? And how did such albums spring from a set of musicians as apparently unremarkable as this?
All are very different expressions of the same broad idea. All reside comfortably within the enclosure of black metal as interpreted by Scandinavia in the early 1990s. But despite their divergent presentations, there are no obvious features that mark them out as unique or otherwise noteworthy when measured against comparable albums from an Emperor or Immortal of the same era. But it is arguably this very lack of distinguishing features that gives these albums not only their uniqueness, but also their subtlety.
‘Pentagram’ is like witnessing in real time the final maturation of second wave black metal as a distinct entity. A superficially bombastic display of barbarism, energy, and disorder that nevertheless finds its articulation through highly formalised and strictly policed musical pastures, where any deviation is met with immediate exclusion from the overly discerning public, framed as ridicule or disparagement as befitting the crime.
The tracks on ‘Pentagram’ are short, compressing epic structuralism into microcosms rich with information. The tension between the reverential and constructive melodic drive and the barbaric, atonal, will-to-destroy plays out in miniature here. This reaches its culmination on the closing number ‘Maneskyggens Slave’, which sits comfortably alongside the best in the Northern canon for metal recast as symphony, and functions as a glorious summation of black metal’s ability to unpack beauty, bestiality, tranquillity, and psychotic unease, and should be mandatory listening on any introductory material prepared for the uninitiated.
‘Antichrist’ paradoxically packs more information into less space, yet teases out and expands on the themes of ‘Pentagram’, allowing them room to breathe. The first two tracks are an exercise in black metal as the art of composition. Suspended cadences, busy, teleologically minded tremolo riffing, pathos colliding against triumphalism, and no small amount of darkly playful musical flourishes add a dash of bracing revelry to the mix. All packed within compositional structures that are near perfect executions of an idea. The second half of this mini album reaches back to the roots of the genre with nods to Celtic Frost on ‘Possessed (by Satan)’, and even further back on ‘Sorg’, which could be read as a Norwegian retelling of Black Sabbath’s eponymous opening remarks a quarter of a century earlier.
‘Under the Sign of Hell’ welcomes the listener into the rehearsal room. Everything is stripped back, bringing an intimacy and immediacy to the presentation that stretches well beyond the raw production values. The song writing is sloppier, gone are the galloping longform articulations of ‘Antichrist’, in their place are clipped up mini riffs that function in a similar way to death metal in both their compulsive restlessness and their cumulative build throughout each piece, generating meta structures in their wake.
This places the listener at the heart of the ritual. It feels live, a single, seamless interaction between a set of musicians giving rise to an unrepeatable event. We are witnessing black metal as a jam, but as with anything this genre turns it hands to, the loose meanderings and off-the-cuff alliances of a semi-improvised, informal practice space are warped and amplified, the intensity dragged to its absolute limit at the edge of total, entropic collapse. This culminates in ‘Blood Stains the Circle’, which sees the band travel to the very edge of their expressive range, straining credulity to near breaking point. Any residual formalisms remaining from the preceding albums have been jettisoned for the sake of one, vital expression at the boundaries of psychology.
So much for the magic of the triumvirate, what of its source? The most remarkable thing about Gorgoroth of this time was just how unremarkable its members were. Familiar names such as Samoth and Frost crop up in session capacity, alongside mainstayer Infernus, but I would hesitate to recast the latter as an underrated genius helmsman in the same league as Varg, Euryonmous, or Ihashn. The more compelling question Gorgorth invites us to ask is: why must we fall back on the holistic explanatory power of individual genius to explain a musical experience? Maybe it was precisely this collective anonymity that was the wellspring of Gorgoroth’s early triumphs.
Compare these albums to the specificity of early statements from Burzum, Immortal, or Darkthrone. All works worthy of – and not short on – high praise, but all lazer focused on a singular artistic vision. Gorgoroth took a more casual approach. The vibe was looser, ground level, semi-improvised. This was black metal reinterpreted through the lens of a garage band, an informal collaboration between like minded individuals only half in control of the outcome. This lack of dictatorial overlords with an ironclad artistic vision gave these three albums their freeform structure, a realm where near limitless possibilities are visited upon the listener, yet packed into dense nuggets of sound that transcend their striking brevity.
The question that plagues fans of artist centric music like metal, where individual creators or groups of creators tend to be deified, is how to reconcile this deification with works that lack an obvious node on which to place all this praise. The lack of decisive “genius” may be the reason why Gorgoroth are often left out in the cold in serious retellings of Norwegian black metal. They lack the tragic anti-hero figure of a Varg Vikernes, or the iconic duos of Immortal and Darkthrone, leaving us nothing to narratively latch onto save a loose conglomeration of session musicians orbiting around the expert administration of Infernus.
This spontaneous anonymity is both the source of these albums’ enduring wisdom as far as the Platonic form of Norwegian black metal is concerned, and the reason they are often overlooked in favour of the superior brand recognition afforded by their contemporaries.