Beherit: homemakers of musical dismemberment

Summing up why we like the music we do is a unique challenge. We spend so much time at the coalface of specificity that stepping back and admiring the totality of our taste is akin to leaving Plato’s cave. We lack the language or even the psychology to fully perceive our surroundings, let alone articulate the experience. The many colours of metal contain differing and sometimes contradictory expressive drives: power, loss, violence, grief, euphoria. My thoughts on this question have yielded entirely distinct conclusions depending on the season, leading me to all but abandon the project as impossible, unnecessary even. Why must we bind our artistic delights into some holistic philosophy, vague, skewed, and oversimplified to meet this vain need?

But as is often the case, new perspectives on old ideas emerge if we return to a great body of work, thus justifying our belief in their greatness. Just as happened to me on taking another deep dive into the discography of Beherit. Clarity began to emerge from the gloom. This longstanding pillar of Finnish extreme metal offers a uniquely uncanny world of grainy half-music, a distorted shadow of black metal, zeroing in on the genre’s most unbelievable aspects and presenting them nude before the world.

Beherit are one of metal’s notorious shapeshifters. A critical and artistic moving target, never settling into a stable form fit for analytical frameworks. But unlike many other shapeshifters, a common thread runs beneath the fanfare of genre traversing and musical extremity littering their discography. When taken as a whole, the point of Beherit is that they have always existed at the edge of control.

And this is when the lightbulb slowly flickered. Beherit is to metal what metal is to contemporary music more widely . This is not a story of rampant quirks for the sake of mere provocation, or sonic extremity in pure form, but of an artist existing at the very moment when artistic and critical credulity snap.

Maybe it’s the earliest demos and EPs culminating in ‘The Oath of Black Blood’ compilation in 1990, which, from the first, exhibited a variant of blackened grind so visceral that it was perpetually threatening total collapse. Although this era of Beherit is often lumped in with the likes of Blasphemy and a style retrofitted with the war metal moniker, Beherit were already evincing an understated eccentricity lacking in much extreme metal at the time. The music was a total mess, but in demonstrating a complete awareness of audiences’ perception of this fact, it positioned any mockery or wry observation as a form of praise. This is not sloppy music aiming at something higher, it’s a meticulous dismantling of what extreme music is even capable of expressing. Anyone who has watched the footage of a revoltingly young Beherit perform outside a shopping centre will have noted the completely blasé attitude these kids hold toward their own phenomena.

Or maybe it’s the unshakeable atmosphere of ‘Drawing Down the Moon’, gouging at the intersection of comedy and horror. Perhaps the album most closely aligned to route-one black metal, it is nevertheless littered with eyebrow raising segues, a left-of-centre vocal delivery, and utterly unselfconscious dark ambient segments. This album is heralded as a classic of black metal by some, as Beherit’s only album of any value by others. A guitar tone more befitting of lo-fi death metal, delivering melodies as creepy as they are tentative, alongside remnants of the absurdist primalism of earlier Beherit all make for an experience that revels in the uncanny.

Or maybe it was doubling down on the cul-de-sac of experimental fragments that had previously only lurked at the edge of earlier works, now placed front and centre on the dark ambient albums ‘H418ov21.C’ and ‘Electric Doom Synthesis’ in the mid-1990s. Whatever practical issues of line up and location facing Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance (or Marko on Sundays) that preceded these albums, people begrudge them not only for their, shall we say, liberal definition of stylistic content, but for the fact that NHV had the gall to take a complete about-turn in genre, arresting the momentum of ‘Drawing Down the Moon’ and funnelling this energy into fragmented, half formed dark ambient and electronica.

These albums are so spiteful in their minimalism, so scornful of conventional expectation, that many swear them off for what they represent, refusing to take in the curiously imploded corridors of sonic palimpsests at face value. These infamous mid-career ambient albums are viewed as the ultimate middle finger to the faction that view Beherit as a one hit wonder, an artist forever ducking or unable to meet the obligation to provide another ‘Drawing Down the Moon’.

But a more nuanced reading of these works reveals not only the obvious fact that Beherit never released the same album twice, but also a common thread of systematic, persistent musical dismemberment. Even by jumping on the comeback train in the late 2000s they managed to defy expectations with 2009’s ‘Engram’. An album perhaps most closely aligned with populist notions of black metal that simultaneously put 90% of the contemporary scene to shame whilst presenting an oddly single minded, repetitious interpretation of the style. A ruminant malevolence coils around the bowels of the album, emitting oddly uncanny threads of discomfort to supplement the outrageously assertive, bombastic material at the forefront of the album.

Maybe it’s the erratic release schedule that exists in utter spite of the concept of predictability. Following the retrospective release of recordings from 1990 in ‘At the Devil’s Studio’ came the vinyl only EP ‘Celebrate the Dead’ in 2012. Because the one thing long time fans were craving at this point was half an hour of black metal-dub with the weird atmospherics of ‘Drawing Down the Moon’. This was followed by eight years of silence. A new full length ambient piece in ‘Bardo Exist’ in 2020 came out with little pomp and no ceremony. This latest work behaves as if an unbroken connecting thread bypasses ‘Engram’ and reaches back to ‘Electric Doom Synthesis’, directly continuing the endeavour of ambience as the expression of the liminal.

Stylistically, Beherit’s career is about as erratic as they come. A fact as divisive as it is magnetic. A cursory glance down the reviews on their Metal Archives page reveals a bitterly contested legacy. But unlike Ildjarn, who has more detractors than followers and doggedly stuck to the minimalist philosophy, or Ulver, who understood their evolutionary responsibilities as a slow march to the insipid, Beherit made a comfortable home for themselves at the very point where decay threatens to dissolve art into farse. This idea runs through their entire back catalogue, no matter the genre, production quality, or instrumentation. They were homemakers at the point where common sense axioms of artistic conduct bleed into absurdity.

Whilst this may have been the whole point for Beherit, there are many metal artists that flirt with the peripheral in this way, so many in fact, that I would go as far as to say that it is precisely this facet that some of us find appealing in metal music. It is at its most compelling when threatening total entropic collapse whilst maintaining a semblance of control. As Keith Kahn-Harris noted in his 2010 book ‘Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge’, extreme metal invokes “the joys and terrors of formless oblivion within the collective, while simultaneously bolstering feelings of individual control and potency”. This point could extend to many of forms of metal. Heavy metal and its direct descendants push at the boundaries of credulity, forcing us to accept a universe of larger than life characters and narratives, an unbending belief in our calling. Thrash pushes at the boundaries of energy, speed, and aggression. Stoner doom – at its best – at the boundaries of solidity, technical and progressive metal at the limits of informational density.

There’s a reason metal discourse pivots so heavily on individual listener biographies and the various gateway albums we encounter along the way, from more commercial variants of the genre to ever increasing extremes. It takes time and maturation to feel comfortable at these border lands with all their warped metrics of credibility, aesthetics, acceptable and unacceptable forms of transgression. Few have so explicitly existed in this region so comfortably and for such a sustained career as Beherit. But to a greater or lesser degree all great works of metal have in part succeeded by trying their luck, by pushing just a little further at the boundary, beyond which exists the formless viscosity of post art.

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