Do Androids Dream of Black Metal?: Dissecting the Moonfog Trilogy

Before Satyricon was playing at fashion shows and striving to create the perfect arena rock album for androids, main man Satyr Wongraven ran a label called Moonfog Productions.  Between 1999 and 2001, this label unleashed three black metal albums that did a great deal towards paving the road for the trajectory of the genre over the course of the next ten years (and beyond).  I refer to these albums as “The Moonfog Trilogy”.  For those unfamiliar, these three albums are:

Satyricon – Rebel Extravaganza (1999)
Dodheimsgard – 666 International (1999)
Thorns – Thorns (2001)

I’m not sure if it was by coincidence or by design that Moonfog featured the trifecta of Norway’s (then)cutting-edge black metal bands.  Satyricon being on the label was obviously a given, but the fact that Satyr wisely aligned his own project with Thorns and Dodheimsgard (DHG) made the label appear as a united front of sleek, futuristic black metal bands.  Of course, we mustn’t forget that Darkthrone was also on Moonfog at the time, sticking out like a sore thumb.  I’ve always theorized that the inexplicably panned Plaguewielder was Darkthrone’s twisted attempt at the “Moonfog sound”, but that’s a whole other post unto itself.

Back on topic. United under the banner of Moonfog, these three albums shared a sonic and visual aesthetic that completely fucked up and in some aspects outright rejected the established tenets of black metal as it was known at the time. There were no crude black and white corpsepaint-in-the-forest photos or Old English fonts to be found on these releases. The artwork was colorful, modern and clearly crafted by someone who knew a thing or two about graphic design.  Black metal’s pagan terrorism tactics were eschewed by Moonfog in favor of visuals that evoked urban blight and the grim underbelly of our not-too-distant future.  Satyr and Frost’s makeup on the cover of Rebel Extravaganza makes them look less like grave-robbing ghouls and more like some sort of STD-infested heroin-zombies lurking in the darkest gutters of major urban centers. 666 International‘s cover appears to be the aftermath of an attack by the aforementioned heroin-zombies, with its shadows and stainless steel and what appears to be a whole lot of blood being washed down the drain. To this day, I’m still not sure what exactly is going on with Thorns‘ album cover. To me it alternately looks like a giant alien entity raping the sun and an insect giving birth.

Thorns, 666 International and Rebel Extravaganza were just as forward-thinking musically as they were visually.  Each album is unique, but they also share certain sonic characteristics.  The production schemes are cold and clinical.  The guitars are all treble, cutting through the mixes like surgical saws.  On the surface, they’re nearly devoid of anything resembling emotion, but as the listener peels away the layers cyber-grime, the humanity trapped within begins to reveal itself, screaming to be freed from the twisted mass of mechanized torture.

666 International was the first of the three albums to be released (June 11th, 1999 according to Metal Archives) and marked a major stylistic shift for DHG.  The traditional black metal of previous albums such as Monumental Possession completely disappeared in favor of a heavily industrialized take on the genre that hasn’t been equalled before or since.  I often claim to not be a fan of industrial/black metal hybrids, and that is because 99.9% of the bands that have attempted to cross-pollinate the two styles have failed miserably.  DHG on the other hand, mastered industrial black metal the first time out.  666 International is cold and mechanical yet grimy and frightening at the same time.  The guitars are white noise and static, harnessed into form by bloody mechanical hands. Programmed-sounding beats dominate the musical landscape, sickeningly precise and repetitive.  It is the soundtrack to mankind being rounded up and enslaved by an army of rogue machines.  And yet there are distinctly human elements clawing their way up from the depths of the stainless steel sonic hell the album creates.  Aldrahn’s extremely versatile vocals, and the occasional piano melodies that creep up remind you that 666 International is the work of people and not replicants.  This is the sound of black metal’s willful primitivism being engulfed and subjugated by the technological age.

Satyricon’s Rebel Extravaganza might be an even more terrifying listen.  In some spots the album is unbelievably caustic, in others it almost fully embraces the conventions of rock ‘n’ roll at its most pure.  Amidst the the filth-grinding yet sterile atmosphere, the band trots out riffs and grooves that are unmistakably headbang-able, but they are surrounded on all sides by hard angles and cold, unforgiving atmospheres.  This album is probably the most traditionally black metal-sounding of the three, but this is BM at it’s most gritty, urban and ultramodern, like if Satyr and Frost had scored the soundtrack to Blade Runner instead of Vangelis.

Rebel Extravaganza is also the most emotional of the three albums, but the only emotions on display are anger and hatred.  This is an album forged of pure nihilism, of taking pleasure in the loss of humanity and giving oneself over to the technological/urban nightmare foretold by 666 International.

“This would be the way of the misanthrope
in order to create you must destroy
We would greet the nuclear morning mist
We would smile at all life dying”
-from “Prime Evil Renaissance”

The end of the world will not be some hellfire ‘n’ brimstone biblical apocalypse, it will be collapsing skyscrapers wrapped in a tangle of wires and circuitry, humanity choked by a cloud of radioactive vapor, our bodies converted into fossil fuels.  Rebel Extravaganza is a celebration of that moment.

If Rebel Extravaganza and 666 International represent black metal’s (and by extension humanity’s) struggle against the onset of technology and urban sprawl, then Thorns represents the machine army’s victory march over the charred, broken bones of the human resistance as black smoke pours out giant factories, blotting out the sun for all eternity.  This is an album of precision and discipline, as engineered by Thorns mastermind Snorre Ruch, who himself might be a visitor from the horrific future, so advanced and bizarre is his approach to guitar playing and composition.  Although I’m not aware of any interviews that focus extensively on his six-string technique, I’d imagine it would be a fascinating interrogation.  His use of dissonance and choice of notes that fit together in a manner that can best be described as uncomfortable, or maybe unsettling, has never been fully replicated, at least not to these ears.  Even the most traditional of metallic moments sound utterly extraterrestrial in Ruch’s hands.

Thorns is Thorns the band’s first and so far only album.  Ruch released several highly influential demos in the early ’90s before being sentenced to 8 years in prison as an accomplice to Varg Vikernes in the murder of Oystein Aarseth, but nothing (not even the Thorns vs Emperor split) could have prepared the scene for the highly advanced take on black metal that is Thorns.  The recording delivered (and still does deliver) on everything Satyricon, DHG and ultimately black metal as a genre had promised up to that point (albeit via very non-traditional means), total inhumanity, total domination, total damnation, total death.  The sound is so unnatural/synthetic/alien that it’s hard to fathom any flesh and blood whatsoever being involved in its creation.

Amidst Thorns‘ mechanized onslaught there is a peculiar eeriness to the proceedings, due in large part to the dark electronic influences that inform portions of the recording.  There is something undeniably unnerving about the clanking industrial noises of “Shifting Channels”, the squealing synths that bubble under the surface of “Existence” and the moments of pitch black ambience that continually creep up.  By adding these elements into the mix, Thorns amplifies and transforms black metal’s reliance on conjuring an atmosphere of sickening malevolence.

The most telling evidence that Thorns is indeed the culmination of this trio of Moonfog releases is the presence of both DHG’s Aldrahn and Satyricon’s Satyr Wongraven handling the vocals.  As the narrators of the first two chapters, it is only fitting that they be present for the climax, and Thorns finds both men’s voices positively dripping with acidic venom.  Their contributions give the three albums another level of continuity, creating a sinister narrative that spans across them.  It is the most immediately recognizable tie that binds them all together.

Thorns, Satyricon and DHG weren’t the only Norwegian black metal bands experimenting with electronic/industrial atmospheres or trying to push the genre forward (see also: Mayhem’s largely misunderstood Grand Declaration of War), but these three albums are inextricably linked on so many levels that it is hard to ignore their collective impact.  For me personally, listening to Thorns and Rebel Extravaganza (I didn’t discover DHG until much later) made me realize that black metal didn’t have to be recorded in the middle of the forest on a malfunctioning 4-track machine.  These albums threw the true kvlt rulebook out the fucking window and then shot it to pieces with an AK-47 and lit the remains on fire.  Although Thorns would fall off the radar and both Satyricon and DHG would never again reach the levels of sheer brilliance they’d attained, all three bands can rest assured that their place amongst the pantheon of black metal’s greatest innovators will forever remain secure thanks to these albums.

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Postscript:

Don’t bother going to the Moonfog records website, as it hasn’t been updated since May of 2007.  However, if you do venture over there, you can see pictures of a sold out Thorns t-shirt that I would kill for under the mailorder section.

Last I heard, Snorre Ruch was creating ambient soundscapes for art installations as Thorns LTD.  However, the band’s page on Shirts & Destroy claims that he is working on a new Thorns album w/ a re-tooled lineup.  Here’s to hoping.

I’ve made much ado lately about what is and isn’t black metal.  Going back and listening to Thorns, Rebel Extravaganza and 666 International in nearly constant rotation has reminded me of what black metal is really all about.  Black metal is ultimately all about freedom.  The only rule is that there are no rules.

And yes, I still think Liturgy sucks.

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7 thoughts on “Do Androids Dream of Black Metal?: Dissecting the Moonfog Trilogy

  1. Great article! I always felt those 3 albums were more or less linked together and reading your take on it only add to my perception of it. It would be good to have an interview with all 3 bands on this topic.

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  2. Brilliant article, Josh, and fucking brilliant albums. ‘666 International’ is one of my favorite black metal albums ever, with ‘Thorns’ not too far behind. I’ve definitely always linked these records by that Moonfog sound (or maybe it’s just more of a general aesthetic – I’m undecided) in my mind, too, although the more straight-ahead black n’ roll of Khold and DIsiplin (also on Moonfog around that time) always seemed like the bands had taken Satyricon’s ‘Rebel Extravaganza’ and stripped off all the really fascinating caustic edges.

    Void’s ‘Posthuman’ came out in 2003, and I’ve always seen it as a spiritual successor to this triad. I know you and I have talked about this industrial/black synthesis at length elsewhere, but anyone who enjoys these three records should do themselves a favor and look into ‘Posthuman.’

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  3. Very nice! I think “futurism” in metal peaked in the ’90s with industrial-influenced metal. In recent years, metal, with the very large exception of kids’ stuff (djent, etc.) has almost completely been about hindsight, thanks to Fenriz et al.

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