What I Learned Visiting Helvete - The Store At The Heart Of Black Metal
Visiting Helvete was a veritable rite of passage for a seventeen-year-old Matt Bacon, and an experience that still resonates with me today. I remember going into the Oslo tourism office and having a friendly French black metal fan start talking to me about Helvete and all the best bars for black metal fans, including the one where Fenriz most often shows up. Recently, a Norwegian friend told me that fanatics like me are often referred to as 'blackpackers' in their community. In a way this makes sense, hell, even when I visited Holmkollen, a church famously burned down by Varg Vikernes, I couldn't help but find a couple of other black metal nerds who were trying to do the same thing.
Helvete though is an experience in and of itself. You walk in, and the first room features a wall that functions as a veritable heavy metal history museum. They have a copy of Kill 'Em All signed by Metallica's classic lineup, props from Burzum photo shoots and a sheet dotted with some of Euronymous's blood. The shopkeeper remarked "All we are really missing is Dead's body to hang up with all the other stuff." The store extended beyond that, with the legendary "Black Metal" logo painted in the basement, and thousands of records featuring everything from Lagwagon to Master. It was a teenage metal dorks dream come true.
Of course – none of this gets at what I really learned from hanging out in those unsacred halls. The fact of the matter is that my few hours there reshaped a lot of how I view black metal. By visiting the beating heart of the genre I found that not only is there actually is a future for this thing, but there are also a lot of people who just want to turn back the clock. While on the one hand you might meet someone praising Agalloch or Wolves In The Throne Room there was also the guy I met who told me "I would kill Varg Vikernes if he walked through that door right now" It certainly left an impressionable teenage boy with a lot of confused and mixed emotions.
What I think that Helvete teaches us is that there is still a very real fanaticism behind this music, even if we probably won't be burning down any churches in its name in the near future. Instead the fanaticism has started to manifest itself very differently. The collectors culture that we see around black metal seems to be Helvete's focus, made all the more obvious by how they are perhaps the sole brick and mortar establishment that distributes a lot of super kvlt bands that will never perform live. Helvete made me understand that not only is this a crucial part of the black metal landscape these days, but also that that may very well be the direction the genre is taking, especially in regards to the more 'high art' take on the music that we see so often in this day and age.
Beyond that, my time in Helvete showed me that even in Norway, a place where we Americans so often say that metal is 'huge' the music is still a very fringe thing. In fact, it may be even more edgy to like black metal in Norway simply because the crimes we associate with the genre still resonate in the national consciousness. Tourist pamphlets mention the church burnings and the guide on our boat through the fjords even brought it up. It served as a strangely encouraging reminder that even in places that seem destined to let the scene grow there will always be oppression and distaste from the mainstream. It showed me that what we have going on here in the States, while maybe not ideal, is certainly better than nothing and is helping to build towards a better tomorrow.
Despite how alienating I make the environment sound it was actually quite the opposite. As a matter of fact, I befriended a guy I would end up running a record label with, and even received a very friendly and helpful email from the store owner. This too I think reflected the black metal scene in a nutshell. Despite the rather thorny exterior even a place as grim as Helvete evidenced that black metals 'Us against the world' mentality is ultimately going to keep us all together. I'm not trying to suck the genres dick as much as point out that despite how bleak it might sound it seems to me at least that despite all appearances black metal needs tightly knit circles in order to continue – otherwise how would we be able to break through and continue share the music we love with its tiny audience?
The fact of the matter is that for me at least, Helvete represented everything black metal was in a nutshell. It showed the nihilistic suffering of the genre as well as the hope it embodies. It functions as living proof that this whole thing is a lot bigger than I think that many of realize, but it also showed me that this is a genre under siege. We have an obligation to help carry on a decades old tradition that has provided absolution for so many, and it is only through hard work and dedication to the music that we can help this weird thing to grow beyond its humble and violent roots and into the art form that we all know that it can be.