There’s no shortage of discourse regarding black metal. All too often, they come from two opposing viewpoints. The first of which comes from the pearl-clutching of those who are angered at the slightest aspect of transgression. Naturally, this is understandable in a world where sensibilities are quite different. That said, the outrage comes across as puritanical. The same type of argument made by Andrea Dworkin against the sexually explicit nature of pornography. Rather than simply admitting that something isn’t for them, it turns into taking the entire genre to task. At the other end, there comes the posturing from edge lords who think of themselves as dangerous because of the art they gravitate towards. More often than not, this posturing consists of someone attempting to conform to how they think they need to behave rather than develop any individuality. The person who thinks their interests make them interesting is often disingenuous regarding any creative efforts. To paraphrase Lydia Lunch, they fail to make art, only commerce.
The discourse I present here is what I’ve always strived to do as a writer. Offer an analytical and objective look upon art, which is not only in the eye of the beholder but completely subjective. As you’ve deduced from the title, I plan on looking at Judas Iscariot but focusing less on the music and more on the philosophical nature behind the group, and its creator, Akhenaten. Moving forward, we will journey into a world of cursed monarchies, monotheism, and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. Come with me, friendly reader, as we enter the antechamber of the inferno and gaze into the abyss together. And perhaps, we might be fortunate if the abyss gazes back at us.
From the Underground to Popular Culture
There’s no denying that black metal has been appropriated by the lumbering gelatinous monstrosity that is commonly known as popular culture. In the age of the internet, very little is held behind the veil. The high priestess of the tarot deck, the keeper of the knowledge found in the temples of Solomon, has revealed her secrets, and accessibility is granted to anyone. The debate as to whether or not this is a good thing or that this esoteric knowledge should be reserved for a select few is one I’ll leave for another time. The fact of the matter is that black metal arrived precisely when it needed to, and its audience had been groomed from the start. Parasite, a publication written by Peter Sotos, ironically from the same region Judas Iscariot would originate from (Illinois), managed to sum up the genre almost too perfectly in 1994. Describing the now common knowledge of Euronymous being murdered by Varg Vikernes, Sotos made the case that the previous decade of satanic panic and ritual abuse rumors had led many to believe in this reality and that black metal was “providing us with some real entertainment.” The child murders from around the same time in West Memphis, Arkansas, seemed to justify this paranoia.
Black metal was, and for the most part, still is, a reactionary statement to cultural standards and the morals placed upon many in society. In a sense, it delivered the same message that punk had done years earlier. Certainly not for everyone, just as issues of Answer Me! were certainly not favorable to everyone’s taste.
Judas Iscariot and an Era Unforgotten
Regarding Judas Iscariot, named for the disciple that betrayed Christ, there exists an aura of mystique that continues to permeate. Arriving at a time that necessitated its existence, ending on the anniversary of the death of Nietzsche, and its creator residing in anonymity ever since. No attempt at cashing in on a legacy, no revival to cater to the nostalgia of devotees, both old and new, simply a legacy of recorded material that still invokes admiration and reverence from those who exalt the work. It’s as if someone struck up a Faustian pact with the devil for a short existence, but one that’s guaranteed immortality. All of these years later, I still attest to Heaven in Flames being the greatest black metal release of all time.
I don’t believe in taking art at face value, and as such, I’ll begin with the namesake of its creator, Akhenaten. The similarities between both the artist and Egyptian Pharoh are remarkably striking and impossible to look past. So, allow me to turn back the pages of history for an explanation of this very unique monarch.
My personal fascination with Akenhaten doesn’t begin with Judas Iscariot but with a genuine interest in Ancient Egypt itself. The pharaoh’s name was first brought to my attention through the television series In Search Of. This series, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, was a treasure trove of mysteries, conspiracies, and the supernatural. In one episode, in which the alleged curse of King Tutankhamun was examined, mention of the Pharoh’s father-in-law named Akhenaten was discussed. While his reign of only seventeen years might have been short, it was extraordinary, to say the least. Under his reign, monotheism (the belief in one god, Aten) replaced the old religion of polytheism. The high priests, who had once wielded immense power, were defrocked. Following his death, polytheism was restored, and his mummy, memory, and mentions of his name were defaced and cursed. It should be noted that for the Ancient Egyptians, immortality was everything. By defacing him, the priests of the old religion exacted a cruel retribution, one in which he was sentenced to an eternity to wander aimlessly.
The saga of the Pharaoh doesn’t end there, and In Search Of depicted a recreation of the “curse” as a very real threat. A play written by American artist Joseph Lindon Smith featured two actresses calling upon the name of Akhenaten, a name which was said to be vile and cursed. That night, both women had violent nightmares in which they were attacked. The next morning, both were in the hospital, suffering from serious injuries. Perhaps this is mere folklore, another wild tale sensationalized by the press who were all too keen to play up the curse following the deaths of individuals who had visited Tutankhamun’s tomb following its excavation. Still, it’s a fascinating tale.
Monotheism, the belief in one god, certainly flows with the structure of Judas Iscariot, as it was a solo project. By assuming this god form, Akhenaten had tied himself to the Pharaoh, for which he named himself. And much like the reign of the Egyptian monarch, it was a limited time in which he existed, but the legacy has achieved its own eternal life. In a sense, this ties into the next topic, which I shall focus upon. Eternal recurrence and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Philosophizing with the Hammer
The influence that Nietzsche has on black metal is something that’s been well documented. Anyone familiar with the Gorgoroth albums Antichrist, Destroyer: Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, and Twilight of the Idols can certainly see the inspiration. However, Mayhem produced the single greatest Nietzchien art form with their album Grand Declaration of War. The name itself, which comes from the book Twilight of the Idols, explores the theory of eternal recurrence at length, depicting a world in which warfare is persistent and never-ending. Looking back now, the album is one of the greatest things Mayhem ever accomplished in terms of complexity, artistry, and philosophy. Still a polarizing release to this day, it’s one that deserves far more praise than it received when it was first released.
If there’s something that can be remarked about philosophy, it is that it’s open to a considerable amount of interpretations. If you present the writings of any philosopher to six different individuals, you’ll most likely get six different interpretations. In Nietzsche’s writing, he divorces man from the constricted tentacles of Christianity. His concept of the superman has often been misread by those looking for their justifications for racial supremacy. Far from it, the superman is one who’s separated from the generations of psychological conditioning and the puritanical virtues espoused by the church. For Nietzsche, religion was nothing more than something to deny any and all logical explanations. The albums of Judas Iscariot fully embrace this ideology. As Akenhaten reverberated this when he remarked that the purpose of black metal was to “destroy Christianity and its subhuman followers.” Subhuman meaning subservient and not equal to the superman.
In a sense, the concept of “gazing upon heaven in flames” has less to do with the physical destruction and eradication of god’s kingdom but with the demolition of the psychological conditioning brought upon by religion. Divorcing ourselves from the convenient truths and falsehoods is echoed throughout the album. The eternal kingdom of fire that Akhenaten presents is not a literal one but a metaphorical aspect of the civilization that’s long outlived its usefulness. And while Nietzsche’s writing provided a philosophical aspect that would heavily influence Judas Iscariot, much of black metal owes its outlook to the writings of the Marquis de Sade.
The Monk, The Marquis de Sade, and the Rejection of Christian Morality
If there’s one novel that miraculously binds most art together, it’s The Monk by Matthew Lewis. In the novel, Ambrosio, a Franciscan monk blinded by piety and hubris, becomes tempted by a vessel of Satan. The pious beacon of virtue and morality is corrupted and descends to the deepest levels of depravity to procure the source of his lust. Unsurprisingly, the novel was praised highly by the Marquis de Sade, himself a person who described his beliefs as “atheist beyond fanaticism.” The writings of de Sade are sometimes dismissed as nothing more than pornography and sadistic exploits. Which I find interesting because these accusations usually come from people who have never read a page in their life. It’s almost similar to the person who makes assumptions about metal being transgression with no artistic depth. These arguments come from the willfully ignorant and those who have a predetermined mindset to dislike it.
The aspects of Christianity and atheism are firmly illustrated by de Sade in his characters, Justine and Juliette. Justine, the pious girl who believes in god and holds virtue sacred, is taken through a series of misadventures where she’s continually abused, tortured, and humiliated. The corruption of this character is vividly illustrated by Carpathian Forest on their album, Black Shining Leather. The sexual sadism in the book is itself a corruption of the Christian faith, with the sacred virgin being inverted into the whore of Babylon, repeatedly stoned and accused by those around her. Juliette, her sister, on the other hand, is scorned once and learns from the experience. Rejecting the beliefs she was brought up with, she embarks on a life of crime and depravity, placing her own self-interest above all others. She’s the libertine who divorces herself from the constrictions of Christianity and is continually rewarded in de Sade’s text. The role that these two characters continue to play in the arts is still recurring today. In simplest terms, it’s a matter of master of your destiny or servitude to virtue. It’s the one who is tormented and the one who holds the whip. In 120 Days of Sodom, a book that de Sade himself described as the “most impure tale ever written,” the hypocrisy of the faith is depicted in the form of a Bishop, who, along with a duke, judge, and magistrate, engage in acts of unrestrained depravity with several children in a chateau known as Silling. The libertine is an essential element in de Sade’s writing. And, black metal is itself a very Sadean art form that certainly follows the rules from the school of libertinage. Judas Iscariot embraces this tradition and follows the path of both the libertine and Juliette.
An Eternal Recurrence
I hope I’ve accomplished my task of depicting the philosophical attributes found in the music of Judas Iscariot. Perhaps, there’s something else that I’ve overlooked. On e of his later releases, Dethroned, Conquered, and Forgotten can be applied to Akhenaten, the pharaoh. Perhaps, both the musician and monarch have accomplished the same task. For the detractors of black metal and the priests of Egypt who would have liked to see them both gone and forgotten, they have both achieved immortality and lived to triumph over their foes.