Tuesday, August 16, 2016

To Hell and Back: A Trip to the World's Most Diabolical Record Store -by Danny Nichols

The Gates of Hell- Neseblod Record Store
There may not be a location in the world which is as singularly important to a genre of music as Helvete Records in Oslo, Norway was to black metal.  Maybe not so much to the sound itself, but definitely to the establishment of the cult following it achieved in the early 90s, and which persists until this day.  Black metal is the most extreme form of music, with guitar riffs so fast they morph into an ambient noise, blast beats on drums so intense they sound like a Gatling gun and vocals comprised of demonic grows, screams and yelps.  The black metal aesthetic, at least in the early days, included musicians in corpse paint, stages decorated with  pentagrams and an overt fascination with the occult.
Heavy Metal Everywhere 
If you are reading this, you probably already know what black metal is and how it became an musical phenomena based out of Norway in the early 90s.  Although black metal did not originate in Norway, its creed, sound and direction were largely codified there, with much credit due to a man named Euronymous and his band Mayhem.  The movement garnered worldwide attention when members of Mayhem and their followers began the nefarious practice of burning down churches throughout Norway.  Partially to create a headquarters for the proliferation of this cult,  Euronymous opened a record store on Schweigaards Gate in east Oslo.  He named this store “Helvete”, the Norwegian word for “Hell”.

At various times members of Mayhem lived in the store or the cellar beneath.  Black metal fans and bands hung out, traded music, arranged gigs and plotted various acts of debauchery from within its walls.  It soon became recognized as the undisputed headquarters for the worldwide movement.  It became a pilgrimage for “blackpackers”, as black metal tourists were called.
CDs, cassettes, and so much more
Alas, this original iteration of Mayhem self destructed quickly.  The vocalist, named Dead, killed himself.  (Euronymous may or may not have eaten his brains).  Helvete, which was attracting increased police scrutiny, was closed.  Then, most significantly, band bassist Varg Vikernes killed Euronymous (which may or may not have been in self defense).  If you are not familiar with the many tales of Mayhem, read their Wikipedia entry.  It might be the most interesting story you read on the internet this year.

Rebecca of Neseblod rings up some metalhead purchases
Within a short time most of the criminal element of the Norwegian black metal scene was imprisoned and the gates to Helvete seemed to be permanently closed.    After spending many unglorious years as part of a coffee shop, it was finally restored to its rightful purpose as a record store in 2013, now under the name of "Neseblod", which is Norwegian for "Nosebleed".  The entrance of Neseblod has moved one door down from the original Helvete entrance, however most of the main floor and the entire basement area of Neseblod remains the same as Helvete. The shop has been restored to contain a massive collection of heavy metal music, complete with décor and original artifacts from the Mayhem days.  A visit to “Hell” is once again a required component of any trip to Oslo. 

Get your black T-shirts here !
I am not interested in the concept of Satan myself.  I admit if some overlord of evil incarnate were to appear before me my first thought would be to ask him to join my band, but I would like to think I would resist this temptation and instead kick him in the knee.   But I sure do dig his record store and the terrific music contained therein. 
A basement full of metal
I had started my Scandinavian adventure a week prior in Denmark, where I was disappointed not to hear their favorite son King Diamond’s music being played. I had assumed giant loudspeakers would have been affixed to the top of Copenhagen City Hall blaring his collected works around the clock.  This Danish oversite was remedied in Oslo.  As I stepped into Neseblod (Helvete) records,  the store's music system was playing the music of King Diamond's first band, Mercyful Fate.  Before me were racks and piles of black T-shirts, diabolical images and more metal records, CDs and cassetes than I had seen in any one place in my life.  (I should mention the fabulous Ear Wax Records in Madison, Wisconsin coming in second place.)   I perused the items in both of the main floor rooms for a few minutes while a couple of other customers checked out.  Merchandise of the rarest and most wonderful was stacked floor to ceiling, interspersed with artifacts from the shop’s Helvete days.  (The coffee shop days were fortunately ignored).
Entering the dungeon
I then introduced myself to Rebecca, the knowledgable and friendly shopkeep, who seemed amused at my enthusiasm over being there and pointed me in the direction of the basement.  In the basement were two more rooms equally full of heavy metal glory.  All other genre's of music were represented here also. Beyond the main basement rooms is the back cellar section of the record store.  The inner sanctum of the of the most notoriously vile band to have ever graced the planet.  Here in this dungeon were art work and concert posters from Mayhem and other early black metal bands. There was the back drop from Mayhem concerts.  In another corner sat a coffin of some sort. 
The Mayhem cellar
In the far back room was a throne sitting beneath a Bathory banner and a pentagram toped candelabra.  To the left, on a pile of bricks, (which may have been intended as an altar), was a black book where visitors could sign their name and apparently pledge their allegiance to Satan.  I stopped short of hailing any demons, but I did wish heavy metal a long and prosperous life.  One can only imagine what sort of shenanigans Euronymous and his cohorts got up to in this basement. 

Throwing horns in Helvete's inner sanctum
Upon my return to the main floor, Rebecca directed me to the Burzum albums.  Burzum is Varg Vikernes’ solo band.  Given Varg had killed the store’s original owner and had burned several churches throughout the country I asked whether he was still considered a villain throughout Norway.  She told me where she comes from he is not well liked, but his albums still sell well. I immediately apologized for my interest in Burzum, explaining it was the music I liked rather than the villainy of its performer. 
Metal vinyl galore
Generally speaking, black metalers seem to have a sense of humour about the madness, as evidenced by a t-shirt in the shop listing the churches burned as though they were tour dates.  Maybe it is worth noting they always waited until the churches were unoccupied to burn them. Or maybe not.  They were also selling wax candle models of Fantoft Stave Church, one of Varg’s victims.  Although it is possible black metal music would have faded into obscurity if not for the headline grabbing antics of its early practitioners, upon later visiting the rebuilt Fantoft Stave Church I consider it sad the original had not been left standing.    I  explained to Rebecca I myself was not anti-religion, but rather strictly a supporter of all things hard rock and heavy metal, and this certainly included the extreme iterations of the craft.  I opted not to tell her I had actually toured the Oslo Cathedral earlier in the day and preferred churches unburnt, for fear of losing my street cred within the shop. (Although wearing cargo shorts to a metal store had probably already seen to that.  But hey, when walking European capitals all day you are gonna need some pockets.)
A record store that is also a museum
Rebecca told me many of their customers do take the anti-religion aspect of the music very serioiusly, but did not seem to mind I did not.  Fortunately it seems modern black metal has managed to keep the quality of the product high as well as relegating the villainy to the stage.
The entryway
She said business at the store is good, but guessed the steady stream of blackpackers accounted for more of the business than Oslo residents.  In addition to the Burzum album, I bought what seems to me to be a rare vinyl edition of a Mayhem rehearsal session with original vocalist Dead.  I am going to keep the price tag on it, because the only thing cooler than vinyl purchased from Neseblod/Helvete, is paying for it in Norwegian kroner.  I also bought a cassette demo for a band called Inferius Torment.  I had never heard of them, but knowing the significance of cassette demo trading in the heyday of black metal, it seemed like the thing to do.
Collectors items you will find nowhere else
I also picked up a couple of T-shirts, one of which I am wearing in the photo.  I changed into it even before buying it, as it seemed more appropriate dungeon wear than the CBGB shirt I had entered in.  I now have more black band T-shirts than there are days in a decade.  I completed my purchase with a Mayhem denim patch to put on a denim jacket I do not own.  Rebecca threw in a free Neseblod patch, presumably because I had just spent seven billion kroner.
Racks of T-shirts line the stairwell
I brought up Dayal Patterson's book "Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult", which I consider to not only be the definitive work on the subject, but also one of the best written music books I have read.  Surprisingly, she had not read it, and asked me to write the name of the book and its author into her notepad so she could.
More metal glory
I asked if there were going to be any metal shows in Oslo during my stay.  A quick search revealed there were none.  Unfortunately, July and August is summer festival season in Europe, so few bands book gigs in Scandinavia at this time.  I was able to see a great Airbourne show in Bergen three days later though.
The basement, where other genre's live

I could have spent far more than just the one hour I did in the store.  However, my patient wife, who has no taste for extreme metal and thinks it reflects poorly on me I do, was waiting for me in the park across the street.  After a quick stop by the nearby site of Euronymous' former apartment and eventual death, it was off to see the Valerenga football match at Ullevaal Stadium.  I had been to hell and back and was only a pocket full of kroner worse for the wear.
56 Schweigaards Gate.  Neseblod Records is in the middle.  The original entrance to Helvete is on the left, which is now a restaurant called Vart Daglige Brod, which ironically translates to "Our Daily Bread"
Outside Euronymous' apartment

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