Hagen, Ross-A Blaze In The Northern Sky (Book Review)

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Reviewed: February, 2021
Released: 2021, Bloomsbury Publishing
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JP

The 33 1/3 book series of in-depth record reviews has had an arm’s length relationship with Hard Rock and Heavy Metal.   For our narrow-minded Metal purposes, of the 153 titles published to date, only five titles  (Black Sabbath, Slayer, Guns n’ Roses, AC/DC and Metallica) are worth reading.

The American book series is enormously popular and successful and in 2017,  a 33 1/3  (Japan) series and a 33 1/3 (Brazil) series were spun-off.  In late 2020,  33 1/3 (Europe) series has joined the fray.  If you are not familiar the series are basically reference pocketbooks.  Thy are small, short essays, maybe 100 to 150 pages each, about a specific album, written by a knowledgeable fan.

The very first book in the Europe series is about Darkthrone’s, A BLAZE IN THE NORTHERN SKY.  This is a good start. Maybe the people the European division will be more Metal friendly!  This also has the distinction of being the first truly extreme album covered in the series, although some might argue Slayer to be the first.  However, for a lot of Death and Black Metal fans, REIGN IN BLOOD is ‘easy-listening’ or a ‘golden-oldie’ so it depends on your perspective!

The man brave enough to tackle this book is Ross Hagen, an American scholar and author, well known in academics circles. I’ve had the pleasure of reading and reviewing his work for Metal-Rules.com.   Hagen after, a very brief intro about Darkthrone, spends a few moments acknowledging the perhaps futility of the academic study of Black Metal, a genre that really doesn’t want to be studied. He explains his background as a longtime fan and admits that he felt anxiety that he, as an American raised in US mid-west in the 90’s, has little inherent knowledge or connection to Norway.  However, he gets my vote of confidence to dissect A BLAZE IN THE NORTHERN SKY. My experience is that he is a reasoned and seasoned fan, and co-author/editor of Medievalism And Metal Music Studies: Throwing Down The Gauntlet.

What follows next is a lengthy political section talking about the various ideological stances of some members of the bands and Black Metal scene.  Hagen maintains political neutrality neither condoning nor condemning these ideas and actions but explaining they exist.  On page 15 he summarizes it thusly;  “Even though it may be impossible to escape from the shadow of black metal’s flirtations with violence and neofascism, and those aspects shouldn’t be discounted or ignored, my hope is to highlight aspects of the music and its legacy that have often been overshadowed by the crimes in its past and by some black metallers’ affinity for political extremism and provocation.”   I’m glad he took this approach because it is so easy to get bogged down in political correctness to the detriment of the material.

However, despite stating he is going to “…highlight aspects of music ..” and proceeds to talk at length for almost 30 more pages about the history of Black Metal.  It was fascinating, albeit it a bit of a re-tread for experienced Black Metal fans but was it necessary?  Back in the introduction Hagen states that,  “Writers on art and culture often tend to assume that they are writing about and for people who are very much like themselves.” (p. 7).  It seems he took a pretty inclusive approach, assuming that the reader doesn’t know anything about Black Metal. A fair enough assumption but my question is, who else is going to buy a book about A BLAZE IN THE NORTHERN SKY?  Maybe the few oddly morbidly curious non-Metal people, but my estimate is that 99% of the buyers/readers are going to be Black Metal fans. Accordingly, it seemed like the book quite quickly wandered off topic at best or at worst totally derailed.

Hagen gets back on track on page 49 but then quickly wanders off again into the snowy wilderness, neglecting to really talk about the album until about page 60!    We are now half-way through the book and we have barely discussed the Darkthrone album. Hagen makes some very interesting points, like an analysis of a song by Satyricon called ‘Mother North’ where he draws keen lyrical parallels to the Australian band, Midnight Oil, but again, he is way off topic.

One area where the book excels is Hagen’s musical analysis. For about 20 pages he dissects the songs and explains how they work, in terms of composition.  My loss is that I have no musical training or understanding so all the technical terminology of music theory, talk about chords, arpeggio’s, chromatic figures and tri-tones went over my head and made that section a bit dry.  Musicians will delight in it, charts and all.

Does the world need another review/overview of A BLAZE IN THE NORTHERN SKY?  Maybe. On the on-line retailer, Amazon alone (.com, .ca, and .uk) there are (as of time of writing) over 750 ratings and reviews of this album.  Add in any number of Metal websites and I’m sure this album has been reviewed over 1000 times.  Maybe that it is why it was important that Hagen have an in-depth look at this iconic record to discover why it is that so many people have an opinion about it. There is a bit of a grumbling in the underground community about how many people are trying to shine the bright light of academia on Black Metal, but I’d rather have this fascinating book in my library. If the worst criticism I can level is that he doesn’t stay focused on the actual album, then his work is a complete success.

As a Black Metal 101 book, A BLAZE IN THE NORTHERN SKY is as good or better than any I have read on the topic and I have read a lot of them.   If you were looking for a deep dive into the actual making of recording of the album, the studio, the instruments used, first hand interviews with the creators of how the sessions went, well, that information is still lost in the frigid, forests mountains of Norway and lost in the swirling mists of time.   Hagen mentioned that virtually every review/conversation is laden with clichés about nordic and winter themes of mist, frost and cold etc, so I figured I’d keep the tradition alive.  Brrrr.