Dear friends, the third installment of our coverage regarding the upcoming Czech edition of the third volume of the Black Metal saga by Dayal Patterson "Cult Never Dies". Last time we, among other things, considered in more detail the contents of the book; today, we are following up on this subject with an excerpt!
In particular, the sample in question comes from chapter 16 from the third part of the book, which showcases the story of the forefathers of depressive black metal, the German act Bethlehem.
As usual, the whole excerpt is presented as it will appear in the Czech translation when printed. The layout and typesetting is by Radek Doleží (the court visual artist of Forgotten Silence). Click on the individual images to zoom.
The English original text is as follows:
Though they consciously side-stepped the black metal tag at an early stage in their career by branding themselves with their own label, ‘dark metal’, on the album of the same name, there is a pretty good argument for declaring German veterans Bethlehem the forefathers of modern DSBM. At the very least, the group were a major catalyst in the development of the genre as a more self-contained form of music, one that discarded many of black metal’s more familiar traits while picking up a few new ones along the way.
Haunting, tortured and melancholic, Bethlehem’s early works drew heavily upon the more despairing end of the black metal spectrum whilst simultaneously offering something that immediately stood out as somewhat unusual - even idiosyncratic - within that context. Where other bands of the time were immersed in ‘external’ grandeurs such as the natural world or Satan, Bethlehem offered a more internal and personal perspective, with biographical explorations of the human condition given just as much emphasis as more abstract philosophical or spiritual concerns. Likewise, their music made little attempt to fit into the then-dominant Scandinavian template, despite it clearly being informed by the music coming out of Norway in the
Formed in 1991, the band’s line-up has had only one consistent element throughout its two decade-plus existence - namely bassist, lyricist, songwriter and keyboard player Jürgen Bartsch, a man who, coincidentally or not, shares his name with one of Germany’s most notorious serial killers. There can be little doubt that Bethlehem’s dark and eccentric works have acted as something of a mirror to the often strange and extreme conditions of the multi-instrumentalist’s personal life and certainly the man himself maintains that this is the true source of inspiration for the group. We speak for several hours and I find him surprising easy to talk to; quintessentially German in many regards, he is friendly and polite yet also straighttalking, his warm tones and matter-of-fact descriptions somewhat underplaying the rather disturbing nature of his experiences, not least his childhood in Grevenbroich, a town in the west of Germany. “Basically this already started in my youth though I did not know that then,” he explains of Bethlehem’s genesis.
“I was born in a part of my hometown which was called ‘slag heap’; this was a place people went to, especially after World War Two, because you could find work at the mine there. My father arrived there together with my mother and they built themselves a hut or cabin made of wood and sheet metal. This was a kind of slum you know, nothing special. Later it got bigger because more and more people went there and it became this typical sort of brick-stone suburbia that nobody wants to live at because all the human scum is living there basically .” “The street I was born in was… yeah, a pretty antisocial kind of place I would say,” he continues. “My father was a drummer in a local rockabilly band and was always drunk and you always had these people hanging around at home, his mates and other people. Nearly daily I was beaten up in my childhood and teenage times or otherwise humiliated - also in a sexual way I must say. Definitely not a nice place to live at. The tradition - well not the tradition, the only opportunity really - was to work in the mine, or become a criminal maybe, there was nothing between that. Most of my classmates never finished school - though it was forbidden by law, most of them began working in the mine at fifteen or sixteen. Actually just a few months ago my best friend [during those years] got in contact with me; he is back from jail, I think him and his brother murdered someone in the past, and this was a bit like a flashback to that place.”
“I did not tell people in the past, even band members, that I came from there. It’s embarrassing coming from those places, this is something no one wants. Germany is a rich country; they all want to be wealthy and have nice houses and jobs and such. If you are coming from such places you are an ‘antisocial’ – who wants that? There’s no future, no opportunity, if you stay there you are doomed, you are lost. You are basically dead, because it will stay the same forever. Lately I read in the newspaper that they want to destroy the whole quarter and build a mall or an industrial-orientated area. Which would be good - to destroy this place forever .”
“Anyway, the fortune – and I really must say that – the fortune was that a friend of mine, he was a criminal, and he broke into houses to fund his drug addiction because he already was addicted to cocaine at fifteen. And when I got to sixteen as a birthday gift I got a bass guitar - he gave it to me because he could not sell it I reckon. It was a Fender Jazz bass and this resulted in me starting to play Motörhead a lot - I think Lemmy was my one and only instrument teacher at that time. Also Tom Angelripper of Sodom actually, those were bands I worshipped at that time, my heroes, and this was the beginning of my musical career I suppose.”
Rather tragically the aforementioned instrument – ultimately the catalyst for all that was to follow in this unique character’s life - would end up being sacrificed in a bizarre and rather sadistic rite of passage that Jürgen was forced to take part in two years later .
“Both this bass and my first amplifier - which was an Orange amplifier, because I wanted to sound like Motörhead – got burnt in a fire when I was eighteen years old, because the tradition in my street was that if you reached eighteen and were still living at your parents’ house you were thrown out and everything you owned was burned in a big fire behind the houses, with all the stupid people from there sitting round drinking beer, having fun. So I was forced to burn my own bass guitar as well as all my records and all my other shit and the next day I was standing there with only a plastic bag and a sandwich I got from my mum.”
“I went to Berlin because I was homeless and I wanted to escape this fucking place,” he continues. “I managed to join a so-called ‘sleaze band’ called Weird Kong. At the end of the 80s bands like Guns N’ Roses and L.A. Guns became pretty big and I found a band that was playing like this, which was good because we had a major deal with Ruff & Roll Recordings, a label which specialised in this kind of music and they released our album [in 1990]. The album sounded a bit like the Rolling Stones,
The Quireboys, L.A. Guns - this sort of music. We even did a tour with Skid Row, but I was fired afterwards because I pretty quickly became addicted to cocaine and alcohol and ended up in too many fights. I think this is because I was coming from a violent background - it sounds funny but I missed it, I needed violence. So I was no longer tolerable for my bandmates.”
Jürgen’s time in the city of Berlin was apparently a troubled one, coloured by heavy drug use and the deaths of a number of friends he met there, a reflection of his lifestyle and choice of company during the period. Losing his position (and, importantly, a monthly wage) as bass player for Weird Kong certainly gave Jürgen a good excuse to escape both the city and the increasingly destructive scene that existed there and he soon began drifting through Germany until he eventually ended up not too far from the town he’d escaped just a year or so earlier. However, having now played in an active band, he at least had some idea of what he wanted to do with his life and so he decided to find another group, only this time one with a heavier sound. His opportunity would soon come thanks to a chance meeting with a member of a local thrash/death outfit called Morbid Vision.
“I ended up stranded in a city close to my home town,” he recalls. “Fortunately I found a job there, although I don’t know if I should mention it because it’s a bit weird. I worked in a sex cinema, this was my first job in this city and was gross because I basically had to clean these small rooms for perverts - they watched these wee and poo videos there and wanked all over, so I had to wipe sperm away. But at least I had an income so I could rent a pretty small flat on the sixth floor of one of these dirty houses that you walk into and it directly smells of urine. However, I was glad I had my own bed you know? I always had to share a bed with my sister back at home and these are things which are still very important to me and why I can’t stand
being on tour sometimes, when you have to sleep in the same bed as your bandmates. Anyway, in the city I met the [eventual] drummer of Bethlehem, Marcus [Losen] because he played in a psychobilly band at the time - it was him and two guys from England, they toured the US with Billy Idol, so they got pretty big. Anyway at some point hanging with them at their rehearsal room I had to go wee and in the toilet I met Manfred [Markowka, better known as ‘Balu’, bassist and
vocalist of Morbid Vision]. They rehearsed in the next room of this rehearsal area and during this wee and this small talk I discovered they needed a bass player, so I got in this thrash band then.”
Jürgen’s time in this short-lived band would be relatively brief, not even long enough to appear on the group’s sole release, a five-song demo released in 1991. It was long enough however, for him to make a personal and musical connection with one of its members, second guitarist Klaus Matton.
“Although I wanted to play in a metal band rather than a sleaze band, thrash wasn’t really what I wanted to do,” Jürgen explains. “This band was not so satisfying somehow, especially this solo guitarist, he wanted to be the leader of the band and the songs I wrote, this was nothing he could feel, he was more into thrash metal and the old metal styles and could not identify with black metal. It was kind of new at that time of course; you had Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and all that, but the return of it - bands like Beherit, Mayhem, Rotting Christ, Impaled Nazarene, Darkthrone - this was new and refreshing, we liked this a lot. So after a year me and Klaus left to do something else.”
Klaus had also decided that Morbid Vision was no longer a suitable musical vehicle and now sought to create a new band which would allow him to push his playing into darker territories. Together with Jürgen he shared not only a passion for the new wave of black metal that was quickly emerging in Europe, but also the still-raw memories of his own traumatic youth.
“The strange thing is that Klaus had similar experiences to me,” explains Jürgen. “When he was ten his father hung himself. His father had a small painting company but was addicted to poker and blackjack and lost it all - and much more - and I think the only way out was committing suicide. This is when Klaus was ten. Then he had some hard years together with his mum, but she died from cancer later when he was twelve or thirteen years old, so he also did not have the best years and was in a kid’s home I think until he was eighteen.”
It was this unusual dynamic that seems to have united the band’s early line-up, the group being completed by drummer Chris Steinhoff and vocalist Andreas Classen, two characters that Jürgen quickly recognised as kindred spirits because they too came from fairly troubled family backgrounds.
“Classen was the all-time black metal fan,” says Jürgen, “Even before bands like Mayhem, he was into Bathory and old 80s stuff. He worshipped Venom and had the biggest collection of them all, he had every bootleg he could find, he was addicted to it. It’s a sad story but he actually lost his front teeth the first night we met him; it was at a local metal club and they played Sepultura’s Beneath The Remains or something and he headbanged and Klaus’ head hit Classen’s mouth and he lost his teeth. The drummer came from a completely different city and was part of this crossover punk/metal/hardcore scene. He was a silent kind of guy but he was known to hate skinheads, many times he got in fights with them and was known as the ‘bully’ in his circles. This guy fit with us - especially in the beginning of Bethlehem we were all antisocial and coming from broken homes and that was important, to play with people like us. I would not say it was fate - this would be going too far, I do not believe in this - but it was a special thing which maybe resulted in the fascination with darkness.”
It was this fascination that led to the creation of the ‘dark metal’ concept, a theme the band adopted almost immediately. At this time ‘black metal’ literally meant ‘Satanic metal’ to most and Bethlehem were clear that they did not consider themselves a Satanic band - though a number of their early lyrics suggest otherwise. Moreover, though dark, the members did not view their music as ‘evil’ (a popular buzzword of the time), and instead paradoxically saw it as a source of light and hope from a life where drug addiction, abuse and suicide was claiming many of their friends and contacts.
“Our music reflected all these negative things from our youth,” Jürgen considers. “I would not say it was therapy or something but at least it was relief. You could channel all of the negative aspects of our life. I never went back to where I grew up - this part of the city is now taken over by Russians and gypsies and sometimes you can read in the newspaper if the next guy got killed or so – but though I spent years in different cities I never could get rid of the smell… this suburban place was with me wherever I went. I could not escape it. But with Bethlehem I could and I became a completely different person than people expected I would become. I did not become the ‘antisocial’ as my father did and my neighbours did, I became something
else and this is based on Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a relief, it was something beautiful that I never experienced before in my life, like a butterfly, which was all based on a random meeting in a dirty, stinking toilet.”
In keeping with their wish to distance themselves somewhat from the black metal scene, the band chose for themselves a name quite unlike any of their peers, an amusingly perverse moniker whose apparent innocence still provokes double-takes among newcomers to the group today – especially upon hearing the music of the band using it.
“People could not believe the name back then,” he laughs. “It’s so profane. That was Classen’s idea, he said we should take an untypical name, that these bands had names like Impaled Nazarene and Rotting Christ so maybe we should choose the opposite, the place where all the religious shit starts, that would be pretty sarcastic and wrong.”
Utilising this name alone for a title, the band released their demo tape in 1992. Featuring two songs of suitably dark metal, it was also notable for also featuring two additional members, namely a keyboard player called Sandra (soon Sandra Matton) and a guitarist named Bianca de Loryn. While they would not be the last women to feature in the band, the presence of these particular individuals would only be temporary and by the following year (which saw the release of an EP entitled Thy Pale Dominion and another demo tape called Promo March ‘93) they had both departed.
“The female keyboard player was Classen’s girlfriend and later became Klaus’ wife,” states Jürgen. “When Klaus got interested in her it caused conflicts in the band and she was fired. This other girl Bianca, she definitely did not fit with us. She came from a middle class home, was completely normal, was not antisocial and could not handle us so well. I think she studied, she’s living in Australia now, working for a German computer magazine. So at least one of us made it somewhere and did not get lost in triviality or so.”
The band’s debut album – the aforementioned Dark Metal – was released on France’s Adipocere Records in 1994. Though dressed in contemporary black metal clothing (literally, in fact, since one half of the band now sported corpsepaint and Nordic band shirts in the promo photos) the album was actually built on a variety of metal foundations. Indeed, the most obvious point of comparison at this time was actually doom, and whilst one can speculate that this might be part of the reason that DSBM today often borders on black/doom territory today, it’s just as likely to be because slow tempos tend to invoke more melancholy and depressive moods.
“What definitely had an impact on us was the guitar sound [from Scandinavian black metal], because Kluas liked Darkthrone a lot, especially the second album A Blaze In The Northern Sky,” considers Jürgen. “Many people say we’re influenced by doom - sure, it’s pretty slow, I have to agree with that, but it’s for different reasons because none of us like doom a lot. I don’t even like Black Sabbath - I know it’s a shame, but I don’t. We used Entombed’s tuning, because they tuned five and a half steps down, to get the darkest possible sound and it sounds amazing if you play single chords with slow tempo, it’s a fantastic heavy metal feeling. Maybe that’s the reason we got so slow, rather than us trying to copy a band. We were coming from heavy metal even though we liked black metal, so the main influence was heavy metal, this was our very own interpretation of heavy metal.”
Thus, from the very beginning, Bethlehem’s relationship with the black metal genre was a complex one, the band consciously setting themselves apart from the movement while simultaneously embracing it on many levels. After all, despite their ‘non-Satanic’ stance, the band’s very logo was built around a pentagram and inverted cross.
“The only reason we called it ‘dark metal’ was because we were not following a Satanic principle,” Jürgen admits. “Bethlehem was about personal themes based on all these weird experiences from our childhood, also suicide a lot. I mean in the end calling it ‘dark metal’ was maybe a good idea for your own identification, but we used the same symbols and in those days we almost exclusively listened to black metal and were dressed like that. I even wore makeup in the public - when we went to Holland to buy drugs I got beaten up because maybe they thought I was a transsexual or something. We were also in contact with Mayhem and Emperor and these kind of bands. There were a few German bands around too but we didn’t have too close contact with them. There was Ungod, they had already made a record that was not too bad, and because of a girl I got in contact with Absurd, but this was shit, complete shit. This was nothing I wanted to be part of, or together with, because I don’t like punk rock a lot and their music mainly reminded me of cheap punk rock or something.”
As it turned out, the probable incompatibility of the local scene was the least of Bethlehem’s problems at home in Germany. It was at this point that the group faced severe legal issues and a near-countrywide ban due to a pressure group that was apparently spurred into action by the unfortunate suicide of a young fan who had become obsessed with the group.
“Oh my god, this was Steinhoff’s mistake,” sighs Jürgen. “I always said these hardcore idiots always have the wrong people on board. He brought this kid to us, he was about fifteen and listened to NOFX, and he saw an early Bethlehem show and was attracted to it - of course, a fifteen year old guy, of course he got addicted to us idiots, this was something he never saw before. So this guy was always brought by his mum, who was pro-Christian and [always] wanted to start a discussion about it, which was a bit awkward. However this guy committed suicide, I think a day or two before his sixteenth birthday, and when they found him with a rope around his neck the whole room was a Bethlehem shrine. He also wrote a note, which was the problem. He got it completely wrong, he thought he had to commit suicide because we said so… I mean it was a weird letter and I didn’t see all of it, I only heard parts of it at the court. But unfortunately his mum was part of this ‘parent’s advisory’ who took God’s word a little too seriously and this caused
“We got charged, and especially me because I wrote the lyrics, and she tried with lawyers to destroy us. I think her son died for the typical reasons - maybe she hasn’t invested so much time into him or maybe he was a loner, but he hasn’t killed himself because of us, I doubt it, I still do. His death caused lots of serious problems. I had a very good lawyer and without his help we would not have made it. Even so, promoters would not put us on for years; there were some self-created shows with lorry batteries and so on, but it basically was the end of the band [for a time]. It was a shock, really I must say that. And it was sad - we did not want that of course. Sure we were singing about suicide but not as an order, more as our life experiences. He was one of the few fans we had, these people were part of the band, so it was like one of your mates was dead.”
By his own accounts, Jürgen himself had experienced a remarkable amount of tragedy and suicide by this point in his life. Before leaving his hometown he had discovered his pregnant girlfriend dead by hanging. During his Berlin years he had looked on while about ten of his friends and associates passed away, even waking up after using heroin with one to find they had overdosed. And not long after his return from the city his aunt also committed suicide. With their second album, Dictius Te Necare, released in 1996 and featuring new vocalist Rainer Landfermann (“one of the ten or so people who would come to see us”), the band addressed this subject directly, explicitly dedicating the record “to all suicide victims”.
One can see this as the starting point for a lot of the DSBM that followed – while important Norwegian bands like Burzum, Thorns, Manes and Strid had manifested depressive, despairing currents within black metal, Bethlehem focussed on the subject of depression (and more notably, suicide) in a more explicit, literal way– though it has also to be remembered that this second album’s lyrics, unlike the first, were in German. I ask how Jürgen himself relates to the scene that grew up – at least in part - in his band’ s footsteps.
“Relate to it… can’t say that to be honest,” he ponders. “Some of these bands contacted us when this… what do you call it? ‘Suicidal depressive dark metal’? Well they got in contact as you can imagine. Shining contacted us, Silencer also, they wanted to have our former drummer on their debut and the first Shining they wanted Classen for it. I remember I managed this for him. Later people from Forgotten Tomb contacted us. To be honest when this movement started to appear I had already stopped listening to underground music because I had overkill in the 90s and got rid of it to be honest, so I missed it all. Patrick of Red Stream told me about it but I thought maybe he was saying this to cheer me up or something.”
Despite an obvious influence from Bethlehem in both a musical and conceptual sense, the glorification of self-destruction (and even encouragement toward suicide) that is evident in the works of bands like Shining and Forgotten Tomb is perhaps not quite in tune with what Bethlehem were all about.
“Many times I show the way out,” Jürgen argues, “because I also had to find a way out or I also would have died, maybe from committing suicide. Suicide here [in Germany] is a taboo thing, especially kids commit suicide because they cannot take the pressure but no one is speaking of it, you won’t find information about it. So we were just reflecting on it, but not as an order to do it. Maybe as a help, to show there are others with similar experiences who found a way out. I sometimes got letters from people who tried to commit suicide but survived it and found a help in Bethlehem - as strange as it sounds, we could help them with it and back into life again, this I think is an honour. Sure, I know what Shining and these bands try to do, but this is not our way or our principle, they have misinterpreted it. Or maybe misunderstood it, no idea you know? ”
Though the message might have been somewhat lost in translation in a way he wouldn’t have predicted, the bigger shock for Jürgen was the very fact that his music was being appreciated on a relatively wide scale. Of course, no one could describe the band as ‘mainstream’, but the solid fanbase they have built up over the years sits in stark contrast to the hostility they encountered during their early days.
“When we started with our own interpretation of heavy metal no one was interested - the bigger metal magazines especially always slaughtered us - I think the first two albums got zero points in Rock Hard, which says it all - so I never thought that this would become a movement. People hated it a lot, especially in Germany. This was the surprise when many years later people started writing to tell us that they worshipped the old stuff. I can’t remember all these people being part of it when this stuff was released; it was too extreme - and these are not my own words but what other people wrote. So it’s great - unexpected, but great.”
“Silencer for example; I was part of the Death – Pierce Me studio production because our drummer did not want to go alone and we all stayed in the hotel together, and I [learned] that the singer was highly inspired by what [second vocalist] Landfermann did. He told me he got beaten up by the Hell’s Angels because he started screaming at these rock n’ roll parties when everyone was drunk and he was also inspired a lot by the suicide themes. And the guitarist, he showed me a photo of his flat and, my God, it was looking like a Bethlehem shrine. He made posters of the Dark Metal photos, so the whole walls were filled with Bethlehem and this was a bit weird to be honest. In Germany however we were not black metal enough, many people there said we were ‘untrue’ because we were not singing about Satan and doing what all the other sheep were doing at that time. People started to copy each other and we were different and you know how it is being different - no one wants to know for a while.”
Nevertheless, though Bethlehem might have been keeping black metal at arm’s length on those early recordings, with Dictius Te Necare they embraced its influence pretty wholeheartedly – atleast musically. A milestone album and a blueprint for where depressive black metal would go next, it incorporated many second wave black metal elements into its dynamic, stop/start song structures. The more droning doomy parts were now accompanied by icy midpaced riffing and aggressive blasting percussion, as well as acoustic passages and even some piano pieces. Most striking of all were the screamed vocals of Rainer Landfermann: indeed, it’s no overstatement to say that these utterly-deranged efforts were completely revelatory at the time, the outlandish and tortured howls becoming one of the band’s most famous assets and paving the way for many of the bands that followed.
“When [Andreas] Classen left he was the only logical replacement,” considers Jürgen. “I think [Landfermann] was the most talented of us all. He was an excellent bass player - he had a six string one, he played jazz and all that shit - he also played guitars and his singing was done with knowledge of technique. Though it was not sounding like, this perverse screaming was done with control - he would scream for two hours before recording anything, so he was pretty talented musician. Nothing was constructed though; while I would not say Bethlehem was such a liberal band - there was a dictatorship and I was the dictator to be honest - each member should do things the way he feels about it and Landfermann, that was how he wanted to express himself. [Overall] I could work in a much better way with him than with Klaus though because he was much more openminded and had a lot of strange ideas, so this combination was a progression for sure.”
Despite their previous legal problems, the band were in no mood for compromise, a stance which led to censorship of the first version of the Dictius Te Necare sleeve which featured photos depicting nudity and drug use - another influential move in a black metal scene that was all but drug-free (at least publically) during these years. Back at home they also faced accusations of far right sympathies, accusations which saw the band once again investigated by the authorities.
“The visual aspect was censored in the USA, the original photos could not be used because it showed me doing a heroin shot and Landfermann’s ex-girlfriend standing naked in front of him. I think this is the law in USA, you can’t show nips and you can’t show drug scenes. The censorship in Germany was because I wrote my lyrics in German and these were the times when all this stupid nationalism started becoming a part of it.
So, enjoy and more next time!
P.S.: Further info in the current press release here.