Season Of The Witch: The Ideas Behind Metal’s Occult Revival

Any astute follower of metal in the past five years has likely noticed a huge uptick in the number of bands with a proto-70s sound and occult themes: The Devil’s Blood, Sabbath Assembly, Blood Ceremony and The Oath. A few of these bands have been on Decibel’s cover: In Solitude and Ghost B.C. (twice).
While this approach is undoubtedly popular and may play itself out there hasn’t been much of an exploration of why this approach to metal has taken hold outside of simple trendiness. Author Peter Bebergal recently published Season Of The Witch: How The Occult Saved Rock And Roll. The book argues that the uptick in occult 70s metal is part of a larger cultural embrace of the esoteric rooted in the profound cultural shifts of the late 20th century. Bebergal talked to Decibel about his book, the similarities between Madonna and Ozzy and purchasing the Necronomicon at a suburban shopping mall.

How did you develop an interest in this subject?

It goes back to my childhood. I have to thank my Dad for buying me a few copies of Creepy and Eerie magazine in the early 70s. It was an old Warren comic. They were able to get it past the comics code because it was sold on magazine racks. It had tons of occult and supernatural themes. I went on to monster movies, Dungeons & Dragons and then to rock and roll.

Eventually, like a lot of kids who surround themselves with these ideas, I became interested in the occult. My high school library had a very small section of books on religion but it was enough to get me interested. I was a typical early 80s stoned teenager who read about The Golden Dawn and Crowley. It was sort of the formation of my consciousness. As I grew up and became more sophisticated about how these things work in the world I started to study religion and culture academically. This intersection of the occult and pop culture was something I was always interested in. I still read horror comics, listen to underground music and play D and D. It’s all a part of my life today. It never went away.

Were you like me – one of the weird kids toting around what was advertised as the Necronomicon that could be purchased in Crown Books?

(laughs). I had the Avon paperback of the Necronomicon! I knew that it wasn’t real, necessarily, but was presented as real. And it was fun to pretend it was real and feel something mysterious. I did the same with album covers and music. My brother had all these Bowie and Led Zeppelin albums and he’d put on “Revolution 9” on the White Album and freak me out. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs was such a pivotal album for me. Here was this was a musician that made music that felt like it was something different, almost like the Necronomicon.

In the 1970s rock and roll evoked this strange mystique – that maybe there was an esoteric, arcane reality these musicians were tapping into whether they believed it or not. That idea in a lot of ways helped rock and roll explode. Rock-and-rollers started to have a whole mythology around their lives. It’s just like how the Necronomicon played out in the public consciousness.

I hate to admit this but tried reading the spells out loud and worried I was opening a portal into some horrible dimension.

(laughs). Exactly. We fantasy role played that all the time. D and D never felt like more than a game but rock and roll felt like more than the music. I wanted to see if I could do a history of why rock and roll with some connection to the occult had such a huge affect on pop culture. I started with what I found – and the impact was even greater than I imagined.

You mentioned that you studied religion – did your work as a writer coincide with your interests or did they meet later down the road?

I wanted to be a writer but I guess you could say I was training to be an academic. I thought I would get my PhD and become a teacher. Then I started writing for websites on my own about my interests – religion and culture. It wasn’t necessarily in an academic frame and I thought the audience (for the topic) could be bigger. I took a break from my PhD when I started my family.

I later realized there was an audience for talking about beliefs, religion and pop culture and how these things intersect. I could write and have a much broader audience. It’s never necessarily paid all the bills but that’s o.k. I’ve been very lucky to have some interesting regular jobs as well. The Internet has made it an incredibly rich place in the ways you can meet people. I thought Facebook and Twitter were silly ways to interact with people I knew. But they are amazing resources for meeting like-minded people.

This project happened when I started seeing the resurgence of the occult in pop culture. It was happening in the underground with Sleep and Om and elsewhere. (Comic writer) Alan Moore is a self–proclaimed magician. Then there were a few events in the UK like something called the Equinox Festival. (Avant-garde composer) John Zorn did a composition based on Crowley. All of these things happened around the same time. I started pitching ideas for stories based on that. Then I realized these things weren’t happening in a vacuum – it’s been happening since the 60s and 70s. There’s been this quiet occult revival in the arts, particularly in music.

For all of the downsides the Internet has allowed all the guys with the Necronomicon in junior high school to reach each other decades later.

That’s exactly right. You always remember being the one weird kid. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. What I argue in Season Of The Witch is that it’s partly rock and roll that made the weird part of pop culture. We came of age at a time when some of this stuff was on the fringe and it’s since become the language of pop culture. We even see it in Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl performance. She basically staged a performance as an ancient mystery rite. What she did wasn’t that different than what Ozzy did with his throne and fire shooting in the 80s or what Arthur Brown did dressing up in costumes and doing shamanic rites to hypnotize the audience.

It all goes back to these fertile moments – these ideas that work very powerfully on the human mind and the unconscious. Then, you see someone like Madonna recognizing it. She staged this mass, almost occult ritual on stage for millions and millions of people. I don’t think she was trying to conjure demons or was a member of the Illuminati but I think she understands that certain things unlock our psyche. Right after the show there were websites that said she was part of a demon-run Illuminati sect.

What were some of the most interesting conversations you had in writing the book, particularly with people involved in the metal scene?

There were a lot of people I wanted to talk to who wouldn’t talk. I thought I would be able to interview Bobby Liebling with Pentagram.

Bobby has disowned a lot of that stuff.

A lot of people have. And that was the trouble. When you use the word ‘occult’ in a query letter people don’t want to participate. A lot of people probably worried I would be exploitative and say they were Satan worshippers. Others thought I was trying to say there really is an occult power at work. I tried to make sure this was a journalistic, anecdotal story — but that was hard to get across. Then there were people I thought would be excited and they passed. I tried to talk to the Electric Wizard folks and a few others and they passed. But I finally got the right people.

For a lot of musicians whether these things are metaphysically true isn’t important; it’s that these images are a source of powerful inspiration. What I began to uncover wasn’t some occult conspiracy – most people weren’t interested in being Satanists at all – but these bands understand that these symbols and archetypes are powerful tools. If you are looking to have fun with your image you use a pentagram to identify as someone that people should be wary of, even if it’s just about making some cool music.

Do you think some of the symbols that were so powerful, especially in the 80s, have lost some of their power to offend because they’ve been co-opted so much?

Well, people can have more fun with it now. But in some ways they’ve lost their ability to evoke a sense of mystery. And part of that is also how we listen to music. We don’t listen to the album anymore. It’s all about songs, particularly with the rise of iTunes. That mystery and danger and sense of shock wasn’t just about the image; it was about the entire way music was experienced. It was the art and the lyrics and trying to decode things, and spending time with an album like a talisman.

It’s nice to see with this resurgence of interest in occult themes a resurgence of vinyl. Music is so much more than ear buds. Then you have a band like Ghost B.C. – they are brilliant at staging and putting things together. I saw them in Boston and with all due respect to their music they are able to stage a spectacle, but there is not much of a sense of something really sinister going on. Or, there’s a band liked Swans that isn’t worried about image but how music can transform consciousness. That can sometimes be even more powerful. So, the imagery is coming back but there’s also a resurgence of interest in a relationship between the artist and audience that is transformative, that you can alter your audience’s consciousness.

To what do you attribute the explosion in the retro approach in the metal scene?

Blood Ceremony is one of my favorite new bands. Even Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats is doing similar things. There seems to be a huge, nostalgic moment right now for the 1970s all over pop culture. Dungeons And Dragons just celebrated their 40th anniversary and people still want to play role-playing games. Doctor Who was the show in the 70s when you were a weird kid – it’s one of the most popular shows now. Musically we’re recognizing that the shape of rock and roll today was formed more by the 70s than the 60s.

Finally, there’s just something about wanting to get back to a simpler sound that 70s metal offered. I really like metal but I can’t listen to cookie monster vocals. But there are more bands opting for a Coven-like vocal approach. I think that is more evocative of something esoteric. I don’t think that Black Sabbath could be who they are without their voices – it captures their spirit. Things come around in cycles but I do think we are finally able to recognize the 70s were one of the most important decades in the pop culture landscape. So, it does make sense that metal bands would look back.

What’s the pivotal occult rock record?

I guess we’d need to define the occult. There are albums that captures it in the 70s Wicker Man vibe and so many function in that regard. Certainly Black Sabbath’s debut and I’d say Witchcraft’s first album capture something that’s not a real occult practice but the glamour of it. Coven’s first record was absolutely pivotal. Is there an album that’s about the occult as practice, occult as an actual tool for the spiritual life? We’d have to look at British industrial, maybe Coil and Psychic TV’s first record. But the sensibility is very different. I think David Bowie was also a true magician of rock and roll.

You could make a case for the White Album because of the Charles Manson connection.

There are albums where people impose occult beliefs and those are just as powerful. Led Zeppelin is almost too easy to mention but Page was into Crowley, even if he mentioned Tolkien more than Crowley. Again, though, people will impose their own ideas and those are just as vital when you talk about the occult and rock and roll. It’s not just what comes from a musician’s motivations. It’s about what fans and the media impose on it.