Gaahl is the stage alias of Kristian Espedal: a Norwegian artist best known for his vocal work with the controversial black metal group Gorgoroth. Like many protagonists of the Norwegian black metal scene, Gaahl's story is rife with as much manufactured fiction as bona fide fact, equal parts inflated legend and murky history. But in the aftermath of Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes' heinous crimes of the '90s, it was arguably Gaahl who became the most feared black metal artist of the 2000s. Here now is the tale of the artist Terrorizer Magazine once dubbed "the most evil man alive."
Kristian Eivind Espedal was born on August 7, 1975 in a remote area of western Norway named Sunnfjord, and raised some 30 miles north of the city of Bergen as the crow flies, in the thinly inhabited valley bearing his family name (or vice-versa). Little is known about Espedal's formative years, except that they were spent in virtual isolation amidst his native mountains, forests, and fjords. One anecdote affirms that he was educated in a one-room school house alongside but one other student, and that student reportedly committed suicide at the age of 18. For Espedal, coming of age meant starting a black metal band, Trelldom, instead -- a decision clearly instigated by the seismic events, both musical and criminal (church burnings, murder, etc.) involving Norway's infamous "black metal inner circle," at that time. Like most of the rebellious young men who associated themselves with this most extreme musical art form and its attendant misanthropic philosophies, Espedal seemed to be channeling feelings of alienation and discontent with modern Norway's conservative ways by fundamentally rejecting Christian tradition in favor of Norse neo-paganism. He also took the step of adopting the single, ominous-sounding performance name of Gaahl (ironically, a bit-biblical player buried in the Old Testament), as dictated by black metal convention since the days of the movement's founding fathers, Venom.
Despite all of Gaahl and his bandmates' efforts, however, Trelldom's name never gained much traction above the deepest black metal underground, so, by 1998 Gaahl had begun branching out to work with other bands, including Sigfader, Gaahlskagg, and finally Bergen's comparatively well-established black metal blasphemers, Gorgoroth. Beginning with a single vocal contribution on the title track of the band's fourth long-player, Destroyer, that same year, Gaahl joined Gorgoroth on a wanton rampage across the black metal firmament, decisively moving across Scandinavian borders and into the European continent before invading the former Eastern block countries. Not content with inciting outrage and loathing with their terrifying music, Satanic posturing, and fearsome corpse-painted, leather-and-spikes image, Gorgoroth took it upon themselves to scandalize the entire country of Poland during a Kraków concert (conveniently captured for subsequent release on DVD) that saw the band performing alongside impaled goat heads and four hooded, stark-naked models crucified on-stage. At the forefront of all of this controversy literally stood Gaahl: no longer just the vocalist but now perceived by many to be Gorgoroth's figurehead -- and not simply as a result of his on-stage antics and musical talent, either.
Indeed, throughout his years working with Gorgoroth, Gaahl had run afoul of the law several times, and usually over violent physical altercations of a mysterious and, one might even say, opportunistically mythmaking nature. In 2002, he was arrested, fined, and incarcerated for 11 months after assaulting a man, delaying the release of Gorgoroth's Twilight of the Idols LP until the following year; and in 2005, he was once again imprisoned, this time for nine months, accused of torturing another man for six hours, collecting his blood in a cup, and threatening to make him drink it. The singer claimed self-defense on both occasions, but whatever the truth, this provocative combination of musical and personal notoriety not surprisingly helped spread Gaahl's name well beyond the extreme metal community, where he began attracting the interest of international journalists and filmmakers. This development duly earned Gaahl a memorable appearance in Sam Dunn's award-winning documentary, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, and later made him the focus of vbs.tv's 2007 short feature, True Norwegian Black Metal. Also, in March of 2008, Gaahl proved to be a reliably taciturn keynote interviewee at Oslo's annual Inferno Festival, by which time he and Gorgoroth bassist King ov Hell had amazingly managed to inflame the very black metal fans who supported them, by ejecting Gorgoroth founder and guitarist, Infernus, from his own group, a few months prior. A protracted lawsuit ensued over the rightful ownership of the Gorgoroth trademark, bringing black metal once again into Norway's high courts and putting a virtual stop to the musical careers of all involved, in the bargain. When the Oslo City District Council finally ruled in favor of Infernus, in March 2009, Gaahl and King were immediately cast out of Gorgoroth, and, despite initial rumors suggesting a new collaboration was already in the works for the duo, other sources soon claimed Gaahl had essentially decided to retire from black metal following a cameo appearance on Wardruna's 2009 LP, Runaljod.
If anything, though, public discussion of Gaahl remained at an all-time high, thanks to a series of fascinating revelations about the man's personal life, which had gradually emerged over the course of his increased exposure and interaction with black metal outsiders; information that eroded, piece by piece, the black metal stereotypes Gaahl had embodied in his prior musical endeavors. Years earlier, the aforementioned documentaries had already shed a dim light upon Espedal's personal life and broader artistic interests (an accomplished painter, he showed his works in a gallery as far back as 1993); then came a barely titillating acknowledgment to being a vegetarian in heavy metal's predominantly carnivorous proverbial slaughterhouse; but surely the most surprising development of all to Gorgoroth's macho heavy metal audience came with Gaahl's admission of his homosexuality, in 2008. And no sooner had these fans' begun trying to swallow that piece of news, never mind his retirement from all things metal, before they learned of Espedal's involvement in developing a women's clothing line alongside modeling agent (and long-term "close relation"), Dan De Vero, then the announcement of his upcoming acting work as part of a Bergen-based theater company. To cap it all off, Espedal accepted an award for "Gay Person of the Year" at the 2010 Bergen Gay Gala -- further evidence, as if it were needed, of his commendable and unapologetic ownership of his identity.
That identity, as was to be revealed in subsequent years, still comprised an interest in black metal, after all, when 2012 saw the release of his latest collaboration with King ov Hell on the acclaimed God Seed debut, I Begin -- a title that suggests Kristian "Gaahl" Espedal's captivating personal and artistic journey is only just beginning. ~ Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi