Two weeks ago, 75,000 metalheads converged on the tiny village of Wacken in northern Germany. They were gathered for the largest metal festival in the world: three days of extreme music and extreme company. I took the weekend off research to travel with old school friends on what has become a rite of passage for all metalheads worth their salt. Hoping to get my mind off my research—to help me return with a fresh perspective—I sucessfully pushed all images of Yugoslav communists out of my head. Religion, however, was not so easily escaped.

From its very beginnings, religion has been a central part of metal. Black Sabbath, the founders of the genre, rarely played without their iconic crucifix, a sign somewhat in contradiction with their obsession with black magic. During the 1980s bands like Slayer, Sepultura, Venom, Bathory, and Possessed took the genre to new extremes, and the fascination with religion became more obvious. Slayer’s groundbreaking 1986 album “Reign in Blood” is legendary not just for the extremity of its music, but also for Larry Carroll’s satanic-themed cover art.

Why this obsession with religion? One obvious answer is that during the 1980s the metal scene became the target of conservative Christian groups. In 1985 Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a Washington-based committee that set out to censor musicians it felt to be morally dangerous. Unsurprisingly, rap and heavy metal became the PMRC’s main targets.

The obvious problem with the PMRC’s strategy was that metal fed off this kind of bad publicity and the bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s became even more extreme. The Floridian death metal group Deicide burst into the 1990s with some of the most violently anti-Christian lyrics the genre had seen. Song titles included: “Serpents of the light,” “Slave to the cross,” and the less subtle “Kill the Christian.” As the 1990s progressed, this anti-Christian theme achieved mainstream success with Marilyn Manson, whose concerts were frequently the target of protests by church groups.

So one explanation for this obsession with the religious is metal’s rebellious streak. With the rise of the moral majority, Christianity became the most obvious target for offense. There is certainly nothing new here in the history of rock music. Yet recent developments in the genre suggest there is something more going on.

While Deicide was calling for the heads of Christians in sunny Florida, metal history was being made in the icy climes of Scandinavia. In Norway in the early 1990s, a group of musicians known as the Black Circle forged a style they called black metal. Like the death and thrash scenes before it, black metal proclaimed itself to be anti-Christian and satanic, but this movement took their ideology to new extremes. In the first years of the genre’s inception, black metal musicians were convicted of several murders and church burnings. When the vocalist of the group Mayhem took a shotgun to his own head, his band-mates reportedly ate parts of his brain and made jewelry out of his skull fragments. It is here, in the most extreme sub-genre, that metal’s obsession with religion is most interesting.

Lyrically, early black metal fused virulent anti-christian politics with Nietzschean-inspired satanism and ecological mysticism. As the scene grew into the 1990s, however, satanism became a problematic notion and several figures tried to find new ideological backing to their music. One solution, adopted by figures like Ihsahn, the vocalist for Emperor, was to treat satanism as merely a metaphor for Nietzschean individual freedom. Another, far more problematic move was that taken by Varg Vikernes of Burzum, who dropped satanism in favor of Nazism, and emphasized themes of mystical ecologism in opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The third path was to reject satanism for a return to traditional Scandinavian paganism, a move made in the early years by Enslaved, and one which has since spawned a new sub-genre: pagan metal.

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical Nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

What if metal is drawn to the religious because it aspires towards a similar goal? What if it is not in opposition to religion, but in competition with it? In the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, a fan is quoted as saying: “Is heavy metal a sacrament? For some people it is. If it keeps kids alive, if it gives them hope, if it gives them a place to belong, if it gives them a sense of transcendence, then its a spiritual force and I believe it is a pipeline to God.”

Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit. The goal of metal is extremity—to push music to the boundaries of noise without concern for the comprehensibility of the final product. Black and death metal groups in particular manipulate time structure, tonality, tempo and production quality to ensure that anything resembling a traditional rock, jazz, or classical sound is deformed beyond recognition. Of central importance to this manipulation is the need to be heavier, faster, more technical, more “brutal,” or more “true” than the past generation. This aspiration towards superlatives is nicely summed up in the slogan for this year’s Wacken festival: “Faster. Harder. Louder.” The point is not to create noise, but to push existing musical forms as close to the boundary of noise as possible. Although the end result may be classed as “noise” by laymen, for a small community of the faithful it is the most passionate and engaging music possible. It is as close as music can get to the absolute.

This concern with limit experiences explains metal’s obsession with religion. In its aspirations, metal parallels a kind of religious mysticism. Perhaps, for metal, Christianity is not just a convenient target for youth rebellion, but is actually blasphemy. (After all, as magnificent as the Most High is, even He could not drum like Dave Lombardo!) The constant grasping for new ideologies in the black metal scene, then, is an attempt to give this transcendental path discursive form. This reading is in part backed up by the recent turn made by several French black metal groups to the works of Georges Bataille. In the future perhaps black metal will develop an intellectual sophistication that is worthy of its art.

But to finish with a cheesy closing scene that, clichéd as it sounds, happened just so: On the first night of Wacken, my friend and I stood in Iron Maiden’s crowd. The entire day, the sky had threatened rain. As Maiden took the stage, however, it became clear that the clouds were beginning to thin. My friend pointed out to me the favorable change in weather and I, surrounded by 75,000 screaming, pushing fans, yelled out: “God. Loves. Iron Maiden!” My friend shook his head. “No!” he shouted. “Iron Maiden. Is. God!”