Black Metal: A Brief Guide
by: Quentin Kalis
This is an article intended as a short yet informative guide for people who are generally familiar with metal but are largely unacquainted with black metal. At the end I have provided mini-reviews of what I consider to be the ten most influential and essential black metal albums.

Definition

The exact definition of "black metal" is a hotly contested subject: a quick perusal of the archives of any metal message board will reveal the extent to which even today it remains a hotly contested topic of debate. One can find entire threads dedicated to the question whether the new Satyricon and Enslaved can be considered black metal. Two main camps have emerged over the last few years:

1. One school of thought, which I will call the "Purist" view, claims that the term "black metal" refers only to underground acts (in this context a "mainstream black metal" act is one which is signed to one of the larger independents, such as Nuclear Blast or Candlelight). These underground acts tend to have a rawer and noticeably simpler style.

2. The second school of thought, which I call the "Inclusive" view, permits a wider definition which includes more mainstream acts, such as Emperor, and also bands such as Marduk, Dissection or Dimmu Borgir. These bands tend to have superior production values and are often more technical then their underground counterparts. These bands tend to be more melodic then their cruder sounding peers, and may also have a stronger focus on keyboards. Sometimes this categorisation becomes overbroad and Viking metal bands (such as Mithotyn or Einherjer) are lazily and erroneously considered as black metal. I have even heard Children of Bodom being called black metal, which is pushing the boundaries too far.

Black metal is notoriously hard to define, and vague, pretentious statements such as 'black metal is the nihilistic audio representation of all the misanthropic evil inherent in man' are unhelpful. But perhaps the following exposition, taking into account both of the viewpoints above, is the best:

Black metal is an extreme subgenre of metal characterised by snarled or shrieked vocals and raucous tremolo riffs. The bass tends to be, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. Production tends to be trebly and raw. Most bands adopt a relatively simplistic style, though some of the more mainstream acts (Emperor is a notable example) are more technical. Generally, technicality is frowned upon and soloing is infrequent and hardly ever used. A clearer, more discernible but atonal vocal style is often used, usually in conjunction with a harsher shrieking style. Keyboards are frequently adopted. Usage of folk, neoclassical and, to a lesser extent, ambient elements is frequent.

Unlike genres such as thrash or death metal, black metal has an underlying philosophy behind it, and no definition of black metal is complete without a consideration of its ideology. Lyrically, black metal bands are at the very least violently anti-Christian if not outright Satanists. It must be noted that the idea of Satanism is not cast in stone and ranges from a relatively medieval style of Satan worship through to the more intellectual strains of Anton LaVey's notorious Church of Satan. Some have adopted Asatru, the contemporary revival of the old Norse religion, as their spirituality of choice; and in recent years this has often been accompanied with a strong nationalist outlook. An overriding feature of almost all black metal is the fascination with the past: many black metal bands include anachronisms, such as the use of medieval-sounding melodies and instrumentation, posing in Middle Ages inspired clothing, or harping about a return to the ages long gone. The writings of Tolkien have exerted a great influence on black metal -- more so perhaps then the writings of Anton LaVey -- and this is reflected in the many names adopted from his mythical world (e.g. Gorgoroth, Burzum, Isengard). Although it is unclear as to how many bands have actually read "The Antichrist" by Nietzsche, his views on Christianity have found widespread acceptance.

The astute reader will have noted that I refer largely to tendencies rather than hard and fast rules. This is due to the musical diversity of black metal and the near-impossibility of constructing a definition that would incorporate albums as disparate as _Det Frysende Nordariket_ (Ildjarn), _Panzer Division Marduk_ (Marduk), _La Masquerade Infernale_ (Arcturus) and _With No Human Intervention _ (Aborym). Despite assertions to the contrary, black metal is an incredibly varied genre -- certainly more so than death metal.

The Origins of Black Metal

Although many believe that black metal started in Norway during the late Eighties / early Nineties, its true origin was much earlier. Many accept Venom as the first black metal band, and thus the band's debut album, _Welcome to Hell_, released in 1981, can be considered as the true genesis of black metal. Other notable albums from this period include Celtic Frost's _Morbid Tales_, Bathory's _Bathory_ and _Apocalyptic Raids_ by Hellhammer.

It should be noted that none of these acts were regarded as black metal in the beginning. On the eve of his sophomore effort, Bathory's Quorthon described his music as "heavy metal"; Celtic Frost have, depending on what you read, been described as being both thrash and death metal. Venom is firmly rooted in NWOBHM. Their music was described as being "black metal" well after the most influential black metal albums were released. It is a term which only became widely used with the rise of the second wave.

The second wave was constituted of Norwegian black metal, which started in the late Eighties and reached its peak between 1991 and 1994. Many of the most important albums were released in this period, including Mayhem's _De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas_ and Darkthrone's _A Blaze in the Northern Sky_.

Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal and Mayhem are the most important and influential bands of the period. However, these bands were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the nascent Norwegian black metal scene, and contributions by bands such as Emperor, Thorns, Satyricon and Ulver, amongst many others, cannot pass by unnoticed.

Originally, the aim was to forge a return to what they considered to be the true death metal sound and was a reaction against what they perceived to be the commercialization of death metal. This 'true death metal sound' later became what is now known as black metal. Death metal bands in this period tended to perform in everyday clothes and appeared on stage in tracksuits and sneakers. This was unbearable for the likes of Euronymous, who adopted a more 'shocking' and 'anti-social' image.

The Norwegian acts spurred on the rise of black metal's third wave. The two most significant albums, both of which were instrumental in accelerating its spread and popularity, are Emperor's _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ and Cradle of Filth's _Dusk... and Her Embrace_.

Emperor was one of the original Norwegian bands, but it was their sophomore full-length that drew widespread interest and attention. _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ showcased an unprecedented degree of complexity and technicality. It was well received, and placed highly on virtually all "Best of 1997" lists.

Another noteworthy album was Cradle of Filth's seminal _Dusk... and Her Embrace_. Whether Cradle of Filth can be considered as black metal is one of the most highly debated topics, though it has subsided in recent years as Cradle of Filth have veered towards a more obvious commercial sound with each subsequent album. Whatever you may consider Cradle of Filth to be, there is no denying that impact that _DaHE_ has had on the scene, and its influence can be felt in many bands commonly considered to be black metal, such as the (early) works of Hecate Enthroned and Agathodaimon, which at times border on outright plagiarism. Even Ancient, who were part of the nascent Norwegian scene, were clearly influenced by Cradle of Filth on some of their later works.

Alongside Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth were to become one of black metal's crossover bands, gaining fans from the nu-metal / commercial (Pantera, Metallica) metal crowd as well as attention from the goth community.

Black metal was no longer confined to Scandinavia and bands started to emerge across the world, from countries as culturally diverse as Japan (Sigh), USA (Judas Iscariot) and the Czech Republic (Maniac Butcher). Scenes started to become established across the world. Perhaps the most significant scene was the "Legions Noires" or "Black Legions" of France, which gave birth to legendary bands such as the short-lived Vlad Tepes and Belketre. Although the Black Legions collectively only released a handful of ridiculously limited albums, they nevertheless had a huge impact on the development of black metal.

Some black metal bands became more experimental, and bands such as Arcturus, Sigh and later Solefald released albums that can be best described as black metal avant-garde. Bands such as Aborym and ...And Oceans borrowed from dance and EBM.

The third wave was further by its rapid increase in popularity within the underground (and by underground here I mean bands that are not signed to one of the major labels, such as EMI or Virgin) selling more albums than any other underground genre. Labels scrambled to sign black metal bands and a lot of unoriginal nonsense was released, but in the end the imitators and hangers-on either found some new ideas or disappeared. Black metal reached its apex in 1997, after which sales started to decline. Given the rapid increase in bands and its splintering into various scenes and subgenres, it is hard to select the most influential albums of this period. (As mentioned earlier, Emperor's _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ and Cradle of Filth's _Dusk... and Her Embrace_ are probably the most important albums in terms of influence from this period.)

The Future

The decline did in no way affect the progression of black metal, and only the most naïve would believe that the relative loss of popularity of the genre would mean its demise. All the major labels have several black metal bands on their rosters, and many smaller labels (such as No Colours Records and Drakkar Productions) specialise almost exclusively in black metal.

A lot of would-be Nostradamuses predict that black metal with a strong electronic influence -- think Aborym or latter day Dodheimsgard -- will be the future of black metal. I've read predictions about that in respect to almost any rock and metal subgenre you could care to name -- and they have all been wrong! At best a new sub-genre will be established, but this will in no way supplant the more traditional forms. In addition, the widespread adoption of electronic elements in black metal is made unlikely by a strong and pervasive focus on the ancient past for a futuristic genre such as EBM or industrial to exert a noticeable influence on a significant number of bands. Nor are the above mentioned 'black metal avant-garde' acts such as Arcturus the future of black metal: some bands are simply too idiosyncratic for their basic style to be espoused by others.

The future of black metal is dependent on a fourth wave emerging. Most of the first wave are no longer active, and the Norwegian veterans have either broken up (Immortal, Emperor) or have changed their style to the point where it is debatable whether they can be considered black metal at all (Satyricon, Enslaved). Few notable bands have emerged from Norway since the mid-Nineties; clearly the impetus behind the fourth wave will originate elsewhere. Although various scenes have been established around the world, the one that I believe will be the force behind the impending fourth wave is the Eastern European scene. Already Poland's Graveland and the Ukraine's Nokturnal Mortum are probably the most popular acts amongst the black metal underground, and their names are familiar to many whose tastes are more mainstream.

Musically, there is a tendency towards a greater clarity in production as well as a more epic vibe with these bands, sometimes combined with a folk influence. The overt Satanic tendencies of their Norwegian counterparts have been abrogated in favour of a strong nationalistic slant, usually accompanied by a neo-Pagan spirituality.

However, the rise of Slavic black metal has been accompanied with a rise in National Socialist beliefs, which, although not exclusive to Eastern European bands, does appear to be most prevalent there. This is also a possible inhibiting factor preventing its widespread adoption -- the larger, more commercially orientated labels usually refuse to sign bands that are overtly racist, and the smaller labels simply do not have the funds to promote their bands as strongly as the bigger labels. In addition, some smaller labels such as Voices of Wonder refuse to sign National Socialist black metal (NSBM) bands. Even if they had the funds, many countries have hate speech laws, which inhibits more widespread promotion.

The reasons behind the adoption of National Socialism in black metal form a complex hydra-headed affair which can become the basis of a doctoral thesis, and I cannot possibly consider all of them here. However, it is worth noting that from the earliest days of the Norwegian scene, a strong nationalist creed was present -- and is still present. In addition, the line between racism and nationalism / patriotism is an extremely thin and perilous one: if one is strongly nationalistic, whereby one is proud of belonging to his origins and of belonging to a particular social group, then it is no great leap to start seeing other groups as inferior.

The 10 Most Influential Black Metal Albums

Criteria: The following albums were chosen because of the impact that they have had on successive bands. A fair amount of personal preference has also affected the bands chosen, and in a list this short it is sometimes the only way to make a choice between two bands who are arguably equally important. For example, can it be said that Satyricon are more influential than Thorns or Ulver? I have focused exclusively on the first and second waves of black metal. The reason for this is simple: these are the bands most often cited by current black metal bands as being their biggest influence. Ratings are not given, as I wouldn't mention them unless they were worth 10 out of 10. However, they are of more than historical interest and stand in their own right as classic black metal albums that should be in every fan's collection. If you don't have them, start saving!

Venom - _Black Metal_ (Neat Records, 1982)

Although relatively tame by today's standards, they certainly weren't when they released their debut back in 1981 -- at which time they were one of the first bands to explicitly and unambiguously espouse a Satanic outlook. The genesis of black metal was Venom's seminal debut _Welcome to Hell_. Any one of their first three albums could have been chosen, as they are all classics, but the reason _Black Metal_ was chosen was largely because it has the quintessential Venom song "Countess Bathory" -- as well as being the album that provided a name for the developing genre. Venom's simplistic, raw sounding and sloppily played songs were to be the blueprint from which all others would follow in one way or another. Although they superficially don't sound like most black metal bands, virtually all of the basic audio characteristics are present; the major difference lies in the vocals, which are sung in a clear and decipherable voice, having little in common with the shrieked vocal style of almost all black metal bands. Their Satanic aspect may have been a gimmick, and it may not have been. Either way, it ushered in one of the most potent metal subgenres.

Bathory - _Bathory_ (Black Mark, 1984)

Any of Bathory's first five albums can rightly be considered a classic and have collectively had the biggest impact on the development of black metal -- selecting just one as the most influential is an exercise in futility. The best option was to simply go back to the beginning where it all started: on his short and nasty self-titled debut. Most of the songs struggle to attain the three minute mark, the music is simple and sloppily performed and the lyrics are laughable. At another time and another place, this might have been seen as juvenile and doomed to obscurity. But the sheer uncompromising violence of the music -- which was pretty much unrivalled in 1984 -- meant that this album couldn't simply be dismissed. Like many other black metal classics, the end result was greater than the sum of its parts. Later albums would show considerable growth and progression, but none would replicate the 'take no prisoners' attitude and youthful aggression of _Bathory_.

Celtic Frost - _Morbid Tales_ (Noise, 1984)

It is significant that while Celtic Frost do not fit comfortably into either death, thrash or black metal, each genre has tried to claim Celtic Frost as one of their own. Their debut album was a relatively raw and simplistic affair, unburdened by the avant-garde accoutrements that would be experimented with at a later stage. The abrasive sound was probably due more to lack of funds than design, but would nonetheless serve as a blueprint for future bands. Their signature riffs have been much copied and their influence can be felt almost everywhere, in bands as diverse as Samael and Darkthrone. Their signature song, "Circle of the Tyrants", is probably the most covered song in extreme metal, with everyone from Obituary to Mystic Circle having a go at it. Although they were never one of the more technical bands, their unique and original sound, combined with a desire to experiment, meant that they would be remembered long after their demise.

Immortal - _Pure Holocaust_ (Osmose, 1993)

Immortal got off to an unpromising and noisy start with _Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism_, barely recognisable as an Immortal release in comparison to later efforts. But its successor _Pure Holocaust_ was an entirely different beast: gone were the death metal overtones, replaced with the characteristic cold production that came to be known as the Norse sound. _Pure Holocaust_ sounds less noisy than its predecessor, but infinitely more hateful, with more angry songs. Immortal are one of the more unique black metal bands both in terms of sound and appearance, thanks largely to Abbath's unique croak and grim frostbitten appearance. If it were any other band attempting this image, it would probably be extremely cheesy; but with Immortal it somehow just seems right.

Satyricon - _Dark Medieval Times_ (Moonfog, 1993)

_Dark Medieval Times_ is a noisy affair, drawing on folk music and the Middle Ages for inspiration -- a sharp contrast to the more urbane image Satyr is currently cultivating. The use of folk elements and the 'floating' guitar sound combine to create an incredibly atmospheric album. While the insubstantial sounding guitars may be considered a flaw by some, it provides the album with a unique sound largely unduplicated by the black metal community. Indeed without this sound, _DMT_ would lose a lot of its potent ambience. Along with Ulver, Satyricon were one of the first acts to utilise folk elements and were possibly the first 'trollish' bands. Many bands, such as Wyrd and Nokturnal Mortum, have since then successfully merged folk instrumentation and melodies with black metal.

Burzum - _Hvis Lyset Tar Oss_ (Misanthropy, 1994)

While _Hvis Lyset Tar Oss_ is superficially similar to its predecessors, the stronger song writing as well as the inclusion of the amazing "Det Som Engang Var" meant that this album stands out (albeit only slightly) from his other work. This album features all the Burzum trademarks, namely droning guitars and minimalist drumming, all accompanied by Vikernes' unique wail. _HLTO_ also features the obligatory ambient track, "Tomhet", which showcases Burzum's skill in creating ethereal ambient music, present throughout and an integral part of his black metal period, although sadly much ignored.

Darkthrone – _Transylvanian Hunger_ (Peaceville, 1994)

Fenriz and company took the basic black metal outline that they had helped pioneer on the amazing _A Blaze in the Northern Sky_ and stripped it of any and all frills, resulting in a sparse, hateful album. The thin production later became known as the "necro’" sound. The raspy croak that passes for vox and the stripped down guitars are the very embodiment of black metal simplicity, while the practically non-existent production resulted in the bass being totally inaudible and the drums dissolving into an undifferentiated sludge. These are far from being negatives, as _Transylvanian Hunger_ embodied the very spirit of black metal and formed the seed from which it was to grow. Much imitated, but never equalled, _TH_ stands above almost all others.

Enslaved - _Vikingligr Veldi_ (Voices of Wonder, 1994)

Unlike most of their peers, Enslaved eschewed Satanism in favour of a neo-Pagan world view, focusing heavily on Norway's Viking heritage. Many bands would advocate similar ideas, but Enslaved were probably the first to do so (barring Bathory's Viking era material). _Vikingligr Veldi_ is a delightfully lengthy and repetitive affair, utilising the same cold Norse production as Immortal's _Pure Holocaust_. But instead of playing furious black metal, a greater emphasis is placed on creating atmosphere, inducing an almost trance-like state in the listener. Like all other albums mentioned here it is a unique album, yet it feels necessary to draw attention to this fact here, as it tends to be in the shadow of most of the other bands / albums mentioned in this section.

Emperor - _In the Nightside Eclipse_ (Candlelight, 1994)

One could not imagine a more suitable name for the creative entity centred around the duo of Samoth and Ihsahn, as at the time of their premature demise they were the undisputed lords of black metal. Although it was _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ that brought them widespread acclaim, _In the Nightside Eclipse_ ensured that they already could be considered as one of black metal elite. Emperor fortunately dropped the fuzzy guitar sound of the _Emperor_ EP in favour of a more focused and infinitely more intense sound. Although the lyrics are inferior to those on _AttWaD_, they were nonetheless already superior to those produced by the vast majority of their contemporaries. While they were not the first black metal act to use keyboards, they were probably the first to adopt a more majestic and -- pun unintended -- imperial sound, and helped pave the way for the more melodic and symphonic black metal acts.

Mayhem - _De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas_ (Deathlike Silence Productions / Century Black, 1994)

This album was the result of a mixture of chance, luck, skill and talent. Dead's suicide resulted in the recruitment of Attila (Tormentor) for session vocals, whose unique, weird vocals provided the perfect backdrop to Euronymous' furious riffs. While Euronymous' guitar style was widely influential, Attila's unorthodox vocals didn't exactly set the scene ablaze. The bass (performed by Varg Vikernes or Hellhammer, depending on which story you choose to believe) is unusually prominent and sounds particularly ominous on tracks such as "Pagan Fears" and "Life Eternal". The drumming is impeccable, provided by black metal's best drummer, Hellhammer. All of these factors combined to form one of the definitive black metal albums, one which remains a classic ten years after its first release. This album also proved to be the albatross around Mayhem's collective necks, as while it was massive progression from their primitive death metal roots, such was the import of this album that all of their subsequent work was doomed to be in its shadow, irrespective of the quality.

Concluding Thoughts

It will be interesting to see what the next few years will bring to black metal. As I mentioned earlier, I strongly believe the impetus behind black metal's fourth wave will be in Eastern Europe. This may be somewhat muted, as the National Socialist tendencies will act as a dampener on more widespread adoption. Nonetheless, Slavic black metal will come to dominate black metal in years to come. Scenes in France and Germany, as well as in many other countries, will obviously continue to develop and coalesce; however, eyes will be trained further east.

This will not result in the disappearance of any black metal subgenre -- there will be a place under the sun (moon?) for the raw shameless Bathory copycats as well as the more futuristic acts.

(article submitted 31/8/2004)


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