Arguably, the early '90s can be considered the most productive period for black metal, giving rise to a number of distinguished scenes around the globe. While Euronymous' Inner Circle was busy raising havoc up north, a smoldering, darkened impetus was building up near the Mediterranean shores which would eventually prove to be one of the most productive and yet perhaps the most underrated of European scenes. Maybe because it was overshadowed by the incidents in Norway, or more importantly because most of the bands themselves involved in those years have long since silenced, the early Hellenic black metal scene has remained largely ignored even by genre devotees.
Nonetheless, ask any self-respecting metalhead about the aforementioned scene and he'll be quick to quote you the infamous three: Rotting Christ, Necromantia and Varathron. Of course, although history has primarily saved these three names, the scene itself has offered a considerably larger number of gems from bands which still dwell in obscurity even nowadays, more than ten years after the great boom of the early '90s. Since it is nigh impossible to decisively pin-point the exact quality that gave Hellenic black metal its uniqueness, first a small presentation of the three most influential bands is in order to provide a more generalized idea of the genre.
The most famous and almost synonymous with the genre, Rotting Christ first took form as a threesome back in 1987, then comprising Sakis on vocals and guitars, Jim on bass and Sakis' brother Themis on drums. Their first forage into the annals of extreme metal by the then sixteen year old Sakis and his fellow band-members would see them mostly fidgeting around grindcore. It wasn't until the _Passage to Arcturo_ EP was released that the band would show its most promising direction -- a release that was good or 'bad' enough to convince the notorious Euronymous to sign them to his Deathlike Silence Productions label, a decision that never actually saw fruition. There are still fans who think that the aforementioned EP is the definitive of the RC sound and arguably the best from all subsequent RC releases. However, a more objective observer might beg to differ; their highly regarded debut, _Thy Mighty Contract_, was released in 1993 through Osmose Records and it was this album that launched the Christs into global attention. (It seems that 1993 was a landmark year for Hellenic black metal, since along RC's _Thy Mighty Contract_, both Necromantia's and Varathron's debut albums were also released.)
When it first hit the media, music journalists found themselves befuddled by the unique approach the Greeksters were employing in their compositions. Consequently the 'Hellenic black metal' dub was bestowed upon them, which would also grace any release of a similar origin and audial character. A year later, the might I say o-r-g-a-s-m-i-c _Non Serviam_, and also unfortunately their most poorly promoted album, was released through Unisound Records. Following some legal issues with the label, the album would never enjoy the promotion that it rightfully deserved. Strangely, it seems that the band doesn't really mention it in interviews or otherwise written media, again due to the legal issues that preceded. As a consequence, the original pressing (there is at least one bootleg I'm aware of) is their most sought-after album, since at the time of its release it went by largely unnoticed. Of course, their later discography is more than considerable, but I shall restrain myself from delving into their later albums since the primal focus of this essay should be the main events that occurred in the early to mid '90s.
Necromantia are perhaps the most distinct of the three for their infamous idiosyncrasies: complete absence of guitars from their recordings (its place taken by an 8-string bass guitar), abstaining from live appearances, and the relatively low-profile of their members (Magus Wampyr Doaloth and Baron Blood). Their first official release, in which Baudelaire's "Les Litanies de Satan" probably enjoyed its first black metal adaptation, saw the light of day in 1993. Ritualistic atmospheres, maniacal laughter, evil-boding chants, thick and completely unusual compositions, smothered the two tracks that comprised the demo in an ominous, menacing feeling. Their following two albums, _Crossing the Fiery Path_ and _Scarlet Evil, Witching Black_ are yet another two landmarks added to the Hellenic black metal annals which are considerably harsher in their delivery than their scene counterparts. As of late, the ever-present Lethe, who amongst others has taken part in Naer Mataron, Septic Flesh and Horrified, has taken over drum duties.
Finally, no such article would be complete without including the Greek 'swamp lords'. Just by mentioning the monumental _His Majesty at the Swamp_ is enough for their fans to raise an eyebrow. Varathron seem to have taken the smallest piece from the popularity pie, but that certainly doesn't minimize their merit as an outfit which helped define the Hellenic black metal sound. More 'Mediterranean' in a sense and less of an offshoot from the typical black metal framework of the time, mainly because of their conspicuous heavy metal influences, Varathron built a very solid foundation with their first few releases, which still find themselves untainted by hackneyed plagiarisms. Fronted by one very avid underground aficionado's unique vocal delivery, Stefan "Necroabyssious", the band made a name for itself in the black metal circles. Varathron's compositions were overly guitar driven, distinctively boarding with classic heavy metal at times; primarily characterized by melodic, spine-tingling riffage mostly crawling on mid-tempo rhythms whilst occasionally being bolstered by keyboards and synths which only added to the commanding, epic atmosphere of their albums. Consequently _His Majesty at the Swamp_ and _Walpurgisnacht_ are two of the most defining releases in the Hellenic black / heavy sub-genre. Akin to Necromantia's low-profile status, Varathron are rarely seen on stage, although they have played a number of shows.
All three so disparate in terms of musical delivery, but still under the same aesthetic umbrella, the 'unholy triad' of Hellenic black was nothing less than the musical powerhouse that spawned a number of ambitious outfits thereof. The Greek underground was then teeming with a large number of uprising groups, all carrying, through their own personal touch, that typical sound that made the genre so distinct. Following is a concise listing of some of the most highly regarded bands that sprouted from this extremely fertile scene.
Deviser: One of the older groups, they formed in 1989. Like many a 'true' Hellenic black metal release, there are keyboards aplenty on each of their albums, and they were actually one of the first bands to incorporate them in their sound. Still going strong with _Running Sore_, Deviser make use of violins and female vocals to enhance their music. Magnum opus? _Unspeakable Acts_, without a shred of a doubt. Majestic atmospheres, intricately woven with that unmistakable aura of black metal Greekness, it is truly one of the better releases that the scene had to offer.
Agatus: Formed in 1992 by Eskarth (The Dark One) and Archon Vorskaath. Although laconic in terms of productivity, their _Dawn of Martyrdom_ debut album undeniably showcases Hellenic black metal at its finest. More influenced by Varathron's mid-tempo deluges, there are a lot of heavy metal influences in their slower parts, yet Agatus are a few notches more aggressive.
Zemial: Agatus' brother band, Zemial was formed one year prior to Agatus by the same aforementioned members. Their sole full-length effort _The Glory of UR_, which was released in 1999, is pretty much textbook Hellenic black metal, but nonetheless musically weaker than Agatus.
Fiendish Nymph: Shrouded in obscurity, this outfit borrowed heavily from Ancient Greek tradition both lyrically and even musically, making use of instruments supposedly from Greek antiquity. They switched from folk-tinged black to all out folk ritualistic ambient as Daimonia Nymphe, which is the actual Greek translation of their previous moniker. Their _Sibyl of Elikona_ LP is indeed one interesting piece of black metal, easily identifiable by its entrancing, ritualistic atmosphere.
Kawir: Their initial line-up saw the infamous Necroabyssious as their vocalist before Archemoros jumped on the Kawir wagon. They released a split with Sigh back in 1994 (one of the rarest releases from the Greek underground) before releasing their debut _To Cavirs_. Like Fiendish Nymph, Kawir made extensive use of their antediluvian heritage in their attire, with their debut's lyrics being entirely in Greek. _To Cavirs_ was a pleasingly attention-grabbing album, heavily influenced by Rotting Christ's dark compositions and especially Varathron's epic feeling of their early albums with some heavy metal overtones and of course the occasional flute and female chanting. Their latest, _Arai_, sees them increasing their tempos and decreasing in melody, while switching to Archemoros' interesting (minus pleasing...) vocal delivery, although not weakening in energy by any means.
Vorphalack: Formed by the then Funeral (now Lord Alatoth and only remaining member), Rotting Soul, Than and Alex in the early '90s. Released the _Under the Sight of Dragon_ LP soon after. Although not pertaining to an exactly lucrative career, their contribution is nonetheless considerable.
Nergal: Yet another band doomed to wallow in anonymity. Mostly mid-tempo, claustrophobic songs threaded with discordant keyboard passages made their singular _Wizard of Nerath_ release perhaps one of the aesthetically darkest to come out from the Greek underground.
Legion of Doom: Affiliated with the infamous NSBM movement, once again ancestor worship is the order of the day. Although incorporating a more aggressive approach akin to more Northern musical forms, their origin is instantly recognizable in the melodic song structures that abound especially in _For Those of the Blood_ and _Kingdom of Endless Darkness_.
Thou Art Lord: Initially comprised of Rotting Christ's Sakis "Necromayhem", Necromantia's Magus Wampyr Doaloth, Gothmog and one Lord Daemon on drums, Thou Art Lord can be regarded as an all-star assemblage. Unsurprisingly, their first two releases simply reek of Rotting Christ influenced passages, which in unison with more belligerent, pummeling thrash-isms on the rhythm section still managed to give this unusual outfit its own personal character -- although it was _Eosforos_ that would prove to be their strongest effort from that era.
So what is the status quo of today's Hellenic black metal? With both Necromantia and Varathron (their latest album not being exactly on par with their previous releases) currently dawdling in a lengthened state of hiatus and Rotting Christ far from their incipient musical outburst, it seems that the archetypal Hellenic sound of the early '90s has finally succumbed to temporal pressures. Nonetheless, the evolutionary continuation persists; the scene itself has all but silenced, with bands such as Nocternity, Ravencult, Darkthule, Macabre Omen, Enshadowed, Order of the Ebon Hand and Naer Mataron, which although vaguely reminiscent of their predecessors, are still proving that the Greek scene is as active as ever. For the rest of us, the legacy of those early bands remains in their records; staying far from lurid pretentiousness, which the embellished Norwegian scene so fervently indulged in at the time, they managed to give black metal a fresh outlook, which perhaps was not altogether genre-defining (or generally influential for that matter) but certainly interesting and innovative.