Manny’s Magical Genre Guide: Black Metal

1280px-Black_metal_-_graffity_in_euronymous'_basement
Iconic photo from the basement of Euronymous’s record shop Helvete located in Norway. The basement housed his independent record label “Deathlike Silence Productions”

Directly from the depths of hellish, white teen angst was born the fiery brand of metal known simply as “black metal.” Exactly who coined the term first and which band used it properly is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is how pervasive the genre has been in extreme metal since the early 1980s. While developing mostly in Scandinavia the movement has eventually spread into Europe proper, Asia, the Balkans and the Americas—becoming a global phenomenon. Associated with black metal are plenty of non-musical elements including the legendary use of corpse paint, stage names and extreme secrecy as well as some illegal activities such as church burning, violent assault and murder. It should be noted that while plenty of black metal has been heavily criticized for its white power, Nazi-like lyrics and penchant for hate (more on that later) that doesn’t define the genre nor limit the thematic leanings.

Recap: once a quarter-ish (every three months) I will pick a genre to delve into. When we run out of main genres we can delve into sub-genres, sub-sub-genres and, eventually, geographical specifics of each sub-genre. Each offering will provide there categories: roots, second-tier and current. First we will examine five seminal, foundation albums of the genre. Next we will look a bit deeper into the genre at a few second-tier favorites and developments. Finally, I will make a few recommendations for what’s going on in that genre today.

Last time we covered thrash metal. But now it’s time for something more extreme, so, let’s delve into some black metal.

Warning: Some of the bands listed herein will have questionable politics. Some of the stories surrounding the band will be gruesome (to say the least). Regardless, we must power forward and explore the genre as it is historically represented. For to deny the ugly truths of history is to learn nothing from our past!

In the early 1980s bands like Venom, Bathory and Tom G. Warrior’s projects (Hellhammer and Celtic Frost) began what is commonly know as the ‘first wave’ of black metal. Interestingly, those three bands spanned the UK, Sweden and Switzerland. Black metal would later become more geographically isolated as movements progressed but, in the beginning, it was the race to play something more extreme than anyone else that fueled the first wave. Some of the first wave bands will be covered below but not all of them. In fact, it’s arguable that for today’s black metal scene it’s the second wave that is more important. Regardless, let’s take a brief look at the early roots of black metal.

The term “black metal” first appeared on Venom’s 1982 release simply entitled Black Metal. While the musical contents of the album didn’t provide what would become black metal, the groundwork was laid. Venom, a heavy metal band from the UK were attempting to push the limits of their genre creeping into speed and thrash territory. Another crucial aspect of Venom’s identity was the assumption of stage names, which would become a calling card of black metal musicians. Musically, it was the early work of Bathory which created the framework upon which all Scandinavian black metal would take root.

The first wave spread far and wide throughout Europe including thrash acts like Kreator, Sodom and Death SS. Even Mercyful Fate (with legendary frontman King Diamond at the helm) became part of the scene mostly based on their satanic lyrics and persistent use of corpse paint. Another person who can’t be underrated is Tom G. Warrior of both Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. While Hellhammer was a more raw, punk leaning outfit, they were also part of the first wave. Warrior would later go on to form Celtic Frost which explored a more symphonic side of black metal. (For example their 1987 release Into the Pandemonium.)

As the first wave of black metal died out, and the second-wave emerged, the global influence of the first-wave became apparent. Bands had sprung up across the globe. Rotting Christ (Greece), Blasphemy (Canada), Salem (Israel), Sigh (Japan), Sabbat (Great Britain), Tormentor (Hungary), Destroyer 666 (Australia), Sarcófago (Brazil), Darkthrone (Norway) and Judas Iscariot (United States) were all taking the extreme ideas laid out by the founders in their own unique direction. Remember, there was no internet. Primitive message boards, zines, tape trading and the use of pen pals combined to spread the evil sound.

Briefly, I urge you to take a look at this article detailing the principle rhythm of black metal: the blast beat. Alternatively you can read our interview with Daniel Jackson, the man behind the solo black metal project Void Ritual.

But enough history. Let’s listen to some music. This one is going to be organized somewhat chronologically with one of my favorite bands of all time (Darkthrone) occupying a spot in the second tier merely because of when their material was released.

ROOTS

Burzum – BurzumReleased in March of 1992, the self-titled effort marks the first official studio release of the band. Although they had been making music since 1988 Burzum had only put out a handful of demo releases up to that point. All I will say is that Burzum is a fascinating project that is inextricably linked to our next selection. From church burning, to murder to domestic terrorism, there is plenty to read about here. Regardless of the outside factors (and various white power allegiances) the solo project of Varg Vikernes is one of the earliest forms of black metal laid to tape.

Mayhem – Deathcrush: Another band that had turmoil as well as violent, self-harm filled live performances. Their vocalist, Dead, shot himself in 1991 leaving a suicide note apologizing for the mess. Rumors still persist that certain black metal musicians hold pieces of Dead’s skull around their neck. Due to that turmoil, the band had numerous lineup changes. Further, Varg Vikernes (a one-time member of Mayhem and the man behind the aforementioned Burzum) murdered Øystein Aarseth aka “Euronymous” in 1993. Regardless, their brand of upbeat, punk-laced black metal, full of terrifying imagery and tortured screams was another groundbreaking sound that would forever influence the black metal scene.

Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark: Here we come upon a band nearly without drama. Bathory was the project of Swedish born Tomas Forsberg aka Quorthon. The album below, released in 1987, was Quorthon’s first chance to record using a real studio (and do so with a decent recording budget). The result is what is arguably the single greatest black metal album of all time. Further, the album contains arguably the greatest black metal song of all time, “Equimanthorn.” Quorthon’s desire to push the boundaries and constantly make music that was angrier, faster and louder was only limited by his musicianship. Yet, while his abilities may have left some to be desired, the raw musical product he produced is unagruably some of the single most important extreme metal ever recorded. Sadly, Quorthorn passed away in 2004.

Sarcófago – I.N.R.I.Black metal, although founded in the Scandinavian areas, was not content to remain there. Brazil’s Sarcófago represent the early twigs spreading the culture and sound that was quickly gaining momentum in the colder climates. Released in 1987, I.N.R.I. was some of the fastest music to date. Further, the vocals were markedly lower and darker than their Scandinavian brethren. To say Sarcófago was influential would be an understatement. Nearly every band that will be mentioned in the second and third tiers here will admit to having been heavily influenced by the work of Sarcófago and, in partiault, I.N.R.I.. Ongoing feuds with Sepultura aside, Sarcófago are the undisputed early kings of Brazilian black metal (a scene that, largely due to equipment availabiltiy, altitude and isolation, would produce some of the most raw expressions of the art form).

Darkthrone – Transylvanian Hunger: At this point a choice had to be made whether to include Emperor or Darkthrone in this slot. The choice, for me, is simple. Darkthrone is easily one of my all time favorite bands. Their career began with blistering death metal (Soulside Journey) after which the band pivoted into producing some of the most raw, aggressive and foundational black metal on the planet. Transylvanian Hunger, released in 1994, represents the culmination of their black metal sound and likely their most recognizable black metal album. Darkthrone would eventually lean into the more thrash-oriented stylings (e.g. Dark Thrones and Black Flagsof extreme metal but their black metal touches would forever be apparent. No matter what genre we cover in these things, you can be sure that Darkthrone will figure in somehow

SECOND TIER

Emperor – In the Nightside EclipsePotentially best known to kids nowadays as “that band that Ihsahn used to be in,” Emperor has been putting out solid black metal in Norway since 1991 (with a few breakups, reunions and the like). In the Nightside Eclipse is the first official studio album recorded by Emperor. Released in 1994 the album was the final album for drummer Faust and the only Emperor album to feature Tchort on bass. The exciting part of Emperor is the emergence of real musicianship and ability within black metal. Using elements from the progressive scene and the symphonic genre, In the Nightside Eclipse instantly became a legendary album that is still talked about, raved about, ranked and dissected today.

Taake – Nattestid Ser Porten Vid: Yet another Norwegian band, Taake is likely the most typically ‘black metal’ of the second tier. Taake is largely a one man project by Høst (although there are musicians accompanying him on each release).  Furthermore, Høst (pronounced ho-est) has spent time in prison for violent assault and had his share of white power controversies. Nattestid Ser Porten Vid represents the first installment of what would be a trilogy for Høst. With lyrics in Norwegian, not everyone will understand the word-for-word commentary but, with the raw emotion he pours into his music, it’s quickly clear what his general meaning is.

Satyricon – Nemesis Divina: Shockingly, Satyricon are another Norwegian band that pioneered the second wave of black metal. What sets Nemesis Divina apart from earlier Satyricon work is the pure aggression throughout. Unlike many black metal bands who formed in the early 1990s, Satyricon is actually still playing music.  After Nemesis Divina Satyricon would go on to include elements of hard rock and other ‘lighter’ genres in their work. Regardless, Nemesis Divina is so good that you may easily find people claiming it is the single best black metal album ever recorded.

Enslaved – Eld: Enslaved have long abandoned their more traditional black metal sound. That doesn’t mean that fans have forgotten. While Enslaved is, today, largely a progressive black metal band, there was a time when these Norwegians absolutely brought the blasting filth. With a background in death metal, both Bjørnson and Kjellson brought a certain aggressiveness to their work. Eld, the third studio album by Enslaved, represents the peak of their black metal career and a hint at the brilliant and daring future of Enslaved.

Deathspell Omega – Infernal Battles: Finally leaving Scandinavia we encounter Deathspell Omega who made their music in France. While today France is home to some of the more avant-garde expressions of the genre, Deathspell Omega helped bring more traditional black metal to France. Following the traditional black metal mantra, the band is secretive, elusive and generally bereft of a social media presence. Infernal Battles represents the apex of their earlier career. Released in 2000, the album showcased Deathspell Omega’s raw, Darkthrone-influenced take on black metal. They would later go on to include more technical proficiency and experimentation, Internal Battles is as pure and raw as it gets.

CURRENT

Editorial Note: I began with the intention of including five or six bands that display a range of black metal styles being played today. That list quickly ballooned to over twenty bands. And that was just off the top of my head. So, I trimmed it down a lot. Please feel free to contact me if you’re interest in more. This is a judgment free zone meant to enlighten and inspire! With that said, here are a few selections of recent black metal that in no way do justice to how absolutely full the global black metal scene today is.

Some really exciting things are being done using black metal as the foundation. Usually, these include genre blending. For example, bands have blended folk and black metal. Or Jazz and black metal. Basically, any type of music in exist never can be paired with the basic tenements of black metal. Think of black metal as the beer of heavy metal: it pairs well with everything.

Howls of Ebb – Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic VowsReleasd in 2016 by I, Voidhanger records (by the way, the label name is a Darkthrone referenceCursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows is one of the more exciting experimental albums released of late. If you’re interested in a thorough review we have one here. Briefly, we’re talking about a black metal album that includes vocals that are near rap-like in their deliver combined with catchy, enrapturing and completely absorbing undertones as well as elements of traditional black metal.

Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä: In what might be universally acclaimed as the metal album of 2016, we bring you Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu and their jam band inspired, drone-laden work on Värähtelijä. For an in depth look at the album you can check out our review here. Oranssi Pazuzu are daring, unique and singularly capable of pulling off the brand of black metal that they peddle. Sounding as drug-influenced as early Darkthrone yet completely different sonically, Värähtelijä, provides one of the more cavernous and mind-bending black metal experiences that can be had today.

Gevurah – Hallelujah!: With so many black metal bands taking an anti-Christian stance, it’s refreshing to see one poke around in the catacombs of other Abrahamic faiths. Drawing heavily on the Kaballah, Gevurah deliver some incredibly complex, in depth and accurate lyrics around. If you’re interested in their theology I interviewed them here and wrote an in depth, full review of their album here. But really, just listen to it. It’s beautiful. Musically, Gevurah deliver crystal clear production and heavily solid-state sounding guitars combined with gritty, tough vocals. Their music is more of a journey than a composition.

Leviathan – Scar Sighted: Leviathan is the one-man project of Wrest, aka American born Jef Whitehead. For a full, in depth look at the album you can check out our review here. Essentially, one-man projects tend to be very introspective and Leviathan is no different. Released in 2015, Scar Sighted was beyond well received by the metal community at large. The music is at times bone chilling and at times atmospheric and thoughtful. And, true to form, the man behind the project has landed himself in plenty of controversy.

Ihsahn – After: We would be remiss if we did not discuss the current happenings in the world of Ihsahn. As mentioned before, he’s the main creative force behind Emperor but has since taken off on his experiemental and mesmerizing solo career. For an overview of that solo career we provided a Nine Circles Ov on the matter. But the album I want to focus you on is After. Released in 2010, After is a mix of experimentation, progressive elements and plenty of saxophone. That album is at times harsh, at times grating and at times simply stunning. It’s a work of near perfect genius and an interesting example of the many directions black metal can go.

Mgła – Exercises in Futility: We end on with the Polish black metal band Mgła (pronounced “Mig-Wah”). It’s impossible to not include this album because it’s likely my personal favorite (as well as my cohort Corey’s favorite) album of the last two years. In fact, Corey reviewed it with all the praise in the world here. All that needs to be said is that Mgła create compositions that are interlocking—their albums are meant to be heard in their entirety. The drumming is beyond unique and the vocal range is astonishing. It’s an album you can spin and spin and spin and spin and… well you get the idea. It’s great. Nihilst, misanthropic and hateful, Mgła are pure black metal brilliance.

And thus concludes our second edition of Manny’s Magical Genre Guide. This is a judgment free zone (at least unilaterally). The hope is that if you’re curious about black metal, this should be a great jumping off point. Please feel free to find us on twitter (@_ninecircles) or e-mail (ninecirclesblog@gmail.com) suggestions for the next edition and please feel free to join in the discussion in the comments section. Suggest your favorite black metal albums.

Metal is about making human connections and sharing experiences (or at least it can be if we want it to).

– Manny-O-War

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