Last month, I discussed my penchant for symphonic metal and how its fandom eventually led me to listen to it with a lot of caution. Now, the three albums I chose for that segment weren’t my first gateway albums, but are three that remain close to my heart and are underappreciated by a lot of listeners. Anyway, for this chapter of the column – and for the sake of a timeline – I decided to talk about a subgenre that has remained controversial despite the claims of apolitical affiliations and people making terrible decisions.
It’s time we talk about black metal.
Extreme metal wasn’t something I was really concerned about until mid-2012 to early 2013, but I was familiar with symphonic death metal to know that death metal was definitely out of my comfort zone and something I wouldn’t be keen to listen to. Thus, when I heard black metal for the first time in early 2011, I actually didn’t know what it was. My first dabble into black metal was the song “Souvenirs d’un autre mode” by Alcest, which I had completely stumbled upon by accident while looking for something else. I had liked the song enough to remember it years later, once I had a Spotify account in 2013. Imagine my surprise when I had access to their entire discography and I was able to listen to the album without any interruptions. Imagine my surprise when I heard the entire album and was blown away by the soft melody and the harsh, inhuman vocals. However, I didn’t recognize this as black metal; I just thought it was something different, something symphonic that I may have missed. I decided to shelve it for another time, as I felt that I would revisit it later once I understood what was going on.
After the symphonic metal fallout, I was itching for something heavier. Despite my love for progressive metal and melodeath, they weren’t scratching it. It wasn’t heavy enough, harrowing enough, or even intense enough for me anymore. Deciding to look elsewhere, I became interested in black metal in 2014 after reading its Wikipedia entry, detailing the history, the reckless decisions made by a bunch of teenagers, and the aftermath of two scene members committing murder and arson. At the time, I decided to invest time into assessing the history of black metal and breaking it down into something digestible. That summer, I found articles written on what was known as black metal theory (BMT), which I had saved and read to my heart’s content. With that in mind, I started to pursue the subject as a research project, where I watched documentaries, took notes on the articles, and wrote my thoughts on the matter. This became known as the Black Metal Project (creative, I know), which I revisit every summer.
However, I didn’t fully become invested in listening to the genre until 2016, as I eventually decided to apply all of my accumulated knowledge into the music. I also wasn’t interested in the music of the early Norwegian scene or even the proto-black metal (i.e. Venom, Bathory) – the lo-fi quality never appealed to me. Why would I want to focus on the past – which has been discussed and speculated upon – when the so-called “third wave” was more appealing to me? I began to moonlight as a reviewer, publishing my own thoughts on the first albums that I had been curious about on Bandcamp – which is essentially how I got my start.
Black Metal Gateway Albums
Alcest – Souvenirs d’un autre monde (2007): Alcest is one of those bands that everyone either knows about or has heard about. Souvenirs d’un autre monde was my first official foray into black metal when I clearly didn’t know what it was. By the time late 2013 rolled around, I understood that black metal was known more for its controversies rather than its music. I decided that it couldn’t be that bad, so I dove straight into it by listening to “Souvenirs d’un autre monde” after re-discovering it. Because this was my first introduction to black metal, I erroneously thought that this is what black metal sounded like: soft, hazy, with alternating vocals that reminded me of nightmares and lucid dreams, and an atmosphere that seemed warm and comforting. For a long time, with Alcest being my only point of reference, I thought that I would find bands that sounded similarly to them. Unfortunately, in most cases, they had been a miss. I was also not impressed with their subjective sound aesthetic – while some bands can pull off the lo-fi sound, it mostly sounded like shit. I even tried listening to Mayhem, but I couldn’t stomach it. From that point forward, I decided to only focus on the things that I was curious about, and Bandcamp provided that resource for me.
To this day, Souvenirs d’un autre monde remains my favorite Alcest album, and I consider Alcest to be one of my favorite bands. They don’t have any bad records, and, if you disagree, I will fight you.
Einar Selvik & Ivar Bjørnson – Skuggsjá – A Piece for Mind and Mirror (2016): In my timeline as a reviewer, A Piece for Mind and Mirror was the first album I ever wrote about, even if it was just for myself. At this time, the Black Metal Project had been running for two years or so, and I decided to tackle the music. Skuggsjá was one of the first albums I found on Bandcamp, back when I was broke and didn’t have a stable income. What caught my attention the most about Skuggsja, outside of the fact that it wasn’t a traditional black metal record, was its conception, as this album was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution. This makes total sense, as when your main export is black metal, it would be wise to ask Einar Selvik of Wardruna and Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved to create music that represents Norway. What I also loved the most about writing about it was the research I did to understand it. I knew this was something I could provide sources for when needed and I had read a lot of interviews and reviews surrounding this album. It also allowed me to look deeper into languages, as I was not acquainted with Norwegian or even Old Norse. Looking back, this may not have been the best review I have ever written, but it was a good start, and I decided to continue with it.
Batushka – Litourgiya (2015): Litourgiya is worth mentioning for two reasons: a) the review I wrote on it allowed me to become part of the Metal Bandcamp family, as it was published a month later after I published it for myself; and b) it was my first official encounter with religion in black metal. Although I did go to a Lutheran university for college, I consider myself to be an atheist, so most of my dabbling into religion has been through classes in art history and research pertaining to religion. What I loved about Batushka was that it introduced an aesthetic that wasn’t seen prominently in black metal – the combination of church language and the imagery of black mass. The fact that Batushka sings in Church Slavonic, the language of the Orthodox Church, added to the authenticity of the band’s overall appeal. Although it surprised me that they didn’t go for a parody of Catholicism a la Ghost – Poland’s official religion is Roman Catholicism – the fact they went for the Orthodox Church aesthetic shows something of an anti-Russian stance. However, we can only infer since we don’t know much about the band. As far their sound goes, they scared the crap out of me when I first listened to them. Litourgiya felt like a sermon about fire, brimstone, and sinning, but it wasn’t going to hurt me or make me feel guilty about sinning. Along with chanting and screaming vocals, they used ecclesiastical bells throughout the album to give it that cool religious aesthetic. This album was definitely out of my comfort zone, and I definitely enjoyed it. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a listener of the genre.
Bonus: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere (2014): For the sake of argument, Skuggsjá would not be considered a black metal album due to its (mostly) folk elements and limited usage of harsh vocals. Because of that, I decided to add The Serpent & The Sphere to this list.
Since the third wave of black metal, the U.S. has taken one of the several mantles in having a dedicated black metal scene that varies between states. To be honest, I am not familiar with the California black metal scene, so, in my education to learn more about USBM, I was led towards the likes of Agalloch, whose image and aesthetic overwhelmed me at first. Although Marrow of the Spirit may have been the first album of theirs that I listened to, I eventually grew to love The Serpent & The Sphere. This was one of the first albums I had been interested in after the fallout, and while it didn’t grab my attention until 2016, I eventually went back and listened to it. To make it short: I was impressed by how awe-inspiring it was. It felt like these guys took me by the hand, gave me a bunch of hallucinogens, and then took care of me while I saw the higher plane and fought God. The Serpent & The Sphere was, essentially, the most enjoyable not-on-drugs acid trip that I have ever experienced. Despite Agalloch disbanding in May 2016, I still tend to revisit this album, even if it’s just to listen to “Dark Matter Gods.” Something about the atmosphere of that song – and the album, as a whole – calls out to me in a comforting manner. It was simple to lose myself in the melody and ambiance of the music, letting me forget things for a little while.
Whew, I had a lot of thoughts on black metal, and it seems that I tend to go for the shoegaze-y/atmospheric brand of the genre. I found those to be my point of interest and I have since pursued with success, finding some that I really liked and some I will stay away from. Obviously, there are a lot of albums that I was introduced to during this time and I didn’t get to put them on this list. Perhaps I will provide a list of them from my cutting room floor.
Tune in next time as I backtrack in the timeline and talk about what happens when looking through genres becomes a bullet hell.
Hasta la proxima!