Nine Circles ov…”Fixing” The Metal Hammer 40 Best Black Metal Albums…Ever?

fixing black metal

* 8/29 mea culpa: After some robust discussion online I’ve added a new paragraph addressing in part the thorny issue of including “problematic bands” in a list such as this.  Providing proper context is always important, and I failed to do that.  The fault is mine, and I hope the added commentary helps clarify the choices made.

Ah, social media…where would we complain and spit our vitriol over “Best Of” lists if we didn’t have you? Last week’s ire in a buttercup came from Metal Hammer‘s list of “The 40 Best Black Metal Albums Ever” — a post that at its heart really just outlined 40 really good to great albums influential to the genre over the course of three decades. Compiled and with commentary by Dayal Patterson, a man that knows a thing or two about black metal, the article (I’m guessing titled by parent company Louder/Future Pic to generate more clicks — successfully) instead served as fodder for other sites to call out and complain over as well as get the always sensible metal community to froth at the mouth over what was and wasn’t on a list that in all reality serves as a pretty nice introduction to the early evolution of a now expansive and diverse genre.

Well, for this edition of Nine Circles ov…. we show that we’re not above our own cheap commentary, even if it’s at our own expense…  

I’ve talked about my view of lists before, so rather than go over that again there’s a couple things I want to address specifically with regards to the Metal Hammer list, the responses I’ve seen to it online, and the (rudimentary) logic that governed the additions I’ve listed below. Some of this should go without saying, and I fully embrace the cries of “OLD MAN!” that will inevitably follow. That being said:

IT’S NOT A BAD LIST — Are many of the picks obvious? Sure. Are many of the picks skewed to older, more established bands and albums? Yup. Is everything from 2009 on basically ignored? Most definitely.  Are some of the picks somewhat dubious as to their black metal bona fides, especially as we have come to segment and parse out subgenres like they’re flyers at a swap meet? Well… dubious…but, we’re talking about the overall evolution of a sound, so I have no issue with incredible progenitor albums from the likes of Venom, Hellhammer, and — yes — Sepultura being on this list. But I get your point. That being said, there are some incredible albums on here, and some nice surprises you don’t usually see on Black Metal lists like the EXCELLENT selections from Forgotten Tomb and Evilfeast.

YEAH, BUT THAT TITLE! AND THE OPENING PARAGRAPH! — Folks, this is the Internet, where all that matters is the almighty click. Far fewer people would click on an article titled “40 Black Metal I Like & Think are Important.” I mean I might, and I suspect you might, but Metal Hammer isn’t exactly the first place we think of when it comes to extreme music, so they did what they had to do. As far as that opening paragraph, though? Yeah, I’m with you there. But still, you have to admit…

LIKE IT OR NOT, DAYAL PATTERSON KNOWS A SHIT-TON ABOUT BLACK METAL – I mean the dude wrote two full books, countless chapter books and articles devoted to the history of the genre. You may not agree with his picks, but let’s acknowledge this isn’t some amateur writing something with absolutely no background or credentials. You know, like me!

* YEAH, BUT SOME OF THOSE BANDS ARE FILLED WITH VILE, SHITTY PEOPLE!  WHY WASTE ANY SPACE ON THEM WHEN THERE ARE BETTER, LESS PROBLEMATIC BANDS OUT THERE?! – I hear you, and what’s more you’re right: there is a larger issue at stake when we hold up certain bands or albums in the light without also acknowledging that the heinous actions or rhetoric or belief systems that espouse hate or intolerance is something that should not and cannot be ignored.  Whether it’s Jef Whitehead’s 2011 arrest and charge of sexual assault and domestic battery, the church burnings and murder that surround Emperor, or even Neige from Alcest’s early associations with Peste Noire, a band with ties to NSBM, the fact remains that we cannot afford to live in a vacuum where art can be separated from artist, where it can sit unsullied by the actions that created or supported it.

So yes: for historical context you’ll see some bands and albums that had a huge influence both on the genre as a whole and on me as a younger person coming to understand a style of music that spoke directly to him.  But let me be clear: inclusion in this case is NOT endorsement.  People coming into a list like this or Metal Hammer that aren’t as familiar with the music should know some of the bottom dwelling shit that has gone on.  And for the folks that do, we need to listen and understand that the less we suppress it, the less we color our references behind shades of “historical context, ” the more we make clear that this is a very real issue that has far reaching consequences, the better and more supportive we can be as a community.

For my own small part, I take full responsibility for the original version of this post not actively living up to that belief.  I should have known better, and didn’t.  Thank you for the comments and discussion online, and to those I spoke to personally for helping me to understand.  I hope this in some small way helps to make the discourse moving forward a better one.

BUT THERE ARE SO MANY BETTER ALBUMS THAN THE ONES ON THIS LIST! – You know what? I agree. But this isn’t my list — or your list, for that matter. It’s Dayal’s. You can agree or disagree with it, and the truly amazing wonderful stupendous thing is YOU CAN ALSO MAKE YOUR OWN LIST! Seriously, no one should be the arbiter of your own taste except you, so use this list as a guide to albums you’re not familiar with, and maybe your own list will expand. Maybe it’ll just solidify further, which is also perfectly okay…don’t sweat it. “But Chris!” you cry in between mouthfuls of indignation and rage, “I have every right to criticize this list!” Yup, you do. But my advice here would be to criticize it with your own content and ideas instead of blindly yelling that they put the wrong Darkthrone on the list. (They did, incidentally; the correct answer is either Transylvanian Hunger or my favorite, Panzerfaust.)

9 Albums to “Fix” the List

black metal fenriz

I know…I’m really burying the lede here.  But before launching into my nine (actually 11) picks, I wanted to call a few things out:

  1. There are no albums from bands already represented on the list. Look, I love Darkthrone and Immortal but no WAY would I have chosen A Blaze in the Northern Sky or Pure Holocaust as my picks. But since there’s at least some representation for those bands, I’ll let it go and focus on artists that for whatever reason did not make the list.
  2. These are not my “favorite” black metal records. Well, some of them definitely are, but like you (I’m assuming) my list of favorite black metal bands and album is a constantly evolving thing, and the beauty of the genre, especially now, is how there are always new facets to discover. Some of the best black metal I’ve heard has come out as recently as last month, and I’m always eager to hear what’s on the horizon.
  3. This is NOT the final word. Lists are nothing more than a chance for a dialog. What’s missing? What do you love? Why? Like anything we love, this is an open call to discuss, argue, and most importantly share what you love about black metal. We have these comments open for a reason, and I’m excited to share and hear what you think I need to hear.

Okay, we’re over 1,000 words at this point, so let’s get into it, shall we?

Alcest - Souvenirs d'un autre mode

The debut album by Alcest takes black metal and douses it with a healthy dose of The Cure and My Bloody Valentine to create a stunning and emotional album that never loses sight of its origins — even as it twists them into sweeping melancholic forms. Over a decade later, mainman Neige has evolved the music of Alcest into something greater than the sum of its parts, but that sweeping disparity on display on “Printemps Emeraude,” which opens Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde, will remain one of my favorite pieces of music ever.  Plus this introduction to **shudder** blackgaze paves the way for another album down the list so prepare yourselves…

bethlehem - dark metal

Straddling the realms of black, death, and doom, Bethlehem’s debut album Dark Metal would come to define an entire movement, as well as provide the inspiration of much of the current DSBM scene. If there’s a blast beat I can’t recall it, but tracks like “The 11th Commandment” and “3rd Nocturnal Prayer” have a weird progressive element that would later be taken up by bands like Enslaved to ridiculous endpoints. Honestly, you can swap this with Strid’s End of Life demo or Arkona’s Imperium (seriously, check this out) and I’d be equally happy, but there’s something about Dark Metal that refuses to let go once you hear, so that’s the one on this (my) list.

blut aus nord - the work which transforms god

Blut aus Nord has continuously stretched the boundaries of what black metal could be as early as their 1995 debut Ultima Thulée. And while my heart would go with the massive 777 series of albums, the album that transformed the game in terms of black metal and dark, twisted progression was 2003’s The Work Which Transforms God.  Unlike more overtly “progressive” bands like Enslaved, Blut aus Nord wrapped their unique brand of black metal in a warped and twisted tunnel, not unlike bands like Portal and Schammasch are doing today.  Check out “The Choir of the Dead” and “Metamorphosis” for a taste of how this thing was already being perfected in the 90s.

cradle of filth - dusk and her embrace

I was going to make the joke asking if you remember a time when Cradle of Filth wasn’t a black metal joke, but the truth is their last album: 2017’s Cryptoriana – The Seductiveness of Decay was a crushing return to form for the British band. Truth be told the band has plenty of quality records, but their second album Dusk…And Her Embrace holds a special place in my heart for its over the top flamboyance, something few bands could equal (Dimmu Borgir certainly, Sigh as well). The whole first half of the album is killer, from “Heaven Torn Asunder” to “Malice Through the Looking Glass” imbue the music with a theatricality seemingly lacking in more, well, credible black metal… until you look at all the corpse paint and realize at its heart bands like Gorgoroth and every lo-fi tape only nom de guerre are doing the same thing to a certain degree. Me? I’d rather have fun and 100% embrace the drama of it all like Dani Filth and Co. do on this killer record.

deafheaven - sunbather

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the impact Sunbather, the second album from San Francisco’s Deafheaven has had on extreme music. And I’ll be the first to admit it’s not my favorite album of theirs (that would be New Bermuda, thank you), but it doesn’t stop me from admitting how influential the album has been both on modern black metal and the discourse around it. We can argue endlessly over how the band corrupted the purity of black metal (rather than do what most music does, which is ingest components and spit them back out into something new), or how the band sold out (as if anyone outside of Metallica is really making a lot of money in this genre), or how it’s just music for hipsters (Really? All my hipster friends are listening to Post Malone and have no fucking IDEA what to make of this music). The truth of the matter is you can argue until the milk white moon puts the cows to sleep (thank you Carl Sandburg) but I’ll be sitting here mesmerized by tracks like “Dream House” which withers the soul with washes of beautiful sound. You do you, though…

leviathan - tenth sub level of suicide

For a guy who is essentially a DIY one-man black metal band, the first thing I noticed about the list was a lack of representation for what I hold dear to my heart. And while I could have (and maybe should have) gone with other options like Xasthur’s Telepathic With the Deceased or Subliminal Genocide I went with the mighty Wrest, whose turn as Leviathan has wrought some of the most twisted, evil and angry music ever put to tape. And though I spent more time lately with later albums like Massive Conspiracy Against All Life my early days trying to forge an identity as a musician were spent engrossed in the vile dirt and grit of 2003’s The Tenth Sublevel of Suicide. Again: this isn’t a favorite album and it’s not something I come back to, but as a progenitor of the DIY ethos I subscribe to, it’s a milestone, even as I now look to peers like Void Ritual and Clouds Collide for my current inspiration.

Panopticon

Well, as long as we’re on the subject of bands that have influenced my own musical direction, and keeping in the spirit of DIY one man bands, Austin Lunn’s Panopticon has been at the front along with bands like Twilight Fauna and Evergreen Refuge to light the heart of their music with the dirt and bones of their region, their community, and their lives. Kentucky was the first album to really make me take notice of how black metal can imbue their music with the heritage (outside of Norway) but 2014’s Roads to the North solidified that quality, bringing everything Lunn has done before into the icy beauty that would only evolve further on subsequent albums. Between the bluegrass of “Norwegian Nights” and the ripping majesty of “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky,” Panopticon weaves together a tapestry of time and place that’s both unique to his situation and universal to our experiences as human on this fragile Earth.

vinterland - welcome my last chapter

No list would be complete with an obscure, hard to find album. And for me there was little choice: I toyed with Judas Iscariot’s Thy Dying Light or even Sigh’s debut Scorn Defeat. But my ears had the final say, and Welcome My Last Chapter, the debut and sole album by Vinterland it was. Melodic and atmospheric black metal that roiled and tore with emotional abandon, I felt like this was something more people needed to be in touch with, even if its availability was limited.  So imagine my surprise when lo and behold our own Literati Overlord Corey covered it as a Retrospective over three years ago.  Just goes to show you there is no stone left unturned in metal. And as Corey so eloquently put it in his piece, nothing detracts from its true essence—powerful, dark, despair-ridden black metal. This is primal, atmospheric black metal that still holds its own against everyone else over 20 years later.

wolves in the throne room - two hunters

The last (official) entry was the hardest. One of the biggest gaps in the Metal Hammer list was the lack of USBM and in particular what we’re calling (for lack of a better term) Cascadian Black Metal. And if I’m being honest my heart would go to Agalloch and The Mantle, which is one of my favorite metal albums of all time. But Wolves in the Throne Room got into my ears first, and Two Hunters, their second full length and first for Southern Lord was my first exposure to the band. Methodical and almost glacially paced, the album conjures the age and wisdom of the trees dotting the Pacific Northwest, and the fury of storms that wash over the land. I don’t know if the band has crafted a finer song than epic closer “I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots” and their willingness to push boundaries and experiment where their music should take them — for better or for worse — only bodes well for how black metal as a whole will progress into the 21st century.

BONUS LIST REPLACEMENT!

I know I said I wasn’t going to pick any bands already represented on the list, but the callous grouping of Emperor and Enslaved as ONE ENTRY is almost too heinous to the extreme. Forget the fact that they picked the great but admittedly rough 1993 split to represent two of the finest black metal bands to ever have the genre affixed to their names. So instead, allow me to graciously replace this unspeakable conjoined slight with two offerings of my own:

There’s a rightful lot of ink spilled over Emperor and their debut In the Nightside Eclipse, but when reviewing their discography as a whole, the Emperor style really didn’t come into sharp relief until 1997’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. That’s where it all started for me, with the regal intro of “Al Svartr (The Oath)” jumping into the keyboard and symphonic driven fury of “Ye Entrancemperium.” It’s still the Emperor album I tend to revisit, and its combination of symphonic fire and progressive pomp are a deadly combination many have tried and failed to emulate years alter.

On the other side of the coin Enslaved had put out some genuine black metal classics (Frost, Eld) prior to their seventh album, 2003’s Below the Lights. But the same holistic view I took to Emperor applies here as well: when looking at their whole discography and their musical identity, Below the Lights feels like where the band really carved out an identity of their own and became something other than what everyone else was doing. Sure, you can say the signs were there earlier in albums like 2000’s Mardraum – Beyond the Within but does anyone honestly listen to that album anymore? The style that would come to full bloom on classics like Isa and the more recent E can find their foundations in the push and pull of genres within the middle section of “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” and the folk-tinged prog of “Queen of Night.”

I chose these nine (well, eleven) albums to complement what to me was an already robust list of classic and forward thinking black metal.  Are there gaps?  Certainly, and if I were to construct a list of my favorite black metal right now it would be full of newer bands like Anicon, Belus, Cobalt, Dumal, Earth Moves, False, Gevurah, Havukruunu, Imperium Dekadenz, Jassa, Krallice, Ludicra, Mare Congnitum, Nachtmystium, Oak Pantheon, Progenie Terrestre Pura, Qafsiel, Ruins of Beverast, Somnium Nox, Twilight Fauna, Uada, Void Ritual, Waldgeflüster, Xanthochroid, Yellow Eyes, and the weird amalgam that is Zeal and Ardor.

But that’s just me.  What are your thoughts on the subject?

– Chris


One thought on “Nine Circles ov…”Fixing” The Metal Hammer 40 Best Black Metal Albums…Ever?

  1. Brett Kendall August 30, 2018 / 7:40 am

    You talk about church burnings like it’s a bad thing.

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