Friday, August 10, 2012

The Essentials: Black Metal

The second entry in a series where I provide a brief introduction to a sub-genre of metal and then link the reader to 5-10 songs to get them started down the right path. These posts are intended for listeners who are relatively new to the sub-genre in question, so many names will already be familiar to experienced listeners.

Unlike my last entry, which covered Viking metal, black metal is a very large category in the extreme metal world. As such, I had to carefully balance material from its infamous and essential Norwegian scene with samples from other notable scenes, as well as covering the bases of several specific niches and variations within the style. And I had to do all this while staying true to the premise of listing go-to songs that I play myself and that I would use to introduce a newcomer to the sub-genre. Sadly I had to leave off an enormous amount of really crucial material in the process. Because of all these considerations, it is quite possible that knowledgeable readers will take issue with several of my choices, but along with my descriptions and explanations I believe that my selections will be of use to the inexperienced listener.

Black Metal:

Black metal is the dead, twisted, evil branch jutting from the scarred trunk of the metal family tree. Born in the mid-1980s in the frozen reaches of Scandinavia, it built on the over-the-top evil look and sound of bands like Venom and Sodom. In its most basic form it commonly features ferocious speed drumming, intentionally gritty production, blistering tremolo riffs, and vocals which consist more of snarling shrieks than anything else. Over time, bands have expanded the boundaries of black metal in every direction from industrial to symphonic, with varied levels of success. Some of these outgrowths have branched off and taken on their own identities (as Viking metal did at an early stage), while others remain solidly under the black metal canopy. In nearly all cases, though, the central feel of icy harshness and hostility remains a vital part of the music.

In the 1990s black metal became internationally infamous for the association of the sub-genre's core Norwegian scene with a series of church burnings and a highly-publicized murder. This cemented the sub-genre its place as the "Satanic" metal style, an image it still carries to a great extent today.This reputation is not entirely warranted, as there are even a few instances of openly Christian black metal bands (sometimes called "white metal"), but other bands have made an effort to embrace the image.

Dunkelheit -by- Burzum
What better way to start than with the most controversial figure in extreme metal? Those of you looking for a lesson on the history of Norwegian black metal will find Burzum's sole member Varg Vikernes all over the bloodiest pages. The fact that his borderline-Nazi racial and political views are of secondary consideration says a great deal. Convicted of several church burnings and the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Vikernes only recently returned to the free world from his stay in prison. Setting all that aside to focus on the music, Burzum were an extremely influential band in the early years of Norway's black metal development, and their approach is largely responsible for the recent rise of atmospheric/ambient black metal. Every album from the early part of Burzum's career could easily be considered essential to any serious black metal fan. This particular track, off Filosofem (which was actually recorded in 1993, but not released until 1996) is my absolute favorite black metal song. The song titles from this record are often found in two different languages, with the German names being the more commonly listed ones.

Night's Blood -by- Dissection
Walking a fine line between black metal and melodic death metal, Sweden's Dissection released two absolutely monstrous albums in the mid-90s. The Somberlain (1993) and Storm of the Light's Bane (1995) both come as highly recommended as any extreme metal album can be, with this track from the latter standing as my personal favorite from their catalog. Infused with a great deal of melody, and a degree of meat uncommon to black metal, the band pulled from what was happening in their own country's metal scene at the time to give their brand of black metal a distinctly Swedish flavor. As an additional note, I'd strongly advise new listeners to avoid the group's 2006 release, REINKAΩS.

I Am the Black Wizards -by- Emperor
Symphonic black metal first reared its head in the form of Norway's Emperor. To this day, it's never really been done any better. Their 1994 release In the Nightside Eclipse is a strong contender for the greatest black metal album ever recorded, so choosing just one track from it was difficult. I settled on this one, though on another day I could just as easily have chosen any of several others. Sadly the band has not been active in over 10 years, but if I had to single out just one album that a new black metal fan needs, this would probably be my pick.

To Pallas -by- Kawir
Stepping away from Scandinavia for a moment, Greece has arguably the strongest current black metal scene of any country in the world. Rotting Christ are the obvious selection from there, but I've never been particularly drawn to them, and many listeners will actively sidestep that group because of their distasteful name. Varathron released possibly the best Greek black metal album to date, a 1993 record entitled His Majesty at the Swamp. However, in an effort to highlight something a little more recent I have selected my favorite song from 2008's Ophiolatreia by the criminally underrated Kawir.

Pád Modly -by- Master's Hammer
Rising from the primordial ooze of the black metal world, back before the 2nd Wave, as Norway's major scene is often called, there were black metal bands scattered around Europe. Master's Hammer hailed from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and began recording as early as 1987.  Their 1991 album Ritual provides a good sample of the early world of black metal in Eastern Europe, where it has quietly fermented over the years to form pockets of bands throughout the region's former Soviet states.

A Blaze in the Northern Sky -by- Darkthrone
When I am asked to describe black metal in its most fundamental form, Norway's Darkthrone are invariably at the center of my explanation. The band epitomizes everything that is at the core of the black metal, which is pretty interesting considering they began life as a death metal band. But in 1992, 1993, and 1994 the band released their "unholy trinity" of records which still stand at the very heart of black metal's sound. This is the title track from the first of those three records. The other two albums, respectively, are Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger. If you want to see basic black metal, stripped of all its trimmings and standing alone and ugly in the bleak northern desolation, these three records are your ticket.

Sorgens Kammer - Dell II -by- Dimmu Borgir
If Darkthrone is black metal without any fancy decorations, then Dimmu Borgir is a blue spruce in December with a dozen strings of lights, scores of shiny colored balls, and a big golden star on top. The world's most popular black metal band is everything that purists hate, with sparkling production and melodies written to please rather than repulse. Though sellouts they may be, they really aren't so bad as many black metal enthusiasts would have you believe. More importantly for new listeners, their sound is far more accessible than that of many of the entries on this list, making them an effective gateway band. Thus, if you're curious but you just can't seem to get into some of these other bands, Dimmu Borgir can be useful for easing the transition into the sub-genre's more abrasive reaches. This track comes from Stormblåst MMV, which they released in 2005.

Equimanthorn -by- Bathory
In 1987, Swedish legends Bathory released the most influential black metal album ever recorded. Members of the core Norwegian bands have openly admitted that this single record, Under the Sign of the Black Mark, provided the framework around which they each built their own sound. There is always some room for debate as to what exactly the first recording of a specific style is, since the process is one of gradual evolution and the exact defining line can be hard to draw at times. There is very little dispute that Bathory were the first band to record a genuine black metal album (just as they would later pioneer Viking metal), but at what point their early work crossed over from harsh thrash territory into genuine blackness is an item of constant debate. Personally, I'd identify this, their third record, as the first fully developed and clearly recognizable black metal album in their (or any) catalog. Regardless of one's exact conclusion on that front, this album is black gold, as it were. In order to avoid blurring the line with my Bathory selection on my last list, I selected Equimanthorn as an excellent display of the faster and harsher end of their sound.

Solarfall -by- Immortal
Once more to Norway. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the 1990s Norwegian scene really was the big one in this sub-genre. Several bands like Mayhem, Satyricon, and Enslaved just couldn't be crammed into this small space. They are all worth looking into as well, but I just couldn't leave Immortal as nothing but a footnote. Of the groups that arose in that country in the early 90s, relatively few continued to be productive and effective for very long. Immortal managed to keep a good head of steam for roughly a decade, though, by shifting their emphasis over time from blistering speed to epic atmosphere. This track, from 1999's At The Heart of Winter, displays the latter style at its best.

Pillars of Mercy -by- Absu
Rounding things out, a very healthy black metal scene has developed over the years in Texas. Many of these bands have a distinctly blazing-wasteland vibe in lieu of the more typical cold feel. That's not particularly true of Absu, but they stand tall as the titans of Texas black metal, so that's okay. The band has drifted through some death and thrash sounds over the years, often carrying traces of those with them as they go on to other recordings, but it is in the black metal arena that their strongest efforts lie. Their 2001 album Tara, to which the selected track is the first full song, stands as possibly the best black metal album to come out of the United States to date.


  1. Good post on something surely no two fans can agree on.

    I can't fault your Master's Hammer, Bathory, or Darkthrone picks. Logically I think you would start with Bathory and then Darkthrone, but I guess maybe that's a weird thing to nitpick.

    There are a few others I strongly disagree with, and maybe some better examples ("Progenies of the Great Apocalypse" for Dimmu). I would definitely have cut down on Norway (I know exactly which ones I'd cut) and made a little more room for the USBM scene: Cobalt's "Stomach" or "Arsonry" would be the prime examples, or Nachtmystium's "Your True Enemy." I'd also make a nod to post-black with "Feather and Bone" by Altar of Plagues. Maybe also some war metal / bestial black metal, but I'm not sure what I'd pick.

  2. Yeah, I probably went a little too heavy on Norway.