To a certain degree, everyone who jumps into the field of music journalism does so because of a passionate hunger for hearing something new and exciting. When it comes to finding that something new and exciting, the deeper one digs into new sounds and unheard styles, the more apparent it becomes just how many uncharted musical realms there are to discover. The beauty of following this path of discovery is that, inevitably, embracing one style will provide an entry point to another. Hip-hop may turn one on to grime, drum `n’ bass to dubstep, funk to afrobeat, and so on. The chain, though finite, at times seems boundless.
Diving headfirst into a new genre, however, can be an intimidating task. Without exposure from a friend or acquaintance leaves us to take on much of the task on our own. Where does one start? Who are the best artists? Who are the hacks? And, most importantly, will this path of discovery be of any value to me? If you learn, absorb, or most importantly, enjoy anything in the process, then that musical journey most certainly has value.
With “Hold On To Your Genre,” Treble introduces a new series in which its writers take on a genre, head-first, for the first time. As we sample each style’s numerous delicacies, we hope our readers, in turn, will likewise take something interesting away from the process. There’s always a new genre or style to discover, and sometimes it takes an all-nighter to hear everything it has to offer.
Metal, perhaps more so than any other musical style, can be a particularly forbidding beast. That it’s a genre founded upon the loudest, fastest and most extreme forms of music is really the least of its difficulties. As a blanket term, “metal” can mean anything from the catchy, hard rock sound of the genre’s founders, Black Sabbath, to the near-ambient drones of Sunn0))), to the 30-second grindcore drill sessions of Discordance Axis. And one will find few similarities between any of those. Indeed, metal has no shortage of subgenres, and trying to explain the differences between death metal, thrash, grindcore, doom and metalcore to an outsider is a little bit like teaching the differences between impressionism, pointillism, cubism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, minimalism and Bauhaus on someone’s first visit to a museum.
While it’s difficult enough for some to try to parse the differences between death metal and thrash metal, black metal introduces an entirely new set of challenges. As I told a friend recently, black metal is a little bit hard to put into words, but you certainly know it when you hear it. Yet, unlike, say, metalcore, black metal has the distinction of being a genre rich in mythology and urban legend. And, unfortunately, it’s also one steeped in tragedy. The early ’90s saw the deaths of two members of genre progenitors Mayhem. Vocalist Dead committed suicide in 1991 while, more notoriously, bandmate Euronymous was murdered by Varg Vikernes of Burzum.
The murder of Euronymous is emblematic of how black metal has earned more notoriety and attention for what happened outside of the stage or the studio than for the music itself. Additionally, several Norwegian black metal musicians were imprisoned for arson, having burned historical churches as a means of removing Christianity from Norway and restoring the country’s pagan roots. Then there are the cases of Emperor’s ex-drummer and Suffocation’s now deceased vocalist, who each were convicted of accessory to murder on separate occasions. And let’s not forget the “Norse Aryan Black Metal” statement printed on Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, now removed and attributed to a shock value publicity stunt, as well as Vikernes’ embrace of white supremacist ideology. From a distance, it all seems a bit insane, and with good reason. But with literally thousands of black metal bands having been formed throughout the years, it’s absurd to associate the actions of a few with the majority.
The mischief and mayhem (and Mayhem) of early ’90s Norway is an essential piece of the black metal puzzle, but black metal actually, in a manner of speaking, began with Venom’s 1982 album, Black Metal. Venom, who hailed from Newcastle, England, did not play black metal as we know it today. Part of the British new wave of heavy metal, they played a more accessible speed metal style similar to Judas Priest or Diamond Head, albeit with a much more ridiculous Satanist schtick. However, the band’s concept of a more `evil’ style of metal began to evolve into the roots of black metal as bands such as Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Bathory moved away from chugging power chord thrash riffs and into a more cinematic, atmospheric and epic sound, the best description of which would be, well, `evil.’
Once black metal began to flourish in Scandinavia, however, that’s when the genre began to take shape in its most extreme form. With bands like Bathory and Hellhammer providing the prototype, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Immortal carved out an even more hideous niche, taking the black metal sound to more ominous places. It’s around this time that all hell broke loose in terms of some of the musicians’ offstage behavior, but shortly thereafter, as the widespread trade of hundreds of tapes between bands led to greater attention as well as experimentation, more bands like Enslaved and Ulver began to truly stretch the defintion and boundaries of the genre. As time went on, bands like Satyricon ended up on major labels, and Dimmu Borgir was selling records like pentagram-shaped hotcakes. Black metal had gone from underground tape-trading cult to a successful subgenre, and in some cases, even (gasp!) respected.
Despite the importance of black metal’s Norwegian epicenter, it has spread far beyond Scandinavian realms to France, Germany, the Ukraine, Australia and the United States. In fact, many of the most interesting black metal and black metal-influenced bands to emerge in recent years haven’t been from Norway or Sweden. France and the U.S. are especially notable, as the former’s Alcest and Deathspell Omega and the latter’s Wolves in the Throne Room, Cobalt, Xasthur and Nachtmystium have released some of the genre’s most interesting albums. And, by and large, the U.S. black metal scene has avoided the drama that erupted in Norway simply by focusing on making interesting music rather than creating rivalries or stirring up controversy. There are, however, exceptions. Leviathan’s Wrest was recently arrested on rape charges, and Nachtmystium was booted from Scion Rock Fest for having Nazi affiliations. To clarify, Nachtmystium isn’t a National Socialist Black Metal band, nor have they ever made any racist or nationalist statements. The incident stems from an early release of the band’s on a label with National Socialist Black Metal affiliations, which is enough to give someone pause. Yet, frontman Blake Judd took a defensive position after the fact, stating that he’d rather stand up for free speech. And Judd, likely not a Constitutional law expert, learned a valuable lesson: the First Amendment guarantees the legal right to free speech, but as talk radio blowhard Laura Schlesinger recently learned, it does not guarantee the right to get paid for said freedoms.
There’s still one important aspect to cover, though: what does black metal sound like? This takes us back to my original point about the difficulty in explaining the differences between black metal and other metal subgenres. It can essentially be boiled down to a few different aspects: drums, vocals and melody. Black metal drums generally take the form of blast beats: rapid fire successions of bass and snare hits with practically no rests, save for the ones placed between cymbal crashes. Then there are the vocals; while death metal or sludge metal vocals tend to be deeper, more guttural, black metal’s vocalists have a sort of throaty croak, sounding more like a reptile than a grizzly bear. And then there are the melodies, which are much more complicated. Where many forms of metal are based in meaty, abrasive and distorted guitar riffs, black metal is not quite as technical, owing more to the dense atmospheric quality of minor key riffs played dramatically in layers. It does, however, vary. Some black metal bands sound more thrash-based, while others have a more ethereal quality. And with the strides that many bands have taken in the past decade, the definition is pretty wide open, ushering in subgenres like Viking metal, atmospheric black metal, blackened death metal, depressive black metal, and extreme opposing political forms, Communist black metal and National Socialist black metal.
As is the purpose of this article, I am not a black metal expert, but I certainly have heard a handful of releases within the genre, and I definitely have the thirst to discover more. My first experience with the genre came in the form of a Dimmu Borgir song on a CMJ New Music Monthly sampler in 1997 or so. Now, it didn’t do a whole lot for me, and frankly sounded kind of ridiculous to my ears. But that was a long time ago, and since then I’ve begun to hear elements of black metal show up in other releases from the likes of Agalloch, which have most certainly impressed me. So, I’ve chosen six albums for my genre education, some of which I found decent, and others that truly impressed me. My method was to choose two albums of earlier pioneering bands, two albums by mid-period innovators, and two U.S. black metal artists that have gone in entirely new directions with the sound. And I did not include Burzum. Maybe it’s a petty hang-up of mine, but I tend to avoid music made by artists with the kind of rap sheet and ideology that Varg Vikernes has. I’m OK with it.
So, here we go.
Bathory – Blood Fire Death
(1988; Under One Flag)
Having launched a groundbreaking, if lo-fi, sound back in the early ’80s, Bathory is one of the earliest and most prolific black metal bands of note. Yet, the black metal pioneers, heard in their first major foray in to crisp production values, Blood Fire Death, maintained one foot in the thrash metal sound of early Slayer and Metallica records. That said, the blast beats, dark atmosphere and Nordic themes make this album stand out as a black metal, or more specifically Viking metal, primer. Quorthon’s “death croak” became a prototype for the throaty hiss that many a black metal vocalist would adopt later on, and on this album, a vehicle for tales of Viking battles and valkyries. Plus, the introductory track, “Odens Ride Over Nordland,” ushers in some sounds of galloping horses. Compared to the more symphonic, ambient or experimental forms of black metal that have arrived since this album was first released 23 years ago, Blood Fire Death sounds much in line with the raw sound of ’80s metal, black or otherwise. That said, it rocks hard and is surprisingly accessible.
Immortal – Pure Holocaust
Of Norway’s “Big Five” black metal legends of the early ’90s (rounded out by Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone and Emperor), Immortal were the odd band that steered clear of controversy. They’re proud Norwegians, but espoused no racist beliefs. And none of the band’s members were connected to any murders or arsons. That said, the band’s Everyday-is-Halloween image, which included the requisite corpse paint, spiked armbands and occasional swords or battleaxes, made them seem more like a black metal Kiss. The inherent silliness in their image certainly found the band with its share of detractors, but they’re also one of the most successful and long running Norwegian black metal bands, so I suppose it pays to look a little ridiculous. Pure Holocaust tends to be the fan favorite, an album that’s remarkably brief and straightforward by today’s standards, offering eight tracks of rapid-fire overdrive, boasting their share of overblown titles like “Unsilent Storms in the North Abyss,” “A Sign for the Norse Hordes to Ride” and “Eternal Years on the Path to the Cemetary Gates.” As I said, though, despite the pretentiousness that abounds on Pure Holocaust, it’s a pretty straightforward blast of meaty riffs and hyper-speed blast beats, a shot of adrenaline chased by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Of all the albums explored in this feature, it’s the one with the least amount of diversity, and for that matter, no breaks between its surges of Viking-thrash. It’s also, however, the most concise, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be that complex. Many more diverse, unique and conceptual strains of black metal have arrived since then, but for a brief injection of Nordic fury, Immortal can satisfy the urge.
Enslaved – Frost
Boasting one of the longest and most productive careers of the early ’90s black metal bunch, Enslaved has evolved in the last decade toward a more progressive style of metal that has inspired many to dub them the ‘Pink Floyd of black metal.’ But many of those progressive elements were present early on in the band’s career, as revealed on their Viking-centric second album, Frost. Building on the template set out by Bathory in the late ’80s, Enslaved’s take on black metal pulls together various elements, from the standard blast-beat darkness of their peers, to an even more aggressive, Napalm Death-style barrage of murk and even a track or two of gothic folk. Like Ulver, Enslaved does nuance well, and finds ample opportunity to build up tension between their explosive bursts. Yet the group also pushes the boundaries of speed and volume to the point where the pummeling can be a bit overwhelming. That there’s considerable diversity on Frost speaks to Enslaved’s innovative spirit, even if it was released long before the band went prog. But, most importantly, it still kicks your ass.
Ulver – Bergtatt – Et eeventyr i 5 capitler
(1994; Head Not Found)
Ulver is a bit of an anomaly in the field of black metal. The Norwegian band’s debut album, Bergtatt, is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of the genre. Yet, along with 1997’s Nattens madrigal, is just one of only two actual black metal albums they ever recorded. Since then, the band has delved into neofolk, glitch and ambient, and has said in interviews that they don’t really consider themselves a black metal band. When you do it as well as they did the first time around, however, there’s probably no reason to tread the same ground over again. There’s a damn good reason why Bergtatt is as highly regarded as it is. More atmospheric and even meditative than some of their more sensational fellow black metal countrymen, Bergtatt is multi-dimensional and epic. There are acoustic guitars, a wider range of sonic dynamics, and even some clean vocals. The fact that they wear cloaks in press photos doesn’t dissuade one from thinking they’re evil (or at the very least quite mysterious) monks. And Ulver once again reinforces the idea, which has recently been seen in recent albums by American black metal bands like Agalloch, that black metal, in the right hands, can actually be one of the most graceful metal subgenres around.
Xasthur – Subliminal Genocide
(2006; Hydra Head)
Los Angeles has never really been regarded as much of an epicenter for black metal activity, but one of its most notable artists of the past decade hails from the Southland. Xasthur, the recorded project of the mysterious Malefic (which we learned much more about, including the fact that he has a sense of humor, in this Self-Titled profile by Kory Grow), is frequently categorized as ‘depressive black metal’ for being a vessel for morose, dirge-like compositions. Couple this Joy Division-like approach to the genre with the band’s alignment with Hydra Head, and you’ve got plenty of fodder for kvltists to cry “hipster.” But we’re past that, right? Hipsters have been crashing Nachtmystium shows long enough that hardly anyone notices anymore. Nonetheless, Xasthur’s style is both intriguing and sonically stunning. The heavy wall of distortion and noise makes it difficult to decipher any of Malefic’s roars, but then again black metal was never known for having vocal clarity. However, on the contrary, the heavy layers of sound on Xasthur’s Subliminal Genocide are almost shoegazer-like in their density and beauty. This is not bright or easily accessible music by most standards, but as black metal goes, it’s quite breathtaking.
Cobalt – Gin
(2009; Profound Lore)
There’s no shortage of interesting biographical angles to many of US black metal’s best bands, from Wolves In the Throne Room’s pro-environmental forest commune persona to Xasthur’s cryptic and relatively anonymous L.A.-dwelling mastermind Malefic. Likewise, even on a purely non-musical level, Cobalt is a fascinating band, comprising multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder and singer/guitarist Phil McSorley. McSorley, an officer in the US Army, has spent much of his days in recent years stationed in Baghdad, which actually keeps the band from having much of a live presence, if any. Perhaps because of this, the band’s Last.fm profile has labeled them “controversial,” but the band is apolitical, instead dedicating the album to Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway. And perhaps that’s even more controversial to the black metal holdouts still interested in Satanism. Nonetheless, as a black metal band, Cobalt is extremely non-traditional, owing just as much to sludge metal, crust punk and post-rock. In fact, much of Gin finds the duo treading the epic sludge sound of Neurosis, which is definitely a plus. Swans’ Jarboe even lends her vocals to a pair of tracks (one’s actually spoken), a fitting collaboration given the dark, avant garde nature of the band. PopMatters‘ Adrien Begrand named it the best metal album of 2009, and with good reason: this is powerful, uncompromising music that defies convention.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.