My memory of hearing black metal for the first time isn’t nearly as vivid as my memory of hearing about it. In junior high I skimmed a review of Burzum’s 1996 album Filosofem, long considered one of the canonical black metal releases, primarily because the album looked kind of cool. But not one paragraph in and the lede was there for all to see: This album—which enjoyed a couple decades’ worth of acclaim after the fact—was made by Varg Vikernes, a musician who at the time was incarcerated for the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous. There may have been some mention of the church burnings that black metal musicians had committed at the time. There definitely wasn’t any mention of Varg’s white nationalist views, which became a more prominent aspect of his persona. But I still took something away from the album well before I heard a note of it—no matter how the album sounded, I’d have trouble getting past the problematic nature of the artist that made it.
Filosofem turned 20 a few years back, and for the most part metal media seemed to (rightly) let the anniversary pass without ceremony. Metal media and fandom gets a lot of things wrong a lot of the time, but one thing that seems pretty easy to accept is to not give undue attention to that racist troll. However, it’s not as if Burzum is on an island when it comes to troubling behavior from artists, and the metal canon still feels a bit overcrowded with assholes.
This year, a number of other albums both acclaimed and notorious hit significant anniversaries, including Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse and Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Each of them are celebrated, understandably, as helping to shape the sound of black metal as we know it, as well as to popularize it. They’re also rife with problems. In his Quietus article viewing the black metal landscape of 1994 through a contemporary, sober lens, Ben Handelman describes Nightside Eclipse as having “a sense of beauty…that many of their peers either failed to capture or hadn’t sought out to begin with,” before contrasting that fact with drummer Faust’s 1994 conviction of murdering a gay man. The band reunited with him after he served a 14-year sentence for the crime, touring for the 20th anniversary of the album. There’s something to be said for redemption and giving someone the chance to be rehabilitated. Even so, there’s something particularly tone-deaf about getting the band back together—including the drummer who went to prison for a hate crime.
Mayhem is an even messier story. Of the four musicians on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, two of them are the central figures in Norwegian black metal’s most notorious narrative, as showcased in the newly released film Lords of Chaos: Varg Vikernes, who played bass on the album, and guitarist Euronymous, whom Vikernes murdered. Murder is only the tip of the iceberg, especially when you consider how vile a human being drummer Hellhammer (no relation to the Swiss band that became Celtic Frost) has proven to be over time. In the book Lords of Chaos, Hellhammer is quoted as saying “Black metal is for white people.” And in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, he said he “honors” Emperor drummer Faust because he murdered a gay man. Vocalist Attila Csihar, despite a penchant for wearing grotesque masks onstage, to my knowledge is a pretty regular guy by comparison to (gestures broadly) all of this. As far as I know…
It might sound like I’m saying this is a black metal problem. It’s not. Take Pantera, ostensibly a thrash-metal band that infused their sound with some southern boogie and proto-nü metal aggression and whose legacy is bigger than most black metal bands could ever hope to leave. Their album Vulgar Display of Power sold over two million copies and peaked at number 44 on the Billboard charts—though by today’s standards, those kinds of sales would most certainly put them in the top 10. They also prominently displayed the confederate flag—a symbol of our nation’s racist history—and frontman Phil Anselmo has had a few nasty public displays of white pride.
This is also, I should note, not just a problem from metal’s past. Loudersound recently ran an article celebrating Behemoth’s The Satanist as “the greatest extreme metal album of the 21st century.” There’s no doubt that it’s an album that showcases a lot of talent, and an impressive modern update of black metal. But it’s also kind of hard to care about that when frontman Nergal seems to repeatedly stumble into at-best troubling associations and at-worst actual fucking racism, and not-so-convincingly denies some highly troubling rape accusations leveled at his band.
And if it seems like I’m saying bad behavior is even a metal problem, I’m not. One need only look at R. Kelly or Ryan Adams or, hell, a pretty significant portion of Hollywood, to see that abysmal humans exist in every genre and every platform. But somehow, metal fans and critics still can’t stop themselves from giving a pat on the back to people who definitely-to-probably don’t deserve the recognition or acclaim.
The problem, in essence, is us. We’re the ones who elevate them, and we’re the ones who can’t say enough is enough when we absolutely know better. And I’m not letting myself or Treble off the hook. We included Mayhem and Pantera in our list of the best metal albums of all time (which irritated some fans not for that reason but because we included Deafheaven and Converge—I mean, c’mon guys). We also included Behemoth in our list of the best metal albums of the millennium, though I don’t think any of us were actually aware at the time of Nergal’s, uh, tendencies. (Deathspell Omega were intentionally omitted, however.)
I’m not arguing that everybody should stop listening to these albums, necessarily. Do whatever you want. But we sure as hell need to get past the idea of giving the thumbs-up to artists who don’t merit the positive attention. Especially when metal so desperately would benefit from a greater diversity of voices—something it’s doing much better at lately, but still has a long way to go. Yet we’ll never get there if we’re stuck in the sensationalism and apologia of the ’90s. We can do better. It’s not like there aren’t thousands of other metal bands, many of whom are amazing. We can afford to cast off some of the dead, racist weight. Certain artists with abhorrent beliefs or records of doing awful things may be popular, even influential, but it’s not like metal needs them to remain vital or interesting. Even if you eliminate all of the most notorious actors of Norwegian black metal, you still have countless bands that helped shape the genre—Bathory, Hellhammer (this time I mean the Swiss band), Sarcofago, Master’s Hammer, Beherit, Immortal, etc. Metal, even black metal, does just fine.
We’re not there yet, and as I write this Filosofem is still the top-rated black metal album on user-aggregated site RateYourMusic. It’s astonishing to me that somehow we still can’t do better than an overrated album by a racist that’s actually really boring and features a hard-to-justify 25-minute instrumental right in the middle of it. But I still think we’re capable of getting there. Call me an optimist.
The best metal tracks of February 2019
Maestus – “Deliquesce”
Whenever a metal single is released boasting a 15-minute runtime, you know it’s time to get comfortable. Something epic is about to unfold. Oregon’s Maestus specialize in an ornate and graceful take on funeral doom that requires a good amount of time to reveal itself. Not that “Deliquesce,” the title track from their new album, doesn’t make their intentions clear within the first couple of minutes. Some ethereal piano, ornate gothic flourishes and a sense of grandeur permeate the track, though none of it ever quite overpowers the sheer force of the band’s roaring low end and harsh shrieks. Still, it’s the meditative and gentler aspects of their sound that make Maestus one of the most intriguing bands of this still young year.
From Deliquesce, out now via Code666
Kaleikr – “Neurodelirium”
Icelandic band Kaleikr is a newish band of metal veterans, and it shows. The songs on their debut album Heart of Lead are at once direct and labyrinthine, cerebral and muscular. “Neurodelirium” certainly leans toward their more progressive edge, with rhythmic changes and an absolutely jaw-dropping instrumental showcase. And yet in the midst of all this the band still finds a great hook at every turn. It’s mind-bending progressive black metal that still makes a point of offering some great melodies for the listener to sink their teeth into. And for that matter, the album art is equally awesome.
From Heart of Lead, out now via Debemur Morti
Magic Circle – “Departed Souls”
Traditional doom metal seems to never go out of style. Whether it emerges under the guise of stoner rock or wrapped in a campier occult-rock package as so many bands around a decade ago did (with varying degrees of flute), trad-doom just never loses its appeal. Nor should it—Sabbath worship done right almost always scratches a certain itch, even if it’s not always entirely essential. Pittsburgh’s Magic Circle are some of the best at it, however. “Departed Souls” is even more of a ’70s-style riff fest than their previous album, 2015′s Journey Blind. In fact, I dare say this is just a heavy classic rock song, and that pretty much rules. The band chugs and choogles, boogies and struts, and it’s a lot more fun than mere blasphemy for its own sake. Hoist your lighter, play some wicked air guitar or just crank the fuck out of it in your Trans Am or wizard-airbrushed van. “Departed Souls” is here for you to rock out, my friend.
From Departed Souls, out March 29 via 20 Buck Spin
Waste of Space Orchestra – “The Seeker’s Reflection”
I’ve never been to Roadburn. It’s one of the few festivals left that I aspire to check out but haven’t (though the much more accessible Psycho Las Vegas is still pretty badass). There’s a good reason for that—it’s in the Netherlands, which is a bit of an expensive plane ticket. But it’s also the kind of festival where you can see Thou play three separate thematically unique sets, for instance, or where Converge will play a special set of their longer, dirgier songs with guest appearances from Chelsea Wolfe and members of Neurosis. It’s also where Waste of Space Orchestra was born. The project is a collaboration between Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising members, which was created to debut at Roadburn in 2018. The hour-long live collab has since translated over to the studio, and Waste of Space Orchestra are delivering an album’s worth of their weird alchemy in April. “The Seeker’s Reflection” is the first selection to be revealed, a peculiar piece of roaring psychedelic metal that sounds completely at home next to Oranssi Pazuzu’s catalog, but also part of its own weird orbit. It’s heavy, and it most certainly kicks ass, but there’s a lot of alien strangeness happening. It’s metal taken to its sci-fi extreme.
From Syntheosis, out April 5 via Svart
Inter Arma – “Stillness”
Any new music from Inter Arma is reason to celebrate, and with the announcement of a new album from the Richmond, Virginia psych-sludge group (though that only scratches the surface of their musical depth) comes two new tracks, each of which offer polar opposite reasons as to why they’re one of the most vital bands in metal today. Cody Davis already gave a good writeup for first track “Citadel,” a raw and abrasive track that ranks among the band’s gnarliest. But not long after that the band released “Stillness” as part of the Adult Swim singles series. And it’s an absolute stunner. Initially less metal than psychedelic folk, “Stillness” explores the space in the band’s music, its gorgeously gothic acoustic melody speaking more to ominous ’70s UK folk like Comus or Pentangle than any contemporary noisemongers. But at nine minutes long, you better believe they’re building toward something—something pretty spectacular at that. It’s a soaring, powerful song that’s at once one of the band’s prettiest and most spiritual.
From Sulphur English, out April 12 via Relapse
Piece by piece
The best metal albums of the past month:
Astronoid‘s Astronoid: Progressive shoegazing metal that sounds at times more like Danish alt-prog group Mew than any contemporary heshers. That’s a weird and very cool thing indeed. (Blood Music)
Devil Master‘s Satan Spits on Children of Light: This album is just so damn fun. Satanic theatrics, goth-rock atmosphere and hardcore intensity? Yes please. (Relapse)
Downfall of Gaia‘s Ethic of Radical Finitude: The former crust-punk band has developed into an impressive post-metal outfit that blurs genre lines while offering a thoughtful and expansive take on heaviness. (Metal Blade)
Ossuarium‘s Living Tomb: Beastly, dark and dense death metal that’s as filthy and fearsome as the genre gets. (20 Buck Spin)