A History Of Metal: Black Metal

Black Metal isn’t as much a genre as it is an ideology. The main notion from the typical Black Metal band is to be as different from the mainstream genre of Metal as it typically can be. This can involve anti-Christian, Satanist or Pagan views on life (especially within it’s most earliest forms). Black Metal is quite a hostile environment, especially during the second wave of the genre within the 1990’s. This edition of A History Of Metal will be controversial but within this will highlight the roots of the genre, it’s wide appeal and why everything isn’t as black and white as it may appear.

The instrumentation is also heavily important with the guitarists preferring a lot more treble within their sound and a sense of heavy distortion. The guitar is also played with un-muted tremolo picking. Guitars use a dissonance along with certain scales, chord progressions and intervals that can only be attributed to Black Metal. Guitar solo’s and low guitar tuning are also rare within the genre but it is something that can be seen within the wider sub genre’s of Black Metal, such as Symphonic or Progressive Black Metal. The tri-tone is also a key symbol of Black Metal. The Bass within a lot of Black Metal is seen as primitive and non-melodic matching the sense of the guitars, the Bass will also typically be muted to the guitar and tuned quite low. The drumming in Black Metal is where the speed is instilled within the genre, typically being played at a fast speed with blast-beats taking up the majority of the band’s sound. This is something that has carried over with the genre’s roots in Thrash Metal and simply expand the work of bands like Slayer and Venom that are believed to inspire much of the Black Metal scene. Much of Black Metal disregards the conventional song structure as well leading to the sound of many lengthy and repetitive instrumental sections within much of the genre.

What people attribute to Black Metal however is the vocalist, and this is something that is seen as extremely important within the scene. Bands within this style tend to prefer a raspy high-pitched sense of screaming which often distances itself from Death Metal’s growl. This style of singing can be used within Black Metal but really as a small characteristic rather than the range of the singer. Many bands are believed to inspire this form of vocalisation, but one major example to have influenced this genre is Quorthorn from Bathory. 

Many bands ideology often responds to their live shows, instead of wanting to produce a well published or established show like a band such as Kiss for example many of the original ideals were to either not perform live at all or treat it as a ritualistic experience. Gorgoroth are one such example of a band that do this, within the use of animal heads, upside down crucifixes and medieval weaponry taking up a good portion of their shows. The band also adorn the typical Black Metal outfit with black combat boots, bullet belts and spiked wrist bands taking up a good portion of their outfit. The main imagery for Black Metal however has to be the use of corpse paint which is a black and white facial design, often complemented by red (to symbolise blood). The imagery means a lot within the Black Metal culture and many bands see it as giving a demonic appearance to appease to a more anti-establishment form of imagery. This is somewhat of a custom rather than a rule, however as many bands that wear corpse paint do it for different reasons than the main groups of the Second Wave of Black Metal.

Finally the traditional sense of Black Metal comes from their actual recorded musical output. Many album covers within the early 1990’s had minimalist album covers which contained xeroxed and extremely minimalist imagery. This is seen as a reaction to Death Metal during this period which used quite brightly covered art work. Many purists from this scene have used this style of imagery, whereas many bands have deviated from this. Certain artworks were seen as iconography and a sense of creativity least of all Emperor’s classic In The Nightside Eclipse (1994) other album covers were seen to also provoke reactions including Dimmu Borgir’s In Sorte Diaboli (2007). In conclusion there’s not one set style of Black Metal imagery but looking at the more purist and ones that have refused to expand the boundary of what Black Metal is, there is often a certain imagery that is attributed to it.

When Black Metal first started the genre was seen as quite unpopular and so the artists often recorded in extremely low budget studios (or even homes in some cases) and from this their albums gained a distinctive “lo-fi” sound. Many bands when the genre became popular in Norway kept onto this belief and recorded their album in the same form of low sound including Dark Throne’s Transilvanian Hunger (1994). The band used this method to return to the genres roots and give a classic sound to their album. Again this is something that is seen as a theme of Black Metal but not a rule, many bands played around with this (especially later bands such as Dimmu Borgir or Cradle Of Filth) their really isn’t a set sound to Black Metal anymore but when taken at it’s roots this is a genre which invoked a certain set of imagery to the listener and one which kept them coming back for more.

Black Metal can really credit it’s origins from two waves. The first wave sprouted from Thrash Metal and came from bands such as Kreator, Slayer or DischargeThis new sense of aggression on Metal music inspired many bands to take this style even further and darker into a realm entitled Black Metal. The band that is often cited as being the first Black Metal band are Venom who actually coined the phrase from their second album “Black Metal” (1982). The album was seen as more low-budget than a lot of Thrash Metal during this period and dealt with Satanic lyrics that many bands during this period certainly weren’t doing. This was considered a shocking and quite left field piece of music when it was released but as time progressed, this album has become a Heavy Metal classic and Venom are now considered as influential as many of the bands from the Thrash scene during this period.

Venom are still considered Thrash Metal however even though they added more extreme elements to their music. It came to Swedish Metal band Bathory to further progress the genre from this origin and the band is believed to have influenced a lot of the Scandinavian Black Metal scene that was seen from later bands within the genre. Lead singer Quorthorn is also credited with the using the shrieked vocals that came to establish Black Metal. The band played on their first four albums including their debut Bathory (1984) the sound however came to a change to a more Viking Metal style from Blood Fire And Death (1988). It is still important to note the influence that Bathory gave to the genre and without their existence Black Metal would probably not exist.

It is also important to note the work of Thomas Gabriel Fischer (Tom G Warrior) who brought around two of the most influential bands during this period Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. Both of these groups influenced the state of Black Metal (and Extreme Metal as a whole) He influenced more orchestral and expansive elements to Black Metal and made the genre have a sense of wiggle-room to expand and grow. He also continues to make music with his current band Triptykon and thankfully the metal world has gained one of it’s biggest icons in Tom G Warrior. Finally Mercyful Fate gave birth to the imagery that is seen within Black Metal with frontman King Diamond wearing one of the earliest signs of corpse-paint, this is debatable but he certainly did it extremely early on. Based from this the inspiration for Black Metal in it’s current form is quite obvious and one which can be seen extremely easily from even the slightest look at the inspirations.

By this point Black Metal was thought to be dying at least within it’s current form, with key journalists such as Metalion from the Slayer fanzine writing “the latest fad of black/Satanic bands seems to be over”. The tradition of Black Metal refused to die however with various bands powering it on. These included Sabbat and Morbid Angel. Japanese band Sigh were also making big waves within Black Metal, and had regular contact with early Norwegian bands, their classic “Scorn Defeat” (1993) brings about the first signs that the first generation had ended and finally evolved to the second.

Just before the Secondary Wave had emerged from Norway important albums came from bands such as Rotting Christ, Blasphemy and Von which more than certainly pushed for the sound from these bands to pick upon much more easier. This allowed for newer bands to take the genre in a certain direction during the early 90’s. These include some of the legendary bands we know today such as Immortal, Mayhem and Emperor. Oystein Aarseth (Euronymous) from Mayhem is cited as being as playing a new guitar style which is more associated with current Black Metal and what many associate with being the newer style. The groups from this period made their image of corpse-paint the standard and made many of their music to go against what was viewed as an oppressive form of Christianity within Norway. This also gave birth to many of the criticisms that the genre began to take during this period, and many of the controversies that it caused.

Euronymous is also credited for opening a record store in May/June of 1991 entitled Helvete (“Hell” when translated to English) in Oslo. It became one of the most visited places in Norway for Black Metal and is often where bands such as; Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor and Thorns would come together. Euronymous also started a record label entitled Deathlike Silence Productions who worked with groups such as Sigh, Enslaved and Mayhem.

Unfortunately the singer known as Dead (Per Yngve Ohlin) (Mayhem) committed suicide in the band’s house in 1991. Fellow musicians described the singer as odd and depressed. He would often bury his clothes before shows to make sure he looked dead and would slit his wrists on stage. He is also credited by Mayhem’s drummer as being the first to wear corpse-paint. He was found by Euronymous with slit wrists and a gunshot wound to the head. He also wrote a suicide note, stating that he was sorry he fired the gun indoors and wrote a note apologising for the blood. Euronymous bought a disposable camera and took a picture of Dead’s body before doing anything else with the singer. The image actually became the cover for Mayhem’s live album Dawn Of The Black Hearts (1995). Other stories came around that Euronymous had actually made a stew of bits of Dead’s brain and gave parts of his skull to other Black Metal magicians he deemed to be “worthy”, in the form of necklaces. He also used the death of Dead to say he committed suicide because Black Metal had become too trendy and commercialised. An image from this album won’t be shown due to it being unsuitable for this website, but a version of Freezing Moon with Dead on vocals can be heard below.

Another key moment in Black Metal came from the church burning’s in 1992. This ran from 1992 – 1996 with at least 50 churches getting burnt within that period. The first church to be burnt was Fantoft Stave Church this was believed to have been caused by Varg Vikernes of Burzum fame. This case was never confirmed and he was found not guilty but the advocation was there from Black Metal musicians as the album cover for Aske (1993) showed the ashes from the burning, with the English translation of the album being ashes. Vikernes was found guilty of burning; Holmenkollen Chapel, Skjold Church and Asane Church. Vikernes and Euronymous were also thought to have been planning to bomb Nidaros Cathedral which appears on the album cover of Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Mayhem’s drummer Hellhammer also planned to have burnings on Mosques and Hindu Temples on the basis that they were “more foreign” but this never came to be. Various musicians committed church burnings however such as Faust and Samoth (Emperor), and Jorn Inge Tunsberg (Hades Almighty). Members of the Swedish scene started burning churches in 1993 to coincide with the burnings of Norway.

In 1993 Euronymous and Vikernes had an altercation which resulted in Euronymous’s death. On 10th August 1993 Vikernes and Snorre Ruch “Blackthorn” (Thorns) drove from Bergen to Oslo. A confrontation broke out between Vikernes and Euronymous which resulted in Euronymous getting stabbed to death. His body was found outside his apartment with 23 stab wounds – two the head, five to the neck and sixteen to the back. It is debated what was the cause of the murder, with a power struggle over the contract Burzum had signed to Deathlike Silence Productions, through to Vikernes believing to have self defended himself from Euronymous. The story has had multiple retellings and is one which could have an article in and of itself written about it. Vikernes was arrested on 19th August and sentenced to 21 years on May 1994. He was subjected to the arrest of burning of four churches, the murder of Euronymous and possessing 150 kg of explosives. Mayhem’s album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas features Euronymous on guitar and Vikernes on bass. Euronymous’s family were against the inclusion of his bass parts on the album and asked for them to be re-recorded but drummer Hellhammer responded saying “I thought it was appropriate that the murderer and victim were on the same record”. Vikernes has been released from prison in 2009 and Mayhem and Burzum both continue to make music to this day.

What many ignore is the scene that erupted out of the Second Wave of Black Metal outside of Norway, seeing as Norway is seen as more of a horror story. Poland had bands like; Behemoth and Graveland, France had groups of bands such as; Les Legions Noires which featured groups such as; Mutilation and Vlad, Belgium had groups such as; Ancient Rites and Enthroned and bands such as Black Funeral and Judas Iscariot were making waves within USA.

England was also making great success with their Black Metal scene with greats such as Cradle Of Filth. This was only seen on their early demo’s and debut album The Prince Of Evil Made Flesh (1993) as the band abandoned their Black Metal roots early on and went down a more Gothic Metal path. The group are considered one of the most successful extreme metal bands and are still playing on major festival bills around the world to this day.

In Black Metal’s origins every country had it’s own style but by the mid-90’s many of these countries adopted the Scandinavian style of Black Metal. Kerrang!’s journalist Malcom Dome has stated “black metal as we know it in 1998 owes more to Norway and to Scandinavia than any other particular country”. Newer Black Metal bands also raised their production quality and introduced additional instruments such as synthesizers and orchestras.

Many of the Norwegian pioneers drifted away from Black Metal including Emperor, Immortal, Dimmu Borgir and Satyricon. Many fans had believed they had sold out and became too commercialised but from doing this, these bands had become bigger than ever, they had arguably outgrown the genre and from this sprouted incredibly successful careers as global metal bands.

Some of the bands of this scene however went much darker than they ever had before following Euronymous’s death. Jon Nodtveidt of Dissection joined the Misanthropic Light Orchestra (MLO) which in 1997 him and another MLO member were arrested for the murder of a 37 year old man. It was defended out of anger as the man was believed to have been harassing the band, but due to him being a homosexul immigrant Dissection were accused of being a Nazi band. This is a statement Nodtveidt has argued against, his band being a nationalist and racist band.  Nordtveldt later committed suicide stating “reached the limitations of music as a tool for expressing what I want to express, for myself and the handful of others that I care about” before disbanding Dissection. 

Shining (SWE) also formed in 1996 and began writing music about depression and suicide. This is believed to have been influenced by Burzum notably Filosofem (1993). Shining (SWE) are now noticeably one of the biggest bands in Suicidal Black Metal.

Watain are another group to have got big since the initial boom of Black Metal with them forming in 1998. The group try to revert back to the old style and traditions whilst questioning some of the more questionable sides of Black Metal. These are a band that are carrying the banner for modern day Black Metal and often show a lot of the newer bands how it’s done. Bands have also appeared since such as Wolves In The Throne Room, Destroyer 666, Melechesch and Salem which also gained mainstream attention and are now considered some of the best newer bands within Black Metal.

As Black Metal has shown it has emerged from countries with heavy religious control and it’s no much of a change. A lot of the bands on the underground of Black Metal come from heavily Muslim countries especially from the Middle East. Janaza is a good example of a Black Metal artist to check out who’s background is a story that can only lead to such extreme music. Her demo Burning Quran Ceremony (2010) is certainly worth a checkout for some good new Black Metal. The Middle Eastern Black Metal scene is also extensive with bands such as; Seeds Of Ibilis, False Allah and Mosque Of Satan all worth a check out. The groups have coined together “Arabic Anti-Islamic Legion” to describe their group of bands and some awesome new Black Metal music can be discovered by listening to just a few of them.

Black Metal within itself being an ideology has several subgenres in and of itself. These will be listed below and the differences shall be discussed.

Ambient Black Metal – A style of Black Metal which incorporates elements of atmospheric and dreamy textures, moving it to a less aggressive style. This will feature synthesizers or classical instrumentation to drive it’s sound forwards. This is more melodic and feels like it has a brighter sheen of the conventional style of Black Metal. This music is much more progressive and goes at a slower pace, with rare blast beats and lacking abrupt song changes. Subject matter usually contains, mythology and folklore. A good example of a band within this style is Agalloch. 

Black N’ Roll – A style of Black Metal which mixes the songs with 1970’s Hard Rock and Classic Rock, as well as Rock N Roll. Bands such as Satyricon and Dark Throne experiment with this genre but a good example of a band who carries this out consistently is Kvelertak. 

Blackened Doom – A combination of Black Metal and Doom Metal a good example of a band within this style is Woods Of Ypres. 

Blackened Death Metal – Incorporates elements of Black Metal with elements of Death Metal. A good example of a band would be Behemoth. 

Blackgaze – Incorporates heavier elements of Black Metal with melodic elements, and heavily distorted guitars similar to Shoegaze. A good example of a band from this genre would be Deafhaven. 

Pagan Metal – Black Metal combined with lyrics and imagery that focuses on Paganism. This genre often incorporates elements of Irish Folk Music. Primordial would be a good band from this genre to listen to.

Symphonic Black Metal – A style of Black Metal that incorporates orchestras and symphonies, as well as clean and operatic vocals. A good example of a band that does this is Dimmu Borgir

Viking Metal – Black Metal that is lyrically focused on Norse mythology, paganism and the Viking Age. This has elements of Nordic Folk. Certain elements include a slower pace and heavy riffing style. It has similar imagery to Pagan Metal but Pagan Metal has broader influences and uses folk instruments much more so than Viking Metal. A good band from this style to listen to is Enslaved. 

War Metal – A more aggressive and chaotic form of Black Metal. This might include influences from older Grindcore bands and first wave of Death Metal. A good band to listen to would be Blasphemy

NSBM – Unfortunately there’s quite a racist and hate inducing side of Black Metal based on Nazism. These are bands that won’t be glorified within this article but to ignore the fact that they exist would be stupid and detrimental to the great bands within the Black Metal movement. Many bands within the movement dismiss of them such as Dark Funeral and King Ov Hell claiming that many bands within this movement have missed the point of Black Metal stating that it’s just as bad as many of the strives the movement made in the first place such as it being; authoritarian, collectivist and a herd mentality.

Marxism and Anarchistic Black Metal – RABM (Red And Anarchistic Black Metal) is a style which strives for far left and environmental ideologies. It’s style combines Black Metal with Crust Punk and tries to eschew the Satanic and Nihilistic leanings of Black Metal. Bands in this genre will aim for creating their own ideologies based from the Black Metal movement and apply them to a leftist side.

Unblack Metal (Christian Black Metal) – Bands have also took the Satanic imagery of Black Metal and removed it completely wearing Christian outfits and writing songs that support their ideologies rather than criticise them as it does in Black Metal. A band called Horde released arguably the first Unblack Metal record Hellig Usvart (1994). The mantle of Christian Black Metal was seen as an oxymoron within the Black Metal scene and the group were considered a joke during this period. However as Black Metal has progressed, the term has become a genre much more so than an ideology leading to bands like Crimson Moonlight adopt and enjoy this label much more so than they did in the mid-90’s.

In conclusion a genre such as Black Metal can seem to be extremist and even just one thing and one ideology on the outside but when looking deeper into the genre much more can be learnt. The style of music is much more than just a Satanic cult and when looked at in greater detail many of the current bands we see, are a result of this style of music. Festivals like Bloodstock are just as big as ever and with bands like Watain and Behemoth appearing in famous publications like Metal Hammer and Kerrang! the notion that Black Metal is going anywhere is just silly. This genre will last forever and as long as we have good new bands pushing the movement it will only get more creative and more inventive as time moves forward.