A lesson on black metal beyond Deafheaven
by Tyler Munro
December 12, 2013
An intro to the most exclusionary sub genre of metal.
Black Metal is the most exclusionary of the heavy metal sub genres. Curiously, it’s also the most expansive and, to both outsiders and fans, probably the funniest. By the end of this primer, we hope you’ll know why.
If you buy into the mythology that the Ramones were influenced by the Bay City Rollers but lacked the musical acumen to pull it off, thus birthing punk rock as we know it, Black Metal’s origins are surprisingly in line. Like death metal, black metal’s roots trace back to an eponymous album, but unlike Death, Venom had no Possessed as a point of comparison. So how has a genre rooted in imagery established by four goofy leather-clad Brits spiralled into one of the most notorious musical subcultures of the past thirty years? Sloppiness, mostly.
While Venom were based out of Newcastle, black metal’s roots most famously trace back to Scandinavia, and while Norway’s the most obvious haven for the grim and true elite, it’s Denmark that struck first with Mercyful Fate. Famously fronted by corpsepaint pioneer King Diamond, Mercyful Fate’s link to black metal’s sound is tangential yet undeniable. If Welcome to Hell gave the genre its quick and dirty sound and Black Metal gave it a name, it’s Melissa and especially Don’t Break the Oath that ushered in the genre’s grandiosity. And riffs. Man, those albums had some riffs. In time, a balance between the two would come to define the genre. Eventually, the first wave was born.
The link between black metal’s first wave and what the genre has since become isn’t the strongest, primarily because its roots were initially horribly defined. It was basically just raw thrash, finding itself on a blurred line with the likes of Slayer, Possessed and Sodom. It’s not until we get into albums like Bathory and Apocalyptic Raids that the sound really starts to take shape. And in the nearly 30 years since, it’s remained mostly the same. So goes one of black metal’s never-ending arguments over purity and orthodoxy; while the genre has evolved as with any other, it carries with it a very, very serious bottom line. That’s in part what makes it so funny.
As the genre evolved through the early ’90s, it would become faster, darker and all-in-all more extreme, both in music and spirit. As far as players go, the second wave can be traced back in almost every case to Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, Mayhem’s Dead and Euronymous and Immortal’s Abbath. Surrounding Mayhem, the stories are infamous and well told—Dead commits suicide and is found by Euronymous, who takes his photo and uses it as the cover for an upcoming bootleg. Euronymous, Mayhem’s guitarist, was a key figure in the scene, both for his insistence on taking black metal down a more evil path and for Helvete, his record store that stocked many of the genre’s early seminal releases. The store would close its doors in 1993 after the police began investigating it, linking musicians like Varg Vikernes and Faust (of Emperor) to church burnings (and eventually murders… each of them).
By 1994, four of the scene’s main influencers were either dead or behind bars, and three of them were in Mayhem at one point or another. That’s why the genre is so consistently marred by controversy: it invites it. But while rumours swirl over whether the surviving members of Mayhem made stew out of Dead’s brains or necklaces out of his bones, it’s easy to lose what transcends the genre’s novelty—the music.
Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is incredibly fast and very important, even if it’s not as occult and revered as Live in Leipzig or Deathcrush. Upon its release it was maybe the fastest thing in the genre, quicker still than Dark Angel’s thrash classic “Burning of Sodom,” with drummer Hellhammer (no relation to the band that became Celtic Frost) blurring by with blastbeats more precise than anything the genre had heard to that point. New singer Atilla didn’t bring the same throat shredding delivery as Dead, instead sounding like a warbled, demonic ringmaster, and while his vocals weren’t quite harsh, they were still remarkably unsettling.
For his part as a murderous anti-semite, Burzum’s output was far more cerebral, culminating in Filosofem, the last album recorded before his arrest (and porous prison output). As cacophonous as Filosofem was, it carried with it a larger sense of atmosphere and space, closing out with the penultimate ambient monolith “Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte,” which helped signal the genre’s new, spatial schism. Some of Burzum’s less threatening hints were obvious early on, like in “Keys to the Gate” off Det Som Engang Var, but what’s truly impressive is that, release dates aside, three of his best albums were recorded within 11 months of one another.
As shoddy production values evolved from a necessary evil to an artistic decision, black metal experienced its first major split. The likes of Immortal kept things true, raw and primitive, pummelling the listener with rapid fire riffs and an aesthetic that, to this day, calls to be laughed at. Still, they pulled it off with straight-faced sincerity, not so much living in evil but knowing how to sell it without compromise.
In the mid-’90s, death metal started crossing over stronger than ever, with Gothernberg’s glossy sound easing its way into would-be classics like Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane. It came with an unheard sheen for the genre, but for all its melodic flourishes, the band stayed consistent with the black metal’s unfortunate MO: They were fronted by an undeniable piece of shit. Before taking his own life under some vague Satanic pretence in 2006, Jon Nödtveidt was known as much for his music as the homophobic crime that saw him jailed as an accessory to murder in 1997.
So goes the caveat with black metal: to take it as orthodoxy, you’re painting yourself into one of a few possible corners. Subscribe to any of the wildly controversial national socialist bands’ ethos and you’re a racist. Buy into the entry level LaVeyan Satanism and you’re naive. Follow Varg Vikernes and you’re, uh, well, you’re an idiot.
The biggest part of appreciating black metal is accepting it for what it is. You can like the USBM movement legitimized by Wolves in the Throne Room while still grinning at their caricatured eco-hippie aesthetic. In spite of what the genre’s basement dwelling would-be elite will tell you, it’s okay to just like the music. Thing is, the music is great, but if the imagery worries you, there’s maybe no better place to start than with Darkthrone.
Whether Transilvanian Hunger or A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Darkthrone is black metal’s most revered, consistent and arguably important black metal band. Main man Fenriz is a encyclopaedic guru, like a Norwegian metal version of Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham but with an added affinity for beer. Since 1995’s Panzerfaust, Darkthrone has devolved with a crusty edge into a more streamlined thrash band, but pardoning some iffy albums in the late ’90s and early ’00s, both ends of their catalogue are worth checking out.
If you’ve read this far you’ve no doubt noticed how far we’ve gotten without making it past the mid ’90s. It’s intentional. For the approximately ten years spanning the genre’s inception and its peak, a lot happened, and by the late ’90s, the sound had evolved and branched off into a near infinite cavalcade of subgenres, some of which were based around ideologies and the rest on crossover.
Before his untimely death in 2004, Bathory main man Quorthon had taken the band away from its thrashy roots towards folk infused Viking metal. Building off that influence led to an entire genre, giving bands like Negură Bunget, Belenos and Primordial the foundation to stand on. Enslaved, meanwhile, were one of the key cogs in taking the genre down a more progressive route, going all but full-Floyd by 2006’s Runn. Is that an exaggeration? Absolutely, but by now, you should know that’s what black metal is all about.
While American black metal is most known for its shoegaze-y slant, it started under a totally different guise before properly crossing over. Inspired by Weakling, USBM’s first major success story, bands like Xasthur and Leviathan helped curate the depressive black metal scene, a bleak sound that at its core can be whittled down to shrieky loners tremolo-picking in their mom’s basements. Some bands tried to latch onto the European aesthetic, but it rarely sounded anything more than pandering (Grand Belial’s Key, Velvet Cacoon) or goofy (Judas Iscariot, Krieg). Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel: Wolves in the Throne Room broke through the Pitchfork barrier with Diadem of Twelve Stars, and Deafheaven have fully crossed over with 2013’s success Sunbather.
Basically, black metal is huge. Like, massive. It’s metal’s funniest offshoot, but also perhaps its best. It has scenes thriving all over the world, with places like France and Canada holding their own with releases held in the same esteem as some of Oslo’s finest.
Black metal is fantastical and scathing and, at times, racist. It’s hilarious as often as its not. It’s divisive, exclusive, and at times disorienting.
Most of all, its at once brilliant and stupid, but very rarely mediocre and never both. Because of that, it’s intimidating, but as with any genre, you can’t let its fans ruin it for you. If you like Deafheaven, like Deafheaven. Doing so does not make you a hipster or a poser or even a poseur. Come about it by your own path, and consider this a guide, not a rulebook.