Black metal is a form of extreme heavy metal defined by high pitched screechy vocals mixed with low death growls, really fast riffs and tempos, blast beats, tremolo picking, long and strange song structures with long instrumental sections, and single notes played quickly and repeatedly, making the note sound long and drawn out. Unlike many other extreme subgenres, black metal bands favor higher pitched guitars and the use of tri-tones. Most lyrical content has to do with Satanism, anti-Christianity, violence, torture, death, nihilism, and folklore. Some bands have had some Neo-Nazi content in their songs, although it is not as rampant as many believe it to be.
Black metal bands also have a very distinct style. Most bands wear black and white face paint, spikes, leather outfits, large military or platform boots, and upside down crosses. The upside down cross and pentagram are distinct features of this subgenre. The use of theatrical blood and horror movie type props are common in live performances.
The band that gets the most credit for starting the black metal movement is the English speed metal band Venom. The name of the subgenre would be taken directly from their second album released in 1982 entitled Black Metal. The album featured themes of Satanism and anti-Christianity and a demonic type figure on the cover. Venom is also responsible for the black metal look as they wore leather outfits with spikes, boots, and inverted crosses. Other bands that used this type of imagery and content that helped to create the first wave of black metal in the 1980’s were Mercyful Fate, Bathory, Celtic Frost, and Hellhammer. Bathory was known as one of the first to advance the movement, as lead singer Quorthon, was the first to sing with the screeched vocals and the band played extremely fast and anti-Christian music. Many consider their album, Under the Sign of the Black Mark released in 1987, to be the defining album of black metal. In the late 1980’s, this first wave began to die out in favor of death metal.
In the early 1990’s the subgenre would be revived by the birth of the Norwegian black metal scene. The pioneers of this second wave include Mayhem, Darkthrone, Immortal, Enslaved, Emperor, and Dimmu Borgir. These bands would take black metal even further away from their thrash and speed metal forefathers. Mayhem created the sound and riffs that would define the black metal sound in the 90’s. The music became so popular that black metal bands began popping up all over Europe in places like Poland, Greece, and France. Black metal bands would even begin to rise in the United States.
The second wave was not without its controversy. While first wave bands sang of things Satanic, violent, and anti-Christian, many of these second wave bands began to carry these things out for real. There were a string of church burnings in Norway that landed artists from Emperor and Mayhem in jail. There was also an outbreak of violence and suicide. Dead, the lead singer of Mayhem, shot himself at point blank range with a shotgun. Guitarist Euronymous would find his body. Instead of calling authorities, he took pictures of his band mate’s dead body and made necklaces with pieces of his skull. There were two other suicides from black metal musicians in 1999 and 2001.
Essential Black Metal Albums:
- Pure Holocaust (Immortal)
- Stormblast (Dimmu Brogir)
- Transilvanian Hunger (Darkthrone)
- De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (Mayhem)
- At the Heart of Winter (Immortal)
- Under the Sign of the Black Mark (Bathory)
- Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia (Dimmu Borgir)
- In the Nightside Eclipse (Emperor)
- Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (Burzum)
- Blood Fire Death (Bathory)
- Nemesis Divina (Satyricon)
- Mardraum (Enslaved)
- Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return (Celtic Fost)
In maybe the most notorious act of all, Varg Vikernes of Mayhem and Burzum murdered his band mate Euronymous in 1993. Some say Vikernes did it because he believed that Euronymous was higher up on the satanic ladder than he was and he would absorb Euronymous’ stature by killing him. Others believe it was a business deal gone bad as they were feuding over their record label. Some even say that he was trying to one up Faust of the band Emperor who had brutally stabbed a homeless man in 1992. Vikernes himself claimed that he was protecting himself, as Euronymous had threatened to torture and kill him. While in prison Vikernes wrote many articles and songs for his band Burzum related to his views on socialism and neo-nazism. This influenced some other black metal bands to do the same creating National Socialist Black Metal, although most bands distanced themselves from this.
In the mid to late 1990’s innovative black metal bands would begin to pop up. These bands would begin to distance themsleves from the outbreak of violence and bring the focus back to the music. Many black metal artists stay true to the subgenre and believe that innovation in the music is a spit in the face to black metal. Progessive elements are often looked down upon and not considered to be true black metal. The new more progressive bands believed that black metal was too narrow and they began to expand on the sound. These sounds helped to reinvigorate the scene and bring in new fans. Black metal continues to be one of the most popular forms of extreme metal worldwide.
Blackened thrash was created in 1999 with the release of the fifth album from second wave pioneers Immortal called At the Heart of Winter. The style continues with the black metal sound and vocals and adds thrash guitar riffs and harmonization. Immortal would continue with this style on their albums Damned in Black and Sons of Northern Darkness. Their most recent album has reverted back more to a traditional black metal sound, but these three albums remain some of their most popular releases. Other blackened thrash artists include Destroyer 666 and Impiety.
Blackened Death Metal
Blackened death metal combines black metal with death metal elements such as more growled singing, shorter and more abrupt songs, and a slightly more down tuned sound than normal black metal. This is yet another incarnation that Immortal helped to create with the release of their 1997 album Blizzard Beasts. After this release, they would move to their blackened thrash sound. Other pioneers of this sound are Belphegor, Behemoth, and Sacramentum.
Symphonic Black Metal
Symphonic black metal combines black metal with the use of orchestral instruments like flutes, cellos, and pianos. The use of intermittent clean and operatic vocals, sometimes female, are also used amongst the black metal screech. Many early creators of this style would use keyboards to create these orchestral sounds until the release of Dimmu Borgir’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia in 2001. This breakthrough album used a real orchestra during recording. Dimmu continued this trend with subsequent releases and other symphonic black metal bands followed suit.
Blackened Doom Metal
This style combines black metal with doom metal elements like slower tempos and slightly down tuned guitar riffs. This is not a hugely popular incarnation, as it deviates far from the fast tempos and higher guitar sounds of true black metal. The most well know act is Forgotten Tomb.
War metal is an extremely chaotic form of black metal that mixes in elements of death metal and grindcore giving it an unbelievably fast and raw sound. The subgenre was born in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s from Canadian black metal/death metal acts like Conqueror and Blasphemy that wanted to try to push the envelope as far as they could.
Unblack metal is black metal music with pro Christian lyrics and themes. Australia’s Horde pioneered this form of black metal in 1994. Bands like Crow Black Sky, Crimson Moonlight, and Antestor would follow. Some black metal bands see this as a big issue and don’t believe that you can call something with Christian themes black metal. Others believe that the scene has changed since the second wave and black metal is more about a musical sound and look than it is about being a community of violent anti-Christian artists.