A Brief History of Black Metal
by James Ammirato
When talking about the history of a genre, it’s impossible to include every crucial detail contributing to the evolution and sound going into what that genre is made up of. When talking about metal, that impossible task is amplified, because not only has the style been around for just as long as modern rock music, many would argue that it has even more genres and a deeper underground, as well as a darker past and endless possibilities for the future. In this piece, I’ll be discussing specifically the history of the subgenre known as black metal, and what I believe to be the most important and interesting points that make up its story.
Black metal started in Europe in the early 1980’s. What sets it apart from other subgenres is its frequent use of purposely low-quality production, noisy guitar work, blast-beat style drumming, and a type of singing one could only describe as shrieking, or more bluntly, screaming. On top of that, song topics include things darker than typical metal, with a common infatuation with death and dying, as well as religion, including paganism, witchcraft, and the occult. The scope of black metal song topics has since broadened, but within the first 20 or so years, most black metal focused on these specific subjects.
FIRST WAVE: ENGLAND, SWEDEN, AND DENMARK
Many contribute British band Venom with the creation of black metal, due to their coining of the term with the 1982 album, Black Metal. The titular first song exhibited guitar work reminiscent of speed and thrash metal, but the noise introduction set the song apart from most other metal coming out at the time. However, the only thing making the song a true black metal song is the subject matter (“Satan records the first note / We chime the bell, chaos and hell”). This song and album were crucial to the evolution of black metal, in that the subject matter was dark, the production was lacking, the vocals were raspy, and the band members had all adopted their own names, another common practice in early black metal.
Along with Venom came bands such as Bathory from Sweden and Mercyful Fate from Denmark, who would later become known as key players in the first wave. These Scandinavian bands drew influence from thrash metal from the U.S., another emerging genre in the early 1980’s with bands such as Metallica and Megadeth, but with unique region comes a unique sound. While Metallica was writing songs like “Jump In The Fire” in their hometown of Los Angeles, bands like Mercyful Fate were writing such songs as “At The Sound Of The Demon Bell,” forced with the confrontation of such brutal topics as their home resembled much more of a hellish landscape than Southern California circa 1983. With releases like Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales (1984) and Bathory’s Blood Fire Death (1988), the genre was becoming more fully formed and distinct, just in time for the second wave.
SECOND WAVE: NORWAY, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF MAYHEM
For many, the second wave of black metal is the most important in regards to the history of the genre, as many second waves tend to be, due to their refining of the first. In black metal, the second wave was crucial not just to the sound of the genre, but in fundamental beliefs as well.
The second wave of black metal included such artists as Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, Gorgoroth, and Ulver. These bands were so essential to the genre because they took the elements of previous artists and made them even more extreme, again not just in musical sound. Though early bands of the genre were putting an emphasis on satanism and love for the darkness, these bands took that idea and amped it up to the point where many key figures are still seen as some of the darkest people in the history of music.
Perhaps the most important band in the history of black metal, Mayhem was formed in 1984 in Oslo, Norway, but didn’t rise to prominence until the late 1980’s. Their 1987 EP, Deathcrush, featuring their first singer, Maniac, was one of the first releases that can be considered part of the second wave. Originally started by members Euronymous, Necrobutcher and original drummer Manheim, Mayhem quickly went through members, and was first notable with the addition of lead singer Dead. Although Dead was one of the most essential members in the band’s history, nothing he recorded with the band was released until years after his suicide in 1991, with releases Live in Leipzig (1993), Dawn of the Black Hearts (1995), and Out From the Dark (1996), none of which are studio albums. Dead is not featured on the band’s longtime delayed debut album, 1994’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, widely regarded as one of the most influential black metal records of all time.
The members of Mayhem can only be considered to be the most extreme members of the Norwegian black metal scene. Infatuated with death, it is reported that when singer Dead began to express his suicidal thoughts, guitarist Euronymous was not only fascinated by this, he encouraged it. When Dead committed suicide in 1991, it was Euronymous that found his body, but instead of immediately reporting what had happened, he rearranged the scene and took several photographs, one of which appears on the cover of a live bootleg album, Dawn of the Black Hearts, one of the few Mayhem releases featuring Dead’s vocals. Along with this, he even made necklaces out of fragments of Dead’s skull and gave them to members of the scene who he deemed most worthy, prompting original bassist Necrobutcher to leave the band and be replaced by Varg Vikernes of Burzum. In 1993, Varg would murder Euronymous by stabbing him 23 times and go on to claim self defense. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison (the maximum penalty in Norway) and was let out on parole after only 15, in 2009.
Regrettably, in the Norwegian black metal scene, it was extremely common for members to essentially have white supremacist beliefs, as well as idolizing movements like the Nazi Party. It was also unfortunately prevalent that prominent members would burn down churches, as their beliefs included the downfall of organized religion, especially Christianity, as it was the most common belief where they were from. From 1992-1996, around 50 churches were burned down. Among these arsonists was Varg Vikernes, who at the time of his prison sentence had been responsible for the arson of at least two churches. After he was sentenced, over 150 kilograms of dynamite were found in his house, evidence that he was planning on blowing up yet another church, possibly several.
The music of this time period was nothing short of sinister, perfectly relating to the people who were creating it. Though a lot of records from the time sound similar, many bands had their own signature styles that made them unique, something difficult to do when all are a part of the same scene. While Mayhem dabbled in fast drumming, raspy unintelligible vocals, and heavily distorted guitars, bands like Ulver favored more smoothly flowing instrumentals and melodic vocals, exhibited on their 1995 debut, Bergtatt. The use of the synthesizer in black metal was also becoming more and more common, included frequently on releases like Burzum’s most famous LP to date, 1996’s Filosofem. The same album was recorded in under 24 hours, with Varg requesting that the sound engineer use the cheapest possible microphone available. The rest of the equipment used was also the cheapest available, in order to make a statement against the growing practice of attempting perfection in the studio, especially in the metal genre. The result was Burzum’s most famous and recognizable album to date, the horribly recorded guitars unmistakable, as they were only recorded using Varg’s brother’s stereo and a fuzz pedal, and the guttural screams of a man who we now know to be nothing but evil.
THIRD WAVE AND POST
Since the second wave of black metal ended with the arrests or deaths of many of the most prominent members of the scene, the third wave began slightly anew, and with less of an “edge.” Some members of the old scene were still around, but they hated all the new bands and the old ones that had “sold out” or become successful due to commercial business practices like a record deal. New bands like Watain and Ondskapt from Sweden tried to take the music and the ideology as seriously as their predecessors, but found that very few bands were willing to go to the lengths that those bands had gone to to be known as legitimate.
By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, black metal had undergone a radical change. Now that there was less pressure to actually commit crimes aligned with your music, what was being produced was even more extreme than before. While bands like Mayhem did atrocious things, their music by today’s standards is just above average as far as intensity, whereas newer bands like Xasthur, Liturgy, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Krallice are able to create harder hitting, bigger sounding songs in the studio, now that the stigma of studio perfection is gone.
Along with this, black metal has expanded to incorporate other genres in order to create a fresh, evolving sound. For example, Liturgy’s 2011 release Aesthetica blends elements of metal, ambient, and noise in order to create a full sound that still can be considered minimalist. San Francisco’s Deafheaven combines black metal and shoegaze to create a genre known as “blackgaze” on their 2013 breakout album, Sunbather, still one of my favorite metal albums to this day. Another advent of the post-second wave movement has been solo black metal projects. Bands like Mizmor, Planning for Burial, and Panopticon are solely operated by one individual who records all the instruments themselves and rarely plays live.
With subgenres come subgenres of the subgenres. Since the mid-90’s, most black metal can really be described as “post-black metal,” since the fundamental style of black metal was changed by new bands taking over the genre, influenced by black metal pioneers. Some of these artists include Lantlos, Bosse-de-Nage, Behemoth, Blut aus Nord, Botanist, Watain, Oathbreaker, Alcest, and Myrkur. Along with “blackgaze,” mentioned above, newer genres like “industrial black metal” saw artists like Ulver experimenting with new industrial sounds and combining them with their old black metal roots on releases like 2005’s Blood Inside. “Blackened death” is a genre that combines the atmospheric aspect of black metal and combines it with the harder hitting instrumentals and death-inspired lyrics of classic death metal, like French outfit Behemoth, who experienced a comeback after their tenth album, 2014’s The Satanist, perfectly combined the two genres into a masterpiece of a record.
Although the past of black metal is interesting to say the least, I believe the present and future is where we must look in order to see the greatness of the genre, and to fully appreciate the influences left behind by the second and third wavers. Though one of my favorite genres of music, I of course understand why those who reject it do so, as listening to music made by inherently bad people is not something for everyone. But that is a whole other discussion.
Black metal is an incredible and fascinating genre with a very dark history. If you’d like to know the entire biography of this intriguing and complex brand of music, the book “Lords of Chaos” by Didrik Søderlind and Michael Moynihan is the only one I know that dives into the genre with as great a depth as someone who knows black metal would like.
In the days since the second wave, I believe black metal has become a more inclusive genre. I’ve even found that it has some very unexpected fans. Phil Elverum of The Microphones and Mount Eerie, two of the most introspective, depressing, acoustic acts of the last 20 years has said that his favorite genre is black metal, with his favorite bands being Xasthur and Wolves in the Throne Room, who he even mentions in his song “Earth.” I encourage you, the reader, to give the genre a chance, even if you don’t really consider yourself a metal fan. Any of the artists mentioned are great acts to listen to, my favorites being Deafheaven, Wolves in the Throne Room, Liturgy, Mayhem, Burzum, Sigh, Ulver, Alcest, Darkthrone, and Behemoth. I also encourage you to check out other related subgenres of metal, such as drone, with acts like Earth and Sunn O))), or noise rock, exhibited best by groups like Sonic Youth, Lightning Bolt, Daughters, and The Body, as well as anything Steve Albini has ever touched. With all the combinations of genres in recent years, you might surprise yourself, and find something that you like, or even love.