Awhile back I went over my first introduction to extreme metal. Death metal has been a part of my music diet for a long time now, and many other things associated with extreme music are also in my collection.
But today I want to get into the other big movement in extreme music, the one that hit headlines in the early 1990’s and then stood as the one viable form of heavy metal in the later half of the decade. It remains today in many forms and has morphed and shifted into several different directions over the years. It is one of metal’s most controversial subgenres that captivates many but repulses others.
Black metal got its start in the 1980’s underground with acts like Venom, Celtic Frost and Bathory leading the pioneering efforts to establish the sound. The music came to the forefront in the 1990’s, due mainly to the influence of Norwegians Mayhem and a series of criminal acts that would conclude with the murder of Mayhem founder Euronymous at the hands of Varg Vikernes of Burzum.
It was after these insane events that black metal came to my attention. I read about the murder and the preceding church arsons in the underground ‘zines I was getting my death metal news from. Like many, I became transfixed on this absolute trainwreck of murder and music. I saw an advert for the Burzum album Hvis lyset tar oss, which was the first Burzum album released after Vikernes was imprisoned for the murder and arsons. I ordered the CD and anxiously awaited to hear the sound behind this crazy story.
I couldn’t stand that album. I played it a bit and tried to wrap my head around it, but the sound was so distant and unlike anything I was used to hearing. I wound up trading the CD off and I stayed away from black metal for a few years. The music behind the insanity didn’t do anything for me.
The first time I finally found something aligned with black metal that captured my ear was in 1996. Sweden’s Dissection released Storm Of The Light’s Bane, a much-heralded masterpiece that owed a fair bit of its sound to black metal without being purely that. I took to the album immediately and it stands today as one of my absolute favorites of all-time.
It wasn’t long after that I started poking back around the sounds of black metal proper. I wasn’t the only one around who was into extreme music and I quickly got one recommendation from several people – Emperor. I came to the band after their second proper studio release, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk. The album would mark the transition to when I truly started taking the music seriously and wasn’t simply gaping at the tabloid trainwreck the scene had been.
This remains my favorite black metal work to this day. Of course there is a whole world of black metal out there almost 30 years since it grabbed headlines, but there is no substitute for the majesty of Emperor.
Other acts would soon enter my rotation – Satyricon, Immortal, Marduk, and more were sounds I was more than willing to enjoy. Something finally clicked with the music and it worked for me. Of course it didn’t hurt that the subgenre was already starting to take different forms.
Just as black metal came to the forefront of metal music in the mid-90’s, one band quickly gathered a lot of attention. England’s Cradle Of Filth retain an enduring legacy today but were very polarizing in the scene they entered a few decades ago. I personally loved them and still do, but it’s wasn’t (or isn’t) hard to find some tr00 black metal warriors who had, and have, nothing nice to say about CoF.
That was one part of the black metal movement that kept me from wading too far out – of any music scene I’ve been involved with, black metal is by far the most elitist, gatekeeping and cringe shit I’ve ever seen. Metal as a whole can attract gatekeeping posers who think their tastes should set arbitrary bounds of what is or isn’t worthy, but black metal is on a whole other scale. It’s still a part of black metal today, but that is fading some for reasons other than maturity.
I would go on to hear bands on prominent independent labels as well as good stuff from the true underground as years wore on. As bands like Darkthrone became elder statesmen to the genre, more and more new bands brought fresh takes on the music.
Black metal exists somewhat apart from other metal subgenres in that it works very well with other forms of music. Attempts have been made to marry heavy metal with everything from rap and country, with middling results at best. But black metal has some other artistic quality to it that lends itself to merging with other sonic expressions into a viable new form.
One such dark marriage is “blackgaze,” that of black metal and shoegaze. Both modes of expression are atmospheric and distant, and seem a perfect match for each other. The success of Alcest, Deafheaven and others stands as testament to this blessed, unholy union.
Today I am still listening to black metal, even if the bulk of my focus is on other movements. Black metal still offers some of metal’s most artistic sonic canvasses, even in the wake of sensational headlines and present-day issues of cultural standing. It took me some getting used to, and also to find the right bands to pique my interest, but it all finally clicked. Metal as a whole often encompasses a theme of misanthropy, and there is nothing more misanthropic than the world’s nastiest music.