Crossfader’s Black Metal Primer
Arguably the most polarizing and controversial subgenre of metal, which already has a good share of morbid quirks and weirdos, black metal reigns supreme. Seating itself comfortably in the shadowy depths of music culture, black metal has exploded on the internet since its early stages thriving among European youth in the 90s and has spread deeply into the modern American music fan conscience. Almost always associated with subjects of death, despair, and complete devotion to God’s rival, black metal may be a lot to take in. With aggressive tremolo guitar picking, relentless blast beats, and piercing eagle screams, it’s easy to see why many decide not to bother with black metal. However, there is a point where this chaos resonates on a gut level with the listener, who in turn must throw away any Satanic or nationalistic ideologies and edginess tied to the scene and merely become awe-inspired by the sheer animalistic ferocity producing incredibly destructive sounds. Here we’ll attempt to fully embrace black metal by picking a few standout releases, venturing through all of its incarnations throughout the globe and its history.
Cradle of Filth – DUSK…AND HER EMBRACE
Favorite Tracks: “Heaven Torn Asunder”, “Funeral In Carpathia”
I, like many English-speaking newcomers to black metal, first dipped my toes into the subgenre with none other than the UK’s Cradle of Filth. Simply put, this was how black metal captured little kids’ minds back in 1996 with some sprinklings of accessibility. Claiming to be the most successful English metal band since Iron Maiden, Cradle’s Dani Filth and company bathed themselves in the typically Norwegian sound and aesthetic early on. The band skillfully combined the blistering wretchedness of black metal with symphonic pieces and more than a few clean guest vocalists that aided many a first endeavor into such music. This, of course, exhibited a penchant for theatrics and stage service that also propelled the band’s fame. DUSK…AND HER EMBRACE is by far Cradle’s most refined outing and really got their Scandinavian neighbors scratching their heads for a few years. Dani’s vocals bring some of the high points as he lays over himself deep Nightmare Before Christmas-esque growls and sharp screams with English brethren Cronos of the band Venom popping in to give him support.
Lugubrum – DE WARE HOND
Favorite Tracks: “Movement I: Opwaartse Hond”, “Movement III: Neerwaartse Hond”
Having been spoiled by the splendors of the city of Ghent, in 2007 Flemish band Lugubrum found themselves crammed in a dirty cabin in the Ardennes Forest trying to rekindle their rural black metal roots. The recordings of that evening have to be some of the most interesting in the genre, leaning towards many different styles of metal ranging from slow doom to neck-breakingly fast thrash. Even some sax, mandolin, and accordion show up on this record to complement the absolute hellish fever dream this album produces. Keeping DE WARE HOND tied together are Barditus Pederastus’ vocals which sound like he needs an exorcism from a demon emerging from his anus. Even when things slow down to an almost groovy pace, Barditus screams horribly in his native Dutch tongue like the true hound the album’s title insinuates, thus perpetuating uneasiness by giving hints of the sonic carnage to come when the band speeds it up a few notches.
Dissection – STORM OF THE LIGHT’S BANE
Favorite Tracks: “Unhallowed”, “Where Dead Angels Lie”, “Soulreaper”
Gothenburg police arrived at the scene: a lonely apartment decorated with lit candles, a pentagram, and a lifeless body hugging a shotgun barrel. What they saw was the grisly end of Jon Nödtveidt, lead vocalist and guitarist for Swedish black metal outfit Dissection. Sweden itself was growing accustomed to the dark beginnings of black metal in the 90s through bands like Abruptum, but nothing came close to the carefully thought-out brutality that made 1995’s STORM OF THE LIGHT’S BANE a noted classic. Nödtveidt knew that in order to gain favor among the extreme music crowd, some exceptional talent needed to be present in Dissection’s work. Unlike many in black metal, the band knew how to play around with some epic melodies while still maintaining blasts of aggression and the energetic clash of two lead guitars. It’s a shame Satan wanted him so early.
Ulver – NATTENS MADRIGAL
Favorite Tracks: “Hymne I – Wolf and Fear”, “Hymne III – Wolf and Hatred”, “Hymne VII – Wolf and the Night”
Hailing from Oslo, Ulver may now be known to specialize in darkly ambient music, but there was a time when they toyed with the idea of being one of the scariest black metal acts in existence. After a couple albums that had a bit of emphasis on atmosphere, Ulver released a purely black metal album entitled NATTENS MADRIGAL that promptly ruptured all ears in its way. With a lo-fi mix favoring a brittle, crushing noise influence, this album is definitely not for the faint of heart. Nearly every track relentlessly punishes the listener with rapid blasts of insane guitars, drums, and Garm’s wretched vocals that may bring even the most hardened metal fans to their knees. The only thing close to a break is a lovely but short-lived acoustic section in “Hymne I – Wolf and Fear.” Treasure it, for it is the only light in this dark, dark journey.
Paysage d’Hiver – S/T
Favorite Tracks: “Der Weg”
Swiss one-man black metal juggernaut Tobias “Wintherr” Möckl went to some pretty scary places before finding some friends in the band Darkspace. Obsessed with the aesthetic of winter and its ties to nature’s cycle of death, now a staple in the black metal tradition, Möckl produced some of the most haunting black metal closing out the 90s. Buried under unforgiving flurries of distorted guitars lies some truly emotional piano and strings that tap into an innate sense of dread within the listener. Consuming this album is like being trapped in a fatal snowstorm watching flashes of your past failures, tears transforming to frost on your face.
Behexen – BY THE BLESSING OF SATAN
Favorite Tracks: “Fist of the Satanist”, “Celebration of Christ’s Fall”, “Black Metal Baptism”
Questioning whether the Satanic themes are for show or not is natural when it comes to Behexen. After bands Horna and Sargeist established Finland as a strong black metal bastion in Europe, pieces of both bands came together to form the blasphemous cult known as Behexen. At the end of the 90s, Behexen rested nearly three years going through small lineup changes and planning their powerful 2004 release BY THE BLESSING OF SATAN – what an album it was. Recalling the black metal times of old with influences like that of Bathory, Behexen brought some of the rawest and most grotesque metal ever to prove that they weren’t giving up in the 2000s.
Altar of Plagues – MAMMAL
Favorite Tracks: “Neptune is Dead”, “All Life Converges to Some Centre”
Skipping ahead a quarter generation into 2011, Irish band Altar of Plagues already were known to be masters of brutal black metal destruction and haunting atmospheres coming fatally close to the old greats across the North Sea. Though many claim their debut, 2009’s WHITE TOMB, to be the band’s peak, MAMMAL hit a few more deep chords thanks to its perfectly dynamic mix of heavier and moodier styles. When MAMMAL needs to get slow and peer into the human soul akin to many post-rock or even modern post-black metal acts, it does. Conversely, when MAMMAL wants to pummel the listener it does not hold back.
Nachtmystium – SILENCING MACHINE
Favorite Tracks: “Damn Over the Ruins of Jerusalem”, “The Lepers of Destruction”, “I Wait In Hell”
Inching ever so closely to present time with an American act for a change, Illinois’ Nachtmystium knew that they weren’t going to last much longer as a band in 2012. Frontman Blake Judd, suffering from a severe opiate addiction, started getting caught for lying and cheating his way to any cash he could find. Friendship with Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead could only take him so far. Reports of fans getting ripped off, whether it be $20 merch packs that were never shipped or $400 CD collection promises, became common. Knowing he was at the end of his web of lies, Judd was tense in the studio, producing some truly malicious black metal. Flipping through members of death metal bands like Nile and Goatwhore was enough to kick him towards a strange, creative Hell. It seems the only place he could go now was towards a brutal nightmare peppered with some eerily disturbing experimentation and vocal samples.
Wolves in the Throne Room – TWO HUNTERS
Favorite Tracks: “Vastness and Sorrow”, “I Will Lay My Bones Down Among the Rocks and Roots”
Wolves in the Throne Room is another American act who deceived the black metal community despite earning their praise. Even after the Washington band admitted that they don’t really enjoy the outdoors despite their woodsy aesthetic (guess that’s why they’re in the throne room!), people still flocked to them. Why? Because some true talent shone through. The Weaver brothers were continuing a new era of American black metal, especially with their sophomore album TWO HUNTERS in 2007. It’s difficult to withstand the record’s efforts to get you immersed in its intense atmosphere and longing for some actual rocks and roots to lay in.
Burzum – HVIS LYSET TAR OSS
Favorite Tracks: “Det som en gang var”, “Hvis lyset tar oss”, “Tomhet”
Even when Varg Vikernes’ twisted mind wasn’t confined to a prison cell with nothing but a Playskool keyboard, his music leaned more towards a moody and ambient style. HVIS LYSET TAR OSS (translated: “If the Light Takes Us”), released right before his trial for the murder of Euronymous, is proof. Using, of course, Vikernes’ signature stripped-down production, the album creates a dark soundscape from the depths of a mad man’s thoughts. When Vikernes is anticipating having to pay for the consequences of being a deranged maniac, he enters, like Judd, a mental state. The closer, “Tomhet,” the only shred of dungeon synth on the album, would go great accompanying the most depressing of documentaries. Regardless of whatever philosophies Vikernes holds, there’s no doubt that he knows how to whip up some music with dark tones that engages listeners.