With Sunday just past marking the 20th anniversary of the release of Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky (and therefore being pretty much the closest thing to a birthday that black metal can claim to have), over the coming week we’re letting Tom Dare off the leash to run his mouth about one of metal’s most controversial off-shoots. But instead of rehashing the same-old same-old tales from the genre’s torrid history, we thought we’d get him to look at how the genre’s evolved since those first, frosty releases two decades ago. Take it away, Mr. Dare…
First of all, we’re focusing on evolution here, not cross-breeding. If you’re wondering where blackened thrash, blackened doom, and so on are in these articles…well, they’re not here. We’re concentrating on the development of black metal’s original template, the bands who have incorporated the sounds and feel of their own musical heritage into black metal, and those who’ve evolved beyond BM entirely.
It’s not hard to understand why BM has proved to be so hugely adaptable. The premise laid down by those early bands (and those progenitors like Bathory, Celtic Frost, etc) was both beautifully simple and very broad. There are no pace limitations to speak of, with both slow, doomy passages (the opening of Mayhem’s ‘Freezing Moon‘, for example) and more frantic paces (such as ‘The Sun No Longer Rises‘ by Immortal) equally acceptable. Furthermore, the basic riffing technique of very fast picked chords can be applied to whatever broad sound you can wish. The otherworldly weirdness of Burzum, the savage tunefulness of Dissection, and Emperor guitarist Ihsahn’s idiosyncratic muse set the precedent that you could morph the black metal template to whatever you choose – it’s the atmosphere that’s important, not the specifics. The specifics of Black Metal’s borders have always been far less tangible than other subgenres – hence all that has come along since Darkthrone ditched Soulside Journey‘s death metal tropes for the frigid horror of A Blaze In The Northern Sky.
Perhaps in part due to the subgenre never being overly enamoured with high quality recordings, black metal’s evolution in ferocity terms has been focused more on the music than on simplistic approaches. While death and thrash became obsessed with technicality, pace or downtuning into oblivion to sound more hateful, a clutch of black metal bands in every generation of taken it upon themselves to be as distinctively vicious as possible, and to outstrip their inspirations in the process.
Listen to ‘In The Constellation Of The Black Widow’ by Anaal Nathrakh
Among the most vicious have been Anaal Nathrakh. The sickeningly scathing pairing of Dave Hunt and Mick Kenney has resulted in some truly furious records. From the early, raw hate of The Codex Necro, featuring acerbity like ‘When Humanity Is Cancer‘, to the more grind-inflected maelstroms of In The Constellation Of The Black Widow and last year’s Passion, the non-stop blasting and venomous riffage married to Dave’s searing vocals have made Anaal Nathrakh one of the very few (read – only) British BM bands the Norwegians go nuts for.
A completely different strain of spite comes from the other side of the pond in the shape of Cobalt. If ever conclusive proof was needed of the American black metal scene’s ability to vomit up ground-breaking, original and world-class bands, this lot are it. Their debut, War Metal, is as violent as its name suggests, and the follow-ups Eater Of Birds and Gin pushed these boundaries further. There’s a gloriously American “fuck you, I’m going to live my life by my rules” attitude to Cobalt that marks their music out, and a fury that few can live with.
Listen to ‘Pregnant Insect’ by Cobalt:
If one contemporary of the second wave has managed to keep up with modern savagery, then it’s the Swedish pioneers Marduk. If we’re honest, the old Marduk records haven’t aged particularly well. Everyone with a Mayhem t-shirt might own Panzer Division Marduk, but the riffs on their earlier albums suffer under the shoddy production. So thank fuck they kicked a vicious new life into themselves when Mortuus joined on vocals, updating their sound for Plague Angel, and dumping the Swedish BM generic conventions in favour of raw acerbity. Subsequent albums, Rom 5:12 and Wormwood, brought in a doomy but still utterly hateful edge that made their older material look positively cuddly by comparison.
Part of black metal’s appeal has been the swirling craziness that makes you think pretty much anything might happen next. For all the twisted sounds of Mayhem and the utter weirdness of Finnish pioneers Beherit, chilling records you’ll ever hear – black metal has only got more insane since. And it’s been two French bands (both far too kvlt to have anything approaching proper “official” websites) who’ve been hugely important in this.
Back-breakingly heavy and shrouded in secrecy, Deathspell Omega are one of the most convincingly Satanic bands of the lot. DsO are also still pushing their own limits of insanity after a dozen years of releases. Lurching riffs, angular lead guitar lines and song structures that barely merit that description, a Deathspell Omega record is like being stuck in the Devil’s own hall of mirrors while a demon whips at you. Last three albums Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice, Fas – Ite, Maleditcti, in Ignem Aeternum and Paracletus have gone down as modern classics, become hugely influential on bands such as Ulcerate and Altar Of Plagues and redefined the limits of black metal.
Listen to ‘Metamorphosis’ by Blud Aus Nord:
Blut Aus Nord’s conceptual wanderings are marginally less evil than DsO’s, but are at least as terrifying and almost as heavy. Weird, sliding sounds and gaping voids are combined in a manner that should make no fucking sense at all, but somehow hang together to string you along their troubling journeys. While some of their output has been the subject of some debate in terms of quality, The Work Which Transforms God is one of the most unsettling, disturbing and brilliant records ever to crawl out of black metal’s dark pit.
This is only the beginning of Tom Dare’s foray into Black Metal’s sonic evolution – check back tomorrow when Tom takes on Black Metal’s ambient and progressive tendencies.