Black metal as a sub-genre of extreme metal has a unique culture of its own, which has branched out into different subcultures and musical sub-styles over the course of its evolution. Known to be the darkest genre of metal, its renditions are characterized by incessant speed, shrieking vocals, tremolo riffs, raw recording quality and heavy distortions that emphasize thought process and atmosphere. In its original essence, black metal mostly remains relatively underground in comparison with other sub-genres of metal, boasting a listening base of those identifying with the genre at a musical and ideological level.
Black metal lays massive emphasis on the ideological dimension of music. Although bands and artists who play the genre embrace different ethos and philosophies, a large portion of black metal is opposed to institutional religions, mainly Christianity. As a result, the characteristic spirit of a culture that rejects the norms and standards of the modern society is manifested in black metal. Through lyrical themes often portraying imagery, black metal bands have time and again questioned and rejected intrinsic secularism, norm-adherence, consumerism and the modern worldview.
Many artists also embrace spirituality through the music as an expression of their dissatisfaction towards a world lacking spiritual or cultural significance. Satanic lyrics and imagery form a significant aspect of black metal, although it should be noted that a plethora of black metal bands reject Satanism as well. The genre has also been laced around the concept of individualism and its ideological conflict with group identities, with a classic example being the band Darkthrone who placed the highest regard upon self-reliance and individuality. On the other hand, many followers of bands like Mayhem tend to accept both extremes of radical individualism and collective identities.
Other ideological dimensions of black metal include National Socialist black metal and its opponent Red and Anarchist black metal. The former conveys neo-Nazi beliefs and right-wing nationalism as evident in the music of bands like Absurd, Infernum and Graveland. The latter is a lesser-known ideological rendition which embraces left-wing ideologies such as Marxist and anarchist philosophies, played by bands like Iskra and Skagos.
The First Wave
The grandeur of the first wave of black metal comprises the flag bearers from the 80’s who laid down the foundations of the genre. The very term “black metal” was coined by Venom when they released their second album ‘Black Metal’ in ’82. However, Venom had a dominant essence of thrash metal although some of their lyrical themes laced around rejection of Christianity, Satanism and such imagery. The production was raw and band members took up pseudonyms, thus starting a practice which is followed by many black metal artists around the world to this day. Swedish band Bathory is often regarded as the most significant initial contributor to the genre by furthering these themes as they introduced certain defining elements of black metal in their formative years. Their music was ceaseless and heavily distorted, with the band initiating the use of shrieked vocals in their music. Aided with lyrical themes of an anti-Christianity stance, these elements created a truly dark atmosphere, that is best heard in their initial albums ‘Bathory’, ‘The Return’, ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ and ‘Blood Fire Death’.
The genre started expanding its dimensions with theunapologetic and raw renditions released by Hellhammer from Switzerland. Their music went on to influence generations of black metal that followed and was characterized by simple but ceaseless riffs establishing a strong thought process with lyrical contentespousing Satanic themes. Members of Hellhammer eventually formed Celtic Frost who brought about a bold approach in the genre with a good deal of experimentation, both musically and lyrically. Norwegian black metal bands also drew influences from Denmark-based Mercyful Fate’s ideological themes and aesthetics like frontman King Diamond’s “corpse paint”.
Before the Norwegian black metal culture fully bloomed, bands like Master’s Hammer, Rotting Christ, Von and Blasphemy released some important records. With the onset of the 90s, certain Northern European bands like Marduk and Dissection from Sweden put forth their own renditions influenced by both early and latter parts of the first wave of black metal. Bands like Impaled Nazarene and Archgoat in Finland sought to expand the boundaries of the genre by fusing the essence of black metal with death and grindcore elements.
The Second Wave
With the emergence of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 90s, the second wave of black metal witnessed a fresh approach to the genre. The individuality of the genre came to be asserted like never before when a plethora of bands like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Gorgoroth, Carpathian Forest, Emperor and Immortal released a lot of defining material. While surely influenced by pioneers of the first wave like Bathory, guitarists like Euronymous of Mayhem through their music asserted the significance of riffing styles which set the standard for many bands to build upon. The second wave was aesthetically rich as well, with the widespread use of the corpse paint, and anti-Christian and fear-inducing ideologies expressed by church burning and even murder.
One of the most defining points of assertion of black metal in the Norwegian underground was Helvete, Euronymous’ record shop in Oslo. The independent store became the hub of black metal artists like members of Burzum, Mayhem and Emperor. Euronymous went on to create an independent record label named Deathlike Silence Productions known for its underground success which led other record labels to consider releasing black metal music.
Heavily influenced by the Norwegian scene and the first wave, black metal bands came up in the European mainland as well. Some of the most significant bands include Behemoth and Graveland from Poland, and even Cradle of Filth’s early music had heavy black metal influences with symphony-laden compositions. Newer styles of black metal emerged owing to the diversity of these different scenes, but it was the Norwegian and the Scandinavian sounds that inspired the newer black metal bands the most.
The end of the second wave of the genre saw an important development with bands like Dimmu Borgir upgrading their production qualities. Some bands who had started out as black metal began embracing a Viking style or made way for symphonic renditions. Lyrical themes also started exploring subjects of depression and suicide; thus emerged Depressive Suicidal Black Metal. The post-second wave era has experienced a good deal of diversity in styles with Swedish bands like Watain and Dissection writing music often entwined around mysticism. Several interpretations of the second wave church burning also arose, which were fused with concepts of nationalism, neo-Nazism and Paganism. Owing to this, National Socialist black metal acts like French band Les Legions Noires emerged.
Black metal has also been expanding its territorial dimensions in the post-second wave era. Since the early 2000s, black metal acts have been emerging in the Middle East with anti-religious stances questioning Islamic ways. A revolutionary instance is the ‘Burning Quran Ceremony’, a demo album by the solo project Janaza by Anahita who is claimed to be Iraq’s first female black metal artist.
Black metal has also been fused with a variety of other styles to give rise to genres such as blackened death as played by Belphegor, ambient black metal like Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room, symphonic black metal like Carach Angren and industrial black metal like Mysticum.