Black Metal

BLACK METAL (1981-present)

Black Metal is an extreme sub-genre and subculture of heavy metal music. Common traits include fast tempos, shrieking vocal style, heavily distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, raw (lo-fi) recording, unconventional song structures and an emphasis on atmosphere, though many different characteristics and techniques may be employed. Artists often appear in corpse paint and adopt pseudonyms.

Initially a synonym for “Satanic Metal,” Black Metal is often met with hostility from mainstream culture, due to the actions and ideologies associated with it. Many artists express extreme anti-Christian and misanthropic views, advocating various forms of Satanism or ethnic paganism. In the 1990s, members of the scene were responsible for a spate of church burnings and murders. There is also a small neo-Nazi movement within Black Metal, although it has been shunned by many prominent artists. Generally, Black Metal strives to be inaccessible to the mainstream and those who are not committed.

Imagery and Performances

Many bands choose not to play live. Many of those who do play live maintain that their performances “are not for entertainment or spectacle. Sincerity, authenticity and extremity are valued above all else.” Some bands consider their concerts to be rituals and often make use of stage props and theatrics. Bands such as Mayhem and Gorgoroth are noted for their controversial shows, which have featured impaled animal heads, mock crucifixions, medieval weaponry and band members doused in animal blood. A few vocalists are known for cutting themselves while singing onstage.

Black Metal_Corpse paintBlack Metal artists often appear dressed in black with combat boots, bullet belts, spiked wristbands and inverted crosses and pentagrams to reinforce their anti-Christian or anti-religious stance. However, the most stand-out trait is their use of corpse paint – black and white face paint sometimes mixed with real or fake blood, which is used to create a corpse-like or demonic appearance.

The imagery of Black Metal reflects its lyrics and ideology. In the early 1990s, most pioneering Black Metal artists had minimalist album covers featuring xeroxed black-and-white pictures and/or writing. This was partly a reaction against Death Metal bands, who at that time had begun to use brightly colored album artwork. Many purist Black Metal artists have continued this style. Black Metal album covers are typically dark and tend to be atmospheric or provocative; some feature natural or fantasy landscapes (for example Burzum’s – Filosofem and Emperor’s – In the Nightside Eclipse) while others are violent, perverted, sacrilegious and iconoclastic (for example Marduk’s – Fuck Me Jesus and Dimmu Borgir’s – In Sorte Diaboli).

First Wave (1981-1986)

Black MetalThe term ‘Black Metal’ was coined by the English band Venom with their second album Black Metal (1982). Although deemed Thrash Metal rather than Black Metal by today’s standards, the album’s lyrics and imagery focused more on anti-Christian and Satanic themes than any before it. Their music was fast, unpolished in production and with raspy or grunted vocals. Venom’s members also adopted pseudonyms, a practice that would become widespread among Black Metal musicians.The first wave of Black Metal refers to those bands during the 1980s who influenced the Black Metal sound and formed a prototype for the genre. They were often Speed Metal or Thrash Metal bands.

Another major influence on Black Metal was the Swedish band Bathory. The band, led by Thomas Forsberg (a.k.a. Quorthon), created “the blueprint for Scandinavian Black Metal”. Not only was Bathory’s music dark, fast, heavily distorted, lo-fi and with anti-Christian themes, Quorthon was also the first to use the shrieked vocals that came to define Black Metal.

Hellhammer, from Switzerland, “made truly raw and brutal music” with Satanic lyrics, and became an important influence on later Black Metal; “Their simple yet effective riffs and fast guitar sound were groundbreaking, anticipating the later trademark sound of early Swedish death metal”. In 1984, members of Hellhammer formed Celtic Frost, whose music “explored more orchestral and experimental territories. The lyrics also became more personal, with topics about inner feelings and majestic stories. But for a couple of years, Celtic Frost was one of the world’s most extreme and original metal bands, with a huge impact on the mid-90’s Black Metal scene”.

The Danish band Mercyful Fate influenced the Norwegian scene with their imagery and lyrics. Frontman King Diamond, who wore ghoulish black-and-white facepaint on stage, may be one of the inspirators of what became known as ‘corpse paint’. Other acts which adopted a similar appearance on stage were Misfits, Celtic Frost and the Brazilian extreme metal band Sarcófago.

Second Wave (1990-present)

Black Metal 2The second wave of Black Metal began in the early 1990s and was spearheaded by the Norwegian Black Metal scene. During 1990–1993, a number of Norwegian artists began performing and releasing a new kind of Black Metal music; this included Darkthrone, Burzum, Immortal, Satyricon, Mayhem, Enslaved, Thorns, Gorgoroth, Carpathian Forest and Emperor. They developed the style of their 1980s forebears into a distinct genre. This was partly thanks to a new kind of guitar playing developed by Snorre ‘Blackthorn’ Ruch of Stigma Diabolicum-Thorns and Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth of Mayhem. Fenriz of Darkthrone described it as being “derived from Bathory” and noted that “those kinds of riffs became the new order for a lot of bands in the ’90s”.

The wearing of corpse paint became standard, and was a way for many Black Metal artists to distinguish themselves from other metal bands of the era. The scene also had an ideology and ethos. Artists were bitterly opposed to Christianity and presented themselves as misanthropic Devil worshippers who wanted to spread terror, hatred and evil. They professed to be serious in their views and vowed to act on them. Ihsahn of Emperor said that they sought to “create fear among people” and “be in opposition to society”. The scene was exclusive and created boundaries around itself, incorporating only those who were “true” and attempting to expel all “posers”. Some members of the scene were responsible for a spate of church burnings and murder, which eventually drew attention to it and led to a number of artists being imprisoned.

Derivatives of Black Metal

Since the 1990s, different styles of Black Metal have emerged and some have melded Norwegian-style Black Metal with other genres.

Ambient Black Metal (also atmospheric Black Metal) is a subgenre of Black Metal that employs synthesizers to create a gloomy atmosphere and guttural vocals. Examples of bands include Burzum, Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room.

Symphonic Black Metal is a style of Black Metal that incorporates symphonic and orchestral elements. This may include the usage of instruments found in symphony orchestras (piano, violin, cello, flute and keyboards), “clean” or operatic vocals and guitars with less distortion.

Blackgaze incorporates heavier elements common of Black Metal such as blast beat drumming and high-pitched screamed vocals with melodic elements and heavily distorted guitar styles typically associated with shoegazing. It is associated with bands such as Deafheaven and Alcest.

EmperorViking Metal is characterized by a common lyrical and thematic focus on Norse mythology, Norse paganism, and the Viking Age. With origins in Black Metal and Nordic folk music, it is typically manifested as Nordic folk-influenced Black Metal. Some common traits include a slow paced and heavy riffing style, anthemic choruses, use of both clean and harsh vocals, a frequent reliance on folk instrumentation, and, often, the use of keyboards for atmospheric effect.

Viking metal developed in the 1980s through the mid-1990s as a rejection of Satanism and the occult, instead embracing the Vikings and paganism as the leaders of opposition to Christianity. The origin of Viking metal can be traced to the albums Blood Fire Death (1988) and Hammerheart (1990) by Swedish band Bathory. Enslaved, Burzum, Emperor, Storm and Falkenbach helped further develop the genre in the early through mid-1990s. Though originated from Black Metal, some death metal bands such as Unleashed and Amon Amarth are included in the style.

Pagan Metal is metal music with lyrics and imagery that focus on paganism. The Norwegian band In the Woods… was one of the first bands commonly viewed as pagan metal. In the mid-1990s, Irish bands such as Cruachan and Primordial began to combine Black Metal with Irish folk music.

Blackened Death Metal melds Death Metal with Black Metal. Examples of blackened death metal bands are Belphegor, Behemoth, Akercocke and Sacramentum.

Black-Doom, also known as Blackened Doom, melds Doom Metal with Black Metal. Examples of blackened doom bands are Barathrum, Forgotten Tomb, Woods of Ypres and Katatonia.

War Metal, also known as War Black Metal or Bestial Black Metal, is an aggressive, cacophonous and chaotic Black Metal style. Important influences include first wave band Sodom, first wave / Death Metal band Possessed as well as old Grindcore, Black and Death metal bands like Repulsion, Autopsy, Sarcófago and the first two Sepultura releases.


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