In The Left Field of Satan – A Look At The Weirder Black Metal Bands
Black metal may have been birthed within the frozen winter landscapes of Scandinavia, but it was only an eye blink of time before it traveled, both physically and stylistically, light years from the crucible of its infancy. The torch that Quorthon plucked from the outstretched fist of Venom and Mercyful Fate soon found itself igniting, not only a few stave churches in suburban Norway, but the hearts and minds of a new generation of young musicians as well. These kids may have been brash, hyperbolically hateful, and completely against the conventions of society, but it soon became evident that they possessed a high degree of musical acumen as well. So much so that the aural template they laid down contained within it the potential for so much more than just hellfire and damnation. Venom, Hellhammer, and Bathory may have brought a simplistic approach to songwriting, high on atmosphere and balls and a bit thin on technical superiority, but not so this second wave of black metal. Was it the greater emphasis on music theory and history taught in the schools? Were they, like Vorph and Xytras of Samael down in Switzerland, the sons of gifted musicians? Or was it something else? Was the restless spirit within black metal incapable of being contained, despite the rigid stances of its orthodox fans and proponents?
To focus on the second wave of black metal’s ground zero, that being Norway, one needn’t look further than to footage of shows in the early days for black metal’s exclusionary attitude. No moshing, no laughing, no nothing – just stand there and look as grim and evil as possible. Of all the sub-genres of heavy metal, there were few others that could claim to be as intolerant to progression or outside influence as black metal. Corpse paint and spikes, a look that still hasn’t lost its appeal in 2016, projected such otherness and separation from the norm that one could be forgiven for thinking unreadable logos, black and white album art, and rigid musical ventures would proliferate ad nauseum.
The benefit of hindsight shows us today that of course, this vision would not remain static. True art never does, and black metal is nothing if not a truly artful expression. What this expression is attempting to convey has been debated and discussed since the dawn of the genre. Some of the second wave’s mercurial creators have done everything from turning their backs on one another to messily killing each other in stairwells, with many of these feuds being rooted in the truth – or lack thereof – of an individual’s vision of what black metal is supposed to be.
Out of this cauldron of conflicting intent and militant individualism, however, arose some of the most adventurous and boundary pushing artists and bands the world had yet seen. And while some forms of black metal were scorned by its stalwarts, such as the symphonic, more cleanly produced – and therefore more commercially viable – version spearheaded by the likes of Dimmu Borgir, there began quite early in the second wave a branching out to farther fields that had nothing to do with going commercial.
Who were some of these pioneering artists, whose departure from the shores of convention wound up sprouting entirely new branches in heavy metal’s great old tree? Where did the bands come from? And though Norway was the cradle of uncivilization for metal’s most extremist sect, we will see in this journey that the impulse of the avant-garde was being felt in many disparate locales. It’s a journey which begins in the era of tape trading and word of mouth, of zines and letters, of fans scanning the acknowledgement pages of their CD booklets to see who their heroes were hailing. As the 1990’s progressed, so too did the internet take shape, slowly but surely uniting distant lands and their indigenous scenes like the veins and arteries of a growing organism.
Thus, a span of years beginning roughly in 1991 and extending until the early 2000’s becomes the focal point of this rapid expansion of sound within the nascent black metal medium. These first few years experienced the inception of virtually all of the genre’s heavy hitters. The likes of Gorgoroth, Manes, Mayhem, Thorns, Burzum, Ulver, Thou Shalt Suffer (Emperor), Immortal, Mysticum, Enslaved, Darkthrone, and Satyricon were searing their chaotic spirits into the minds of new fans, melting eardrums and setting new standards of mystery and zeitgeist. This embryonic push from Norway infected the entire planet, swiftly and with zero help from the mainstream.
In Finland you had the deeply occult Beherit, in Sweden the martial and majestic strains of Marduk and Dissection, while over in England a young Cradle of Filth was crawling out of an Ipswich backstreet. All the way out in Greece the Tolis brothers were turning heads with Rotting Christ. Even the United States had Acheron, while Austria had Abigor and Summoning, while in Belgium a Venom-inspired Ancient Rites was taking flight. Just as Ireland had Primordial and their vicious Dark Romanticism debut, down in Italy a militant bunch called Aborym were beginning their own onslaught. Portugal saw Moonspell weaving black metal into their dark, gothic maelstrom, even as a baby Behemoth was taking shape out in Poland. On the other side of the globe in Japan, a young man called Mirai Kawashima was breathing a Sigh onto the black metal landscape that is still being felt today. And these were just a few of the more well-known acts.
Every one of the aforesaid creations etched their foothold in black metal roughly between 1991 and 1993, pretty much concurrent to their Norwegian progenitors. Such an explosive rate of growth meant a couple of things. One, the black plague would not be stopped; a form of music many journalists had heretofore enjoyed slagging off was spreading its vast wings and casting an unbreakable shadow over the underground. Two, the style might surely collapse beneath the weight of all the artists struggling to tap into its darkness.
Now, would this collapse follow along the same lines as power metal? As the majesty of Iron Maiden’s 1980’s output led to a frenzy of saturation that eventually became Poison and Cinderella, would the same thing happen to black metal? Unlike forms of music more appealing to a mainstream audience, though, black metal never experienced such a dilution of talent. Even in the latter half of the 90’s, when Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth were playing it much safer than the genre’s “true” fans preferred, no one can say that their albums were diluted or lacking talent. Keyboards and orchestras might not be to everyone’s liking, but even at their most cringingly commercial, these acts were still crafting well-made and expansive music. In other words, even when they tried to dress black metal up in some Sunday clothes, the disheveled beast was fooling no one.
Converse to other genres, black metal’s rapid expansion resulted in a host of its artists seeking fulfillment elsewhere, extending their minds into realms far more challenging than any simple watering down of talent would allow. This geyser of creativity could be traced back to Norway, of course, where the second wave began.
It’s not easy to pinpoint who cast the first rock into the pool of the unknown. Lateral moves into the realm of the avant-garde were coming in fits and starts, and they were birthed at the behest of the scene’s prime movers. From Norway there were a handful of, shall we say, really important demos, E.P.’s and debut full-lengths. Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjornson, in the rainy mountain town of Bergen, had as Enslaved released the Hordanes Land E.P. in May of 1993, roughly a year on from the appearance of their Yggdrasil demo.
Startling keys, Kjellson’s icy shriek, and blasting drums heralded folkish song structures and moody instrumental interludes praising the Odinist heritage shared by all within the spectrum of Norsk svart metal. Outwardly black metal in delivery and sound, inasmuch as the genre could be defined in terms of sound and not philosophy; at its heart, the music of Enslaved concerned itself not at all with the Christian manifestation of Satan.
Krystoffer Rygg, aka Garm, and Jan Axel von Blomberg, aka Hellhammer, under the sign of Arcturus, released the Constellation EP in August of 1994.
The unrelenting racket of black metal was here being distilled through a lens of astral magnificence punctuated by soaring keys, unfamiliar arrangements, some martial, prideful clean vocals between the shrieks, and a haunting atmosphere more reminiscent of outer space and inner mystery than any simple ode to the horned one. The change in style did not diminish its otherness, though. It wasn’t more accessible, arguably, only weirder and more uncomfortable with respect to convention.
In a slightly similar vein, the Botteri brothers and Anders Kobro (Carpathian Forest) formed the mysterious collective known as In The Woods, dropping their Isle of Men demo in 1993 to further expand black metal’s ferocious game.
A few months prior to this came the Ulver/Mysticum split. Two songs only it was, and yet the dearth of tracks in no way diminished the impact it would make. For contained in this release were the seeds of both pagan black metal and industrial black metal, respectively.
In 1995, a collective known as Ved Buens Ende made their only album to date, Written In Waters.
It contained within it perhaps no better manifestation of the avant-garde direction black metal could go. Multi-instrumentalist Carl-Michael Eide, when he wasn’t jumping out of windows, contributed to other very brilliant, futuristic outfits such as Virus, Dødheimsgard, and Cadaver (as Czral).
In only a few short years Norway saw the likes of Kampfar and Limbonic Art launch colorful and stellar careers, doubtless inspired, at least in part, by those very first rumblings of left field black metal laid down by Enslaved, In The Woods, Ulver, Mysticum, and Arcturus. And although Snørre Ruch did not release a Thorns full length until 1999, his Thule demo prophesied its own coming wave of cold, futuristic, ambient black metal.
Obviously, black metal’s barbwire boundaries were not just being pushed in Norway. Across the globe in Japan, Sigh’s 1993 Scorn Defeat debut was a prime early example of forward-thinking horror influenced black metal with a gothic twist.
Cradle of Filth, in England, turned heads that same year with their own demo Total Fucking Darkness. Amid the Venom-worship there breathed a similar keyboard laden, darkly romantic gothic heart.
Looking back across the years, its remarkable how many artists within black metal started out playing a raw, furious, orthodox style and then transcended into other realms. It was one thing for a musician to come up in the scene with a differing taste and style to his or her peers. After all, thrash metal had its Voivod, hardcore punk had its Amebix, and so too did black metal have its own set of avant-garde leaning musicians.What’s remarkable is to trace the pathway of many of the scene’s founding fathers, to see exactly how quickly they took their black metal art into realms with roots in their genre, but branches reaching far beyond its fetters into new and undiscovered lands.
Again, Norway comes to the forefront. The career path of Satyricon is an interesting one, which when considered as a whole seems to have taken a less than linear highway out of the past. Say what you want about them, but that band has responded solely to the creative vector of Sigurd “Satyr” Wongraven and nothing else. Their demo, All Evil, released in 1992, was suitably Bathory-tastic, full of the spite and fire of the second wave. Even their split with Enslaved, The Forest is My Throne/Yggdrasil, they showed a mostly conventional take on what was a genre still essentially exploding into being. But take a look at their Dark Medieval Times album from 1993.
Folk melodies, flutes, and other pagan metal tropes abounded, making it one of the forefathers of the pagan black metal art form. 1994’s The Shadowthrone followed this same path, most notably on the epic song “Vikingland,” with its clean/harsh vocal tradeoff. Surely this was a hint of what was to come from their contemporaries in bands like Kampfar and Borknagar.
Then came the transition album, Nemesis Divina. Arguably one of the finest pieces of black metal art ever conceived by human hands, one could make the claim that, at least for Satyr and Frost (Kjetil-Vidar Haraldstad; drums; also in 1349), the genre as it was birthed could offer them nothing more. Nemesis Divina had it all. Strains of pagan black metal lurked amid the storm on tracks like “Forhekset” and “Immortality Passion,” while “Mother North” achieved a level of anthemic superiority that is yet to be eclipsed in the genre.
The restless spirit of the seeking artist, for whom stagnation is not an option, is what resulted. Satyr and Frost dropped a mighty gauntlet with 1999’s sprawling Rebel Extravaganza. Gone were the forests, spiked armor, and traditional corpse paint of youth. In its place a grimy monument to modern society’s decay. The black and white definition of black metal was blurring, even as it was mushed into a gray slime upon the faces of the band members in the album sleeve. The past still echoed, but the displacement of pagan Europe by the onslaught of Christianity had begun to lose its luster for many in the scene. Even the old allusions to Satan were becoming quaint in the face of man’s disastrous lurch towards the new millennium. Whatever sigh of relief we took at the fall of the Soviet Union had withered beneath the reality of our doomed planet. The internet was teaching us just how fucked up the world had truly become. Instead of a few superpowers possessing nuclear capability, suddenly there were rogue regimes behind every corner. School shootings and other forms of terrorism were quickly becoming commonplace. Civil war in places like Rwanda and Chechnya were coming into our living rooms, displaying the atavistic slide of man toward the horrors, not of the Bible, but of Nietzche and Orwell. These were much more real, and black metal grabbed on thematically with both hands.
Art reflects life, and black metal’s meteoric evolution suddenly had a whole new canon of inspiration from which to draw. It began in the upper mid 90’s, even before the release of Rebel Extravaganza. Dødheimsgard, or DHG as they would become, began life as disciples of the second wave. Their first two albums, Kronet Til Kronge and Monumental Possession, were solid and memorable, but less epic than Emperor and Satyricon. DHG is probably not talked about today because of those albums. They’re good albums! They aged well, and they still sound vicious, but they are not what etched this band a new handhold on modern black metal’s icy cliffs.
The Satanic Art E.P., released in 1998, was a game changer. Its follow up, 1999’s 666 International, pushed DHG further from the orthodox lands of their birth into the millennial miasma of industrial, ambient, and unconventional song structures that was now being personified on the Moonfog Records label, a brainchild of Sigurd Wongraven. The music was uncomfortable, manic, cold, and bleak. That sounds like an accurate description of black metal. But the dissonance and distortion was beckoned into existence with drum machines, samplers, and augmented with clean vocals. So is it still black metal? This article does not aim to make up the mind of the music fan, of course, but only to illustrate where the genre headed, and from our lofty perspective over 15 years into the new century, to appreciate how fast that happened.
About this time, way down in Italy, Aborym was also pushing the industrial sound to the forefront. Sharpening the attack of 1999’s Kali Yuga Bizarre into the totalitarian nihilism of 2001’s Fire Walk With Us!, the band even enlisted the vocal assistance of one Attila Csihar (ex-Tormentor, Mayhem) to conquer and command. This Hungarian vocalist possesses the larynx of a thousand demons, and his work speaks for itself. Though you might have lost some traditionalists at ‘drum machine,’ the menace and fury of the album spoke for itself. This was black metal for the modern world, distilled through the lens of modern computerized instruments, with an (in)human touch of course. Hell, it’s still rock ‘n roll right? Now tastes may differ, but the sound of thousands of booted feet marching down some poor fucker’s city street is far more frightening than the imaginary rumblings of biblical demons.
And though Aborym and Limbonic Art were using drum machines and injecting the electronic element into black metal’s frosty guts, the aforementioned Mysticum had truly laid down the gauntlet of industrial black metal with 1995’s In The Streams of Inferno. They would disappear for decades after the album came out, but it was probably the most dominant, as well as the most well-known, example of the fusing of the two art forms.
So by the turn of the millennium, black metal had morphed and was continuing to morph. The pagan heritage themed black metal of Enslaved and In The Woods was shimmering into progressive, even psychedelic territory. Dimmu Borgir, Old Man’s Child, and Cradle of Filth were on the leading edge of symphonic, more consumer friendly fare, while the industrial coldness mentioned above suffused the landscape. Even Emperor was foreshadowing their own demise with the technical, sprawling masterpieces that comprised IX Equilibrium and Prometheus – Of Fire and Demise. Darkthrone was still Darkthrone, and a young 1349 was turning up the hyper-blast along with their neighbors in Marduk, in defiance of all this newfangled inventiveness.
There was still the elephant in the room, however. Mayhem, the most kvlt of kvlt, had thrown a curveball that would have made Nolan Ryan proud. Grand Declaration of War ushered in the new millennium with an album that after three songs of razor sharp black metal, took a turn for the weird with “View From Nihil,” featuring vocalist Maniac doing his best Pink Floyd – The Wall imitation. “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun” comes on and many fans were probably trembling in their bullet belts, angrily tossing their stereos out the window in frustration. (People still had stereos in 2000). Was that a trip-hop beat? Yes. Was Maniac whisper-rapping over the beats? Yes. Did it work? Impeccably. Was it black metal? That is for you, the fan, to decide.
Is black metal a marriage of philosophy and music unshakable in its method of release? Or is it the relentless pushing forward of artists who care about nothing outside of the construction of their art? Is black metal not the eternal middle finger to conventions? If it is an anti-trend, doesn’t being anti-trend become its own trend? For five guys to sit around a studio and boldly make an album that they know is going to piss off half their fan base, but do it anyway, well I can’t think of a better manifestation of the spirit of black metal. If darkness, negativity, and ill will is being propounded, in a high and elitist form of music that is both difficult to play and challenging to consume, is that not the true black flame flickering defiantly against the soft, weak light of the mainstream?
No one should have been too surprised with the career change within Mayhem. After Arcturus bestowed the weird, left-field theatrics of La Masquerade Infernale upon its fans in 1997, and Ulver (also featuring the aforementioned Krysstofer Rygg aka Garm) went into ambient, trip-hop realms with 2000’s Perdition City, these left field contributions were becoming commonplace. Bold, artful albums that left black metal far behind, their distance from their roots showed the artists’ remarkable thirst for enlightenment, as well as put to bed any lingering notion that black metal musicians were not highly skilled, highly creative people.
Manes was another major participant in this dance towards the unknown. After 1999 full-length Under Ein Bloodraud Maane, which had a little bit of Arcturus, a little bit of older Samael, in its mix, they went in a completely other direction with 2003’s Vilosophe. Impossible to categorize, it shed black metal like a wet wool sweater and went on to defy convention into territory not previously covered by Manes, and by few others in any genre.
Complete departures notwithstanding, there were those in the genre who were molding it like clay while still performing music whose structure resided within the shroud of more traditional black metal. Norway is guilty once again. Solefald, with their 1997 debut The Linear Scaffold showed Lars “Lazare” Nedland and Cornelius Jakheln were certainly, in the modern day vernacular of urban American youth, on some other shit.
Music as challenging and serpentine as it was brash and classically driven, their career has been a constant affirmation of the chameleon-like nature of black metal and what could truly be done with the genre once convention was adequately shrugged off.
Outside of Norway, there were leaps and bounds aplenty as the genre grew. In Switzerland, Samael had taken their raw black metal beginnings and, by the will of their own muse, Vorph and Xy bestowed first the unique Ceremony Of Opposites (1994) upon the world and then the vastly forward-thinking Passage two years later. The former crawled and swaggered with blackened might; a herald of depressive, suicidal black metal. The latter could loosely be described as industrial black metal, but it was already shedding genre classification and launching Samael into an orbit of electronic, industrial metal that in the future would only bear passing resemblances to the original black metal template.
In Austria, Abigor was keeping it slightly unconventional with 2001’s excellent Satanized, a slightly more unconventional affair than 1999’s Channeling the Quintessence of Satan. Like Sigh in Japan, Abigor would get more and more unconventional as the years passed. Unconventional, but no less menacing. In England, Anaal Nathrakh was fusing grindcore with cold industrial overtones and focusing it through a lens of unrelenting black metal. It was modern, it was extreme, and it helped signal a lot of what was still to come. Conversely, Summoning was telling tales of Middle Earth in an increasingly neo-classical, dungeon-music atmosphere hardly reminiscent of their own raw black metal beginnings.
The journey that black metal undertook from its raw, primitive beginnings through to its many modern day manifestations displays a level of growth that just isn’t seen in other subsects of heavy metal music. Apart from prog, or tech-death, which prides itself – and is built entirely upon – complexity and its pursuits, black metal has perhaps given rise to more branches on the heavy metal tree than any other art form.
From the folk dabblings of Enslaved, Ulver, Einherjer and later on Kampfar, the world got the likes of Borknagar, Windir, Helrunar, Myrkgrav, Farsot, and Myrkur, among tons of others. The Moonfog sound of Thorns, boldly birthed by Mysticum, set the table for DHG and <Code> and Virus, while Solefald, Arcturus, and In The Woods ensured the world would ensure the rise of bands such as Agalloch, The Meads of Asphodel, Wolvhammer, Lychgate and Lantlos, among many, many others in a rapidly expanding left field of pseudo-, post-, and avant-garde black metal awesomeness. The adventurous spirit of those who pushed away boundaries can be seen today in the vibrant Amerian black metal scene thriving as you read this, as well. So like it or not, the elusive and exclusive black metal beast of the second wave was never going to be contained. Traditionalists can still experience vibrant and worthy creations from the likes of Marduk, Tsjuder, Darkened Nocturne Slaughtercult, Horna, Mgla, Taake, and a host of bands who adhere to the black flame and the black flame only. That’s the great thing about music, isn’t it? There really is something for everyone. And sometimes, when we hang onto some of the branches of black metal’s family tree and get really comfortable in whatever nook we fit ourselves into, we forget that its good sometimes to back up, take a look at the entire thing, and marvel at its size here in 2016. Because without black metal’s amazing left field, that tree might have stopped growing years ago.