Up From the Chthonic Depths: A Brief History of Greek Black Metal
Black metal will probably be forever associated with Norway. A cold, Viking-haunted land on Europe’s northern fringe, Norway could be called mysterious. That would make sense given its most famous export, and yet Norway is also a relatively prosperous and safe country. Similarly, despite the rabid anti-Christian stance of Norwegian black metal, their home country is not known for being overly faithful.
Greece is quite the opposite. While the rest of Europe and North America were busy with free love, drugs, and rock and roll, Greece was under the control of a military junta that openly disliked anything groovy. Following the junta’s fall in 1974, while people in mainland Greece celebrated, the predominately Greek island of Cyprus was invaded and occupied by the Turkish military. Still, Greece enjoyed a rather limited run of economic prosperity throughout the remainder of the 1970s. Unfortunately, this prosperity died quickly in the 1980s, and today Greece is best known on the international stage as a defaulter state starving for even a tiny morsel of solvency. As with most countries undergoing financial ruin, riots and street violence are not unknown in today’s Greece.
All of this history helps to give Greek black metal a noticeable edge. Also, unlike their Scandinavian compatriots, Greek black metal has never enjoyed much exposure. As a result, Greek black metal acts are predominately denizens of the true underground.
One Greek black metal act stands above the rest, however. Thanks to their explosive name, Athens’s Rotting Christ are usually the first band mentioned whenever Greek black metal is discussed. Formed originally as Black Church in 1985, the band stumbled on their eye-catching name in 1987. Since then, Rotting Christ have released eleven full-length studio albums with a twelfth on the way. Like a lot of other bands, Rotting Christ have gone from an overly Satanic band leaning on goats and pentagrams for shock value to a band interested in the pagan iconography and tales of their ancestral homeland. Although it's obvious that the monk-slaying, longboat-riding Vikings of old tend to be more popular in the black metal scene (this is due to both the widespread popularity of Nordic black metal and the ethnic composition of the genre’s fan base), Rotting Christ have found some success with songs devoted to ancient mythologies of the Mediterranean world. On 2007’s Theogonia, the band even recorded a metal version of the “Enuma Elish," or the Babylonian creation myth. How’s that for range?
Sadly, like Rodney Dangerfield, Rotting Christ and the entire Greek black metal scene continue to get no respect. Despite their chops, Rotting Christ have been prisoners to their name. Harried out of venues for years, Rotting Christ were banned in Verona, Italy in 2009. Then, in a tragic display of the current wimpification that is metastasizing like a cancer throughout the metal community, the nominally iconoclastic Dave Mustaine refused to go on the same stage as Rotting Christ because he found their name “offensive.” So much for that metal brotherhood and all.
Even if all publicity is good publicity, the rest of the Greek black metal scene hasn’t benefitted that much from Rotting Christ’s notoriety. Great bands like Varathron, who’ve been in the trenches since 1989, and Necromantia tend to go unnoticed whenever black metal “Best Of” lists are created. For what it’s worth, Necromantia’s Scarlet Evil Witching Black is a classic, while Varathron’s Walpurgisnacht is equally brutal.
Other overlooked Greek black metal acts from the old school include Thou Art Lord, Fiendish Nymph, Nergal, Disharmony, and Darkest Oath. Each one of these acts, although diverse in their own way, have helped to create a Greek, or rather Hellenic sound. Although nowhere near as identifiable as the more famous “necrosound” of the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s, the Hellenic sound usually includes the following items: terrible production (what’s black metal without shitty recording equipment?), the use of traditional Greek instruments such as the bouzouki and the lyre, a sort of Romantic interest in classic music, an unwillingness to leave behind traditional heavy metal and thrash elements, and a lyrical focus on Greece’s pagan past. Again, outright blasphemy is common, too. In Orthodox Greece, being anti-Christian actually makes a statement.
Aesthetically, old school Greek black metal bands also embraced sleaze and cheese like their Italian neighbors. While Norwegian and Swedish bands were representing their music with grainy black and white pictures of corpsepainted dudes hanging out in wintry forests, Greek black bands sold the product with cartoonish images that are closer to the elaborate paintings of late ‘80s/early ‘90s death metal than anything else. Sex, especially sex that is encapsulated by images of bared breasts, is also present, thus making Greek black metal imagery more red-blooded than the cold and asexual graphics of bands like Burzum and Darkthrone.
Nowadays, Greek metal acts have joined the rest of the scene in decorating their albums with the usual soup of hoary words overlooking some sort of spooky scene set in black and white or black and another muted color. Sonically, Greek black metal has thankfully remained ferocious and unreconstructed. One won’t find too many dark ballads on Greek black metal records, even though the production values have gone way up. The leading lights of modern Greek black metal include Ravencult, Empire of the Moon (who love tits), Hell Poemer, and Macabre Omen. Although many of these bands have roots in the early to mid 1990s, they, along with Rotting Christ, have done the most to keep the scene vibrant in the 2010s. Hopefully, Greek black metal will continue to chart an independent course. Furthermore, let’s all wish that Greek black metal remains dark and malevolent, for, as much as some may hate to admit it, the most interesting black metal today is far from dark and is being made in American hipster enclaves. Maybe Greece can once again save the Western world.