10 Bands That Shaped The History Of Black Metal
BLACK METAL: to some it's the purest embodiment of uncompromising musical nonconformity, while to others it's the meme that keeps on giving (I predict knit corpsepaint ski masks will be all the rage before February wraps up).
These are not necessarily irreconcilable opinions on the subject… we here at Metal Injection do our fair share of taking the piss out of the genre – anything that takes itself as seriously as black metal needs a good kick in the ass now and then – but Black Metal History Month is when we do our part to honor the heritage of the bands that have pushed things forward over the last 20+ years.
In 2011 we inaugurated Black Metal History Month with a bevy of articles, one of which included the Top 10 New Black Metal Bands You Should Know. This time around we're going to flip the script and focus on the early progenitors that kicked this shit off in the first place.
A couple house rules:
- This isn't a pissing contest to determine who are the most "kvlt" acts out there; this is about influence, pure and simple.
- That said, BM is in a great period of flux right now, with a lot of experimentation going on that is pushing more and more bands beyond the scope of BM proper… in the interests of acknowledging the built in limitations of a top 10 list I'm not going to be dabbling in a lot of far flung sub-sub-genres; there will undoubtedly be a handful of orthodox elitists who quibble with some of these picks, but most readers will acknowledge all of the following as fitting within the loose confines of black metal, at least during the period of influence cited.
And with that here we go, in roughly chronological order:
Sorry, Venom did not invent black metal, they merely came up with the name for it. There were a lot of bands that laid building blocks, sure, but in the same way that Sabbath fused together Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Blue Cheer – none of whom "invented" heavy metal – and came up with something uniquely their own in the process, Quorthon took the pioneering work of Venom, Mercyful Fate and Hellhammer and laid the foundation for the Norwegian black metal template: the shrieked (rather than guttural) vocals, the treble-heavy, tinny production values, the de-emphasis on guitar solos and verse-chorus-verse song structures… by his third album, 1987's Under the Sign of the Black Mark, all of these elements were in place, Bathory having become even more esoteric and inaccessible in the three years since the debut album. Take a listen to "Equimanthorn": this is not "proto"-BM but a fully realized, early take on the real thing.
Another 1987 release of colossal stature in the Scandinavian black metal scene was Mayhem's seminal Deathcrush album. If you've ever watched the Until the Light Takes Us documentary you know that Fenriz of Darkthrone cannot heap enough praise on this influential recording. A brief EP of a mere 18.5 minutes – including a Venom cover as well as an intro performed by Conrad Schnitlzer of Tangerine Dream (!) – the music on Deathcrush may have long since been superseded by black metal more innovative, more accomplished, even more raw… but there is no mistaking its impact on a group of wide-eyed, impressionable youth – unofficially dubbed the "Black Circle" – centered around the Helvete shop in Oslo.
Unfortunately, due to a number of issues – media notoriety, loss of band members (largely triggered by the suicide of vocalist Dead), and financial difficulties that eventually necessitated the closing of Euronymous' Helvete shop, the efforts to record the band's first full length album stretched on for several years. Mayhem had only recently wrapped up recording when Euronymous was murdered by Varg Vikernes in August 1993. It would be another year before De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas would see release… at exactly the same time Burzum founder Vikernes was on trial for Euronymous' murder.
On the back of such an abbreviated body of work, however, Mayhem greatly influenced later black metal in a number of areas, musically helping to define the production aesthetic and guitar riffing style the genre would embrace, as well as kickstarting the widespread usage of corpsepaint (King Diamond and Hellhammer / Celtic Frost had notably utilized it prior to Mayhem, but the trend was largely restricted to a few individuals throughout the early-to-mid 80's).
Love him or hate him, Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes made a large impact on the early Norwegian BM scene, particularly in light of Mayhem's inability to get any further studio recordings released following 1987's Deathcrush. By the time De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas finally saw the light of day in May 1994, Vikernes already had four releases on store shelves.
Vikernes was an early pioneer of atmosphere in the BM sound. Like Quorthon before him, he favored keyboard intros and ambient interludes to add a more evocative feel to the music. He furthermore managed to successfully meld the more epic, mid-paced feel of Bathory's early 90's material with the raw ferocity of that act's early albums… all while retaining the tinny, low rent production quality of the early Mayhem demos. For all his faults as a human being, Vikernes was as visionary as anyone about where black metal needed to go next.
Fenriz was not an early adopter of black metal. The first Darkthrone LP, Soulside Journey, was a straight up death metal album by any standard. But somewhere along the way he became acquainted with Deathcrush and began corresponding with Count Grishnackh. Though he later became estranged from Grischnackh after the latter's imprisonment, these two dual influences would shape Darkthrone's sound for the next 15 years.
In 2006, Fenriz released The Cult Is Alive, switching styles to embrace the crust punk and primitive thrash that had come to almost completely dominate his own listening preferences. In doing so, he found himself once again on the crest of a new wave of bands rediscovering proto-BM in an analogous manner to the retro-thrash movement that has sprung up over the past decade.
Immortal may never live down their laughably earnest video for 1992's "The Call of the Wintermoon" but chances are they could give two shits. While not the first band to wear corpsepaint and wristbands spiked with ridiculously long nails, Immortal represented the whole package aesthetically, their image being as much a part of their identity as the music was. Aside from Abbath's more gremlin-like vocals, Immortal differentiated themselves by infusing a little more instrumental dexterity into the blistering pace of their material while retaining the raw sound that had come to characterize their country's BM scene. In addition, thematically they stood Vikernes' naturalistic paganism on its head by presenting nature as a cold, unwelcoming environment that one must struggle against rather than embrace.
This will be the first band that orthodox purists will claim "isn't black metal", but they are resolutely full of shit. However, it is worth noting that the very things which make Emperor so influential are also the very things that a vocal minority consider to constitute a fundamental break from black metal orthodoxy. For one, they were one of the first bands to bring a symphonic element to the Norwegian BM sound; for another, the technicality and musicianship to some constitute an attempt to "class up" the genre, something they deem antithetical to the Black Circle's original ethos.
Who cares, really? That ethos is well worth discussing when it actually pertains to the bands that held it, but when you consider that both the band that coined the term "black metal" as well as many of the early ("proto-BM") bands that preceded the Norwegian scene had little in common with the Black Circle ideology, it seems petty and disingenuous to insist that we coin a new genre label to describe the more experimental, open minded bands that postdate Mayhem, Burzum and their acolytes. But yeah, for many BM ended in 1994, the year De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Burzum's final album – recorded before the murder of Euronymous – and Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse were all three released.
7. Dimmu Borgir
Dimmu Borgir is one of those bands (like Emperor) that certain factions have retroactively attempted to strip of the black metal label after several left turns later in the band's career saw them largely abandoning their BM roots in favor of a more experimental, broader palette of extreme metal influences.
But make no mistake, 1994's For All Tid saw Dimmu splitting the difference between the epic, symphonic efforts of newer bands like Emperor and Carpathian Forest while retaining the treble-heavy production values and cheap Casio keyboards of Burzum. They furthermore kept it old school by singing entirely in Norwegian on their first couple of albums.
If all they'd ever released was For All Tid, however, they wouldn't be on this list. Their second album, Stormblast, found the band in command of a much greater budget, now with a more spacious production scope and decent keyboards at their disposal… in general, better equipped to follow Emperor down the blackened prog rabbit hole. In fact, by the time Emperor's sophomore album came out in 1997 Dimmu Borgir was already on their third, and while they may not quite have rivaled Emperor's compositional excellence, they'd nonetheless made influential advances in stripping back the clattering, busybody songwriting typical of black metal up until that point and opening things up where the individual elements could be clearly ascertained. Also, Shagrath's vocals had become much more multi-faceted than most BM of the day.
Enslaved were another earlier practitioner of standard Norwegian black metal in the Darkthrone / Immortal vein, capable and well above average in execution if undistinguished imaginatively, and it wasn't until 1997's Eld was released that the band started to take a more interesting, altogether progressive turn. In fact, they were one of the first BM bands to go prog without taking the symphonic route to get there, instead constructing complicated, seemingly free-form song structures while remaining true to the paganistic, Bathory-worshiping aesthetic they'd been reared in.
By the mid-2000's the band had begun throwing so many avant-garde proclivities into the mix that they began appealing to the art metal crowd as much as their traditional BM fan base… perhaps even more so. Nonetheless, they've never completely abandoned the BM sound that got them where they are, making Enslaved a stalwart example for BM bands looking to expand beyond the rigid parameters set forth in the early 90's without completely losing touch with their roots.
One of the first USBM bands to gain traction in Europe was from the unlikely home of Dallas, Texas. Free of any particular ancient mythological allegiances or local scene aesthetic, Absu dealt in a little bit of everything, becoming in the process a significant measuring stick against which other USBM bands would end up measuring themselves. 1993's Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L. was a capable if derivative black metal album in the Scandinavian mold, but it was their next album, 1995's The Sun of Tiphareth, that found them flexing their chops substantially, lyrically diving into mythologies ranging from Sumerian to Celtic to Mesopotamian – basically anything but the played out Norse variety – while getting downright epic with their song structures: the very first track ("Apzu") is over 11 minutes and features operatic female vocals, though it never comes off as gothic or even overtly concerned with atmosphere.
To this day Absu – at this point the band being Proscriptor and whoever he chooses to collaborate with – continue to experiment, not so much an innovator as an expert synthesist. Proscriptor is nothing if not a master at capturing the disparate elements of whatever he happens to be listening to at the time and regurgitating it in a cohesive, highly individualistic whole.
10. Wolves in the Throne Room
Perhaps no band anywhere in the world exemplifies the balance between raw ferocity and epic ambiance better than Olympia, Washington's Wolves in the Throne Room. Their very first album consisted of four songs, none of which was shorter than 13 minutes and one of which topped 20. Often achieving "raw" through pure saturation rather than limiting themselves to shitty recording equipment, WitTR continue to evolve in ways that invite both praise and controversy. Unlike follow USBM shit-stirrers Liturgy, however, Wolves have thus far kept at least one foot firmly in the old school (by comparison, Liturgy are only two albums in and already appear to be heading in more of a juiced up post-metal direction).
Before everyone starts bitching about the bands I left out, keep in mind this is intended as more of a Black Metal 101 primer and not a comprehensive overview. If you're interested in digging a little deeper int0 historically noteworthy releases, keep an eye peeled for our series of Essential Listening retrospectives on individual albums.