In the increasingly fragmented world of metal it’s rare to find a sound that can unite fans and critics across the genre spectrum. Black Metal has, somewhat bewilderingly, won over the metal fraternity, the indie set, and the prestigious rock institutions. The scene really caught fire in 2010 when Agalloch’s stunning album Marrow Of The Spirit forced critics of all creeds to take up the Black Metal banner – but what exactly is Black Metal in 2013?
Is it simply a catch all term used as a stylish alternative to Post-Metal? Do the Black Metal bands of 2013 have anything in common with the genre’s founding fathers? What are the signature sounds and who are the historically great artists? How did the liberal music press fall in love with a scene synonymous with devil worship, far right politics, and satanic cults?
It’s time for a Guitar Planet investigation.
The genre took its name from Venom’s 1982 album Black Metal. Back then, and arguably today, British metallers Venom would be considered a thrash band – which is entirely logical, the Black Metal scene that would emerge over the next three decades undeniably sprang from the Thrash movement.
Building on the successful blend of punk and heavy metal that emerged in the late-70s, Thrash offered a more brutal, pummelling and often more technically proficient assault that emphasised the pace of the playing rather than the deepness of the groove. The breakthrough sound opened the doors for the invention of modern metal and million dark, and at times, disturbing detours. Black Metal took the dynamism of speed metal and thrash and merged it with more brooding atmospherics and the theatrical flair of the operatic metal pioneers (albeit expressing that theatricality in an insidious fashion).
The early scene was defined as much by aesthetics (King Diamond’s make up (corpse paint) and Venom’s ragged Satanic verses) as any one-signature sound. Sweden’s Bathory changed all that and codified the Black Metal sound when they introduced shrieking ghoulish vocals in the early 80s. Subsequent bands would introduce both deeper and shriller cries, but Bathory’s snatched rasps instantly recalled satanic incantations and the possessed corpses of Japanese horror. The fundamental building blocks lay in place.
Celtic Frost and Kreator helped to develop the under-produced dissonant guitar sounds that would form the foundation of the Black Metal sound, but the next major breakthrough for the fledging genre came in the 1990s. Norway’s Mayhem ushered in the age of the Black Metal riff. Avoiding solos and burying basslines, Mayhem mixed blitzkrieg percussion with a series of descending ever-present guitar lines. The result was a sound that created a sense of foreboding and dread. The assault was too quick to escape and yet rhythmic enough to lull the listener into a submissive state for the impending dark sermon.
With its founding principals in place the genre was set to branch off in a thousand different directions, typified by Britain’s Cradle Of Filth. The wraith like Brits introduced a symphonic element to the Black Metal’s wheelhouse, using keys to create a more grandiose, theatrical and ultimately commercial sound. They were promptly decried and distanced themselves from the Black Metal label. Luckily Emperor took up the symphonic strand employing strings and keys lavishly to create 1997’s Black Metal masterpiece Anthems To The Welkin Dusk.
Yes. There’s no two ways about it. The commercial and critical revival of a scene that peaked in the early 90s is somewhat baffling when you consider the genre’s dark past. The satanic rituals and creepy outfits were more than an elaborate escapist role-playing game. 50 churches were burned in Norway between 1993 and 1996 as the scene, which always aspired to cult status, finally took on its most unsettling characteristics. The stupidity reached an all time high in 1993 when Burzum’s Varg Vikernes murdered Snorre Ruch.
It’s far easier to answer the second part of that question, so let’s start there. Why is Black Metal back en vogue? Simply put, the scene has finally moved on or, more specifically, moved across the Atlantic. The new breed of critically acclaimed Black Metal bands are largely, but not exclusively, American. Freed from the criticism and pressures of the Scandinavian diehards they are altering the global perception of the genre and tweaking the sound’s instrumental principles.
Brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver (Wolves In The Throne Room to you and me) are the ultimate example of Black Metal’s evolution. They reject Satanism and the occult, but seek to harness the compelling bleakness to tell their own story and create their own mythos. The duo live on a self-sustainable farm in Washington and are passionate about nature. Environmental issues are at the heart of their music. They mix radical ecological views with a desire to capture something of their landscape and the natural world.
Listening to 2011’s stunning Celestial Lineage you can hear the great American expanse in the sheer scope of their playing. Rustling leaves, endless starlit skies, and dark imposing redwoods are all evoked as the band stress the dynamic between the gentle drones and eerie chimes and the cascading cathedral filling riffs. The music is fantastic in its own right, and it is far more enjoyable listening to a band attempting to capture nature’s intoxicating wilderness than hearing some moron rasping on about burning down his local mosque.
Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch represent the blurred boundaries of modern metal. Mixing doom, black and the somewhat comical notions of folk-metal together, the band defy convenient pigeonholes. They offset the unmistakable all-encompassing onslaughts and macabre incantations of Black Metal with long atmospheric sequences and delicate guitar work that touches upon doom, prog, post-metal and (whisper it) indie respectively. Agalloch retain the occult sensibilities of the genre’s forebears but they channel that spirit into a more naturalistic paganistic direction. They celebrate both the beautiful and terrifying aspects of the natural world, using their mixed media style to paint on the broadest possible canvas.
The sublime French trio Blut Aus Nord didn’t pull any punches when it came to drawing a line under Black Metal’s past. They admired the sound and the genre’s subversive potential but outlined in the strongest possible terms what they stood against:
“If black metal is just this subversive feeling and not a basic musical style, then Blut Aus Nord is a black metal act. But if we have to be compared to all these childish satanic clowns, please let us work outwards [from] this pathetic circus. This form of art deserves something else than these mediocre bands and their old music composed 10 years before by someone else.”
Blut Aus Nord have been labelled “avant” Black Metal in many quarters and it’s easy to see why. They are unafraid to blend explosive string snapping bass and symphonic surges with the defiantly earthy riffs the Norwegian traditionalists adore. The band’s sound is ostensibly celestial, mechanical industrial and slyly demonic - seemingly simultaneously.
The three aforementioned western bands touch on the changing and ever more acceptable face of Black Metal, but there is only one band that truly captures the genre’s evolution and popular embrace: Liturgy. A trio from the hipster capital of the world (Brooklyn, New York) who make ear scraping music that the diehards hate with a passion. Everyone else, all those magazines, websites and music fans who Nordic Black Metal primitivists detest, seems to love Liturgy. In fact the band were so esteemed that they collaborated with Mari Mukai for a “hottest ticket in town” performance at Manhatten’s Museum Of Modern Art. Who could ever have imagined Black Metal being so warmly embraced by the art world?
It’s a hybrid scene on the cutting edge mixing strands of metal, punk, prog and even folk. It’s a divide between Scandanavia and the West, between traditionalist (Satan’s Wrath) and innovators (Blut Aus Nord). It’s satanic and ecological. Macabre and beautiful. It’s a mess of contradictions that happens to be home to some of the best guitar playing the world has to offer in 2013.
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