Widely considered one of the more mysterious and simultaneously infamous genres of modern metal, Black Metal is covered in a dark veil of controversy that has far surpassed the music itself, in terms of notoriety.
It’s common within the metal community to know some of the actions that made Black Metal as infamous as it is but listeners might not be aware of some of the below-the-surface aspects of the genre.
These actions created a near-infinite amount of press for these bands involved in the scene, and over the last 30 years, those stories have almost overshadowed the music that was created and the evolution it went through as new subgenres emerged.
Trigger Warning: this article will contain some pieces of information related to self-harm/suicide and unfortunately hate groups. It is absolutely understandable if you do not want to continue reading this article because of this and if you are still interested in the topic but don’t want to dive into those pieces feel free to reach out. I’d love to yack your ear off about Black Metal. Also, if you or someone you know if struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
The Origins of Black Metal: Wave One
Black Metal, as we know it today, is actually considered to be the second wave of Black Metal. The genre itself comes from a wave of music in the late-1970s and early 1980s from bands across multiple countries and a bit of diversity in style.
When diving into the creation of Black Metal, bands like Bathory, Hellhamer, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, and Venom are often cited as the main musical influences. While all of these bands have varying styles in the delivery of their music, the core themes of the lyrics tend to have a lot of similarities. These similarities lean into the darker, more “evil” side of the occult and even delve into Satanism. This is especially true with the iconography of these bands.
The name of the Black Metal genre itself comes from the title of Venom’s 1982 album, Black Metal.
Much like artists Alice Cooper and Kiss, these bands created music and personas to go with the performances that shocked audiences. But, at the end of the day, these personas were truly just a form of expression to be shocking and thought provoking to listeners. Members of Venom were not actual satanists. But, an angsty teenager who wants to rebel against their society does not care about that. To them, that was real and something they wanted to build upon.
The Origins of Black Metal: Wave Two and the Birth of True Norwegian Black Metal
As bands like Venom, Celtic Frost, Bathory, and King Diamond progressed through the 1980s and began evolving their sound, a rowdy group of kids from Scandinavia began to build on their perceived ideas of these bands to create their own sound.
But unlike the bands they took inspiration from, some members of these pioneering bands of this so-called “True Norwegian Black Metal” style would try to live the lifestyle that matched what they were singing about. Because of this need to live the lifestyle they made music to represent, several of the folks that helped create this new genre of music took things a bit too far and caused a lot of the controversy around the genre that is still often talked about today.
At the heart of Black Metal is a desire within a bunch of teenagers in Norway to make something that took inspiration from Thrash and Death Metal but rebelled against the commercialization and popularity of the genres. They wanted to make something raw that embraced the evil themes and push the sound even further into the intensity of the sound. The goal being to expand on the sounds of Death Metal and Thrash in a more “evil” way that brought a more emotional element into the mix.
Notable bands from the early Black Metal scene include Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor, Immortal, Satyricon, Enslaved, Thorns, and Gorgoroth. Any of these works from any of these bands are fantastic examples of what is considered True Norwegian Black Metal.
For my money, the early live recordings of Mayhem with Dead on vocals is the perfect example of the True Norwegian Black Metal sound. I think Dead took what Euronymous built and turned it into something really special. It’s a shame that the music they worked on together never got a proper recording with Dead as the vocalist.
The Style, Sound, and Themes of Black Metal
Black Metal has evolved over the years since its inception but the core concept of the style has stayed the same. The evocation of emotion within the listener is the main goal. Hate, depression, self-empowerment, or a connection to nature are all common feelings creators of music within this genre are trying to elicit from their audience.
The presence of Satanism is often a focal point of conversations when discussing Black Metal. Obviously the iconography is very much geared around Satanism and the occult but it goes a bit deeper than just “songs about the devil.” Much like the spiritual practice of Satanism, Black Metal isn’t actually about the biblical Satan. It’s more about self-empowerment and living a life where you yourself are the “God” of your own life. Obviously, in the wrong hands, that can become a bit of a problematic philosophy but it is good to make sure the misconception is clarified.
You might even be aware of the common visual style of some of these bands known as corpse paint. These bands would use makeup, often white and black, to paint their faces in a way that reminded them of corpses. Another way to bring a sense of death into the performance of the music. Think of it as a super evil version of Kiss. Personally, I think Per “Dead” Ohlin and Olve “Abbath Doom Occulta” Elkemo are the best examples of effective corpse paint in the scene.
The music itself is meant to bring a feeling of hard coldness to the listener. Inspired by the extreme climate in Norway, the pioneers of the genre tried to bring this into their music. The guitars are highly distorted, oftentimes with fast tremolo picking. The presence of bass is buried very low in the mix, sometimes even being left out all together. The drums have a tendency to be incredibly fast and utilizing blast-beats but can also move into more traditional rhythms that repeat themselves to create a hypnotic feeling. There are often instances of lots of reverb being added to the guitars and drums to create this sense of openness like being in a forest. The vocals take the deep screaming of Death Metal and pitches it up to sound more like a banshee howling.
For the perfect example of this sound, I recommend listening to Darkthrone’s album A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Not only is it widely considered one of the first actual Black Metal albums and set the foundation for the scene on tape, it is also notorious for almost being rejected by Peaceville Records for sounding so terrible when the band submitted it.
The label was not only shocked that the band had moved away from the Death Metal sound of their first album but also how the album was mixed. Regardless, after much back and forth, the label agreed to release the album and it has since become a classic of the genre. So much so that it was included in the permanent exhibit at the National Library of Norway for its significance to Norwegian culture and setting the foundation for the musical genre so heavily attributed to the country.
The Elephant in the Room: Black Metal’s Ties with Hate Groups and Murder
So, let’s address the elephant in the room when it comes to Black Metal. While we talked a bit about how hatred and misanthropy is a big component of the lyrical style of some of the music within the genre, some bands have taken that into a fascist direction. The main culprit of this being Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, the soul member of the band Burzum and the temporary bass player for Mayhem during the recording of their album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
Varg, himself, subscribes to more fascist and Nazi ideals and puts that into his music. He took this ideology and used it to justify allegedly burning down several historic churches across Norway in the early 90s. Simultaneously, he is the man who murdered the founder of Mayhem and the guy that essentially started the early Black Metal scene, Euronymous.
Through the years as Black Metal has evolved, it has unfortunately seen an entire subgenre of Black Metal dedicated to these views known as NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal). But, that is all we are going to say about this side of the genre. Personally, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that these views are even still a thing in a modern society. It’s not hard to be cool with other folks and just leave people alone. So, if you are here for Black Metal subgenres like NSBM or groups associated with being Nazi, I happily disappoint you and encourage you to leave this site. We are a safe space and there is no room for hate and prejudice in this world. Bye, girl!
So, I would really encourage you, any time you are getting into a new band, do some research and figure out if they have ideologies and morals that don’t match yours. Do with this knowledge what you will.
Subgenres and Hybrid Genres Of Black Metal
As any genre, as it grows and evolves over time while spreading into different cultures, Black Metal began to branch out into a wide variety of subgenres. Some stayed close to the roots of True Norwegian Black Metal while others pushed the genre in a way that was almost unrecognizable.
One of the most funny things about the Black Metal scene is that while the music was originally established as a rebellion against rules and what critics would consider “normal,” any time an artist deviates from the early sound they are laughed at by the Black Metal purists. Kind of ironic. You’ll usually see these people claiming something isn’t “trve kvlt” (pronounced “true cult) which refers to bands that emulate second wave style and still remains in the underground scene.
Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the more notable subgenres to come out of Black Metal. This won’t be an exhaustive list as that in itself would be more worthy of an entire book but more a list of what I personally have experience with and/or see most commonly discussed within the scene.
Ambient / Atmospheric Black Metal
You know that Youtube Live video that got popular a few years back of the anime girl studying with headphones on with super relaxing Chillhop playing in the background? The one that’s usually labeled as “Songs study or sleep to.” Well, this subgenre is kind of like the metal version of that. Except it’s more like “Songs to sit in a snowy forest and be depressed to.”
Atmospheric Black Metal is one of the most appropriately named subgenres in the Black Metal branch of the Metal tree. The entire concept behind this subgenre is to use the music to transport the user into a specific mood or location. The instrumentation maintains the same rawness as the other variations of Black Metal but slows things down and maintains repetition to create an almost hypnotic effect.
The vocal style also remains the same but is usually met with a lot of reverb and sits in the mix in a way that makes it feel distant. Almost like if you walked into the middle of the woods and heard howling from far away. It lends itself to being more of a texture within the song as opposed to a lyrical vehicle. The lyrics are there but you usually have to dig for them on the albums liner notes or on the web.
Album art also plays a huge role in this subgenre because it almost helps paint the picture for what the listener can expect. It gives you a focal point to visualize while listening to allow yourself to be transported somewhere different as you journey through the music.
A fantastic introduction into Atmospheric Black Metal is the band None, a two piece (as far as I can tell) out of Portland, Oregon. Shrouded in mystery, this band does an excellent job at creating an atmosphere with their music while still producing something incredibly listenable. That being said, their music also tends to blend into DSBM, which we will cover shortly. I highly recommend giving their album Damp Chill of Live a spin if this genre interests you.
Depressive Suicidal Black Metal (DSBM)
DSBM, in my experience, the lines tend to easily blur between traditional Black Metal and Ambient Black metal. While there is still a certain level of ambience to the music, DSBM leans heavily into the depression and misanthropy side of the lyrical content. Some bands even going so far as to encourage self-harm to their listeners. It’s also quite common for bands in this subgenre to be single-person projects or only a couple of contributing members.
One of my personal favorite examples of this genre is the solo project by Jef Whitehead, also known as Wrest, called Leviathan (sometimes spelled LVTHN). Jef has taken his experiences through his very difficult life and created music that reflects those feelings of loneliness and depression. Jef himself has come into his own share of controversies and allegations through his career but most of them, outside of a battery charge, were dropped. That being said, tread carefully and approach with discretion.
Folk Black Metal
This style of Black Metal has been one of the most interesting to me over the last few years. Folk Black Metal takes inspiration from the musical styles of Second Wave Black Metal (usually) and adds in its own cultural elements of the respective area it comes from.
The lyrical content of this Subgenre takes inspiration from cultural traditions and folklore from a specific region. It’s not uncommon for bands, especially from Scandinavia and Europe, to embrace Norse Mythology and Viking culture in their music.
Artists like Myrkur also bring traditional musical instruments and singing styles into their music to represent their cultures. There are several examples within her music where a hurdy-gurdy or lute-like instrument can be heard.
If you know me, you know that one of my favorite examples of Folk Black Metal comes from Blackbraid. His infusion of Native American culture, traditions, instruments, and imagery into his music is a breath of fresh air to the genre, in my opinion. Definitely shock out my artist spotlight on Blackbraid to learn more about him.
Symphonic Black Metal
In 2004, I was in high school and exploring heavier forms of music as my teen angst continued to grow. I remember watching the MTV show The Battle for Ozzfest and thinking that the intro song was super cool but had no idea what it was. Fast forward a bit on a road trip where I was jamming the second disc of my newly acquired Headbangers Ball Vol 2 CD and I found it. That song was Progenies of the Great Apocalypse by Dimmu Borgir, one of the pioneers of Symphonic Black Metal.
When you dive a bit deeper into Symphonic Black Metal, you will notice that it takes a lot of inspiration from more traditional styles of Black Metal but adds in more choral and orchestral elements to the mix. It is also more common to have bits of clean or even operatic singing within the music.
The lyrical content and vocal delivery still follows the dark styles of other Black Metal subgenres, for the most part. But, bands like Cradle of Filth, shy away from the more “satanic” themes and embrace more of a gothic style. Cradle of Filth commonly tackles historical events that can be classified as “occult” or even horror themes like vampirism and cosmic horror.
While some of the Black Metal purists out there will claim bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth aren’t actually worthy of being called Black Metal, I personally think they are, just in their own way. I mean, pioneers of True Norwegian Black Metal, Emperor, are often considered a Symphonic Black Metal band and have said that their tour with Cradle of Filth in the early 90s is when they knew they were making a big impact on the metal world.
Black ‘n’ Roll
Do you like your rock and metal to still embrace the vibes of bands like Motorhead and Black Sabbath? That steady sound that speeds forward without fear of going off the rails? Tunes you could take a drive to? Tunes you can throw on at a party with your friends?
Then Black ‘n’ Roll might be for you.
This subgenre takes inspiration from early metal pioneers that were still considered “good ole Rock n Roll.” The instrumentation isn’t as chaotic and fast like other styles of Black Metal, for the most part. Vocally, these bands still embrace the howling screaming style but the inspiration from Lemmy’s vocal style is a bit more prevalent.
Bands like Kvelertak and Abbath’s solo music tend to be considered Black ‘n’ Roll. Hell, Abbath’s latest album at time of writing this article, Dread Reaver, sounds like a Motorhead album that took a Black Metal approach, to my ears.
While this style isn’t a frequent listen for me, other than Abbath, I do really enjoy it. One band within the subgenre that has really interested me through my exploration of the style has been Hellripper out of Scotland. Hellripper is a solo effort by James McBain and puts a blackened spin on Speed Metal. Think early Metallica with Black Metal vocal styles. It’s super cool!
Blackened Death Metal
Like all things in this world, in the early 2000s Black Metal came full circle as it began to embrace more of the genre that it initially rebelled against, Death Metal. Bands like Behemoth blazed into the mainstream consciousness with their Death Metal-inspired sound infused with Black Metal.
When you listen to the music of a band from this subgenre, it feels like you are experiencing a melting-pot of metal’s more extreme genres in one place. Think of the musical styling of bands like Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, and Deicide with the iconography, themes, and vocal styles of bands like Immortal and Emperor.
Pioneers of the subgenre, Behemoth and Belphegor, both embrace the howling vocals of traditional Black Metal bands but utilize it in a lower register like a Death Metal singer would. Then, instead of the lyrical themes of brutal death and horror, more satanic and occult themes are brought into the mix, which makes for a really interesting style of music.
One consequence of this melting-pot style of music is that it is a bit more accessible to a wider audience, unlike more traditional Black Metal subgenres. Behemoth themselves have become a mainstay of the North American metal concert/festival scene and were even a lineup participant in Slayer’s farewell tour, which is where I got to see them live.
Post-Black Metal / Blackgaze
Here is one of the most controversial subgenres within the Black Metal community because it breaks the norms and themes of the more traditional subgenres. Often referred to as “hipster black metal” and more often than not, disregarded by the elitists within the scene, which is very unfortunate.
Blackgaze, as it is most often referred to, takes the vocal stylings of traditional Black Metal and mixes it with more ambient instrumentation. This musical style is heavily inspired by indie/alternative bands within the subgenre of Shoegaze. This music is meant to be very atmospheric and emotional which is where it gets its name from (think of the kid walking down the street listening to headphones while staring at their shoes). Then, mix more harsh vocals and sections of more intense metal instrumentation and you’ve moved into Blackgaze.
Vocally, a lot of the bands within this subgenre often utilize the higher pitched howling screams of traditional Black Metal but also incorporate incredibly melodic, and oftentimes beautiful, clean vocals. This, mixed with the instrumentation, creates a unique juxtaposition within the music. The same can be said about the lyrical content of this music.
Lyrically, the music embraces more upbeat themes, poetic observations of everyday life, and nature. Pioneering bands like Alcest are very much centered around nature and are clearly inspired by the movies of Studio Ghibli while Deafheaven tend to be more centered around everyday life. It’s really interesting when you dive into the lyrics and think about how unlike other Black Metal subgenres it is.
For example, Deafheaven’s breakout album, Sunbather, is lyrically centered around the concept of moving into adulthood and how it’s hard to live the life you want as you are establishing yourself financially. Then, George Clarke, singer and lyricist of the band, noticed a woman sunbathing in the park near his San Francisco apartment, and how carefree she seemed at that moment. The used this as inspiration, from my understanding, to paint a picture of how these problems can melt away when you embrace life and being in the moment.
Their song, Canary Yellow, which I believe is about the beauty of a flower growing in the middle of a chaotic/urban setting, is a super important song to me. I’m not sure why, but I got really into this song around the time my uncle was sick and passed away. Since then, it’s always reminded me of him. Give it a listen!
Black Metal is Alive and Well
While the scene has greatly evolved from its beginnings in the early 90s, Black Metal is thriving as more bands embrace the early sound and put their own spin on things. This is great because the more the genre grows and expands, the more diverse it becomes, and in turn, the more buried the idiodic ideology of some of the jackasses from the early scene and some of the underground scenes are. Remember, there is no room for hate in this world, especially in metal. So, keep listening to awesome bands and if you make music, try to put your own spin on things to make the fascists cringe. Now, throw on some corpse paint, put on your spikiest leather bracelet, and go be evil in the forest!
Additional Black Metal Bands to Check out
Wolves in the Throne Room
Wolves in the Throne Room is an awesome Black Metal band out of Olympia, Washington. Their music frequently deals with themes of mysticism, folks magick, and nature which is why I typically put them into the Folk Black Metal subgenre, personally, but I know most folks consider them an Atmospheric Black Metal band. Either way, they are awesome and you should totally check them out.
Myrkur is a Folk Black Metal solo project by Danish singer Amalie Bruun, who was also the lead singer for the Indie/Pop band Ex Cops. Her music melds some elements of traditional Black Metal with traditional Scandinavian folk music. In her more recent efforts, she has dropped the Black Metal elements and gone more for a traditional Folk sound, which is excellent if you enjoy that style of music.
I mentioned them a bit already in the Blackgaze section but they are just so good I had to make sure I shared their music with you all. Enjoy! This is one of my absolute favorite bands to read to. I think I listened to their entire discography while reading Salem’s Lot a few years back.
Abbath got his fame and notoriety as the leader of Immortal, a hugely important band within Black Metal. After exiting the band and going solo, Abbath has made some of the most interesting Black Metal albums to come out in the last 10 years that takes what he helped create in Immortal and blend it with his obvious love of Motorhead and Kiss.
Woods of Ypres
For the super die-hards of the genre, you may have noticed I didn’t include a section on Black-Doom. While I’m a huge fan of Black Metal and Doom Metal, I just haven’t been able to wrap my brain around the blended genre. That being said, I’ve found that I really enjoy some tunes by bands like Woods of Ypres (pronounced E-Pray) but don’t have enough knowledge on the genre to speak to it in a way that I feel is fair. So with that, I’ll leave you with one of their tunes to maybe inspire you to dive down that rabbit hole on your own.