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Black metal

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Black metal

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Black metal
Stylistic origins: Classical music,
Thrash metal
Cultural origins: Late 1980s Europe, especially Norway
Typical instruments: Guitar Bass guitar Drums Keyboards
Mainstream popularity: Black metal is an underground form of music.
National Socialist Black Metal Viking metal – Melodic black metal
Fusion genres
Blackened death metal Folk metal Symphonic black metal
Regional scenes
Scandinavia – United States – Eastern Europe

Black metal is a musical genre which emerged in the early 1980s predating the great expansion of heavy metal 'extreme' genres. Black metal evolved from thrash metal, as did its sister genre death metal.

There are two views on the genre. One views black metal as a very specific form of music that must adhere to a particular 'style' in order for it to be a part of the genre; while the second considers the lyrical and philosophical/political ideology of the music to take more precedence in defining the genre itself, rather than 'style'.

The main originators of black metal are considered to be the bands Mercyful Fate, Bathory, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Bulldozer and Mayhem. Albums that first sounded like what is generally considered to be black metal today are considered to be the recordings of Bathory in the mid 1980s, most notably Under the Sign of the Black Mark.

Black metal congealed in its current form (known as the second wave of black metal, which is rooted much more heavily in classical musical theory) through the influence of Norwegian bands such as Darkthrone, Enslaved, Burzum, Satyricon, Mayhem, Immortal, and Emperor, who began with the earlier style and introduced elements from mainstream heavy metal, classical music and popularised the style to a growing underground audience. Their influence is most apparent in the Satanic or pagan imagery, anti-Christian lyrics and occult themes.



Black metal may, but is not obliged to, have the following characteristics:

  • Fast guitars with tremolo picking
  • Lyrics that take the form of pessimistic, Satanic, Pagan, or occult themes which blaspheme Christianity. Bands such as Slayer, Deicide, and Immolation overlap lyrically with black metal somewhat but are musically defined as death metal (Immolation, Deicide) or thrash metal (Slayer)
  • Relatively thin guitar sound or relatively thick guitar sound, usually not in the middle.
  • Limited production used intentionally as a statement against mainstream music and/or to reflect the mood of the music, to create atmosphere. This 'underproduced' effect is often achieved by cutting out low and high frequencies, leaving just the mid frequency range. Very few of the black metal pioneers still do this, since their original limited production only was due to a minimal budget. This production style is often considered an essential element of "true" Black Metal.
  • Fast, repetitive, aggressive drums, often with blast beats. At other times, the drums can take a slower role usually accompanied by a very dry and empty tone —especially for the effect of the atmosphere of the music.
  • Occasional electronic keyboard use. The harpsichord, violin, organ, and choir settings are most common, which gives the music an orchestral feel or a cathedral-like setting. Some bands tend to use keyboards very frequently, whether it be as an instrument or even as the basis of their entire sound. They are generally placed under the symphonic black metal label.
  • High-pitched/distorted screeching vocals. Contrary to popular belief, these are not essential as there have been many black metal bands old and new employing different vocal styles.
  • Swift percussion.
  • Cold, dark, sad, melancholy, or gloomy atmosphere.
  • Less focus on dynamic rhythm than death metal. Very few black metal bands exhibit the rhythmic complexity inherent in death metal, and even if they do, they usually exhibit at least a few of the above-listed criteria if they are still generally classified as black metal.

Cover of "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" by Mayhem Cover of "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" by Mayhem

An abraded, very low fidelity recording style is common in most black metal. Modern evolution of many of the older 'genre leading' bands have had a vast change in sound, and by many - and most of the times, even the band - are no longer considered black metal. Such examples include Mayhem's career that began mostly in the death/black roots, moved to almost pure black, then towards death again in their later career. Also, Satyricon who started off as black metal but now play a very industrial heavy hybrid of the music. Modern offshoots of this original black metal sound have incorporated atmospheric elements using ambient guitar and keyboard passages such as organ sounds or other miscellaneous instruments.

A distinct (but not intrinsic) feature of the black metal is the use of corpse paint, a special kind of black and white make-up which was used to make the wearer look like a decomposing corpse or plague victim. It should be noted that Immortal referred to their make-up as "war paint", not carrying the same connotation as corpse paint. Another distinct feature of black metal is the use of dark, Nordic or Satanic monikers pioneered by Venom (the original line up being Cronos, Mantas & Abbadon). Examples of this include Quorthon (Bathory), Euronymous (Mayhem) and Samoth (Emperor), to name a few.

Earlier bands tended to dwell on themes of fantasy, mythology, and folklore in their songs, as well as Satanism, darkness, evil, and so on as many of their direct musical and cultural roots included these topics.


In the late 1980's and early 1990's, one of the most prominent figures of the Norwegian scene was Řystein Aarseth, better known as Euronymous, the guitarist in Mayhem.

The scene was deeply anti-Christian: it had a stated goal of removing the influence of Christianity and other non-Scandinavian religions from Norwegian culture and effecting a return to the nation's Norse roots. One minority current, associated with NSBM, included an element of unashamed anti-Semitism. The movement was largely directed by an 'Inner Circle', made up of Aarseth and a few close friends, from the basement of Aarseth's record store, Helvete (Hell). That location also housed a recording studio, where records were made by Mayhem and a number of other bands that were signed to Aarseth's independent label, Deathlike Silence Productions. Deathlike Silence's stated goal was to release records by bands "that incarnated evil in its most pure state."

Also around this time, there was a rash of arsons directed at Christian churches in Norway—many of the buildings were hundreds of years old, and widely regarded as important historical landmarks—that Aarseth's circle claimed responsibility for inspiring, if not necessarily perpetrating. The most notable church was Norway's Fantoft stave church, which was burned by a member of Euronymous's inner circle; the man behind the one-man band Burzum, Varg Vikernes, aka "Count Grishnackh", who also played bass guitar for Mayhem. Black metal enthusiasts also started to terrorize other notable "death metal" bands that were touring their country or in neighboring countries, on the basis of their lack of apparent "evilness". Many recall a strong Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal rivalry.

The black metal scene gained some unsought mass media attention in 1991 when Mayhem's frontman Dead committed suicide by a shotgun blast to his head. His note simply read "Excuse all the blood". The ammunition was supplied by Varg Vikernes.

His body was discovered by Aarseth who, instead of calling the police, ran to a nearby convenience store and bought a disposable camera which he used to photograph the corpse for a future Mayhem album cover (Dawn of the Black Hearts). Apocryphal reports also claim that he then took some pieces of Dead's splattered brains and made a stew out of them and/or members of the band took bone fragments from their friend's skull and made necklaces out of them.

The 'Inner Circle' received even more exposure in 1993, when Vikernes killed Aarseth in Aarseth's home, stabbing him 23 times, although Vikernes claims that Aarseth fell on broken glass while running from him and that he really stabbed him only 4 or 5 times. The circumstances surrounding the reason for the murder are not entirely clear, but have mainly been attributed to ideological differences and a power struggle between Vikernes and Aarseth. Vikernes claimed that Aarseth had plotted to kill him and that the killing was committed in partial self-defence. Vikernes also claimed that there was a financial dispute over the profits from Burzum's first two full-length records (Burzum and Det Som Engang Var) as well as the first Burzum EP (Aske) that were released through Aarseth's record label, Deathlike Silence Records. Some sources say that Aarseth intentionally delayed the release of Burzum's records, because Burzum was getting more attention than Mayhem. Vikernes was sentenced to 21 years in prison and has since distanced himself from the black metal movement, becoming involved in the Neo-Nazi movement and writing extensively on the subject. Many credit Vikernes' professed beliefs as contributing to the rise of National Socialist black metal, a variant that employs the genre's typically Nordic, Pagan, and anti-Christian themes as an expression of White Power ideology. While in prison, Vikernes has released two albums of a much more ambient and electronic kind of music, Dauđi Baldrs in 1997 and Hliđskjálf in 1999, although he implied in a recent interview that he would write material similar to his older works upon his release from prison.

By the last few years of the 1990s, the black metal scene had lost much of the violence that seemed to be attached to it in the early days of the scene. Also, bands begun to make records with higher production-quality.

However, since the mid-90s, an Eastern European black metal scene has been developing. Bands from these former Iron Curtain lands are recording albums more in keeping with the primitive nature of the early Norwegian artists. Many of these bands' lyrics glorify the pagan roots of their home countries, occasionally injecting elements of indigenous folk music into their arrangements. The Latvian band Skyforger is a prime example of this new aesthetic. The black metal scene in Russia and Ukraine has produced many bands more in keeping with the carefully arranged sounds coming from Scandinavia, but with more appreciation for the low fidelity aesthetic of early black metal. The Czech band Trollech are a perfect example of the "old-school" Pagan black metal band. The Ukrainian neo-Nazi Nokturnal Mortum has achieved very large recognition in the west; their earlier albums relied heavily on synthesizers, but their current work has a grimmer, more abrasive feel flavored with Slavic folk instruments. Poland's neo-Nazi band Graveland has, in recent albums, striven for a 'medieval' feel, much like a much more developed version of later 'viking' Bathory albums, but in the past made much rawer music which still held a certain intangible folk flavor. From Romania, Negură Bunget is a prime example of traditional black metal, injecting their own indigenous mix of Dacian and Latin elements, along with a Scandinavian sound. Also, notable are Serbian elite bands - The Stone and May Result.

There is also a growing number of American bands playing black metal (sometimes called USBM bands). This movement has not taken a particularly clear form, but better-known groups are Black Funeral, Judas Iscariot, Absu, Krieg, Grand Belial's Key, Goatwhore, Kult ov Azazel, Choronzon (Music project), Xasthur, Leviathan, Wolves In The Throne Room, Blackheart Destruction, and the death metal-influenced Acheron and Averse Sefira.

Bands such as Dark Funeral and magazines such as Terrorizer believe we are currently in a third wave of influential black metal bands, this time from France and Sweden. These include Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord, Funeral Mist and Watain. These bands all claim to be far deeper into Satanism and/or occultism than previous artists and generally play a very raw extreme style. However, just as with the earlier second wave Norwegian bands they have started to experiment, Deathspell Omega are influenced by gregorian chant and Blut Aus Nord now incorporate elements of ambient techno.


National Socialist black metal

Black metal movement that deals with Neo-Nazi ideologies, often mixed in with topics pertaining to European pagan religions. NSBM is more interpreted as an ideology than a sub-genre as there is not any developed "style" to play black metal in a National Socialist way. However, the term has stuck around not only because there are traceable movements and labels that sell NSBM exclusively, but also because it is such a hotly debated topic; giving rise to questions like whether it does or does not coincide with traditional black metal characteristics, or whether it should even be a subform as most black metal bands do not adhere to the ideology.

War metal

It is generally accepted that Blasphemy were the first "War Metal" band. Their style was more of an extreme form of Black/Thrash. Though Blasphemy are commonly referred to as the first War Metal band, the style was portrayed in the mid to later 1980's by bands such as sarcofago and the first albums by Sepultura and Holocausto. Blasphemy's 1990 debut album Fallen Angel of Doom is considered the starting point of this sub-genre and has been expanded on and changed quite dramtically by bands such as The Meads of Asphodel, Bestial Warlust, Conqueror and Axis of Advance/Sacramentary Abolishment.

Lyrically, war metal bands almost always leans towards Satanic or anti-Christian ideals, and usually refer to war; with topics including genocide, nuclear warfare, holocaust (though not necessarily pro), death, ending humanity and/or life, tanks, and related topics. The visual aesthetics are similar.

Some prefer not to use the genre name because they consider it superfluous; some war metal bands can be considered blackened death metal. Moreover, it is contended that it is a very minimalistic and non-expansive style, and given the small amount of bands that play it, it therefore ought not have its own distinct genre-name. However, more and more bands are playing and developing this style.

War metal is often associated with Canada because of native bands Blasphemy and Conqueror as well as many newer bands that have experimented with the genre and taken it away from its musical origins such as Axis of Advance, Rites of thy Degringolade and Lust.


  • Michael Moynihan, Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (Feral House) ISBN 0922915482
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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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