Few musical genres have garnered a reputation quite as colourful as black metal. Despite emerging in the 1980s with bands such as Bathory, Celtic Frost and Newcastle’s own Venom (who coined the term), this offshoot of heavy metal wouldn’t really garner an identity of its own until the infamous Norwegian scene of the early 1990s (which I could write a whole article about in itself). So why do so many metal fans love a musical genre that is commonly associated with suicide, church burnings and murder?
One of black metal’s biggest draws is its sense of drama and theatrics both in its aesthetics and musical style. Though not universal and often mocked, the black and white ‘corpsepaint’ many artists wear has become synonymous with the genre, as has the frequently morbid, monochromatic artwork used on numerous albums and the insanely elaborate band logos.
Musically, this sense of drama manifests in the way black metal is typically played. Despite its generally lo-fi production, black metal can be remarkably harmonious. Its frequent use of blast beat drumming and tremolo guitar picking (and occasional use of synths for embellishment), alongside its characteristic shrieking vocals result in a musical combination which, when done right, is nothing short of thunderous. One need look no further than Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse or Gorgoroth’s Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam to see the results.
It’s hard to look past the genre’s dubious history, and the highly questionable politics of many of its leading figures
But despite what the purists would say, black metal is a remarkably diverse genre. One need only list the number of sub-genres that its spawned, including ambient black metal, symphonic black metal, depressive black metal and National Socialist Black metal or NSBM (incidentally, fuck NSMB). And whilst the plethora of subgenres can get pretty absurd, I feel it’s a testament to black metal’s musical versatility. Agalloch, Xasthur and Darkthrone might all fall under the umbrella of black metal, but beyond a few shared musical characteristics, they sound incredibly different.
This versatility further extends into the theme of the music as well. Though black metal is frequently associated with Satanism and European mythology, other bands have delved into other lyrical fields. Darkestrah, a Leipzig based band originally from Kyrgyzstan, centre their lyrics on Central Asian and Tengrist mythology, incorporating string instruments and throat singing into their music. Swiss band Zeal and Ardor blends black metal with African American gospel music, and was created in response to a racist message frontman Manuel Gagneux received on 4chan. And though they still sing about Satanism, Polish band Batushka do so in a manner that deliberately draws from Russian Orthodox Christianity, dressing up as priests and using incense in concerts as well as incorporating religious chanting into their songs (which is probably why they’re banned in Russia).
It’s easy to see why black metal never attained more than niche popularity. The music itself is an acquired taste, and it’s hard to look past the genre’s dubious history, and the highly questionable politics of many of its leading figures. Nonetheless, black metal has moved beyond its dodgy past and stands now as an enthralling, dynamic genre that gets progressively more interesting with each passing year.