Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Genre Study 1: Black Metal (Part 1)

Starting a genre dissection, is, in heavy metal, a curious thing. Underground metal is so fragmented, incestuous, and semantically charged that it’s a ridiculously daunting task to define a specific genre to the uninitiated. Add this to the fact that many underground metal genres share the same roots, and you’re more or less stuck with an impossible-to-write article.

Nevertheless, I’m gonna give it a shot here.

As with any genre definition, these studies run to the arbitrary and are sources of heated debate among metal “scholars” and devotees. I will remain firmly unapologetic about any genre classifications I make because of the subjective and oftentimes unnecessary confines of genre. Additionally, although I’d like to think that my flowing and immaculately constructed prose is so descriptive that you can not only hear the nuances in sound I’m talking about, but actually TASTE them, I realize that some people don’t necessarily have the tools to appreciate my skillful criticism. So, as a rule, the best way to get a feel for this stuff is to listen, listen, listen.

More specifically, don’t just listen: immerse. Music is language: think of genre as specific dialect. The only way to truly learn a language is to immerse yourself fully, so DO THIS. Find the albums listed in the “Essential” and “Starter” lists. Compare them to other gems you might have found. Show them to your friends. Trade them for other metal albums; re-read the genre studies and find others. Immerse yourself in the music here. Most importantly, GO SEE IT LIVE. Metal, like any other high-energy rock and roll, THRIVES in a live setting, and it’s a total blast to go see metal shows. Figure out what you like and what you don’t (hint: you won’t like everything in every genre; maybe not ANYTHING in certain genres. I certainly don’t. Give everything a chance, though). And then, once you’ve got a grasp on the subtle nuances and the extreme undergrounds of the specific genres…well, then start your own blog, if you think you know so goddamn much.

With all THAT out of the way (also, you’ll need to sign a pain waiver, Dethklok-style), now we can get down to business.


The very name alone strikes fear into the hearts of preachers, politicians, and my mom everywhere. This fear is not necessarily unfounded. There’s a lot of hoopla surrounding black metal; church arsons, cannibalism, murder, hate crime, an entire GENRE of Nazi metal (which is almost all absolutely ABHORRENT stuff, even when taken out of the woefully ignorant and hateful dogma retreads that pass for lyrical content), prison breaks…you get the idea. There abound documentaries, books, photography collections, and the like on the subject of the drama SURROUNDING black metal, so I won’t bother to go into it here, although some of that stuff is worth checking out if you’re really interested. What usually gets overlooked is the music, and this is honestly a crime.
Black metal has its roots in the same few bands that helped spawn almost the whole of underground metal in the last 25 years. The NWOBHM movement (which stands for the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal), which originated in the late 70’s and early 80’s with bands like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Motorhead, and Judas Priest, spawned the four most important styles of underground metal today: Thrash Metal, Death Metal, Black Metal, and Power Metal. While there are infinite variations upon these four themes, and while the four major genres diverged quickly and to staggering extremes, they all have their roots in the NWOBHM. For the purposes of our discussion of black metal, the bands Venom, Bathory, and Celtic Frost are vitally important, but it is worth noting that these same bands are also cited as major influences upon death and thrash metal.

The name “black metal” itself comes from the Venom album of the same name. Venom was a pioneering British outfit that defined the sound of black metal with one singularly imposing slab of vinyl. Unapologetically lo-fi, breakneck in tempo, and fiercely Satanic in context, “Black Metal” is so important as an album that it remains the blueprint for many bands today to emulate so precisely, it is as if the last 25 years never happened at all. This album, along with their previous “Welcome To Hell” release, turned the metal world on its ear. The inimitable growl of lead singer Cronos was similar to the gruff voice of heavy metal contemporary Lemmy Kilmister (of Motorhead fame), but taken to its logical extreme, stripped of any melodic context and rasped in the tongue of some primitive, Pazuzu-esque demon. This vocal style would become the default in both death and black metal (although death metal does sport several different vocal influences and the “cookie monster” growls which are unique to that particular style).

By 1984, there were several European bands taking cues from Venom’s unique metal output. One such band, Tom Warrior’s (seriously, dude legally changed his last name to Warrior) Celtic Frost, proved themselves as musical equals to Venom’s legacy. Warrior’s anguished rasp, lyrics about paganism and death, Teutonic horn lines, badly drawn corpse facepaint; all of these remain black metal staples to this day. Celtic Frost were really a flash in the pan, releasing two hugely influential albums and then descending into avant-garde metal confusion, but they were a HUGE flash in the pan.

Following hot on the heels of Venom and Celtic Frost were the Swedish ensemble Bathory. Named for the seminal Venom single “Countess Bathory”, Bathory’s eponymous 1984 debut further defined the signature sound of black metal. Owing largely to the poor recording environment of Heavenshore Studios (a converted garage), this first record, and its successor, 1985’s “The Return”, are so primitive in sound that they seem to flaunt a defiance both of conventional moral values AND conventional production values. This rejection of rock and roll convention/commercialism, coupled with a dogmatic sense of individualism and an unwavering sense of cynicism, is central to the ethos of black metal; in black metal, one-man projects abound; in every other metal genre, they are virtually non-existent. Part of this is also that most black metal musicians are pessimistic pricks.

Anyways, Bathory. Bathory took the early, raw sound of Venom and Celtic Frost and refined it into the sound we understand as black metal today by focusing on an element previously uncharted by proto-black metal bands: atmosphere. Even on their early, primitive recordings, Bathory take pains to create not just songs, but sonic landscapes; aural wastelands of brooding, anguish, and fear. In this respect, they would prefigure not only the entirety of black metal, but also much of ambient electronica, shoegaze, and post-rock. Bathory also proved important in their later albums, moving away from the lyrical content of their first few recordings (basically, Satan, and how awesome he is) and towards a more Pagan/Viking-oriented lyrical message (basically, Odin, and how awesome he is). This culminated in the landmark 1990 recording “Hammerheart”, considered by many to be the watershed moment between the first and second waves of black metal.

Tomorrow (maybe) I’ll continue where we left off tonight, starting with Mayhem and moving forward through the second wave of black metal and on into where black metal stands today. The problem? It’s kind of difficult to make a leap from these early pioneers to Emperor and Mayhem, because the styles are so disparate and because Emperor and Mayhem are responsible for SO much of what we hear in black metal today. So, tomorrow, I’ll try to figure this out. If you want, you can imagine me beating my head against a wall, staring for hours at Encyclopedia Metallum until I figure out some crucial missing link in the black metal evolutionary chain. I confess: black metal is not my specialty, and I know death/thrash far better than black metal. Nevertheless, I’ll try not to disappoint! Enjoy, and keep on bangin’ those heads!

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