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Black Metal - a Primer
Mayhem, Darkthrone, & Immortal
This is the first article the Aquanaut has written which has caused him some trepidation. The topic of Black Metal is in itself controversial. There is a dark history behind the music. It has a fanbase that is dedicated, protective, and quietly passionate. In general, the music could be best described as misanthropic, nihilistic, and anti-religous.
This article is in no way a definitive account of Norwegian Black Metal, but might serve you as a good beginners guide.
There was a ‘first wave’ of Black Metal where bands like Venom (UK), Bathory (Sweden), and Celtic Frost (Switzerland) each created a body of work that shared dark themes, dissonant guitar sounds, and lyrics about Vikings and Satan.
It’s the ‘second wave’ of Black Metal that has had the larger cultural impact. There are documentaries like ‘Until The Light Takes Us’, and a movie called ‘Lords of Chaos’. Central to both stories is the band Mayhem.
The story of Mayhem’s early days makes for some unhappy reading. The vocalist committed suicide. There were accusations that the band members were involved in a spate of Church burnings in Norway. And the guitar player was murdered by the bass player. As a result of these events, their full debut album was only released in 1994, but their early demos (which were deliberately recorded in a DIY and low-fi way) influenced dozens of other bands. The album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is a groundbreaking piece of work and if you ever want a classic example of Norwegian Black Metal, this is it.
Mayhem are still banging out albums with some of the surviving members complimented by newish musicians. They remain resolutely unimpressed by the movies and sensationalist accounts of their past as you can see here.
Around the same time as Mayhem started releasing demos, a group of young guys from Kolbotn in the north of Norway were experimenting with their sound. They hammered out one Death Metal album, before changing style to Black Metal. Obviously influenced by Mayhem, they quickly released three albums that for many are the definitive expressions of early Norwegian Black Metal. ‘A Blaze in the Northern Sky’, ‘Under a Funeral Moon’, and perhaps most especially ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ are bleak, heavy, and difficult listens. I sat and listened to all of ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ one evening in 2012. It was winter, dark outside, and the only light in the apartment came from the image of the album cover on my laptop. At around the halfway mark I was about to switch it off, but instead something clicked in me. I got goosebumps, chills, and a feeling of dread that was faintly euphoric. I don’t expect you to feel the same way, but take my word for it that this relentless 39 minute nihilistic slab of anger and sadness is art.
This album is not without it’s own controversy as Darkthrone decided to include the phrase “Norwegian Aryan black metal” in the original liner notes and four of the tracks have lyrics written by Varg Vikernes (a notorious racist and convicted murderer, but also an accomplished Black Metal musician himself).
Darkthrone have remained a duo since that album and both Fenris and Nocturno Culto (spectacular pseudonyms are par for the course in black metal) have denounced their past associations with racism as foibles of youth, in much the same way that the early punk movement in the UK used swastikas and statements about Jewish people to shock the audience.
I’ve read and watched a lot of interviews with the Darkthrone lads and in general they seem surprisingly sweet. Fenris in particular is a huge music nerd!
Darkthrone’s output over the last ten years or so has come dangerously close to radio friendly, and if anything shows a mature understanding of why the riff is king in Metal. I’ll return to Darkthrone in later posts, but for now get the below track (from 2019) in your ears.
Immortal are another Norwegian band from the same era. But they took a very different approach to Black Metal. Initially inspired by Death Metal trends they veered away from Satanic themes to more Fantasy based fare. Each album is loosely set in a mythical land called Blashyrkh with it’s own legends all penned by the band members. I’ll be honest, when I was a teenager I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of them. Their look is one of iconic corpse paint, black studded leather, and guitars that look like weapons. They look and act like a Metal version of Kiss. They took it to an extreme that is easily lampooned and can seem almost comical if you don’t get it. Their tracks are an onslaught of guitars, drums and bass, and can seem impenetrable until they effortlessly drop the nastiest breakdowns. (the riff drops at the 1:30 mark below)
They rock, seriously hard. They have recently gone through a messy breakup and are now in effect two bands. Immortal released a comeback album in 2018 and their previous frontman, Abbath, is now on his third solo record. That’s a lot of music to enjoy, if your thing is battles on the icy wastes of mythical
There are a lot more Norwegian Black Metal bands. I could just as easily have written this article about any of the below bands instead.
Each one of the above can be your risky click of the day!
So there you go folks. That’s your intro to Norwegian Black Metal. It’s a genre that still shocks and causes controversy. Unfortunately there is a (thankfully small) sub-genre within it that is unashamedly Nazi. Most of the big names are not associated with that scene, and those that were have since changed alignments.
Next post: An album that doesn’t sound like it’s cover art promised.