Introduction and Recommendations
Black metal would be my forté. The music I enjoy to listen to alone. The music I like to research, find rarities, and share them with others who have similar interests. I don’t want to just give a list of music for people to listen to, I want to introduce people to the genre with my own brief ideas on it, and my recommendations for bands to listen to that are actually worth listening to. Black metal is not background music. It is designed in a very particular way, and if listened to with understanding, it will strike a lot of emotions and feed a variety of ideological thoughts you may have. Within the genre lies a whole variety of ideas and philosophies; it is perhaps one of the most diverse rock genres around.
It’s important to realise that there are different eras of black metal. We are in the forth “wave” now, with a lot of underground bands coming to light in the wake of these years dominated by mainstream bands that are seen as the “scourge” of the black metal name by purists. With experience, you will be able to tell exactly what a band is trying to emulate if it is a new band, or if it is an “old” band (black metal doesn’t get much older than 25 years), who it has influenced, where it is from, and during which era it was released, just by listening.
Being centered in Scandanavia, it is natural that any list of black metal bands will consist of predominately Scandanavian names; however there are others that are to be recommended as well, particularly those of the “counter-movements” in France, and the newer bands emerging in Eastern Europe. The Eastern European bands are becoming the “new wave” of black metal, and there is a large rising of them at the moment.
For a newcomer to the genre, it can seem confusing. Black metal, like traditional death metal bands such as Morbid Angel, goes against the common themes of rock music, and follows in the footsteps of bands such as Black Sabbath, where, during a period of time when the Cold War was creating paranoia in peoples minds and so a bunch of rock bands emerged releasing happy love songs, the new genre of heavy metal created works detailing the realities of existence, with a large theme focusing on death – the ultimate reality of life that so many other bands had avoided.
Where black metal differs in regards to its other extreme-metal counterparts is that the genre can become highly pretentious. It is perhaps the only genre of modern music that has an entire underlying philosophy assigned to it, much like that of the classical composers such as Wagner and Beethoven. You will hear in many places, the most predominant philosophies portrayed in black metal are those of Nietzsche, i.e. themes of nihilism. Through the melodies of the songs (many of them feeling completely atonal), an atmosphere is produced that will portray whichever philosophical idea the band is seeking to communicate to the listener. These themes within the songs are what separate black metal from other extreme genres. Whereas in the death metal genre you will find a lot of bands growling about the most gruesome forms of death they can think of, the best black metal bands are often poetic, singing about the love for their countries, ancient myths and stories of heroes, the spread of Christianity changing their culture, pagan folklore, and so on.
And so, when it comes down to the actual music, you will hear a lot of shrieks and growls. But don’t take these as simply drunk guys trying to be “brutal”. Some of the great black metal composers are highly honored in their abilities to express great emotion through their vocals. I highly advise you to read the lyrics to black metal songs while you listen to them. Some of the legendary characters in black metal such as Varg Vikernes (regardless of his personal circumstances) can be astonishing when you listen to his vocal displays of the written ideologies in his lyrics.
Instrument usage involves heavy guitar use with minimal bass; often the bass is non-existent. Drums, in the typical style of other extreme genres, are fast and frequent, featuring a lot of blast beats.
Now, one thing that deters a lot of people is the production. It is terrible. The best black metal bands sound like they have been recorded on a tape recorder in a garage. Which is often completely true. Why is this? Because this is/was an underground genre. Especially in the early nineties, when black metal was gaining media exposure due to church burnings and murders in Norway, it was very hard for bands to get gigs, never mind recording deals. And so they recorded themselves in any way they could. However, this production works in great favor to the bands. You will find that it creates such a different atmosphere than a perfect crisp production would. For example, if a song is about a dark cold forest where man suddenly feels truly alive, just the sound of the harsh guitars on that fuzzy background makes you feel so much more emotion.
And now, down to the bands! I love so many of them, it is really hard for me to try and limit it to a reasonable list. I guess I can list the “best” albums from perhaps the most important bands. But then that leaves out some fantastic albums from other bands that may not be as popular. Let’s see what I come up with.
And remember, the most important thing to do is look for the lyrics to these songs, follow them as it is played, and get a complete feel for whatever philosophy/ideology/atmosphere is trying to be portrayed. As I said, this is not background music. There is more to just listening to this. It is a complete art form, romanticism at it’s finest.
I will ease you into the genre by starting with more melodic easier things to listen to. They still follow the “ethics” of black metal, but deviate from the traditional style of presentation.
The Scandanavian Bands
Bathory – A Fine Day To Die
Something relatively mild first. Often called one of the greatest metal songs of all time, this is truly a classic, from a band cited by James Hetfield amongst other metal musicians as being a major influence on their music. Is it black metal? It is the beginning of Bathory’s movement from true black metal into what some may now call “viking metal”. But it has mainly black metal elements, and is from a pioneer of the entire genre. Sadly the singer is now dead (of natural causes). A classic track.
Immortal – At the Heart of Winter
Blashyrkh mighty be your name victorious a kingdom we made
with strength and pride all the way you are at the heart of winter
Immortal are one of the great black metal bands. They begun like many others as a traditional black metal act, but as the years went on, they became increasingly melodic and “mainstream”. But there are some great tracks in their newer days. This song is brilliant.
OK, time for the real deal. Now that you are warmed up and have listened to some “extreme” metal, it’s time to try out traditional black metal.
Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Feel the Call Freeze you with the Uppermost Desire
Transilvanian Hunger, my Mountain is Cold
Traditional raw black metal. I have listened to this song so many times while walking through snowy nights in the forests of Finland and Ireland. It is in my opinion the greatest example of a black metal song producing a cold atmosphere.
Burzum – Dunkelheit
When night falls
she cloaks the world
in impenetrable darkness.
A chill rises
from the soil
and contaminates the air
life has new meaning.
Burzum, the one-man creation of Varg Vikernes. A notorious controversial character within black metal, just released from prison in 2009 for murdering the guitar player of Mayhem. But he is no doubt one of the most influential men in 90’s black metal. This song, Dunkelheit, while not his best, has a simple melody and monotonous vocals that create a perfect picture. Vocals are in English, like many bands at this time started doing.
Mayhem – Freezing Moon
When it’s cold, and when it’s dark, the freezing moon obsesses you
There are a few versions of this song. This one is sung by Dead (most black metal musicians use stage names). He is considered to be one of the more influential vocalists within the genre. However, unfortunately he ended up shooting himself. The guitarist in this recording is the one who was killed by Varg of Burzum.
Immortal – Unsilent Storms in the North Abyss
This is Immortal who I listed above, but in their early days. From the album “Pure Holocaust”, a classic of the genre. I don’t know what song from that album to list here so I chose Unsilent Storms.
Emperor – I am the black wizards
Mightiest am I, but I am not alone in this cosmos of mine
Absolutely brilliant song. Released in 1994, this song and album effectively paved the way for newer melodic black metal, yet stayed true to Emperor’s roots of traditional black metal. The song features synths and keyboards amongst the traditional instruments, and I think it is a great work of art. The vocalist is also fantastic at creating emotive cries in the vain of Burzum.
The French scene
In response to the Scandanavian black metal scene, a group of guys in France created what is known as Les Légions Noires (LLN). LLN cd’s are very rare; the bands did not play gigs, and only traded cd’s amongst friends and family. They are highly sought after in the black metal community. The LLN bands are raw traditional black metal. The lyrical themes in LLN are a lot different to that of most of the Scandanavian bands. Whereas in Norway they would sing a lot about forests and norse mythology, the LLN bands are often more anti-Christian orientated, or influenced by medieval tales.
Mütiilation – Possessed And Immortal
I see Mütiilation as masters of depressive black metal. Just listen to the tones of the guitars and especially the vocals. Such an atmosphere.
Vlad Tepes – Drink the Poetry of the Celtic Disciple
This is a 1994 demo from another “big” LLN band, Vlad Tepes. Again, traditional raw black metal.
Well, that is all I am going to list in the meanwhile. If you want more recommendations or have questions just ask away. There are hundreds of bands, many worth listening to. I still haven’t mentioned any of the few modern ones (i.e a year or two old) that are good. Enjoy!