Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. It often uses fast tempos, shrieked vocals, highly distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, blast beat drumming, and unconventional song structure.
During the 1980s, certain thrash metal bands formed a prototype for black metal. This so-called "first wave" included bands such as Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. A "second wave" arose in the early 1990s, mostly of Norwegian bands such as Mayhem, Burzum,Darkthrone, Immortal and Emperor. This scene developed the black metal style into a distinct genre.
Black metal has been met with great hostility from mainstream culture, mainly due to the screeched vocals, lo-fi production and graphic lyrics. Additionally many of the artists aremisanthropic and anti-Christian. Moreover, a handful of musicians have been linked with church burnings, murder or National Socialism. For these, and other reasons, black metal is often seen as an underground form of music.
Black metal guitarists usually favour high-pitched guitar tones and a great deal of distortion. Typically, the guitar is played with much use of fast tremolo picking. When writing music, guitarists often use scales, intervals and chord progressions that yield the most dissonant, fearful and ominous sounds. Guitar solos and low guitar tunings are rare in black metal.
The bass guitar is rarely used to perform stand-alone melodies. It is not uncommon for the bass guitar to be inaudible or to homophonicallyfollow the bass lines of the electric guitar. Typically, drumming is fast-paced and uses double-bass and/or blast beat techniques; although basic drumming is not uncommon.
Black metal songs often stray from conventional song structure and often lack clear verse-chorus sections. Instead, many black metal songs contain lengthy and repetitive instrumental sections.
Traditional black metal vocals take the form of high-pitched shrieks, screams and snarls. This is in stark contrast to the low-pitched growls of death metal.
The most common and founding lyrical theme is opposition to Christianity. and other organized religions (called "Right-Hand Path" religions by some). As part of this, many artists write lyrics that could be seen to promote atheism, antitheism, paganism and Satanism Other oft-explored themes are depression, nihilism, misanthropy and death. However, many modern black metal lyrics have begun to focus more on the seasons (particularly winter), nature, mythology, folklore, philosophy and fantasy
Low-cost production quality was a must for early black metal artists with low budgets, where recordings would often take place in the home or in basements; a notable example of such is the band Mayhem, whose record label Deathlike Silence Productions would record artists in the basement of the shop Helvete. However, even when they were able to raise their production quality, many artists chose to keep makinglow fidelity recordings. The reason for this was to stay true to the genre's underground roots and to make the music sound more "raw" and "cold". One of the better-known examples of this is the album Transilvanian Hunger by Darkthrone – a band who "represent the DIY aspect of black metal" according to Johnathan Selzer of Terrorizer magazine.] Many have claimed that, originally, black metal was not meant to attract listeners. Vocalist Gaahl claimed that during its early years, "black metal was never meant to reach an audience, it was purely for our own satisfaction".
Unlike artists of other genres, many black metal artists do not perform concerts. Bands that choose to perform concerts often make use of stage props and theatrics. Mayhem and Gorgorothamong other bands are noted for their controversial shows; which have featured impaled animal heads, mock crucifixions, medieval weaponry, and band members doused in animal blood.
Black metal artists often appear dressed in black with combat boots, bullet belts, spiked wristbands, and inverted crosses/pentagrams to reinforce their anti-Christian or anti-religious stance. However, the most stand-out trait is their use of corpse paint – black and white makeup (sometimes mixed with real or fake blood), which is used to create a corpse-like appearance.
In the early 1990s, most pioneering black metal artists used simple black-and-white pictures or writing on their record covers. Some believe this was a reaction against death metal bands, who at that time had begun to use brightly-colored album artwork. Most underground black metal artists have continued this style. Bands that do not use this style usually have album covers that are either atmospheric or provocative; some feature natural or fantasy landscapes (for example Burzum's Filosofem and Emperor's In The Nightside Eclipse) while others are violent, perverted and iconoclastic.
The first wave of black metal refers to those bands during the 1980s who influenced the black metal sound and formed a prototype for the genre. They were often speed metal or thrash metal bands.
The term "black metal" was coined by the English band Venom with their second album Black Metal (1982). Although considered thrash metal rather than black metal by modern standards,the album's lyrics and imagery focused more on anti-Christian and Satanic themes than any before it. Their music was unpolished in production and featured raspy grunted vocals. Venom's members also adopted pseudonyms, a practice that would become widespread among black metal musicians.
Another major influence on black metal was the Swedish band Bathory, led by Thomas Forsberg (under the pseudonym Quorthon). Not only did Bathory use unpolished production and anti-Christian themes, but Quorthon was also the first to use the "shrieked" vocals that came to define black metal. The band exhibited this style on their first four albums, beginning with Bathory (1984) and ending with Blood Fire Death (1988). At the beginning of the 1990s, Bathory pioneered the style that would become known as Viking metal.
Other artists usually considered part of this movement include Hellhammer and Celtic Frost (from Switzerland), Sodom and Destruction (fromGermany), Bulldozer and Death SS (from Italy), Ancient Rites (from Belgium), Tormentor (from Hungary), Root (from Czech Republic),Mercyful Fate (from Denmark), Sarcófago (from Brazil) and Blasphemy (from Canada). Furthermore, King Diamond and the members of Sarcófago were allegedly the first musicians to sport "true" corpsepaint.
The Second Wave of black metal emerged in the early 1990s and was largely centred on the Norwegian black metal scene. During 1990–1994 a number of Norwegian artists began performing and releasing black metal music; this included Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal,Darkthrone, Satyricon, Enslaved, Emperor, Thorns, Ildjarn, Gorgoroth, Ulver and Carpathian Forest. As seen below, some of these artists would be responsible for a rash of criminal controversy, including church burnings and murder. Musically, these artists developed the style of their 1980s precursors as a distinct genre that was separate from thrash metal. Philosophically, an aggressive anti-Christian sentiment became a must for any artists to be finalized as "black metal". Ihsahn of Emperor believes that this trend may have developed simply from "an opposition to society, a confrontation to all the normal stuff." A dark, misanthropic mentality was complemented visually with the use of corpsepaint, which was also most prevalent during this period as a statement to separate black metal artists from other rock bands of the era.
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A few bands in neighbouring Sweden adopted a similar sound, usually with inspiration from the Norwegian scene. This included Marduk, Dissection, Lord Belial, Dark Funeral, Arckanum, Nifelheim and Abruptum. In Finland, the late 1980s saw the emergence of black metal bands who often included traits similar to those found in death metal such as Beherit, Archgoat and Impaled Nazarene. Black metal scenes also emerged on the European mainland during the early 1990s - again inspired in large part by the Norwegian scene. In Poland, a scene was spearheaded by Graveland and Behemoth. In France, a close-knit group of musicians known as Les Légions Noires emerged; this included artists such as Mütiilation, Vlad Tepes, Belketre and Torgeist. Bands such as Von, Judas Iscariot, Demoncy and Profanatica emerged during this time in the United States, where thrash metal and death metal were more predominant among extreme metal enthusiasts.
By the mid 1990s, the musical style of the Norwegian scene was being adopted by bands across the globe. Newer black metal bands also began raising their production quality and introducing additional instrumentation such as synthesizers and full-symphony orchestras. This expansion and diversification marked the end of the Second Wave.
During May–June 1991, Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous') of Mayhem opened an independent record store named Helvete (Norwegianfor hell) in Oslo. Musicians from Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor and Thorns frequently met there, and it became a prime outlet for black metal records. In its basement, Aarseth founded an independent record label named Deathlike Silence Productions. With the rising popularity of his band and others like it, the underground success of Aarseth's label is often credited for encouraging other record labels –that previously refused black metal acts– to then reconsider and release their material.
On 8 April 1991, Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve "Pelle" Ohlin (aka 'Dead') committed suicide in a house shared by the band. Fellow musicians often described Ohlin as a quiet and introverted person, while his performances involved cutting himself, carrying around a dead crow, and wearing clothes that had been buried weeks prior to the event.
He was found with slit wrists and a shotgun wound to the head; the shotgun was owned by Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous'). Ohlin's suicide note read "Excuse all the blood" and included an apology for firing the weapon indoors. Before calling the police, Aarseth went to a nearby store and bought a disposable camera to photograph the corpse, after re-arranging some items. One of these photographs was later stolen and used as the cover of a bootleg live album entitled Dawn of the Black Hearts.
Eventually, rumours surfaced that Aarseth made a stew with pieces of Ohlin's brain, and made necklaces with fragments of Ohlin's skull.The band later denied the former rumour, but confirmed that the latter was true. Additionally, Aarseth claimed to have given these necklaces to musicians he deemed worthy. Mayhem bassist Jørn Stubberud (aka 'Necrobutcher') noted that "people became more aware of the [black metal] scene after Dead had shot himself ... I think it was Dead's suicide that really changed the scene."
Members and fans of the black metal scene claimed responsibility for over 50 arsons directed at Christian churches in Norway from 1992 to 1996. Many of the buildings were hundreds of years old, and widely regarded as important historical landmarks. One of the first and most notable was Norway's Fantoft stave church, which the police believed was destroyed by Varg Vikernes of the one-man band Burzum. However, Vikernes would not be convicted of any arson offences, until his arrest for the murder of Øystein Aarseth, widely known as Euronymous, in 1993 (see below). The cover of Burzum's EP Aske (Norwegian for ash) portrays a photograph of the Fantoft stave church after the arson; however it is unconfirmed if Varg took this picture himself or not. The musicians Samoth, Faust, and Jørn Inge Tunsberg were also convicted for church arsons.
Today, opinions differ within the black metal community concerning the legitimacy of such actions. Guitarist Infernus and former vocalist Gaahl of the band Gorgoroth have praised the church burnings in interviews, with the latter also opining "there should have been more of them, and there will be more of them". However, Necrobutcher and Kjetil Manheim of Mayhem have disapproved of the church burnings, with the latter claiming "It was just people trying to gain acceptance within a strict group (the black metal scene) ... they wanted some sort of approval and status".
On 10 August 1993, Varg Vikernes of Burzum murdered Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous'). On that night, Vikernes and Snorre Ruch of Thorns travelled from Bergen to Aarseth's apartment in Oslo. Upon their arrival a confrontation began, which ended when Vikernes fatally stabbed Aarseth. His body was found outside the apartment with twenty-three cut wounds – two to the head, five to the neck, and sixteen to the back.
It has been speculated that the murder was the result of a power struggle, a financial dispute over Burzum records, or an attempt at "out doing" a stabbing in Lillehammer committed the year before by another black metal musician, Bard Faust. Vikernes claims that Aarseth had plotted totorture him to death and videotape the event – using a meeting about an unsigned contract as a pretext. On the night of the murder, Vikernes claims he intended to hand Aarseth the signed contract and "tell him to fuck off", but that Aarseth attacked him first. Additionally, Vikernes has stated that most of Aarseth's cut wounds were caused by broken glass he had fallen on during the struggle.
Regardless of the circumstances, Vikernes was arrested within days, and a few months later was sentenced to 21 years in prison for both the murder and church arsons. In a controversial display, Vikernes actually smiled at the moment his verdict was read, an image that was widely reprinted in the news media. In May 1994, Mayhem finally released the album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which features Aarseth on electric guitar and Vikernes on bass guitar. While granted a brief leave in 2003, Vikernes attempted to escape his bonds in Tønsberg, but shortly thereafter he was re-arrested driving a stolen vehicle and carrying various firearms.
A strong rivalry is said to have existed between Norwegian black metal and Swedish death metal scenes. Fenriz and Tchort have noted that Norwegian black metal musicians were "fed up with the whole death metal scene" and that "death metal was very uncool in Oslo" at the time. On a number of occasions, Euronymous sent death threats to the more commercialized death metal groups in Europe. Allegedly, a group of Norwegian black metal fans plotted to kidnap and murder certain Swedish death metal musicians.
A brief "conflict" between Norwegian and Finnish scenes gained some media recognition during 1992 and 1993. Part of this was motivated by seemingly harmless pranks; Nuclear Holocausto of the Finnish band Beherit started to make prank calls in the middle of the night to Samoth of Emperor (in Norway) and Mika Luttinen of Impaled Nazarene (in Finland). The calls consisted of senseless babbling and playing of children's songs, although Luttinen believed them to be death threats from Norwegian bands.
Notably, the album cover of Impaled Nazarene's Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz contains texts like "No orders from Norway accepted" and "Kuolema Norjan kusipäille!" ("Death to the assholes of Norway!"). The Finnish band Black Crucifixion criticized Darkthrone as "trendies" because Darkthrone began their career as a death metal band.
Any attempt to lay out the ideology of a musical genre is bound to generalize to the extent that some traits are unfairly emphasized, while others are laid out which do not apply to all. Nonetheless, black metal is generally opposed to Christianity and supportive of individualism.Arguably, this is the only coherent sentiment among black metal artists. In a Norwegian documentary, Fenriz stated that "black metal is individualism above all". Artists who oppose Christianity tend to promote atheism, antitheism, paganism, or Satanism. Some musicians – such as Euronymous, Infernus and Erik Danielsson – have insisted that Satanism should be foremost. Occasionally, artists write lyrics that appear to be nihilistic and misanthropic, although it is debatable whether this represents their mentality. In some cases, black metal artists have also espoused romantic nationalism, although the majority of those involved are not outspoken with regard to this. Nonetheless, many black metal artists seek to reflect their surroundings within their music. The documentarist Sam Dunn noted of the Norwegian scene that "unlike any other heavy metal scene, the culture and the place is incorporated into the music and imagery".
Regarding the sound of black metal, there are two conflicting groups within the genre – "those that stay true to the genre's roots, and those that introduce progressive elements". The former believe that the music should always be minimalist – performed only with the standard guitar-bass-drums setup and recorded in a low fidelity style. One supporter of this train of thought is Blake Judd of Nachtmystium, who has rejected labelling his band black metal for its departure from the genre's typical sound. A supporter of the latter is Snorre Ruch of Thorns, who stated that modern black metal is "too narrow" and believes that this was "not the idea at the beginning".
Some prominent black metal musicians believe that black metal does not need to hold any ideologies. For example, Jan Axel Blomberg said in an interview with Metal Library that "In my opinion, black metal today is just music." Likewise, Sigurd Wongraven stated in the Murder Music documentary that black metal "doesn't necessarily have to be all Satanic, as long as it's dark."
National Socialist black metal (NSBM) is a term used for black metal artists who promote National Socialist (Nazi) beliefs through their music and imagery. NSBM is not regarded as a distinct subgenre, as there is no method to play black metal in a National Socialist way. Some black metal bands have made references to Nazi Germany for shock value, causing them to be wrongly labelled as NSBM. Due to his writings, Varg Vikernes is regarded as the prime inspiration for the NSBM movement. Vikernes, however, has recently tried to distance himself from Nazism and the NSBM scene, preferring to refer to himself as an odalist instead of a "socialistic", "materialistic" Nazi.
NSBM artists are a small minority within black metal, according to Mattias Gardel. They have been criticised by some prominent black metal musicians – including Jon Nödtveidt, Tormentor, King ov Hell, Infernus, Lord Ahriman, Emperor Magus Caligula,Richard Lederer, Michael W. Ford and the members of Arkhon Infaustus. They categorize Nazism alongside Christianity asauthoritarian, collectivist, and a "herd mentality".
Unblack metal (also known as Christian black metal) is a term used in reference to black metal bands whose lyrics and imagery depictChristianity positively. Such bands are controversial, primarily because they contradict the anti-Christian and individualistic sentiment of most black metal. Like National Socialist black metal it is not regarded as a distinct subgenre, as there is no distinct method to play black metal in a Christian way. The first black metal albums to promote Christianity were Antestor's Martyrium (1994) and Horde's Hellig Usvart (1994) – the latter coined the term unblack metal. A number of such bands have emerged since then.