Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. It often employs fast tempos, shrieked vocals, highly distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, double-kick drumming, and unconventional song structure.
During the first half of the 1980s, certain thrash metal bands established a prototype for black metal. This First Wave includes bands such as Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. A Second Wave emerged in the early 1990s, which consisted primarily 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 considerable hostility from mainstream culture, mainly due to the misanthropic and anti-Christian ideology of many bands. Additionally, some musicians have been associated with church burnings, murder and/or National Socialism. For these reasons and others, black metal is often viewed as an underground form of music.
Black metal guitarists usually favour high pitched
guitar tones and abundant distortion
. Typically, the guitar is played with much usage of fast tremolo picking
. When composing music, guitarists often use those scales
and chord progressions
that produce the most dissonant
, fearful and ominous sounds. Additionally, guitar solos
and low guitar tunings
are a rarity in black metal.
The bass guitar is rarely used to perform independent melodies. It is not uncommon for the bass guitar to be inaudiable or to homophonically follow the bass lines of the electric guitar. Typically, drumming is fast-paced and performed using double-kick, double-bass or blast beat techniques. However it is not unusual for drummers to employ more simplistic techniques. Many solo composers use drum machines instead of a human drummer.
Black metal compositions commonly deviate from conventional song structure and are often devoid of clear verse-chorus sections. Instead, many black metal songs contain extended and repetitive instrumental passages.
Vocals and lyrics
Traditional black metal vocals are in the form of high-pitched shrieks and screams, to which echo
effects may be applied. This vocal style sharply contrasts with the low-pitched growls of death metal
. The majority of black metal vocalists are male, although there are a few notable exceptions – for example Cadaveria
The most common and founding lyrical theme is opposition to Christianity and other organized religions. As part of this, many artists write lyrics that could be seen to promote atheism, antitheism, paganism and Satanism. Other themes that are commonly explored include depression, nihilism, misanthropy and death. Additionally, some black metal artists write lyrics that are inspired by mythology, folklore and fantasy narratives.
Low-cost production quality began as a must for pioneering black metal artists with low budgets. However, even as artists moved to increase their production quality over time, many artists intentionally recorded in a low fidelity
style. The reason for this was to remain true to the genre's underground roots and to make the music sound more "cold". One of the better-known examples of this production is the album Transilvanian Hunger
by Darkthrone, a band who "represent the DIY aspect
of black metal" according to Johnathan Selzer of Terrorizer
Imagery and performances
Unlike artists of many other genres, many black metal artists do not perform concerts. Some consist of just one member and thus performing live is impractical. Bands consisting of two members may recruit extra musicians specifically for concerts. Bands that choose to perform concerts often make use of stage props and theatrical techniques. Mayhem
are noted for their controversial stage performances; which have featured the band members doused in animal blood, impaled animal heads, mock crucifixions
and medieval weaponry
Black metal artists typically appear dressed in black with combat boots, bullet belts, spiked wristbands, and inverted crosses/inverted pentagrams to reinforce their anti-Christian or anti-religious stance. However, they are most often identified by their usage of corpse paint – black and white makeup (sometimes detailed with real or fake blood), which is used to simulate a corpse-like appearance.
In the early 1990s, most pioneering black metal artists used very simplistic black-and-white imagery on their record covers. Some believe this was a reaction against death metal bands, who at that time had begun to use brightly coloured album artwork. Most underground black metal artists have continued this style. Bands that don't use this style usually have album covers that are either atmospheric or provocative; some feature natural or fantastical landscapes (for example Burzum's Filosofem and Emperor's In The Nightside Eclipse) while others are violent, perverted and iconoclastic (for example Marduk's Fuck Me Jesus).
The First Wave
The First Wave
of black metal refers to the bands during the 1980s who first influenced the black metal sound. They were often thrash metal
bands, and thus their style has sometimes been called blackened
The term "black metal" was first coined by the British band Venom with their sophomore album Black Metal (1982). Although considered thrash rather than black metal by modern standards, their lyrics and imagery focused on anti-Christian and Satanic themes more so than any band before. Their music was unpolished in production and featured raspy grunted vocals. Additionally, Venom's members adopted pseudonyms – a practise that would become widespread among black metal musicians.
Another pioneer of black metal was the Swedish band Bathory, led by Thomas Forsberg (under the pseudonym Quorthon). Bathory combined low fidelity production and anti-Christian themes with shrieked vocals; something unheard of at the time. 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 early influences include Switzerland's Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, Italy's Bulldozer and Death SS, Hungary's Tormentor, Denmark's Mercyful Fate, and the early work of Brazil's Sarcófago and Sepultura. King Diamond of Mercyful Fate was also one of the first to frequent the use of corpsepaint, although metalstorm.ee magazine claims Sarcófago was the first band to sport "true" corpsepaint. Additionally, Euronymous of Mayhem described Germany's Sodom and Destruction as underestimated influences and "masterpieces of black stinking metal".
The Second Wave
The Second Wave
of black metal emerged in the early 1990s and was largely centred on the Norwegian black metal scene
. During 1990–1993 a number of Norwegian artists began performing and releasing black metal music; this included Mayhem
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.
Inspired by the Norwegian scene, a few bands in neighbouring Sweden adopted a similar sound. This included Marduk, Dissection, Lord Belial, Dark Funeral, Arckanum and Nifelheim. In Finland, the bands Beherit and Impaled Nazarene began to apply some of these traits to death metal. Norwegian-inspired black metal scenes also emerged on the European mainland during the early 1990s. 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 and Belketre.
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.
Helvete and Deathlike Silence
During May–June 1991, Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous
') of Mayhem opened an independent record store named Helvete
) 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.
Headliners of the black metal scene claimed responsibility for inspiring (if not necessarily perpetrating) 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. The most notable church 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 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; it is still unconfirmed whether or not he took this picture himself.
Today, opinions differ within the black metal community concerning the legitimacy of such actions. Guitarist Infernus and 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, one of the founding and current members of Mayhem, was quoted as saying "I think it's just ridiculous, especially the people that lit up our fuckin' old churches. Like, thousand year-old churches. They don't realize that these were actually Heathen churches, before Christianity. So they fucked theirself in the ass by doing that."
On 8 April 1991, Mayhem
vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (aka 'Dead
') committed suicide
in a house shared by the band. Fellow musicians often described Ohlin as a quiet and introverted person. However he was best known for his infamous performances – which 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 round to the head, 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 comfirmed 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.
On 10 August 1993, Varg Vikernes
of Burzum murdered Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous
'). On that night, Vikernes and Snorre Ruch
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 to torture 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 defends 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 short leave in 2003, Vikernes attempted to escape his bounds in Tønsberg, but he was re-arrested in a stolen vehicle with various firearms.
Conflict between scenes
A brief conflict known as the "Dark War" between Norwegian and Finnish scenes had gained some media recognition from 1992 to 1993. Part of this was motivated by seemingly harmless pranks; Nuclear Holocausto of Beherit started to make prank calls in the middle of the night to Samoth of Emperor and Mika Luttinen of Impaled Nazarene. The calls consisted of 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" due to the fact that Darkthrone began their career as a death metal band. Additionally, a Norwegian band released two demos under the name Fuck Beherit.
Many recall a strong rivalry between Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal scenes. It was common for black metal enthusiasts in Europe to terrorize notable death metal bands that were touring their country. Street fights at concerts and an attempted fire bomb at a Deicide show in Stockholm were reported before tensions calmed.
Melodic black metal
Melodic black metal
is a style of black metal that is less abrasive and more melodic. Electric guitars are often played with much less distortion and guitar solos
are more common. Songs are often written in conventional structures and there is more usage of keyboards
and other instruments. However, despite these differences, much of the characteristics found in "traditional" black metal are retained. Melodic black metal is often confused with symphonic black metal, as the two styles overlap.
Symphonic black metal
Symphonic black metal
is a style of black metal that uses symphonic
elements. This may include the usage of instruments found in symphony orchestras (piano
and keyboards), 'clean' or operatic vocals and guitars with less distortion. Symphonic black metal is often confused with melodic black metal and gothic metal
, as the styles overlap.
Viking black metal
Viking black metal
is a term used to describe black metal bands whose lyrics and imagery emphasise Norse mythology
, Norse paganism
and the Viking Age
. These bands typically seek to create an epic or romanticized atmosphere. Their harsh black metal sound is "often augmented by sorrowful keyboard
melodies, acoustic guitars and Nordic folk instruments
. Vocals are typically a mixture of high-pitched shrieks and 'clean' choral
singing. The origin of Viking metal can be traced to the albums Blood Fire Death
(1988) and Hammerheart
(1990) by the Swedish
. Since then, a number of black metal bands (Enslaved
) have borrowed such concepts to further elaborate on their anti-Christian sentiment.
(also known as ambient black metal
) is a style that combines elements of black metal and ambient
music. However, emphasis may be placed upon one or the other. The electric guitar is often used in conjunction with electronic instruments
such as synthesizers
and drum machines
, or may simply be played in an atmospheric style with much use of reverb
. The infamous Norwegian artist Burzum
may be considered a pioneer of black ambient, particularly for the album Filosofem
. Other prominent artists who have performed in this style include Velvet Cacoon
(US), Wolves in the Throne Room
(Denmark), Blut Aus Nord
(Austria) and Striborg
(also known as blackened doom metal
) is a style that combines elements of black metal and doom metal
. Typically, vocals are in the form of high-pitched shrieks and guitars are played with much distortion, which is common in black metal. However, the music is played at a slow tempo with a much 'thicker' guitar sound, which is common in doom metal. The style was pioneered in the early work of Bethlehem
(Germany) and Barathrum
(Finland). Pure blackened doom bands are fairly rare, but Dolorian
(Finland), Forgotten Tomb
(Denmark) and Gallhammer
(Japan) have performed in this style.
Blackened death metal
Blackened death metal
is a style that combines elements of black metal and death metal
. When compared with 'traditional' black metal, there is more usage of down-tuned guitars, palm muting
, and complex blast beats
. Vocals are often a mixture of shrieks and death growls
. Bands of this style often focus on themes common in black metal, such as anti-Christianity, Satanism and Occultism.
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
. Such sentiments have been echoed by numerous musicians; for example in a Norwegian documentary, Fenriz
stated that "black metal is individualism above all". Artists who oppose Christianity (and organized religion in general) tend to promote atheism
. Occasionally, artists write lyrics that appear to be nihilistic
, 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".
Another ideological conflict within black metal circles is the sound of black metal itself. Some believe that the music should always be minimalist – performed only with the standard guitar-bass-drums setup and recorded in a low fidelity style. Others believe that the music should strive to be as extreme and experimental as possible. One supporter of the first, more conservative 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
National Socialist black metal (also known as Nazi black metal or NSBM) is a term used for black metal artists who promote National Socialist
beliefs through their music and imagery. NSBM is viewed as an ideology, not a subgenre, as there is no method to play black metal in a National Socialist way. Artists labelled as such use lyrics supporting ideas of white supremacy
, racial separatism
. Some black metal bands have made references to Nazi Germany
for shock value
, causing them to be wrongly labelled as NSBM. It should be noted that NSBM artists are a small minority within the black metal genre.
Unblack metal (also known as Christian black metal) is a term used in reference to black metal bands whose lyrics and imagery depict Christianity
positively. Such bands are controversial, as black metal itself was developed with the intention of encouraging anti-Christian sentiment
. Like National Socialist black metal, it is viewed as an ideology, not a subgenre, as there is no method to play black metal in a Christian way. The first black metal albums to promote Christianity were Antestor
(1994) and Horde
's Hellig Usvart
(1994) – the latter coined the term unblack metal
. A number of such bands have emerged since then, but it should be noted that they remain a small minority within the genre.
Documentaries on black metal:
- Satan Rides the Media (1998) details the conviction of Varg Vikernes, his murder of Øystein Aarseth, and some related church burnings.
- Norsk Black Metal (2003) was aired on Norwegian TV by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK).
- Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005) touches on black metal in the early 1990s, and includes an extensive 25-minute feature on the DVD release.
- True Norwegian Black Metal (2007) was aired as a five-part feature by the online broadcasting network VBS.tv. It details the lifestyle, beliefs, and controversies surrounding Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl.
- Until The Light Takes Us (2007) explores black metal's origins and subculture, including "exclusive interviews" and "rare, seldom seen footage from the Black Circle's earliest days".
- Black Metal: A Documentary (2007), produced by Bill Zebub, explores the world of black metal from the point of view of the artists. There is no narrator and no one outside of black metal takes part in any interview or storytelling. It includes interviews and performances from Finntroll, Naglfar, Ulver, Korovo, Unexpect, Gloomy Grim, Bloodthorn, Dark Funeral, Bethlehem, Grom, Enslaved, King Diamond, Arkhon Infaustus, Rotting Christ, Primordial, Belphegor, and Svarog.
- Murder Music: A History of Black Metal (2007).
References in media:
- The cartoon show Metalocalypse is about an extreme metal band called Dethklok, with many references to leading black metal artists on the names of various buildings such as Fintroll's, Dimmu Burger, Gorgoroth's electric wheelchair store, Carpathian Forest High School, Marduk's Putt & Stuff, Burzum's hot-dogs and Behemoth studios (as well as the man who owns Behemoth studios, whose name is Mr. Grishnackh). In the episode Dethdad they travel to Norway to visit Toki's dying father, and visit the original black metal record store.
- A Norwegian commercial for a laundry detergent once depicted black metal musicians as part of the advertisement.
- Black metal bands such as 1349, Emperor, Behemoth, Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Enslaved and Satyricon have had their videos make appearances on MTV's Headbangers Ball.
- Comedian Brian Posehn made a visual reference to Norwegian black metal bands in the music video for his comedy song "Metal By Numbers".
- In 2005 Design Confederacy Film produced Legalize Murder: A Black Metal Comedy - following the fictional black metal act Legalize Murder at home, on tour, etc.
- A Canadian commercial by KFC in 2008 featured a fictional black metal band called Hellvetica. The band's vocalist proceeds to eat fire. Once backstage he takes a bite of the spicy KFC chicken product and declares "Oh man, that is hot".