Black Metal MMXVI: How We Got Here, And Where We're Going
When one takes the past 15 years into account, perhaps no other subgenre of metal has expanded and diversified to the point and the manner in which which black metal has. Emerging from a tight circle of orthodoxy, this child in the metal family now seems bent on branching out in every possible direction, and incorporating every stylistic influence it can get its hands on. But how did it reach this point? And what does this current atmosphere of innovation and rule breaking mean for the future of black metal as a whole? Let's find out.
There have been multiple documentaries, books, etc. that cover the early history of black metal, over the 80s, the early 90s and the development of the Norwegian scene, and so forth. But very few (if any) have taken the time to dissect its evolution and maturation of sound in the 21st century. So consider that as the purpose of this article. I don't think of it as a "Third Wave black metal chronology" as much as I do an investigation of the things that I feel have been crucial for black metal in this new time period, and how those things will affect it moving forward.
THE ROOTS: IMPORTANT SEED PLANTERS
It's important to start this discussion with consideration of bands who began to experiment significantly with the overall sound of black metal back in the 90s. They were relatively few in number, but their roles should nonetheless not be denied. Of course, the degree to which the particular releases of these bands have left influences may be debatable, but in our increasingly globalized, interconnected world, the potential for anything to reach anyone eventually is a lot more likely, so I'd like to think it's safe to say that these albums have all left impacts on the international black metal community in their own ways.
The criminally unknown debut from Ved Buens Ende, which set many important precedents for black metal's future.
Essential, and an incredibly forward-thinking band, was Norway's Ved Buens Ende. Bursting onto the scene suddenly in 1995 with their Written In Waters debut, this band had a sound that virtually no others at the time were employing. Their production was far cleaner than was usual at the time for black metal, they employed clean vocals and an almost proggy-type bass extensively, and they had a peculiar dissonance about them, that combined with their more moderate tempo, made for a hypnotizing, almost surreal listening experience. One could argue that much of the "slow and dissonant" black metal that we see today, even the mighty Deathspell Omega, is carrying on the legacy of Veds Buens Ende.
Another band of note, I believe, would be Greece's Necromantia. These guys are pretty obscure in the larger spectrum of black metal, but back in 1993, with Crossing The Fiery Path, they too were doing something little to no other bands were. First of all, the band had no guitar; instead, they added in a second bass, distorted the hell out of it, and went from there. The result was black metal of a much denser and more enveloping variety than average. But perhaps more notably, Necromantia also employed many dark atmospheric effects throughout this album, which may have been fundamental towards ambient black metal developing as a solid style later in the 2000s.
Finally, we should look at a band that's considerably more well known: Enslaved. There was something about this band that was more inclined towards thinking outside the box right from the start. Even though their debut EP and 1994's Vikingligr Veldi were quite raw and aggressive, as most of the black metal flock was at the time, there was still a distinct air about them. They were more melodic, atmospheric, and had an epic, Viking-influenced tone about them few other bands were replicating. And this differentiation would only grow with Enslaved over the years, culminating in 2001's peculiar, psychedelically drenched Monumension, and developing further into the material that you see the band purveying today. Without a question, Enslaved's consistent reinventions of their sound would end up being a massive influence on the development of progressive black metal, and perhaps even on some of the more Avantgarde rulebreakers who would come later as well.
FROM THE 90s TO THE 00s: THE DEVELOPMENT OF REGIONAL SCENES
Scenes are always important for the development of music, no matter the genre. They're like little laboratories of a sort, where bands from different countries get to test out different compositional approaches, and, provided they leave a big enough impression, those approaches can in turn become the standard for new styles. Metal has had its share of movements that've displayed this trend in motion: NWOBHM, Swedish death metal, etc. Black metal first saw this really kick off, as everyone knows, with the development of the Scandinavian scene in the early 90s, particularly in Norway. Yet it certainly didn't stop there, and as we broke into the 2000s, a few other countries would also come to be highly important in the further development of black metal. Now who might those be?
AMERICA IS HUNGRY: THE YANKEES JOIN THE FRAY
Other than a few cult status bands, the U.S. had been relatively quiet on the BM front in the 90s. There were, of course, a few exceptions to this, such as Andrew Harris's one man Judas Iscariot, which took off in 92, had already dropped 7 releases by 2000, and would go on to gain a considerable degree of recognition in the international black metal community. Yet in the mid to late 90s, a few black metal bands were founded in America that would go on to considerably tinker around with the overall atmosphere of their music, in some cases making those atmospheres more mellow, airy, and transcendent, and in others making them more haunting and nightmarish, and coming to incorporate many dark ambient influences.
On the "haunting and nightmarish" end, one of course can't forget about Leviathan. Founded in 1998 by Jeff Whitehead, AKA Wrest, this one man band would become known for its oppressive, unrelenting delivery, complemented by a wide array of eerie ambient and electronic effects straight from the tenth sub level of suicide. This was an important stepping stone: occult themes and a seething air of nihilism and misanthropy were still there, but this time the music wasn't all aggressive, and there was a deeper layer that had been added to it, that, while still terrifying, was also a bit more mesmerizing and hypnotic than had been usual for black metal.
On the other hand, with the second group I mentioned, the U.S. also began to see the development of bands who preferred a lighter approach. This was a trend arguably started by Weakling, who were also founded in 98. Though only releasing one album, 2000's Dead As Dreams, the impact of said album would be enormous. Featuring a heavy, wall of sound sort of approach to their black metal, as well as a bit cleaner production, and more melodic and pronounced guitar sections, the Weakling debut would prove to be massively influential for a slew of atmospheric black metal bands to come, most notably Wolves In The Throne Room, who would expand upon its sound immensely in the years to come.
Moreover, while it's debatable as to whether or not American bands "pioneered" atmospheric black metal, one thing is certain: if they didn't, they certainly took the sounds that other bands had been playing with, capitalized upon them, and helped to cement the standards for what atmospheric BM commonly is today.
*Others of note: Krohm, Xasthur, Agalloch, Nachtmystium.
THE RISE OF FRANCE
Deathspell Omega were without question one of the most important black metal bands for the 2000s
It's impossible to discuss innovation within black metal in the past 15 years without mentioning that which has taken place within the pastry and lingerie capital of the world. There's not exactly a clear date for when France decided to take the global black community by storm with a number of forward-thinking bands inclined towards pushing the envelope as far as it could go. Somehow, some way, it just happened, as if foretold by an oracle. Towards the mid 2000s, two unofficial "leaders" of this new trend had emerged: Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega.
Blut Aus Nord came from humble traditions, centered around a mysterious individual known only as Vindsval, and initially playing in a style that was more or less standard fare black metal, albeit slightly more melodic than some of their contemporaries. It was their now widely hailed fourth album, however, The Work Which Transforms God, however, that displayed the band's eagerness for trying new things. It was aggressive, it was slow, it was harsh, it was hypnotic, it had black to it, it had a dissonant, industrialized edge to it, and it was all of these things that combined into a beast that was easily one of the most unique BM albums anyone had heard up to that time. Blut Aus Nord have proven themselves to be chameleons, however, both continuing on in their bizarre, industrial black metal adventures with albums such as MoRT and their 777 trilogy, yet also going back to more conventional territories with their second and third Memoria Vetusta albums. Their experimentation, combined with their tendency to consistently redefine themselves, has unquestionably left an impact.
Deathspell Omega, meanwhile, have been shrouded in mystery virtually since their start. Although there have been rumors as to who's actually in the band (with good info to support them), the band themselves have never issued any official information, save only a few interviews here and there to elaborate upon their artistic concepts. Like Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega didn't really drop their watershed album until they were already a ways down the road. It came in the form of 2004's Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice, which had many features about it that separated the band from the rest of the pack, such as the dissonant, somewhat atonal sound about it, the complexity of the composition, which could almost be called "technical," and most notable of all, the lyrics. Black metal bands had played around with anti-Christian, Satanic themes virtually since Day 1, but with Deathspell Omega, this overdone mantra was taken to the next level with a very insightful approach that sought to examine God and Satan from a metaphysical level. One only needs to look into some of their lyrics to notice how much more advanced they are from bands such as Bathory and Mercyful Fate.
Of course, the weirdness of French black metal was not merely limited to these two bands. And as the 2000s decade progressed, more would emerge, that would all have a simple rule to offer to the black metal community: make your own rules. Yet why did Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega rise to particular prominence more so than the others? The answer could really be as simple as the fact that they were essentially the first French black metal bands to push boundaries in the way that they did. But they certainly weren't the last.
*Others of note: Peste Noire, Diapsiquir, Glorior Belli, Murmuüre.
ICELAND: THE NEXT BIG THING?
The new face of Icelandic black metal, represented here by Misþyrming: Icy, haunting, and mysterious.
This choice is more speculative than anything else, and some may disagree with it, but with recent developments, I really do think that Iceland is the next country to look to as far as the development of a tightly-knit black metal scene united by bands with similar styles is concerned. When one thinks "Iceland" and "black metal," probably the first band that comes to mind would be Sólstafir, who just cracked their 20 year mark last year. Yet with Sólstafir now seemingly bent on exploring more mellow music more inclined towards post metal and less towards black metal, a new generation of bands, most formed in the late 2000s - early 2010s, seems intent of getting the black metal ball rolling again.
It's not necessary to elaborate in detail on some of these bands and their histories, as most are still quite young. But suffice it to say that Icelandic black metal has already created an air about it that is inclined towards highly aggressive, almost ravenous composition, often slower, almost trance-like tempos, and dark, eerily mysterious atmospheres. Somehow it all seems to be a reflection of the Icelandic landscape itself: harsh and desolate, yet also strangely beautiful and attractive, as if some brilliant secret hiding deep within is pulling you towards it. This is perhaps best exemplified through bands such as Carpe Noctem, Misþyrming, and Svartidauði. Yet there's also a "black sheep" of sorts in the Icelandic BM family in the form of Wormlust, the one man band of H.V. Lyngdal, that deserves mention for its unique, psychedelically-tinged black metal, which is more like Leif Erikson tripping on acid than anything else.
One of the big criticisms of Icelandic black metal, and something that may be standing in the way of its evolution, is the observation that much of it sounds strikingly similar to Deathspell Omega. This comparison is somewhat both valid and invalid; personally I think that while the influence is there in many of the newer Icelandic BM bands, none of them are outright Deathspell clones, and a few, particularly Wormlust and Carpe Noctem, are showing signs of having developed their own particular sounds. Nevertheless, the DsO influence does run heavier with a number of other bands, and it's something that the Icelandic scene may have to eventually move beyond if it's looking to create a definitive sound to leave a mark on the black metal world with. But hey, in the meantime, there are certainly far worse bands to be imitating than Deathspell Omega, right?
*Others of note: 〇, Sinmara, Azoic.
THE MAGIC SPARK: EXPERIMENTATION AND BM IDEOLOGY
Now here's where things get a little more interesting. Up til now, we've been taking a look at a (very simplified) overview of stylistic evolution within black metal over the past 15 years: what new sounds have risen to prominence, which bands defined them, etc. But why did all of this occur, exactly? Why has black metal been seeing an increasing shift towards bizarre, uncharted waters in the past 10 years or so? Did edgy little hipsters just suddenly start their own intifada and rewrite everything we knew about our beloved black metal one day? Or is this new evolution perhaps the culmination of traits that black metal possessed from the get go? I'm gonna go with that second one.
This isn't some Liturgy-esque manifesto here where I'm about to write a dissertation on the philosophy of black metal. But I do think there's a general ideology, an ethos of sorts, that has been there in it virtually from Day 1, and that continues to shape it to this day. What am I talking about, exactly? Well, I think that the "spirit" of black metal, so to speak, is a core attitude of opposing mainstream conventions that one sees as oppressive, unfounded, and delusional. This type of opposition at first manifested itself in the form of anti Christian and Satanically themed black metal bands in the 80s and 90s. And through that lyricism, as well as the extravagant stage performances that often went with it, the foundational sound and image of black metal was more or less cemented.
"Black metal is an artistic movement that is critiquing modernity on a fundamental level." - Aaron Weaver, Wolves In The Throne Room.
But why Satanism/anti Christianity? Why was that the focus? Let's go back to that attitude I mentioned of opposing oppressive and illogical mainstream conventions. If one goes into making music with that in mind, what would be one of the obvious first targets? Organized religion, of course, simply due to how much of a widespread, corruptive, and destructive influence it has had upon society over the centuries. And thus, black metal started out with taking on Christianity. In part this was due as well to the influence from earlier Satanically-themed bands such as Slayer and Possessed, yet I believe it also reflected a desire to oppose mainstream conventions in general, not merely Christianity in particular. For example, the fact that nowadays we have seen the emergence of anti-Islamic black metal bands in the Middle East demonstrates that black metal isn't specifically an anti Christian movement. It's an anti oppressive majority movement, and one could even say that it's somewhat punk-like in that respect.
Eventually, the black metal ethos of giving a huge "fuck you" to oppressive mainstream conventions would evolve, however. It would evolve from an attitude of simply challenging and mocking those conventions, to taking things a step farther and developing and promoting one's own conventions as an alternative. And that's exactly why black metal went from bands like Venom and Bathory to ones like Enslaved and Wolves In The Throne Room. It evolved, essentially, from people saying things like "man, this Christianity thing really sucks, we should make fun of it" to people saying "we need to show people something that is better than this that can provide a way out." And the door was thrown open from there.
Once interviewed, Aaron Weaver from WITTR said that "black metal is an artistic movement that is critiquing modernity on a fundamental level, and saying that the modern world view is missing something." And in many ways, that is what it's all about to me. Black metal is about saying that there is emptiness to the current world we find ourselves in, spiritual emptiness, moral emptiness, emotional emptiness, and so on, and it attempts to compensate not only by criticizing the things perceived as draining that spirituality, that morality, and that emotion, but also by promoting things seen as having the potential to replenish them once more.
WHAT RULEBOOK? INTO BLACK METAL'S FUTURE
Bands such as Botanist would arguably not exist today if not for the powerful "do your own thing" mindset that lies at black metal's core
If one has been devoutly following black metal in the new millennium, and paying close attention to new developments within it at an underground level, a question probably arises: what the hell is going on, and where is black metal going from here? It's 2016 now. We've got atmospheric and ambient black metal, we've got blackened doom and sludge, we've got folk black metal, psychedelic black metal, industrial black metal, Avantgarde black metal, post black metal, drone and noise-influenced black metal, and I'll be damned if there isn't just about anything and everything in between out there right now. The only rule for the future seems to be... that there are no rules.
Again, why? Why have a considerable number of black metal bands in recent years seemed hell bent on fusing seemingly every non-metal genre that they can get their hands on into black metal? Really, I think it just reflects, once again, that attitude of "challenge conventions, and come up with your own." The days of "stay kvlt and trve and sound like Darkthrone" in black metal are over (that is, they are for the bands and fans that actually want to be taken seriously... at least in this guy's book). Because perhaps most ironic of all is the fact that, at some point or another, black metal had to turn on itself in a way. It had to begin going against the standards set for it by the BM bands of the 80s and 90s. An art form that was structured around challenging conventions one day had to challenge its own conventions to keep its ideology alive and healthy, and that is the ultimate paradox. Due to the very nature of the anti-authority, anti conventions nature of black metal, it was only inevitable that one day, some guy in some black metal band would say "wait, why are we doing all this lo fi Satan crap? Black metal can be so much more than this. So let's make it more than this!" And indeed, the whole reason why black metal is as diverse, bizarre, and inclined towards trying new things as it is today is because it outgrew its conventions, but also because, more than anything else, it's very ethos perhaps made that destined to happen in the first place.
Where is black metal going from 2016 onwards? What new bands, styles, and scenes will emerge? Your guess is as good as mine, guys, because the door quite honestly seems to be wide open at the moment. But wherever it goes, I'm confident about one thing: the black metal spirit I mentioned is alive, real, and in full force. It has arguably led to black metal being the most diverse subgenre of metal at this point in time, and nothing seems to be standing in its path. With each boundary smashed, with each new combination of black metal + X genre, the possibilities only increase.
I'm sure you've had about enough of my loquacious black metal analysis by now. So here are some excellent sources for you to follow up on, either if you didn't quite get the point of this article and would like further reinforcement of what I'm talking about, or if you found yourself very interested and want to know more.
1. The Best Of Unorthodox Black Metal: Over three years old, this list of mine is still a work in progress, but I think it's still a pretty good guide for what's in it thus far.
2. One Man Black Metal documentary: It's a good one, but I think this should be watched more for the parts with Wrest than anything else. To me he's easily the most talented musician out of the three people interviewed, and he has the most interesting comments about what black metal is.
3. The Meads Of Asphodel: Life In The Shadows: A wonderful documentary on The Meads Of Asphodel, an Avantgarde black metal band from the U.K. Recorded around the time of The Murder Of Jesus The Jew, it gives great insight to their musical and lyrical inspiration.
4. Volahn - Eduardo Ramirez interview: Mr. Ramirez is the "leader" of sorts of the Black Twilight Circle, a new-ish collective of American black metal bands based in Southern California. They all revolve around themes of Mayan history and mythology, and are quite important for innovation in American BM at the moment.
5. Oranssi Pazuzu - Ontto interview: Good interview with a guy from a band that are definitely one of the strangest in the international BM scene at the moment.
Nurture self knowledge. Resist imposed norms. Create your own rules. Eat, sleep, and breathe black metal.
|Written on 04.01.2016 by Metal Storm’s own Babalao. Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable since 2013.
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