Shedding some light on black metal

A short history, introduction, exposition and review about black metal, by Jesse den Boer.

Music is an artform that allows for a seemingly infinite amount of expressions. It allows for stories to be told beyond the boundaries of words. It can be a vessel for emotions – both positive and negative ones. One genre of music has a particular tendency to express the latter: Heavy metal. Within the overarching genre of metal, many subgenres exist, which can often be further divided into even more specific genres. Heavy metal is often associated with violence, hate and darkness. While there are certainly a lot of artists who do tend to express such themes, it often comes as a surprise to the uninitiated, that many heavy metal artists rather articulate stories of philosophical, political and psychological nature. Black metal could perhaps be the most misunderstood and misinterpreted genre within the heavy metal family. That is not completely unjustified: the first wave of black metal, which mostly a derivative of death metal, thrash metal and hardcore punk, tended to evolve around anti-religious, misanthropic and outright racist topics. In the early 1990s, Norwegian black metal acts such as Burzum, Emperor and Mayhem were associated with a wave of church burnings throughout Norway, where more than fifty churches were burned down to ashes. Within the Norwegian black metal scene, this was only met with praise and support. Satanic themes and symbolism were also very prominent in the early years of black metal. However, soon the genre spread to other countries, and new influences, fusion genres and regional variations allowed the genre to develop into something that was much more diverse and, above all, nuanced. Early black metal shared stylistic traits such as heavily distorted guitars, fast and loud drum riffs, low recording quality, shrieking vocals and an overall dark atmosphere. In later years, subgenres such as atmospheric black metal, blackgaze, symphonic black metal and other progressive, psychedelic and melodic derivates added new flavour to the mix. The focus shifted from Satanic death rituals to things such as philosophy, life and death, art and human nature. The dark and melancholic themes are still present, but genre has changed from being a reproval towards Christianity, to an outlet for deep-rooted aspects of the human condition such as suffering, grief and angst. While this may still seem a bit depressing, I would argue that it is no different from watching a sad movie, reading a sad book, or listening to a sad (non-black metal) song. Now, to illustrate this, I’d like to paint a portrait of the genre, by using some of my personal favorites – a short guided journey through the gallery of black metal, so to speak.

‘My Eyes Are the Atoms of the Sun’, from the album ‘Dweller on the Threshold’, by Dystopia Nå!

(Experimental black metal – Norway)

https://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Dystopia_Nå%21/Dweller_on_the_Threshold/515898

“ My Eyes are unable to see

Yet I envision true beauty:

Only darkness will make

What the shadows create ”

The ninth chapter to a story about a schizofrenic-like dream-voyage, where the dreamer encounters a dark reflection of himself – an unfamiliar shadow that evokes dread and confusion. The album beautifully embodies a journey through the mind of an existentially conflicted individual, and paints emotions of utter confusion, followed by intense dread, only to fall together in an awakening – a conciliation of the shadow and the dreamer, where the dreamer finally realized that the shadow was his, and gains a deeper understanding of his mind.

‘Tombward Bound’, from the album ‘Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes’, by A Forest of Stars

(Psychedelic black metal – England)

https://www.metal-archives.com/albums/A_Forest_of_Stars/Grave_Mounds_and_Grave_Mistakes/725974

“ I shall raise nought but sparks against the coal shrine pitch, but as we gather here against the end, those sparks will grid our honour. Sparks to kindling to roaring flame, pyres of the mind starting up again. Death may be inevitable, but we can at least ride his trail, grim determination as fortification – dancing through the mires, raising surprised rainbows against the night.

The English psychedelic black metal act ‘A Forest of Stars’ has moulded a sound that redefines the limits of black metal (please take that statement with a grain of opiniated salt). Their music is almost completely abstract. The themes in their lyrics are enigmatic and at times seem almost nonsensical. Yet, they tell entire stories about the mind. The music is enchantingly consummate, and truly takes the listener through a labyrinth of sensations. With a lineup of just five members, they manage to incorporate more than 8 different instruments in their music. If Beethoven had been alive today, this is probably what he’d listen to.

‘Aura’, from the eponymous album by Saor

(Atmospheric black metal – Scotland)

https://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Saor/Aura/407027

“ Lofty mountains and resplendent ledges,

There dwell my own folk, kind folk of honour. ”

“Saor Alba” is the Scottish Gaelic motto for Scottish independence, meaning “Free Scotland”. Saor creates artpieces that quite literally ‘shout’ of that sentiment. When listening to Aura, it feels like you are standing atop the mountains of the Scottish Highlands, seeing nothing but the untouched splendour of the lands. Saor dreams of a Scotland that can proudly call itself ‘the land of the Scots’, honouring the stunning beauty of nature, like the forefathers of the Scots have done throughout the ages before.

‘Blind Staren’, from the album ‘Het Wassen Oog, by Laster

(Experimental/Atmospheric post-black metal – The Netherlands)

https://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Laster/Het_wassen_oog/760343

(translated from Dutch)

“ In blue light; my Sun. Here I delude.

Familiar – the fingers, the window.

Simple – the frame, de food. ”

Laster is a Dutch band with an incredibly unique sound. Their poetic lyrics are beautifully complemented by their involute music. Their songs describe toils of the mind, philosophical and artistic subjects. Their songs are incredibly difficult to describe in just a few sentences, so I would recommend looking up their lyrics, as they are truly masterfully written.

‘Oceans Apart’, from the album ‘Yūgen’ by Ashbringer

(Atmospheric black metal – United States)

https://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Ashbringer/Yūgen/579750

“ As radiant as the sun

I can feel you

From many oceans away

Drifting further ”

A song about a man who is alone in the world, oceans apart from the person he longs for. The song starts of with the man, screaming in anguish over his abandonment, uttering how he can still feel the warmth of the person he is missing. As the song progresses, the story describes how the distance will only grow, yet he will wait forever. Eventually he sees that the oceans become clear, as he finally realizes that this person will not even cross the ocean. In his disorientation and shame, he sees a light, but realizes it was not the person he was waiting for. The song concludes on this note, as the man has found rest, and something to move on to.

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