Tuesday, May 17, 2011

True Black Metal, Part 1

This morning I was listening to the old Scandinavian bands, and thinking about what a sad place black metal has become. American hipsters have tried to justify their attempted takeover of the genre in terms of saving it from itself: "We need to break free from the narrowminded purist mentality, it's an artistic dead end! We need to help black metal progress!" And yet, the USBM kids have something important in common with the boring "kvlt" bands they criticize: both think of the genre's possibilities almost exclusively in terms of Burzum and Darkthrone, and the waves of imitators spawned by both bands.

Now, Burzum and Darkthrone are both awesome, but there's a lot more to the Second Wave. The black metal sound that represents the genre's pinnacle (and means the most to me) has gone unexplored since it fizzled out in the late 90s. In fact, it has been virtually forgotten. This is because it's really really hard to make, and because it inhabits an emotional territory so wild and vast that it makes people uncomfortable. People still remember Emperor and Enslaved, largely because of their horrible latter-day output, but nobody is actually influenced by the Hordanes Land split or Vikingligr Veldi.

Basically, I think the best black metal WAS made in Scandinavia between 1991 and 1997. I think the best bands were either lost in the mists of time or dismissed offhand by anxious scenesters as "pretentious." Sorry dudes, THIS is what black metal was--and should be--about. I've posted amazing tracks by three of my all-time favorite bands, along with brief comments.

Listen for the sublime moment at 0:52. It's preceded by a bass break--something you'd NEVER hear today--and then the whole band comes sweeping in like a symphony of ghosts. It's so elegant, so aggressive, and so fucking beautiful. Kvist sound totally Nordic, in a Grieg sort of way, but without any of Emperor's dated "spooky" riffs (which I consider part of their charm, but whatever). Listen to how the song unfolds. Kvist is perfect, and their music hasn't aged.

This is how to do "epic." Listen for the brief, achingly gorgeous swell in the music at 3:09. Don't worry, it returns later in the song too. Also listen for 3:45, where O.E. bring in a fucking Zeppelin riff over blastbeats! It works perfectly, conjuring up images of rugged mountains and rushing streams. Finally, the glorious ascent at 4:54. On Centuries of Sorrow, every single riff is good enough to be the crowning achievement of a lesser band.

Probably my favorite black metal song. Of these three bands, Sorhin is the most straightforward and vicious, but also the most unique in terms of melodies and harmonies. You will never hear music like this anywhere else. My comrade Marcus put it well: Sorhin sounds like "some ancient pagan artifact." Listen for the convoluted, pulsing riff that strikes at 0:21. This is warrior music. Fell deeds awake!

Anyway, look out for Part 2 and maybe Part 3 in the next week. And at some point in the future I will definitely do long-form album reviews of the aforementioned bands and others like them. I just worry that I'd have a hard time doing them justice...


  1. Wow. Thank you so much for these recommendations. I got into black metal a few years ago. After not listening to almost ANY metal for over 10 years. I fell in love with the intricate, hypnotic flow of melody over dissonance, combined with the aura of the esoteric and otherworldly. Will definitely seek these bands out.

    One band from Norway in the '90s that seems to get very little attention is Forgotten Woods. "As the Wolves Gather" and "The Curse of Mankind" are quite unique, musically rich albums. The individual songs for each album are very good. But they work even better as pieces of an overall tapestry of mournful, isolated winterlands.

    What is your opinion on some of the black metal in the USA? Obviously its a very different animal from the Scandinavian bands of the 90s. In particular, I've really been enjoying
    Volahn, Arizmenda, and Ashdautas, who are all basically the project of guitarist/songwriter Volahn. They take visual and aesthetic cues from the Les Legions Noire, but have a vocabulary and diction all their own.

    The music exists in a total void, where darkness is a palatable, tangible entity of malevolence. Music as ritual (Mayan and Aztec sometimes assuming the role played by Satan or Norse gods in the Scandinavian music) is emphasized, with Volahn sometimes spiraling, sometimes drifting, sometimes clear guitar the driving force.

    Oh, and then there is fucking Beherit. Like having Old Scratch sitting on your stereo, smoking a stinky old cigar, and playing with himself. Pretty fucked up.

    Again, thanks for the recommendations!

  2. Oh man, its so great to hear that these bands resonate with you! As far as seeking out their material, I know that NWN recently did this really nice vinyl reprint of OE's "Centuries of Sorrow," and Ajna carries awesome digipak editions of every Sorhin release (I own 2 of em).

    And yeah, Forgotten Woods are really great...second you about the atmosphere. They also incorporate punk influences in a totally non-obvious way, and I really like that...those stomping Oi rhythms, etc.

    I totally despise the USBM movement, but as far as I'm concerned Volahn and the Black Twilight bands are not really a part of that whole scene. They're definitely legit, but I don't actually know them that well. I remember enjoying Kallathon a lot. Not so big on Ashdautas, but that might just be a personal taste thing. Certainly ritual music inhabited by a "palatable, tangible entity of malevolence" sounds right up my alley! Any particular albums to go to first?

    As far as other good American bands, I was pretty impressed by Fell Voices... And Averse Sefira is great, absolutely uncompromising.

    I've actually seen your blog before, through the Hearse, and I dig the aesthetic. Like you, I'm just as into goth, industrial, etc as metal. Hope to get some of that kind of shit on the blog eventually.

    Anyway, thanks so much for the long and thoughtful comment, keep 'em coming!

  3. I'm always interested in hearing as much as I can. In general, I tend to enjoy black metal that is horrible, violent scraping noise (Ildjarn being a personal favorite) or droning, swirling hypnosis (Darkthrone's "Transilvanian Hunger" being my introduction to that, with Black Twilight Circle bands being current personal favorites).

    I really love Forgotten Woods. Its very lonely music. It actually has REAL atmosphere to it.

    I do agree that the Black Twilight collective (i.e. Volahn and his bros) is different. To me, it is really his guitar playing that sets the music apart. Putting in passage of clean acoustic classic guitar, drifting solos, used as accents to the constant spiraling twist of the riffs. They are also dead serious about this as an art with heavy spiritual overtones, and to me they really do have that quality to their music. For recommendations, Volahn's "Dimensiónes del Trance Kósmico" and Arizmenda's "Within the Vacuum of Infinity..." are outstanding. And also compliment each other nicely when listened to back to back. Arizmenda have a new one out that I missed out on, sadly.

    My blog is pretty much just something I do for me. It takes me a long time to put together the posts and make sure all the symbolic elements are connected right. In my mind at least. My bloodstream is pretty much a solid diet of Rozz Williams, Skinny Puppy, and SWANS, and it has been that way for a long time. I actually got into black metal due to my studies in religious ritual.

    And I fucking loved Morbid Angel and Celtic Frost when I was but a depressed pre-teen. Back then all we had was the library and mail-order distros to keep us entertained.

  4. Huge fan of the first Christian Death album, should probably check out other Rozz stuff too, what's a good place to start? And yes I'm with you on the magical significance of black metal, it's so much more than a form of entertainment or even a form of opposition to conventional mores. I'm afraid a lot of people miss out on that.

    Since you're interested in the links between music and (broadly speaking) philosophy, you might want to check out my other blog, Tragic Horizon. This is a place where my collaborator and I post our philosophical work. It has been very poorly maintained as it's our first year out of college and we've been quite distracted with that annoying "real life" shit, but it should be coming back full force one of these days.

  5. You should pick up "Deathwish." It is basically the demo session to "Only Theatre of Pain" and features the same line-up. You can get it on the Hearse. Also, DEFINITELY check out "Catastrophe Ballet" and "Ashes". Both are complete masterworks of poetry and music. Some of Rozz's best writing is featured on those albums and is absolutely essential. "Ashes" can be found nestled comfortably on my blog. Most (if not all) of stuff recorded after Rozz ended up being really silly.

    SHADOW PROJECT is another dear favorite of mine from Rozz's works. Their debut album is also on my blog. Reaction tends be divided: people either adore it or can't stand it. But very important in Rozz's overall body of work.

    I'll check out the other blog, too!

    Yeah, "real life" shit does suck.

  6. Thanks for the recommendations! will get those off your blog, etc. I do have the track "deathwish" off the "Hell Comes To Your House" comp, and it's amazing. You hear it in the midst of all those standard cali punk rock songs and you're like "WOW these guys are onto something completely different. and way cooler."