The rules of black metal state that before discussing black metal you must define your parameters. I’m no authority, but everyone draws a line somewhere. Some say it must be made in Norway, like a fine Champagne. Some say it must be satanic, or at least anti-Christian. I tend to overlook ideologies in favor of stylistic concerns; the drumming, the strumming, the chords, the screaming, the feeling. There’s endless variation within the basic framework, and there are always exceptions. Your best bet is to familiarize yourself. You’ll get it eventually if you care to. As such, I don’t count the first wave at all. Venom, Bathory, Merciful Fate, love ya but you’re all just preamble. Modern death and thrash metal bands, too, nothing against y’all, but just because you have satanic lyrics or the occasional interlude of tremolo picking and/or BM shrieking, this doesn’t qualify you. The super-progressive stuff that Enslaved plays (which I love!) and the symphonic bombast of Dimmu Borgir (which I like some of!): no. Blackgaze, no. Whatever it is that Hunter Hunt-Huntsley is doing, no. Otherwise, I think it’s mostly fair game.
I don’t intend this to be a black metal primer. I’m not remotely qualified for such a task. These are just the albums that have moved me the most, changed me as a person, out of the full black metal realm, since I was indoctrinated some 17 years ago or so; it’s not The Essentials or The Greatest Of All Time. I’m sure there are historical classics I’ve yet to even hear, and this list is liable to change tomorrow. Besides, assuming you’re a peace-loving American, this is a genre you almost have to inoculate yourself with for years before you can actually arrive at a starting point, unless you were there from the beginning, which I certainly wasn’t. It’s been a most serpentine route, this path to appreciation. I encourage you to start down it, if you’re cool with acknowledging that the depths of the darkness within you will forever be unknown to you, and that they’re worth exploring. Think of it as a shadow against which to contrast the light, if you must. Personally, the thought of having missed out on this metaemotional universe…empties me of feelings entirely.
Cheating! Ha. Yes, this is a top ten list, but it’s imperative that I include something recent. Because I could’ve put Ash Borer in here, I could’ve (GOD HELP US ALL) included that album with the fucking banjo, I might’ve just as easily tossed in a second Agalloch album like fuck you all, you don’t even know if this is reality, I could’ve put in Pyramids, Ævangelist, even Vhol if you want to stretch your boundaries that far (…you do!), and some of these will surely attain higher meaningless placings on this imaginary list over time.
Through the International Mixtape Project I came in contact with a Brighton cat who calls himself Meatbreak. He has been one of a handful of black metal gurus I’ve learned from over the years. He writes far more eloquently and knowledgeably than I can about this topic, and I hope you’ll read this piece he wrote introducing a 2014 black metal recap at Drowned In Sound, but here’s perhaps the crux of it:
No core values exist and this is a critical element that permeates from the core of Black Metal. The genre explores extreme ends of a spectrum from dominion to submission; challenging themes of environment and ecology; heritage and Nationalism; Satanism and self-centric concepts of power; naturalism and spiritualism; inversion and subversion; clarity and dissonance, destruction and growth, expansion and contraction. This dichotomy of creating noise is simultaneously aspiring to beauty and ugliness. Each of these elements is subject to its own micro and macro debates in and outside of the genre, but Black Metal will never be about censorship, and always be about confrontation; these issues will be scrutinised, subsumed or smashed to pieces across stages and on paper until the world expires.
Despite my distaste (so far) for blackgaze and some other hybridizations of the thing, I promise I do actually wholeheartedly love the way the sound can be adapted and twisted in infinite different directions. However, sometimes it’s refreshing when, after hours upon hours of carbon-copy second-wave clatter, you can settle into a straight-ahead black metal behemoth like Tekeli-Li. So not gimmicky, so not experimental, so not belligerently retro, so well-crafted and so what, it’s very Viking, it’s the very last breath of the patriarchy, but with feeling. Its ancestors howl, if not for themselves then for the spilt blood of their distant brethren whose ghosts still haunt them. Allegory and whatnot. (disclaimer: Amon Amarth was at one point in time one of my favorite bands.) In an age when you have to question the virility and validity of most guitar-based styles of music, you cannot in any possible sense suggest that black metal is dead. The style is morphing and thriving like no other style, and every band I mentioned three paragraphs ago is a vital part of this movement.
Now that Agalloch is gone, there may not be a better metal band in the U.S.A. than Krallice. Whomever you credit with transforming the American black metal scene into what it is today, I still think Krallice did something altogether new in creating a version of the style that is occasionally, unmistakably, uplifting. Whereas other bands might explicitly refer to their style with lofty-adjectives-as-genres, I would say Krallice, at least on this album, embodied superlative ideals without having to put a stamp on itself. Their music is also brutal and disturbing and ever-evolving, but I’m pretty sure listening to Dimensional Bleedthrough was the first time I felt a palpable ecstasy in black metal that wasn’t based in the thrill of tension or despair. The heights of intensity in “Aridity” and particularly the end of “Monolith Of Possession” are drug-like, and while Krallice continued to dabble in these textures on their next couple of albums, they haven’t yet reached these heights again so far. I fully welcome their shift into a more technical, death-y style, because Bleedthrough was the pinnacle of its particular style and I doubt it can be improved upon…but I have to admit that the new Prelapsarian has thus far struck me as sounding more like an intellectual exercise than any of their other albums, and I miss the fire of the early stuff. Ah well, we’ll always have Ygg huur.
This is the one that’s a completely bullshit exception to my own rules and shouldn’t be on here. Musically it doesn’t fall remotely within the confines of the black metal sound, save for the occasional brief passage and, arguably, the vocals. I can’t fully explain it. I can only say that when I listen to Shining, they evoke the kind of pain that says to me ‘this is black metal’. I’m certain that I read somewhere that late Mayhem vocalist Dead wrote at least some lyrics with the intent to drive listeners to suicide, but I’ve never gotten an overt sense of that from Mayhem. With this album, there’s no doubt. The lyrics are in Swedish, so I have no idea if they’re actually some kind of imperative to self-harm; it’s just very clear from the atmosphere and the spoken vignettes that the group’s only constant member, Niklas Kvarforth, wishes to create despair, and this was clear to me years before I discovered the following quote (thanks, Wikipedia) from Kvarforth:
Of course we support suicide, Shining support all that is negative in this bastard world of ours. We have had a couple of cases in the past with people whom [sic] have ended their lives under the influence or partially under the influence of our work and of course this is a true blessing indeed, yet we pray for increased numbers of fatalities.
He’s totally the black-metal Morrissey, am I right? I mean he’s probably full of shit, so maybe he’s more like the Seth Putman of black metal. You don’t get the impression from reading interviews that you should take anything he says seriously; he seems like a horrible person in every respect who should be ignored. Truly, though, laced throughout Halmstad, the palpable hopelessness is so overpowering that the first time I heard it—this is going to sound ridiculous but it’s true—I felt myself falling into what I can only imagine true clinical depression might feel like, for a short while. I can picture the day clearly, the color draining from the leaves of the trees and the gaping hole opening up in my chest and the sickness in my stomach. I don’t listen to this album very often, nor would I encourage anyone to. There are Shining albums I appreciate much more on almost every level. Halmstad is the one that affected me most, though, maybe due as much to its accessibility as anything. Its insidious infectiousness makes it legitimately dangerous. I questioned whether to even include it, particularly in these troubling times. But if art’s value lies in its emotional impact, this album is a grand exhibition, and also, it is wickedly effective in a musical sense. There are some incredible songs framing Kvarforth’s distinctive vocal utterances, and whether he’s despicable or a charlatan or what, his musical vision is undeniable.
The 2007 album To The Nameless Dead is my favorite Primordial album, but calling that black metal is probably too big a stretch even for me, so Storm Before Calm will do nicely. You know how most bands start out heaviest and noisiest and gradually drift into more and more palatable versions of themselves? Primordial (disregarding pre-Imrama demos and whatnot, which I haven’t heard) entered the consciousness as folk metal and got gradually more brutal, although after 2005 they did tend towards less visceral noise and screaming. This album has plenty of folk elements but it’s incredibly dark and some of it is straightforwardly black, which, as in the case of Ulver, might sort of make you lament the fact that they ever strayed from this style. Atmospheric, not belligerently lo-fi, undoubtedly melodic, these songs are primal, gut-wrenching, and fiercely propulsive. Of course, my love of Irish folk music drew me particularly to this band, but there isn’t a heck of a lot of that influence on this album, aside from the mythology of the lyrics and the occasional acoustic interludes. In revisiting the band’s catalog, I’ve found this album very nearly as rewarding as the more sophisticated epic period that followed. It’s easily as potent and surely won’t ever be replicated.
It’s funny, I’m starting to realize how many albums on this list conjure up extremely vivid memories of my first impressions. My introduction to Diadem Of 12 Stars was on a drive to some show in Madison, and I remember “A Shimmering Radiance” playing as I was driving down East Washington, feeling like I had just undertaken an incredible journey. It sounds stupid—it is stupid—but there was a part of me (heretofore having been unaware of Agalloch, it must be said) that felt a twinge of shock that something like this had been created within the geographical landmass I’d also been born in. And also, how anthemic it was, how primal, how dynamic the compositions were, that rising crescendo as you ride out “Face in A Night Time Mirror (Part 2)” and then the tempo explodes for like thirty glorious seconds, then drops into a paranormal angelic dreamscape before rising up again into fury and burning out like it just hit a foreign atmosphere, finally dissolving into disembodied whispering pain. And the title track, that middle breakdown section…I feel very strongly that this is the closest the U.S.A. has ever gotten to a “Black Sabbath” moment. And from then on…I will never get back the impact of the first time, but what has not changed is that I know this is one of, eh, maybe three landmarks of American black metal that changed the course of everything, and I’ll admit that everything after it that Wolves In The Throne Room have made has not lived up for me. In any extreme genre, bands tend to peak upon debut. It’s not a knock. It’s life.
6. Emperor/As The Shadows Rise | Emperor | 1993/94
This placement appears to be a dumb American poseur trying to look like some kind of purist, but I can assure you I have no delusions of purism. IX Equilibrium happens to have been the first black metal album I ever heard (Thanks, Swatty!), and I will admit that even then, being blindsided by the completely unfamiliar sonic feeling of the style itself, I was distracted by what struck me as the cheese of the synths and the clean vocals. In a way, I’ve never completely gotten over that. I’ve steadily gained appreciation for Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk over time, and I’ve grown to love In The Nightside Eclipse (which obviously belongs on this list but I'm being stubborn), but they still don’t beat out the unadulterated rush of these early EPs. Truthfully, most of the very earliest fully-formed second-wave landmarks don’t hold a candle to De Mysteriis to my ears. Emperor is one of the few bands that came in with something nearly as viscerally captivating as Mayhem, but also distinctive. In a very real way, I think Isahn is the only true visionary to make it out of that original Norwegian inner circle and keep creating worthwhile shit. I…can’t really handle his solo stuff. Maybe some day. But for the decade of the 1990s, Emperor reigned supreme, and justly so. For me, though, they never eclipsed the shocking intensity of their initial nascent unfiltered blackness.
Most of us hear death metal for the first time and we can’t make out any words and it seems like the most vicious and caustic thing ever, and that’s those of us who get that far. Black metal can be exponentially more caustic for some, but also much less harsh from certain perspectives; but no matter your interpretation, as you delve deeper into more extreme iterations of either, you develop a tolerance, and things that once seemed oppressive to the point of bewilderment come back to you as comforting once you’ve grown accustomed to music ten times more evil. Relax, it’s such an adventure, searching for those levels, slowly realizing you can withstand anything.
Thus, most of the albums on this list that struck me initially as sonic assaults are surprisingly listenable now, especially ones I hadn’t revisited in a long time. I was plenty well indoctrinated by 2010, though, so Marrow Of The Spirit wasn’t by any means overpowering, even though it was the heaviest music Agalloch had made in a while, having mellowed over the years into a comfortable but dynamic post-metal atmospheric mode. Indeed, they evolved and experimented in a way I’d really expected Wolves In The Throne might, and although 2006’s Ashes Against The Grain had its strictly metallic moments and certainly the distinctive screaming/snarling vocals, it was still way more Isis than Emperor. Marrow was the blackest thing the band had put out since the very early days (only to be eclipsed by the superb Faustian Echoes EP in 2012). Listening to it now, it remains for me the band’s crowning achievement, the penultimate full-length of a truly monumental career. Sure, you can make your case for some famous thrash or death metal band, but I have to say Agalloch is probably my pick for the best metal band in U.S. history, so far. Aren’t bands that at some point went to shit verifiably shittier than a band that called it quits without ever having sucked? I dunno. The legacy of Marrow was for me undeniably enhanced by the incredible show at Reggie’s Rock Club in March of 2011; in more ways than one, it was a pivotal night in my life, and in hindsight it feels almost surreal that it even happened. Be that as it may, though, if this piece has piqued in you any interest at all in the black metal genre, I implore you to put this album high on your listening priority list. This could really be the one that opens up your world.
I was working on the loading dock at R&L Carriers when this album came out. At the end of my shift every morning I had to clean all the dirt and debris from the dock with a leaf blower. It was about a 45-minute process, during which I’d put a CD in my Discman (ASK YOUR MOM) and walk around trying not to jar the thing too much. And these four songs, one for each season, had no trouble drowning out the whine of the machine I carried. These riffs, my God, they’re like getting trampled by a herd of rhinoceroses. I’ll admit I was already predisposed to liking traditional Romanian music, so combining that with black metal, uh, what could be more perfect? I still can’t get over the gnarly tone and unhinged hacksaw riffing of founding guitarist Hupogrammos Disciple; I know of no other guitarist who really sounds like him. Negură Bunget would go on to make even more experimental and ground-breaking music; I can fully acknowledge that this album’s followup, OM, is more groundbreaking, probably even flat-out better, but ‘N Crugu Bradului is so conceptually perfect and musically dynamic and forceful, I can’t see anything ever eclipsing it in terms of the impact it had on me, especially now that Disciple has departed. Who knows, though; maybe it’s just the fact that this was my first Negură experience. I still get shivers listening to it.
Let me start by confessing that I’m a rabid Garm fan to this day, and to be honest, Borknagar’s self-titled debut belongs on this list as well. (Sorry, Monsieur Rygg, you’ll always be Garm to me.) It would be absurd to think that a hundred years from now, if man is still alive, if woman can survive, Ulver might not be considered one of the greatest, most visionary musick bands that ever existed. Between Ulver and Emperor, the evolution of black metal happened so fast it [ought to have] numbed the brain to witness it in real time. Ulver’s first album, Bergtatt, introduced folk and classical elements to the genre and is incredibly in its own right, but this third chapter of the ‘Black Metal Trilogie’ will probably always be my favorite. It contains some of the most in-your-face music ever committed to record. There’s no semblance of Satanism, which does of course disqualify it in some purists’ eyes from being black metal at all. Or maybe not; who could possibly quibble about such a thing any more? Certainly not Garm; in the liner notes of Ulver’s 1999 EP Metamorphosis, he proclaims the following:
Ulver is obviously not a black metal band and does not wish to be stigmatized as such. We acknowledge the relation of part I & III of the Trilogie (Bergtatt & Nattens Madrigal) to this culture, but stress that these endeavours were written as stepping stones rather than conclusions. We are proud of our former instincts, but wish to liken our association with said genre to that of the snake with Eve. An incentive to further frolic only. If this discourages you in any way, please have the courtesy to refrain from voicing superficial remarks regarding our music and/or personae. We are as unknown to you as we always were
That quote has always stuck with me. Black metal is more like punk rock than most other metal subgenres in that if you deviate from the prescribed rules or abandon the style, you’re liable to be shat upon by jilted fans, and these guys were right there in Oslo, the unholy birthplace. And while Ulver was never even anti-Christian, they were asking for trouble making two instant classics of the genre and then floating off into experimental whateverness. Fuck the parameters, anyway; if you like black metal but not this, you clearly have a screw loose.
Pound for pound, beginning to now, Blut Aus Nord is the greatest black metal band that has existed. Bizarre and experimental from the very beginning, Vindsval’s ever-evolving project has pushed boundaries with virtually every new release without ever definitively straying from the sonic tapestry that defines the genre. His famous quote regarding his style I will now borrow, once again, from Wikipedia:
Blut Aus Nord is an artistic concept. We don’t need to belong to a specific category of people to exist. If black metal is just this subversive feeling and not a basic musical style, then Blut Aus Nord is a black metal act. But if we have to be compared to all these childish satanic clowns, please let us work outwards [from] this pathetic circus. This form of art deserves something else than these mediocre bands and their old music composed 10 years before by someone else.
I don’t share Vindsval’s disdain for the tradition, but I do think he nails the essence of the genre in its modern form. Anyway, bear with me if you’ve heard this story before; I know I’ve told it to a few people. In 2006, my job was landscaping. One grim, grey afternoon, I was cutting up felled trees in the woods behind some rich person’s house, and I hit ‘play’ on this album. Not since grade school had I been so genuinely terrified by music. I shivered uncontrollably and kept looking over my shoulder, sure that some impenetrably black beast was silently creeping up behind me. Or possibly a bear. All I knew was that whatever passions summoned the energies that created this music, they were unfathomable to me. I felt like a child in some vast new spiritual realm that I wasn’t at all prepared for. Of course the only recourse was to keep listening to it over and over. I’m not sure if it brought about any sort of tangible revelations in the long run, but I can’t remember what it was like to be unaware that music like this existed. Ignorance could not have been bliss, though, because after hearing MoRT, it was clear to me that anything is possible. The album was the densest possible redefinition of what music can be, suffocating in its abject terror and utter despair. So profoundly more disturbing than anything I’d heard before. Clearly there’s no limit. The mind-blowing part is that I can listen to it now, and it just sounds…brilliant. Although I would probably say that 2009’s more conventionally song-oriented Memoria Vetusta II – Dialogue With The Stars is the best album they’ve put out, MoRT is still unparalleled and probably the single most influential release in the avant-garde spectrum of the genre.
There are no essential black metal albums other than this one. The best records from the initial phase of the Norwegian second wave are more noteworthy for their innovations than for their adherence to the traditional sound, but also for their songwriting. Hats off to Emperor, Enslaved, Ulver, and that’s about it. Burzum? I just revisited those first four albums and they are so utterly sterile, algorithmic. Innovative, yes, but although I can only strictly suspect this, I feel like they’re an almost instant co-option of a sound that Mayhem and Thorns invented but hadn’t yet unleashed on record. Darkthrone? You could argue that this band’s first three albums are more accurately the template for the entire second wave than even De Mysteriis, but only because the songs themselves are so much more generic that they’re easier to imitate. And sure, they’re more blatantly and universally satanic. Their music is potent, not pretentious and not pre-programmed. They’re just nowhere near the level of songcraft of Mayhem, though, and relatively speaking…almost like a Satan party than anything legitimately dire or evil. Immortal? I can’t get past their album covers, I’m sorry. They just scream POSEUR. Or SATANIC CLOWN, more accurately. How could I possibly take them seriously? If you want to seriously try to convince me that they’re worth my time, feel free. It just seems so unlikely. Keep in mind I’m not a KISS fan.It’s sad that Thorns never came out with an album during the early phase, because their demos showcase a truly unique sound and incredibly promising germs of songs. Who knows, maybe they could’ve rivaled Mayhem, but as it stands, no one did. You can go through several phases of Mayhem appreciation if you’re a chump like me who came into this game late. You hear the gory details about the band’s early history and think ‘oh right, it’s just notorious, it’s not great music’. If you’ve already heard a bunch of modern traditional stuff you might think ‘this sounds just like all the other shit I’ve heard’. Maybe you actually started your Mayhem education with 2000’s slick, hardly-black A Grand Declaration Of War, in which case De Mysteriis sounds primitive to you. You can get political about it like ‘oh really, a Hungarian guy who sounds nothing like the guy who sang these songs before they were recorded, this thing was bullshit from the start’ except that original singer was Swedish anyway so what the fuck. Hell, it took me until this year, seeing the reconstituted Mayhem with Atilla, essentially a tribute band doing De Mysteriis in its entirety, before the primal spirit of this album flicked a switch inside me—not at the concert, even, but in the listening prior and since. It’s a true unbridled blaze of darkness that set this whole thing in motion, the Velvet Underground & Nico of metal, an underground spontaneous pure beginning and never yet equaled by a long shot. I think if you enjoy this type of music, you need to pursue your inner self, your truest essence, until you emerge knowing that De Mysteriis is undoubtedly the greatest. If you’re going to rank the gratitude I feel for something having occurred at all, this album blows away everything else you see here. As long as humans survive on the planet, there will still be bands making albums that sound just like this one, nowhere near as good but still, y’know, good! Getting into extreme music requires a capacity to relinquish It All Sounds The Same Syndrome—it’s all relative, kids, so stick with it!—but no matter how deeply you sink in, a generous half of all black metal will boil down to a ripoff of De Mysteriis. You have two choices: write them off, or sacrifice a goat to whomever you pray to, in honor of yet another attempt to delve deeply enough into one’s own soul to unbury whatever it was that allowed this unholy energy into the consciousness of this dough ball hurtling through gaps in nonexistence in the first place. So far, no dice, but we have to encourage the kids to keep trying.